Sex, sin and the emerging church…

A deliberately provocative title, which I hope you will forgive me for.

I have been thinking about sin. This was brought home to me recently when watching the BBC programme ‘The Big Silence’, in which this statement was made-

If you have not got a pure heart, you can not see/hear God.

There is a debate as to whether this is true, and whether any of us can ever lay claim to purity of heart- but the issue has nagged at me a little, and I have learnt to listen to this kind of nagging.

Because in all the discussions, books and  blogs about emerging church (in the broader sense of the term,) you do not see the word ‘sin’ used very much. Sure, it is there or there abouts in the debates about atonement and the nature of sexuality in particular, but the concept of holiness and purity as goals for life have largely been left behind. They belong to a different church movement, and between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is a respectful distance at best.

Perhaps this is because the emerging church discussion has largely started out as a reaction to the excesses of a certain kind of spirituality- it is in part revisionist and reformist, despite having sweeping influence in so many areas of church. So in rejecting fixed inflexible positions and seeking to open up possibilities for new encounters with God, and new connections with culture, the debates often assumed that participants had a common starting position- Evangelical, orthodox Christianity- with all it’s assumptions and fixed world view.

So, most of us were probably well versed in an awareness of our sinfulness, and the price paid, in terms of substitutionary atonement of Jesus. And also of how the process of maturity was one of becoming more holy- measured in terms of personal, private behaviour.

Evangelical Christianity regarded ‘the problem of sin’ as the centre of everything- and the mission of Church was to save people from the consequences of this sin. To be honest, in my experience, what happened when you had been ‘saved’ was a little more mixed. We assumed that we Christians will then be on a journey towards purity and holiness, where sins are ‘dealt with’ and we become more like Jesus.

Between you and me, this was not my experience- neither subjective nor observational. Church often became a place where external measures of maturity- such as length of time ‘on the road’ and ‘gifting’- was at odds with our real, private selves.

There was also the fact that we overemphasised the private, personal aspects of sin as opposed to other vital parts of the life of faith- serving others, working for peace and justice, living in community.

And finally there was the problem of sin-definition. Sex was right up there- particularly homosexual sex (incidentally, did anyone see this Jewish take on the issue that is causing such controversy? HT Graham Peacock) This kind of sin, along with others, depended on a particular view of Biblical authority, which has come under considerable challenge.

My contention is that as a result of these issues, the debates around what is emerging have tended to leave the issue of ‘sin’ to one side.

Anyway- back to the point of this piece. Any reading of the words of Jesus will have to acknowledge the centrality of the call to holiness- by which I mean an honest process of coming to terms with all the things within out motivations, our behaviour and our lifestyles that are not compatible with the life of Jesus within us.

And, in the old language, this sin becomes a wall separating us from God- in terms of our ability to hear from God, and to live in the flow of the Spirit in our lives. Sin does spiritual damage.

Given too that sin is a source of actual damage in our lives- to our external relationships with people and the world as well as to our inner development, then I wonder if we have let slip some important principles for life.

Our call it to be a holy nation (not a Holy Nation- if you get my drift.) In order to do this, we Christians walk a path with and towards and encounter with the Living God. And there is accountability for the way that we do this.

And if (like mine) your lives are cluttered with all sorts of things that you know they should not be- then this ought to be an issue for us all. It ought to be an issue for church- even Emerging church.

I have been thinking about how we might bring the issue of sin into the new context, and made a list of principles that made sense to me-

Focus on yourself– not other people.

Categorising other groups as sinful is a bad idea- for what ever reason.

Let those who are without sin throw stones- the rest is up to the voice of God in the life of individuals. Concentrate on listening to God, and for the rhythms of grace. Some people may need direction, but let them seek that for themselves when prompted by the Spirit.

Excluding people from your group because of sin is dangerous, and should only be an absolute last resort- where the alternative is damage to other individuals in the group, or to the group itself.

People are more important than policies.

Collective sin is possible- but again, apply this to your own group in humility.

I do not think God requires purity before he engages with us- rather he requires a contrite heart, and a desire to turn away from the stuff that we know it wrong.

Process is important- and ritual. The old practices of confession and deliberate corporate repentance.

Watch for the things that you hold secret. There may come a time to bring them into the open- in a trusted quiet place. But this requires great trust and security- and this is special, rather than ordinary.

Watch for the things that are tolerated in your community- the lessons of history teach us that in our collectives we easily accommodate to things that individually we might despise.


Ananias and Sophira- help me with this someone!

So, what it this story all about?

In our little group, we have been doing a study on the Book of Acts, as part of an ongoing attempt to consider the place of Christians in post-Christian, post-modern Britain. (We are using ‘Exilio’, a study on the book ‘Exiles’ by Michael Frost- see here for more information.)

We have just spent some time chewing on this very difficult passage in Acts 6. Here is the story

The early church has begun in a blaze of Holy Spirit fire, and these early followers of Christ came together in beautiful communities, sharing and caring for one another, and giving us a glimpse of heaven.

Then Ananias and his wife Sophira, perhaps to gain influence or status, sell a piece of land, and present the money to the apostles for the communal good, or at least they present some of it- they keep back some for themselves, but pretend that they have given all.

Peter challenges first Ananias, who lies, then drops down dead. Then his wife turns up, and rather than consoling her, Peter asks her the same question, she lies too, and Peter has a few harsh words to say to her, before she too drops down dead.

And everyone was consumed with the fear of the Lord… Well, you would be wouldn’t you…

It is a story that I struggle with. Did God kill these people? If not, what did- an overwhelming sense of guilt? Peter? Was what they did so bad? Have you and I not done worse- and yet lived to feel the guilt, and perhaps seek the promised forgiveness?

The next story is about the squabbling over the handing out of food to the poor- and the need to appoint stewards to keep the hand-outs fair to all concerned. But there is no mention of any of the moaners or unfair dealers being cut down in judgment.

This is (I think) the only story of instant punishment of sinners in the New Testament. It seems like an old testament kind of story…

So why is this story in the Bible? What is God seeking to teach us as we read this? In our discussions we came up with a few possible answers-

  1. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the new. We attempt to understand him as cuddly and predictable at our peril.
  2. The sin was to break the unity of the spirit in a time of when this was a beautiful reality. A sin against the spirit is the only unforgivable one.
  3. Sin cannot exist with such holiness as was known then.
  4. God did not kill them, nor Peter, rather they died from their own overwhelming conviction of sin.
  5. The story is incompatible with the wider story of God as revealed by Jesus, and should be read as allegory, pointing us to broad principles.
  6. The issue is how we read the Bible, and how we understand context…
  7. God is mystery. We will never understand or be able to conceptualise all that he is.
  8. The issue is about money, greed and the idolatry of possessions, and it’s destructive affect on community.

What do you think folks? Any thoughts gratefully accepted…

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What is God doing? SIN

In response to the my recent post about the film ‘God on Trial’ I am going to post excerpts from an article I wrote called ‘What is God doing?’

This is the big question for all of us trying to stumble through life. What is it all about? If there IS a God, what is he doing? Does he not see all the pain and suffering in the world? Why does he allow the flowering of such evil in the lives of those created in his image? How about landslides and Tsunami’s and earthquakes? So many lives snuffed out casually and with no discernible heavenly distress. What is he doing?

Some members of my family, who I love, have looked at this God of ours, and come to the conclusion that religion is all smoke and mirrors, behind which lies emptiness. Evolution brought us here, they would say, and we will leave nothing behind but a DNA chain (if we are lucky) when we end. On the few occasions I have tried to talk about this a little more with them, we have rarely got beyond the spectre of starving children. No God of love could allow such a thing, ergo there is no God. I try to reply, but even to my ears, the words sound weak, and inadequate. Because I too want to ask Him, what are you doing?

The teachings of the church over millennia have had to grapple with these same problems, and some explanations have been offered. Some of these answers now seem shallow at best, and others downright repugnant. Perhaps we should not judge too harshly those who have carried the responsibility of interpreting such mysteries for others. A simple certainty can be very seductive.

I decided to try to gather together some of the main perspectives that had been handed down to me through my own tradition – a kind of review of the arguments- a view from the anthill.


Some would say that bad things happen to people for a reason, as judgement on those who have sinned and displeased God. We can justify this statement by following the story lines of the Old Testament – evidence of a punishing and wrathful God can be found. There have been those throughout the history of the church who have used this image of God to explain famine, flood and loss in battle. More recently, through high profile disasters, voices have again been raised proclaiming Gods judgement on those outside his laws. The attack on the twin towers in Manhattan was seen as just rewards on New York’s gay community. The Tsunami was proclaimed as an attack on the largely Moslem countries found around the Indian Ocean. Sure, many non-Moslems, and non-gay people died, but they were innocent victims killed by friendly fire. I am not making this up, honestly!

A powerful school of thought, which has gained dominance, particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, has increasingly seen the course of history in terms of dispensations. The world as we know it is in decline- sliding towards its inevitable destruction. It has been so bad that first God decided to remove his Holy Spirit, and eventually will remove his Church, prior to the end times, when the world will be destroyed, and replaced with Planet Earth, mark 2. The end result is a world view that sees the sinful and faulty planet as a hopeless case. The sooner we all leave it, the better. The more we isolate ourselves and live as a people set apart, the better. When bad things happen, they will be an inevitable consequence of living in a world fragmenting and falling into destruction.

Other teachers who have studied the Bible describe a different version of the fall of man- going something like this. God made the world, and over all placed men (and women). He gave free will to his people, and when they turned from Him, all creation groaned. Everything became out of balance, distorted and discordant. From this process, rivers flood, volcanoes erupt and people fight, grab and lust- sin is let loose on all creation. God did not give up. Throughout history, he has tried to offer men and women redemption and the chance to participate with Him in a different way of being, but we live in a world untransformed and awaiting a final day when, according to the bible, Jesus will return. According to this view of history, our understanding of sin is still crucial to ideas of why bad things happen in the world, but it is about an unfolding process, not about individual guilt.

Powerful and biblical though this picture is, I still feel pangs of dissatisfaction. Does God sit next to some great cosmic scales of justice waiting for the sands to run out, watching us all running our little human races? Having the means to intervene and sort out this mess, but not the inclination?

This image of God troubles me greatly. This is a distortion of all that I have come to believe and hope for. I believe in a God who tempers anger with mercy, to such an extent that he sent his own Son to take on the sin of a fallen world. I believe in a gospel that proclaims the coming of a new Kingdom HERE and NOW, introducing the constant tension between our calling to work for good in our time, whilst living in hope for a future when all things will be made new.

Closing the ears of God

original-sin.jpg (JPEG Image, 400×580 pixels)

Heres a question;

Does sinfulness stop God hearing our prayers?

By this, I mean, if we approach him with unconfessed sin cluttering up our lives, does this mean that our prayers bounce off the ceiling? Or at very least, are we less likely to attract his attention- he is very busy after all…

Or perhaps it is a positive reinforcement thing- God blesses those who are pure, and withholds his blessings from the sinners?

I suppose I grew up with a firm idea that this was indeed the case. I can’t remember if anyone specifically told me this- but I think they did.

I certainly remember it being used as a possible reason for someone NOT being healed at charismatic healing services- a kind of blame-the-victim mentality which seems dreadful to me now.

Where does this idea come from? I am trying to think of verses in the Bible that would suggest this, but can not think of anything obvious (can you?) There are some OT stories of God punishing the nation of Israel by turning his face from their sufferings, and there often seemed to be consequences for leaders and kings who sinned and refused to heed the voices of the prophets.

But, if anything, there seems to be repeated evidence in the Bible to suggest that God did not wait for purity (even the ritualistic kind) before he engaged with people.

Abraham and his incestuous offspring
Moses the murderer
Jeremiah the reluctant.
Hosea and his prostitute wife.

And when we come to the new testament, and the coming of the New Kingdom, the evidence that God loves first and judges later is every where.

Mary and Joseph- mother and step father to God, imperfect vessels who carry and care for the King
The ramshackle bunch of losers who became the disciples
All the sinners whose company Jesus seemed to prefer to the religious folk of his day
Roman oppressors
Tax collectors
Women whose bodies made them untouchable

You get the picture. So how about you and me? I am often consumed by an awareness of my own sinfulness- the whole thought, word and deed bit. The stuff the I do once, and the habitual stuff, that I seem to do again and again, almost as if I have no control over myself, and as if it does not matter. When confronted by an awareness of the presence of God, I still bear shame…

Can God still use me? Has he still used me, and loved me and blessed me in spite of what I am?

Earlier I posted my feelings about the so called Florida outpouring, and its leader Todd Bentley (see here.) I see that Todd Bentley has stepped down from leadership amidst a broken marriage and allegations of adultery. Does this make the whole outpouring thing invalid? Even if you thought that the ‘outpouring’ was all smoke and mirrors before the allegations, then I would suggest that the Todd Bentley’s apparent frailties say nothing concrete about the incarnation of God in these happenings. We should rather pray that Bentley and those around him find a way through the Brokenness and hurt, and acknowledge that any leader in the public eye as he has been must have been under intolerable pressure.


Let us never come to accommodate and tolerate sinfulness within us. Let us never respond to the God who is willing to love, in spite of what gets in the way, by taking him for granted. Rather let us turn again towards his ways.

Let us start from now, and seek forgiveness. And because God imposes no conditions on his mercy- neither then should we.

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