spare the rod, spoil the child?


Our son Benjamin recently passed the nine month mark. And Natalie and I find ourselves thrashing about in the murky waters of discipline.

Thankfully the profoundly divisive — and potentially explosive — topic of smacking isn’t on the agenda quite yet. But we’ve been bowled over by how frequent the word ‘No’ is becoming in our little household. (About the only thing that prevents us feeling like absolute tyrants is the assurance all the parenting books, e.g., What To Expect The First Year, give us that this is thoroughly normal.)

What I find most fascinating about the challenge of disciplining my son is the way I find it so easy to see the perfectly understandable dynamics playing out ‘behind the scenes’ of his bad behaviour (I suspect I would find this more difficult if we weren’t talking about my own child).

But I’m struggling to recognise the point I’ve heard many preachers make about people being obviously evil, corrupt, sinful, and selfish because you don’t have to teach children to misbehave or act selfishly.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I’m just going soft. But none of Ben’s bad behaviour seems malignant to me.

I may not always know why he is doing the wrong thing in the moment (often I have no idea). But, upon reflection, Ben typically seems to behave badly for one of three reasons:

  1. He’s tired, sick, and/or hungry. Because he’s hurting, he pendulum swings between desperately demanding comfort and affection and lashing out.
  2. He’s investigating his world — poking a prodding at its limits, seeing what happens when he does this (or when he does it again). Whether it’s hitting Dad in the face or messing around with the powerpoint.
  3. He’s (over-)excited. And so he pushes things to extremes that he normally wouldn’t — biting Mum in his enthusiasm to see her first thing in the morning, for example. Sometimes this is combined with reason 1. Although it seems less deliberate than reason 2.

With this sympathetic reading of the springs and motives of my son’s behaviour, you might think the whole Augustinian ‘original sin’ thing would go out the window. I mean how can I think of my child as totally depraved, corrupt, and sinful from birth when he’s simply hurting, exploring, or just getting carried away?

And yet…

I guess I’m not quite ready to surrender St Augustine’s intuition (or cash in my Reformed evangelical credentials and go deal myself into another theological game). Because the question that presents itself is:

Why does my son’s hurting, exploring, or getting carried away trip up so easily (and consistently) into hurtful, selfish behaviour?

That to me is an interesting question. And one that surely draws us in the direction Augustine takes us…

speaking of righteousness

I’m becoming fascinated by the prominence the Psalms give to speech in their description of the righteous human life.

Take Psalm 15 for example:

A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

I love this description of the righteous person. In just five short verses we’re given a comprehensive sketch of the distinguishing characteristics of the person who enjoys fellowship with God.

But what’s even more amazing is that no fewer than four out of the ten characteristics mentioned have to do with how we use our lips!

Speaking truth from the heart. Not slandering. Not taking up a reproach against our neighbours. Standing by our oaths even when that’s costly and painful.

Evidently, our speech plays a load-bearing role in the righteous life.

This understanding is reflected in the top billing much of the Old Testament prophetic hope gives to renewed and purified speech. Think of Joel’s famous promise about all prophesying when the Spirit is poured out. Or the way Zephaniah 3.8-13 spotlights speech behaviour in its vision of Israel’s restoration and God’s final vindication.

All this makes for a compelling ‘backstory’ to the New Testament stress on the difference trusting Jesus makes to our speech — whether we’re talking about the detailed case study of how Christians should speak to each other when gathered together in 1 Corinthians 12-14 or the broader-brush stuff in Ephesians 4-5.

Ultimately, I even suspect it could help us connect the evangelical emphasis on God’s achievement in Christ — proving him righteous as he declares us righteous, etc — with the more typically charismatic/Pentecostal accent on God empowering us here and now — especially in terms of speech-acts like prayer, praise, and prophecy/words of knowledge.

If our understanding of righteousness was large — and biblical — enough to have speech stitched into its warp and woof, then maybe we wouldn’t have to choose between the two.

pause and frame a thought


It’s often said that the emerging generations (Gen Y, Z, and whatever else we’re up to) are more feelers than thinkers.

For us, apparently, experience is king. And (the argument continues) we’re so plugged in and connected that we’re too distracted to engage in sustained thought or serious reflection — the kind of thing required by novels, sermons, essays, etc.

Anecdotally, lots of people I know are far more likely to take a photo with Instagram and post it to Facebook than to sit and ponder the mysteries of existence. (Although, for some reason, popular New Atheist manifestos like The God Delusion often still manage to get traction. Hmmm…)

But I’m wondering if the judgement that’s been passed on younger generations is too hasty.

You see, taking a photo — and applying a filter (or border) to foreground particular aspects of the composition as Instagram allows, and giving it a caption, and then sharing it (potentially along with a number of other photos) — demands that you step back or aside from experience.

To snap a good photo you’ve got have at least one foot outside the moment. You’ve got to pause and frame it. And — even if you’re not yet fully engaged in reflecting — you’ve got to start moving in that direction.

This may be different from traditional ways of doing reflection. And it’s no doubt tangled up with all sorts of other things — the desire to capture/manufacture the quintessential ‘cool’ shot, a need to impress, etc (although traditional modes of reflection are hardly immune from these forces). But it isn’t necessarily a failure to reflect.

The challenge is to work out how to harness and develop this mode of reflection — even letting new generations teach the rest of us new (and potentially more powerful) ways recollecting and reflecting.

a word of grace for the same-sex marriage debate

We all feel the problem, don’t we?

However you ended up here, you’re talking about same-sex marriage. And you’re feeling pinned.

You really want to say something about God’s grace in Jesus. But you’re struggling to be heard as anything but a moralistic, judgemental bigot.

Maybe — keeping Romans 1.18ff in mind — you’re trying to explain that not just homosexual sin but all sin can be traced back to idolatry.

Perhaps you’ve mentioned something about not expecting people who don’t trust Jesus to buy into Christian morality (a little uncomfortably given your convictions about Jesus being Lord of all and hence of his vision for life applying to all).

But nothing seems to be getting through.

So how can we speak a word of grace into the same-sex marriage debate?

In his brilliant little paper on ‘Preaching In A Secular Culture’ (available at Redeemer City to City), Tim Keller isolates four keys for speaking the good news of Jesus in a secular culture — and having it actually heard as good news:

  1. <strongSpeak to Christians and non-Christians at the same time. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds — the good news about Jesus is the key not only to becoming a Christian but also to growing as one.
  2. Proclaim grace not moralism. Sounds obvious, right? But incredibly hard to do in practice.
  3. Show that it’s always about Christ. Again – Duh. And, again, very difficult to do without forcing the connection (e.g., by allegory).
  4. Aim for the heart (or the imagination) not simply the emotions or the mind.

I’d love to unpack this in detail. But I’ll limit myself to picking out one point of particular relevance for Christian interventions the same-sex marriage debate. Namely, how do we pull off Point 2 — speaking a word of grace rather than moralistic condemnation?

The key, Keller suggests, is to work hard to “show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject” so people can hear us proclaiming good news not simply (what we consider to be) good advice.

Surely, Christian talk about sin — all sin not just homosexual sin — must take its cue from the way Jesus extended unconditional acceptance to sinners (“Neither do I condemn you” was his word to the woman caught in adultery in John 8) before making demands or calling for transformation (“Go and leave your life of sin”).

It’s worth asking ourselves the question: Do our interventions in the same-sex marriage debate have the savour of Jesus to them?

I suspect we won’t get very far until we start owning up to our sin and failures in this regard. Showing how the way Christ deals with sinners is good news — which, nevertheless, demands change and transformation — for all of us.

catching up with reality

You’ve no doubt noticed that the pace of posting has slowed down here lately. Long gone are the days of one (and sometimes two) posts a day. Now one or two a week feels like a stretch!

What’s changed?

Well, I guess you could say I’m finally catching up with reality.

You see, about seven and a half months ago my life was invaded by the most charming, beautiful, absorbing, and fascinating little person — my son, Benjamin. And my reality changed. Forever. (For the better.)

Since then, I’ve been playing catch-up. My schedule, plans, and expectations — about how much energy I have, how productive I can be, etc — keep needing to be adjusted. Downwards.

I’ve resisted it, of course. Kicking and screaming at every turn. Swinging erratically between denying I need to adjust at all and feeling crushed by my sense of inadequacy.

But the new reality keeps pressing it’s claim. And, while I don’t want to speak too soon, I think I’m finally responding.

This dynamic isn’t unique to new parents, mind you. I experienced a version of it when I first got married — my experience and expectations took a while to catch up with that new reality too.

And every Christian experiences it throughout our days as we wait for Christ’s return.

We’re swept up in the new creation, the new humanity God’s launched in Jesus. In him there’s a new reality.

Like Ephesians 2 reminds us, we were dead in sin, subject to the evil one, objects of wrath, strangers to God, at war with him and his purposes. But now things have changed. Because of what God’s done through Jesus everything is different.

But we’re all still catching up with the reality. Fighting it. Denying it. Falteringly recognising and embracing it. Regretting how far short of it we keep falling. And occasionally, by the mercy of God, reveling in it.

Thank God he’s so patient with us!

beyond Pentecostal Christology (i)

When I outlined the Christological basis for Edward Irving’s move into what today we would call Pentecostalism, I promised that alongside my appreciation of its merits (which are considerable) I would also share a couple of reservations. Although, maybe ‘reservations’ puts things around the wrong way.

Rather than a dead end that we should notice but not walk down (a sort of theological cautionary tale), I believe Irving’s Christology is an incredibly fruitful and necessary step along the way to recovering a richer understanding of Jesus — and, consequently, of the shape and dynamism of the Christian life.

Let me explain how I see this working.

As far as our understanding of Christology, Irving has highlighted the significant role of the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and ministry — raising questions about his humanity and to what extent he might be a role-model for us and not simply God stepping in and doing what we can’t. Instead of backing away from this, I think we should embrace it.

What embracing this means, on the one hand, is that we must affirm the trinitarian backdrop that makes sense of classical formulations of the full divinity of Jesus.

That is to say, what it means for Jesus to be fully God (as well as fully human) is that he shares in the unique divine identity with Israel’s God — co-eternal, co-equal, and united with the Father in essence and will. And Irving’s close work in the biblical text helps us see that Jesus does this by the powerful agency of the Spirit.

On the other hand, embracing the role of the Spirit in enabling Jesus to walk the path he does in his ‘incarnate career’ helps us see his representative humanity as a full and genuine humanity. So we can admit that in his life — and supremely and climactically in his death and resurrection — Jesus does do what we cannot do. And yet he does it as one of us.

This means his work for us isn’t detached from us — something God goes over our heads to do, merely wielding Jesus’ humanity like some fleshly instrument. Rather, it’s carried it out in deepest connection with us and our being.

As a real human being, Jesus is able to deal with our plight from within — getting to its heart by the power of the Spirit, and becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Likewise, as a real human being, he now lives and stands before God for us — sharing his risen life with us by the power of the very Spirit he graciously pours out.

I’ll try to tease out how I see this shaping and energising Christian living in the next post.

the roots of Pentecostal Christology?

Returning to my series on the fascinating theology of Edward Irving, I suggested in my introductory post that one of the things that propelled him out of the Church of Scotland and into his role as founder of a new Pentecostal denomination was his distinctive take on the Spirit’s role in the ‘incarnate career’ of Jesus.

That is to say, for Irving it all started with Christology — and with a desire to stick closely to the text of Scripture. So it’s worth asking what we can appreciate before I register a couple of my reservations.

(In case you think what follows is an automatic recommendation of Irving, let me remind you that Arius also began with issues of Christology — specifically a desire to secure a genuinely suffering Saviour — and a biblicist sensibility — “More Bible, less philosophy” seemed to be his mantra. And Arius ended up denying the Trinity.)

To begin with, Irving picked up on the significant — and often-overlooked — role the Spirit is given in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, especially.

And if you think about it the Holy Spirit really does get big billing at pretty much all the decisive moments in Jesus’ life: in his incarnation and virginal conception, in his baptism, in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, in public discussion of the significance of his mighty works, in his resurrection, and — tracking through into Acts — in the vindication of his ascended lordship as he pours out the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Irving concluded from this that Jesus was enabled to do his mighty works not so much by virtue of his divinity as by his Spirit-powered (or Spirit-perfected) humanity. Hence, Irving began to wonder whether this power might be available not just for the unique God-man but for all upon whom the Spirit was poured out.

And it’s at least worth considering this prospect, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t Jesus say that his disciples would do ‘greater works’ than him once he’d gone to the Father and left them his Spirit (John 14.12)?

a presbyterian and a pentecostal walk into a bar…

I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke (and given the possible scruples of our heroes maybe a bar isn’t exactly appropriate — a church hall perhaps, or if they’re the missional church planting variety of presbyterians and pentecostals then maybe a boutique microbrewery would be more suitable). But it’s the way I often feel in my work at La Trobe University.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are by far the dominant two church backgrounds of members of our Christians Union group. We do have members from a smattering of other denominations, of course — including a steadily-widening stream of Australian Born Chinese from independent evangelical churches enriching the soil.

That’s why it’s particularly apt that my big task in preparing for our mid-year conference on the Holy Spirit is to get on top of the work of Edward Irving.

Irving was a nineteenth century minister in the Church of Scotland (the forerunner of today’s Presbyterians) who ended up establishing his own Pentecostal denomination — the Catholic Apostolic Church.

From what I’ve read so far, two broad factors seem to have laid the groundwork for this move:

  1. His intuition that the significant role of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation, teaching and healing ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggests that He did these things as a spirit-powered human being (and thus as a prototype for his people, now He’s poured the Spirit out).
  2. His dissatisfaction with the way regeneration had come to be understood as a matter almost entirely of individual inward renewal. This led Irving to distinguish regeneration from baptism in the Spirit, yielding what has came to be the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on speaking in tongues as the normal initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit (subsequent to conversion/regeneration).

I’ll try to let Irving speak in his own words as I explore these things in subsequent posts.

the Holy Spirit is my strategy?

It’s time to turn a corner and leave behind my recent reflections on ministry, strategy, and time management.

This is partly because I’ve run out of puff (having felt the need to process some stuff after a stupidly frantic February and March). And it’s partly because I’ve now got to put my head down and get stuck into preparing for our campus group’s mid year camp, Summit.

We’re tackling the topic of the Holy Spirit this year.

I’m really excited about this. Largely because one of my tasks is to wrap my head around the theology of Edward Irving, a ‘pentecostal’ theologian from 70 years before Pentecostalism hit the world-wide church scene.

So to mark this change of direction, I want to quote from Tom Wright’s recent appreciation of Rowan Williams (originally published in the Times and made available in abridged form at Fulcrum):

Rowan’s style has been private and unstrategic. Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly, “I believe in the Holy Spirit!”, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spririt might work through long-term planning.

My hope is that the Christian Union at La Trobe will emerge from a five-day soaking in what the Bible says about God the Holy Spirit not only believing more deeply and sharply in Him but also thoroughly energised by Him to take on the strategic and long-term challenge of being a mission fellowship on campus!

where ‘people not structures’ can sabotage you

“Christian ministry is about people not structures” is probably a fairly familiar imperative. A kind of evangelical Motherhood And Apple Pie statement.

The thought is that our structures should serve people. They should help them become disciples, grow in maturity, and make other disciples. And when they stop helping people like this we should stop pouring resources into keeping them running.

And it’s a great thought as far as it goes. I’ve certainly encountered ‘mothers’ groups’ full of octogenarians (I guess they’re still mothers) and ‘youth groups’ with an ever-expanding penumbra of young adults — as well as some not-so-young ones!

Someone’s got to start asking hard questions about these structures at some point — especially if they’re sucking up significant time and resources without helping anyone move forward very much.

But I suspect this idea could also sabotage us. Especially when it gets drawn into the ministry Time Management Vs Open-Endedness nexus I’ve been posting about recently.

This happens where it functions as a fig leaf to cover up our own failings in leadership, administration, or strategy — even justifying these failings to ourselves.

When we start saying to ourselves (as I have in the past): “Oh. Ministry’s all about people not structures. Making phone calls to newcomers is just a structural responsibility (one I don’t particularly relish or feel very good at). So it’s no big issue if I don’t get around to it — my plate’s already full enough of good ministry things like pastorally significant conversations with key leaders.”

What happens if we let ‘people not structures’ thinking like this side-track us from our structural responsibilities like calling newcomers? Before long there won’t be any people for us to do ministry with!