Denial and post-truth – the real problem with faith

The film Denial has been recently released in British cinemas after its premier at the Toronto film festival on ‘9/11’ last year and its UK premier on Holocaust Memorial Day 27th January 2017.  It gives the outline of the libel trial brought by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt for her calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Denial (2016 film).jpg

The UK judge found Irving to be a Holocaust denier, an antisemite and a racist who had deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence, and ordered him to pay more than £2m in legal costs.

There are many issues raised by the libel case, and many have commented on the timely recollection of it in view of false-truth and its spread through social media.  Historian Richard Evans, president of Wolfson College in Cambridge and involved in the research behind the trial, draws parallels between Nazi propaganda and our era of ‘alternative facts’.

False-truth is the end result of a generation of spin and of acceptance of lies in public life, particularly in the political process.  Eventually it reached a tipping-point and it is now the norm.

One can understand people changing their mind when circumstances change, but this has developed into saying one thing and doing another in public life.  The backlash against the ready acceptance of this behaviour has resulted in the popular revolt against ‘the establishment’ in its various forms.

However Denial finishes by raising another question which is not addressed and needs to be addressed.  It ends with David Irving continuing to deny the Holocaust when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight.

Why do people not change their beliefs, or rather hold on to their beliefs?  This is the real issue raised both in Denial and in much current public debate.  Richard Dawkins frames the issue the wrong way round.  He says that people adopt their beliefs when they are young from their parents and teachers.  There is nothing surprising about this, although he uses this to buffet religion and to accuse parents of child abuse.  Rather, the really surprising thing is, not that children adopt the religion of their parents but, why they rarely change it.

This psychological prejudice is so common to the human condition that it merits more study and comment in public life.

However it is A-B-C to those Christian preachers who spend much of their time explaining the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who taught the need and difficulty in changing people’s beliefs.  He taught that it was so difficult that when it came to true religion it needed nothing short of the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit of God – this is what Jesus meant by ‘you must be born again’.  Human prejudice is too strong to change from the outside; it must come from personal awakening, personal conviction.

Government tries strong arm tactics using the law and sanctions to force conformity to its secular morality, but ‘he that complies against his will is of his own opinion still’.  In addition, there are not enough law enforcement officers to be effective, as the police are discovering with paedophiles now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, more than the immigrants coming into the UK, and the justice system cannot cope with the number of law-breakers of the growing number of laws.

Law enforces conformity through sanctions, but the Christian Gospel of love gives motivation to keep the law, is cheap and effective through the self-policing Christian conscience, as well as giving peace of conscience for daily living.  Try it – it begins with changing your beliefs about Jesus Christ.

What do we do about confusion in congregational preaching?

Intelligent listeners will notice differences in teaching between preachers even in the same denomination, as well as between denominations.

The right of private judgment is permitted to Christians, but the continuous and unchallenged preaching of different doctrines only leads to confusion in congregations – and God is not the author of confusion 1Cor 14:33.

So what should congregations do?

 

When did the Bible last change your thinking or behaviour?

Christians claim to be submissive to the Word of God. They acknowledge that they are not ‘the finished article’.

The development of their Christian character is effected by the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God to their thinking, speech and behaviour. It is called sanctification – ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth’, prayed Jesus for His disciples in John 17:17.

Christians desire to be ‘fit for the Master’s use’ 2Timothy 2:21. Does the Lord use you? Are you open to His guidance? Does the Bible change you? Or are you beyond change? Some people’s views never change, which suggests that they don’t submit their thoughts to Scripture – ‘bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ 2Cor 10:5. When did the Bible last change your thinking?

Why don’t people change?

1. because they do not study their Bibles for themselves. Once a godly person sees the teaching of Scripture, his conscience is bound to it; but if a person rarely studies Scripture, it is unlikely to change him.

2. there is another reason. The fear of change and being thought unorthodox.

Many Christians are familiar with the concept of ministers and elders looking over their shoulder and not acting freely according to their own understanding and conscience because of what others might think. They are afraid of seeming to be unorthodox.

This is a recipé for disaster, curtailing one’s readiness to respond to the leading of Scripture.

So why does it happen? Usually because there is one person who pulls up others for what he perceives to be unorthodox. This person is rarely challenged in his thinking and may have ties to influential people, so that he has influence out of all proportion to his understanding. But he is orthodox! and this is all that matters. Rather, he is orthodox in the area he knows about, but he fails to see what others see and would like to act upon.

This ‘one man ruins all’ attitude is very common and very influential in the Christian church. ‘A little folly’ can ruin a reputation Ecc 10:1, but it can ruin a congregation and many other things.

It is time for individual Christians to remember and reclaim the liberty with which Christ has made them free. ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage’ Gal 5:1.

The maturing Paul

At a conference of Christian political party leaders in Leissigen, Switzerland, in 2013, I heard the following observations made by Valeriu Ghiletchi, a member of the Parliament of Moldova and a former President of the European Baptist Federation.

He drew attention to four stages of the apostle Paul’s life and ministry, to show his changing self-image:

  1. About 49AD: in Gal 2:6 Paul writes: “But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it makes no matter to me: God accepts no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me”.  Valeriu glossed this as: “It makes no difference to me. Those men added nothing to my message.” Paul was very self-confident.
  2. About 55AD: in 1Cor 15:9 Paul wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”.
  3. About 60AD: in Eph 3:8, after his prison experience, he wrote: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
  4. Finally, in 1Tim 1:15 about three years before his death, he wrote: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”

This is a very useful observation.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul considered himself to be ahead of his equals in the Jews’ religion Gal 1:14, and some of this competitive spirit is manifest in the epistle to the Galatians, where he considered himself to be at least equal to the apostles if not ahead of them.

Immediately after his conversion, Paul’s credibility was called into question, and Barnabas helped to overcome suspicions about Paul’s conversion Act 9:27.  Barnabas also head-hunted him in Tarsus for the work among the Gentiles in Antioch Act 11:22,25.   Paul was aware of his unique ministry and from an early stage he had to defend and assert his calling.  This is seen in Gal 1: 1,11-12 and he asserted his independence from the other apostles in Gal 1:17-19.  Fourteen years later Gal 2:1 he ascertained that his doctrine was the same as the other apostles Gal 2:2, and asserted that they had not added anything to his knowledge of Christian doctrine nor events in the life of Christ Gal 2:6.

However, by the time of writing 1Cor 15:9 Paul considered himself to be the least of the apostles, minimising and contrasting his right to be called an apostle compared to the other apostles.  This does not mean he minimises his apostleship; rather he magnifies the office in Rom 11:13 written about the same time, but he does not insist upon the designation being officiously applied to himself.  He does not with false humility suggest that he is worse than the other apostles at fulfilling the apostolic office; rather, he asserts the opposite in 2Cor 11:5 “For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles” and “for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing” 2Cor 12:11; however this was in the context of a challenge to his apostleship and he felt compelled to speak thus.

Still later, during his imprisonment, he coins a Greek term ‘less than the least’ Eph 3:8 to describe how he compares himself to the saints.  He has moved from comparing himself equal to the apostles in the epistle to the Galatians, to the least of the apostles in the epistle to the Ephesians, and now he is less than the least of the saints – a saint nevertheless.

Finally he comes down to the level of describing himself as “the chiefest sinner” in 1Tim 1:15.

This is the great apostle to the Gentiles maturing for glory, like the weeping willow tree, which stoops lower the older it becomes.

Questions and answers in church and congregational life

In 1Corinthians Paul deals with some congregational issues and in 1Cor 14:35 he tells wives: “if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

This strongly suggests that husbands were asking questions in congregations – but how many preachers finish their sermons with “Any questions?”

Imagine the scene – Paul arrives in a new place and preaches a sermon to the gathered people.  Does he stand up and leave, or will there be questions? Jesus was often questioned by His disciples afterwards Mat 13:10-11; Mk 4:10,34; and the Gentiles in Antioch wanted an after-church fellowship, which Paul was happy to encourage Act 13:43. The disputes described in the Acts of the Apostles Act 7:57; 13:45 show that congregations discussed what was said. The disciples gathered in homes to have fellowship Act 2:46 and collective prayer Act 12:12.

“Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God” Act 13:43. Contrary to this, many congregations hurry home and have no fellowship afterwards. Some ministers even expect them to go home immediately and to come back to the next set diet of meetings. The after-church fellowship meeting is an apostolic tradition.

Questions give feedback to the preacher and help relevant issues to be addressed.  Answers give opportunity for the congregation to learn collectively and teach Christians the skills of gracious discussion.  The benefits are so great that it seems obvious to me that this is how the new testament congregations grew and developed, how congregational life flourished, and how Christian leadership emerged and was recognised.  I believe that this is central to spiritual development in congregational life and that it should help the growth of a congregation both spiritually and numerically. Further, the gifts and graces given by the Lord to the congregation are recognised, appreciated, and more effectively utilised.

When catechising was commoner, the spiritual life of the church was healthier.  With the demise of feedback from the hearers to the preacher, a disconnect has emerged in many congregations and denominations with the result that congregations are not edified to the extent that they could.

Updates:

23 Mar 2013: John Knox on asking questions after sermons.  Husbands are to study.

10 Apr 2013: a rare example of taking questions during a sermon.

13 Jul 2013: the pope of Rome begins answering questions

9 Aug 2014: Jesus was not static in His pursuit of knowledge in His human nature, but ‘Jesus increased in wisdom’ Lk 2:52. In the Temple He sat among the doctors ‘asking them questions’ Lk 2:46.

24 May 2015: ‘God is not the author of confusion’ 1Cor 14:33 is a well-known quotation. However, the context is not often noted. Prophets were making statements which were not vetted by others in the congregation 1Cor 14:32. So how is this confusion to be avoided in Christian congregations if there is no process for challenging the preaching?  Critical listening to sermons is often encouraged with reference to Act 17:11 ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so’. However, the method for challenging teaching is not often mentioned – far less suggested. Without it, there is liable to be confusion and God is not the author of such confusion.  Congregational discussion should be peaceful, orderly and edifying.

21 Jul 2015: I have heard that some Baptist churches in Germany have a Questions and Answers session.

6 Nov 2015: the Rev. Brian Norton of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Durham, recently gone to glory, gave opportunity for questions about his sermons afterwards.  Also, during the mid-week Bible study he would stop in the middle of the service and ask for any questions so far, and he gave another opportunity at the close of the service.

19 May 2017: the Rev. Partheepan Shanmugam spoke of the advantage in his mission work in Sri Lanka from congregational discussion of sermons after their being preached.  The benefit that one person receives is shared with all, and another benefit another receives is also shared with all.