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Theologian John Stackhouse up again for Q&A tonight

IN THE MEDIA 

Monday 13 July 2015

John Stackhouse

John Stackhouse

Invited back to the ABC Q&A panel tonight is John Stackhouse, Professor of Theology & Culture at Regent College Vancouver. Stackhouse will join Former leader of the Liberal Party John Hewson, South Australian Labor MP Amanda Rishworth, war correspondent and filmmaker Michael Ware and the director of the Lowy Institute’s polling program, Alex Oliver.

Stackhouse appeared on the controversial panel program in 2014, where he gave an impressive answer to a question about where God is in the evil of the world. You can read that response, here.

Stackhouse is in Australia this month lecturing at Tabor College in Adelaide and Morling College in Sydney.

We spoke to Stackhouse while he was in Australia last year. Read John Sandeman’s interview with him, here: 

In an age when Christians have slipped from being regarded as ridiculous to being regarded as evil, how should we present ourselves to the world? 

Well it would be good if we tried to hold the ridiculousness and wickedness to a minimum.

The more solidarity you can have with the good things that are happening in our society, the less awkward and obnoxious we will appear because we have made friends and allies out of our neighbours.

And that is saying something. Particularly in an age when church discipline seems to be medieval and (Christian) leaders are largely able to succeed or fail by their own charisma rather than coming under external constraints.

So we need to help each other by doing what the Bible says we should do, which is to reprove each other and to exhort each other and to have sufficiently strong friendships that we can help each other when we stray out of line, even if our intentions are good.

And often they are. A lot of the people [who] embarrass the church or make it hard for the church to be taken seriously are sincere but hurt and that’s where the various gifts of the body of Christ help us put our best face and foot forward.

I also think we need to try to appreciate that our fellow human beings are created in the image of God. And that God has inclined all human beings, at least somewhat, to fulfil his command in the first part of the Bible to take the world as he gives it to us and to “garden” it, to cultivate it and to improve it.

In the laboratories of Universities where good science is being done, God is glorified, without people intending to praise his name. Where good business is being done in the tall towers of major cities, God’s will is being done.

Even as we do see in the Bible a binary character, darkness and light, death and life, having to be born again, we also need to appreciate God is working all around the world to achieve many purposes at the same time.

The more solidarity you can have with the good things that are happening in our society, the less awkward and obnoxious we will appear because we have made friends and allies out of our neighbours.

Is this what you mean by “humble apologetics”? 

Yes it is partly that, John. It is also what I mean in a later book called “Making the best of it”—we follow Christ in a real world. God calls for human beings to get into the Bible and take on the world and make something good of it. It is good for Christians to recognise and support and even ally us with other good things happening in the world. That‘s just doing the will of God in the world.

Then, when it is time for us to share our faith, when it is time for us to be explicitly Christian; we have understood the vocabulary of our friends, we have formed relationships with respect, possibly friendships with them. If we have understood their needs, and if we have understood our limitations, we can offer to them—as a gift—our understanding of faith and the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

That does not mean they are going to take the gift. But it does mean we are poised to offer our faith in a way that others will find optimally interesting—and not threatening. Nowadays that is a success.

Where do you see the bright spots for Christianity in the western world? 

I think one of the bright spots today, John, would be the holistic sense that many young Christians have that loving Jesus means enthusiastically praising him on Sunday morning but also spending the previous Saturday caring for the poor, caring for the addicted, caring for the lonely.

Where previous generations would have felt obliged to make a Biblical argument, for say the ordination of women, it seems that in the debate today about same sex marriage many do not even feel obliged to even try a biblical argument, beyond citing biblical norms of justice or compassion and acceptance and so on. And it is an appeal to intuition.

In a previous generation, evangelical Christians had to be convinced that social concern and the gospel were equal parts of mission in the world. Now, our 19th century forebears did not need to be convinced of that. In the 20th century because of various pressures we lost sight of a full gospel.

But younger people seem to get that justice and compassion form an important part of the Christian mission, without losing any enthusiasm for Jesus and spiritual things. It’s middle-aged types like you and I that miss out.

From Regent College you have got a good spot to observe North America—how do you see North America fitting into the Christian world?

North American Christianity of course is variegated. There are enough people and resources there to try all sorts of experiments, and some of them work and some of them don’t. As I say, I am encouraged in a number of our cities to see young people with a holistic approach to things.

Secondly, again among younger people in North American cities, there is a relaxed acceptance of people regardless of race or sex. Sometimes that can spill over into a kind of broad warm acceptance which can be too accepting—and that fails to make distinctions the Bible might want us to make.

But at the same time there is a commendable sense that race is just interesting, it is not a failure; and men and women treat each other as interestingly different but not subordinate to one another. And that is a great move ahead I think, treating each other as we should and modelling to the world what Christian community can and should be. There is neither slave nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

There are lots of dark spots in North American Christianity, to be sure. There is a lot of waste, there is a lot of egotism, in the middle-west and the southern states there is still a lot of token Christianity. That is almost entirely gone from Canada: in Canada you generally only go to church if you really want to. The social gains you might get from going to church have gone in Canada, much like in Australia I understand.

Still among younger people there are signs of a broad acceptance, or embrace of the world. As I say, the danger to that is of not being rigorous about holiness when it comes to sexuality, perhaps being a bit squishy when it comes to questions of homosexuality and sexual differences.

The appeal to intuition is alarmingly strong. Where previous generations would have felt obliged to make a Biblical argument, for say the ordination of women, it seems that in the debate today about same sex marriage many do not even feel obliged to even try a biblical argument, beyond citing biblical norms of justice or compassion and acceptance and so on. And it is an appeal to intuition. That is disturbing because [down] that way lies all sorts of problems.

Diversity is a great god of the age: so how do we present ourselves when we are unfashionably un-diverse in some of what we want to say? 

Yes, sometimes we in the theological arena we refer to this as the “scandal of particularity”. Just one Lord. Just one faith. One baptism. Just one way to be properly reconciled to God. Frankly, there is no way around that if you are going to be a faithful Christian.

There is only one saviour and there is only one Lord because the system only requires one. And this candidate, Jesus of Nazareth, fits the bill: then you don’t need to look any further.

You do have to call people to be born again and you have to tell them that Jesus Christ is the only way, the truth and the life.

[Here’s] what I have found helpful when I have spoken about this to PhD students in China when trying to get their heads into this “strange Christian religion”, post-Maoist, post-Confucianist, post-Buddhist, a strongly materialist culture.

“Why do Christians insist on this one God?” they ask. And I explained to them the very logic of the Christian worldview actually requires that.

If, as Christians believe, a primary problem as human beings is a broken relationship with God—it’s not as Plato said, you don’t understand where the good life lies, it’s not as Buddha said, that we lack enlightenment as to where we are—the main thing in the Christian thinking is that the main problem is that we have had a falling out with God. And we have made many moral mistakes along the way that need to be repaired.

In that case we should repair our relationship with God, and we should atone for all of our sins.

And the problem from the Christian point of view is we are incapable of that.

The damage done is so great that we ourselves are not capable of fixing it.

To be sure we need education about our problem, but it doesn’t help.

We have incurred a debt, we have a stain we cannot remove, and the Bible is full of these metaphors.

So we are going to need help. We are going to need divine help. Happily for us there is one guy who has done what is necessary. To do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. So Jesus comes to us as Lord and saviour. Not only as guru, or example or as teacher. Jesus has done what needs doing. Once he has suffered and died for the sins of the world, and was resurrected and taken his place as Lord of the cosmos—you don’t need for or five more of those. You don’t need ten or twenty, you just need one.

The logic of the system requires one. And thanks be to God we have that one.

Now for human life to flourish around the globe, we need lots of moral teachers, we need lots of examples of how to live lives wisely. So Christians can appreciate the wisdom of Lao Tzu, Buddha and Mohammed and whoever.

But there is only one saviour and there is only one Lord because the system only requires one. And this candidate, Jesus of Nazareth, fits the bill: then you don’t need to look any further.

And the Chinese students get that. They say “That does make sense now. I see that it is not an arbitrary, wilful championing of our own version of what is right.”

There is a logic and if Christians take time to explain, we may still look odd but a lot less odious.

Which is exactly the attitude that we want them to have when we try to correct them, and reprove them with the gospel. So long as we remain self-satisfied, impervious to their criticisms, we can hardly expect them to welcome our calling them to the gospel.

In the West rather than China perhaps, we do look odious. How do we avoid being proud of that, and break through to our society? 

When I am criticised personally (and that happens with distressing frequency), my natural reaction is to blame my critics and to credit them with bad motives, their lack of intelligence, wickedness, and make all sorts of excuses. But my proper reaction should be to listen. To see if there is something in what they are saying.

As a Christian I should assume there probably is, since I am not entirely sanctified. There might be something to those criticisms. I may eventually conclude that someone has it in for me, that there may be a personal vendetta, but that should be my last resort not my first one.

My first resort should be humility and a willingness to listen to my fellow human being. They may be telling the truth.

I think if we Christians could begin to avoid assuming that everyone who is not a Christian is a minion of the Devil, and instead recognise that, yes while the Devil is the Prince of this world, and yes while there [are] understandings of a dichotomous division between the City of God and the City of man as Augustine put it, (I don’t mean to deprecate that), the reality is that people are at different points in their closeness to the kingdom.

Some people are quite close to the kingdom, some people are far away; some people are trying to get into the kingdom and some are quite antagonistic. So we must not assume that everyone is out to get us.

And if we can listen to those criticisms, that immediately puts us in a more positive light. It also means we practise what we preach about humanity. Certainly it models to our neighbours an ability to be wrong and to be corrected and to be reproved.

Which is exactly the attitude that we want them to have when we try to correct them, and reprove them with the gospel. So long as we remain self-satisfied, impervious to their criticisms, we can hardly expect them to welcome our calling them to the gospel.

One area where you have listened is where you call yourself a feminist. What do you mean by saying you are a feminist?

Yes “feminist” has become such an unpopular word. That I am using it less now, conceding that in contemporary jargon in North America at least, and perhaps down-under as well, “feminist” is understood to mean what we used to call a “radical feminist”.

Somebody who is probably female, probably lesbian, possibly misanthropic, damaged, a nuisance—that is the stereotype. The stereotype has been sufficiently strong for about 20 years that young women who by any previous measure would be feminists, don’t like the term. They like boys and they like men and they don’t feel aggressive and angry.

So I don’t need to use the term, but I use the term because I don’t think that the concerns of feminism have been entirely realised and answered, especially in the Christian church.

I think in society at large much of the battles have been won, but not in my religious tribe, evangelical Protestantism. I partly use the term to startle people a little bit. ”This is what a feminist looks like” and also to say that feminism is simply a concern for both biblical justice, not to do harm to people, but also a what I would call a marvellous biblical efficiency—to get all hands on deck to get everybody to work, both in the church and beyond, according to their strengths. And that is not having systems or arrangements that hold people back from fully realising what God has given them to do.

My sense is that in Australian society, as in Canadian society, there is no longer a biblical reason to observe a patriarchal system. I think there had been good reasons to observe that: through most of Christian history it was strategic and wise for Christians to observe the given patriarchy present in every culture in the world, even as we ameliorated it. Just as students of mine who work in Turkey or Pakistan sit in the back seat of the car, dress a certain way—they observe the patriarchal expectations of the culture. Because not to do so is going to imperil their gospel work. But when they come back to North America they don’t observe those strictures anymore because they are quite frankly sexist.

…We have failed to treat homosexuals as just like heterosexuals in the ways we should have. Namely, as fellow human beings, people entitled to respect, protection and liberty. We have failed frequently to give our fellow human beings the liberty God would give them. We have been more restrictive than God, it is fair to say.

They don’t believe in them, they simply observe them because some things matter more than others.

And that is the approach I have taken in understanding biblical feminism.

That approach, John, helps us avoid one of the real problems of Christian feminism, which is to rather summarily dismiss 2,000 years of Christian forebears as being wrong or compliant with evil. I don’t think that is fair or true.

I think the Apostle Paul is doing what the Holy Spirit wants him to do. Christians largely through 2,000 years of patriarchy have been doing what God wanted them to do.

Yes, sometimes we have done it badly, and mistreated women in many ways. But at other times I think we have been simply observing this strategic importance of complying with certain given cultural norms, like slavery, as well as patriarchy in order that the gospel will flourish.

Nowadays, the scandal is that we haven’t observed the new freedom that society is willing to grant.

You will have some Christians offside with you at that point; those who want to preserve an ideal of headship. What do you say to them?

I would say that I understand that view. I was raised in that view. I think that many of my friends observe such a mild and benevolent version that I frankly can’t see any difference, between their marriage and mine and their approach and mine. So in some cases I fail to get worked up about it.

At the same time I have gone to the trouble of writing a little book on this and I am re-writing it to expand its scope. I think that many people in my circles don’t need to keep thinking the way they have about male headship.

It has gone from being merely irritating to being a true obstacle to the gospel. Whereas, as I say, in the New Testament era full-on gender equality would have been offensive to the larger society and posed an obstacle to the gospel. Now many contemporary Canadians see even slight gender distinctions as just incredible, as it would be in Australia.

the point of being a Christian is not to be a Christian, it is to be a properly functioning human being, and to help other people become properly functioning human beings. The more we can do that, the more we are “imaging” what the whole point of the gospel is all about.

Now if we have to hold to it because the Bible says so then we should. But if we don’t have to, and I don’t think we do, then we should hurry to shed those.

Would you draw a distinction between that idea and society’s view which would be similar about homosexuality?

Wisdom is always making the right distinctions about the right things, isn’t it? In some ways, because we traditional Christians have understood the Bible to treat homosexuality as importantly different than heterosexuality, not just different but worse, as in fact a bad thing, one of psychological, sexual, sin. Not what God intends for humanity.

Because we have gotten that message, which is quite clear and univocal throughout the scripture, we have then failed to treat homosexuals as just like heterosexuals in the ways we should have. Namely, as fellow human beings, people entitled to respect, protection and liberty. We have failed frequently to give our fellow human beings the liberty God would give them. We have been more restrictive than God, it is fair to say.

So what society has done is to correct one extreme by going to the other extreme. We had been treating homosexuals badly in just about every way, and we shouldn’t have. Now we’re treating them as “normal” in just about every way.

From a traditional Christian view that is an equal but opposite mistake. The path of biblical wisdom is to sort out in which ways all human beings are entitled to the same dignity, care, love and appreciation. We are all in this together. We are all sexually broken. We are all sexually confused. It is not just that we all have sins. We are sexually broken—it is such a rich, complex part of life.

Then, we have grounds where we can help each other with our various difficulties. As mutually concerned human beings giving each other mutual respect.

It includes recognising in each other our own deficiencies and sinfulness and our need for help.

The extremes are not fully helpful. Somewhere in the middle is where I think healthy and healing relationships lie. But I suspect it will be another ten or 20 or 30 years before the pendulum swings.

In the meanwhile I take that the heart of what you are saying is that Christians should model good relationships and that is the best face we can put to the world.

Yes. Although I agree with what you say John, that good relationships are at the very heart of life. More broadly Christians need to get about being what I call properly functioning human beings.

The reason that God calls us to Jesus is not that the Christian religion can get bigger and bigger. It is not that God is interested, as it were, in hosting the largest party in the world or forming the largest club. The point is to save the world, to save the whole world, which means to get back into right relationship with God. Because in the world to come there won’t be any “Christians”. There will be no need for the Christian t-shirt in the world to come.

“’In that day they will not say to each other ‘know the Lord’ because they will all know me,’ says Yahweh.”

So the point of being a Christian is not to be a Christian, it is to be a properly functioning human being, and to help other people become properly functioning human beings.

The more we can do that, the more we are “imaging” what the whole point of the gospel is all about. The more plausibility that it has, the more attractiveness then it has, and the more naturally we will then have conversations with people saying “You know, I like visiting your family, you seem to have something we don’t have”, “I like going to your church”, “I like hanging out with your Christian friends”, “You seem to have it together in a way that we don’t”, “Even when you don’t have it together you seem to have something else”.

… “Well let me tell you about the something else”.

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