Terrorism, Christmas, and Boxing Day in Melbourne

Melbourne is my city. I love its people, culture, food, sport, parks, city and suburbs. It is a wonderful place to live. But over the past few days Melbourne has witnessed two significant threats to the human soul, terrorism and materialism.

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Last week’s threat of a terrorist attack in Melbourne City was not enough to keep people away from celebrating that most holy night. A large crowd converged on St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the alleged targets of the plot, to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Terrorism is not an unknown experience for Churches, more often referred to as persecution. Persecution is common place for many of the hundreds of millions of people who profess Jesus Christ is Lord. It is also true that people of other faiths are also terrorised, and that there are also examples of people wielding the sword in the name of ‘Christ.’ There is no justification for any such heinous acts, but as Greg Sheridan of The Australian reported this year, Christians are ‘more persecuted than any other in the world, persecuted more frequently, more widely and with more intensity.’

Civilisations have not always survived the onslaught of horrid regimes. Carthage was put to the sword by Rome, and Rome destroyed by tribal groups from Northern and Eastern Europe, and the Mongols wiped out the Jin Dynasty, and the Conquistadors over the Aztecs. In all cases, reasons for subjugating another culture were multifarious, and it would be intellectually unsound to disconnect religious motivations from imperialism, trade, and at times racial provocations.

One idea has always outlasted persecution, and that is, Christianity. As Tertullian (2nd C) said, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. This is evident in history, for example, through sporadic seasons of persecution Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire, and when China closed its doors to missionaries under Communism, 10s of millions of Chinese were converted to Christ.

Terrorism is not new, and while separating modern ‘Jihadism’ from ‘faith’ is understandable, it is ultimately irresponsible. Islamic terrorism is targeting Christianity, as well as other religious groups, and Western Civilisation. Many Muslims are appalled by news that a group of Australian muslims planned mass murder, and so it is only right that politicians are careful with their language. At the same time, as long as the social ‘left’ play games with political correctness, they will only add weight to the extreme ‘right’, as the world is seeing in the United States at the moment. In my opinion both spectrums are dangerous to a healthy pluralist society, as both insist on a flawed moral absolutism.

Undoubtedly, people congregated at St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday for different reasons: as an act of defiance, to show solidarity, as well as for marking the birth of the world’s Saviour. All these reasons have a place, but there is something true and symbolic about the message of Jesus Christ breaking through threats of violence.

The message that resonated around the Gothic walls of St Paul’s and in hundreds of churches across Melbourne this Christmas is one of the incarnation, how God broke through a world of human hostility, even amidst State attempts to kill the new born child. At Mentone Baptist with a congregation overflowing into the hall, we sang of this most extraordinary wonder,

‘True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,

lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;

Son of the Father, begotten not created’

Today in Melbourne, the same city we love and that yesterday celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, is once again teaming with people, somewhat sluggish from overeating but eager to fill shopping bags with deals. It’s the Boxing Day sale day!  While not denigrating the pursuit of a great sales price, to fill again Santa’s sack that was emptied only one day earlier, suggests a certain proclivity toward toys and clothes and other stuff.

There is a certain irony in that the Jesus whom we sang about with such gusto on Christmas, spoke more often about the danger of materialism than he did of persecution.

‘What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.’ (Luke 12:3-5)

“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.  Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:22-25)

We may have resolved to resist physical violence, but eating away at the soul of Melbournians is an excessive love for things. We are the world’s most liveable city and we’re intent of maxing it out.

Christmas may be the happiest day of the year for many Australians, and it is also the loneliest for many of the poor and sick. What makes news of God incarnate, good, is not that we get to dress up in suit and tie, and visit Church for one day, feast on too much food and open presents. The incarnation says God understands human poverty and suffering, and he went further than any of us can go, he died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification.

Terrorism can’t destroy this Christian hope, neither can materialism. But while terrorism may drive Aussies back to Church, materialism deadens the soul. I get it, such a suggestion is amount to heresy in this city that I love, but what if Jesus is right? What if these ancient words remain true for us today?

And what about the Boxing Day cricket test? Leave cricket alone!

Christmas is optional, Jesus is not

Should Christians defend Christmas?

In recent days Federal Government Ministers, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, have come out to bat for Christmas, arguing that political correctness has gone too far in curtailing the religious significance of this national holiday.

When a listener called into 2GB and shared how his children’s school had blacklisted Christmas Carols, Mr Dutton responded,

“You make my blood boil with these stories… “It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it.”

“Many of the people, regardless of their religious belief, would be there happy to sing along with Christmas carols, happy to enjoy the fact that we celebrate Christmas as a Christian society and it’s beyond my comprehension.”

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They have a valid point, there is a movement of Grinches emerging across the country, seeking to control and even remove Christian vestiges from the season’s festivities. References to the Magi, Shepherds, and Jesus Christ are harder to find, which is perhaps why we are pleasantly surprised when we hear an entertainer at Myer Music Bowl Carols or see a shopping mall nativity scene redirect us to that wondrous night in Bethlehem.

Christmas remains a national public holiday, and is almost certainly the most enjoyed day of the year for the majority of Australia’s 24 million people. For many there is no religious sentiment attached to Christmas, and yet people happily gorge themselves with many of Christmas’ associations. It is also true that Christ-less Christmases have become the norm for many families. One friend conducted a straw poll on Facebook last week; some friends admitted that their children didn’t associate Jesus with Christmas, and one child had never heard of Jesus Christ.

While previous generations may have connected Christmas with Christ, this is disappearing, partly due to Australia reconfiguring into a multi-faith society, partly because of secularism, and even our exuberant consumerism blinds us to what lays behind the tinsel, turkey, and toys.

The diminishment of Jesus in Australian Christmas celebrations grieves me, not because December 25th matters, but because it indicates how our culture is shifting further away from the greatest and most beautiful news we can ever behold.

I’m not suggesting that the Australia of my childhood was somehow more Christian than today. It was okay to sing about Jesus in 1980 and Church attendance was more common, but it is quite possible for a culture to be deeply embedded with Christian themes and festivals, and yet be utterly impervious to their significance.

How much should Christians defend Christmas?

First of all, celebrating Christmas is not a requirement for Christians, let alone for anyone else.

Nowhere in the Bible are Christians told to celebrate a day called Christmas. Indeed, Christians are warned against legislating special days, as they can mislead and manoeuvre  people into a form of self-righteousness that opposes the Gospel of grace. Under the Old Covenant Israelites were given special days for observance. These days were tied to events with theological and historical significance to that nation, but once the new covenant was instituted by Jesus Christ, such festivals became unnecessary. There was freedom to observe or not.

This may sound anathema to some Christians, but it doesn’t matter whether we celebrate Christmas or not. Christmas is a religious and national holiday, one we can choose to celebrate or not, eat Turkey or not, sing carols or not, give presents or not. We have freedom to skip over December 25, although your kids might be a little miffed on Christmas morning. 

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that we dump Christmas from the national or ecclesiastical calendars.

I’m no Puritan when it comes to Christmas. I love Christmas. The Campbell house in December is bouncing with Carols and the aroma of pine, we’re eating up pre-Christmas Christmas food, and my kids are exclaiming, ‘Dad, not another Christmas movie’. But celebrating Christmas is a cultural advent, not a Biblical mandate.

Second, are we trying to introduce people to Christmas or to Christ? The answer is not necessarily either/or. For example, Christmas is an opportunity to remind our mates that the Christ has come. It is an easy route for inviting friends to Church and to swing conversations around to the Gospel. However, while we may bemoan secularism taking Christmas hostage to its truculent ideals, are we better off investing our efforts in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ? In advocating Christmas are we sending mixed messages about Christianity?

My question is, are we about promoting Christmas the event or Christ the person? I sense that some of us are leaning heavily toward the former.

Perhaps we should exert less concern about protecting the day called Christmas, and make more effort to live and speak the reality of the good news that entered the world that dark and unfriendly night in Bethlehem.

Leaving aside the word ‘Christmas’ and the day December 25th, in uncovering the birth of the Christ child we discover truth that is too good to ignore, too wonderful to brush off. In the bleak mid-minter God came down and took on flesh. God the Son lay aside his glory in heaven in order to suffer and die on a cross for people who have ditched God.

If we’re intent on waving a ‘save Christmas’ placard, we must avoid communicating that we’re trying to revive a celebration for the remnant of conservative and traditional Australia. I want my secular friends and my religious friends to fall in love not with Christmas, but with Jesus. In a year where refugees have once again dominated the news, where transgender issues have made news, and where hurting families make headlines, let’s make effort to show people Christ.

In the bleak mid-winter 

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter

Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

(Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1872)

Heteronormacy is the new Heresy

A word of clarification and qualification:

I’ve received some helpful feedback this afternoon, and upon reflection, I should probably have nuanced some of the comments in this post.

While the guidelines don’t ban the use of ‘traditional’ words, it is nonetheless framing a new language that the Government want used in the workplace.And while I agree that one can read the document with a fair degree of latitude, it is written in a way that can also be enforced rigidly when suited.

– The Guidelines do discourage using the language of husband and wife, and it does encourage gender neutral alternatives.

-The document also rejects heteronormative language and thinking, branding it as a form of sexism.

Both of these points are problematic.

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The Victorian Government has published Guidelines for State employed workers, informing them of what language is appropriate when addressing fellow employees, including those who are married. The Government is encouraging even non-Government  business and organisations to adopt their chosen language.

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In The Australian today, Ro Allen, Victoria’s gender and sexuality commissioner, says that the Inclusive Language Guide is designed to teach people to use the ‘correct language’.

What is the basis for the officially declared ‘correct language’? If anyone was hoping the answer would be grounded science or even common sense, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The accepted language is defined against what is perceived as heteronormative. In other words, the noun wife assume that the person is a woman; that is gender specific and therefore inappropriate.

What is the correct language? Spouse is preferred, but also, if you a married woman, you shall be known as Hir, and if you are a married man, you shall be called Zie.

I would have thought that quite a few married women will be offended if you refer to them as an androgynous being, which is what the pronoun Hir means. And calling a bloke Zie is not going to upset anyone? Hey Bill, instead of referring to you as he and him, and man, I will now speak of you as Zie! And if you’re offended by that, don’t worry, it’s the correct language so says the Government. 

To be fair, the Guidelines also address some issues relating to LGBTIQ persons, which are reasonable. For example, using words to demean gay and lesbian people is not appropriate, in the workplace or anywhere for that matter.

The Guidelines state,

‘Inclusive language ensures everyone is treated with respect as such language is free from words or tones that reflect prejudice, discrimination or stereotypes. Gender and sexuality are experienced and expressed in many different ways, and using language that excludes or stereotypes can cause unintentional harm to LGBTI individuals. This includes ‘positive’ stereotyping of LGBTI people.’

The Government has a growing list of policy initiatives that allege to defend equality and safety for LGBTIQ Victorians. I gladly affirm policies that will protect people from harm, but it is clear however, that the Government’s agenda exceeds these goals, and there is the now explicit intent to rewrite the human understanding of male and female. Whether it is Safe Schools, the birth certificate legislation, Respectful Relationships, or this workers guide, what we are told to believe is that heteronormacy is false and unethical. Indeed, as with Safe Schools, these Guidelines judge that anyone affirming heteronormacy is sexist, and their views are to be removed from the workplace.

Think about it, what is more sexist, acknowledging my wife’s femaleness, or referring to her as an androgynous being? What amounts to discrimination, suggesting a married man is someone’s husband, or calling them Zie, and doing so whether they like it or nor?

As crazy as it sounds, in the foreseeable future Victorians will be forced to refrain from speaking of anyone as a woman or man, boy or girl, daughter or son. Instead, we will told by Governmental authorities what the correct language is, and those who fail to comply will no doubt find themselves in hot water.

The new moral vision that Daniel Andrews is championing will not lead to a fairer Victoria, but a more confused Victoria, and one where people are fearful to use natural and wonderful words like husband and wife, and man and woman, lest they be bullied for pseudo-sexism.

We should not be afraid to affirm manhood and womanhood. No one should be called sexist for using the natural categories of wife and husband. No gay and lesbian or transgender person should be victim of work place mockery and bullying.

I trust that concerned members of Parliament, including  within the Labour caucus, will speak up against this latest chapter in Mr Andrews program to prejudice heteronormacy.

The answer can be found inside the Victorian Parliament

“All along the answer was staring us in the face.”

BREAKING NEWS: We are thankful to God for his grace and grateful to those who voted and defeated the ‘inherent requirement’ legislation.

Should this amendment to the ‘Equal Opportunity Act’ have been adopted, all religious organisations in Victoria, including churches, would have lost their freedom to employ people based on the beliefs and practices of the organisation. A tribunal would have been appointed by the Government, establishing a theological framework for all religious groups, and this same body would determine whether potential employees would be ‘inherently required’ to follow the convictions of any particular religious organisation.

In essence, the legislation would have redefined the role of Government in religious matters, giving it pseudo-episcopalian oversight.

A liberal democracy necessarily provides and protects an environment for society whereby associations have freedom to employ persons who’s convictions and character align with that organisation. In spite of the Andrews Government’s intent to remove this freedom from churches and religious schools, the Parliament has determined otherwise, at least for this point in time.

Today, we witnessed the Victorian Parliament putting on the brakes, and in a small way, slowing down a movement that is intent on eliminating Christian beliefs from society. After a series of anti-Christian policies that have come into effect over the past 2 years, we should be thankful for today’s decision, which means that the State of Victoria has retained an important aspect of religious freedom.

As we express gratitude, I trust though that people will refrain from pontificating, and from presuming that this decision will in some way advance Christian faith in Victoria. The reason is simple, the Gospel doesn’t advance through Parliamentary processes but only through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that the legislation was defeated, but we mustn’t over-state the argument.

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Rather than focusing on the ‘inherent requirement’ legislation, I wish to take the opportunity to speak of a little known fact about our Parliament building. Positioned in the middle of the Victorian Parliament building, inside the library, is a large Bible, opened and sitting on a wooden stand. It is not hidden in a corner or shelved along a row of books, but stands alone at the centre of the library, conspicuous as a light post.  Despite its prominence though, one wonders how often people stop to notice let alone read this copy of God’s word. One wonders if people consider this Holy book anything more than an item of historic curiosity.

I have walked passed this Bible on numerous occasions, and  have noted that it is always opened to the same passage, Jeremiah chapter 31. I don’t know the story behind choosing this particular portion of Scripture, and whether it was chosen carefully or just opened randomly. Either way, it is a fitting page for the seat of Victorian political power.

The book of Jeremiah was written in the 6th Century BC, at the time of the Babylonian invasion and of Jerusalem’s destruction.  The book details the ministry of Jeremiah the prophet, who expounded words from God that offered explanation of the nation’s then predicament. It was a time when society had turned its back on the God of the Bible, and instead chose to propagate and trust in ‘progressive’ political and religious thought. Not all Biblical thought was silenced, aspects were retained although heavily redacted and reinterpreted in ‘new’ ways.

The nation’s leaders, both political and religious, in ways that may remind one of Neville Chamberlain, spoke of a message of peace,

“From the least to the greatest,

all are greedy for gain;

prophets and priests alike,

    all practice deceit.

They dress the wound of my people

    as though it were not serious.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say,

    when there is no peace.

Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?

    No, they have no shame at all;

    they do not even know how to blush.

So they will fall among the fallen;

    they will be brought down when I punish them,”

says the Lord.’

(Jeremiah 6:13-15)

The book of Jeremiah contains many bleak messages, and with good reason, but it is not without hope. Jeremiah ch.31 gives a portrait for a new beginning, a Divine promise of hope to those without hope. What is especially staggering about the message is that it is not written for ‘good’ people who are being beaten down by an oppression regime, but it is written for those who were doing the beating. To a disinterested and at times vitriolic people, God speaks a message forgiveness and newness, one that reaches to a level of humanity that no human law and politics can reach, the human heart.

He says,

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

    “when I will make a new covenant

with the people of Israel

    and with the people of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant

    I made with their ancestors

when I took them by the hand

    to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant,

    though I was a husband to them,”

declares the Lord.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel

    after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds

    and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

    and they will be my people.

34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,

    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

    from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

    and will remember their sins no more.”

35 This is what the Lord says,

he who appoints the sun

    to shine by day,

who decrees the moon and stars

    to shine by night,

who stirs up the sea

    so that its waves roar—

    the Lord Almighty is his name:

36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”

    declares the Lord,

“will Israel ever cease

    being a nation before me.”

37 This is what the Lord says:

“Only if the heavens above can be measured

    and the foundations of the earth below be searched out

will I reject all the descendants of Israel

    because of all they have done,”

declares the Lord.

It is quite extraordinary and wonderful that at the centre of Victoria’s State legislative power is a reminder of ultimate hope. The answer to our deepest struggles and concerns lays not with Government policy and lawmaking, not in a ground swell of public opinion, or in the strident voices of columnists, but in an ancient promise given by God, God who kept his word by sending his only Son into the world.

The reality is, in different ways our political and ideological preferences can blind us from the glory of Jeremiah ch.31, whether we define ourselves as progressive or conservative, green, red or blue. No matter where people align themselves on these spectrums Jeremiah 31 gives a Divine word that counters and surprises. God is not frustrated by or restrained by any socio-political movement, and neither is he defined by it.

I would encourage all who visit our Parliamentary library, don’t walk past the Bible. Why not pause and read, and ponder at the possibility of its promises being true?

When a theologian bemoans Christians speaking of God as Father

 ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

A colleague asked me yesterday whether I had read the outgoing reflections from Whitley College’s Principal, Frank Rees. I have now, and it offers interesting insight into the life of a Bible College Principal. I wish Frank all the best with his retirement, but I trust some of his cautions will not be adopted into the future.

I have decided to leave aside his series uncritical criticisms levelled at ‘critics’ of Whitley College, because those words are Lilliputian compared to one statement he makes. In fact, this assertion only adds weight to the concerns which many Evangelicals have expressed over the years.

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He writes,

“We have gone backwards on gender inclusive language in many of our official events. These elements include a resurgence of emphasis on God as Father, without any balancing awareness of other ways of naming God.”

It is interesting to hear that Frank has identified a ‘resurgence’ of Baptists speaking of God as Father, although he makes it clear that he thinks this is not a good thing. For him, it represents a ‘growing narrowness’ among Victorian Baptists.I would be very happy for Frank to respond and clarify his views on the subject.

His comment is set within a paragraph that relates to gender equality in churches. ‘Gender inequality’ is a now popular and fairly unhelpful phrase, which is sometimes less about genuine equality between the genders and is more about gender blurring. Real gender inequality is wrong and is a denial of the imago dei and our union with Christ (Galatians 3:28). Our Churches ought to be communities where women and men may flourish in the faith and be received as crucial partners in the Gospel. Unfortunately, the language of gender equality often carries with it a false premise, where women and men are not only considered equal but the same, and thus losing the God given distinctive of the sexes.

Much more can be said about that point, but my chief concern here is the way Frank Rees publicly laments Christians addressing God as Father. It is quite strange, theologically perilous, and somewhat reminiscent of that literary wonder, The Shack.

To be clear, Frank is not saying that we cannot speak of God as Father or that we should not, but he’s arguing that by preferencing Father we are being ‘narrow’, ‘going backwards’, and the language is responsible for breeding gender inequality. Not only this, he is implying, although he refrains from spelling it out on this occasion, we ought to use feminine names for God (i.e. God as mother).

The concept of motherhood is biblical and beautiful and to be honoured. But no where are we encouraged to call God mother or any feminine name. There are 4 similes used in the Old Testament, where God is ‘likened’ to a mother, but as J.B Torrance has argued, similes and metaphors are not to be confused, and they are certainly not to be considered analogous to biblical statements  that declare God’s personal names and being.

For example, someone says to me, ‘Murray you’re as slow as a snail.’ Such a statement is not intending to convey something ontologically true about me, as though I am a snail, but that my walking habits remind them of this slumberous creature.

We are not free to ascribe to God names or ideas that have not been given to us by God in Scripture; doing so is treading in very dangerous water, and I so trust Victorian Baptists won’t heed his caution.

In the Bible God does not reveal himself to be  like a father, but he is God the Father.  The one who reveals the Triune God is Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. What did Jesus teach us? Did he speak of God in feminine ways? Did he suggest that we address God as mother? No.

‘Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves’. (John 14:9-11)

So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me’. (John 8:28)

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19)

‘This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:9)

If Frank Rees is right and there is a movement among Victorian Baptists returning to the biblical language of God as Father, we should not bemoan the fact, but thank God for his grace in causing us prodigal children to return to him.

We should not be ashamed of calling God Father, but wonder in his grace to us in Jesus that invites us to know him as Father.

The Fatherhood of God is not a doctrine to be deconstructed by the imposition of current sociological expressions of femininity, just as we must resist defining God by the masculinity of previous ages. Contrary to Frank’s comments, true knowledge of God as Father does not lead to demeaning attitudes toward women, it causes us to repent of such ideas.

For a Bible College Principal to express disappointment over Christians calling God Father is extraordinary, and has the unhelpful consequence of unhinging real conversation surrounding the topic of women in ministry. When Christians address God as Father we are doing what Jesus tells us to do;  that may be ‘narrow’ to some, but it is better for us to narrowly trust God at his word than to be broad and lost in our speculative imaginations and inclinations.

‘I will be a Father to you,

and you will be my sons and daughters,

says the Lord Almighty

(2 Corinthians 6:18)

Is my local Church my joy and crown?

This morning in my Bible reading I was stopped by this verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church,

‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!’ (4:1)

I was struck by Paul’s affection for the local church in Philippi. He not only loves the people and wants to be with them, he speaks of them as being his joy and crown. This made me pause and ask myself, what words do I use to describe Mentone Baptist Church? How do I view this family to whom I belong in Christ?

Joy is one of the main themes that threads through the entire letter; it speaks of a deep wonderment and excitement of knowing these people are God’s and were partnering alongside Paul in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Crown refers to the wreath awarded to an athlete who had trained hard and seen success. As Paul surveys his life and ministry, his prized achievement and great happiness is a local church, and this accomplishment is all God’s doing. From what we know of the Philippian Church there was nothing remarkable about them, but in their ordinariness they lived the Gospel of Christ. Paul’s joy was not rooted in the Church’s power ministries, or in some captured à la mode vibe, but in the genuineness of their Gospel partnership.

We will better understand Paul’s affection for the Church by  reading what he says prior to and following 4:1:

In the latter part of chapter 3 Paul has exposed a group of people, who though probably connected to the Church, were not genuine believers. He refers to their appetite for ‘earthly things’. These people lived for now and the pleasures that can be had in the present, whilst ignoring greater and more important realities. In contrast, Paul reminds us of  an identity and home that is in heaven, and we set our minds on this hope.

‘Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Immediately following 4:1, Paul mentions an argument that is occurring within the church between two godly and Gospel-centred women, Euodia and Syntche.

‘I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.’

Paul can both speak wonderfully of this Church and also recognise there are issues needing to be addressed.

The two women whom Paul is talking about are not enemies of the Gospel, they are mature and faithful workers who have found themselves clashing. We don’t know the nature of their disagreement, but it is clear the issue needs resolving. In verses 2-3 we see that Paul is not harsh with them, he does not tell them to leave or remove them from ministry, but rather he organises counselling for them in order to restore the relationship.

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As I meditated on God’s words today, these 3 points came to mind:

Firstly, Philippians 4:1-3 encourages me because even healthy churches have disagreements. It is inevitable but it need not diminish our affection for one another; indeed we can and ought to work through these quarrels and arguments because of our Gospel partnership.

Secondly, an appetite for ‘earthly things’ is a constant danger and is a destroyer of genuine Christian fellowship and joy. If our affection for the local church diminishes, it is worth asking ourselves the question, what are we hungry for? What are we filling up on in order to feel satisfied?

Third and foremost, when we sense our passion and love for our local church dissipating, return to the Scriptures and listen afresh to how God describes these communities of brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Bible is a great antidote to our modern individualism and sense of autonomous living, which sadly impacts the growth of so many of our Churches.

I confess, there are moments when my own Church doesn’t feel like it’s my joy and crown, and I suspect the sentiment is at times reciprocated! That is a great reason for reading Philippians 4:1 and many other passages like it. We often forget how extraordinary the local church is in the sight of God, and how wonderful it is to be called by God to belong to a local gathering of his people.

Is our local Church a people whom we love and long to spend time with? Do we see the local church to whom we belong as our joy and crown?