Thursday, 24 September 2015

I believe! What do I believe?

I grew up in a Christian household. It wasn’t overly strict, at least it didn’t feel that way to me; I never felt the need to rebel against it. It obviously had an impact on me though. My upbringing was as a part of The Salvation Army, the church that started in the east end of London 150 years ago this year. It’s been great to watch the celebrations this year, it’s brought back a lot of memories and got me thinking a bit. Notice all the past-tense. 6 years ago, a little over a year after we got married we were taken on an adventure by God. He sent us to Cornwall; it wasn’t a hardship, we weren’t overly satisfied with the life we were leading, although we had friends where we were living before, and Cornwall was a pipe-dream for us (“we’ll move there when we retire”). That journey also took us away from The Salvation Army, but that wasn’t a coincidence or just a side-effect, we felt very strongly that God was intentionally taking us away, perhaps only for a time, but He needed us to break away and learn more about Him and His Church outside of those confines.

At the time we left we both, but I in particular, felt called into full time ministry within The Salvation Army. Being called away wasn’t easy, but we chose to put a call from God over and above our denomination. And anyway, maybe he would use us to plant The Salvation Army where we were going?

We described this process to people at the time as being like alice going down the rabbit hole, ok actually it was more a reference to The Matrix (“...see how far the rabbit hole goes...”); but the point was the further we went the harder it was to go back. It’s true what they say, ignorance is bliss. It’s much easier to just carry on through life in a form of autopilot than it is to question everything. I’m not saying that every Christian is some sort of mindless drone, but I am saying that we’re creatures of habit and sometimes that has value and sometimes it stops us from getting deeper.

Over the last 6 years we’ve gradually opened our minds, hearts and spirits to different ways of thinking, being and doing church. We’ve learnt a lot about faith and love; I think I said in a previous blog that our next challenge would be to learn more about hope, and I think that’s where we are at the moment.

Hope and faith go hand-in-hand and as we’ve had our faith knocked we’ve seen our hope suffer with it. For me personally I was quite happy to describe my faith using the doctrines of The Salvation Army. Like any other faith organisation they have their statement of faith written up, so people can decide if they agree or not. It defines the basis of their whole theological universe and compared to some religious groups is pretty pared down to it’s fundamental parts and I completely agreed with them. They weren’t forced on me, in fact before I signed up to say I believe them wholeheartedly, I was taken through them one by one and discussed them with a group. I like a good theological discussion me and I wasn’t afraid to pick them apart, but I struggled to find much to disagree with - over 14 years have passed since then, mind.

There are 11 doctrines that I’m going to briefly run through one by one. It should be interesting to compare where we are with where we were. Perhaps these brief points will form the basis of a blog series on their own, but I’ve not been great at writing blog series…

1. We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.

That the scriptures were given by divine inspiration remains a clear belief, although I think that the word “inspiration” is important here. Humanity has certainly had an affect on the scriptures as they were originally recorded, chosen for the collection we call the Bible and again as they are translated to better suit our modern culture. However, to decide that the inspiration of God stopped after the last book of the bible was written seems a little limiting; The Salvation Army itself has always placed great emphasis on the movement of the spirit, so I think it’s important that we stay open to God speaking into our world today, the way that he spoke to the first believers. This is considerably less clear cut, and a much harder road to navigate, but I think it gives us more opportunity to hear from God.

2. We believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things, and who is the only proper object of religious worship.

I was about to just type “Yep” when the word “Governor” jumped out at me. This is an issue I’m currently struggling with, and one that we’ve talked about quite a bit. Whilst I believe that God is all powerful and can do anything, I also believe in free will and that we must worship him in “spirit and in truth” not just because He’s commanded that we will.

I guess it depends on your interpretation of the word “governor” - for many that will mean the God controls every little thing, but a governor of a country or a state does not focus on the minutiae, but uses their power, influence and authority to ensure that the state continues to work in a way that best serves the peaceful majority etc. That’s where I see God, He knows all and can step in when required, but He doesn’t micromanage His creation.

3. We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory.

Without wanting to be controversial, I’ve had some trouble with this concept. Let’s start with the Holy Ghost; neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament seem to point towards the Holy Spirit being an actual separate entity - in both the hebrew and greek it is referred to as the breath of God. It is a movement of God, an effect that God creates, it’s effectively God’s output - why in the english do we try to make it an agent in itself? Then let’s move to Jesus; He may be wholly divine (see below), the breath of God in human form (note that Adam was also filled with the breath of God…) but He says of Himself “I am the way to the Father”. He doesn’t expect that He should be worshipped, but signposts to God Himself. That’s a fairly unchristian viewpoint, so I’m struggling with that at the moment.

4. We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Divine and human natures are united, so that He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man.

This goes hand-in-hand with the point above, although I believe I can agree that in Jesus the divine and human natures are united.

5. We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.

I don’t believe in the creation story as told in Genesis, there, I said it. The God I believe in could have created everything in 6 earth days, I do believe that He is all powerful, however I don’t believe that He used that technique in this case. I believe He initiated a course of action (along with ensuring that certain “coincidences” happened along the way) that would result in our creation and that we were created with free will, but that through the gifts of self-awareness and morality we have a natural tendency to be selfish. I believe that is the basis of what we call sin. I believe this is what the creation story of Genesis tells us, that God created everything, that we are the pinnacle of the creation on earth and that our intelligence etc gives us the capacity to be ultimately good, but also to choose otherwise.
I’m not sure that we’re all exactly “totally depraved”, but I think we all have parts of ourselves we’d rather people didn’t know about. There are lingering bits of pride, selfishness, greed and inhumanity to fellow man in us all. Does that deserve God’s wrath?… Can I postpone that question for now? That just seems too hard to answer right now. But what if the Kingdom of God is about learning to set aside our sinful nature and live in harmony with each other and the world around us, true heaven on earth stuff.

6. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has by His suffering and death made an atonement for the whole world so that whosoever will may be saved.

I’m still trying to get my head around what the atonement actually means. Does it mean that God is something truly to be feared, that he must be appeased? Is God love or is he the child with the magnifying glass playing with the ants. If we understand the concept of breaking rules to do good for our fellow man, surely our perfect God can just bend the rules a little? Or if he wants us to be other than how we were created he could just fix us, or make us into mindless drones that will worship him.

When conversing about heaven and hell with believers in the past, I’ve always said that “if there is salvation, there must be something to be saved from”. But what benefit or pleasure does God get from eternally punishing those who actively or naively chose to go against him? The fire and brimstone version of Hell doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes. I know of non-christians who do more good in the world than christians I know, which deserves their place in heaven more? Doesn’t make sense. Perhaps we just need saving from ourselves and from religious practise - Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, so there’s no need for any more of that nonsense, no more separation from God. Ugh. I don’t understand it at all. It was so much easier just agreeing with someone else’s definition! But I love talking this stuff through with people, faith is a journey and we’re supposed to walk it together.

7. We believe that repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, are necessary to salvation.

Repentance, the act of literally turning away from who you were and how you thought/acted, is vital to what I’ve been saying. I believe that the regeneration that follows isn’t just necessary to salvation but perhaps may be a big part of our salvation. The more we become like Jesus, the better our world will become. It’s not about not being ourselves, though. Think of it like coming to a T junction, you’ve turned left and walked (or driven or ridden) a long time, then you finally realise that left was the wrong way, so you turn around. When you get back to that T junction you’re not the same as you were when you left, you are who you are and you’ve been changed by the experience of turning left, but now you’re travelling in a different direction.

8. We believe that we are justified by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and that he that believeth hath the witness in himself.

The gift of the Holy Spirit, the salvation we are offered (whatever form that takes) is all a gift from God; It is by his choice that we receive it; It is not earned. That is the definition/example usually used to define grace. But that isn’t the dictionary definition of grace, so either the translation from the original scriptures is wrong, or our interpretation of it has become twisted. The word “grace” comes from the latin “gratus”, meaning pleasing or thankful; synonyms of grace include elegance, courtesy and honour. Let’s look at Ephesians 2:8 (the ESV highlights this perfectly) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...” so is it not just a means of emphasising that it is a gift from God, out of God’s courtesy, honour and elegance he has saved us through our faith.

Christians seem to give Grace this magical property, but really it just refers to God’s gracious and graceful nature. I believe that the gift of God, and of Jesus’ sacrifice, might actually be the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that perhaps heaven is far more accessible than some of us believe, but I’m straying off topic here. If you are a believer, you have the Holy Spirit; your life is transformed from the inside out as a result of that. That is your witness.

9. We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.

We come back to that question of what is salvation. Is it salvation from Hell? Eternal damnation? What is hell, what is eternal damnation? There are people with more knowledge than me who believe the doors to heaven might not be as tightly shut as some of us were led to believe. If that’s the case, what does salvation refer to? Is it salvation from religion, salvation from the worst parts of human nature? In that case, keeping yourself focussed on becoming more like Christ would seem to be an obviously necessity.

10. We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to be wholly sanctified, and that their whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Between the Holy Spirit and the goal of becoming more like Christ, the process of becoming more holy is definitely something that believers should be going through and I do believe that it is a privilege. When it says about our bodies being preserved blameless, i’m not sure if this refers to resurrection of the body or not; I don’t know what I think about resurrection of the body, will we need these bodies? Does this mean that we shouldn’t cremate? But during life I think it is possible for us to live holy lives with our spirit, soul and bodies preserved blameless; but there’s no way this is possible by our own efforts, that ability rests solely on the Holy Spirit.

11. We believe in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgment at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked.

Okay, so that clears up my question above; resurrection of the body. Really?! It seems so unnecessary. Does God have the limitation of a physical body? If there is a physical new earth, then maybe we will need a physical body to navigate it. Definitely an area I need to investigate further!

Immortality of the soul, check.

General judgement… I like the way the it is described as separating the sheep and goats. Both have different value to a shepherd and/or owner, and they have different needs. Neither would have been seen to the audience to be wholly good or wholly bad; it’s just a matter of managing your flock. If heaven is more open than evangelicals generally judge it to be, then maybe judgement will be less like a courtroom and more like a farm.

Eternal happiness of the righteous: Yep, down with that.

Endless punishment of the wicked: Maybe, but I think my idea of “the wicked” is probably very different from what it was. Revelation 21:8 (Amplified Bible) describes those who will be punished as this: “But as for the cowards and the ignoble and the contemptible and the cravenly lacking in courage and the cowardly submissive, and as for the unbelieving and faithless, and as for the depraved and defiled with abominations, and as for murderers and the lewd and adulterous and the practicers of magic arts and the idolaters (those who give supreme devotion to anyone or anything other than God) and all liars (those who knowingly convey untruth by word or deed)–[all of these shall have] their part in the lake that blazes with fire and brimstone. This is the second death.” There are, of course, arguments that this may be a process of purification, or simply stating that these people will be near heaven, but on the burning trash heap outside of the city. Again, a huge area that I really haven’t made my mind up on yet.

All done.

So there, I’ve gone through what I once believed and responded to it briefly point by point. I’m keen to have conversation about these points, constructive rebuttals are hugely welcomed. As I say, I love a bit of debate, I think it helps us deepen our faith and broaden our horizons. Something you say might challenge me now, but it might take me time to come around to your thinking. I hope I’m big enough to accept now that I’m not, nor can I ever be, absolutely right and that faith is a never-ending journey.

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