Category: sermons

[Sermon] The Holiness Tradition

Mt Hawthorn Community Church, 9 January 2010

We are working our way slowly through a series based on Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water. Let me reorientate you to the idea of the streams. Foster describes six streams or traditions of spirituality.  Each one emphasises a different aspect of the Christian life. Each one can be traced back to Jesus himself.

  • The contemplative stream is a spirituality of prayer and intimacy with God.
  • The charismatic stream is a spirituality empowered by the Holy Spirit and emphasising spiritual gifts
  • The social justice stream is a spirituality of helping the poor and striving for a fairer world, working for the kingdom of God.
  • The evangelical stream is a spirituality nourished by the Bible and devoted to sharing the good news of God’s love with the world.
  • The incarnational stream is a spirituality of everyday life, following Jesus in the midst of daily living. It emphasises a faith lived in the world.
  • Today’s stream, the holiness stream is a spirituality of godly living flowing out of God’s holiness.

Foster emphasises that none of these streams are better than the others. Instead, a balanced faith draws from all six streams. We tend to feel comfortable in one or two streams and either neglect or downplay the importance of the others. In a church like ours which values diversity, most of us would agree with Foster’s assumption that each of the traditions has something to offer us, and at its best is life giving, drawing us closer to God.  But even if we agree with that in theory, certain streams will still cause us problems.

For many of us, the holiness stream will cause us problems. We say in derision about someone that they are ‘holier than thou’. We don’t feel comfortable talking about aspiring to holiness or being ‘godly’. It’s partly a prevailing cultural hostility toward the idea. It’s also related to the excesses of previous generations of Christians who focused so much on a particular version of being holy they ignored the other five streams. Richard Foster has a wonderful line in discussing the Holiness tradition – ‘Every tradition has its zealots’. The zealots of the holiness tradition are certainly prominent. But while mindful of the zealots, let’s be generous in seeking out the riches of this tradition too.

The holiness stream and the incarnational stream are in a perpetual balancing act. Incarnation is about entering into the world that God loves, and finding the beauty there. It’s the side of Jesus which loved to feast with the outcasts. In contrast, holiness is about refraining from the excesses and sins of the world and living up to God’s standards. It’s the side of Jesus which resisted the temptations in the desert and gave no false comfort to the rich young ruler.

I want to give an overview of the holiness stream through time, showing how it runs through  the Old Testament and into the New, and then stopping off at two points in church history to show how it is still flowing. Then, to finish off with I will talk about how we might hope to drink of this stream today.

Holiness in the Old Testament

In thinking about the holiness stream, we need to start not with our attempts to be holy, but with God’s holiness. Being holy is about being set apart and pure.

It’s a recurring theme in the life of the Ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. As we try to make sense of Numbers and Leviticus, we work our way through Holiness Codes, providing a framework of rules and regulations to ensure that God’s holiness is reflected in the holiness of the lives of his people, the Jews. Yet a lot of it seems to say much about their ancient culture and little about the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

What was God’s plan? What was God transforming them from – was it the first step forward? Did they hear God right? Were the later mistakes of the Pharisees the inevitable outcome of the type of holiness we find in Numbers and Leviticus?

Holiness in the New Testament

We already get hints at other places in the Old Testament – particularly in the prophets – that holiness as purity of heart and mind matters more to God than ritual or code. It’s out of that tradition which Jesus emerged. Jesus worked against some early zealots of the Holiness tradition, the more fanatical of the Pharisees. But he wasn’t rejecting holiness outright; he was redefining it and he was ensuring that it was balanced with the other streams of spirituality, so that purity did not preclude incarnation.

For many in the holiness tradition, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a key passage. It sums up what it means to live a godly life. To be holy is to hunger and thirst for righteousnesss. It is to be merciful. It is to be pure in heart. It is to make peace between people. Jesus tells us that the Old Testament command not to murder extends to murderous thoughts and murderous words. He tells us that the path of holiness is not to seek revenge but to turn the other cheek. Holiness is about quietly giving money, doing good, praying, fasting – not loudly to impress others.  He tells us that every good tree bears good fruit. To do these things he talks about is to build our house on the rock.

Of the writers in the New Testament, perhaps no-one has a greater concern with holy living than James, the brother of Jesus.  The epistle of James does not talk about Jesus, and yet it sounds more like the teachings of Jesus than anything Paul wrote.

James 1:19-27:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

If they think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James has a concern for how we talk to each other. He tells us to be slow to anger. He finishes by speaking of not being ‘stained by the world’. I like to think that by the ‘world’ he doesn’t mean everyone outside the church, but everything outside God’s will, both in the church and beyond it. It is a pitfall of the holiness tradition to tend to set itself up against the world at large.

Paul was often talking about holy living, too. He emphasises that holiness is not just a personal characteristic, but something which needs to mark us a group of people, the church. He talks about the effects of sin, the way the actions of the immoral brother in the church at Corinth are like bad yeast affecting everyone else. I wonder what that means for us? We aren’t as close to each other as the early church, but sin still has a negative effect on the body as a whole. Conversely, pure and holy living has a good effect on the body as a whole.


Church History

Throughout the centuries of the church’s existence, different people have rediscovered the holiness stream and renewal and new movements have emerged. By renewal, I mean that the existing church has changed and had new life breathed into it. Often through church history, people have tried simply to renew the existing church, only to find themselves opposed by the establishment and squeezed out, creating a new movement.

I want to mention two holiness movements coming out of Britain which have had a big influence on Christianity today – the Puritans and the Methodists.  Because the holiness tradition is a spirituality, it can include movements with opposing theological beliefs. This is the case with these two movements, who represent two different approaches theologically, one Calvinist and one Arminian. I’m not a student of either of these two movements, and in trying to generalise about them, I’m sure I’ve done injustice to them. But here’s a sketch.


The first movement is the Puritans. For a number of us, it’s almost a swear word; for others, they are to be admired. Following the teachings of John Calvin, they emerged in the English Reformation, were strongest in the 17th century, and tried to purify the Anglicanism inherited from Henry VIII. For me, their biggest mistake was to attempt to make all England Puritan, to impose their vision on the entire church and by extension the entire country. Theologically, you can find the heirs of the Puritans amongst Calvinistic Baptists, Calvinistic Anglicans and Presbyterians.

The Puritans talked a lot about sin. Holiness was partly a matter of becoming aware of one’s sinfulness and then constantly examining one’s conscience to root out those sinful thoughts and actions. Paradoxically, good living was perhaps seen as proof that you were one of God’s elect – even though they emphasised so strongly that salvation was by grace alone. The Shorter Westminster Catechism was written by the Puritans to instruct children, and what it says about holiness is good. It takes the form of questions and answers.

35. What is Sanctification?

– Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?

– The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification are:

  • assurance of God’s love
  • peace of conscience
  • joy in the Holy Ghost
  • increase of grace
  • and perseverance therein to the end.


May we know all these things too as God works in us.


John Wesley and Methodism

Quite different to the Puritans is the second holiness movement – Methodism, emerging from the teaching of John Wesley. In the eighteenth century, Wesley led a revival which saw thousands of people convert from nominal Christianity to a passionate, warm-hearted faith. Key to his thinking was the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in believers, sanctifying them, that is, making them more holy. He emphasised that faith in Jesus saves us in order to do good works.  Wesley’s followers are more optimistic about our ability to be made holy.  Wesley wrote in 1739 on the character of a Methodist, saying:

And loving God, he loves his neighbour as himself… Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath and every unkind temper… His one desire is the one design of his life, namely, to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him… As he loves God, so he keeps his commandments… All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body… Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his running the race which is set before him.

We will do well if we can live up to Wesley’s vision.

I’ve brought you these snapshots of the Puritans and Wesley because church history has such an invisible effect on what we think and do as Christians. For better and worse, many of our ideas of holiness have been shaped by or in reaction to either Puritans or Wesley.


Living Holiness Today

How do we drink of the holiness stream today? What does it mean to learn from this type of spirituality?

The sort of things Richard Foster suggests are the sort of things I don’t manage to sustain. At my best, I have attempted them, and they have worked in small ways, but then I have fallen away from them.

I’ve stopped hoping for a silver bullet that will put me on the right course for the rest of my life and keep me there. I’ve started to think that a person or a group or a sermon or a book will steer me in the right direction for a time. Inevitably this influence will wane, and I’ll find myself heading off course, not living in a holy way. And it’s then that God will put someone else in my path, calling me back to faithfulness.

With that in mind, I’ll bring you some of Richard Foster’s wisdom.

He says that through God’s grace, it is possible to grow in holiness. He strongly believes that spiritual disciplines make this growth possible.  Disciplines are things we can do which put us in a place where God can do what we cannot do. He writes:

By undertaking Disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do, we receive from God the ability to do things that under our own steam we simply cannot do, such as loving our enemies. The Disciplines, you see, place us into the divine stream of things in such a way that God is able to build within us deeply ingrained habits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal. 5:22b-23a).

He goes on to get more specific:

If we are struggling with pride, we learn service, which leads us into the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. If we are needing hope, we learn prayer and meditation, which usher us ever deeper into the heart of the Holy. If compulsions of one kind or another obsess us, we learn fasting, which teaches us to control all the senses by the grace of God. If we want faith, we learn worship, which shows us the Lord high and lifted up. And on it goes. Throughout we are training for holiness, planning for perfection.

How do we know when this growth is happening? He gives a description which touched me and which I’ve put above my desk:

Though we cannot see the work itself, we can detect some of its effects. We experience a new firmness of life-orientation. We experience a settled peace that we do not fully understand and cannot fully explain. We begin seeing everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good. And, most amazing of all, we begin to feel abiding, unconditional warm regard for all people.

May we all taste these things as we learn from the holiness tradition.


[Sermon] “Once You Were Not a People But Now You Are the People of God”

Mt Hawthorn Community Church, 12 September 2010


But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy

– 1 Peter 2:9-10

I’ve been asked this morning to talk about what church means to me. So I’m going to talk about the hopes I have for what church could be, and some of the problems we face when we try to live it out. I will be using this idea of the church as a people, and three of the practices which mark us out as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. They are strong images, concerning ones for some of us, and I will be returning to them.


Colossians 1:1-14: Subversive Fruitfulness

I preached on the 7th at Network Vineyard. It was the first in a series at the church on Colossians. The sermon begins with the background to Colossians and then provides some thoughts from 1:1-1:14. You can hear the sermon here.


Has anyone heard of It’s a website which features a daily ‘found object’ – a letter or a drawing or a photo that someone has found and sent in. I like the glimpse into people’s secret lives that I get from these found objects. People from around the world leave comments trying to guess the origins of the found object. Who is in the photo? What are they doing? Or who wrote the letter? What’s going on?

I’ve got this book that collects the best of Found and I want to read you one of the letters in it.

Dear Mrs Dionne,

I am so, so sorry about your husband. I want you to know that It was not my fault. I left Dragon’s Tongue, Nick Trenkle and Dom Walbridge did most of what was done. Andy is a great photographer. I saw you at the trial, and I wanted so terribly much to say something to you. To tell you how sorry I was. How sorry I am. I am so, so sorry.

Sincerely, Mike M. Mcafee.

We could spend a long time trying to work out things about this letter. What was done to Mrs Dionne’s husband? Was he murdered? What is the Dragon’s Tongue? What has Andy’s photographic skills got to do with it? Is Mike telling the truth?

But we’re not here to study this letter, we’re here to study a different letter. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Of course, it presents similar problems. It’s tempting when we read the Bible to assume we already know the backstory, we already know exactly what’s going on and we can just leap in and make sense of it straight away.

But actually, we’re picking up someone else’s letter and there’s a lot of things we need to understand to make sense of it. We do the Bible a disservice when we think it’s easy to understand. If we wanted to fully understand this letter from Mike Mcafee, we would want to know the answers to those questions about the background. We would start following up on clues – we know the letter was found in Gainesville, Florida. We would look back over trial records and newspaper articles from this city to see if any match the names we have.

When it comes to Colossians, we can be thankful that there’s hundreds of detectives all over the world who have been working on it over the last centuries to answer those questions. We call them New Testament scholars.


Colossians is one of the more elusive of Paul’s letters. The detectives have put up lots of plausible and sometimes implausible guesses about it, but there’s some things that we just can’t know for sure because we don’t have enough information.

Paul is writing from prison. The letter is most similar in content to Ephesians. It is related to Philemon because Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus are part of the church at Colossae.

The town of Colossae is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. It was in the province of Asia, which is modern day Turkey. It’s about halfway between Jerusalem and Rome. It was in an earthquake prone region near the larger town of Laodicea. In 61AD, a massive earthquake shook the area and archaeologists and historians think that Colossae was abandoned then. Given that the gospel didn’t come to this region till the mid-50s, Paul’s letter to the Colossians must have come not long before the earthquake.

Today is the first anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires. It was probably a disaster of similar magnitude. It’s a strange thought to think of the church receiving this letter in the months or years before their town is destroyed. I hope they remembered Paul’s letter at that time and it was of comfort to them. I hope they didn’t feel in the midst of death and destruction that the things he said no longer felt true.

Paul had never visited Colossae. He writes as a well-known and well-respected church leader to a church which he didn’t start and which has never seen him in person. However, he did spend a considerable amount of time in Ephesus in the mid-50s. Ephesus was also in the province of Asia, 200km from Colossae – a week long journey on foot.

Paul mentions his beloved fellow-servant Epaphras in 1:7, who had taught the church at Colossae to comprehend the grace of God. Perhaps Epaphras met Paul when he was at Ephesus in mid-50s and became a Christian. Paul would have instructed him in the way of Jesus and sent back to his hometown to spread the news of Christ.

A few years later, there s an established church at Colossae. Jews and Gentiles are fellowshipping together as the body of Christ. But there’s problems in the church – false teaching is leading people astray. Perhaps Epaphras was so worried he wrote to Paul in prison. Our detectives have spent a long time debating the nature of the false teaching. The false teachers were insisting that everyone practice rigorous self-denial and worship angels. These practices would deliver them from the principalities and powers and gain access to the full, secret knowledge of God and his will.

Paul spends quite a bit of the letter outlining a positive view of Christ and the Christian life different to the false teachers. He also directly refutes their teaching in chapter 2.

Teaching against the worship of angels in order from deliverance from principalities and powers, Paul focuses in this letter on the supremacy of Christ. If there’s one thing to remember from Colossians, it is its focus on Christ as the image of the invisible God.

You might think that you could find that anywhere in the New Testament, but you’d be wrong. The New Testament books don’t express things in the same way. It took a lot of thinking, praying and revealing from God to get from the wandering teacher-healer named Jesus to being able to say that he was the Messiah to being able to say that he is the very image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation in whom all things in heaven and earth were created. That wasn’t the answer that came to the disciples’ mind when Jesus asked them who he was. They weren’t ready to say that yet. You won’t find this sort of statement about Jesus in Matthew, Mark or Luke or even so much in the earlier letters of Paul. You will find it here in Colossians and in John’s writings. I like the way Paul says it here in Colossians perhaps best of all.

I grew up in a conservative Baptist church which was always talking about the Bible, but less so about Jesus Christ. I think my church tended to think the Bible was the image of the invisible God. But actually the Bible teaches us about Christ, who alone is the image of the invisible God.

So, be looking for this high view of Christ as we study Colossians over the coming weeks.


Try to picture yourselves as the church at Colossae, gathered in one of the wealthier members’ loungeroom. Tychicus and Onesimus have arrived from Paul with this letter written on a scroll. You all share the Agape meal in memory of Jesus. Then Tychicus reads the whole letter out to you and explains the parts that people don’t understand. Here, again, is the section we’re looking at today:

Colossians 1:1-14 (Today’s New International Version)

Colossians 1

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father. [a]

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all his people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true word of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world— just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, [b] who is a faithful minister of Christ on our [c] behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, [d] 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you [e] to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

1:1-2 Salutation

As you would expect, we have a greeting to begin this letter. Timothy is named as a co-author of the letter, so I’ve been amiss in not giving him credit so far. We learn at the end of the letter that Paul isn’t the one writing it down, as he makes a point of saying he writes the last sentence in his own hand. Maybe Timothy was the one writing it down, and maybe he put things in his own words. Some scholars think this is why Colossians is different to Paul’s other letters.

He addresses the believers as ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’ in verse 2, a Jewish term for the people of God. It shows how inclusive Paul was of these upstart Gentile believers. They weren’t even circumcised but he is willing to call them ‘holy ones’. Ultimately the term extends to us too. What does it mean for us to be ‘holy ones’? To be holy is to be ‘set apart’. Are we ‘set apart’ enough in our behaviour and lifestyle? Are we distinctive from the world? Are we holy?

Paul and Timothy then extend God’s grace and peace to the church. We talk a lot about grace, but we don’t talk enough about peace. When we do, we think about inner peace. But what about peace in our community, harmonious relationships where God’s shalom rests on his people?

What about peace in the world? Are we wishing peace for the world? Or are we caught up in the world’s way of doing things, its use of violence and force to settle disputes? When Paul wrote this letter, there was a kind of peace – Pax Romana, the peace of the Roman empire. It was an absence of war brought about by Roman dominance, and it wasn’t God’s shalom at all. It relied on military might, slavery and oppression of subject people like the Jews.

The peace the New Testament has in mind is the peace of the kingdom of God. It’s a peace brought about by the way of the cross, where we absorb violence rather than retaliating. One of the ways the early church was set apart from the world – one of the ways in which it was holy – was its refusal to participate in the Roman empire’s oppression and violence.

We need to remember how crucial peace is to the kingdom of God and practice it, pray for it, wish it on each other, wish it on the world. Not the peace of Rome or America but the peace of the kingdom of God where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, so that the weapons of war become useful, productive tools.

Thanksgiving and prayer

The rest of our section from verses 3 to 14 is a thanksgiving and prayer. Paul gives thanks for the good things he has heard about the Colossians and prays that they would ‘lead lives worthy of God’, using the opportunity to express some important truths about God and Christ that the Colossians needed to hear.

In verse 5 Paul writes, ‘the hope that is stored up for you in heaven.’ As you hear that, you might be remembering the last sermon I gave when I talked about the idea that our future existence is not life in heaven but in a renewed creation where heaven and Earth coexist. How does this verse fit into that perspective?

If heaven is God’s dimension of existence, then this is actually a way of saying that our hope is stored up with God in a reality that is invisible to us now. When Christ returns, this hope will be fully present in our dimension. Tom Wright says it’s like a parent in the lead up to Christmas assuring a child that ‘there is indeed a present kept safe in the cupboard for you.’ It’s not that the child will have to spend all Christmas in the cupboard to enjoy it; instead, at the appropriate time, the present will be brought out of its safe hiding-place.

Bearing fruit

Verse 6 –

All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.

What are we to do with this image of the gospel spreading out through the world, bearing fruit? It is a beautiful, inspiring image. You can imagine the joyful optimism Paul and the early Christians had as they saw the gospel do amazing things and spread so quickly in such a short amount of time.

But we hear this verse 1950 years later. In the centuries since, the gospel has so often been twisted and distorted. Paul wasn’t able to stamp out all the bad teaching and bad religion. Misuse and misunderstanding has bore much rotten fruit and poison fruit.

As we hear these words, we can still give thanks for the fruit the gospel has bore in our own lives, the ways in which following Jesus has made us better people. We can give thanks for the way the gospel has brought freedom and new life to so many people over the world for so many centuries.

But the flip side is that we should pause and take stock of the bad fruit from Christianity in our own lives and in the world. Has our zeal for the gospel ever made us arrogant or cruel to others? Has it made us unloving to people we think immoral or ungenerous toward other points of view?

And perhaps we can pause to remember all the people burnt by the misuse and misunderstanding of the gospel, all the people who ate poison or rotten fruit. Over the last decade, a number of my friends have lost their faith. They have been hurt, damaged, dismayed and unconvinced by the church. They were damaged by the sexist things they were taught, the anti-intellectual things they were taught. The power struggles and petty fights. The lack of love.

There’s a risk of being simplistically triumphal in our faith and ignoring the struggle faith is for many Christians. For those on the edge of faith, it’s often even hard to express their struggle, because there’s too many people around for whom everything is simple and black and white. It’s good to be inspired by Paul’s picture, but it’s also important to remember that it doesn’t match everyone’s experience of Christianity. As we pray for the gospel to spread, let us pray that it bears good fruit and doesn’t poison people.

Fruit and the empire

That’s my personal reaction to this verse. I want to offer something two of our detectives write about it. In Colossians Remixed, Sylvia Keesmat and her husband Brian Walsh write that fruitfulness and fertility were images the Roman empire used about itself in statues and artworks and everyday household items. Everyone living under the Roman empire was subconsciously forced to acknowledge that Rome was the source of fruitful abundance. If you wanted to share in that fruitful abundance, you stayed faithful to the Roman empire.

This means that in claiming the fruitfulness of the gospel, Paul is making a counter-claim to the Roman empire. He is Paul telling a boldly different story – it’s not the empire that is fruitful; the empire is part of the dominion of darkness. It’s the kingdom of the Son which is bearing fruit, this underground movement of slaves and women, masters and men, Jews and Greeks all brought around the same table. A ragtag bunch against the Roman empire.

What empire do we live under? It’s an empire of capitalism and its headquarters is in the USA and Australia is a major outpost. It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good. It tells us that fruitfulness and prosperity are found when you become a loyal citizen of the empire, when you consume and work hard and play hard. When you spend your leisure time shopping. When you keep buying so the GDP doesn’t drop, so that economic growth doesn’t stop.

What is the nature of our subversive fruitfulness? Our fruitfulness in the shadow of the empire? Paul is about to give us some clues about that.

Live a life worthy of God

‘For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.’

What does a life worthy of God look like? Let’s divide up Paul’s sentence here, but with some humility because he wasn’t making a simple list and a different translations make completely different sentences of these verses.

1. Bearing fruit in every good work

    Good works always got a bad rap in the church I grew up in, and that’s a heresy. Martin Luther was right when he said that good works don’t save us, but we’ve taken that idea to an extreme ever since. Paul and Jesus are really clear: God saves us so that we can do good works. God brings us into a kingdom of light where good works are the norm.

    In answer to the question of what our subversive fruitfulness looks like, it looks like good works. The New Testament is constantly telling us about what counts as good works. It’s feeding poor people and helping the widows and orphans. It’s healing the sick. It’s visiting the prisoners. It’s caring about the refugees.

    What does it look like today for us? You need to do some hard thinking and discerning about that. It’s something we should be talking about around our tables and during the break and in our life cells. Things are different these days, we have a government which looks after people better than the Roman government. But we still have poor and needy people. We still have refugees. Many good works will look much the same as they did 1950 years ago in the province of Asia.

    2. Growing in the knowledge of God

      It pleases God to grow in the knowledge of him. Studying the Bible is one way to grow in the knowledge of God. Be prepared to do some hard work and go deeper, learn the context and background to the Bible so that you’re not just reading your existing ideas into the text. You won’t come away with easy answers directly applicable to your life. You’ll have to start by understanding the strange world of the Bible in its context before you can bring it into your context.

      3. Being strengthened so you can have great endurance and patience

        Living as a Christian requires endurance and patience. There are hard times and hard people. Be prepared for them and know that it pleases God for you to patiently endure.

        4. Giving thanks to the Father

        Let’s remember that as we worship God, and let us try to bring worship into our everyday life, so that we have an attitude of thankfulness under our breath and in our hearts and minds. Easier said than done.


          So there we have the first part of Paul and Timothy’s Letter to the Colossians. What should you try to remember from what I’ve said?

          1. is very interesting
          2. Paul never visited Colossae.
          3. The false teachers are telling the Colossians they have to worship angels and deny their bodies to have secret knowledge of God.
          4. The main point of the letter is that Christ is supreme, the very image of God.
          5. Let’s not ignore or privatise this word ‘peace’
          6. Nathan compared heaven to the present cupboard
          7. Be aware of the poison fruit the misuse of the gospel has spread around the world.
          8. The Colossians had the Roman Empire to watch out for; we’ve got the Global Capitalism Empire to watch out for.
          9. Being fruitful is a subversive act.
          10. Doing good works is fruitful.

          Churches of reconciliation: the diverse church as good news for the world

          Here’s the text version of the paper; the previous post offered a pdf version.

          WA TEAR Conference 19 September 2009

          As TEAR people, you already know that the good news is more than personal salvation after you die. You know that justice is an essential part of the kingdom of God. But have you ever heard the church itself proclaimed as part of the good news for the world?

          This good news is that there is a new humanity – the church – where different races and different classes, people who were once enemies, are now brothers and sisters, are now worshipping together and eating around the same table. The good news involves reconciliation and the place it’s meant to happen is in the church.

          Often when we think about justice issues, including reconciliation, we locate them out in the world. We think about how as Christians we can support programs and organisations which are promoting reconciliation. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. The church itself is meant to be a place where extraordinary reconciliation is taking place all the time. The life of the church is meant to show the world what reconciliation is all about. The life of the church is meant to offer hope to the world that it’s possible to overcome cultural differences and racial tensions. The life of the church is meant to turn on its head the status differences and oppression that occurs between rich and poor and male and female. When the church has truly swallowed the gospel, it becomes good news for the world.

          In my talk today, I’m going to be arguing that diverse congregations where different groups are reconciled to each other are an overlooked but important part of the good news of the kingdom. I’m going to start with a look at these reconciliations in the early church of Acts and the letters of Paul. Then I’m going to contrast it with the homogenous impulse in evangelical churches today. From there, I’ll discuss some practical aspects of diversity and reconciliation in churches.

          Biblical Basis

          We see three important reconciliations happening in the early church – reconciliation between ethnicities or races, reconciliation between social classes and reconciliation between the sexes.

          Paul mentions all three of these reconciliations in Galatians 3:26-29 –

          You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

          Baptism is the start of reconciliation. On entering the church through baptism, converts are swearing their first loyalty to the new humanity. A convert’s new primary identity is as a member of the new humanity. They remain a Jew or Greek, a slave or free, a male or a female, but these aspects of their identity are no longer primary.

          Let’s examine these three reconciliations in turn.

          Jews and Gentiles

          The best statement we have about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the new humanity church is in Ephesians 2:14-18:

          For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups – Jews and Gentiles – into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

          We have to go back two thousand years and get our heads around just how amazing it was that Jews and Gentiles could be reconciled with each by coming together in the same faith community, the church. Paul wasn’t exaggerating when he calls it ‘hostility’. It was often mutual hatred. William Barclay says it like this: ‘The Jews had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he has made.’ (Milne: p.21)

          Here in Ephesians, Paul is claiming that on the cross, Christ put to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. God’s action in Christ creates a new humanity which anyone can enter by faith, rather than birth.

          The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles was a major missionary and pastoral focus of Acts and Paul’s letters. The reconciliation happened not by leaving each other alone and separating into two different types of churches. It happened by painfully staying together and sorting through issues.

          Eating together was so important to the early church that it was the focus of many of the disputes. Table fellowship is critical to the church being a reconciling community. It is one of the activities the first church is listed as doing in the much quoted description of Acts 2:42-47 – ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ They were carrying on what Jesus had instructed them to do at the Last Supper – eating and drinking together in remembrance of him. Eating together in remembrance of him meant sharing food and sharing it with people you wouldn’t normally share it with. The breaking of the bread became known as the agape – the love feast. It was critical to reconciling both race and class.

          As the gospel spread beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles as well, the Jewish Christians wrestled with the legacy of strict dietary laws that made it hard for them to eat with the Gentile Christians. In the decades after Jesus, the churches were constantly struggling to work out how these laws still applied and what it meant in the life of the church. There were disputes and fights and splits, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, spent a lot of time trying to resolve these. He didn’t advise them to go off and have their own separate agape; he tried to get Gentiles and Jews to give and take in love so that they could eat together (eg 1 Cor 8).

          Rich and Poor, Slave and Free

          Table fellowship created issues for the reconciling of different classes too. Slaves and masters, rich and poor didn’t normally eat together. In the Roman empire, slaves made up as much as one third of the total population (Finger, 2007: p.31). It was unheard of for slaves to dine with masters. Slaves were seen as property, not as equal human beings worthy of dignity. Yet the revolutionary new humanity church expected that masters would treat slaves as equals.

          Slaves, at least, had enough food to eat. Former slaves and the working class were often poor and hungry. The table fellowship had a real economic meaning for them: it was where they got fed. The rich would have brought the food to provide for them. It was a form of justice – the poor could rely on getting at least this meal. The pattern in the first church in Acts is that the disciples started by sharing food and then stepped up a level and started sharing everything, selling off property to provide for everyone. In Acts 4:34 we read ‘There was not a needy person among them’. The common meal was the start of an economic reconciling where the differences between rich and poor were overcome socially and even abolished (Yoder, 1992: p.20-21). Reconciliation between classes involves redistribution.

          In 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for letting the divisions between poor and rich show themselves in the agape. The poor and the slaves were probably later getting to the gathering because they had more work to do and by the time they got there, the leisured rich had already eaten the good food and got drunk. Instead of being a reconciling, equalising meal, the agape was reinforcing the divisions. Paul tells them it is not the Lord’s Supper they are observing; they are not respecting the body of Christ, that is the believers in all their diversity.

          From where were stand in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to think that Paul didn’t go far enough in reconciling master and slave. He didn’t insist that Christians free their slaves. Yet the life of the early church was more effective at reconciling Christian slaves and masters than the abolition of slavery in the USA in the nineteenth century. Abolition has been followed by more than a century of racism and inequality in the USA. To this day a gulf exists between blacks and whites. Don’t get me wrong – legal solutions are a necessary part of reconciliation. But the early church had no hope of influencing the empire to abolish slavery. What it could do – and what was good news for the world – was to bring Christian slaves and masters around the table as equals. No such respect and dignity would have been given slaves if they were simply declared free and sent out into a society where they had no status and no money.

          Male and Female

          The reconciliation of the power imbalance between male and female in the church is something that was started in the New Testament, but not brought to completion. Unfortunately, present day conservative readings of the New Testament read it in the opposite direction to which it is headed and use the New Testament to reinforce the patriarchy rather than critique it.

          One commentator writes

          It is hard to imagine how badly women were treated in antiquity, even in Judaism, and how difficult it is to find any statement about the equality of the sexes, however weak, in any ancient text except those of Christianity. The Jew prayed, ‘I thank God that thou has not made me a woman’ (common morning prayer). Josephus wrote, ‘Woman is inferior to man in every way’ (Contra Apion, 2.24). The Gentile world had similar expressions. But Paul reverses this. Indeed, in this statement [Galatians 3:28] we have one factor in the gradual elevation and honouring of women that has been known in Christian lands. (Boice : 469)

          At a time when women’s participation in society was much more restricted than it is today, we see signs of an early church giving unheard of responsibility and participation to women. We are told in Luke 8 that the community of Jesus’ disciples was funded by a group of rich women. In Romans 16:7, we have a female apostle, Junia.  In Acts 18:26, we have Priscilla, the house church leader who taught the faith to Apollos and with her husband Aquila was a ‘co-worker in Christ Jesus’. We have Phoebe, the wealthy benefactor who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans and read it out, no doubt interpreting it and explaining it on Paul’s behalf (Finger, 2007: 61-62).

          The assumption of one of the most sexist passages in the New Testament, the head-covering passage of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, is that women have a role in the church prophesying. Paul’s concern is that they do it in a way that doesn’t make others think they are behaving scandalously, with loose hair like prostitutes. In all the heat generated by his sexist justifications for this, we lose sight of the fact that he doesn’t challenge their right to prophesy.

          It is this giftedness of all believers in the body that has an important reconciling effect. The gifts of the spirit for the building up of the body are poured out on every believer, not just the powerful ones. The fact, for example, that slaves and women will be given prophetic words to speak to the rest of the body keeps everyone humble.

          Some of the most troubling passages of the New Testament, the household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands, are actually empowering in their context. They are based on secular household codes which were addressed only to those in power. The New Testament codes first address the people who were not in power – wives, children and slaves. For the first time, subordinates are being addressed as moral agents, called upon to make moral decisions, to choose submission even in the knowledge of their equality in Christ. Slaves and wives are called to win their masters and husbands to faith by their strange voluntary, revolutionary subordination (Yoder, 1994: 162-193).  It was likely the new found freedom in the gospel for wives and slaves was causing scandal and disrepute for the gospel. Paul and Peter’s call for submission is not a timeless decree but a pastoral strategy, an intervention for reconciliation in that context.

          The reconciling intent of the household codes is seen in the call for husbands to love their wives at a time when love had little to do with marriage. Masters are called in Colossians to provide their slaves with what is right and fair.

          Summing up the Biblical Picture

          So what we see in the New Testament is a new humanity church, where believers adopt a new identity, a new primary loyalty to Christ that allows them to be reconciled to each other. Whereas once the divisions of the world were what defined them, now they belong to a new nation that overcomes all these differences. Paul Louis Metzger puts it like this:

          The church is a power instituted by God. It was designed with the particular mission of bearing witness to God’s advancing kingdom of beloved community through participation in the crucified and risen Christ, and of being consumed by him on behalf of the world for which Christ died. As such, that beloved community should be breaking down divisions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and it should be confronting the demonic forces that distort and reduce people to races and classes, to rugged individuals in isolation, people whose value lies in how much they produce and consume. (2007: p.36)

          Evangelicalism Today: What Mega-churches and the Emerging Church Have in Common

          Unfortunately, in the name of evangelism, we have lost this good news. Evangelicals have misunderstood salvation and distorted the Great Commission to come up with too many homogenous churches which simply don’t the show enough of the good news of reconciliation.

          ‘Make disciples of all nations as you go, baptizing them, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matthew 28:19-20. Many evangelicals understand the Great Commission as the most important part of their Bible, the central command with which to interpret the rest and with which to decide what our purpose as church is.

          Evangelicals have tended to privatise discipleship and make it simply a case of ‘asking Jesus into your heart’. So when some evangelicals are interpreting the Great Commission, they assume that ‘making disciples’ means getting people across the line and into heaven. The more people we can convert, the better we are fulfilling the Great Commission – what could be more important than that?

          This sort of thinking is behind the church growth movement. Even if you don’t hear about the church growth movement in sermons, it has strongly influenced the shape of evangelical churches over the last thirty years.

          Church growth uses research to attract members, by working out sociological and marketing strategies to attract unchurched people to church. The father of the church growth movement, Donald McGavran, used the term ‘homogenous unit principle’ to describe the idea that people like to worship in churches that are monocultural. The gospel is best received when it doesn’t involve crossing cultural boundaries. To be effective, we shouldn’t try to bring together black and white people or rich and poor people into the same church – it will put people off. George Yancey put it like this:

          Church growth experts argue that to spend energy putting together a church of many different racial groups detracts from the church’s main duty – to win as many souls as possible. (2003: p.30)

          You can see this approach used in ‘seeker sensitive’ services and many mega-churches, where the good news is a self-help message, a way to personal fulfilment. Bill Hybels is the pastor of one of America’s biggest churches, Willow Creek, a pioneer of seeker-sensitive services. It’s interesting to see his shift in attitude. He said in a 2005 interview:

          Willow Creek started in the era when, as the book noted, the church growth people were saying,  “Don’t dissipate any of your energies fighting race issues. Focus everything on evangelism.” It was the homogeneous unit principle of church growth. And I remember as a young pastor thinking. That’s true. I didn’t know whether I wanted to chance alienating people who were seekers, whose eternity was on the line, and who might only come to church one time. I wanted to take away as many obstacles as possible, other than the Cross, to help people focus on the gospel.  So now, 30 years later… I recognize that a true biblically functioning community must include being multiethnic. My heart beats so fast for that vision today. I marvel at how naive and pragmatic I was 30 years ago. (Gilbreath: p.38)

          It makes it hard to know what to say when the target of your criticism has so publicly repented of his old attitude, and writers on this subject like Paul Louis Metzger don’t know quite what to do with Hybels’ turn around (Metzger, 2007: p. 57). It’s certainly good news and we can only hope that it translates into diverse mega-churches. However, I’d also say that the mega-church itself doesn’t easily fit with the diverse new humanity church I’m talking about. Even if there is a mix of classes and races, it is much harder to gather around the table and have the level of fellowship which allows the church to embody the good news.

          You see an interesting echo of church growth in the emerging missional church (EMC) in Australia. I like a lot of what the EMC does in questioning the received ways of doing church and responding creatively rather than defensively to postmodernism. It also has a welcome emphasis on justice. However, despite reacting against the megachurch phenomenon, the emerging missional church seems to be built on church growth theory as well.

          Some of you will be familiar with the key EMC text in Australia– Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost’s Shaping of Things To Come. Their model for mission is for what they call ‘incarnational’ living amongst particular subcultures of society. Perhaps you find a club with an enthusiasm for model aeroplanes or motorbikes and you join it, befriending the people and walking alongside them. The hope is that the whole community finds itself moving toward God together. The idea is that these communities already exist, and instead of expecting seekers to be extracted from their natural cultural setting to an attractional church and thus asking them to accommodate to church culture, we should turn their community into a church.

          When I asked one emerging church leader about the homogeneity of the EMC approach, he said that the homogenous unit principle was a missional strategy, while diversity was a goal of worship and discipleship. I’m unconvinced by this – I think that if we create churches out of special interest groups, they will probably stay homogeneous.

          British theologian John Milbank wrote a harsh polemic against the emerging church in an article called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’:

          In all this there lies no new expression of church, but rather its blasphemous denial. The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se. One can’t set up a church in a café amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’. (2008: p.124)

          Milbank’s tone is combative and I don’t think his criticism is true of everything done in the name of the emerging church movement. But I do think that his challenge is one that needs to be heard and grappled with.


          What, then, does the new humanity church of reconciled peoples look like today?

          It might be tempting to think that there is little scope for a local church to be diverse, that suburbs are homogeneous. But the reality is that every suburb is diverse in some ways; if your church is homogenous, it probably doesn’t reflect your suburb.

          I live in Nedlands, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Perth, yet amongst the Mercedes Benz and BMWs there are also students renting houses and blocks of flats housing low income earners. There is a high population of people born in Asia. There is a wide range of ages, an aspect of identity I didn’t discuss from the Bible, but which we could apply similar thinking to. And of course, there is an even spread of men and women.

          Bruce Milne pictures the new humanity church like this:

          ‘What should churches look like as they gather for worship?… Even if the congregation is situated in a mainly homogeneous neighbourhood in respect of ethnic origins, we would hope to see good numbers of both men and women, clearly comfortable together, with all the age groups and generations represented, plus signs of different kinds of family structure, different wealth levels, and probably indications of diversity in regard to how long the individuals or family units have been part of the congregation. Hopefully there might be also be signs of a spread of work setting between blue-collar and professional, and evidence of people who are still seeking for a personal Christian faith, as well as the mature, seasoned believers. Here and there the presence of people with physical or mental challenges would indicate a further expression of the congregation’s diversity.’ (2006: p.74)

          This idea of the new humanity church which sees reconciliation between different groups as a part of the good news is no good if there’s nothing you can do about it when you return to your normal life at the end of this conference. It’s rare to be starting a church from scratch, so the practical consequence can’t be a prescription of how we might go about establishing the perfect new humanity church. Instead, you’re going to need some steps that you can start with where you are. Some of these steps are at the level everyone can do, others are at a higher level that only church leaders can do. But perhaps church leaders will listen to suggestions you have.


          ‘Worship wars’ are a familiar problem facing evangelical churches. The dividing line tends to be along generational lines. The stereotype is that old people want traditional, perhaps formal worship. The baby boomers want relaxed worship. And now Generation X and Y want either rock concerts or postmodern emerging worship. And so, in response, we tend to get age segregated services, with a different worship style for each.  I suspect that in today’s church the tension between generations is of as much significance as the tensions between races and classes in the early church.

          Worship which disenfranchises parts of the church dishonours God. It needs to be ‘consciously shaped so that all members of the congregation can experience it as a generally meaningful vehicle for their response to God.’ (Milne, 2007: p.107) There should be a lot of give and take between generations or groups in the church, so that worship pleases our neighbours as well as ourselves.

          Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas is a truly multi-ethnic church with blacks, whites and Hispanics worshipping together. They have seven different worship teams, all with different styles, who rotate leading the worship. Words to the songs are projected in both English and Spanish. To accommodate those Latinos who don’t speak English, once every two months a whole service is conducted in Spanish, with English people having to waiting for a translation, instead of the other way around (Kennedy, 2005: p.43).

          For me, small, participatory churches are the best way to ensure there is reconciliation in worship. Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek makes sure there’s black and white people up on the stage, and that’s their version of diversity. But for me, giving everyone a chance to contribute to worship is closer to what Paul was talking about, perhaps best shown by 1 Corinthians 14:26:

          What then shall we say brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.


          Seeking diversity in the leadership of your church is an important step. Are there men and women in leadership positions? Are there young and old? Are there working class people as well as the university educated? Is there anyone who’s not from the dominant ethnicity?

          Eating together

          Eating together was crucial to reconciliation and diversity in the early church. I think it is crucial today too. Recovering the shared agape meal of the early church as a regular part of worship would visibly bring all the different people of your church around the same table.

          It is also something that you can also practice as a household, inviting people from within the church and your local community to eat with you. Eating together is surely a good way to defuse tensions within a church. If there is someone whose faith and beliefs is most at odds with yours, then perhaps that’s the person to invite back for Sunday lunch.

          Reconciliation and Redistribution

          In his book Consuming Jesus, Paul Louis Metzger insists that ‘reconciliation involves redistribution’. He calls for a redistribution of need, so that the affluent start realising they need to learn from the poor about surviving oppression and being poor in spirit. We achieve this redistribution by listening to the poor and spending time with them. The redistribution of resources means that churches with resources should give time and money to those without.  He also calls for the redistribution of blame, by which he means taking responsibility for the sins and injustices of the past committed by our ancestors and embedded in structures today. (Metzger, 2007: p. 143f.)


          I want to finish my talk today by mentioning some of the unanswered questions and weak points in my argument.

          Firstly, there’s the danger of hypocrisy. I like the idea of diversity across race and class. But what about across theological lines? That’s more uncomfortable. I find it difficult to worship and fellowship with many types of Christians; I get frustrated, annoyed or bored. I gravitate toward people whose version of Christianity matches mine most closely. What about reconciliation with these other people? If I can’t show them Christ’s love, if Christ’s reconciling power is not evident there, then surely the good news is not being worked out? This is one reason why I need to think of myself as blessed for being a part of a theologically diverse church where I have to at least stay in touch with other types of Christians.

          Secondly, I’m not sure what to do with homogenous minority ethnic churches, like Chinese churches and Aboriginal churches in Australia. Is ethnic diversity something they should be striving for too? Rory Shiner made an interesting comment on a blog about the homogenous unit principle:

          Like most Christians I suppose, I have an intuitive hostility to the idea of a homogeneous church. However, I do repeatedly come across situations where the argument against a homogeneous church/ministry comes from the people who are loving things just the way they are: e.g., the white power-holders in Australian country churches who oppose the setting up of Aboriginal fellowships because they love the expression of unity from black and white worshipping together. Problem is, of course, the same people would never dream of allowing their church meetings to become the sort of 3 hour affairs that Aboriginal Christians expect, complete with country music, altar-calls and multiple sermons. As long as those well-meaning people insist on the expression of unity (on their terms), the work amongst the Aboriginal Christians suffers. (Chester, 2006)

          In terms of immigrant congregations in Australia, there is a strong argument for church services in people’s first language. For the immigrants who don’t understand English well, this is a good thing. But there is still room for involvement of people with different ethnic backgrounds as visitors and maybe even members of these congregations. And what about the next generation, who are comfortable with the English language? Often, a new service is started for them, making it both culturally and age homogenous. I think this is a mistake, and this is when the church needs to strive for greater diversity.

          Thirdly and finally, I want to acknowledge how difficult diverse churches of reconciliation are. In 2006, a Harvard political scientist named Robert Putnam reluctantly released his findings that ethnic diversity breeds mistrust in communities. ‘His extensive research found that the more diverse a community, the less likely were its inhabitants to trust anyone, from their next-door neighbour to their local government.’ (Wilson, 2006) It’s findings like these that seem to strengthen the case for homogenous churches. But we can argue it the opposite way. We can see in this finding the urgent need of the good news of a reconciled people who embrace diversity, who choose to love and trust each other.

          Of course, the mistake would be to think we can do it on our own. Metzger (2007: p. 91) writes:

          Attempts to confront race and class divisions can be intense and overwhelming and will not bear lasting fruit – indeed, could end in anger or apathy – unless we experience the undying love of God that is poured out into our hearts through the Spirit of grace, whom God in Christ freely gives us to transform our hearts and lives. What is required is a great awakening, a turning of the tables of the heart in which the Spirit inspires within us an all-consuming passion to follow the downwardly mobile Christ in the world.

          Further reading

          All of these books are available from Koorong or Word or at Vose Seminary Library (20 Hayman Rd Bentley).

          Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

          A well-organised book, spending a chapter outlining the New Testament case for the importance of the new humanity church, and then a chapter demonstrating how the concept fits doctrines like the Trinity, creation, atonement and the church as the body of Christ. He outlines what a new humanity church looks like and then argues that the idea is particularly relevant to our culture because of the resemblance between the Roman Empire of the first century and the globalisation of today. A series of practical chapters follow, explaining what worship and leadership, discipleship and mission look like in the new humanity church.

          Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in the Consumer Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

          Metzger’s focus is on the way consumerism divides the contemporary evangelical church and the historical and cultural factors that have led to it. His solutions are more radical and more sacramental than Milne’s. His writing is perhaps more exciting than Milne, but less well organised and less accessible.

          Pierce, Ronald W. and Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill, (editors) Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers’ Grove, 2005.

          This is an excellent collection of essays arguing (biblically) for egalitarianism between men and women in the church and the home. It is thorough, covering almost every aspect of the debate, from biblical, historical, theological and practical angles.

          Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

          This is the book which has influenced my understanding of the church most. It is short but difficult and redefines the practices of the church in terms of their radical social character, from the Lord’s Supper as a shared meal to baptism as entry into a new humanity. I have written a simplification you can download from


          Boice, James Montgomery, “1 Corinthians” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.

          Chester, Tim. “The Homogenous Unit Principle.” 8/12/2006. Accessed 10/9/2009.

          Finger, Reta Halteman. Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

          Frost, Michael and Hirsch, Alan. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003.

          Gillbreath, Edward. “Harder Than Anyone Can Imagine.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 36-43.

          Kennedy, John W. “Big Dream in Little Rock.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 42-43.

          Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

          Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

          Wilson, Peter. “Ethnic Diversity ‘Breeds Mistrust’.” The Australian,,20867,20554070-5001561,00.html. 10/10/2006. Accessed 17/9/2009.

          Yancey, George. One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

          Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

          ———. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

          Resurrection and Renewal: Bigger and Better Than Going to Heaven When You Die

          Here’s the text of that sermon I gave at  Network Vineyard Church on 12 July 2009.

          1. Introduction

          I want to talk about an area of faith where my whole way of thinking was turned upside down. And that’s about heaven. I’m anticipating three possible reactions – boredom, disagreement and excitement. I hope the excited group of people is the biggest one. If you already know everything I’m going to say, come see me and I’ll arrange for you to get your money back out of the offering. If you disagree with me because you have a strong contrary opinion, I understand, but have a think about it. But I’m thinking there are some of you here today who will be inspired to find new hope and meaning in your life and your understanding of what your faith is all about.

          I spent the first nineteen years of my life with an unhealthy view of physical reality. I believed that God was going to destroy the Earth one day. I believed that my future state was to live as a soul floating around in heaven, with no physical body.

          When you think that God is going to destroy his creation, plucking out as many souls as he can before he throws the Earth on the fire, you tend not to care as much about what happens here and now. The injustices that plague our world become unimportant. Doing good seems futile. Things can only get worse; why try to do good? Why care about the environment? About climate change? It’s only going to get worse; the whole earth’s going to be thrown out like a disposable cup. More than that, all of life feels a bit pointless. You’re waiting around for heaven, and the only useful thing you can do is evangelise.

          When I was nineteen and studying theology at uni, at one stage I got overwhelmed. I had so many questions and challenges to what I’d thought in the past. Fortunately, there was a man named Ian who was a mentor to me. I rang him and he told me to come around. I didn’t have a car, so I had to catch a bus into the city and then one out to his place; it took nearly two hours. When I got there, I was ready to pounce on him with all my questions about the sources and authorship of Genesis and Deuteronomy and the history behind them. But instead, he asked me a question. I think the Holy Spirit inspired him to ask it, because on the face of it, it had nothing to do with my situation.

          He asked me, ‘What happens after we die?’
          I said, ‘We go to heaven.’
          But then he asked, ‘What about after that?’
          And when I looked at him like he was playing a trick on me, he told me two things.

          First of all, that the Earth wasn’t being thrown in the bin, but was going to be redeemed and renewed.

          Second of all, I wasn’t going to live as a disembodied soul in heaven forever, but at Christ’s return, I would be resurrected to live on the renewed Earth. Our resurrection bodies were to be more physical, more real than our current ones – not less. Heaven, he told me, was only a waiting place for something better.

          Basically he told me that Christianity was bigger and better than going to heaven when I died.

          Resurrection and Renewal

          You can now hear the sermon I gave on Sunday on the Network Vineyard website.  It’s about resurrection of our bodies and life on a renewed earth as the substance of our future hope, rather than eternity in a disembodied heaven. I took the dangerous step of opening the floor for questions at the end. It was nerve-wracking, but I love thinking on my feet. (I just have this problem of obsessing over how I could have given a better answer or have not made that embarrasing gaffe.)