Archive for the ‘General’ Category
[A note before reading: concerning the timing of this posting, we had a delightful turnout out of members, regulars and visitors yesterday.]
It is Friday. You are going to the doctor for an inoculation, and you turn up for your appointed meeting, and the receptionist informs you that, “Sorry, but I am afraid that the doctor was a little bit tired today, and wasn’t able to come in. End of a long week, you know.”
You head on to the dentist, as scheduled (it has been that kind of week), only to find a sign on the door: “Due to a bit of a cold, the dentist is not fulfilling her appointments.”
Undeterred, on Saturday you move on to a child’s weekly sporting event, only to have the news filter round the assembled parents that the coach came to the conclusion that he had a few other things he felt were pressing, and so dropped out at the last minute.
Not to worry, at least there’s the birthday party this afternoon. Except that the hosts have suddenly decided that they wanted a bit of family time, and so the party has been unceremoniously cancelled.
Still, at least there’s church on the Lord’s day. The morning is a bit underwhelming, to be honest. But off you trot in the evening, arriving at the building at the appointed hour, only for it to become apparent that the pastor has been a bit overwhelmed this week, didn’t quite get his act together, missed his afternoon nap, and so decided he would rest up a bit in the hope of being a bit more ‘with it’ by next Sunday. After all, he preached to you this morning, so at least he was there once! (In case you think I am joking, I heard only recently from a brother who had booked a visiting preacher for a small church needing encouragement. A couple of days before the preacher was due to be there, he called through, explained that he had had a few struggles with his preparation that week, and as a result he was very disappointed to have to call off his engagement at such short notice. And that was that.)
I imagine, in most–if not each–of those instances, you would be somewhat dischuffed. After all, there’s a tacit agreement if not a more formally implied contract in most of those arrangements. To be sure, maybe the dentist is understating her ailment, and you wouldn’t want someone with streaming waves of mucus mucking around with your mouth. Generally speaking, though, I think you would feel that all of this was a little unreasonable.
And yet, put the shoe on the other foot. You expect the doctor to be there, but you perhaps don’t think very much of cancelling your appointment if you weren’t feeling up to it. After all, the doctor will be there anyway, another day. The dentist you might push for – after all, they’re a bit tricky to book appointments with. That weekly sporting event will have plenty of other kids at it. You know at least three other families who will be at the birthday party, so you won’t exactly be missed. And, church …
Actually, how would you feel if the pastor were missing, or unengaged and listless, or excusing his absence, or just had not got his act together, as are many church members all too often?
Perhaps you know the joke about the son complaining to his mother about school attendance:
“Son, it’s time to get up. You are going to be late!” calls the mother.
“But I don’t wanna go to school today, mum!” replies the son.
“You don’t have a choice.”
“But none of the kids like me!”
“You know that’s not true. Some of them think you’re great!”
“All the teachers hate me!”
“The teachers don’t hate you – they’re just trying to do their job!”
“But I don’t WANNA go!”
“You have to go,” says the mother with final firmness. “You’re the headmaster!”
Isn’t the whole joke meant to be that, as the headmaster, you wouldn’t expect him to be anywhere else? The excuses that he might have used were he a pupil–flimsy as they are in the themselves–clearly hold no water for the headmaster. In fact, the flimsiness of the excuses is revealed by the relationship of the person to the institution or obligation.
But surely the same goes with regard to the church. You would, I imagine, be mortified to turn up at a church service only to find that the preacher has cried off for the same reasons, or kinds of reasons, as so many in the congregation have decided that this morning or this evening they are not going to make it.
I understand that the pastor has a particular responsibility. I understand that there’s only one of him preaching, and plenty of others hearing. But I fear that the burden of responsibility, the flow of commitment, often seems to exist only in one direction. The preacher ought to be there. After all, that’s his job. But me? I can pretty much take it or leave it, depending on my circumstances.
Really? Are you not part of the body? Are you not a living stone in that divinely-indwelt temple? Are you not covenanted together with those fellow saints to minister to them and to be ministered to by them? Are you not persuaded that in this service heaven will draw near to earth, that the Lord will speak, more or less powerfully, through the preaching of the Word? That you will genuinely and really render prayers and praises to the Most High God in your participation in the whole service? That heavenly manna will be there for you to eat? That this might be the morning or the evening when you might obtain an unusual blessing, or your friend, or your child, or your neighbour, attending with you, might be converted? That, if nothing else, you have said, more or less formally, that you will not forsake the assembling together of those saints to whom you have made a commitment to love them and to be loved by them?
Oh, sorry, I forgot. You had a cold! You had a long week! Really?
I do not think any one of us would deny that there are, at times, providential hindrances to our attendance upon the means of grace. I have been in a hospital with one of my children on a Sunday evening because of an emergency, knowing that another brother was primed to preach. My wife has had to stay home to care for one or more sick children, and to try to prevent the current plague from sweeping through the unsuspecting congregation. I have had to cancel a Sunday preaching engagement late on a Saturday night because my wife went into labour early. Someone might drive into my car on the way to church. The roads might be closed because of a flood, with no alternative way around. I might myself be struck down with an illness that I cannot overcome. But these are providential hindrances, not casual excuses. They are obstacles I simply cannot overcome, barriers that are genuinely insurmountable at that moment, factors for which I cannot have planned which prevent me, despite my best efforts, from being where I have promised to be, doing what I have promised to do. I made a commitment. So did you.
When you go to the church building on Sunday, to gather with God’s people, you will all be expecting the pastor-preacher to be there, unless providentially hindered. He has arranged his week around being present, willing and able, by God’s grace, to invest in those hours of worship. He is expecting you to be there. You ought to be expecting one another to be there. It ought to be an oddity for you to be absent. If you are a healthy Christian, your brothers and sisters should be entitled to wonder what might be wrong that you are not in your appointed place. Expect a phone call to see whether or not you are OK. After all, you’re so rarely missing.
Dear Christian friend, your pastor–or one of them (or whoever else may be preaching)–is even now labouring over his preparation. He is prayerfully, even tearfully, wrestling with his text and with his God. He is weary in body and soul as he seeks to manage all his commitments, many of them as unseen and unknown as yours are. He too is probably juggling his family life and his work responsibilities in an attempt to do all that he is committed to do. He has you in mind. Your face, your life, is before him as he sweats away in the study. He is considering his explanations and crafting his applications for you, your family, and the others whom he hopes and expects will be there morning and evening on the Lord’s day. And he will, one way or another, spring or drag himself into the pulpit on that day in order to minister God’s word to your soul. The blessing of God for you is in a measure tied, by God’s decree, to his labours. He is part of the body. In that context, he has a particular duty as a mouth. He has to be there to speak. You are part of the body. In that context, you have a particular role as an ear. You ought to be there to hear.
People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.
You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.
The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.
The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.
Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.
Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.
As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.
As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.
The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.
The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.
Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.
Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.
Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”
There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.
Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?
We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.
Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?
Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.
Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.
It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.
Here is John Chrysostom’s golden-tongued definition of the gospel:
The gospel comprehends, a discharge from punishment; a remission of sins; the gift of righteousness; the endowment of sanctification; redemption from every evil; the adoption of sons; the inheritance of heaven; and a most endeared, a conjugal relation to the infinitely majestic Son of God. All these divinely precious privileges preached, presented, vouchsafed, to the foolish, to the disobedient, to enemies.
Good news indeed!
In a letter to John Fleming, Bailie of Leith, Samuel Rutherford lists a number of concerns about his attitudes and actions:
I have been much challenged,
1. For not referring all to God, as the last end:that I do not eat, drink, sleep, journey, speak and think for God.
2. That I have not benefited by good company; and that I left not some word of conviction, even upon natural and wicked men, as by reproving swearing in them; or because of being a silent witness to their loose carriage; and because I intended not in all companies to do good.
3. That the woes and calamities of the kirk, and particular professors, have not moved me.
4. That in reading the life of David, Paul, and the like, when it humbled me, I, coming so far short of their holiness, laboured not to imitate them, afar off at least, according to the measure of God’s grace.
5. That unrepented sins of youth were not looked to and lamented for.
6. That sudden stirrings of pride, lust, revenge, love of honours, were not resisted and mourned for
7. That my charity was cold.
8. That the experience I had of God’s hearing me,in this and the other particular, being gathered, yet in a new trouble I had always (once at least) my faith to seek, as if I were to begin at A, B, C, again.
9. That I have not more boldly contradicted the enemies speaking against the truth, either in public church-meetings, or at tables, or ordinary conference.
10. That in great troubles, I have received false reports of Christ’s love, and misbelieved Him in His chastening; whereas the event hath said that all was in mercy.
11. Nothing more moveth me, and burdeneth my soul, than that I could never, in my prosperity, so wrestle in prayer with God, nor be so dead to the world, so hungry and sick of love for Christ, so heavenly-minded, as when ten stoneweight of a heavy cross was upon me.
12. That the cross extorted vows of new obedience, which ease hath blown away, as chaff before the wind.
13. That practice was so short and narrow, and light so long and broad.
14. That death hath not been often meditated upon.
15. That I have not been careful of gaining others to Christ.
16. That my grace and gifts bring forth little or no thankfulness.
It is a shame that we ourselves are not more sensitive to our sins and shortcomings.
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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