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Monday, 20 June 2016

How Important is Educational Success for a Christian?

This subject seems to have cropped up time and again in recent months and my views have significantly altered over the years. It is an area subject to increasing debate in Christian circles where people tend to take a firm stance one way or the other. As with all of these things it is important, ultimately, to come back to what the Bible has to say. Scripture obviously doesn’t state “You should/shouldn’t have an education” at least not in the same way that it tells us to be patient, although I was informed by my six-year-old nephew recently that he didn’t have to possess that particular fruit of the spirit as it wasn’t in the ten commandments and he hadn’t read it yet! But there are patterns of behaviour and principles for us to follow that speak directly to this issue. 

I thought back to when I was studying both at high school and later at sixth form college. It was presumed that I would head to University, indeed the vast majority of students with average or above average grades were channelled in that direction, regardless of the debt they might incur or other things they might want to do with their lives. I had always wanted to become a police officer but became temporarily distracted by the idea of being a lawyer and so headed to University to begin a degree in Law and Criminology. This seemed to be the expected course for me from an educational point of view and the argument was that I could always join the police on finishing my degree. What wasn’t highlighted was that I didn’t actually need a degree to join the police so I was effectively studying for the sake of it, or for achievement purposes. Some years later, I lost all of my exam certificates and wondered whether God was teaching me that they were superfluous or dealing with my pride, but maybe that’s reading too much into the situation…..

In my case, things worked out well as six weeks after starting my University course I realised that I was sick to the back teeth of studying and wanted to get on and work, so I dropped out and joined the police. I was blessed to have supportive parents, who despite the money that had been invested for the first term and the student loan that had been taken out, helped me to change direction. I have never regretted that decision, although for the first few weeks afterwards I felt like a failure. I wonder if things would’ve been different if someone, at my school, had really thought about whether it was the right thing for me to go to university in the first place bearing in mind my career choice. Now it seems that more people are considering the non-degree route as vocational courses become available and people are more concerned about being saddled with debt. My general advice on this issue is that people should only go to University if they have to have a specific degree to get the job that they want to do, otherwise what’s the point!

But everything so far has been pretty general and not about the specific issue of Christians and their education. I recently conversed with a young professing Christian in Asia who was so upset by the amount of pressure they were being placed under to hit a certain deadline that they were contemplating suicide if they could not hit the mark. This person was repeating their studies having failed them once already due to a nervous breakdown triggered by exam stress. They asked me why God allowed them to fail their exams and to buckle under the pressure.  I found myself asking whether someone in that situation should be encouraged to continue their studies, as this person’s parents were advising. In Asia there is a huge amount of pressure exerted on children to succeed regardless the consequence, with never-ending school hours and reams of homework. The statistics show that these countries are now leading the world in terms of educational success, but at what cost? Is educational success the ultimate goal for a Christian? Is it even important in God’s economy?

This leads on to the issue of formal education for those who believe that God has called them into positions of leadership either in a Church or on the Mission field. Most churches and mission agencies require applicants to have spent time at either Bible school or Seminary. But is this Biblical? And is it necessary to prepare someone for a life of Christian service? This is where my views have probably changed. Like everyone else I would previously have said that of course a prospective Pastor/Preacher/Missionary should go to Bible school, where else would they learn what they needed to prepare them to teach others. 

But a few years ago, my home church appointed a new Pastor that had not been away to Bible school. Instead he had been a trainee leader in a large church and had spent several years being mentored/discipled by a senior Pastor in that church whilst also studying the Bible/other books in his own time. He described this as a Paul/Timothy type of relationship where the younger learned from the older and was enabled to practice what he was being taught in the local church context. He was able to develop relationships with the people in the church immediately rather than being sent away to study then returning and having to begin that process as a virtual stranger.  This made me think as I could see the definite advantages to this method of learning which seemed to have been lifted straight from the Bible.

On being called into mission work myself it was suggested that I also should go to Bible school or pursue further training but I believed that God would have me go at once and having spent two years on-board Logos Hope (missionary ship) I believed that that experience was adequate training for the field as an independent. A few years down the line, having made many mistakes and struggled through many difficulties, I still believe that it was the right decision to go although maybe I was a little hasty in terms of the exact departure date. I have learned many things that have better prepared me for future service. And God was always with me even at my lowest points.

I have also been involved in a church that had a Bible school attached to it. You might think that this is the ideal scenario; a man can be officially trained whilst also putting things into practice within the local church. This may have been the case but many of the men being trained were not in fact members of that church as they travelled from a fair distance away to enrol in school during the week and then returned to their families/churches at the weekend. Of the limited number who were in the church and in the Bible school, at least one expressed concern that he wouldn’t be ready to be a Pastor on graduation because he didn’t feel adequately prepared for the practical side. He was considering getting further formal education in another country. I said to this person that the important thing for him to prepare himself was to develop his own relationship with God and to spend time studying the Bible himself as this would prepare him better than spending a lot of money on further formal education. This wasn’t said because I had an especially well developed view on this subject but more because it seemed logical; God would equip His servants for the ministry He had called them to.

I attended some of the above church’s Bible school classes as I thought they might be useful for me as a missionary but after numerous weeks on the different types of baptism, as I struggled to grasp the detail, I found myself wondering how I could ever apply that in my work. I also wondered whether it would even be useful for a prospective Pastor to know that level of detail. But I can’t comment beyond that on the topics/content of any Bible schools/Seminaries as I have no direct experience of them.  I was concerned that some graduates that I knew seemed to have automatically adopted the views of their teachers or the particular school they had attended. They hadn’t always developed these views after a prayerful study of Scripture but often just because they had been taught it and it seemed to make sense. This is one of the dangers if students aren’t willing to keep up their own personal study whilst enrolled at these institutions.

Then I met a man who had been a missionary for 17 years. He had been expected to go to university but felt God clearly calling him to missionary service. He had joined a slightly older male missionary on the field and had used his personal study time, the reading of good Christian literature and the things he learned from his co-worker to prepare him to serve God as a Pastor/Preacher on the field. He had no formal education beyond high school. He had written a book called “The Hidden Altar” (see review) which amongst other things explains why a formal education may not be necessary, particularly for those who hear God calling them to “Go and make disciples.”

 Shortly after this I was serving in a book warehouse in Florence, South Carolina and I stumbled upon another book; “Pagan Christianity.”  (see review)I didn’t agree with some of the things the author wrote and I have already reviewed this extensively, but I saw again that heading off to Bible school/Seminary may not be the most effective route for everyone. Although one person took the opportunity to explain at the bottom of my review why a formal education was necessary for all prospective ministers, his rationale seemed to be largely based on Church tradition/cultural best practice. I began to consider what the Bible says about this.

I then read; “Father of Faith Missions; The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves.” (see review) and discovered that he too had not been formally educated or ordained for his Pastoral role. Indeed, many of his contemporaries didn’t have the required formal stamp on their ministry and this had caused much controversy. Groves’ goal was to stick as closely as possible to the New Testament pattern of the Apostles in his life and ministry. You might think that Groves and other missionaries of past generations were lazy; not wanting to study or devote themselves fully to God’s work. But actually quite the opposite was true, these were men who gave their all to God. They were disciplined in devotional practices and through reading and studying they learned everything they needed to know to teach God’s Word to others.

So what can we conclude from this, and how important is educational success for a Christian? In terms of general education, the Bible tells us in Colossians 3 vs 23; 

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (ESV)

So for those who are studying and who were thinking I was about to advise that it would be okay to abandon their education; if you are studying then do it with all your heart for God! Be disciplined and seek to serve Him through exercising diligence. But remember that God knows our hearts and our individual abilities and He is far more concerned about how faithfully we serve Him than how successful we are educationally. If (as in the case of the student I mentioned earlier) your studies are making you ill or stressed out of your mind, then there is a case for asking whether God would have you continue or whether you should pray about what else He might have you do.

In relation to Seminary/Bible school; the Apostles were uneducated fishermen who learned from their Master. Paul had been educated as a non-believer but later taught Timothy directly as they worked closely together. I have given more contemporary examples of how some Christian men have followed the New Testament pattern by learning from spiritually mature Christians and studying the Bible directly.

Biblically, educational success should not be the goal for a Christian. Their goal should be to seek God’s will for their lives. God knows best how to prepare a person for adequate personal spiritual growth and for their calling. Not having been to Seminary/Bible school should not bar a Christian from being in leadership as it is not a Scriptural requirement for leadership. Educational success is something that the world says is vitally important, and sadly in most cases the church seems to have adopted this view and added it as a requirement for their leaders. But a Christian leader can learn to be an effective minister of God’s Word through the example of his peers and through diligence in personal study.

Friday, 3 June 2016

How the Absence of God's Light Always Leads to Hopelessness

I went to the local library this week to see if I was missing out on some good Christian books. Unfortunately the "Religious" section (there was no Christian section) consisted of two small shelves largely containing "self-help" books and a few about Buddhism. Then it seemed to have been merged with the "Politics" I turned to the extensive "Biography" area and chose a number of books on subjects that interested me to see what other people are reading. Knowing that these were not Christian books I was prepared for the bad language and decided that I wouldn't on this occasion be implementing my ruthless "three strikes" rule. That was just as well as the first two books had swear/curse words on virtually every page.....

I began with "Tango 190: Raoul Moat, the Gateshead Shootings & Life Without My Eyes" by PC David Rathband UK Readers will remember this story as Rathband was the tragic policeman blinded after being shot in the face by a wanted criminal in East Denton in 2010. A few years later he killed himself after separating from his wife. To read his story that describes events before, during and after the shooting was fascinating but I was also left with a sense of hopelessness, knowing that just a few short months after concluding his auto-biography things had taken a dramatic turn culminating in his eventual suicide in 2012.

Rathband obviously loved his job as a police officer and saw it as a fulfillment of his dream to have a noteworthy career, probably to prove himself to his family with whom he had a difficult relationship. It seems that he chose his girlfriend Kath despite opposition from his family and ended up marrying her some years later. The family feud/rift had come to a head several times during his initial hospitalisation and recovery as various family members were uncomfortably forced together at his bedside. Indeed Rathband believed that some of these people only came out of the woodwork to get attention for themselves via the media interest in his case or to do their "duty" without any sincere affection.

Rathband alludes to having had a wandering eye and admits that earlier in his relationship with Kath he began having doubts about them, and with her "permission," spent a night with one of his ex-girlfriends, just to "check" whether or not things were right with Kath. He then called Kath who picked him up the next day....My research indicates that according to Kath, the primary reason for their marriage failure was repeated infidelity on the part of Rathband even after losing his site. In his book, he makes it very clear that Kath stood by him through the trauma of the events which were played out in the public arena and that she provided that stabling influence in his life that he could trust....

After Rathband's death his family continued fighting about a compensation case that he had launched against the police force he had been serving with at the time of the shooting. His claim was for negligence. It appears that the force had received a call from the shooter indicating that he was "hunting police." Rathband felt that officers on the ground should have been warned about this as it may have changed the sequence of events. Having read his account, I cannot see that it would've made much difference. In the end the compensation claim was dismissed.

I was saddened to read Rathband's story knowing what had happened after its publication. I felt the desperation of a man always striving to prove himself in life; first to his family as a child and later to his colleagues as a policeman. Having his eye-sight stripped away made him vulnerable and insecure and he revealed these deep feelings in his account. The constant turmoil in his family due to the broken relationships and the refusal of any parties to reconcile/forgive also placed a burden on him. He focused on winning the court case against others involved in helping the shooter as if justice would help him find the happiness that eluded him but he continued to be plagued by nightmares. His widow's allegations of infidelity do not surprise me as I had picked up that this was likely from reading his account.

Rathband made it clear in his book that he didn't believe in God and had no faith. As a Christian reading an account like this I was struck by the familiar fingerprints of the enemy on this tragic tale. The sin of violent crime which damaged the body physically, the greed/jealousy and unforgiveness that divided a family over money, the repeated infidelity resulting in a broken marriage, hurt children and the eventual suicide of the author. The striving for happiness in worldly things. The meaninglessness of lives lived without hope in God.

Secondly I read "Hackney Child" (the language here was even worse.) Hope Daniels (not her real name) became a parent to her two younger brothers at the age of 5 as their own parents were alcoholics and seemingly incapable of looking after them. Her mother worked at home as a prostitute, encouraged by her father who repeatedly stole to fund his addictions. The family moved frequently and hid the neglect and poverty from social services and other authority figures. It seems that there were many around who were aware but no one who was willing to make a real difference/step in to really help these suffering children. This may have been due to the abuse those who did try to help received from the mother.

The most shocking incident occurred when the three children were alone in the house. The mother had somehow been officially "outed" as a prostitute and some of her clients were also in relationships with women who lived nearby. An angry mob descended on the house and basically trashed it; smashing the windows with bricks and writing abuse on the door. The children cowered upstairs thinking that they were at fault and that everyone hated them as they were "bad." A short time after this they presented themselves at a local police station requesting that they be taken into care. This was what happened and after that day they only returned home for short visits.

Once in care Hope struggled to trust authority figures and found herself running away from those she didn't trust. She battled a number of vices. She made it clear that her one desire was to be placed in a long term foster home but this was never realised. She remained in the system until she was 18 by which time she was pregnant and addicted to alcohol....

Obviously this is a story told from the perspective of Hope but I was struck by the failure of the authorities to grasp what she was dealing with. It seemed that whenever she began to settle down and trust those taking care of her resulting in improved behaviour, she was suddenly moved and had to go through the whole process again. I do not know why this happened but Hope herself stated that she was crying out for a stable environment with boundaries and people she could trust. Hope has gone on to write two further books and is now married with two children. Her experiences did cause professionals to re-examine things and Hope now travels widely as a consultant for the care system in the UK.

The futility of this situation also jumped out of the pages but for different reasons than the first book. Here we have a care system that prevented Hope being placed in foster care. Initially it was because they wanted to keep her with her siblings but later just because she was a difficult child. Yet all Hope longed for was to be part of a real family, as God had originally intended. Promises were made and broken by professionals who couldn't/wouldn't tell her the truth resulting in frequent breaches of trust and a spiraling pattern of disruptive behaviour as Hope became convinced that she was doomed to follow her mothers path. Her own sin compounded her situation but where was the spiritual help and guidance she really needed; not within the care system which didn't/doesn't recognise the God of the Bible.

Reading these two books made me sad as they are representative of thousands of people in Britain and millions around the world. The sins documented at length in these books; family breakdown, abuse, neglect, crime, unforgiveness, jealousy, greed.....etc etc. They are also unfortunately representative of many of us as Christians in our ongoing battle for holiness. As I was reading both books I kept waiting for the Christian to appear and bring Gospel light into these desperate situations. For that kindly friend or neighbour to invite this policeman or this young girl to church or even to pass a book/scripture verse along. But if that happened, it wasn't mentioned, in fact the absence of any type of Christian light or hope was the most tragic factor for me. We don't know what God would have done through someone willing to be used by Him as a witness to either of these people, but we do know that there were many people around both of these families at all times during their difficult circumstances.

Let us really SEE those around us and not avoid "difficult people," that might be an emotional drain. Let's seek opportunities to bring meaning into the lives of people caught up in sin and the painful toils of lifes troubles with the hope that Jesus alone offers. My prayer is that in every biography, whether or not it has been authored by a Christian, there will be a mention of at least one person who sought to reach out to the author with Christ's forgiveness of sin and with hope for the future.

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil. (Romans 2:9)

"There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:21)

He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head. ( Psalm 7:15-16)

The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. (Proverbs 5:22)

The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires. (Proverbs 11:6)

The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. (I Timothy 5:24)

One sinner destroys much good. (Ecclesiastes 9:18)

The LORD laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. (Psalm 37:13)

For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6)

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7)

The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:8)

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)

God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:14)

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)

But because of your stubbornness and you unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)

The evil man has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out. (Proverbs 24:20)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men. (Romans 1:18)

On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. (Psalm 11:6)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our LORD.  (Romans 6:23)