The Mars Hill crash & me

The last 12 months have been devastating for Mars Hill Church in Seattle and their globally recognised teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll. Numerous former and present pastors, elders and members have described the church culture as abusive and manipulative, and criticised a process of concentration of extraordinary power among very few hands, including the power to silence employees.

Famously, Mark has described the process of dealing with those who do not buy into the Mars Hill vision:

“Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission, and if people don’t sign up, you move on. You move on. There are people that are gonna die in the wilderness, and there are people that are gonna take the hill. That’s just how it is. Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done…. ‎You either get on the bus, or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

As a result, the Mars Hill story has become a byword for the dangers of allowing untested young pastors with strong convictions and dominant personalities to exercise senior church leadership in the absence of effective oversight.

Now, I’m not really interested in talking much more about Mars Hill. There is much of Mark Driscoll’s ministry for which I am unashamedly thankful. There are other parts that I’d rather not have seen. However, it isn’t my job to offer commentary on third-hand insights into the inner life of the church.

What interests me – interests, that is, in the sense of morbid fascination and regretful reflection – is this question: how much of this is true of me?

(By the way, I’m fully aware of the incipient narcissism of this piece – I’ve just said that I don’t want to talk about them, I’d rather talk about me. Sorry. Guilty as charged.)

I am a relatively young pastor, or at least I was when I became the senior minister of St Barnabas Broadway, one of Sydney’s most iconic churches. My gifts don’t hold a candle to Mark’s; nor, however, have I had some of the same charges levelled at me. But I do hold strong reformed convictions. I am fairly driven, and have little time for liberalism or wooly-headedness. And I have made decisions that have hurt members of my church. I am prone to spin. I often shortcut important processes. I have a tendency to drive others towards my preferred outcomes without truly hearing their concerns.

And although I don’t resile from any of the hard choices I have made over the last few years, I don’t think I’m quite the white hat I’ve always believed.

I catch up regularly with a bunch of other young ministers, many of them church planters, and this theme is depressingly common. We have been tasked with starting new churches or revitalising old ones. Our relative youth has been named as a source of energy, and our strong convictions as a source of change. Some of us can point to significant conversions and growth. And yet all of our churches – as far as I’m aware – have balls of hurt, disappointment or resentment. The decisions we have made, and the way in which we have made them, have led to people leaving our churches, or just disappearing in them. And we are the source of this, too. In other words, there are ‘dead bodies’ behind our buses, too.

And it’s beginning to dawn on me that I don’t know how to lead a church where this isn’t true. And that’s really sad. And worst of all, the line between me and a Mars Hill sometimes seems a little hard to pin down.

Prayer and mission

Col 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. Col 4:3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Nowhere else in Paul’s writings is the connection between the prayer of the church, and the work of mission, so simply and powerfully put.

The motive power of prayer is ‘alertness’

All of us find it hard to pray at times. So when Paul says, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful’, it should seize our interest that he is not speaking of the content or even manner of prayer, but of its motivation. Prayer, Paul says, is motivated by alertness.

Let me explain. How are ‘watchfulness’ and ‘thankfulness’ related? The answer is that they both have to do with being alert to certain realities. The watchful person is alert to the activity of sin and Satan in the world. John writes,

1 John 5:19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.

The watchful person is alert to, is mindful of, is vigilant to this reality, and the consequent rebelliousness and darkness of the world.

In contrast, the ‘thankful’ person is alert to the reality of God. The thankful person takes heed that God is the Creator of all things for our enjoyment, who made us for himself, and who will rightly judge the wicked rebellion of his creatures. And the thankful person is alert to God’s entry into history: that the same love that erupted into the abundance of the universe has also paid the price for the rescue of foolish humankind.

1 John 2:1    My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

An evil world. An effective atonement for sins. The watchful and thankful person is alert to both these realities.

But what will bring the two together?

The bridge is prayer

Paul goes on to ask for prayer for two things. Let’s take a moment to look at what these things are, and then draw our final conclusion: that the bridge is prayer.

Firstly, he asks ‘that God may open a door for our message’. As a side note, the language of open doors has nothing to do with guidance in the bible. Paul sees a closed door, but it is no deterrent: pray that God opens it, he asks.

In other words, Paul’s prayer is that mission will be founded on the work of God. Until God opens the door – to opportunity, to people groups, to hearts, to sending churches, to generous wallets – mission is impossible.

But in God’s providence, God’s own work is not the full story.

Secondly, Paul says, ‘Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.’

There is a school of thought that suggests that the human dimension in proclamation is largely irrelevant, except as a vessel. They point to Paul’s recognition of his own inadequacies. And yet, if the quality of proclamation has no bearing on the effectiveness of mission, why would Paul ask for prayer that he would speak ‘clearly’?

After all, ‘clear communication’ is a subtle and complex exercise. It depends on the capacity of a speaker to translate ideas and meanings across the interpersonal, cultural, socio-economic and experiential gap. Clearly communicating the gospel isn’t merely about not leaving out crucial pieces of doctrine, or getting confused about the big issues. Communication that fails to recognise the culture into which it speaks isn’t even truthful communication, because it does not allow for the different meanings that may be read off words in different contexts. In this sense, for example, the KJV is not a true communication of the gospel in my culture, because a ‘superfluity of naughtiness’ (KJV; James 1:21) does not truly reflect the meaning of the biblical text.

So, Paul asks for prayer that God would work and he would be clear. I take it, then, that Paul assumes that without prayer it is less likely that either of these two things would happen. And if neither of them do happen, then the saving work of Christ and the rebellion of our world would never be bridged by the news of the gospel.

This is why we pray for mission

This, then, is why we pray for mission. We pray because we are motivated by the alertness to the reality that

  1. people face the sure judgement of God as a consequence of their wickedness;
  2. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for anyone in the world to be saved; and
  3. prayer is instrumental in the necessary work of God and effective proclamation of the Christian of the news that brings the two together.


Why women should not be silent in the churches

Last week, I wrote a short post called ‘Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?‘. The post wasn’t intended to mount an argument for one position or another. Rather, it was written in response to questions I have been asked from inside and outside the church that I pastor, St Barnabas Broadway. The theological position of any pastor and teacher matters. Because Barneys is a church in which the theological method of thousands of potential leaders is shaped, what I teach has a particular kind of importance (not more, mind – just particular).

Since then, and at time of writing, the above article has been viewed 4,698 times.

I’ve been contacted numerous times to ask why I am so quick to set aside the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Here is a brief response.

The wrong place to start

The key verses usually referenced as the starting point for this discussion are found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

1 Tim 2:11-12 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

When I say the ‘starting point’, what I mean is that these verses are sometimes (though not always) treated as a relatively clear and straightforward baseline from which all conversation diverges. Any other passages may be called upon only to clarify or qualify the clear intent of Paul’s instruction.

There are two problems with this approach.

Firstly, the section in which Paul treats on this issue is, in Timothy, very brief. Paul clearly assumes a great deal in background knowledge on the part of the letter’s recipients.

Secondly, the context of these verses is both difficult and contested. The explanation that Paul offers immediately following his instruction is widely considered one of the most challenging passages (even in the underlying Greek!) in the New Testament.

1 Tim 2:13-15 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I want to suggest, therefore, that 1 Tim 2 is the wrong place to start this conversation

A better beginning

A better place to begin is in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Cor 14, we read:

1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

As a side note, this dismisses the argument that Paul’s instruction to Timothy was somehow rooted in the peculiar religio-cultural context of Ephesus. In 1 Tim 2, he appealed to creation, and in 1 Cor 14, to the law, and in both cases placed a particular limit or focus on the ministry of women in the public assembly of the church.

However, let’s return to the main point, which is this: there is great advantage in starting with 1 Cor 14 (within, of course, a biblical theology that encompasses the whole counsel of God). The main benefits of 1 Cor 14 are that:

  • The passage in which the text is located is a substantial and continuous argument, running from chapters 11 to 14.
  • The passage in which the text is located is relatively transparent (at least in comparison to 1 Tim 2).

A surprising start

Here is the curious thing about 1 Cor 11-14. Although it appears to land in the same place as 1 Tim 2 – with a prohibition on women conducting any kind of public word ministry in the congregation – it starts with a clear expectation that women will be speaking in the church. I say ‘in the church’ because Paul’s regulation of prayer and prophecy by women in 1 Cor 11:1-16 is in continuity with vv.17ff, which is about the assembly.

Whatever else this may mean, it is clear that Paul must have a specific, rather than broad, context for women being silent. He expects women to conduct word ministry within the congregation. In fact, I would suggest that he expects more than prayer and prophecy. Prayer and prophecy, along with speaking in tongues, simply happen to be two of the Spirit-led ministries of the Lord that Paul is most interested in addressing in this letter to the church in Corinth. Accordingly, the letter is situational, rather than systematic, and doesn’t treat of the different ministries with anything like equal emphasis. I suspect, therefore, that when Paul goes on to mention

1 Cor 14:26 ‘….a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation…’

he is simply continuing an informal and non-exhaustive list of various kinds of ministries of the Word that extend his original list of prayer, prophecy and tongues.

But there is still a context in which women are to be silent. What is it?

The context for silence

Here is my view, which finds support from scholars as various as D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer and Anthony Thiselton.

Paul’s instruction is that women are to remain silent in the testing of prophecies and other supposedly Spirit-led utterances in the congregation, where that testing is part of a broader body of authoritative activity such as ‘teaching.’

Here is the fuller context for the key verses:

1 Cor 14:29    Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 1 Cor 14:34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

The context to Paul’s command that ‘women should remain silent’ is prophecy. This is very significant to our question, since Paul can’t possibly mean that women should be silent and not prophecy, since he has already affirmed and regulated prophecy by both men and women in 1 Cor 11. What makes the most sense to me is that he is proscribing the involvement of women in the testing of prophecy. Testing is the act of evaluating and assessing the content of the prophecy.

This means two things. Firstly, the content of prophecy is not authoritative in the life of the church because of the form of the act. Just because it looks like it is of God, does not mean that it truly is of God. Secondly, it means that there is a higher order of Word ministry that is able to set aside lower forms.

This higher order of ministry is authoritative and restricted. What could it be? I want to suggest that it is that thing which Paul calls ‘teaching’. Almost without exception in the New Testament, ‘teaching’ refers to the work of those in authority. I would suggest that it is particularly associated with the office of the elder in the church. Since elders are only to be men, it would make sense that women are not to practice an activity that is the responsibility of male elders.

Back to 1 Tim 2

Now, Scripture does not contradict itself. The Bible isn’t a set of complex and conflicting human accounts of their encounter with the divine, but the divinely inspired and infallible Word of God.

In other words, if 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are discussing the same thing, then they must come to the same conclusion.

I would argue that this falls out quite naturally when 1 Tim 2 is read in light of 1 Cor 14, rather than vice versa. When Paul prohibits women from teaching and exercising authority over men, he is restricting them from those authoritative, standard-setting Word ministries that are properly the province of elders, who may only be men.

Aside from this, godly women – alongside men – are not merely allowed but expected to participate in Spirit-led ministry of the Word in the congregation.

The glass ceiling

But this leaves a very real elephant in the room. Doesn’t this devalue women?

Richard Rorty, the late great American philosopher imagines “a child found wandering in the woods, the remnant of a slaughtered nation,” and asks if such a lost person should have “no share in human dignity.” He explains:

it does not follow that she may be treated like an animal. For it is part of the tradition of our community that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be reclothed with dignity. This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.

This is of enormous significance.

In the ancient world, up until pre-Enlightenment, it was widely held that your value was based on birth. This was the concept of aristocracy. At the top were the patricians, and at the bottom, the slaves, and only a little above that were women. Women were part of the household over which the father exercised pater families, which included power over life and death.

This particularly affected children, especially girls. A chilling letter from a pagan husband to his wife captures the casual nature of these values among the pagans:

Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.

As society changed, the aristocracy became a plutocracy (how wealthy you are) and a technocracy (your bureaucratic power) and it is now, theoretically at least, a meritocracy. Persons are valuable according to what they can do. This is a dispiriting and dehumanizing vision of humanity. It inevitably leads the marginalization of the very young and very old, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

In a meritocracy, no matter how much we’d like to pretend we believe in the equality of humankind, the CEO is worth far more than the janitor. This is the inevitable consequence of believing that your value lies in what you do.

Christians, on the other hand, are taught to value people because God values people. Humans are made in God’s image, irrespective of the shape that image has taken. And this means that there is no connection between what men and women do (or what children, the elderly, the poor or the disabled do), and their worth in the eyes of God.

In my next article on this theme, I will discuss the relationship between Paul’s list of Spirit-led ministries of the Word, and the activity of preaching.


PART 3: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

You could be forgiven for thinking that this series of posts is fundamentally about cash.

Actually, it has almost nothing to do with money.

Money works as an example of the two points I’ve made (slowly) so far:

  1. Churches make commitments that are not as flexible as the size of their membership.
  2. When members leave, this can have a huge impact on the commitments their churches have made.

So, we’re left with a couple of extremes. Should churches just stop planning? Should they never commit to anything they can’t pull out of, at a moment’s notice, with no impact? Should they stop taking out loans to buy land or build facilities?

Or, on the other hand, should church membership be tightened up? Should movement amongst churches according to personal volition be restricted? Before you assume that this is a ridiculous escalation, keep in mind that the 9Marks folks are vigorous advocates of a theology of covenant amongst members (see, for example, Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows who Represents Jesus). So is Mars Hill. And Redeemer Presbyterian.

And, usually, these covenants involve a commitment by a church member not to unilaterally resign their membership, though this has been tested in the  highest courts (!).

Well, what does the Bible say?

1. We belong to a church and the church

Christian leaders are made responsible for specific sheep. Peter tells elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:2). Paul says the same to the elders in Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The elders know whom they are responsible for. This implies that there is a mutually expressed commitment.

Christians are responsible to submit to specific leaders. The author of Hebrews writes, “Heb 13:17  Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” Clearly, the believers must know who their leaders are, and who their leaders aren’t. Therefore, there is a church that they belong to. And there are churches that they do not belong to.

At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the New Testament uses ‘the church’ in two totally different ways. Let me show you through two very similar passages in Acts.

In Acts 16:5 we read,

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

These churches are local churches. They are a group of people who regularly gather together in the same place to do churchy kinds of things.

But in Acts 9:31 we read,

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.

I hope you see right away that this is quite a different use of ‘church’. This can’t be talking about one group of people coming together for a Sabbath day meeting, because it is far too widely spread.

So we have local churches. And we have what Christians have called the church universal. The church universal is all of God’s people, from across all time and space, who are gathered by God around himself. It includes people who have already died, because those who are follow Jesus Christ can’t be lost to God through anything as temporary or unimpressive as death.

As a side note, church never means ‘denomination’. The Anglican Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, are not churches, and have no biblical significance.

2. You can leave your church, but not the church

The Bible says that you can leave your church.

The apostle Paul is converted on the road to Damascus, returns to Jerusalem to minister, is sent to Tarsus for safety and eventually brought to Antioch because of his skill with Greek. Apollos, a native of Alexandria, in Egypt, travels to Ephesus in Turkey and ends up church-planting in Corinth in Greece.

This moving-between-churches is a beautiful affirmation of the church universal. Wherever there is a church of Jesus Christ, there Christians belong more completely than within their own biological family. Wherever there is a church, it is your church, because it is Christ’s church, and all that belongs to Christ belongs to the Christian.

It is also a beautiful affirmation of the freedom brought by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ has won for his people freedom from the rules and legalism that oppressed us. The local church isn’t a cult from which you are not allowed to escape. It’s more like an oasis in the desert.

However, while this means is that Christians can leave a church, they can never leave the church without ceasing to be Christians, since the church – the church universal – is that body of all people whom God is saving.

3. Leaving should never involve a breach of submission

This is a point worth making. When was the last time you heard of someone being excluded from the local church? (Actually, formally excluded – not just that everyday failure to love and welcome that is so part of our broken experience?)

Christians are called to recognise a distinction between those who rightly claim to be Christians and those who do so falsely. In one letter, Paul tells the church in Corinth to “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Obviously, you cannot expel someone from a church unless they belong to a church in the first place.

However, it isn’t uncommon for someone, when confronted by a brother or sister for a pattern of behaviour, to simply change churches. Either this becomes a cycle of exposure and departure, or simply a means of choosing a church that is more permissive.

This makes a mockery of submission to our churches, and our mutual responsibility to encourage, exhort and rebuke.

4. The freedom to leave can be abused.

However, lastly, I do want to acknowledge that freedom can be misused.

Gal 5:13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Firstly, moving between churches in the New Testament appeared to involve significant reasons. People were sent by their churches for safety or mission, because of their particular gifts and potential contribution.

Secondly, it may well be that the need for a genuine reason arises from something scholars call proximate responsibility. This is the thoroughly biblical idea that there is a stronger call on my service by the one next to me than the one far away. It is my neighbour to whom I’m responsible. Galatians 6:10 calls us to do good to all people, ‘as we have opportunity.’ In this age of the global village, this is trickier.

Thirdly, the church is a community of formation. What I mean by this is that the church is called to spur one another on, to teach, encourage, exhort and rebuke. The church is to bring the Word of God to bear in insight, gentleness and love, on one another’s lives. But insight takes time. It takes time to cut through the crap and the façade to be able to speak truth to where someone is at.

But here, I think, is the big one. Christians are called to speak the gospel to one another in the church. By actions, not just words. There are some reasons to change churches that undermine the gospel. When we say, ‘that church has more people like me’, we say by our actions that we prefer to act in love towards those we find easy to love. When we say, ‘relationships would be easier at that church than here,’ we are saying that we prefer to avoid the hard slog of forging connection with others. But the gospel is about God’s difficult love for us, the profoundly unlovely, in Jesus Christ. I think this goes deeper, too. How we treat others, is how we assume we are treated. And our experiences at the hands of others mediates how we assume God treats us.

How am I ever to truly grasp that God loves me with a costly love if I don’t love with a costly love in church? How are we ever to really find confidence in the faithfulness of God if we don’t experience at least a hint of unfailing faithfulness to us in our Christian brothers and sisters?

And, above all things, our faithfulness to church is a true appropriation of gospel freedom. You see, our world tells us that you are nothing if not the fulfilment of your longings. To refrain from satisfying a desire is not just repression – it is a denial of our true selves. To withhold anything after which our hearts yearn is to create an incomplete life.

However, the gospel recognises that everything we are chasing after is but a shadow – its consummation is God. This sets us free from the fear of missing out; from the fear that a better experience, a deeper community or a more compelling mission is just around the corner. Yes, we are free to leave our churches. But this freedom would be no freedom at all if we had to exercise our freedom to remain whole. True freedom is found when we are also free not to seize hold of our freedom. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul, when he writes,

1 Cor 9:12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.


5. Leaving is not an end to the obligation to love

The persecution-led diaspora of Christians from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4) was the beginning of global mission. It was made up of a scattering of believers from their home church, and the founding of new churches.

But this was not an end to the obligation to love the church of Jerusalem. In Romans 15:25-27, Paul speaks of the idea of a spiritual debt to be met by a collection for the poor in Jerusalem during a time of famine:

Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.


Blessing came from the church of origin, in Jerusalem. And so there is joyful call to bless in return. Daughter churches are not independent of the churches through and from which they have come.

6. The conversation that established churches and church plants need to have

This, then, is the conversation that established churches and church plants need to have.

  1. Pastors of established churches need to understand & love that their flock are always free to start a new plant. The pressure that pastors have often put on their members not to leave, as if for biblical reasons, needs to stop.
  2. Church planters need to consider how their new church can be a source of blessing for the churches from which its members come. There is no such thing as a ‘new start’ without any obligations to love a previous fellowship. This is particularly important for the young core that often make up a new plant: they need to be taught that you must not walk away from the call to love.
  3. A really concrete way in which this might happen would be for church plants to consider how they might be a blessing as source churches wrestle with their commitments. For example, rather than starting a new social justice initiative as a way of being distinctive, a church plant might urge its members to keep partnering in support of the schools programme of the church they have left. Church planters could meet with church pastors (who would have to learn to be open to this discussion!) to talk about the impact of a cohort joining the church plant, how they might work together to mitigate the impact.

It’s just a conversation. But I don’t see it happening all that much at the moment. And I’m convinced it would be great for the kingdom, and for building trust, and for planting churches.

And for the glory of God.


PART 2: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

Last week I made the boring but necessary point that some church costs can scale with size, whereas others do not.

Today, I want to tell a fable, and then ask a question.

New Church

Suppose a church plant – let’s call it ‘New Church‘ – reaches a stage in their life together when they decide to purchase and renovate a local Art Deco cinema complex. New Church have been bouncing around various community facilities, but at a special meeting of their membership, the vote was cast to take out a loan and dive in. After all the fundraising and planning and construction, the outstanding amount of the loan is $1 million. It’s a lot of money, but with New Church‘s demographics – young, inner city workers – it’s an easy load to bear.

Three years down the track, and New Church has begun to diversify. Many of its original core team are now in the family mode. Church has got a lot more complex, what with the need for kids workers and the installation of a crying room. The all-black decor has been compromised, too, with a brightly coloured corner for breast-feeding mums and toddlers, as well as signage for the playgroup that has just started up.

New New Church

Then, down the road – literally, down the road, about 200m away –  New New Church opens its doors. The launch of New New Church reminds New Church members of their early days. Only, since then, the church planting scene has got a whole lot more sophisticated. The social media campaign is like a stealth blitz by internet ninjas. The graphics somehow manage to be both edgy and laid-back, communicating authenticity and excellence at the same time (no one knows exactly why, but they all agree it’s true). New New Church doesn’t have congregational ministers, but a Preaching and Vision Pastor and an Executive Director and a Community Pastor and about 50 interns.

All of this taps into something. And a group of young professionals over at New Church decide that this is a vision and a church plant that they want to support.

‘There’s always room for another church,’ they cry, as they tearfully farewell New Church and walk down the road to New New Church, full of great dreams.

A strange thing happened

The folks at New Church don’t know quite what to do. For years, they’ve talked about the importance of establishing new churches. Their lead pastor has been a keynote speaker at a number of church planting conferences and contributed to boot camps for aspiring church planters. It’s part of their DNA, their community story, that they ought to be excited about New New Church.

And, mostly, they are. The truth is that there are 500,000 people within 5km and, no matter how fast New Church grows, it can only ever scratch the surface. Multiplying churches is the only way that the gospel can penetrate the tough, hedonistic and profoundly secular culture of their city. They’ve been praying for new visionaries to found new gospel communities and for a wave of revival.

There’s only one problem.  You see, they still have building debt. And while it was easy to service at first, with every member of the church a young professional with a young professional’s income, things have changed. Most of the young families now have only one parent working. Plus they’ve got the extra costs of kids ministry. And the children certainly can’t pay.

So this strange thing has happened. Even though the church has been growing – faster even than the local population – the number of people earning an income and able to give has declined slightly. And suddenly, with a cohort of young workers leaving for New New Church, the load on those who remain has increased dramatically.

In fact, for each income earner giving to the church, the cost of fixed items (see last week’s blog) has gone from 15% of their weekly giving to 30% of their weekly giving. And that’s huge. At a time when New Church feels like it needs its staff more that ever, the staffing budget takes a 15% hit.

They don’t know how to feel

And, here’s the thing. Those members who have stayed at New Church don’t know how to feel. They want to celebrate the fact of a new gospel community reaching the local area. They want to be that church – you know, the church who gives its resources away, joyfully and freely.

But they also feel a little bit betrayed. They thought their church was in this together. They thought they’d agreed to shoulder the cost of buying a new building together. They never thought a significant cohort of the church would just walk away from the loan repayments.

And it’s not just the building and the loan. Because of the increased cost of repayments per income earner, they’ve had to cut the support their church has given (and had committed) to an orphanage in Africa. And they had some ministries to local public housing, but because these were mostly run by the young workers, they’ve had to close down. And the thought of no one checking in on the local shut-ins breaks their hearts.

The question

So here is the question. The question that I’ve never heard asked. The question is thus:

In light of the gospel, what is the nature of the ongoing obligation of a church member to the commitments that their church makes as a community? 

And the second question is like it:

What impact should the above obligations have on the church planting conversation and, in particular, the transfer of members?

More next week.


Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?

In recent days, a number of people have asked me where I stand in the issue of women preaching in church. This is a question that matters to me. It matters because I’m the senior minister of one of the most recognisable Anglican churches in the country. It matters because my church, St Barnabas Broadway, has a history of women in the pulpit. It matters because I hold brothers and sisters to be precious on both sides of this argument. It also matters to me because I’m convinced, for whatever reason, that God has gifted me as a trainer of preachers. I have a small group of capable men and women who gather with me on Friday afternoons to develop as public ministers of God’s word. My vision is to see Barneys as the most prolific producer of compelling proclaimers of the gospel in Australia. Among those being trained are women. And so it’s important for me to know: what kind of preaching ministry do I think I’m training them for?

A confession

Firstly, let me make it clear that this is not an exegetical study. I don’t want to use a blog to step into the current war of words about the meaning of the word ‘didasko’, or the more vigorous discussion about books and responses. This is much more a personal confession, in the Augustinian sense – a brief statement of what I believe and practice, so that those near me may know clearly where I stand.

Men and women

So, then, here is where we begin: with my conviction that men and women are different. Different not only in who they are (in general, and as ‘kinds’), but different in how they are called to love and serve. This view is usually known as ‘complementarianism’. In the Christian community, it is associated with conservative evangelical belief. However, it is worth noting that amongst the latest wave of secular feminism, there is a strong argument being made for the importance of difference. Earlier feminism made the claim that women can do everything men can do (which, in terms of capacity, is hard to dispute). Contemporary feminisms (there are a plurality) observe that this appears to have resulted in masculinity becoming the standard by which ‘successful’ femininity is judged. Eva Cox, a prominent Australian feminist (and no Christian!) has argued, rightly I think, that this has resulted in a subjugation of womanhood to culturally male values, and that we need a new set of measures of ‘success’ that allow for parenting decisions and different priorities. So, I believe that men and women are in some contexts called to different roles. This doesn’t include the workplace, or the sporting field, or even the military, in my view. However, it does include families (as husbands and wives), and churches. Please hear again that I do not believe that these roles are necessarily rooted in capacities – in technical language, gender is not merely an extension of biological sex.

Soft complementarianism

My understanding of these different roles will strike some as hopelessly regressive (a new apartheid). Others will understandably see a dangerous, creeping liberalism. This I can live with. It has always been my policy to be one person, in private and public, and this includes contested beliefs. I have called my position ‘soft complementation’ because I feel no need to stake out the middle ground. It is always better to call oneself names (‘soft’) than call one’s brothers and sisters names (‘hard’). And, besides, I don’t for a moment believe that those more conservative than me are remotely hard. Many of them are profoundly gentle, sensitive and grieving about the hurt this debate has caused, and full of a deep love for God’s church. They should be honoured for defending what they believe to be biblical. So, let me first summarise my position, and then I will explain: I am convinced that God desires a public word ministry by women in the mixed assembly of the church that includes preaching under the authority of a male elder. (Now, may the fireworks begin!) Briefly broken into pieces, here are my assumptions:

  1. The New Testament reserves a particular role in the life of the church, that of elder, for certain men (elder is not a description of age, but of office).
  2. Part of the task of elders is to preserve the life and doctrine of the church through authoritative teaching.
  3. The church is called to submit to the elders set over them.
  4. Men and women alike are expected to exercise a ministry of the word to one another in the assembly, which includes (but is not limited to) activities such as praying and prophesying.
  5. This general ministry of the word is not authoritative and, when exercised in the public assembly, is to be tested by the elders.
  6. Eldership in the Anglican church is established by ordination to the presbyterate.
  7. There is no general agreement around what constitutes prophecy in my church tradition, which is evangelical and Reformed Anglican, according to the 39 Articles.
  8. In a community of grace, our bias should be towards loosening, not tightening, and so I am happy to presume that the ‘word ministries’, which include prophecy and praying, include something very much like preaching, until it is demonstrated otherwise.
  9. Therefore, women (and non-elder men) can and should preach in the mixed assembly.
  10. However, it is also true that authority is not only ex officio, but socially constructed.
  11. Therefore, non-elders (and that includes men and women alike) should preach less often than elders.


There is one more thing that may be worth saying here. I was trained under Phillip Jensen through Campus Bible Study at the University of New South Wales. I love him dearly, am thankful to God for his ministry, and continue to partner with Phillip from time to time in important initiatives, and seek his counsel on difficult issues. However, I am not Phillip, and his views are not my views. That is as it should be. My own reading of the Scriptures has led me a little away from what I was taught at CBS. This was allowed, by the way, and those who characterise CBS or St Matthias as a sausage-factory for hardliners are simply ignorant. However, we are all shaped by our heritage. What this means is that while I support preaching by women in the congregation as a matter of biblical conviction, I have not always found it an entirely comfortable experience. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the place that trains the most women for preaching, and trains them the best, is CBS. But CBS does not train women to preach to mixed congregations. This means that women preaching before mixed congregations are unlikely to have the best training currently available. And, in turn, this means that, if you are a man, then you are less likely to hear a woman preach who has had the same investment in her preaching as most male preachers have experienced. Secondly, my considered position hasn’t entirely overridden my own story and consequent ingrained preference. And here is the most important sentence of this article: I choose to do what I think is right, not what I most enjoy or prefer. And that is what leadership is all about.

Why my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world

My wife is not the most amazing wife in the world.

Some of you – especially those who actually know my wife, Fiona – will be appalled at what I have written. You will note that when I first came on staff at my church, members of the congregation found it hard to believe we were married. I was ‘punching above my weight limit’, or so I was told. She was ‘out of my league.’ (These observations, of course, are absolutely correct.) Then, when I was asked to be the senior pastor, some members of the church sighed in resignation and said, ‘Well, at least we get to keep Fiona.’

My wife is an extraordinary woman. She is patient, kind, clever, godly and wise. Fiona loves reading the bible with mums who are new to (or new back to) faith. Since she started homeschooling our daughters (she is a great mum), she has had to schedule in bible reading with mums at 6am. I am in awe. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone but Fiona teaching me to love brussel sprouts.

But my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world. This is because the idea of the ‘most amazing wife’ is a category error. A non sequitur.

My problem is not with the word ‘amazing’. I trust that the world is filled with amazing wives, and amazing husbands, too. Rather, I object to the qualifier, ‘most’. ‘Most’ brings into play the language of comparison. ‘Most’ is a superlative. It implies that the value of what is being qualified is only found in comparison to other, lesser objects.

In other words, to say ‘my wife is the most amazing wife in the world’ is to say that her value lies in comparison to others. My joy in her qualities is not inherent and absolute, but rather in light of the lesser qualities of others.

And while this may be said of chocolate, or barrel waves, it ought not to be said of wives. Or husbands, churches or God, for that matter. My wife is not one of a set of ‘my wives’. She is uniquely my wife, and the value that I ought to set upon her arises from the fact of her being uniquely my wife, not how other wives are being wives to their husbands. Precisely because she is uniquely my wife – I have no other wives, and she is wife to no other – there is not possible or desirable basis of comparison.

You may complain that I am being pernickety. That the sentiment of the phrase is clear, and this entire blog mere soulless pedantry.

But I would say: don’t be silly. Words matter. Words really matter.

When our standard of preciousness is based on comparison, our language – and hence our very thoughts – have become a hostage to our culture of relativity. We live in a world where Facebook constantly corrodes the innocent delight we ought to have in our experiences by presenting to us the other, ‘better’ experiences our ‘friends’ are having at the moment. Our capacity to take simple pleasure in the moment, a child’s touch, a stray beam of sunlight, a task completed, has been eroded by the need to compare it. Does it stack up? Is it as good as what others are doing? This is the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), which is the ground of the hunger for perfect and authentic experience lying behind ‘you only live once’ (YOLO). They are both pathologies.

This isn’t mere speculation. Repeated studies have confirmed that we are a culture of hedonism but very little joy. We are manifestly more disenfranchised by every minute spent on social media.

When I speak of the very goodness of my bride, I do not want my language to drive my mind astray. I do not want to be lost in thoughts of how she compares; I want to be lost in her.

This is true, by the way, of church. My church is not the ‘best’ church. It is simply ‘my church’, and anyone who knows the gospel will also know that there is nothing more wonderful or profound that can be said than this.

One final note. I think that, most of all, our dependence on comparison means we are in danger of losing our sense of the absolute.

You see, God is not the subject of comparison. He is not the ‘best’ God. He is not even the ‘only’ God, as if there were a set of all Gods which happens to be empty except for him. He is uniquely the ground of what we mean when we use the word God. He is not the kindest – he is kindness itself. He is not the most beautiful. All beauty is but a pale reflection of Him.

If my language of value depends on comparison, how am I ever to apprehend anything of the absolute wonder of God?

PART 1: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

There is a conversation that church plants and established churches need to have.

It isn’t happening. And this is a problem.

Over three posts, I’m going to unpack some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between old and new churches, about effective resourcing of mission and about the dark side of the minister’s heart.

Another conversation

Many Christians have had a conversation with their pastor, and it goes like this.

It starts when the Christian informs their pastor that they are thinking of changing churches. There are all sorts of reasons church members may change churches. The apostle Paul travelled to Jerusalem to evangelise the Jews, to Tarsus for safety, to Antioch to help out Barnabas and to the world to proclaim Christ. For many of us, the causes are more prosaic.

At my church, St Barnabas Broadway, most people move away from the church because of either career or housing costs. We send people all over the world in order that they may become leaders in their field. And we send people all over Sydney because real estate in the inner city is apparently made out of solid gold.

And so the conversation happens. The minister impresses upon his brother or sister how there is a profound implied covenant within the life of the church. He earnestly argues that we need excellent – no, unimpeachable – reasons if we are to change churches. He sternly invokes words like faithfulness, partnership and perseverance.

There is much truth in all this. If you want hear the confronting way the Bible speaks to our decisions about church, check out my recent sermon video, ‘Why you should leave your church.’

However, I want to show you that there are other genuine issues, about which we have complicated and mixed feelings, that come into play here. Many of these issues don’t feel like they should make a difference. When we talk about them, it doesn’t really sound anything like the vital and organic missional community life that we would like to think of in connection with our church and the gospel of grace.

But they are real issues, and here is where we begin – with two kinds of cost.

Two kinds of cost

Churches have costs.

1. Fixed relative to the individual but variable relative to the overall church

The classic example of this kind of cost is staff.

Different staffing models produce different staff-to-church-member ratios. However, within a particular model, as a church grows or shrinks, two things are true.

Firstly, the staff-to-church-member cost tends to remain static. The church may employ one staff member for the first 100 people. When they grow to 200, they employ a second member of staff. It is true that these are ‘stepped’ increases, but the steps can be made more linear and gradual by employing part-time staff. The staff costs per church member remain more-or-less static, while the staff costs in relation to the overall church (or ‘in total’) are highly variable.

Secondly, the great advantage of this kind of cost is flexibility. At various stages in its life cycle, the church can adjust to ensure that the cost-per-member remains constant.

2. Fixed relative to the overall church but variable relative to the individual

The major form of this other kind of cost is church facilities.

No matter how many people turn up to church, the same number of lights need to be turned on. The bank doesn’t change its interest rate if you drop below 500 members. The roof doesn’t last longer if it shelters a smaller congregation.

These costs are fixed in relation to the overall church (yes, there may be additional wear-and-tear, but that’s usually a marginal issue). If your maintenance budget is $50,000 p.a., then it will still be $50,000 when your congregation doubles and $50,000 when it spirals into terminal decline.

However, these costs are variable relative to the individual church member. If a church with a $50,000 p.a. maintenance budget has 500 financial partners (giving members), they will each need to cover $100 p.a., or about $2 per week. If your church declines to 50 members, then they will each need to cover $20 per week. That’s pretty much the total average weekly giving per person in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Not every example of this kind of costs is as impersonal as a building, either. The needs of the unemployed single mother in the congregation, or of the local public school, or of the elderly shut-in around the corner, don’t change as your budget changes.

[As a side note: this is why churches that cannot use their resources effectively to see kingdom growth are a self-indulgent and wasteful exercise. This is true of the congregation of 16 saints who refuse to allow a church plant to have the run of their space for fear that things might be changed around. It is equally true of the church plant that rents its own funky space, produces its own website and collateral, and yet fails to result in conversion growth that wouldn’t have happened anyway. We need to be shrewd with our funds, and not waste mission resources for the experience of a few. Far better for staid Builders and funky Hipsters to groan together in a thoroughly middle-of-the-road church service, and give the extra funds to the poor or the local missionary society.]

Costs are nothing new


Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this problem has only arisen from the institutionalisation (and calcification) of the church. From the beginning, churches depended on financial commitments. When the early church met in the temple courts, someone had to pay for a place to gather (in those days, of course, it was through the temple tax). Someone had to supply the needs of those on the widows’ list.


NEXT WEEK: Sunk costs and church plants

Why I love the parish church

You might think, from the state of the current conversation around mission and church planting, that parish churches have had their day. That they are a quaint, nostalgic and ineffective legacy of comfy Christendom. But parish churches have never been more important.

It is true that a great deal of evangelism naturally proceeds along lines that largely ignore residential locality. In a highly mobile (geographically, economically and socially) culture, relationships often cluster around workplaces rather than neighbourhoods. Friendships are made more elastic – and, frankly, more vulnerable – by our reliance on the connections provided by cars. And, as Mark Driscoll has observed, the place where people play is sometimes the best place to invite them to worship.

However, it is also true that churches tend to target the ‘soft underbelly’ of society, rather than its hardened carapace. And this means that some tribes are vastly better served than others. Witness the recent rush of church planting aimed at young professionals in the inner  city. The density of this activity (it is too uncoordinated and uncooperative to describe as a movement at this stage) has led to something of an arms race of media, music, personality and venue to secure a slice of the pie of young Christians looking to escape the ‘burbs.

Interestingly, it isn’t young professionals in the inner city who are most underrepresented in evangelical churches. That title belongs to groups like mainland Chinese, ex-cons, the mentally-ill, long-term migrants isolated by language, Muslims, baby boomers, and communities from South America and the Mediterranean.

This is where the parish model comes in. The parish model insists – demands – that the local church take seriously the call of Christ to reach the hardest and most resistant corners of our multicultural world. It says: you may not follow the easy seams of your culture, like a river working its way to the sea. You must travel uphill. You must batter against granites. You must bridge cultural gorges, becoming all things to all people, rather than becoming just what you really wanted to be, anyway.

The parish model says: yes, there is no mission more economic than the mission to young professionals. Everyone of them has a salary, and nothing to spend it on except themselves and their church. But we are also called to love and evangelise the most uneconomic groups in our world.

And this, of course, demands a different kind of culture. One of sacrifice, where church can’t be ‘the way I like it’, since I am in the midst of diversity. The parish model creates middle-of-the-road churches. Churches where no one loves everything they do. Churches where they sing songs so old that they need an organ, or so new they contain 4 separate melodies. Churches where kids scream during the really, really deep part of the sermon.

Simply brilliant. I love the parish church.


The impossibility of excluding religious belief from the political sphere


On Monday night, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fronted the ABC’s Q&A panel TV show. By now, it would be hard to find a person interested in the intersection between religion and politics who is unaware of his comments. A Baptist pastor, Matt Prater, said:

From what I’m hearing, most Christians I connect with are voting against you, because they are disillusioned and because you appear to be chopping and changing your beliefs to get votes, with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?

And Mr Rudd responded with two points – one which I’m often surprised to find controversial, and another which, in the fullness of reflection, should make our Prime Minister a little embarrassed. Firstly, he said

They are gay if they are born gay… You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other.


As I wrote above, this ought to be largely uncontroversial amongst Christians, at least as a generalisation with exceptions.  I say ‘with exceptions’, not least because while human sexuality – and sexual orientation – is a complex, fluid, messy, and individualized human trait, and one that most likely has some genetic components, some insist on not being defined by biology. Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon famously declared that for her ‘being gay was a choice’. Prominent UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has said:


[A]n influence is not the same as a cause. Genes and hormones may predispose a person to one sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and determination are two different things.


Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent adds:


Thankfully, the experience of human endeavour tells us that who we are need not be determined by a biological accident. Yes, our genes influence our behaviour. But this does not determine who we are. We are not the slaves of our biology and possess a formidable capacity to make our own world and on a good day to even choose who we want to be.
To say what ‘is’, as David Hume famously observed, is not the same as declaring what ‘ought to be’. The Christian worldview is unaffected either way on the innateness or otherwise of sexual orientation.


But while Mr Rudd’s comments in support of gay marriage have attracted the most attention in the popular media, within the Christian community, it is his handling of the bible which has proved the greatest disappointment. When Mr Prater responded by asking:

Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?

the Prime Minister replied

Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.

Now, while I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this guff reproduced on an ABC discussion board, it is startling to hear this kind of wild error from a man who has spent some years learning Greek in order to better understand the Gospel of Luke. If you are in any doubt about the abysmal ignorance and misrepresentation involved in claiming the bible promotes slavery, I suggest you read this brief and helpful response.


However, I want to suggest that Kevin Rudd’s comments on gay marriage are less interesting and ultimately significant than those made by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Annabel Crabb interviewed Tony Abbott last night on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. When she broached the implications of his Catholic faith for policy leadership, Mr Abbott replied

I think it is essential that someone of faith understand that while faith is a splendid thing in private life it can often be quite a misleading guide in public life.

Now, it may simply be that Mr Abbott was making the point that personally held religious beliefs ought not to be imposed upon the broader constituency of a secular and pluralist democracy. After all, he also said

You’ve got to accept that there are all sorts of private views which can be passionately held but in a pluralist democracy such as ours the idea that you could somehow make those private views mandatory is bizarre, just bizarre.

But his comments seemed awfully close to affirming the oft-made claim that religious belief has no place in public sphere or in the formulation of policy.


For someone interested in a more full, but still non-academic, treatment of this issue, I recommend the first chapter of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Better yet, read all of Andrew Cameron’s Joined-up Life. Until then, though, a couple of comments. The great 20th century American philosopher and atheist, Richard Rorty, argued that religion had no space in the political sphere, being a source of controversy and division rather than unity, but this position has been roundly criticised. Rorty suggested that we simply pursue ‘what works’. The problem is that what we think works will depend on our values. To quote Keller,

Any picture of happy human life that ‘works’ is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life.

Keller goes on to provide an example:

Let’s take marriage and divorce as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree ‘work’ apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. the former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as in the traditions of Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think ‘work’ will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is.

In other words, the kind of political agenda that a politician pursues (arising, we hope, out of conviction rather than mere polling) is dependent upon underlying values and beliefs. These values and beliefs may be individually selected, or they may be derived from religious belief. For the purposes of public policy, there is no difference between these two kinds of origin. Christians, of course, would maintain that their values derive from the character of God, rather than arbitrariness. So Stephen Carter of Yale Law School writes

Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider most vital.