Thursday, October 31, 2013

Uncovering Spiritual Covering

One of the highlights—if I can call it that—of the legal calendar this year in Singapore has been the drawn-out trial of the senior pastor of one to  the largest churches on the island on charges of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts.
The amounts of money involved are mind-boggling—in US dollar terms it’s about $19,000,000. That’s $9,500,000 initially taken from the building fund to finance his wife’s singing career, and then another $9,500,000 to pay off the first $9,500,000 to try and conceal it in the accounts. That’s called the snowball effect, by the way.

I suppose I feel slightly vindicated, since in the final chapter of my book How To Survive in the Pharisee Church I had use this particular church as an example of high pressure fund-raising tactics that I had witnessed on one of my occasional visits to the Sunday morning services there.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. The legal process will take its course and eventually a verdict will emerge. There’s no point in prejudging the outcome. I want to talk about something else that I first encountered on one of my visits to that same church, which is the concept of SPIRITUAL COVERING.

I’d never heard of spiritual covering until that visit—perhaps that’s my sheltered life!—so I had to try and work out what it meant from the context.  The context was a strategy of the pastor to discourage people from leaving his church and moving to other churches. And the meaning was, as long as you stay in MY church, you have spiritual covering; whereas if you move to another church you lose that spiritual covering. As long as you stay in my church, I as pastor ‘carry the can’ for you in the eyes of God. God will recognize your sincerity and faithfulness, and so you will not be held accountable for any spiritual error you might get into as a result of my teaching. The responsibility will be mine, whereas you are ‘covered’.

If you stay, you are covered. If you leave, you are vulnerable to God’s judgment, Satan’s attacks, whatever. So better stay. That’s Spiritual Covering, a doctrine gaining some support in certain types of churches.

I can think of a lot of objections to spiritual covering, but I’ll confine to a few:

1.    Firstly, I’ve got spiritual covering already. I’m covered by the blood of Christ. I try to get my beliefs and my practices right of course, but I know that even if I don’t, in the final analysis I’m accepted and I’m forgiven. I’ve been adopted into God’s family and that’s enough. Do I need any additional covering from the church or the pastor? No I don’t, it’s sufficient.

2.    In fact there’s a rather negative, defensive posture to this concept of spiritual covering that I find disturbing. The idea that if the pastor can somehow make me ‘safe’ I no longer need to fear the anger of God if I accidentally step out of line. I was going to say it’s a bit ‘Old Testament’ except that would be to insult the Old Testament which doesn’t really seriously put forward this kind of system. I shouldn’t be asking, How can I be safe?—I’m safe already.  Rather, How can I be most effective?

3.    In fact it’s difficult to think of anything in the bible giving a precedent for this concept of spiritual covering by another human being—as opposed to the spiritual covering that comes from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. It’s the opposite. WE are responsible for the path we follow. And if we follow a false teaching or a false pastor we are still responsible for the path we take. The Old Testament prophets are full of it, God’s anger—not with us the sheep, but with the pastors, the false prophets who lead well-meaning and sincere people onto the path of destruction thinking it to be the path to life.

4.    The New Testament may be a bit more ambivalent when it comes to ‘stepping outside’. I don’t see that as a major doctrinal issue, rather as a practical issue in a tiny first century Christian movement with effectively only one church to choose from. Stepping out of the church meant a return to paganism, leaving God behind. Today, with a multiplicity of churches available to choose from, the situation is different. There’s no parallel.

5.    Then there’s the ultimate inconsistency in the doctrine. Spiritual covering is used by pastors to protect their own congregation from attrition at the hands of neighbouring churches. It says that if you are a part of this church, then God wants you to stay a part of this church, permanently. BUT all pastors have a past. Almost without exception they’ve come from another church somewhere along the line. And if I’m not supposed to leave their church, then how come they were justified in leaving wherever it was that they came from themselves?

6.    This is certainly true of the case in point. In many ways (leaving the money side out of it) he’s done a great job. He’s probably accomplished far more by the move than he ever would have by staying. No argument about that. But—if it’s OK for him to leave that church, surely it’s OK for ME to leave HIS church! If I feel called to leave his church and start something new, why can’t he give his blessing and say, ‘Fantastic! God go with you!’. Except that . . . his church is the RIGHT church and all the others are the WRONG church. Enough of that self-deluding nonsense!

Spiritual covering—a ‘new’ doctrine from the more authoritarian segment of the Christian church? A tool used by church leaders in authoritarian, one-man-show churches to cement their own positions and shore up their authority. But not of course something that would ever happen in a ‘respectable’ church—certainly not the rather staid Anglican church that I attend. 

Or is it?

When I think about it, others may not give it a formal name or elevate it quite to a doctrine. But the underlying mentality can still be there. Witness the highly negative reaction of my own vicar when he found out I’d been attending meetings in other churches. He COULD have said, “That’s great Norman! Get out there and get some new ideas! I’m not perfect, go an listen to others, if you learn anything bring it back and let’s hear it!” COULD have said, but didn’t. What he actually said, I leave to your imagination.

Where does all this defensiveness come from? It comes from pride, and it comes from insecurity. Pride that can’t bear to contemplate than any other church somewhere might actually be ahead of mine in hearing from God (no shame in admitting that, surely?). And insecurity which, granted, can be worse if you’re a salaried church employee dependent on the success for the church for your daily bread.  But aren’t we supposed to be moving beyond that? Isn’t that the whole point?

So why not have two churches? Perhaps we should ALL have two churches. Perhaps I’ll come to that one next . . .

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What is SIN anyway?

I’ve always had trouble understanding just what this word—SIN—means. It gets used often enough in church but the definitions tend to be a bit vague. It’s like, “If you don’t know what it means then by definition you must be doing it.” Here are two questions, or examples of the sorts of quandary I have sometimes found myself in . . . 

Continue reading >>

Is God an Algorithm?


“Norman, what do you think about gay marriage?”
That was Linda, from across the table over dinner at the Singapore Swiss Club under a dark warm tropical night sky.
I launched into my standard answer.
“Marriage is essentially a contract. An exclusive contract between two people in which they pledge a commitment to love and respect one another, and to refrain from sexual relations with anyone else, as long as they live. It seems to me that if two people wish to enter into a contract not to have sex with anyone else, then that’s no one’s business but their own.” 
I went on to explain . . . 

God, Church and Collapsing Banks

God speaks to me from the most unlikely directions
I’ve been reading a book called Fool’s Gold  about the 2007-8 financial crash. It’s written by a Financial Times journalist named Gillian Tett.
Bring interested in the subject, I found it a reasonably good read, but it was only right at the end, in the  epilogue, that it really hit home to me. Here she moves from straight history to a more subjective reflection on her personal reactions, and here I found something that seems relevant not just to the way in which banks and hedge funds work, but also to the workings of institutions in general and in particular the church.

Continue reading this post >>>

Roots of Islam Part 4 - the Morality

finally we need to look at a contentious point—the morality of Islam, and the attitude to war and violence.

Muhammad died in 632 AD. After a series of battles with his opponents he had been able to return to Mecca (630 AD) re-establishing himself in his former home town. By this time he was well on his way also to imposing Islam on the rest of Arabia—by force mainly, not by persuasion. Further battles left him as de facto ruler of Arabia.

Roots of Islam Part 3 - the Koran

Most reasonably informed Christians are probably aware that the Koran draws some of its ideas from the bible. Few are perhaps aware just how much of it comes from the bible. I wasn’t, until I sat down to read it. After I started reading, I was totally dumbfounded by the sheer extent of the copying!
Let’s consider one sura (chapter) only—sura 2 . . .
Continue reading . . . 

Roots of Islam Part 2 - the History

If the accounts of Muhammad’s life date from so long after his death, it becomes crucial to understand the changing political and cultural environment of that later time, to see how it may have influenced the way in which the history was portrayed. For this we need some basic history . . .   

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Roots of Islam Part 1

I’ve been reading – or rather listening to—a book. It’s called In the Shadow of the Sword by the populist historian Tom Holland. And it deals with the geopolitical background of the Koran and the birth of Islam in 7th century Arabia. It attempts some answers to questions like,
-          Where did Muhammad get his ideas from?  
-          All those bits of the Koran that essentially recapitulate bits of the bible – how did they get in there? and,

-          How and why did Islam spread so far and so fast in those early years?      Continue reading >>

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rethinking repentance

2nd October 2013              by Norman Walford

I’m halfway through listening to an audiobook—The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus.

The book was written in AD 75 and recounts the history of the Jews starting with the Maccabees and proceeding to the Jewish War and the final destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 by the Roman general Titus.

I started a bit reluctantly expecting it to be dry and boring, but in fact it’s been quite the opposite. It’s a fast moving story, racy, full of blood, gore, torture, individual valour, family intrigue, betrayal etc. etc. It makes great reading, and it’s the best possible way to get a detailed insight into the political environment of Palestine before, during, and after the life of Jesus, written by an articulate writer who was there and witnessed it all.

Strongly recommended!

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to pick up on one word, in one sentence, from Josephus’ preface.

Now Josephus was a wily operator. Consider this, that he started the war as a commander on the losing side (the Jews),  and ended the war as an honoured Roman citizen on a full state pension provided by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, working as a trusted advisor to the Roman military. That takes a bit of doing. So when we read Josephus singing the praise of Titus (Vespasian’s son, future emperor, and the general who supervised the siege and capture of Jerusalem), and telling us what a kind, generous and warm-hearted man Titus was, we can perhaps take it with a large pinch of salt. But no matter. I’m concerned with something else.

”Titus Caesar who destroyed (the Temple) is himself a witness who during the entire war pitied the people who were kept under by the seditious (Jewish leaders) and did often voluntarily delay the taking of the city and allowed time to the siege in order to let the authors have opportunity for repentance.” (Josephus, Preface to The Jewish War)

There it is, that word! In effect Joseph is saying, Titus had no desire for all this killing and destruction; and if the Jews holding out in the city would but repent and stop fighting, then Titus would have been more than happy to accept an honourable surrender on generous and humane terms.

It’s that one word, REPENT. We hear it so often in church, but here it’s being used by this entirely secular first century writer, a contemporary of Paul and the Apostles, in a totally non-religious context. That’s what really hit me.

And what does Josephus mean by it? He means just what the word should mean, which is THINK AGAIN!  Josephus is using Greek, and the Greek word for repent is metanoia,  from noiein (to think) and meta (after, further). So it’s ‘think again, change your mind’.

That’s all Titus is saying to the defenders of Jerusalem – Think again Jews! Stop fighting and surrender! Lay down your arms and accept a fair and generous settlement!

We need to remember that these ‘technical’ theological terms that get thrown around in church usually have ordinary, everyday meanings, and often if we stick to the everyday meaning we may get closer to the truth than we would otherwise. With repent, I think that we can be too heavily conditioned by the mediaeval Catholic church and its rather narrow concepts of sin, so that as soon as the word comes up, immediately in our mind’s eyes we are looking at flashing billboards of the Ten Commandments—Murder! Theft! Adultery!  And so on. And I grant that all that can indeed be a part of if, but is that really getting to the heart of it?

I think not.

In our Men’s Group this week we were discussing Acts chapter 2. Here Luke summarizes the gospel message in a few simple words:

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.37-38)

And the natural question then is, Repent of what? Of course we can all find things—OK Lord, I admit it, I jumped a red light on my way home yesterday. I won’t do it again—until next time! But is that really what it’s about? I don’t think so.

I’ve been fascinated for years by a little and much overlooked verse in Hebrews. It gathers weight from its context—it’s in a list of what the writer regards as a list of basic Christian doctrines which the reader is supposed to know already. So it’s presented as central. And it says . . .

Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works . . . (Hebrews 6.1)

So its foundational. One of the building blocks on which the whole Christian edifice is constructed.  Just a minute! I’ve heard of repentance of sin, but what’s this about dead works? Just that. The greatest sin known to man. The one sin of which above all we are called to repent is dead works.

So what are dead works? Just that. Works are things that you do. Rules that you follow. For the Jews it was their Law. And why dead? They’re dead because they can’t save you. Paul describes the Law as the ministry of death. (2 Corinthians 3.7)  Works can’t impress God, can’t put God in our debt. Nothing puts God in our debt. Nothing we do can impress God—he’s unimpress-able. Works are just that. Dead, dead, works

At the Men’s Group we got into trouble as we usually do, as one or two have not really understood the full ramifications of the free gift. But repent what? I don’t really think I’ve done anything too bad! You seriously think I can get to heaven by confessing to a red traffic light?  No. Please let none of us get into that mentality. If we repent, let’s repent first and foremost of dead works. Lay them aside and accept the free gift of God.

In a way we’re not unlike Jewish defenders on the walls of Jerusalem, surrounded by the massively superior forces of Titus. Like them we need to repent. Have a change of thinking. Surrender to the greater power and (if Josephus is to be believed) receive mercy at his hands. I’m not sure if I would trust Josephus entirely on that one, his track record is a bit mixed. But our God, we know we can trust.