4 Great Themes in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (spoilers)

IMG_3231Dunkirk is first and foremost a movie about Dunkirk; the amazing deliverance of almost 300000 British soldiers from the French coast during World War II, largely via civilian charters. Inevitably, however, the film throws up other bigger issues, matters of enduring interest and concern. It is these that I would like to address in shorthand here:

1. Our insatiable appetite for hope: pier master Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is a sympathetically portrayed naval officer, who serves as the herald of both the extremity in which he and his men find themselves, and the emergence of hope from the cloud-dim waters of Dunkirk. In distinction from some modern war movies which portray only the leaden hopelessness of conflict, Nolan emphasises the power of aspiration, and our appetite for deliverance (more on that below). What is achieved is an enviable balance between hard reality and hope’s horizon. The glimmer of a smile which plays on Bolton’s lips as he spies civilian vessels draw near to ‘The Mole’ powerfully captures the human predicament: marooned between the rock of our circumstance and the hard place of vitriolic adversity, but daring to smile at hope’s tentative arrival.

2. The tenderness of paternal love: Nolan has (somewhat anachronistically) been criticised in some quarters for the absence of female characters in ‘Dunkirk’, but we should be thankful for his compelling picture of masculinity, regardless. Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson is an economically drawn figure, but one whose paternal heart is evident. His mild authority, his pragmatically expressed compassion, his understated capacity for bravery, speak the name of a love that doesn’t always dare to identify itself publicly: fatherly affection. Dawson doesn’t needlessly emote, there is little effervescence to his personality, but he commands and commends, steers and reasons, and he deeply cares about the boys on board with him. Powerful indeed, inspiring as well.

3. Our stubborn and irreducible depravity: the evil of dive bombing a hospital ship is obvious, but so is the Goldingesque trawler sequence in which racism, rabid and selfish survivalism, and bullying cowardice are all too evident.

4. The enduring power of deliverance: the hemmed in men on Dunkirk beach are in need of deliverance which must be mediated through a miracle. The sight of dozens of civilian vessels emerging from the mist is deeply affecting. Even the boys on board the trawler understand both the need for and the cost of a substitute. In a world marked by cynicism about salvation, and arrogance about self-redemption, the image of uniformed men helplessly dependent on others is powerful. The relevance and power of these themes for those of us who believe in the need for personal deliverance from sin through Jesus Christ is overwhelming.

A letter to an anxious heart

Last night at Millisle Baptist we were studying Matthew 7:21-23 together, and thinking through the very real dangers of self-deception when it comes to issues of salvation. Afterwards one of our members very kindly wrote to me, inquiring about how they could be sure that they have really understood the gospel and accepted Christ as Saviour. The following is an anonymised version of my reply, offered here in the hope that it might help others, or that others might help me further clarify my response to this most pressing of issues:

Dear brother,

Many thanks for your email last night, for your encouragement, for sharing a little more of your own experiences spiritually, and for your questions which arise from a passage like Matthew 7:21-23.

I think that there are a few ways to respond to what you share. The gospel is such a simple message, and yet it can be so easily complicated. Our backgrounds, if they contained a lot of religion and not much relationship, can leave very confused feelings when we are confronted with the sheer face of the gospel. Also, a passage which urges us to avoid self-deception will naturally shake all of us out of any complacency about whether we have truly trusted Christ or not.

Because the past can be so hard to unpack I think that there are a few simple checks and measures that we can place on our spiritual lives. The following questions might be helpful to think through:

*Regardless of my past, regardless of how I may have misunderstood or misapplied the gospel previously, am I presently clinging to Christ alone for salvation?

*Have I repented of my sin, have I admitted that there is nothing that I can do to save myself, and have I come to Jesus asking him to forgive me and make me right on the strength of what he has done for me – with no additions or contributions from me?

*Am I trusting right now that my only hope of being saved now, and being finally saved in eternity, is Jesus’ death on the cross for me, and his risen power to save me?

If the answer to these kinds of questions is ‘yes’,  then you can ground your assurance in the fact that you are presently trusting in Christ alone to save you. If the answer is that you’re unsure, or that actually you’ve never really taken that step, then it might be helpful to set aside some time to read the passage below:

‘No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.’ (Romans 3:20-25)

Here are some key questions to ask of a passage like this:
*Am I in any way trying to keep the law so that I can be saved?

*Am I content that faith in Jesus alone is sufficient to make me right with God, give peace with him, grant me full and eternal salvation?

*Have I received what Jesus has done for me by faith alone?

My gut instinct is that you have come to God by faith alone in Christ alone, and if so then these verses should be hugely affirmative and encouraging to you. Trusting only in Him, you’re saved, and you’re now free to live life according to what God’s word says, in the power of His Holy Spirit. But if there is still a deep nagging ‘no’ in your mind about this, if you feel sure that you’ve never accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour by faith alone, then this is the time to make sure of that. Find a quiet corner, and simply come to God in prayer. You might want to pray something like this, weighing the words and making them your own:

‘Almighty God, I’m a sinner, I know I am. I’ve broken your law, I’ve sinned against you and against others. I’m bowing before you because I know that nothing I can do, nothing I can say, no works of mine, past or present can make me right with you. But Almighty God your word tells me that Jesus has died for sinners like me, and that his work on the cross is the full payment for all of my sin. So I’m coming to you now, asking simply for forgiveness, nothing in my hand I bring, simply to His cross I cling. None of my works, none of my religion past or present, nothing can make me right but what Jesus has done. I’m sorry for my sin, save me, forgive me, accept me because of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection. And then give me liberty to live for you, not so that I can be forgiven, but because I have been. In Jesus’ name, amen.’

You might not need to pray in that way. Maybe the outcome of last night’s message is a confirmation that you have fully and finally trusted Jesus. I trust that’s the case, but I wouldn’t want to quieten that voice in your mind which is making you question until you’re sure that all of the above is your own.

From the farthest reaches of the valley

We live in an age which longs for forums and facts and surrogate experiences that might inform our own. We rule out the unpredictable and scale down the inscrutable through the constant flow of information, through gathering more details and hedging our bets. Google can be a one stop shop for finding reassurance from others that a new experience or challenge will work out for us, taking the sting out of our apprehension and future fears. 

Much of this is, of course, misleading. We are tasked with ultimately living our own lives, facing our own battles, walking our own path. The projected experiences we encounter through research are often different to our own, so that rather than being prepared for what we might face in a given situation we find our unique feelings at odds with those described by others.

Nothing brings this home more forcefully than the final valley we face as human beings. The road through that pass is obscured to our sight, with the Psalmist’s imagery (Psalm 23:4) perfectly capturing for us the idea of a journey, a sense of descent, a forbidding landscape.

Unlike so many of the other dilemmas and difficulties we face in life, we cannot consult the experience of another to help us with our own. We see but the thinnest horizon ahead of us, we can walk thus far with our friends and our families, but no further. And no pilgrim who completes this journey can share with us the steps they take beyond our line of vision.

There is, however, one who has walked this way and who speaks to us from the farthest reaches of the valley. The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the ‘pioneer’ of our salvation (2:10 NIV), as the one who has trodden the dry earth of death’s valley on our behalf, who has gone before us and ministers back to us a hope which is unique to the Christian gospel. Listen to the writer’s perspective on what Christ has done:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
(Hebrews 2:14-15)

Christ has walked death’s path ahead of us, breaking the dread of uncharted territory, speaking hope to us as we waver at its edges. He has ‘tasted death for everyone’ (2:9), not metaphorically but in reality. More alone than any other pilgrim on this path, Jesus has walked ahead of us, he has borne the full heat and horror of the valley, so that he might in turn walk it with us, showing to us all the terrain he has subdued, and the glorious destination which lies on its farther side.

When John Bunyan portrayed the believer’s experience of their final journey in Pilgrim’s Progress, he used the image of a river crossing. Christian approaches this point of his pilgrimage with fear, with a wish that he might find another route to heaven, but his final testimony as he reaches the other shore is that God himself grants assurance, ‘When thou passest through the water, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee’.

Herein is real hope, herein is real confidence for the whole journey home to heaven. Our faith in the crucified, risen Jesus Christ does not provide a diversion from the dark valley – there is no bypass – but there is one who marvellously goes ahead and yet also walks beside, and that means more than we can possibly express.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me – Psalm 23:4

15 Reasons Why Visitation is Vital for Your Pastor

Recently Thom Rainer posted some reflections on church member visitation, providing 15 reasons why those in pastoral ministry ‘shouldn’t visit much’. While the risk of being viewed by one’s congregation as a sanctified social worker or life coach is ever present, and while some local churches impose utterly unreasonable visitation demands on their Pastor, there are also significant dangers in neglecting this vital work.

Here, rather than critiquing Dr Rainer’s reasoning, I share 15 of my own incentives to keep going at pastoral visitation. I read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor once every year, and am forcibly reminded from its pages just how far short I fall in this area of ministry. The following are, however, offered as aspirational statements. They appear in no particular order.

I should also say that balance and context must always be borne in mind with regard to our ministry priorities. Every Pastor ministers in a different setting with differing time constraints, and under different expectations. We are all unique individuals with varied gifts, and these general observations in no way seek to steamroller those.

1. The principles behind pastoral visitation are biblically mandated. While there are no direct injunctions in Scripture for home visitation, the broad picture of the Pastor in the New Testament is one of a man engaged with the people under his care. Paul supplemented his public ministry with ‘house to house’ discipleship (Acts 20:20); he shared not only the gospel but his very self (or life) with the Thessalonians (1Thessalonians 2:8); his instruction to Timothy incorporates broad brush ministry, but also specific relational guidelines for differing groups of members (1Timothy 5:2). We could build a solid theology of interpersonal pastoral discipleship from the New Testament. These encounters don’t need to be realised in people’s homes, but often that is the best location of all.


2. Pastoral visitation keeps the need for plurality of leadership firmly on the Pastor’s agenda. A church with a significant number of members will soon wear out the best intentions of any man who believes that he can exercise pastoral care outside of the biblical pattern of a plurality of elders. Seeking to meet some of our people’s pastoral needs will help us to recognise that we can’t meet them all. This is a great impetus to train others to share the privilege of private discipleship with church members.


3. Pastoral visitation applies needed pressure on our preparation and study time. Speaking personally, I need pressure to work. A fifty or sixty hour week of study for two Sunday sermons sounds like bliss at times, but in reality I could never fill those hours with entirely productive study. Balancing my time between preparation and visitation keeps my perfectionistic tendencies in preparing a sermon in check, and applies sufficient pressure on me to actually meet the never-ending deadline of Sunday ministry.


4. Crisis and emergency pastoral care is deepened and more fully facilitated by regular visitation. At times of need people are often inundated with specialists from the secular world who are concerned with meeting their needs in the short term. In such circumstances they need pastoral care from a trusted confidante, rather than a tasked consultant. The time spent with people in the non-crisis moments of life opens the door to ministering to them meaningfully at those times when the wheels come off.


5. Pastoral visitation leads to real evangelistic opportunity. Our church members do not live vacuum-sealed lives. Many of them have non-Christian family members and friends, or unsaved neighbours. Our presence in their lives and homes provides opportunity to share our lives and the gospel with non-Christians whom we would never otherwise meet. These seemingly arbitrary and casual connections can yield rich fruit if properly cultivated.


6. Constant exposure to/study of Scripture places the Pastor in a unique position to bring biblical counsel. While much that we glean in preparation and study should be invested into the lives of others who can in turn minister, we are also privileged to be in sustained contact with the Word of God in a way which will uniquely shape the contours and content of our pastoral counselling. Often what I read in works of Biblical Theology is as helpful in counselling a weary Christian as it is in producing a helpful sermon.


7. Regular contact with the members of the churches in which we serve is a great antidote to pastoral frustration. If our time is spent chiefly in the company of commentaries, colleagues, and people who are gospel-oriented enough to want to be trained for ministry, then we can easily disconnect from the struggles that our members are facing. We preach with the glory of God always in view, but also with the express concern for people growing in their faith. We can easily slip into critical patterns of thought when we see those in our care not growing in grace as we might wish. Spending time with them, listening to the pressures and obstacles to Christian growth that they are facing, might enable us to encourage and challenge them with more compassion and a greater appreciation of just how tough it can be to develop in our Christian lives.


8. Our prayer lives are enriched by intentionally listening to the needs of our people. Through pastoral visitation I am privileged to be able to pray for our members in much more meaningful ways, understanding their needs and challenges more clearly.


9. False teaching and wrong thinking can be more sensitively (and less censoriously) dealt with in one to one contact. There is certainly a place for exposing false teaching through our pulpit ministry, but we are enabled to gently inform the doctrinal thinking of our church members through private conversation and counsel.


10. Through visitation we get to share not only our preaching but our lives with fellow church members. Aside from getting to know members of the church, they get to know us a little better, and that can be of enormous help to their engagement with our preaching.


11. We need to be encouraged through the fellowship that visitation fosters. I often end a day of visitation wondering who has been more blessed by my calls to people’s homes: me or them? I need the encouragement that conversation with my brothers and sisters brings. Paul might have wanted to go to Rome to encourage the believers there, but he also needed to be encouraged by them (Romans 1:12).


12. Visitation protects us from living a sheltered life. This is a world full of challenge and contradiction to the work of the gospel. By listening in on the lives and struggles of our brothers and sisters we are reminded constantly of what the ‘real’ world is like. There is an argument for the Pastor being the least sheltered member of the whole church.


13. Our preaching, particularly in terms of application, is enriched by visiting with church members. I would never allow visitation to set the agenda for my preaching, but I might benefit from allowing it to steer my application. Understanding where people are at helps me to show them where the teaching of a Scriptural passage fits in the life they are living.


14. The best forum for a members’ Q&A session can often be in their living rooms. Christian believers often harbour questions, concerns, and even doubts about their faith that they would never articulate in a group setting. What a privilege for the Pastor to be able to listen carefully and seek to answer biblically the questions that many Christians have about Scripture and holy living.


15. Pastoral visitation humbles me by its never-finished nature. If preaching is a task for which there is seldom immediate meaningful feedback, then visitation reflects the same reality. I am never fully satisfied with my visitation, I am conscious of my shortcomings, and can even question my usefulness in serving the Lord in this context. But God is sovereign, and God is using even my weakest efforts in seeking to promote growth in grace in the lives of others. Not knowing what impact seemingly trivial contact with others Christians might have is a great driver of faith and trust in God using my very weakness for his glory. Who is to say that that visit in which we struggle to connect or counsel in a measurable way isn’t the very conversation that God might use to effect change in the life of one of His children? I sow in faith when I am spending time with people as much as when I am spending time in the pulpit.

Rehabilitating Jeremiah 29:11

Ask a group of ten Christians what their favourite verse is and there’s a hefty chance that at least one person will reference Jeremiah 29:11. This sterling, promise-packed reference carries immediate resonance and reassurance for our troubled lives. God intends good for us, it seems to say – our welfare and our hope are secured in his plan, so we don’t need to worry, harm is not on the immediate agenda.

All of this is marvellous, apart from the nagging fact that the chapter in which this verse appears is complex, and unkindly elbows our hope in the ribs a little. Sometimes context can be a killer.

As with many passages of Scripture it can be a shock to find that Jeremiah 29 is not immediately about us.  Jeremiah is not issuing an insurance certificate to risk averse Christians in this chapter, but is writing a letter to specific people in a concrete historical setting.

Jerusalem, the citadel of the sacred, is crumbling. The Temple has not proved to be the talisman that inhabitants of the city had hoped it might be. It has turned out that living off the vestiges and vapours of the glory days of being God’s people has afforded little protection against the consequences of sin and convulsions in society. The chasm which has opened up between professed belief and godless behaviour is now yawning wide, and the old pretences and the old protections are proving impotent. The King and his retinue have exited stage left, and there are now a group of people living in Babylon as exiles. To get under the skin of that word ‘exile’ we might want to summon the images we have in our minds of helpless refugees who are far from home and far from hope. Exile is awful.

It is to these people that Jeremiah addresses his letter, and for whom verse 11 was originally intended. These people are not to think that their time in Babylon is a kind of gap year judgement from God, a period of work experience in divine discipline which will soon come to a close. They are going to be in Babylon for a long time, 70 years in fact. From the vantage point of history 70 years seems like a minimal period, but imagine that you are standing in the dock and a judge has just sentenced you to that duration of imprisonment. Hope in such circumstances has a habit of evaporating. These people are to build houses and build homes, they are to allow themselves the dubious luxury of seeking the welfare of the city that they are in. They are, in short, being called to settle for exile.

And the reason why they can do this is because of the truth of the eleventh verse: God knows what he’s doing, he has a plan, a long term strategy which will be future oriented and hope laden. God is still at work, even though these people are far from where they long to be, and will never get their lives back to where they want them. “Accept this”, God says, “trust me, I’m working off a different script than you are”.

So, what about the people from that group of ten who selected Jeremiah 29:11 as their favourite verse? Do they need to hand it back to the exiles in Babylon, and have done with it? Do we handle this verse like we might test drive an iPad Pro in the Apple Store – we can appreciate its features but we ultimately have to leave it behind because it’s not our property?

Well, yes and no.

If we want to have a verse which functions as a kind of safety net or welfare state for our temporal lives, then we are doing violence to Jeremiah 29:11. But if we gather up all of the material facts around this verse and then seek to apply it to our lives, then we can truly make it our own. Sometimes context can be a clincher.

Here are some ways in which we might rehabilitate our use of Jeremiah 29:11

  • The genius of God’s protection of his people is that he can preserve us in trouble as well as from trouble The recipients of this promise had traded their optimism for realism. This verse is sent to them after terrible things have happened, and that ought to protect us from the Disneyfied view of life and Scripture which ultimately leaves us disappointed. God is sovereign when we’re in very real bother, and God speaks to us when we’re in very real bother – even if we are painfully reaping what we’ve sown for ourselves.
  • Realistic acceptance of our circumstances can be a dynamic assertion of God’s sovereignty. Jeremiah calls these exiles to accept where they are and to seek to live where they are. They are not called to dream away the dramatic changes they have experienced. They now live in Babylon, and that’s that. This acceptance is not, however, merely cognitive, but covenantal. Buying a plot of ground in Babylon is not denying the plot of God in history – he knows his plan and this is part of it.So acceptance is part of our worship. We are here, and so is God. What an application that brings when we are living in the wake of the wheels coming off. Joy is not dependent on a journey back to the halcyon days of pre-trauma life – covenant commitment from God lends covenant contentment to his people: regardless of their terrain.
  • Present hope is ultimately secured on future hope. A seventy year lease on property in exile meant that the generation who received Jeremiah’s letter would be buried in Babylon. This would not resolve in their lifetime. Where they might be tempted to think in the immediate, God is working towards the ultimate. And he wants them to know that that’s enough. 

    We live in a world of 24 hours rolling news, and we get frustrated when events and their explanation don’t make themselves known immediately. But God works on a different timescale. Sometimes like Joseph we get to read the final page of our personal story and phrase the blessed conclusion in our own words, but some of us – perhaps most of us – live and die in the middle chapters of a tale we don’t fully understand. And God says that’s ok, because the words ‘hope’ and ‘future’ are happily married.

    The real test for the exiles is a test of faith – are they willing to trust that God will eventually and majestically work through these circumstances even if there are multiple loose ends in their lifetime? That’s a huge challenge, but a promise-packed one nevertheless: our difficult ‘now’ is governed by the ‘not-yet’ of what God is going to finally do in the consummation of His covenant promises in Christ.

So it turns out that Jeremiah 29:11 is a great verse to select as a favourite after all. It gives us far better hope than a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card ever could. It meets us on strange Babylonian turf (being elect exiles as the Apostle Peter describes the Christian) and tells us that we can trust God even among the ruins, even when we feel lost in the middle, knowing that he is working to a grander scheme for our good and his glory.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope

The search for a series

I believe that the Bible is not a metal-tweezered promise box from which we can select our favourite passages and promises at random.

I believe that the pulpit is not a stable in which I get to show off my favourite hobby horses to a weary congregation.

I believe that the authority of the preacher is always secondary to the authority of Scripture as revealed by God.

I believe that the Scriptures are God breathed in their entirety, and that their structural integrity is part and parcel of how we come into contact with what God has said, and how God has said it.

Consequently: I believe, heart and soul, in systematic expository preaching. I am relieved of the stressful duty of deciding on a weekly basis what is going to be profitable, or palatable, or practical for the congregation in which I serve. The Scriptures as an authoritative body of truth, and as an organic whole, shape the contours and content of what I preach. I am not left clueless as to what people might need to hear.

With all of that said, there is still a measure of decision and choice entailed in the task of preaching. I may not leap randomly from text to text each week, but in any given year we might be engaged in the study of the Old Testament or New Testament, in narrative or poetry or epistle, and behind that fact lies the process of choosing a series in which to immerse ourselves. If expository preaching can help avoid the whim of the preacher or the people, how can it be discerned what we should devote perhaps weeks, months or years of preaching and listening and learning to as a group of God’s people?

For me the selection of a series is a multi-layered affair, and here I want to share some (but not all) of the factors which help form my thinking as to what we should study and for how long:

  1. Logical factors: there are certain features of choosing a series which are decidedly pragmatic. If I am preaching an Old Testament series in our morning services, then it may be prudent to take a New Testament series in our evening service. Alternatively, if one of our services is working hard on narrative, then the other might lend itself more helpfully to epistolary or poetic materials. Here the key is balance, seeking to take into account what we are studying, or have been studying, and for how long. A strong diet of the fibrous truths of a book like Romans, might be offset by the lighter textures of the Psalms, or a rich section of Old Testament narrative.

    Logic also takes stock of the circumstantial elements of Bible teaching. Preaching an Easter series during Advent might be deliciously subversive, but it is unlikely to make much sense to those under the sound of our voice. A long series in Revelation might seem like just the ticket on paper, but if it is proving difficult for many Church members to understand, or assimilate and apply, then we do well to pay sensitive heed to these issues.

  2. Pastoral factors: for me the task of preaching and pastoring go hand and hand, and I feel little envy for those whose pulpit ministry is not earthed in the real-life issues of caring for people’s souls privately. As a teaching elder it shouldn’t be difficult to get a sense of a congregation’s spiritual temperature and dietary needs. If there is clearly confusion on the central tenets of the gospel, then it is pastoral wisdom to address this by focusing on areas of propositional truth which shed light on what we believe and why, or on the core facts of Christ’ life and mission as elucidated in the gospels. If there are complex and widespread pastoral problems among a congregation then the comfort of God’s promises and the liberty of plaintive prayer which the Psalms facilitate might prove beneficial and consoling to the Christian hearer.
  3. Affective factors: this final factor is the most difficult to articulate. For me as a preacher there is just a prayerful sense of what we ought to study, and where God is leading my heart. It might be that my own interaction with Scripture has brought me face to face with truths which cry out to be preached, or that there is an abiding, repeated impression in my consciousness that God is leading me to teach in a certain section, or a recurrence of passages of Scripture which cannot be mere coincidence. These things are ‘felt in the blood, and felt along the heart’ (to quote Wordsworth) and cannot easily be quantified.

    Perhaps a recent example might make this more clear. Over a recent period of leave I found my heart more and more compelled by the force and glory of God’s love for us as His people. Much of my thinking was driven by readings in 1John 4. Would this, I wondered, make a suitable summer series for me return to the pulpit with? On the following Sunday a visiting speaker touched on these very themes as he shared at Communion, and there was a sense of it being sealed that this was where we ought to spend a few weeks together.

    I would fear to make these affective factors the sole means of seeking out a series of studies, but they are important nevertheless.

As with all else in life, I am glad that I am not ultimately sovereign over series of studies in our church fellowship. The Chief Shepherd loves His sheep, and has commissioned his under-shepherds to faithfully feed them on the rich fare afforded to us in Scripture. What a blessing to expose our hearts and consciences to what God says for Himself, to us His people, on the pages of Scripture.

On being a non-political Pastor: some post-Brexit thoughts

I grew up through the 1980s in Northern Ireland, a time when matters of politics and faith were tragically intertwined. Clergymen spoke like politicians, and politicians like clergymen. Slogans were bandied about which often implicated God and faith in the political preferences of the speaker. Even as a child I found much of this distasteful and disconnected from what the Bible seemed to say.

Fast-forward thirty years, and I now serve as Pastor of a small Baptist church on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. I commenced pastoral ministry sixteen years ago, and decided then that politics would play no part in how I served the Lord. As time has passed my conviction on this has remained the same, but my motives for being a non-political pastor have broadened and deepened somewhat.

Those first sixteen years of the twentieth century have been deeply political. Following the horrific events of 9/11 and the brutal wars that followed, there is a strong sense in the Western world that politics matter. In recent days, with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, and the ongoing electoral debacle that has been the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom, politics is high on the agenda. The Brexit debate has brought politics very close to home. Never before have I heard so much incidental discussion of the political world, nor have I ever heard people disclose their actual voting preferences and practices so freely.

In such an environment it would be easy in Christian leadership to now ‘go political’. Our issues are no longer provincial or incidental, and in some cases they are nationally existential. Is there, then, not a responsibility for people like me who have been charged with the care of God’s people to speak and lead in this area as well? This question has been much on my mind in recent days, and increasingly I find myself answering it in the following three ways:

  1. Politics is not my business
    If the Brexit debate has taught me anything, it is the sheer complexity of political discourse. In the run up to the vote I made it my business to read, listen to and watch as much material as I could on both sides of the argument. This determination had an unexpected outcome for me: the more I engaged with the issues, the more confused I felt. Statistics seemed to have the flexibility of an olympic gymnast, political prognoses seemed vastly contradictory, and people whose opinions I respect were deeply divided. I’m sure that some of this sense of confusion springs from my own intellectual limitations, but it also surely points to how complicated politics is. Government and legislation have so many moving parts, and are so tightly interlinked with other disciplines, that it boggles the mind of most people when they face a decision on how it should be directed.

    All of this reminds me that politics is not my business. As a citizen I can seek to be as informed as possible, I can interact with debate (actual or virtual), and I can solicit and enjoy discussion with friends. But as a minister of the gospel I am not qualified to be a political guide to those under my care. On themes of ethics or justice I can and must give biblical counsel, but those are areas of pastoral overlap rather than being part of the political mainstream. I can no more politically lead the Christian believers in my care than I could treat them medically. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

  2. Politics is a messy business
    At the present moment the United Kingdom is a deeply divided nation. A referendum returning a narrow majority on a central issue shows the profound diversity of views and concerns that people harbour. In this kind of environment being a political pastor can actually be detrimental to the work of the gospel and the health of the church.

    On Sunday morning past there were undoubtedly members of our fellowship who were quietly glad that Britain could now leave the EU, others who were dismayed at the electoral result, and still others who feel perplexed and concerned about their future, regardless of how they voted.

    And I am not called to mediate between these positions, or even to palliate these political divisions.By its very nature the church is (or ought to be) an ethnically, culturally and politically diverse group. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends borders and ethnic markers, it embraces people at whatever point they find themselves on the political spectrum, and it allows for liberty of conscience on non-gospel issues.

    My calling is to teach what the Scriptures say and to care for the souls of those in our fellowship. To bring the messy business of politics into that mix would be divisive and perhaps abusive of my position as pastor. The Christian church has enough points of divergence and difference theologically without adding the accelerant of difference politically.

  3. Politics is a momentary business
    Ultimately my joy in being a non-political pastor is that my main concern is not temporal or political, but eternal. I serve the King of kings, and I stand side by side with citizens of his kingdom, regardless of their momentary political badges. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20), and it is for this kingdom that my energies are chiefly to be spent.

    This doesn’t give me a free pass from civic responsibility, it doesn’t mean that Christian belief should be ghettoised or live in glorious separation from the real world. Being so heavenly minded that one is of no earthly use is no more desirable now than it was when that cliche was coined.

    For the voiceless, the Christian must speak clearly and with conviction, on matters of justice and human dignity the Bible has a unique perspective which should be shared, and Christian preaching which does not equip believers to live in the real world falls short in at least part of its purpose. But to bind these broader kingdom areas to the continuous present tense of today’s political world minimises what the gospel is all about, and makes our message just one more perspective to be adopted or ignored.

To (badly) paraphrase Alistair Campbell ‘I don’t do politics’, and I’m glad of that fact. I don’t want to lead in areas where I am unlearned and unskilled, I don’t want to feed and fuel division among people who are poles apart politically but who belong to the same Lord and Saviour, and I don’t want to be distracted by the momentary pressures and contingencies of the political world. It is my deep joy to be a non-political pastor.