EFAC Australia


Why an unrealistic view of human nature undermines democracy and human flourishing.

"Never underestimate the power of self-interest." Paul Keating 1

In 1944 not long before the Allies final victory over German fascism and the demonic forces unleashed by the Nazis in WW2 the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr 2 wrote his memorable book “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”. It is a spirited defence of democracy and a reminder of its dependence on an honest and realistic view of human nature. This view Niebuhr maintained was underpinned by the Christian understanding of reality and its view of human nature. In his introduction he says that the political philosophy on which his defence of democracy rests is “informed by the belief that a Christian view of human nature is more adequate for the development of a democratic society than either the optimism with which democracy has become historically associated or the moral cynicism which leads to the abuse of power and which inclines human communities to tyrannical strategies for solutions to situations of social decay.” 3The tyrannical strategies he had in mind of course were those of Nazi fascism and Soviet communism.


My experience as a church goer across various Bible-believing denominations is that the default understanding of the Lord’s Supper is Zwinglian. The central agent in the divine-human encounter at the Supper is the believer who acts by faith to personalise his or her relationship with God. In these appropriationist models of salvation stress is laid on receiving what Christ has done for us. There is a focus on knowing the benefits of Christ  rather than abiding in our present union with the Lord. It seems many Evangelicals have so elevated the audible word above the “visible word” of the sacrament (Augustine) they could abandon Communion altogether without feeling substantial loss. My theological father in rejecting approaches which stress the efforts of personal piety in favour of a much more elevated spirituality has long been John Calvin (Institutes 4.14 and 17 especially). Calvin directs our attention to how the Spirit of the ascended heavenly Lord instructs us through the very materiality of the sacramental elements that our salvation is fully complete in Christ (cf. Col 2:9-10). The liturgical exhortation “Lift up your hearts” (Origen) is a provocation to realise by faith through the action of the Supper that we are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6).  As such we participate in the communion of the Father with the humanity of Jesus in heaven through the ministry of the Spirit. A recovery of the glorious heavenly dimensions of our union with Christ in the context of the Lord’s Supper holds promise to reactivate in our midst the eschatological tension essential to New Testament discipleship.

Ben Underwood continues to pursue answers to questions about the purpose going to church is meant to serve in our lives. This time he knocks on John Calvin’s door and discovers Calvin’s appreciation for seeing church as a mother to believers, educating them in the life of faith.

Ben Underwood is an Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

John Calvin in the Institutes

As I threatened in the last issue of Essentials, here is yet another installment of this meandering essay on what church is for.  I am interested to think about why we do what we do at church—all the singing and praying and preaching. What purpose or purposes are these thing supposed to serve? What am I to expect them to do for me and others present? How am I as a believer to make use of them? What am I to be seeking to do for myself as I go to church and participate in what goes on there? Having travelled backwards in time from John Piper to Broughton Knox to Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican homilies, we come to John Calvin, whose clarity of thought and brevity and power of expression has commended him to me for many years. What does Calvin say church is for? I’ll be confining myself, for better or worse, to his discussion of church in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

John Calvin: Church is an outward help to beget and increase faith in us

Calvin’s substantial discussion of church in book 4 of the Institutes sets church in the context of God’s help given to Christians so that we may come to believe in Christ, and also to go on and grow in our faith in Christ. He begins in this way:

‘As explained in the previous book, it is by the faith in the gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him. Since, however, in our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us and advance it to its goal, God has added these aids that he may provide for our weakness.’

The aids to which Calvin refers are the church (with her pastors and teachers), the sacraments, and the civil order. In this way Calvin makes church, ministry and sacraments (like civil government) a provision for this age, and the time of our mortal flesh.

Guided by her motherly care

Calvin begins to expound church explicitly in this way;
‘I shall start, then with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.’

Calvin returns to the figure of the church as a mother in 4.1.4, after expounding the relevant sections of the creed. He writes,

‘But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.’

Continuing the theme of church as education, he soon after quotes Ephesians 4:10-13 and writes, ‘We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the education of the church.’

The education that believers receive is from the mouth of the pastor as he preaches the gospel and true doctine, which fosters agreement in faith and nourishes the believer. Here is Calvin on the ministry of the church;
‘by its ministry and labour God willed to have the preaching of his Word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family, while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation.’
In discussing David’s lamentation over being unable to go up to the temple (Psalm 84:2-3) Calvin says, ‘Surely, this is because believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step.’
Ephesians 4:10-13 and its emphasis on ‘building up the body of Christ… to perfect manhood’ is never far from Calvin’s mind when he considers what church and its activities are for. In discussing what observances will be used in the church he says that ‘we should refer the entire use and purpose of observances to the upbuilding of the church’.  

In order to sustain the weakness of our faith

When it comes to what does in fact build up the body of Christ, for Calvin the foundation is Romans 10:17, ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (ESV). It is the word of Christ that nourishes and perfects faith and so that word must lie at the foundation of what happens in church. That is why the first mark of a true church is ‘wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard’.  

The second mark of the true church is where ‘the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution.’  In typical crisp fashion, Calvin opens his discussion of the sacraments saying, ‘We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith (italics mine) related to the preaching of the gospel.’  It is again clear that Calvin sees God’s institutions of church, ministry and sacrament as given to be aids to our faith. His definition of sacrament is
‘an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promised of his good will towards us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.’

Notice the purpose; ‘in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.’ Calvin continually imagines Christians as weak, ignorant, slothful and fickle, and in great need of the aid of God in sustaining and maturing in faith. Church is the aid God gives, the means by which God parents us by word and sacrament throughout our lives.

That each one from his brother may receive the confession of faith and be prompted by his example.

Calvin does not imagine that the receipt of word and sacrament from the pastors of the church is the only way benfit comes to us in church. He sees important benefits for the the congregation in the activity of common prayer and singing, a benefit that comes in addition to the ministry of preachers of the word and the use of the sacraments. He says,
‘Yet we do not condemn here speaking and singing but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind in thinking of God and keep it attentive – unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps.’

Calvin sees virtue in participation in common prayers because in so praying we invite and prompt others to join in the praise of God. He writes,

‘But the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshipping him with one spirit and the same faith. And we do this openly, that all men mutually, each one from his brother, may receive the confession of faith and be invited and prompted by his example.’

And noting that Paul, in Col 3, ‘commends spiritual songs, by which the godly may mutually edify one another’, Calvin sees that singing ‘has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray.’

Until they at last reach the goal of faith

Calvin’s answer to the question what is church for is clear – it is for helping sustain, form and grow our faith in Christ towards its maturity, under conditions of the natural weakness, sloth and fickleness of believers’ hearts. Whereas Piper focussed on church as aimed at enabling the inner experience of satisfaction in God, and Knox focussed on church as enabling the shared experience of fellowship with one another in God’s presence, and the Anglican formularies saw church as enabling an increase in our godliness, Calvin sees church as enabling faith to grow under the unpromising conditions of life in our mortal flesh.

Concluding observations

Must we choose between church as aimed at either worship, fellowship, godliness or fostering faith, rejecting Piper or Knox in favour of Calvin or Cranmer and the Anglicans? In my judgment, if we ask who sticks closest to the exposition of church found in the most apposite biblical passages addressing the question of the purpose of church (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12-14 or Ephesians 4), Calvin would score the highest mark.  And I observe that the moderns (Piper and Knox) expound on church as the enabler of an experience (worship or fellowship, respectively), whereas the reformers focus on church as the enabler of a progression—growth in godliness (Cranmer et al) or maturity in faith (Calvin). (Perhaps the 20th century’s penchant for the existential makes its presence felt by contrast to the reformer’s penchant for, well, reformation!)
Looking at the differences between our theologians another way, if we try to distil the basic or foremost conception of who the church-going believer is in relation to God from their writing,it seems to me that for Piper the believer is a spiritual worshipper of the one glorious God; for Knox the believer is a joyful fellowshipper with Father, Son, Holy Spirit and God’s people; for certain Anglican homilies, perhaps the believer is best summed up as the thankful and dutiful subject of a great and kind King, and, finally, for Calvin the believer is a child in need of much care, help, instruction and encouragement to stick with Christ, encouragement that comes from our Father through the motherliness of his church. These anthropologies then inform the conception of the purpose of church in the various authors, giving us—expressed in an exaggerated manner to amplify the distinctives—church as ladder to the heavenly places (Piper), church as the communion of saints (Knox), church as our bounden duty and service (the Anglicans) and church as God’s home-schooling (Calvin). There is a job to do in comparing these with the New Testament’s conception(s) of the church going believer in relation to God (see note 14 below).

However interesting it may be to exaggerate the distinctive harmonics in these different accounts of church, it is perhaps best in closing to note how much they share the same basic frequencies. They have a fundamental conception of what church is for in common. They all want the Word of God in the ears of the congregation from the mouth of ministers. They all want ministers who are stirred up by the word of God themselves and are able to stir up the congregation with the same. They all believe church should be a place of encounter with God which inflames us with love for him and all that is his. They all want the congregation to draw near to God and to respond to him in praise and prayer. They all, to some extent, value the example that one believer sets for another as we engage with God together, and also the opportunity that the presence of other believers provides for love to grow up between Christians. May God make our churches such places as these.

Martin Bleby

Marriage, in the words of the marriage service, ‘is an honourable state of life, instituted from the beginning by God himself, signifying to us the spiritual union that is between Christ and his Church’

Is the linking of our marriages to the relationship of Jesus Christ with his people just a nice idea, an interesting likeness, a helpful symbol? Or is there more to it than that? Could the relationship between Christ and his Church be a key to understanding what marriage is really all about, especially in these days of contesting uncertainty as to the true nature and value of marriage?

Might it take us further—even to the heart of the purpose for which all things exist?

Christ and his Church

In the Bible, God’s purpose for his creation culminates in the marriage of Christ with his Church. In the new heaven and new earth, God’s people are depicted as ‘a bride adorned for her husband’, and we hear that ‘the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready’.

Paul the apostle links marriage in this age with that ultimate marriage of Christ with his people in Ephesians 5:31–32. First he quotes God’s institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. From the context, we would expect him to say that he is applying this text to the marriage of a man and a woman. But he goes on to say: ‘This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church’.

Paul is saying that when God in the beginning instituted marriage between a man and a woman, what God had in view was the relationship that would come to be in the end between Christ and his people. It’s as if God was thinking: ‘What can I do, to give these human creatures of mine a taste of how much I love them? I’ll make them male and female, and bring them together in a fruitful, devoted and life-long union.’

American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) came to this conclusion:

The end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for his Son Jesus Christ, that might enjoy him and on whom he might pour forth his love. . . . heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse . . . There was, [as] it were, an eternal society or family in the Godhead, in the Trinity of persons. It seems to be God’s design to admit the church into the divine family as his son’s wife.

Geoffrey Bromiley sees this union with Christ as ‘the prototype of the marital union’, not the other way round, since God ‘made marriage in the image of his own eternal marriage with his people’:

In creating man—male and female—in his own image, and joining them together so that they become one flesh, God makes us copies both of himself in his trinitarian unity and distinction as one God and three persons and of himself in relation to the people of his gracious election.

Hence ‘We know the true reality of marriage from God’s way of dealing with us and the inward and eternal fellowship that he establishes’.   Every marriage is intended to be a reflection of, and can be a participation in, this great reality that will culminate in the union, in Christ, of God with his people.

Christian Marriage

What are the implications of this for marriage as it has taken shape in Christian understanding and practice?

Marriage is ‘the legal union of a man with a woman for life’. The word is also used for ‘the legal or religious ceremony that sanctions or formalises the decision of a man and a woman to live as husband and wife’.  Elements that make it a marriage, as distinct from other forms of union or relationship, are that it is between a man and a woman, by the consent and decision of both parties; it is recognised and affirmed by the wider community according to the law of the land, and it is witnessed to in a formal ceremony. These elements are common to humanity across most cultures.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.  This understanding of marriage largely accords with Christian belief and practice. Since the New Testament trains husbands to love their wives, and wives to love their husbands,  a Christian definition could be expanded to be ‘the union in mutual love of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.

Pressure from expressions of marriage as practiced or desired by diverse cultural and interest groups raises questions as to why marriage should be this way. Can same-sex unions be regarded as marriage? Why not polygamy (a number of wives—as found in the Old Testament), or polyandry (a number of husbands), or a mixture of both? What about arranged, or under-age marriages? Does marriage need to be permanent? Why bother to get married at all—why not just cohabitation?

In this context, Christians who want to support and commend the Christian understanding and experience of marriage need to be clear as to its basis. Is it all about the sexual relationship? Is it just a private arrangement for mutual convenience? Is it mainly for reproduction and the raising of offspring? Is it a communal construct for the better ordering of society? Is it primarily a legal contract regarding the sharing of property? Is companionship its main emphasis? Marriage based solely on any or each of these views will take on a particular character, and will have its own cut-off points. But what if marriage, more deeply than all of these, is grounded in the intentional purpose of our Creator for humanity? In particular, if the basis of marriage is the relationship between Christ and his Church, what is it about this relationship that makes marriage what Christians now know it to be?

the union

Christ became one flesh with us, and in our flesh took the condemnation due to our sin, in his suffering and death—you can’t get closer to anyone than that.  So marriage is the honouring of the other person ‘with all that I am and all that I have’.

in mutual love

God’s saving action in relationship with us comes about entirely by God’s love—‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . he nourishes and tenderly cares for it’ as his own body. In turn, we are to ‘have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ’.  Hence a husband and wife are ‘to love and to cherish’ one another.

of a man and a woman

The creation of human persons as male and female, differentiated and yet of the same substance, is linked in the Scriptures with us being in the image of God, and with the differentiation-in-unity within God between the Father and the Son. The coming-together of man and woman in marriage is also linked with the relationship of God in Christ with his people—markedly distinct, yet with an amazing affinity.  In reflection of this, marriage, in scripture, is between a man and a woman, not between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man.

to the exclusion of all others

Christ, the ‘Faithful and True’, is single-hearted and undistracted in his saving love for his people. By the same token, we are to have ‘a sincere and pure devotion to Christ’.  So marriage has the character of ‘close your heart to every love but mine’, and ‘forsaking all others’.

voluntarily entered into
God is not obliged to relate with human beings, ‘as though he needed anything’—he chooses to do so out of love.  In that, God has made us to ‘feel after him and find him’.  Christ of his own freewill engaged in carrying out God’s purpose, and we come into true freedom as we relate with him.  Before the vows are made in a marriage service, the couple are asked the preliminary question, ‘will you [are you willing to] take this woman/this man . . . ?’—of your own freewill, without compulsion.

for life

Jesus, ‘having loved his own . . . loved them to the end’.  So marriage is ‘till death us do part’, for ‘as long as we both shall live’.

We see then that marriage as Christians have come to understand and practice it derives from and is shaped by our knowledge and experience of Christ’s relationship with us. And God’s relationship with us in Christ lies at the heart of God’s purpose for this world.

Marriage and the Purpose of God

God purpose for the world is perhaps best expressed in Ephesians 1:3–6:

the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

  • Note three particular elements here:
  • ‘adoption as his children’—the forming of a family.
  • ‘holy and blameless before him’—positive moral purity.
  • ‘in love’—issuing from God’s love, resulting in us loving.

Interestingly, these correspond to the purposes given in Christian marriage services for which God instituted marriage—having families and bringing them up, sexual purity and faithfulness, and loving companionship:

  • ‘it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name’.  As expressed in a more recent form of the marriage service: ‘In marriage a new family is established in accordance with God’s purpose, so that children may be born and nurtured in secure and loving care, for their well-being and instruction, and for the good order of society, to the glory of God’.
  • ‘it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication’.  Modern marriage services say it less directly, yet positively, as ‘the proper expression of natural instincts and affections’ with which God has endowed us, or living ‘a chaste and holy life, as befits members of Christ’s body’.
  • ‘it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’.  ‘In the joys and sorrows of life, in prosperity and adversity, they share their companionship, faithfulness and strength’.

These three ‘purposes’, derived from the New Testament Scriptures, were commonplaces of mediaeval scholastic theology, and were expounded at length in early Calvinistic services. They were introduced into the English prayer book in 1549, and so were included in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662.  From there they have made their way, in various forms, into later marriage services. Here they are given in the original order: family, sexual purity, and loving companionship. More recent services have reversed this order, giving priority to loving companionship and the sexual relationship, with family issuing from that. Either way, they clearly correspond to the greater purpose of God for humanity, as expressed in Ephesians 1:3–6.

The Struggle for Marriage

Given this correspondence, it is not difficult to see why marriage should come under attack, consciously or unconsciously, from those who at present are not aligned with the purpose of God, since it represents in practice that from which they are alienated, or against which they are opposed. A friend who works in human services heard a colleague once say, ‘I hate Jesus, and I hate marriage!’ Interesting that she put those two together. She went on to ask my friend, ‘You’re not one of those Jesus freaks, are you?’ and my friend replied, ‘Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am’.

How should we engage in this struggle? In favour of retaining marriage as it is, it can be well argued that ‘a kid should have a mum and a dad’, and that marriage is a ‘central structure of human nature . . . which has underpinned the wellbeing of society’.  There is a place for participating in the public discourse at that level. But there is much more that we can say—and are we not called upon to do so? Why are we hesitant to speak of God in this context? Can we not say that marriage is a sacred bond, instituted by our Creator in making us male and female in the first place; that it is a living sign in our midst of our intended union with God, now and into eternity; and that to change or extend marriage to include other relationships is ultimately to undermine and discard true marriage, and all that it stands for, to our great harm?

Even better, should we not be doing all we can to bring more people through faith and repentance into that relationship with Christ, so that marriage in our community may continue to take its shape from him, and from his relationship with us?

The Secret of the Universe

Is all this just fanciful, out of touch, and irrelevant to where people are in their lives today? A story to finish:

A number of years ago in January we were staying at Victor Harbor, a seaside resort on South Australia’s southern coast. One afternoon we went for a walk to Granite Island across the causeway. At that time there was a chairlift from the end of the causeway to the highest point on the island. Our youngest son wanted a ride on the chairlift, so we put him and his mate on the chairlift, to go up to the top of the hill and down again, and we stayed chatting with the chairlift operator, who seemed to want to talk with us. A very interesting fellow. He was sitting there, getting rather bored, but watching the people come across the causeway, and thinking deeply. Called himself quite a spiritual person, and told us of one or two experiences that made him think this was so. Told us how he had been in and out of churches, but how he believed in God. I had not identified myself as a Christian or a minister—he just came out with all this. He ended up telling us about his marriage. How, when he met his wife, this was one relationship that did not chill off after a while, like all the others had, but remained and grew, and drew him out of himself into the life of another person. And he said, ‘Do you know why I think we get married? It’s not just to have children and raise a family. It is to discover the secret of the universe. I really mean, of God.’

We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is out there, bringing God’s truth to bear in the lives of people—including this chairlift operator!

Martin Bleby, ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church, has served in country, outback and metropolitan South Australia, in the cross-denominational New Creation Teaching Ministry, and as a Chairman of CMS Australia. Now ‘retired’, he remains active in preaching and teaching. He has authored a number of books, including ‘Marriage and the Good News of God’, now out of print but able to be downloaded in pdf format for free from:
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In our previous issue Mark Thompson took four examples of making a stand, three from the history of the churches over the past two thousand years and one from the New Testament itself, to make the point that taking a stand is an entirely appropriate thing to do.

Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore College, Newtown NSW.

So if making a stand against prevailing and powerful opinion is legitimate and important, when do we make a stand? Of course, just as important, perhaps more important really, is how we make a stand. How do we treat those with whom we disagree and those whom we think are compromising God’s revealed truth and spiritually endangering God’s people? Whatever our answer to that question, it must not disqualify the approach of the apostle Paul given to us in Scripture. We are not in a position to look down on him or dismiss his stand as a product of his own psychological make-up. The how question is a very important question and one we need to face in the FCA movement because there are differences even among us which sooner or later will need to be addressed.

In this Part II, I want to set out a brief list of theological principles to consider as we approach the other question ‘when do we make a stand?’

3. Theological principles for making a stand
There are undoubtedly more principles than these that we could profitably consider but at least these five can give us a start.

Firstly, the good God has given us a good word which is for the benefit of his people. The benevolence of God is hardly controversial among us. God has demonstrated his love toward us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8). He gives good gifts to his children. His truth is life-giving. Paul could tell Timothy that the sacred writings  ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3.15). This means, conversely, that God’s people are harmed when God’s good word is obscured or denied. Error is dangerous and theological error is exceedingly dangerous. It also means that far from trying to minimise the application of this good word God has given us we should be seeking to understand just how much of a difference it makes for our good. God’s benevolence and the goodness of his word are foundational principles when considering when to make a stand. I want to ask, ‘Is this teaching, is this behaviour, drawing people away from the good God’s good word which nourishes and builds his people?’ ‘Does it build confidence in God’s good word as an instrument for good or does it undermine that confidence?’ ‘Does it suggest that the truth expressed in God’s word is incomplete, or out-dated, or ill-informed?’

Secondly, God’s word is the only authoritative basis on which to make a stand. Our consciences may not be bound any further than the word of God binds them. That was Luther’s point. We can only confidently make a stand when God has spoken and his word must not be silenced by institutional pronouncements or regulation, personal preferences or reasoning, cultural pressure, or any such thing. Here the theology of the written word of God is critically important. Because these words, though they bear the genuine conscious imprint of their human authors, are ultimately God’s word to us, they bear his authority. We can insist that there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we must be saved precisely because God himself has made that known to us in his word (Acts 4.12). So when contemplating making a stand I want to ask ‘Has God spoken on this issue?’ ‘Does his word make clear God’s perspective on this truth or this behaviour?’ Jesus himself, as well as his apostles, often clinched an argument with the words ‘It is written’. That is because they were convinced that where the written word of God addressed an issue, that settled the matter. On that ground a confident stand can be made. ‘Holy Scripture has spoken; the matter is decided’ (scriptura sacra locuta, res decisa est).

Thirdly, matters of indifference (adiaphora) only exist where either Scripture is silent or it gives freedom for diversity. The concept of adiaphora has a clear biblical warrant in Paul’s writing about circumcision. Three times he says to the Corinthians or to the Galatians the same thing: ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God’ (1 Cor 7:19); ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal 5:6); ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’ (Gal 6:15). When it didn’t matter and no one was making an issue of it, Paul could freely avoid all controversy by having Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). However, when it was an issue, when people were making something of it, Paul could resolutely refuse to endorse circumcision: when in Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus ‘even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek’ (Gal 2:3). Similar things could be said about the practice of eating food which had previously been offered to idols. It is not an issue when no one is making an issue out of it (1 Cor 8:8) but once it is made an issue, and there is the danger of harming a brother for whom Christ died, it is no longer a matter of indifference (1 Cor 8:9–11). There are circumstances in which something which might generally be thought to be a matter of indifference becomes a matter of principle.

Historically the term adiaphora applied to the continuation of practices that existed in the Roman churches prior to the Reformation, such as the wearing of distinctive clerical dress and, as the Book of Concord (1580) put it, ‘ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word’. It was never applied to matters of doctrine. It was never applied to matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. There is undoubtedly disagreement in the churches and perhaps even among us here on some matters of doctrine and some matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. But these would never classically be considered adiaphora. They are instead a reason to keep talking as we seek to come to a common mind, not a reason to stop talking and retreat to our own view. The simple fact of disagreement on an issue between godly men and women who are all seeking to be faithful to Christ and the Scriptures is not in itself sufficient to render an issue adiaphora. Too many other things can be going on in those cases, some of them acknowledged, some of them hidden, even from ourselves. We must not allow too quick an appeal to adiaphora to close down the conversation.
There is ample ground for generosity towards people in Scripture — believers and unbelievers, those we agree with and those we don’t — and ample precedent in church history for such generosity. We are called upon as disciples of Christ to love one another and not to be divisive (Jn 13.34; Rom. 16.7; Titus 3.10–11). But there is little ground for what some oddly call ‘a generous orthodoxy’. Generosity towards people — most definitely; but tenacious faithfulness when it comes to biblical doctrine. So our decisions about when to make a stand need to take account of matters of indifference, which exist where either Scripture is silent or where it gives freedom for diversity.  

Fourth, Christian ministry must have the courage to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’. Nobody likes negativity. It is much easier and much more acceptable to say ‘yes’ all the time. And yet you don’t have to read far into the Pastoral Epistles or any of the New Testament letters actually, before you realise that teaching and correction, encouragement and rebuke, go hand in hand in Christian ministry. Of course there is the question of how you say ‘no’, how you correct and warn and administer a rebuke when that is necessary. There is no license for harshness, or censoriousness, or condemnation in the New Testament. The goal is always repentance and restoration and a life realigned to the word of God and the mission of the gospel. But God’s people need to know not only what is true and right and appropriate but also what is false and wrong and improper. The ancient creeds spoke not only of what the truth was but also about what was not true. ‘Begotten not made’, according to the Nicene Creed. ‘Two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’, according to Chalcedon. Very often the leaders of the church, following the example of the apostles, found that saying what was true was not enough. They also needed to be clear about what was not true. For the sake of the precious people for whom Christ died, we must be prepared to say ‘No’ as well as ‘Yes’.

Fifthly, the goal of making any stand is not a ‘party win’ but confessing Christ and caring for his people. We far too easily dissolve into factions and tribes and parties. It is a very human trait. And it happens amongst Christians as well. At one level it is entirely normal and good that we should gather with others with whom we have a common mind and a common mission. But if it becomes an exclusive grouping, if it refuses to learn from others and to go with them back to the Scriptures to hear God’s truth together, if it is an instrument of division and not one of mission at all in reality, then the group or party or collaboration is actually an opportunity for great harm rather than great good. Our concern in speaking the truth, and confuting error, and seeking to live out what we have been told and believe, is in order to confess fully, genuinely and without hesitation that Christ is Lord. It is in order that Christ might be known in all the world and Christ’s people might be built up within the churches. So we need to ask ourselves what is the real goal for which we are making this stand: to draw attention to ourselves or to draw attention to Christ? To put down those who oppose us, or to guard and protect and build up those who belong to Christ?

You know, even refusing to make a stand amounts to making a stand in the end. It is a statement about what matters most to you and for what you would be willing to risk misunderstanding, rejection, persecution and worse. It is always possible to do it all wrong. But not being willing to do it at all just doesn’t fit with the God who has spoken to us, the priority of Christ and his gospel, and the preciousness of his people.