Don’t substitute Church for a Podcast

I’ve noticed a new trend emerging among Christians: substituting regular church attendance for listening to podcasts online. To be clear, I’m not talking about podcasts about music or gardening, holidays or politics, or the utterly meaningless meanderings of self-appointed life gurus. I’m talking about replacing Sunday Church with a sermon podcast or the Christian version of an Ellen Degeneres show, which is sometimes but more often than not, originating in a church located thousands of kms away.

Before anyone hears me suggesting that we flush our podcast subscriptions down the virtual toilet, I enjoy listening to a range of talks and discussions of ideas. I’m currently subscribing to 8 or 9 podcasts on my phone, mostly about history or politics. As someone who is preaching most Sundays, I also appreciate listening to other preachers, partly to help keep myself sharp and growing as a preacher. I might listen to 2 sermons a month.

I’m not knocking Christian podcasts; they can be of some value. Needless to say, it depends on which podcasts you’re listening to. If it’s Joyce Meyer or Rob Bell, you’re better off joining Vincent Van Gogh and enter God’s Kingdom without any ears, than listening to those offerings from hell. There are also many great preaching podcasts available and there are thoughtful conversations with Christian theologians and pastors that we can download and appreciate while travelling into work each day. Like a good book, podcasts can teach us and broaden our horizons to useful ideas. My issue is not podcast per se, but a misplaced emphasis Christians are now placing on these ministries.

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Here are 3 concerns I have about Christians relying on podcasts instead of regular attendance at their home church.

First, except in the case when you were sick or on vacation and have caught up on your Church’s sermons online,  the obvious needs saying: other sermons were not preached for you or for me, but for another congregation who live a different context. The preacher has not spent the week praying for you and preparing a sermon for your instruction and encouragement. He does not share pastoral oversight for you and your family. It’s a bit like eating someone else’s dinner – tastes good but it wasn’t prepared for you.   

Second, listening to someone on your iPhone is not equivalent to meeting up with brothers and sisters face to face, praying together, singing together, sharing and serving one another.

Relying on our phones for spiritual nourishment suggests an individualistic pietism. Individualism may be a prominent value in our culture, but it’s not how the Bible describes God’s purpose for us. The very nature of salvation is that God is redeeming a people for himself.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Third, enjoying Christian podcasts should not be confused with spiritual growth. Like I’ve already said, they can be helpful, instructive and encouraging, but it’s important that we follow the Bible’s view of spiritual maturity. Christians grow in Christ, as we grow together in Him. Whether it’s growth in knowledge or love or godliness, the Bible pictures this happening in the context of community, where we have covenanted with other Christians. Paul makes the argument clear and attractive in Ephesians ch.4

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Convincing ourselves that we are doing well spiritually, despite being irregular at church or not attending at all, is a grave misstep. Christians grow and mature in community with other Christians, not by cutting ourselves from the body of Christ.

If you’re feeling the need to listen to sermons online because the preaching at your church is (in your estimation) so poor, either you need to find another church or humble yourself to the preaching in your church. Might I suggest, the best thing to do is speak to your Pastor about it.

A previous generation watched ‘Songs of Praise’ on the ABC or a Foxtel preacher hiding his Devil’s tail behind the pulpit. Today we have free access too an endless supply of faithful and faithless material online, to good, ordinary, and the demonic. My urge is, use them wisely, use them occasionally, and don’t ever let them take the place of your local church.  We must learn to eat from our own table.

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?

Mother Teresa, Sainthood, and the Saints

Mother Teresa was today declared a saint by Pope Francis. Her many decades of work among India’s poorest in Calcutta, left an indelible mark on the 20th Century. In front of  10,000s of people at a special Vatican ceremony, Pope Francis has canonised Mother Teresa, and there are special masses being conducted in India also.

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Pope Francis proclaimed,  “After due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint and we enrol her among the saints, decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole Church.”

One nun, working in the same mission where Mother Teresa once served, said, “We are blessed with this canonization because we know mother is in heaven and she will pray for us and she will bless us”

Sainthood is a prestigious club in the Roman Church, although no one knows exactly how many members there are, with some estimating there being as many as 10,000 Saints. This number may seem rather large, but when one takes into account that there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world today, we begin to sense exceptional character of sainthood club.

Sainthood is rare in the Roman Church, partly because the process is arduous and only a few hold the right kind of resume to even proceed.

Canonisation (the final process of becoming a saint) begins with death. Sainthood is only given to men or women posthumously, and generally with at least 5 years separating their death from the commencement of the process.

The process begins usually with the Diocesan Bishop opening an investigation into the life of the departed person, whereby they try to ascertain if they have lived a life that is adequately holy and deserving of sainthood. In other words, if we think you’ve been good enough, as testified to by various witnesses and documents. If this all goes well, a higher authority, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, examines the holiness, deeds, and miracles of the deceased. Following this is beatification, where evidence of a miracle must be verified, of someone who has experience miraculous healing by praying to the deceased person. If all goes well, the Pope will finally canonise or declare the dead person to be a saint.

For Catholics, Saints play an active role in peoples’ lives, this side of heaven. Millions of Catholics venerate (honour and even worship) saint, praying to saints, and allegedly experience healing, guidance, and help from these saints.

In contrast, when we read the Bible we don’t find different classes of Christian, depending on levels of holiness or miraculous deeds. Rather, every Christian is known as a saint. The word itself comes from the Greek verb, meaning, to set apart or to be holy. It is a designation that is true for every Christian, indeed the Christian life is contingent upon this work of the Holy Spirit.

“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (Romans 1:7)

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Note that the Saints are not leading churches, but a normal congregation members.

Does it really matter? Yes, it matters because it is fudging the teaching of the Bible, and it matters because it creates  false classes of Christians, and it matters because it empties the Gospel of its power by leading many people to believe in merited salvation. In the Scriptures from which Christianity forms its beliefs,  we find that saints are not spectacular Christians who should be awarded special honours; saints are the only Christians to be found in heaven or on earth.

There is no gold or platinum level club in heaven, and there ought to be no elitism in our churches. The Christian message is about God’s undeserved grace and kindness to us, and everyone has equal standing before God in Christ.

We can thank God for the multitude of ways various Christian brethren have served Christ, the Church, and the world. We would be foolish and ungrateful if we didn’t remember and give thanks for lives devoted to the service of the poor, lives spent in the service of the gospel, lives laid down in martyrdom for the name of Jesus. We may (and we must) celebrate good deeds done in love, and remember the stories of lives worthy of imitation. But “sainthood” is not the category for these stories, apart from how the Bible defines sainthood – those who know God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And should anyone be wondering, should I or can I pray to someone who is not God? Is it ok to pray to a saint? If I may respond by asking another question,  why would we want to pray to a saint? Even if we leave aside the fact that the Roman category of sainthood is erroneous, the extraordinary good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ has opened the way to God the Father. If this is true, that we have freedom to enter the presence of God through trusting Jesus; we have no need of knocking on empty doors.

As the Bible tell us,

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Complementarianism, a conversation Baptists want to have?

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On the ‘Baptist Union of Victoria’s’ Facebook page this week, a series of articles have been posted on the topic of women in leadership. These articles are not written by Victorian Baptists, nor do they, I believe, reflect the formal Baptist position on women in leadership. If that were the case, the BUV would have to give up its affirmation of diversity, and a growing number of Baptist churches would no longer welcome in the BUV family.  However, the publication of these articles is raising questions among pastors, especially the commentary accompanying these posts,

Not all Baptist Churches provide opportunities for women to lead. How is your church doing? “Some sexism is blatant, but most of it is subtle, hidden behind so-called “good intentions.” In many churches, it is hidden behind misinterpreted gender roles.”’

What is your church doing to empower more women to lead?

The last question is useful and important, but unfortunately it is being framed by a particular view that wishes to distort a true complementation position.

Uncritically dumping articles into public space can be unhelpful, and leaves readers wondering whether the BUV agrees with the content of these articles, and whether their churches are meant to follow suit? 

Obviously someone is wanting to generate a conversation, and it is certainly a topic worthy of dialogue. But to avoid giving the appearance that the BUV is driving this, they ought to put their name to these posts, and they should publish articles that fairly represent the views they are so openly criticising.

The most recent post is Kylie Pidgeon’s article, Complementarianism and Family Violence: The shared dynamics of Power and Control. Kylie Pidgeon raises several important questions that deserve proper consideration by the local church, and I grateful to her for doing this. But sadly, the timbre of her message may be muddied due to the parodic character of other articles being promoted. 

In summary, the message being conveyed through this series of posts is that complementarianism means ‘sexism’, ‘gender inequality’ and even ‘domestic violence’. This is a serious accusation and one that ought only to be suggested with the greatest care.

Take for example, the article promoted yesterday, written by Charlie Olivia Grantham, The Case of Subtle Sexism.

Grantham writes,

“male headship are all different strains of the same toxic ideology—sexism. Some sexism is blatant, but most of it is subtle, hidden behind so-called “good intentions.” In many churches, it is hidden behind misinterpreted gender roles.”

But hold on, the Bible teaches and affirms male headship in both marriage and the church. Is the author suggesting the Bible is sexist? Is she accusing God, the author of Scripture, as being sexist? Or with a gigantic and unexplained hermeneutical leap, she can simply denude the relevance of all those passages of Scripture?

Also, Grantham refuses to accept there are countless intelligent and godly women who affirm complementarian theology and practice. In fact, one mature Christian woman, whom I was talking with today, rolled her eyes at Grantham’s suggestion. Is she a sexist for disagreeing with Grantham? Apparently so, as Grantham claims to know the mind of God (even if other women do not) when she says, ’I realized that even if God is calling her to preach, she will never know it because she is blinded by sexist lies fed to her over a lifetime.’

In encouraging woman to take the lead in church, Grantham doesn’t call women to the Scriptures, and to trust God in his word; instead, she calls women to believe in their ‘gut instinct’. What terrible advice to giver anyone, whether male or female. As Christians, is not God in his word an authority over us, and is not our task to trust him and follow his words?

Not only is Grantham’s advice unsound, her presentation of complementarianism is a gross caricature. It’s akin to me pointing to a picture of Bugs Bunny and saying to my kids, that’s exactly what real rabbits are like! Perhaps Grantham is picturing a conservative church somewhere, but it is not representative of any complementarian church I know of.

I remember sitting in a meeting with denominational leaders four years ago, and they all believed complementarians taught that women were inferior to men. I assured them that was not the case, and a church teaching such would be contravening Scripture. But what it showed me is that there is significant ignorance on this issue, and now I understand why, if people are relying on articles like this.

There is such a thing called misogyny, and when it worms its way into the home or the church, it needs to be exposed and thrown out: It is sin. But this is not what complementarians believe or practice. Was the Apostle Paul a woman hater for writing (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, dare we add) 1 Timothy ch.2?

The Bible is adamant on the question of equality between men and women. One is not greater than the other, and neither are they the same. The Bible gives examples of women exercising ministry in the local church and encourages women to serve. We want to learn from them and seek to faithfully apply these Scriptures in our own churches. The Bible also teaches male headship in the home and church; stereotyping or disregarding these Scriptures, only serves to create bigger issues.

Complementarianism is not some strange and archaic practice belonging to pre-enlightenment era of history, it is a view held by many churches today, including Baptist Churches, and it is a position held with broad historical precedence and deep theological warrant. When I have time, I am keen to lay out these arguments in another article.

Having said this, I know thoughtful Christians who have done the hard work of exegeting the Biblical texts and have landed in a different place to myself. I disagree with them on this matter, but I still love them and we partner together in ministry ventures. 

Even among complementarians there are some differences. For example, New Testament theologian, Michael Bird, holds to a complementarian view of marriage, but not for the church. John Dickson is okay with women preaching in his church, although they do so under the authority of the church’s leadership. Some churches have male elders but encourage male and female deacons. At Mentone, we praise God for the many women who serve in a multitude of ways, including on staff and as deacons. We would be a far lesser people without their godliness, gifts and love in service.

It is disappointing to see this issue raised in such an unhelpful way. I’m sure it is probably just a super keen staffer wanting a conversation started. At the moment the BUV is an exciting people to be part of, with many encouraging things happening, and so this is a rather unfortunate incident. Hopefully we can do better in the future.

A letter for the community of Mentone

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Como Parade, Mentone

Dear community of Mentone,

I am writing to address an issue that is impacting our local community.

Last week a member of the community spoke to me about a story regarding a local Catholic priest in Mentone, which is being reported in the media. Both the Herald Sun and The Age have run update stories today (Feb 10).

As many people will be aware, I live in the local area of Mentone/Parkdale, and I am a father of 3 children who attend a Mentone school (not the two schools mentioned in the media), and I Pastor a Church in Mentone. To hear any story of abuse in the community concerns me because I am a parent, and because I am a Pastor, and because Mentone is my home.

I ought to preface the statement with these two points:

i. Apart from media reports, I am not privy to the particulars of what has taken place with the accusations levelled against John Walshe.

ii. Even though I am a Minister in Mentone, I don’t know John Walshe (Priest at St Patrick’s, Mentone), and have only spoken to him once, about 9 years ago, albeit briefly on the phone in relation to a school Christmas event.

The issue concerns an incident that took place in 1982, when Walshe allegedly abused a seminarian, shortly after Walshe had been ordained. News of this incident has caused concern and outrage amongst many parents at the two schools under the jurisdiction of St Patrick’s parish, St Patrick’s School in Mentone and St John Vianney’s School in Parkdale. It should be added, there are other parents expressing support for John Walshe, and both school councils have indicated ‘unanimous support’ according to The Age.

In reading the media’s report, parental concerns become clearer because of a contradiction between what John Walshe says took place, and what the ArchDiocese of Melbourne determined.

According to an ABC report, John Walshe, said “while his conduct was contrary to his religious beliefs, the encounter with X was completely consensual.”

The Catholic ArchDiocese of Melbourne however concluded that the victim was sexually abused and gave him compensation. Given that this is the case, it does appear incongruous that Walshe is permitted to remain in the ministry.

First of all, I want to ensure Mentone (Baptist) that we hold extremely highly the qualifications set out in Scripture for church leaders.

As I said before, I am not privy to all the information regarding the alleged abuse case, however I know that at Mentone Baptist Church, should a pastor (or any one at the church for that matter) sexually abuse anyone, their tenure would be terminated, and the authorities contacted. And should any of the Church’s leaders engage in sexual immorality (having sex with a person to whom they are not married), they would also be required to step down.

Sadly, I understand how many people have become suspicious of ecclesial organisations,  given the lack of transparency that exists among some. Many are not like this, an example of humble transparency and honesty is that of Peter Jensen, the Former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, who gave testimony at the Royal Commission last week. But the offering of silence, as seems to be the case here, when there are legitimate concerns, is as helpful as clanging cymbals being hit half a beat behind rest of the band (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

Second, I have lots of empathy for the concerned families of these schools. After all, this is my community where my family and I live, and it grieves me to see this situation unfolding over the neighbours fence, so to speak.

I am happy to meet with concerned parents, should they think it helpful (email is pastor@mentonebaptist.com.au)

Finally, we are praying for all concerned. As we pray, we do so trusting that godly resolution will come soon.

I don’t know John Walshe’s heart, and it is not for me to doubt the sincerity of his apology. I understand that the event took place over 30 years ago, and following the incident he sought counselling. But I also know that time doesn’t equal repentance, and time doesn’t heal all wounds.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus, who said,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

In other words, Jesus both judges and comforts, he brings justice and he exercises mercy. Jesus Christ does not offer cheap formulaic remedies like we find in the self-help section of a book-store, but these are words of the God who became man and took onto himself all the pain and sin of the world in order to bring healing and peace. The cross is a picture of ugliness and suffering, and for that very reason it is also a story of forgiveness and hope.

Moral failure in leaders disappoints, hurts and can lead to a hundred questions and doubts. It is not wrong to set the bar high for those who would oversee a church or ministry, but even with that justified high standard we must rest our hope in Jesus, not in people, for only in Him will we find what we most need.