Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march


Sally Phillips’ moving BBC documentary ‘A World without Downs’ amazed me. (Those outside the UK can watch it here. Watch it – the best TV you will see all year) It amazed me because it was so refreshingly direct and against the grain of the prevailing liberal elite .  It amazed me because I just didn’t think the BBC would ever commission a programme like that. (Compare and contrast Michael Palin’s interview with Jan Morris, for example) It astounded me for the sheer brutal and inhumane way in which scientific and healthcare professionals talked in such austere was of screening out anyone with Downs Syndrome. They were self-evidently incapable of admitting the humanity of the unborn child, while in the lab next door other medical professionals will be spending huge budgets to try and treat massively disabling conditions (such as cancer, MS, MND and Huntingdon’s Disease) among the born. How can there be such a vast gulf between before and after birth? How can the system institutionalise murder and dress it in a white coat? The scientific amorality of some parts of the medical profession shown in this programme demonstrates in the boldest colours possible the terrifying moral hopelessness of the post-modern generation.

I have been hugely impressed by the blogs of Glen Scrivener and David Robertson on this subject, and cannot express better the arguments that they have expressed. Go and read them. They are both brilliant. Here, I want to look forwards and to ask a question: in this debate, how can we ever counter the ‘women’s right to choose’ argument and protect the rights of the unborn? (The only part of Sally Phillips’ argument that failed was that she defended a mother’s right to choose. Possibly, this was the price of getting the programme aired. Has she considered its implications?)  In a liberal society the ‘free choice’ argument is used to undercut almost any argument we might make, whether it relates to marriage, sexual behaviour, abortion, the broadcasting of pornography, gambling, or the recreational use of drugs. But there is one argument that still holds sway with the liberal elite: defending human rights. If we are ever to make any progress in protecting the unborn, and indeed all the vulnerable, it must be Continue reading “Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march”

Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’


It was early September 1997, and I had watched yet another Last Night of the Proms with its rendition of Jerusalem. The second verse certainly can be stirring, jingoistic stuff – ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…’ etc. etc. But the first verse is absolute tosh. Asking a rhetorical question, ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ already I want to shout ‘No! They didn’t!’ Indeed, at the end of verse 1, as the musicians play the musical interlude, you can interpose a ‘bridge’ of words as follows:

                The answer’s no; It really didn’t ever happen so!

I am convinced Jerusalem would be much improved if this caught on!

Therefore, fed up with another Last Night rendition of Blake’s spiritual fantasies, I decided to try and do better. I set to work on a version of Psalm 2, which I must have preached about that time, set to the tune Jerusalem. The key phrase to render was ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ It is the crux of the psalm, and God’s answer to the nations. Because I was using rhyming couplets, I had two options for the end of the first verse. I could have stuck to a fairly literal rendition of the text as follows:

                Then in his wrath declare his will:

                ‘I set my king on Zion’s hill.’

When it came up for discussion at the Praise Trust editorial board, this very nearly became the version we used, but I wanted to have something more explicitly Messianic, drawing on the sense of rejection that the cross involved that is expressed in Hebrews 13:12-13. So we went with the more dynamic lines:

I set my Son, whom you condemn,

                as King outside Jerusalem.

Continue reading “Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’”

Will there be nations in the New Creation?

S0051361The Rio Olympic Games have finished. I love the spirit of the Olympics, the absence of the ‘winner takes all’ culture of so much competitive sport, and the ability to celebrate every level of achievement. Competitors who have just run what appear to be the most brutally competitive of races turn at the finishing line to congratulate each other as friends and celebrate the achievements even of the person who came twelfth. While the Olympic movement has its own moral challenges and can occasionally show the worst in human nature, this peaceful gathering of nations can make us look forward with longing to a much, much more glorious gathering of nations, when the redeemed gather in the New Creation.

Which raises a question: will there still be nations in the New Creation? My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well. But I am not so sure. The Book of Revelation makes some extraordinary statements that we have to reckon with. While we must always be guarded over prophetic statements in Scripture that have yet to be fulfilled, we should still wrestle with the text and read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. There are four statements in Revelation 21-22 that I believe are significant clues about nationhood in the New Creation. Continue reading “Will there be nations in the New Creation?”

Was Pentecost a global moment?

IMG_0062.JPG‘Pentecost marked the reversal of the curse of Babel.’ So goes the traditional narrative that tries to tie together these two major events in the history of the nations: Babel marked the cursing of the nations with different languages, and Pentecost marked the beginning of the reversal of that curse. Babel scattered the nations, and Pentecost marked the global moment when the scattered nations began to come together again through the gospel. While I used to hold to this view, I no longer think it is tenable from the text of both passages, and we have to relate Babel and Pentecost together more carefully. This is an issue of huge importance, not just for how we understand the world but for setting our priorities in mission.

There is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two passages. Acts 2:9-11 is a mini Table of Nations that echoes Genesis 10. Where the city of Babel came together in its rejection of God, the crowd in Jerusalem were brought together to worship him. Where the people of Babel were ‘confused’ by what they heard in Gen. 11:7,9, in Acts 2:6,12 they are ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ because they can understand. There is no question that Luke is aware of the words used in Gen. 10-11 when he writes Acts 2, and that the terminology is reflected in what he writes. So what is the connection between the two events? In what sense was this a ‘global moment’ causing the gospel to spread around the world? Continue reading “Was Pentecost a global moment?”

Europe – now is the time for mission

DSCF1040.JPGSomeone suggested on Twitter that if it keeps going on like this, Britain will die of news! In three weeks we have witnessed a political earthquake: a solid-looking, confident Prime Minister stepping down the next day, the Machiavellian drama of Boris and Gove, the advent of our second woman Prime Minister, an opposition in crisis, the Iraq Inquiry report, and, let’s not forget, the murder of a keen, new MP on the streets of her constituency one lunchtime. Our mundane national life has suddenly run amuck. We are in shock. This is all real. The earth has moved beneath our feet. We need to recover a new normal. But before we do, can I ask you to look beyond Britain’s rather engaging national conversation, to a bigger and pressing context. When we have left the EU, we will still be part of the continent of Europe. Brexit will be the leaving of a European transnational institution. It should not mean that as Christians we turn our backs on the nations of Europe. On the contrary, because of current events, this is the time for mission among the nations of Europe. Let me explain why I think that, and then set out some priorities for cross-cultural mission in Europe.

The crumbling of idolatries

When life is settled, gospel progress can be slow. People are reluctant to consider change, and they settle into the comforts of a now-centred life, focussing on career, possessions and self. But God uses events to shake the nations to their foundations (Hag. 2:7; Heb. 12:26-29), and I believe that that is happening right now. What I find most striking post-Referendum is the shock of the pro-EU lobby, whether that be the liberal secular elite in Britain’s political parties, the British media, our Universities and the City of London, or their cousins in capital cities across Europe. Their prevailing narrative has crashed Continue reading “Europe – now is the time for mission”

Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?


[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]

There have been a number of posts in recent days saying that the best motivation for voting #Remain on Thursday is to see the work of the gospel advance in Europe. I am startled that almost all those Christian Remainers blogging have made this highly pragmatic argument the deal-breaker in making their decision. Will Brexit be bad for mission in Europe? Well, let’s think carefully here.

The mission agency I work for has been helping support missionaries in Europe for 50 years. We sent missionaries into Spain when Franco was in power, into Belgium and France before we entered the EEC (as it was then) and long before free movement was introduced. We sent missionaries into Austria and Latvia a decade before either of those countries joined the EU. No one had their visas refused. One missionary did get arrested, but that was in Franco’s Spain in the early 1970s. We thought it was normal for missionaries to have to apply to get a visa before entering, as they do in Peru, Kenya and the Philippines. Governments have the right to control their immigration, and as Christians we play by the rules.

Then along came free movement in the EU under the Maastricht Treaty, and UK missionaries were spared the tedium of the visa queue. But don’t think that that means you are free from all bureaucracy. In France, missionaries needed to get a Carte de Sejours into the late 1990s, and if today you want to serve in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria or Romania for more than 90 days, you need a residency permit. Continue reading “Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?”

Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations


[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]

‘Jim, the way the British are debating the European Union is shallow and non-biblical’, said my Italian friend. ‘You are just talking about the economy, and how Brexit will affect jobs, and it’s very shallow and disappointing.’ I am not quoting him verbatim here, but that was the sense of what he said. That criticism has motivated me to start this blog. Whether the principles I am blogging here meet with his approval, I have no idea. But he was right to challenge us to think more deeply. So, having set out in previous posts the principles of a biblical understanding of nationhood, and the dangers of race-hatred and idolatrous nationalism, in this post I want to come to the big question: how do we evaluate the European Union in the light of such biblical principles?

First let me rule something out. I do not believe that the EU is the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (like the EU flag?) on her head in Rev 12:1. That is unquestionably the church, not some evil empire, and need not distract us. The descriptions of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 have attracted more attention. Is the EU the great whore of Babylon? The characters of the vision in Rev. 17 are difficult to identify, and across the centuries Babylon has variously been identified with the Roman Empire (by the early church), the Roman Catholic Church (by the Reformers), and more modern empires in Europe by more recent interpreters. I think we should read this vision in more broadly typical terms, with Babylon as the personification of evil and rebellion against God in all its manifestations. If you are a North Korean Christian, you won’t be much worried by the EU, and likewise Zimbabwean Christians may see other regimes reflected in Rev. 17-18. It’s good to ask yourself how Christians around the world read such visions before we rush to judgement.

However, when we turn to Genesis, the history worked out in Gen. 10-11 gives us material that is clear, much less disputed, and I think can be applied to the decision we face. The EU is not the whore of Babylon, but it does manifest some characteristics of the Babel project that should alarm us.  Continue reading “Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations”

Murder, race hatred, and nationalism


The tragic death of Jo Cox MP has had a cauterising effect on political debate over the last couple of days. Politicians seem embarrassed for the way they have been treating each other in the referendum debate. Perhaps now, cooled tempers can allow us to think respectfully and with humility about the great judgement we each have to make this week. So far the debate has focused mainly on three issues: the future trajectory of the economy, democracy, and immigration. You can read the tea leaves how you please on the first, have a reasoned argument about accountability on the second, but it is immigration that really raises the blood pressure. So let me here make my contribution to the debate as a Christian who believes passionately in biblical nationhood, but who is appalled by racism and nationalism.

Is it true that the opposite of internationalism must be racial hatred? Is the only way to avoid racial hatred to have open borders and not to care about our own culture, language and history? Continue reading “Murder, race hatred, and nationalism”

Babel, nations and empire builders


Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAre nations a good thing or a bad thing? After the experience of two centuries of imperial expansion, aggressive wars and genocide, you could be forgiven for thinking that nations are altogether a bad thing. Indeed, in the 2016 Brexit referendum debate, it is the power of the EU to bring nations together that is being put forward as the strongest argument for the importance of internationalism and the dangers of individual nations existing separately. So the argument goes, left to themselves, nations will always fall into conflict driven by fierce nationalism, but coming together in a transnational union will prevent that and is the sign of a mature, forward-looking approach that is on the right side of history. That certainly fits with a secular worldview that believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, but I don’t believe it fits with a biblical understanding of the human condition. Another look at Gen. 10-11 will explain why.

Just as we must read Gen. 1-2 alongside the dramatic intervention of evil in Gen. 3 to get the full understanding of the human condition, so the optimistic picture of nations spreading across the earth in Genesis 10 must be read alongside the sinister events of the Babel narrative in Gen. 11. In fact, we need to notice that there is one chilling intermission in the Table of Nations in Gen. 10:8-11. Continue reading “Babel, nations and empire builders”

Every Nation

IMG_0064Yet another blog! I know, it’s enough to make the heart sigh, and the eyeballs glaze over. But this one has been brewing for a long time, and has a set purpose, to be limited to a range of related topics in theology and mission. Let me explain what I am trying to do.

Three years ago I embarked on an M.Th. with Edinburgh Theological Seminary, funded by the Mission I work for, Grace Baptist Mission. I submitted my thesis at the end of November, and it has just been accepted. My subject was ‘Every Nation Under Heaven: The Importance of the Biblical Concept of Nations for Contemporary Evangelical Mission Practice.’ This blog will be a means of putting some of that research out there for your consideration. As I have worked, preached and studied my way through the past three years, I’ve noticed how little understanding there is of the biblical understanding of nationhood in the West. Our thinking about ourselves is shaped so extensively by post-Enlightenment individualism. Systematic theologies deal with anthropology at a purely individual level, without discussing marriage, let alone nationhood. It is absent from most confessions of faith. Yet if we are to be serious about the work of mission, understanding nationhood is crucial to the task of working out how to take the gospel into that nation and express it in a way that speaks to that nation and can be owned by that nation.

I want to challenge the secular presuppositions that shape so much of our thinking when it comes to nationhood. I am disturbed to see Christians around me in Britain discussing the Brexit referendum purely in terms of economics and the pragmatics of raw power. Continue reading “Every Nation”

What is a nation?

What an old-fashioned question! In a globalised world, hasn’t the concept of a nation become threadbare and obsolete? Among academics and the political class, the nation-state is seen as a fairly recent innovation and one whose purpose has already failed in modern history. They argue that nation-states emerged in the American and French revolutions, spread in the 19th and 20th centuries across Europe, especially after Versailles, and then spread to the developing world in the wake of empire. However, the nation-state has seen its place eroded by the growth of international institutions and multinational companies, the advance of international law and the spread of global communications. Nations have served only to fuel violent nationalism, so the argument goes, in which case we are better off sitting loose to our national identity and pooling our sovereignty for the sake of a wider peace.

This is the argument of the liberal secularist establishment. It is based on two false assumptions. First, that the nation-state began around 1780, and is an entirely secular concept. It is assumed that by ‘nation’ we mean simply a defined territory, with a citizenship that forms the ‘body politic’, that sovereignty is vested ultimately in the people, and that nationhood consists purely in terms of political power, economics and the workings of government. Second, it assumes that nations spawn nationalism and that the wretched wars of the twentieth century that tore Europe apart in two world wars are the inevitable result. I will try to show over several blog posts that both these assumptions are wrong, and that the biblical concept of nationhood is much, much older than the French revolution.

I wish to argue that there is a biblical concept of nationhood that is part of God’s creation order, that it is a much richer idea than the secular nation-state and not to be confused with it, and that nations are still part of God’s plan and (surprisingly) will be part of the New Creation. Understanding nationhood is essential, among other things, to understanding Christian mission. Continue reading “What is a nation?”