“He’s BEHIND you!” resound the shrill cries of 500 families. All part of the Christmas ritual of that peculiar British staple; undoubtedly one of the odder cultural phenomena of these islands. Welcome to the world of Panto(mime): hard to encapsulate for the uninitiated so just read the wiki page!

One of panto’s constants is the use (the less subtle the ‘better’) of dramatic irony. The audience knows something characters don’t. The kids love it, which is why in panto, productions crave the breaking of the sound barrier (and the fourth wall) with shouts to get the protagonist to turn round to face the baddie creeping up behind him/her. Or vice-versa.

Curmudgeon that I am, I seriously dislike panto. But I do enjoy an excellent morsel of dramatic irony. And in fact, so does the bible, it seems. Exhibit A: Caiaphas’ appeal for one man to die for the nation, anyone? (John 11:49-51) It’s fun to be in the know when a character on stage isn’t. It ratchets the tensions right up. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so fun when stuff that matters is under discussion.

Readers of the first post in this little series may well sense déjà-vu as I again waggle on the tee. But there is some method. Because those in the limelight remain in blissless ignorance of things that are obvious to everyone else. For if I’m correct in discerning a malaise in corners of UK evangelicalism, my fear is this: the last people to recognise how the unsettled feel are precisely the ones to perpetuate the root causes (even if unwittingly).

I sense some cruel ironies at the moment. Please note: I’m not here engaging with the doctrinal issues themselves; this really isn’t the place for a systematics debate. I’m more concerned with how often those doctrines’ advocates appear not actually to believe in them. Or at least, that’s the impression given. Several such ironies spring to mind, but here are the first two for now.

1. So you proclaim God is Sovereign...?

Depending on which circles one is in, divine sovereignty is either a blessing or a curse. I’ve tended to hang out in the former and have come to appreciate how precious it is, especially at times of my own deepest brokenness and/or chaos. The doctrine was never designed to offer easy answers since it quite obviously provokes so many subsequent questions of its own. Yet what was always clear to me is how scripture typically articulates it. Again and again, it’s offered as a source of comfort and hope when nights are dark and hope is faltering. It has incalculable value.

Now, I could discuss here how the doctrine itself gets crowbarred into justifying coercion or control. That certainly happens and you can follow the logic:

God is in control... I am in charge... Whatever I say, goes... Disobedience/disloyalty to me = disobedience/disloyalty to God.
A. N. O. Nymous
Pastor

Etc, etc sordid etc. Perhaps for another post. Instead, my narrower focus now is merely to expose the grim irony of professing to believe the doctrine but acting as if not.

Some gruesome sagas (on either side of the Atlantic) have come to light in recent months (some of which have been uncomfortably close to me). Leaders steadfastly committed to this doctrine’s pastoral treasures have been exposed as monstrously abusive and manipulative. Heartbreaking, especially for the several survivors that I know personally and value deeply.

One frequent problem is that such treatment can be tricky to identify; behaviour that is highly abusive might be ingeniously subtle and covert. Perpetrators can be so adept at ensuring that only their targets are in the know. And even they often fail to recognise it for what it is until its far too late.

That’s on the extreme end. Yet, further ‘in’ along this spectrum towards more accepted practices and approaches, there might be thoughtless rhetorical or social pressures to encourage conformity (especially to the 5 Mores of the previous post). These make it hard for someone to decline or disagree or even just ponder. This is not to suggest that what is encouraged from the front is automatically negative or wrong; nor to imply that the encouragement of peers and fellows shouldn’t be a healthy spur to joining in. We all need each other, especially at dark times. Isolation is so poisonous, as I know all too well. It’s merely to expose dishonesty and control tactics.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • The Lord is on His Throne! We’ve no need to challenge the status quo/leadership/pastor/government? It’ll work out ok. (Oh, unless they enforce mask-wearing, that is. That’s totally different.)
  • Are you on board with the vision? Pray about it… Because the Lord has told me / the passage clearly teaches / our church has for generations been convinced that this is really what we must do. (delete as appropriate)
  • You coming along to the meeting on Friday? Everybody else will be there… You’ll have the chance to hear more about where we’re going as a church… There won’t be another chance.
  • All Christians on their way to heaven are in bed before 11 and are up before 7, oh and they come to the bible studies and retreats and summer camps that I lead and definitely not those people’s…
  • You do realise that if you talk publicly about this, you’ll be gossiping as well as potentially wrecking a fruitful ministry, don’t you? Trust God. He’s in control.

Now, of course, surely, if there is a Sovereign God, and he is trustworthy, then he’ll overrule and sort things out? Won’t he? For sure, we need not fear in the end, because as Tolkien understood so beautifully, it is the grounds of hope.

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?" "A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

J. R. R. Tolkien (Return of the King Tweet

But we’re walking a tightrope. J.I. Packer was onto something with his 1961 classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God because such truths can never justify present pastoral inactivity. Of crucial importance here is what pastoral leaders rely on, precisely at those moments when things start heading in the ‘wrong’ direction. This is no call to passivity or thoughtless compliance to a prevailing view. It is simply an appeal for integrity, for both the leader and the led, an integrity that surely flows from the liberty which itself flows from truly trusting in God’s good purposes. Doing all one can do to do right in the right way for the right reasons, and then trusting him for all that lies beyond our limitations.

How crucial Paul’s words (albeit from a slightly different, but related, issue) are for us all…

We put no stumbling-block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses... (vv3-4) ... in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love;  in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left (vv6-7)

Apostle Paul (2 Cor 6)

A ministry discredited? No! Surely not?! Not here

So here’s the thing. Of all those in Christian ministry, nobody has more grounds NOT to manipulate or coerce than those who cling to divine sovereignty? Surely? Or have I missed something?

2. So you proclaim Grace is foundational...?

Yup, grace is amazing and its sound surely sweet. Especially once you seriously get it. Just wow. It’s life-changing.

But how much of Christian community life is shaped by it? I mean, actually? You see, the acid test is not the bums on seats, or busyness of its programmes, or youtube hits, or even the range of options for members. Those kinds of things might be fine, or even just occasionally great. But they’re associated with entirely the wrong metric (a concern that has been rather a hobbyhorse for a while). They answer the wrong questions, questions preoccupied with measuring success. Which does not seem to be a preoccupation of the Bible’s writers (not in such terms, at any rate). This is because the things that really matter – integrity, godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, virtue, and above all a relationship (individual and corporate) with God – cannot be measured in the same way. They just can’t. No wonder we default to the 5 Mores.

But here’s where we come to the second grim irony. If we are concerned to measure things that can be measured, we have little room for those who don’t measure up. Groups get sucked into the darkness of pressurizing, coercion, cold-shouldering; practices more akin to the cultic than the Christlike. They need to prop up the facades of conformity and cohesion because otherwise, the entire edifice might collapse. I guess we could call it the sociology of legalism. And legalism, by definition, has no room for failures. Which is why legalists can never admit their own failure. Legalists require their boundaries clearly flagged because only then can transgressors be promptly exposed.

But when (NB not if), somebody fails, what then? Now, again there’s a tightrope. (Isn’t there always!?) Perpetrators of abuse and controlling behaviour are all too quick to appeal to a need for grace when caught out. Shame they didn’t allow it to characterise those they sought to lead. Which is not to say they shouldn’t receive grace, (because in this life, it’s never too late for it), merely that the hypocrisy needs naming. So grace and forgiveness, even for them? Yes. But trust? That’s a different matter. Perhaps, but definitely not immediately. You can forgive a kleptomaniac who has faced their inclinations and wrong-doing; but you don’t automatically make him church treasurer. Grace is not naivety. But it is generous, especially to the broken and failed.

Which is why grace inspires no boundaries. Instead, it promotes virtues. And it’s no accident you can’t measure virtues.

I have found myself regularly returning to Bonhoeffer’s classic pre-WW2 work, Life Together on this front. I urge you to read it, if you’ve not. It’s short, thankfully (!) but the writing is incredibly dense. You almost need to pause to catch your breath again after every paragraph! But apart from going a little nuts about primacy Lutheran style of hymn-singing (we can forgive him that, probably!), it’s gold. ESPECIALLY on this matter of grace and brokenness. I engaged with it quite a bit in my Darkness/Depression book. So let me just quote this bit, because it gets to the nub.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day?

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (pp16-17)) Tweet

What I’m pressing for, longing for indeed, are communities with the grace to handle failure well! Not so that failures may abound. By No Means! But for when we all – yes pastors and leaders included (not least, this one writing here) – screw up. This is vital. Because unless a church is characterised by a culture of grace, it can never grow a culture of honesty. It really is as simple as that. I’m glad to say that they do exist and I have found friends I can trust with my mess. But I do know they are fewer and further between than they ought to be.

For sure, we preach Christ; but don’t we also vigilantly patrol boundaries? Not to seek the best for people’s flourishing, even if that is the justification for having them (boundaries are not intrinsically wrong), but to scaffold the creaking structures of a controlled group. Isn’t there also a tendency to call out even hints of false teaching, or slight differences in practice, or willingness to associate with those we wouldn’t? Not necessarily because of a concern for those people, but out of the need to buttress personal influence. Isn’t that so often why people tarnish others with derogatory and simplistic labels, with slanders and vitriol? It minimises opponents’ appeal, as if kingdom work was a zero-sum game, but is a tactic ripped right out of the demagogue’s playbook. Not Christ’s. Sadly, we can’t just blame Twitter for this. Luther, for one, had some pretty dubious things to say about his opponents, for all his prophetic brilliance.

But surely, grace keeps forgiving, we say, grace keeps loving, grace shows open-handed generosity. Is that naive? Perhaps. Sometimes. But I see no room whatsoever for some of the menace wielded today in Christ’s name. None.

I don’t say any of this stuff because I have an axe to grind against evangelicalism; precisely the reverse. I’m still on the team. Nor do I think that everything is rotten and to be discarded. I do know people and fellowships of openness and humility. Thank goodness. If the cap I’ve described in caricature doesn’t fit, you don’t need to wear it.

I am nervous, though. I am concerned that those for whom the cap fits all too neatly will dismiss this as distracting nonsense, or worse. I guess some will assume I’m no longer on the team on the obvious grounds of disloyally flagging up these questions.

But all I’ve done is shout from the theatre stalls: Look behind you! See what all with eyes to see can see and ears to hear can hear.

Because otherwise, the One who truly IS behind it all, will simply come and burn the branches no longer fit for purpose and then give the vineyard to others. They might feebly cry, ‘May this never be’. But it will be to no avail.

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