“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool (UK) has come up with a strategy to turn around the frailing Church of England. What insight is he offering? What move is he announcing? Imitate Christ? Preach the Gospel? Persevere in prayer? Paul Bayes’ message is none of the above. In what sounds like a defiant ‘no’ to Romans 12:2, the Bishop of Liverpool wants churches to become more like the world!
In a speech last week, the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, called for “gender-neutral marriage canon”. He notes that “world beyond the church” has found the church’s teaching and practice of marriage is “offensive, oppressive and hypocritical”. 
There is a certain ‘duh’ that’s appropriate here. Societies often regard certain Christian teachings as offensive; it comes with the territory. I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about not expecting or looking for adulation from the culture at large,
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you”. (John 15:19)
The Bishop’s logic is simple, the outside world doesn’t approve of Christian teaching (especially on marriage and sexuality), therefore we must change in order to the win the approval of the world. That’s like saying to Americans, I can see you don’t like cricket, so we’ll put away the bat and instead take up baseball. Or to change the analogy, it’s like submitting to anti-vaxxers: we sense your fury about taking a COVID vaccine, so to avoid offending you we will throw out every last vial.
In case we are left in any doubt, Paul Bayes gives churches an example to follow. Following Jesus sounds like a great idea to me, but no, this clergyman is telling Churches to become more like the English soccer team (apologies, ‘football’!). I’m not convinced that footballers are the paragons of virtue we ought to be emulating, but according to this Bishop they are our exemplars.
“Look at our football team, kneeling in the face of the boos of the sleepwalkers so as to advocate for justice. The world beyond the church has set the moral agenda, and those who kneel with our footballers, or who see no difference between attending the marriage of their gay or their straight friends or work colleagues, find the community of faith to be wanting and indeed increasingly offensive. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of human sexuality”.
Be more like England! I assume the Bishop might add…and be less like Hungary. For those following Euro 2020, Hungary is portrayed as the bad guys at the moment due to the way their Government is pushing back on the popular sexuality narrative that has captured the West. The current European football championship has led to arguments over stadiums lighting up in rainbow colours and all manner of virtue signalling.
The reality is, churches shouldn’t look like England or Hungary. The Church is called not to be a synonym for the world nor its antonym. Rather, the New Testament vision is of a redeemed community communicating by both life and teaching God’s revealed truth in the Gospel of Jesus. For instance, 1 Timothy 3:14-15 explains,
“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Far from emulating the world, the Apostle’s descriptor of the church is that it’s like a new building set apart from all others in the city. In contrast to the Temples in Ephesus (the city where Timothy was living), the Church is distinct for two reasons: one, the foundation (it’s built on God’s truth), and second, its life (the church upholds God’s truth in both life and teaching). George Knight comments on these verses, “the living God has established his church to be the embodiment of his truth.”
What makes Christianity distinct and enthralling, shocking and appealing, is that it does not sit comfortably in any given culture. Genuine Christianity doesn’t feel like England and it doesn’t look like Hungary. For this reason, there is always a sense in which we (Christians) never truly fit and are at home in the places we live, work, and play.
I recall an observation made last year by British historian Tom Holland,
“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.
Holland is not a Christian but he understands the lunacy of ecclesiastical leaders sacrificing Christian beliefs at the expense of pursuing favourable opinion polls. Didn’t Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”?
As soon as Christians begin talking about truth, some readers will pushback with suggestions of narrow-mindedness and archaic bigotry. That’s not how Christian truth works. The truth Paul is affirming mustn’t be misaligned with power plays, abrasiveness, and hatred, for doing so tarnishes the truth. Truth’s companion is love and truth’s context is grace. Anyone building pillars of truth without the essential ingredients of love and grace, is building a structure that’s certain to fall down.
For example, in the same letter Paul urges Timothy to confront false teaching and he explains how “the goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
Paul can both speak of behaviours that contradict sound doctrine and the Gospel, and he can speak of God’s great love for law breakers, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
In calling for a church of the world, the Archbishop of Liverpool fails to mention this crucial point: churches that stick with the Bible and who hold onto the Christian view of marriage, do in fact love and accept people from across backgrounds and persuasions. It is this distinct community that is so appealing for those who are weighed down with guilt and sense of helplessness. The Church isn’t a heterosexual club, it’s the community of men and women who have found God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ and who are now learning to find their truest identity and contentment in Him. This truth is not oppressive, it is freeing. It’s not life destroying, it’s life building. I am among the first to recognise that churches don’t always do this well, but often they do, and the more churches are enthralled by the Gospel of Christ, the more wonderfully they display the character of God and the beauty of his good news.
As Jesus says, “love one another and the world will know that you are my disciples”.
The Bishop of Liverpool is essentially calling for churches to dismantle 1 Timothy 3:14-16. Such betrayal by a church leader does not encourage Christians who are seeking to follow Christ in the world, it confuses them and causes them to doubt what God’s good purposes. Neither will this kind of revisionism help people outside to become Christians; it only gives further reason to view Christianity as an irrelevance.
There are churches who’ve capitulated and become servants of today’ cultural Kings. Other churches understand what’s at stake and are standing on this firm foundation. Again, others are hoping they can remain on the fence and they’re hoping no one ever asks them what they truly believe.
The future doesn’t lie with camouflaging the Biblical vision of marriage and sexuality, nor in taking the advice from the Bishop of Liverpool. Churches, we need to become less like the world, whether it’s the world of England or Hungary, and let’s become more like the Lord Jesus.