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The Controversial Kingdom: the ‘Natural Supernatural’ of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt


Plough Publishing House has embarked on a bold and very welcome move – to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).

“What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?”, writes one of the series’ editors. [Mention could also be made of revivalist South African preacher, Andrew Murray, who was profoundly moved on a visit to Möttlingen.] “They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century.”

Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of ‘deliverance ministry’, exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.

breaking-chains
Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled.” People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such ‘success’ was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.

Even so, “Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith.”

Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.

Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’: the glorious belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.

Blumhardt offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God’s power to be seen in today’s world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God’s glory and the blessing of multitudes.

From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).

As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.

Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, controversial. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that “a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.”

Christoph Blumhardt

Christoph Blumhardt

Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.

But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.

Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.

Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.

We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.

The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”

A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.

‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.

“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”

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How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Views

Basil of Caesarea  (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’

Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’

(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Salisbury foodbank volunteer Jill Plant

Increasing numbers of UK people are reliant on Food Banks  Image: mirror.co.uk

The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:

Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary:  It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace. 

Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.

I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.

 

Vision and Adversity: a New Book on the Bruderhof Community’s Beginnings in England

I have just finished Ian Randall’s new book on the first foray of the Bruderhof movement on to British soil at the time of the Third Reich (they returned in 1971 to found a community at Darvell in Sussex and others since). Having known the Bruderhof since the late 1970s, I was delighted to read of people I had met and interacted with down the years through my own research: Heini Arnold (son of the founder), Hans Meier (whose letters, in the spidery handwriting of an aged patriarch, shone with grace), and the lovable, roguish Charlie Jory, who for a time lived in my own community.

The Bruderhof (German, roughly “place of brotherhood”) movement grew out of the vision and teaching of Eberhard Arnold, a German Protestant thinker, theologian and activist in the 1920s and 1930s, who became convinced that the lifestyle of the first Christians in the book of Acts – sharing ‘all things in common’ – was not only still viable but also urgently needed as a prophetic witness of peace, love and hope in an increasingly totalitarian political culture. Randall helpfully charts the interest in Christian Community in the UK over the same period, which culminated in a book, Community in Britain (Community Service Committee, 1938).

A Christian Peace Experiment: The Bruderhof Community in Britain, 1933-1942 fills a serious gap, since the Cotswold Bruderhof (at Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire) has only been sketchily covered before. Randall has done his research impeccably from the Bruderhof archives and a wide range of sources, government papers, local press – the bibliography alone is 12 pages long! I liked his overview of previous coverage of the Cotswold Bruderhof, uncovering both the uncritical and the unfairly hostile.

The kitchen at Ashton Keynes

I am especially grateful for Randall’s location of Eberhard Arnold in the various Christian currents of his day. For the first time (and I have read a fair amount) I learn of his contacts with the Salvation Army, the Student Christian Movement, various Evangelical and Holiness groups including the Welsh Revival, and even early Pentecostalism – the Bruderhof as I know it has always been conservative about ‘speaking in tongues’ and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but Eberhard and his wife were enthusiastic about the Pentecostals, if cautious.

In chapter 5 Randall gives a helpful overview of daily life in the community. This can be expanded with John Whitwell’s blog, Life Inside the Cotswold Bruderhof, complete with fascinating photos. Randall also covers sensitively the human side of the Bruderhof’s time in England: the initial relief at being free from Nazi oppression (the Gestapo forced the closure of their mother house in Germany); the growing awareness when war came that they were going to be suspected and rejected despite their refugee status and their many English adherents; the growing opposition and the increasingly futile attempts to nullify it; but also the understandable fears in the local area, as farmers viewed with deep unease the Bruderhof’s favourable land and farming rights, sanctioned by the Home Office.

Though defended to the last by significant public figures (like Lady Astor in parliament), the Bruderhof finally had no option but to look for another country where they could continue their lifestyle of peace, justice and sharing. Randall covers the complex negotiations. In 1940, they finally left for Paraguay and a phase of their history that threatened to break them apart – and which has been more extensively covered – see, for example, this personal account by Bob and Shirley Wagoner.

This is a well-researched, objective account, written with sensitivity to the Bruderhof’s essential vision and spirit. As a study in vision confronting huge obstacles, seeming to be conquered by them but ultimately coming through refined by them, it is a rewarding read. I commend it highly.

 

Overcoming Racial Prejudice: the Loving Labours of African Pentecostal Pioneer Elias Letwaba

Worshippers in South Africa today Image: cnsnews.org

Worshippers in South Africa today Image: cnsnews.org

In my research, I am always delighted to discover one of God’s “unknowns” who achieved great things. One such was ethnic evangelist and church-planter, Elias Letwaba.

History failed to note him, and for two main reasons. First, he wasn’t active in the cities; his ministry was out in the remote bush of the Transvaal, South Africa. And he was black, but belonged to a denomination (the Apostolic Faith Mission) which practised racial segregation, even holding separate baptism services for blacks and whites.

Letwaba’s very birth had the supernatural about it. His mother, a nominal Christian, was visited by a man in white robes who prophesied that she would bear a son who would “carry my gospel message to many places” but suffer many trials. She didn’t stay nominal after that! The Letwaba home was a house of prayer. Elias was born in 1870 and even as a boy was sensitive to God and felt tinglings in his hands when he read in the Bible of healings and deliverance. One day he prayed over a lame girl in Jesus’ name – and only found out five years later that she had been healed.

He tried several churches but knew something was missing. His heart yearned for the New Testament “signs and wonders”, and a people joined in their hearts. In 1908 he travelled to Doorfontein to hear the American evangelist and healer John G Lake. The power of God was very obvious in the meeting, with people being healed and set free. Lake sensed something in Letwaba and invited him on to the stage. This caused outrage among the white Christians, who were all for throwing Letwaba out. “If you throw him out, I will go too“, said Lake, which stilled the storm and Elias remained on the platform. The two men became brothers from the heart; Lake invited him into his home, where Letwaba received his personal Pentecost, the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit‘.

 

Typical round houses of the Transvaal

Typical round houses of the Transvaal

When Lake and his team left for Bloemfontein, they invited Letwaba to go with them. Under Lake’s training, Letwaba began an itinerant ministry, walking hundreds of miles between far-flung villages. He was often beaten, kicked and verbally abused, but when he prayed for the sick, many were healed. From time to time, Lake would come to Letwaba’s home in Potgietersrus and the two would minister to people together – always attended with remarkable divine happenings.

After Lake returned to America in 1913, people began to recognise that Letwaba had, in some special way, inherited his mantle in ‘power ministry’. On one occasion, during a heavy drought, he prayed for rain for one village, prophesying that it would happen that night (there were no weather forecasts in those days!). And the rain came.

Very few images of Letwaba exist, but here is one

Very few images of Letwaba exist, but here is one

In time, Letwaba spoke seven languages, founded and headed a Bible College with a reputation for depth and godliness, and had an apostolic circuit of thirty-seven churches. He insisted that his congregations be tribally mixed, which required up to three interpreters at every service. It has been roughly estimated that 10,000 people found healing as a result of his prayers. For all this, he remained a humble man, writing sermons pleading for personal holiness and humility, and leading by example in those areas. He died in 1959, aged 89, a father of the African church – yet surprisingly unknown outside his beloved Transvaal.

Christian Generosity: Some Ground Rules from the Bible and the Early Church

Image: lincolnparks.com

Image: lincolnparks.com

I came across this article on The Generosity of the Early Church, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.

It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.

God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.

In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing what we have with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46]. It was the Holy-Spirit-inspired pattern for all ages.

Everyone must give, and the New Testament way is “the apostles’ feet”: you give to your church for God’s work. How much to give? Tithing is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.

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The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:

* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].

Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.

Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.

David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.

Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.

Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:

‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?

‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer the graphic above. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.

One early Christian text can help us here. The ‘Didache‘ (Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.

Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.

Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.

Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.

Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].

Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?

 


Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.

Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.

“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.

“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”


The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.

One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.

As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.

“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.

“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.

“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”

The Power of a Pledge : an Analysis of William Carey’s 1805 Serampore Covenant, conclusion

Serampore College, founded by Carey

The next three sections of the 1805 covenant made by the “Serampore Trio”, William Carey, William Ward and Joshua Marshman (click here for for part 1 of this post), are shorter and deal with the practical issues of missionary service.

First comes a pledge of committed urgency. We do well always to fix in our minds that life is short and that all around us are perishing. Where has this urgency gone in the West today? There should be an urgency to show love, as Jesus did (‘the love of Christ compels us’, 2 Corinthians 5:14). There should also be an urgency because the time is short (1 Corinthians 7:29). Whatever happened to the concept of hell? Jesus mentioned it often; we don’t. For a deeper look at this debate, see John Blanchard’s book, “Whatever Happened to Hell?” In this article, Kevin Halloran assesses why many preachers avoid the subject of hell altogether. In this piece, Tim Keller offers some practical guidance for ‘preaching hell in a tolerant age’.

Carey admits that, in a hot climate, it is easy to run out of energy, but calls their team to consistent action: to carry on conversations with the natives almost every hour in the day; to go from village to village, from market to market; to talk to labourers and servants. And he quotes the Apostle Paul on ‘being urgent in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2).

Next, the trio pledge to ‘Christocentric’ mission. It would be very easy to preach nothing but truths for many years, without being useful even to one soul! The expiatory death and all-sufficient merits [of Jesus Christ must be central]. Oh that these glorious truths may ever be the joy and strength of our own souls!

Here again, contemporary Christianity has drawn back from the full force of this – witness the involved debate over “penal substitution” among church leaders, which, curiously enough, began with the aim of opening the gospel to more people.

Image: northamptonjesuscentre.wordpress.org

Image: northamptonjesuscentre.wordpress.com

Then comes a pledge to being available and approachable. We must on all occasions be willing to hear their complaints, give them the kindest advice, and make decisions regarding their affairs in the most open, upright and impartial manner. Any heated or haughty behaviour by the missionaries will sink their character in the eyes of their audience. We must at all times treat them as our equals. We can never make sacrifices too great, when the eternal salvation of souls is the object.

This surely corresponds with today’s emphasis on “incarnational” missiologybeing like Jesus among those we hope to reach. Yet again, Carey and his fellow-covenanters show remarkable relevance to missional questions of today.

Article 7 is longer and deals with areas of behaviour appropriate to missionary work in another culture, and the priorities that William Carey and his companions should set themselves. A real missionary becomes, in a sense, a father to his people, is the crucial sentence here. Carey echoes the Apostle Paul, who wrote of ‘becoming a father’ to his converts (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 4:15). God’s workers should feel all the anxiety, tender solicitude, and delight in their welfare and company that a natural father would feel for his offspring.

Carey and his covenanted partners, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, pledge first to build up and watch over the souls entrusted to them, to spend time with them daily, and with great patience to see them thoroughly grounded in the foundation of their hope. But the practical must go with the spiritual: they must help them into habits of industry and to find jobs with the least danger of temptation.

Carey stresses that Indian converts have made considerable sacrifices, even been cast out from their families, so cannot expect help to come from that quarter. If we do not sympathise with them in their temporal losses for Christ, we shall be guilty of great cruelty.

fe179-200px-joshua_marshman

Joshua Marshman, co-signatory of the covenant

The missionaries understand also that the native religion of any converts will have given them no adequate sense of the seriousness of sin or its consequences. So these things must be taught and consistently restated. Even so, reproof must be gentle, and great grace and forbearance shown. We ought not, even after many falls, to give up and cast away a relapsed convert while he manifests the least inclination to be washed from his filthiness.

These points, taken together, run uncannily close to a current shift of emphasis in missional churches. Long emphasis on “Behave – Believe – Belong” (where loving acceptance is dependent on jumping through a number of hoops) is turning towards “Belong – Believe – Behave”, where all are welcomed with loving concern, as Jesus Himself welcomed the crowds; then the teaching is given and a sifting takes place. This article explains more, while this one addresses how to communicate sin in today’s postmodern world.

In reaching out to women, the missionaries pledge to be especially wise, given that Indian women were generally segregated from men. Female help is invaluable, and we must afford our sisters all possible assistance. A European sister may do much for the cause by promoting holiness and stirring up zeal in female native converts. By God’s grace, they conclude, their women may become instrumental in promoting the salvation of the millions of native women who are in great measure excluded from all opportunities of hearing the words of life.

Section 8 is the longest of all. It covers long-term vision and short-term goals for their mission. There is plenty here that is relevant for today. In a clear swipe at Baptist traditions back home in the UK, where only one man was “the Minister”, Carey states: If the practice of confining ministry of the word to a single individual in a church be once established among us, we despair of the Gospel ever making much progress in India by our means. It is only by means of native preachers that can we hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.

Image: freedomfromchains.org

A native missionary in India today  Image: freedomfromchains.org

Carey’s vision is clear: a body of native missionaries, used to the climate, acquainted with the customs, language, modes of speech and reasoning of the inhabitants, able to become familiar with them, enter their houses, sleep on their floors or under a tree, and who may travel [far and wide] almost without any expense. This page shows how such a vision is being implemented today, with great effect.

Where does this leave Western missionaries? Basically, to be fathers, mentors and enablers. Carey writes of forming usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift of grace in them. As the first generation of native evangelists begins to form, the incumbent Western missionary’s task is to superintend their affairs, give them advice in cases of order and discipline, and correct any errors into which they may fall – but also to enjoy the partnership with them, their steadfastness in faith, and keep pointing them to new openings for church-planting. Books like this show that this quality of spiritual fathers and mothers is a desperate need in churches today.

An interesting decision made by Carey’s team was not to change the names of native converts when they got baptised. Other missionary organisations either gave completely new, ‘Christian’ names or added one. For Carey, the New Testament was evidence enough not to do this; the Apostle Paul saw no need to change names like Epaphroditus or Sylvanus, even though they were derived from pagan gods. For the ‘Serampore Trio’ it was essential to avoid alienating their target audience by suggestions of superiority or judgementalism. Far more important was to foster, by all means at their disposal, a new heart, a moral and divine change in their conduct.

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William Ward, co-signatory of the covenant

The document ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The ‘Serampore Trio’ pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished.

This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, run by William Ward. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.

Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.

Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate. The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own.

Carey’s Bengali Bible translation

The Serampore team had embraced a shared purse around 1804,  so they are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.

Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.

It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.

Here ends this fascinating, courageous and visionary document. It shows how timeless are many of the issues raised in the proclamation of the gospel, but also how each age and culture is unique and will require particular sensitivity and research. Carey and his team were bold to put in print their own considered strategy, which history shows to have been remarkably effective. Today’s students of missional‘ communities and methods could do a lot worse than starting with the Serampore Covenant of 1805!

“Band of Brothers”: an Introduction to Church Covenants

Image: kickstartfarmington.org

Image: kickstartfarmington.org

Over the last four centuries, various church congregations have chosen to write down certain pledges of commitment in the manner of a legal covenant – and publish it. In today’s western society, however, ‘easy come, easy go’ is so often the keynote. Political parties, churches or local clubs all lament that they can’t get people to sign up. ‘Quickie’ divorces can end marriage vows in weeks. Life is impersonal and everything must be “now”.

But there is a curious phenomenon here. Men who baulk at demands and commitments, even in their own marriage and family, can also be inspired by movies like Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart, with their ‘band of brothers’ flavour and ‘loyalty to the death’ message. Maybe women do the same with Paradise Road?

The implication seems to be that intuitively we recognise the strength and desirability of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, but life’s experience has taught us that we’re all too weak and it doesn’t work – so leave it enshrined in films, don’t try to live it.

But there is a reaction. Interest in covenants is growing. In churches in America, there is a mushrooming of interest in ‘fireproofing’ the marriage vows, born of the film Fireproof, which is popularising the term “covenant marriage” and offers specific rubrics for marriage re-dedications along this line.

Image: mudpreacher.org

Image: mudpreacher.org

A covenant is a statement of the basis for, and conditions of, a relationship, writes Julia Faire in “Covenant People“. Covenants have the purpose of both defining and strengthening commitment and setting forth a particular course and vision for those that participate in them to follow. They have a strong biblical basis and a history of heroic observance, notably the Covenanter martyrs of Scotland.

There is a battle to be fought and won, Faire concludes, a lost generation to be won for Christ, a solid church to be built within a fragmented and unstable society. There is a need for a drawing of the lines, consolidation and fresh vision if the church is not going to largely disappear amidst the fog of confusion and disarray that characterises our present [western] society.

For any of us open to exploring this subject, you can find various wordings of covenant pledges here and here.

Wayne Reynolds offers a detailed exposition of a church covenant drawn up by the New Hampshire Baptists in 1836. A more recent church covenant, that of the Jesus Fellowship (UK), is expounded here.

‘Always Enough’: Early Church Leader Basil of Caesarea and Sustainability

Image: unesco.org.uk

Image: unesco.org.uk

My reading gives me the impression that sustainability is being taken more seriously by Christians, particularly the ‘millennial’ generation. Sustainable living is a Christian calling, declares Calvin College.  Tearfund and the Jubilee Centre have produced five Bible studies on Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. There is even a network of Christian leaders advocating sustainability: check out their webpage.

Basically put, sustainability is the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally.  This clip from the Breathe Network will give you a flavour – read the comments too.

So, is this a new fad? Could it be that sustainability is in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.

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But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon “To the Rich”, he writes:

But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.”

If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues.

‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.’

Basil inveighs against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.

This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it.

‘The Cry of Slaughtered Millions’: the Head-On Christianity of William and Catherine Booth

Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth preaching
Image: inspirationalchristians.org

William Booth (1829-1912), Founder-General of the Salvation Army, certainly favoured the ‘in your face’ approach. With these words he began the front page article of the first issue of The War Cry, on 27 December 1879: Why a “War Cry?” Because The Salvation Army means more war!”

Today, the Army’s ‘fight’ against poverty and marginalisation takes many forms, from questions in parliament to individuals giving a few pounds to a homeless charity. But Booth’s radical eye saw deeper than mere deprivation and squalor: he saw inner lostness, people without hope because God’s love was not made real to them. Some churches tried, but in the main, Christians ‘walked by on the other side’. Not so the Salvation Army!

The cry of slaughtered millions rises up louder and louder to heaven, crying to our inmost souls, with irresistible violence, to arise and fight more furiously than ever for the salvation of our fellows from the forces of evil which are dragging them drunken, befouled, degraded, wretched down to an eternity of woe.

You can feel the passion, the indignation, Christ’s own love for the poor! Jesus our King, the dying Jesus of Calvary, still looks weeping on doomed cities and multitudes wandering without a shepherd, and begs us to lay down our lives for them as He laid down his life for us.

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If radicality has to do with roots, Booth bores into the very core of them, rebuking Christians for their lethargy, their compromise and their lack of real devotion to the cause of Jesus’ kingdom.

God will have his own people to repent and do their first works. He will have them abandon forever all friendship with the world, and all parley with evil hearts. Let all that name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. No more unbelief; no more pride; no more worldly pleasure or worldly dress or show; no more covetousness or self-seeking!

Armybarmy.com is the web page of a think tank and renewal group within today’s Salvationist ranks. Their wonderfully named Journal of Aggressive Christianity reproduced Booth’s original article as the front page of their own first issue in 1999. You can read the General’s entire broadside here. Prepare to be stirred!

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William’s wife, Catherine (1829-1890), is held by many to have been the ‘power behind the throne’ in the Salvation Army. Her faith was unswerving and she saw the need for Christians – with God’s help – to awaken lost souls from their sleep, by whatever means. In 1880 she published Papers on Aggressive Christianity. You’ll find a free download here. Here is a flavour:

Many do not recognize the fact as they ought, that Satan has got men fast asleep in sin and that it is his great device to keep them so. He does not care what we do if he can do that. We may sing songs about the sweet by and by, preach sermons and say prayers until doomsday, and he will never concern himself about us, if we don’t wake anybody up. But if we awake the sleeping sinner he will gnash on us with his teeth. This is our work – to wake people up!

Oh, people say, you must be very careful. You must not thrust religion down people’s throats. Then, I say, you will never get it down! What! Am I to wait till an unconverted, godless man wants to be saved before I try to save him? He will never want to be saved till the death rattle is in his throat. What! Am I to let my unconverted friends and acquaintances drift down quietly to damnation, and never tell them about their souls, until they say, ‘If you please, I want you to preach to me’? Is this anything like the spirit of early Christianity?

Small wonder, perhaps, that the Army had the impact that it did on the areas of greatest poverty (spiritual and material) on two continents.

Hope or Hype? The Charismatic Conservatism of Johann Blumhardt

Image: LordShadowblade1

Image: LordShadowblade1

Two common features of today’s charismatic Christianity are a tendency to hype and triumphalism and a shift of focus from Church to the individual. What is so significant about Johann Christoph Blumhardt is that he deliberately refused both of these.

Following a much-publicised exorcism, the whole neighbourhood paying attention, he took deliberate steps to dampen any thrill-seeking tendencies. He refused anything that smacked of sensationalism or a personality cult.

Blumhardt was also conservative in his ecclesiology: he firmly believed in the established church.  He was familiar with developments across the Channel in England, which by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and George Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God’s power had led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.

By contrast, Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism – look how it treated the Anabaptists. But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt’s parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novelist Hermann Hesse.

Blumhardt’s retreat centre at Bad Boll, Germany

A number recorded their reactions.

1. FAITH. “He really does believe! It isn’t magic!”, wrote Blumhardt’s bishop. Real faith, “the faith that pulls the fire from heaven” (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.

2. HOPE. Blumhardt’s heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus – not of “religion” but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.

3. LOVE. “Love is his religion”, wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt’s God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing or the miraculous was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit – what Blumhardt called “religion”.

All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of habitual “church-ianity”, God’s lavish heart in these areas had to be actively preached, which is what Blumhardt gave himself to doing – while resisting any temptation to cast the church aside in favour of ‘freer’, individual spirituality.

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