The comedian Victoria Wood once observed: “Church is what you did on Sundays before garden centres”. John Smith of the Evangelical Alliance commented:
“It is a brilliantly perceptive analysis of how many people regard church – as something you do, an activity. It is something restricted to one particular day of the week. It is something that has been superseded by garden centres, or car boot sales, or shopping malls or – well, take your pick, really, because that is what people have done in our pick-and-mix, consumerist society. Church is now an option – one choice among many.” (John Smith Turning the church inside out, Ministry Today UK Issue 31, June 2004)
The results of the 2021 census published last week show that fewer than half of people in England and Wales now describe themselves as Christian, at 46% down from 59% in 2011 and from 72% in 2001. And the people who said they had no religion had increased from one quarter in 2011 up to 37% in 2021. The days of Christendom, when the church and Christian values were strongly influential on the whole of British society, have long gone. For most people church has now become just a lifestyle choice, which people choose to buy into or to ignore. The world we live in is changing.
The changing world
Almost 40 years ago we were set an essay for the Sociology of Religion course at London Bible College with the title: “why is it the church has good news which nobody wants to hear?” We have watched the answers to that question become more and more true. Over the last century the world we live in has been changing ever more rapidly. People are generally much more mobile, and patterns of family life have altered. More recently, television with hundreds of channels and streaming on demand, together with the internet, has transformed leisure time just as smartphones, texting, instant messaging and social media have revolutionised communications. These advances have produced a much more fragmented society: many people’s lives have become increasingly insular and individualistic.
In the context of religion, sociologists use the term secularisation to describe the dramatic decline in the influence of the church and Christian values in Britain. We live in a disenchanted world where faith in God has been replaced by trust in science and technology. Sociologists also talk about privatisation, by which they mean that our lives are becoming more and more isolated. Local community activities and even family life are being lost in the anonymity of society where many people no longer know their neighbours. Privatisation also describes the ways faith is being squeezed into people’s private lives and out of the public sphere of politics and commerce, as the media portray Christianity as outdated and irrelevant. There is also religious pluralisation: Britain has become much more a multi-cultural multi-faith society. Christianity is no longer the only or even the dominant faith. It is now seen only as one option amongst many on offer in the supermarket of beliefs.
Contemporary western culture is dominated by consumerism: people expect the right to choose, and they demand satisfaction guaranteed every time. These expectations extend to shopping between religions. Faced with the difficulty of making an informed decision about which religion to believe in, more and more people take the easy option of not believing in anything at all. People may say: “I don’t buy into any of that”. One effect of this consumerism on Christianity has been the way in which the false gods of Money and Entertainment and their false prophets the Celebrities hold sway in many churches. Another effect is the rise of niche churches.
In describing all these changes in society, I am not wanting to imply that they are necessarily undesirable or that the church should resist progress. However, Christians do need to recognise the challenges we face in this rapidly changing world and respond appropriately to them. We should be the people of the future, not living in the past. More than that, there are certain aspects of the prevailing culture and philosophy which demand critical analysis, because they pose dangers to the church from outside and from within.
The emerging culture in society is often labelled as post-modern. Understandings of the world dating from the Enlightenment are being rejected. There is a wide distrust of authority and the establishment in education, politics, law and order, and even in religion. Certainty is replaced by questioning. The only thing post-modernists are allowed to be certain about is that nobody is allowed to be certain about anything any more. Most people and many scholars are rejecting any idea of absolute truth – everything now is relative. People are encouraged to question everything, but there is no longer the goal or the expectation of reaching definitive answers. Post-modernism insists everybody is entitled to their own understandings and beliefs and their own version of the truth. It is easy to see why relativism would appear to be correct in a world shaped by pluralism and consumerism. People are accustomed to exercising choice and so they assume they have the ability and the right to choose for themselves what is true or false and what is right or wrong. Notions of tolerance and equality and political correctness then insist that all opinions are equally valid and that it is rude (and in some cases now even a crime) to challenge the views of other people. Many people have lost sight of the concept of absolute truth and many completely reject it.
In recent years, many of these changes in society are being fuelled and sometimes driven by the rise of the internet and the proliferation of information which is not subject to any objective scrutiny. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok now make it possible for people to operate totally within their own bubbles. Algorithms feed people with persuasive content which fits with their existing bias, which they accept uncritically. This process convinces them they are experts in topics in which they, and the sources and influencers they rely on, actually have no education or expertise. It was Alexander Pope who said: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
The last decade has seen one further very unhelpful development. In 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as their word of the year. Post-truth describes circumstances where people share their own heart-wrenching personal experiences to promote a particular cause and these emotional appeals are given more weight in popular opinion than any objective facts about the matter in question. There are many obvious examples of post-modern relativism and post-truth having a dramatic influence on society, from changes in laws surrounding marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia, to the rise of extremist political parties and various responses to the Covid pandemic.
One illustration of how these changes in society affect the church is in their impact on Christian approaches to evangelism and to apologetics. 30 years ago, it made sense to invite people to consider the life and the claims of Jesus Christ and answer rational questions: “Was Jesus mad? Was Jesus bad? Or was Jesus truly God?” Most people used to be prepared to think logically about matters of faith. Now many people would consider such questions irrelevant. In this post-modern, post-truth world reasoning is not important. What matters instead is plausibility; whether something appears to be true or feels like it is true. So often form triumphs over substance. For very many people, as long as something looks good and feels good, image counts for everything and facts are irrelevant.
Post-modern relativism and post-truth in the church
At least in popular understandings of a number of issues, it appears that many corners of the church are now under the spell of post-modern relativism and post-truth. Some western Christians are abandoning understandings of theology and morality which have been believed through the ages and are still widely held across the world church. This is happening over important matters, from the nature of salvation to the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation to the Christian definition of marriage. Denominations are splitting over ethical issues. In these matters I believe it is right to resist change. I remain convinced that there are still some facts which are true and not just a matter of opinion. Equally, there are some opinions which are definitely not correct, however plausible they may appear and however persuasively they are presented. Wrong does not become right just because lots of people believe it. I am convinced that there are a number of specific issues where emotional appeals do not and should not be allowed to override objective truth.
Jesus said: “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). God within Himself is truth, even though this absolute truth may be inaccessible to mere mortals and in this life we will “know only in part” and “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:9,12 KJV). Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, would teach them all things and lead them into all the truth (John 14:26, 16:23). Of course, questioning is to be encouraged, but the quest to discern the truth should not be abandoned as hopeless.
The Bible must remain central
If we want to know the truth about God, or about the world, or about ourselves, we will need to turn to the Bible. We need God to reveal the truth to us – we cannot work it all out for ourselves. God has revealed Himself to us supremely through His Son Jesus Christ and through the Bible. So, I am convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, needs to remain central to Christian faith and Christian living.
The Bible carries authority for believers because it provides us with a reliable record of God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in and through God incarnate, Jesus Christ the Son of God. The Bible provides us with a reliable record of God’s words to human beings, supremely in the words of Jesus and of the prophets. Furthermore, the Bible brings us a reliable record of God’s words and of the theological interpretations of God’s saving acts, as received by the people of God in the Old Testament and by the apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus in the New Testament. All this is confirmed by the agreement of the Early Church and the later generations of churches in recognising the canon of Scripture. Only the Bible provides Christians with these indispensable foundations of Christian faith. (I explored the reasons why the Bible is authoritative for Christians in my 1995 MA dissertation, Is the Longer Ending of Mark Holy Scripture? An Exploration of the Nature of Biblical Authority 1995, LBC/Brunel).
I am entirely convinced about the complete reliability of the Bible for all matters of doctrine, practice and ethics. In recent years it has been very sad to see many Christians and churches losing confidence in the Bible as the ultimate source of authority for their own lives and for theology and for the church. Many Christians have embraced the relativism of post-modernism and no longer accept the idea of absolute truth. Some no longer recognise that certain conduct is morally wrong. Post-truth emotional appeals are leading many to reject the authority of the Bible in a number of issues of theology and ethics.
The importance of correct biblical interpretation
I remain convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, needs to remain central to Christian faith and Christian living. I say correctly interpreted because throughout history so many misunderstandings and divisions have been caused by flawed interpretations of the Bible. Historically, the church has believed that God reveals the truth through particular channels. We begin with the word of Scripture. We then look to human reason to help us understand Scripture correctly, guided by the traditions of the church. What is known as the Methodist Quadrilateral added the fourth perspective of our personal experience of God’s grace in our own lives. We also recognise the revelatory ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church today. While some church leaders and theologians seem to have lost confidence in the Bible, I still believe that between them the five channels of scripture, tradition, reason, personal experience and the work of the Holy Spirit can lead Christians and churches into all truth today. Four comments follow.
I am convinced that the Bible, correctly interpreted, is sufficient for all the needs of individual believers and of churches. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). This does not imply that every kind of question we could ever ask about life, the universe and everything, is plainly answered in the pages of the Bible, because evidently that is not the case. What I do believe this means is that through applying the five channels, believers will be able to discern answers to every important question we actually need to be able to answer about Christian faith, practice and ethics. The Bible, correctly interpreted, will always be sufficient for all our needs.
Secondly, I am persuaded that in any issue it will not only be possible, but also in some cases very important, to discover which is the best interpretation of the Bible. There are many topics where Christians can agree to disagree, but there are some where they should not. God gave us the Bible and the Holy Spirit still wants to lead us into all the truth. That said, discerning that best interpretation will require application of all the five channels, lots of prayer and often some hard work. Sometimes reason, tradition, experience and the moving of the Holy Spirit will only lead us to parameters which still allow for several possible interpretations of Scripture. In such situations we will be obliged to seek to discern the most preferable understanding. I strongly reject the post-modern assumption that everything is all a matter of opinion, and all opinions are equally valid. When we have applied generally agreed principles of interpretation, some conclusions are clearly not possible or defensible. We are called not to judge people, but we are also called to show discernment. It remains the responsibility of church leaders and theologians to challenge and refute false teaching.
Thirdly, my belief is that when we do reach what we consider to be a correct understanding of a Bible passage or on an issue in theology or ethics it is then entirely appropriate to proclaim boldly and defend vigorously the truth as we have currently grasped it. We are allowed to be “tentatively definite”. (I first met this phrase in a postgraduate seminar with the inspiring New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey.) By that phrase, I mean we are allowed to be definite in what we declare, whilst remaining humble enough to acknowledge that God may always teach us something new which will cause us to re-examine and even change our position. We are obliged always to remain tentative because we recognise that we may be mistaken, and others may have grasped a truth which we have yet to see. But we should never be silenced by political correctness.
My fourth conviction is that it is never appropriate to say “the Bible got it wrong” on any issue. Over the centuries churches have changed their understandings of the Bible on particular topics. This has usually come about where interpreters have come to agree that specific instructions in the Bible were culture-bound, only applicable to the original settings, and should not be taken to apply to the church in the world today. (An obvious example would be the teaching on women covering their heads in worship in 1 Cor 11:1-16. Another would be the different positions taken through history with regard to women in leadership in the church.) This new position is always reached by applying agreed principles of interpretation. However, a different approach has emerged in recent years in a variety of discussions, not least in debates around sexual morality. There are certain issues where attempts have consistently failed to argue that specific verses were culture-bound, or have been mistranslated, or should on other grounds be interpreted in ways very different to their plain meaning. In such circumstances, some commentators end up taking a position which boils down to saying that the Bible got it wrong on that particular point. They argue that because the lived experiences of many individuals are at odds with those Bible texts, the Bible writers must have been mistaken. I reject the post-truth notion that a coherent and defensible understanding of an issue, which has been formed on the basis of legitimate principles of interpretation of the Bible, is automatically trumped by an individual’s personal experiences, however tragic or emotionally expressed. Yet that post-truth approach is encouraging some people to erase whole passages from their Bibles on the grounds that those texts make some individuals feel uncomfortable. We live in a changing world, but I firmly believe the authority of Scripture is unchanging. The whole Bible, correctly interpreted, still remains true today.
Guard the gospel
In 2 Timothy we find the apostle Paul passing on the baton to his apprentice Timothy to continue the mission Christ had entrusted to him. “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim 1:13-14). We thought a lot about the dangers or false teaching and false teachers in our sermons on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
Somebody must have said by now that one person’s reformer is another person’s heretic. There are Christians who often describe themselves as progressive or revisionist who are fighting to change the churches’ understandings and practices on a variety of ethical and theological issues. They argue that these are disputable matters and merely differences in interpretation over which Christians should seek to disagree agreeably (see Romans 13). They see themselves as reformers. However, other Christians like myself take positions on these issues which could variously be described as classic, traditional, orthodox or conservative. We do not regard the matters as legitimate differences of interpretation but rather as indisputable matters which are essential to salvation. For us, the post-modern relativism and post-truth which underpin the progressive approaches fall into the category of dangerous false teaching which the Bible condemns.
Back in the middle of the last 20th Century A.W. Tozer wrote prophetically about liberal churches which “will not quite give up the Bible, neither will they quite believe it” where “anything may be true but nothing may be trusted as certainly true”. TozerTozer wrote: “We need right now a return to a gentle dogmatism that smiles while it stands stubborn and firm on the word of God that liveth and abideth forever.” We must guard the gospel more than ever in this changing world. Jude verse 3 in THE MESSAGE tells us all to “fight with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish”.
The comedian Victoria Wood once observed: “Church is what you did on Sundays before garden centres”. John Smith of the Evangelical Alliance commented: