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The Shades of Pemberley
Revisiting Longbourn pt.II - The Dangers of a Short Memory
"I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man's marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expence of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth!—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"
Austen, Jane; Pride and Prejudice
According to a survey carried out by the National Trust in 2007, 57% of Brits couldn’t name a single great-grandparent, and a further 14% could only name one. Even as the use of Ancestry.com seems to be on the rise, I guess that if a similar survey were to be run now, 15 years later, the percentages would be far higher. The more detached we are from our heritage, the less likely we are to care about polluting the “shades” of our family—in other words, the ancestors who came before us. Whilst this is true of the world around us, it seems as though as Christians we have, in recent years, responded to that by digging deeper into our roots, which is excellent to see. It’s possible though that though we’ve turned our backs on the habits of the world, we’ve adopted a different kind of long-term memory loss. Last week we looked at how the sins of Pride and Prejudice are portrayed, repented of, and how reconciliation was found in the book, this week we’ll look at some of the ways we need to exercise caution to make sure we don’t fall into these sins in the wider Church. With that said, within our own Christian sub-cultures, we often find it hard to find the right balance between drawing up borders which defend our theological positions and defending them so harshly that we end up blocking the entrance entirely. Whilst it’s important that we diligently guard theological orthodoxy, standing shoulder to shoulder with the cloud of witnesses throughout history and the Church universal, we must do all we can to welcome in even those who disagree with us most.
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This quote from Pride and Prejudice comes from a discussion between Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh—the Aunt of Mr Darcy, who Elizabeth will go on to marry. At the time de Bourgh is under the impression that the engagement between Darcy and her daughter—which has been arranged since they were children—is still going to be honoured. Setting aside how strange that might sound to us today, when we narrow the doors of our Churches, so much so that we don’t let anyone else in, we are doing the very same thing. Members of our Church will leave or be married out, and others will marry one another, but eventually, the Church will die. That’s a bleak outlook, but a very real one, we’re not doing our ecclesial ancestors, our theological convictions, or biblical truth any service by excluding the prostitute, the left/right-wing fanatic, or the guy with no idea how badly he knows the Bible, in fact, that’s exactly the opposite of what we’re called to do. How then do we both defend orthodoxy and also make our doors as wide as possible?
Guilty by Association
“I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement.”
First off, let’s be clear that we need to be sure not to exclude someone based on either their own denominational heritage or even sins committed by others of their background. I spoke with a brother a while back who was explaining why they no longer do ministry with people of a working-class background because they don’t take Church or Christianity seriously, as someone from a working-class background I politely listened, but I was left somewhat dumbfounded. On the other hand, I also come from a long line of Methodist ministers, who probably wouldn’t have thought much of my adherence to Calvinism and Covenant Theology, but I wonder whether the inverse is true, how many Calvinists would shun me for my methodist heritage? A heritage, I will say, I’m happy to have had. I’m currently transcribing my great-great-grandfather’s journal and I’m finding it enriching and encouraging.
Right now there are students all around the world looking to find the Church they will hopefully call home for the next 3-5 years+, if they come from a theological/denominational background you’re uncomfortable with, will you still be happy to invite them to your home group? Are they welcome to study the Bible in your church? Can they join a serving team? Or does the idea of their former associations sting too much?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
1 Corinthians 6: 9-11, ESV
The Sexually Immoral
Those who practised homosexuality
Such could be found among the Church in Corinth, or rather those would formerly have been known as such, and yet Paul’s rebuke seems to assume a short memory amongst them. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” he says, reminding them that they shouldn’t, upon entering through the heavenly gates, turn around and close those gates behind them. Instead, recalling their former sin, and their former associations, they were to draw such sinners in. I don’t know anyone who was born with a good grasp of theology, nor anyone who upon being saved was instantaneously bestowed with a mental download of Greek, Hebrew, and the Institutes of the Christian Religion. I even heard other Calvinists on several occasions remarking on this phenomenon by half-joking that, “everyone’s saved as an Arminian and becomes a Calvinist as they mature.”
Side Note: I should point out that I’m making jabs at Calvinists because that’s my camp, but wherever you find yourself within the broader sphere of Theological orthodoxy, this still applies to you.
The State of Theology
If all of this is true, then it has an impact on how we react when research like the State of Theology in the US, or the Talking Jesus research from the Evangelical Alliance in the UK tells us that the situation in our Churches looks awful.
In his commentary on 1 Kings, Philip Ryken says this:
“Learn from Solomon’s mistake and apply this lesson to your own life: spiritual gifts will not keep us from sin if we have a heart that is turning away from God. Mastering theology, serving the poor, giving to Christian work, teaching the church—none of these gifts will protect us from spiritual failure if we love the world or love ourselves more than we love God. Solomon was one of the most gifted men who ever lived. If his wisdom could not save him, then how will our own gifts ever save us?”
Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Kings, Reformed Expository Commentary
It’s true, unrepentant sinners—who stick close to their own wisdom and forego the teachings of the word of God in favour of their own glory—these sadly will not inherit the kingdom. To point and say, “thank goodness I’m not them,” is dangerously close to self-righteousness too—if not over the line.1
The truth is that most of us are aware of this, possibly aware of our particular shortcomings in this area, and are on guard against it in our local contexts. When surveys roll around though, the data we’re presented with is so abstract that it pulls us into a place where we are tempted to become judgemental. When that happens, we need to force ourselves to be careful, to think of local church, not the local heretic. Taking the recent State of Theology research as an example, let me introduce you to Luke.
You meet Luke after he recently completed an “introduction to Church” course at your local church, having been invited by a friend of yours. After challenging his hosts, and having been challenged himself, he finds salvation through Christ—knowing he cannot find salvation on his own—he even accepts the Bible as the highest authority for what he believes and has begun to encourage his non-Christian friends to come to Church and to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour.2
You meet Luke again at a coffee shop and having been a Christian for all of about a week, Luke has some questions. He’s recently been confronted by his old group of friends and he’s found that he doesn’t really know what to tell them. In fact, although he’s given his life to Christ, his opinions on most things haven’t changed all that much, but his friends seem to think they should have.
He talks about how he told them that though we’re born innocent at birth, we all became sinful at some point after that and that after Jesus died God changed his mind towards us and offered us forgiveness through his death rather than through sacrifices! His niece just became his nephew, and though he’s not sure what he thinks about that, he guesses that possibly God made her that way and that his Brother and his Partner, though they aren’t married, aren’t really sinning, right?
He also tells you about a Muslim friend who asked whether he believed God accepted his worship too, and a friend who’d recently had an abortion, and wanted to know what God thought of her. He gave them both what he thought were probably positive answers.
It’s a lot all at once, but you sit back, and you think.
Here’s the question:
Are you happy he’s at your Church?
Luke, according to the State of Theology, identifies as an Evangelical3 but has more than a few errant theological convictions and opinions. I've taken all of these from the survey. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't relish the idea of this exact conversation, with so many questions all at once, but I've definitely discipled people through all of these things and more, some successfully I guess we’d call it, and few unsuccessfully. I’ve never been aggravated that they’ve come to my Church though, my guess is that you’d be happy too. Let’s accept that everyone in the Church today has thoughts, opinions, and convictions that are wrong. This survey and others like it show that in a way which should both shock us, but also helps us not to grow complacent. We should assume that there are people in our Churches who disagree with the Sunday teaching, don’t know/read their Bibles, or have serious questions but feel embarrassed to ask because unlike Luke they’ve been Christians for 20 years and still no one has discipled them through their thoughts and doubts.
Is our response, “the mission field starts at home,” or, “And am I to accept such a person as a Brother or Sister in Christ? Heaven and earth! Are the shades of the Church to be thus polluted?”
I had an excellent conversation last week with one of the older kids in our Sunday School, she’d been uncharacteristically naughty throughout the morning, but after settling everyone down, I asked to speak with her at the main table. While everyone was playing, I asked her how she thought the morning had gone, she relayed to me that she didn’t think her behaviour had been quite right and that she was sorry. I asked her what she should do next, and she replied something akin to:
“I need to ask God for forgiveness, say sorry to you, and ask God to help me be a better example to the other kids.”
It was an amazing moment. She wasn’t proud, or even defensive, she knew what she’d done and she knew what she needed to do. It may be that in reading this article you’ve identified ways in which you’ve been too proud, especially with regards to the outcomes of the recently released research. I would encourage you to take her advice in this situation, to ask God for forgiveness, to apologise whether inwardly or—if necessary—in person to the people you’ve shown prejudice towards, and then as an elder Christian, set an example for other believers.
We defend theological orthodoxy well when our lives are clearly influenced by the teachings we share and believe in, but we can’t do this without God’s help. For that reason, don’t go at this alone, get around others in your church who already do this well, and pray that God would guide you to do the same.
Don’t let the shades of your Church be darkened by the shadow of your pride, rather, take the light of Christ with you into every conversation and situation.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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See Luke 18:9-14
This is the list of distinctives defined by the State of Theology Research
Evangelicals were defined by LifeWay Research as people who strongly agreed with the following four statements:
The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.