Thursday, August 05, 2010

"An Honest Conversation" - EMA Assembly 2010 - Part 1

I was hoping to go to the EMA Assembly in London this year with Pete Day but however our diaries did not allow it (the story of my life with conferences these days!). The topic of the Holy Spirit is one very close to my heart and to know that Terry Virgo was invited to take part in the following discussion made it a must-hear for me. John Piper and Wayne Grudem were also speakers - so I cannot wait to get onto hearing those sessions!

For now here's Part 1 of the Panel Discussion. Terry Virgo of course, Hugh Palmer - Rector of All Souls Langham Place and Liam Goligher from Duke Street Baptist Church. John Coles was the only one I was not familiar with - he is the Director of New Wine. The discussion was chaired by Vaughan Roberts from St Ebbes in Oxford.

“An Honest Conversation” – The Ministry of the Spirit in the Local Church
EMA Assembly – Terry Virgo, John Coles, Hugh Palmer and Liam Goligher.

Vaughan Roberts (V.R): Well welcome to this afternoon’s session and what we have called “An Honest Conversation”. I am grateful to my conversation partners who I will welcome in just a moment. First though a word of introduction from my own local context. As some of you will know I am a pastor in Oxford and on one end of Pembroke Street there is St Ebbes Church and at the other end of Pembroke Street there is St Aldates Church. We hold much in common and have done for many many years. I have been a member for 20 years I guess and over the years there have been occasional moments of disagreement and tension particularly I think among the student members of the congregation over the charismatic debates and discussions.

When Charlie Cleverly (who is the Rector of St Aldates) arrived about 8 years ago I went to see him and we decided we would meet regularly to pray and we included Andrew Winkfield-Digby who is the vicar of St Andrews church in the city. It is a very high powered gathering as you can imagine and on one occasion I turned up at Andrew’s house at 08:00, Charlie turned up at 08:00 at my house and Andrew turned up at 08:00 at Charlie’s house which is where we were all meant to be. We do normally manage to meet every 5 or 6 weeks or so and during that time a very warm and close friendship has built up between me and Charlie. We are brothers in Christ and we love Him. Our passion above all else is to make Him known and to see people converted. There are things we have been able to do together as we long to see the city of Oxford reached with the gospel. So Charlie has started a mission called “Love Oxford” which has been a gathering of evangelical church leaders trying to set up 1 a year a large gathering in one of the local parks where we put aside secondary differences and Christ and His Cross are preached. Thousands gather and it is a tremendous opportunity for witness to the Lord Jesus whom we all worship.

During the course of our friendship there have been other things we have chatted about that we disagree on sharply. We reckon there are some things that we cannot easily do together. We have not planted a church together. We don’t do our ministry training courses together. In Charlie’s language, he puts it; “In some things there is not sufficient spiritual DNA” and there are some things that we can do together. One of the happy things we have done together from time to time is to share a platform and have a discussion from time to time rather like this – and the fact it was so needed came home to me when people were surprised to see us not only on the same platform but to see that we were friends. In that discussion we were able to affirm things we agreed on and from the context of brotherhood and friendship – to have things that we sometimes disagreed on. We both felt that was a healthy thing to happen. What has occurred over the past few decades through different types of evangelicalism is sometimes divides through – not particularly any great difference in theology – but we just don’t know one another. We have our own conferences, our own minister’s meetings and we have found how helpful it is to meet with one another.

I hope we are going to replicate something of that this afternoon. Most of us are local church pastors and all the time I hope we will be thinking; “What is it we can do locally on the ground with other pastors from other churches that might have other views on some things we might view as secondary and other things we might view as very significant indeed. What can we do together? And what can’t we do together? Can we at least discuss and talk? So I am very grateful to my four friends for joining me this afternoon and they will be known to many of you.

• Hugh Palmer – the Rector of All Souls, Langham Place and the Chairman of New Word Alive.

• Terry Virgo who leads the Newfrontiers network of churches around this country and internationally as well.

• Liam Goligher from Duke Street in Richmond and conference speaker from all over the world as well.

• And John Coles who leads the New Wine network.

Thank you for coming. I am going to pray as we begin our discussion.

“Loving Father thank You very much for our unity with all those who are born again. Our unity with Christ and our unity with one another by the Spirit. We grieve over differences sometime and divisions and we need real discernment to know when we should be affirming unity and pushing secondary things to one side and when we should be engaging with differences that really matter and the need to be talked through. We pray we will do that this afternoon and do it in a right way and we pray this kind of thing will happen increasingly throughout this land for the glory of Your Name. Amen”.

We have had opportunities to chat some of us a few months ago and some of us just now and we all agree that that there are increasing divisions among evangelicals and an increasing breadth has emerged and certain truths need to be reaffirmed in the wake of this increasing breadth and I would be interested if I could just go along and start with you – Hugh. What are the key truths that we evangelicals need to reaffirm in the face of worrying breadth on these matters?

Hugh Palmer (H.P): I definitely include the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Unless we have come to any common mind on the Scriptures it is hard to see where we can go further. Certainly within evangelicalism there seems to be all kinds of worrying trends at least among those who want the label of evangelical. There seems to be all kinds of not looking at the Scriptures, the Person and Work of Jesus which has got to include His atonement. Some of the ideas that come around the idea of penal substitution recently within evangelical frames is something we need to talk through. Some of the uncertainty around the judgement and wrath of God – and I would think we would need to revisit areas of regeneration and repentance and at times a temptation to indulge in a repentance-free Christianity.

V.R: Thank you Hugh. Terry – do you want to pick up from there?

Terry Virgo (T.V): Okay I would endorse all that has gone before. I would say the authority of Scripture and all that is included in that. That has to be foundational and fundamental to everything we do and say beyond question. Maybe in our individualistic generation the relevance of the local church as a place where you work out your Christianity not as a loner – when we say Scripture is the final authority which we wholly endorse – the danger of every person becoming his own interpreter can be dangerous. We need to dignify the local church with its own authority so we don’t all become separate entities having our own interpretation of the authority of the Scripture. So much of Christianity in the New Testament is worked out with one another with all those “one another” verses – “correcting one another, encouraging one another” etc. I guess another thing I would perhaps mention is that I feel there needs to be a very clear foundation of grace in the churches. I think sometimes the gospel is complicated by the addition of laws and rules which sometimes really confuse our relationship with Jesus having been settled. We are accepted in Christ and we build our lives from there.

Perhaps one thing we must never drift from is the call of the local church to be involved in world evangelization. Even in our (correctly I think) talking about the things we are talking about today – we must never fail to see that there is a world for us to reach. I think that must become high on our list of priorities.

Liam Goligher (L.G): I want to endorse everything that has been said so far. *laughter*. You will hear this a lot. To clarify I think there is a fault line in British evangelicalism over the issue of the authority of Scripture. I would love to say the inerrancy of Scripture – I think there are some euphemisms like “the infallibility of Scripture” which may mean something different today to what we would understand historically of “inerrant Scripture”. The Roman Catholic church are quite clear – I read in an evangelical magazine in the last couple of months that the word “inerrant” is an American word and therefore we shouldn’t use it! The Roman Catholic Church in their 1985 catechism say that the Scriptures are without error and I would underline that. I also want to clarify salvation in terms of justification by grace alone by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone – because the idea of imputation has always been accepted and all the confessions since the Reformation would have been held by Arminians as well as Calvinists but this has been greatly undermined recently and the idea of imputed righteousness needs to be reclaimed for evangelicalism.

My only additional thing I would add is that sadly in broader evangelicalism in the last few years we have seen some of our major evangelical movements invite speakers here to this country who would not I think agree with fundamental creedal Christianity – which I would describe as catholic (with a small “c”). Basic Christianity – what C S Lewis would describe as the hallway we come into to define ourselves as Christians – that is our view of God as Trinity, the view of Christ as two natures and one Person and so on. I think there are real challenges in evangelicalism about what basic Christianity is.

John Coles (J.C): I agree. *laughter*. I wrote down three things and two of them have been said already actually – but within the context of the society in which we live. Namely regeneration and revelation. Society in which we live now believes that human beings have another aspect to their personality rather than just the mind. We need to embrace the post-modern age as a reawakening of human beings as spirit beings. The question is – what then happens, how do you benefit from what God has done for us in Christ? It is only by being born again of the Spirit and in the church – the church is losing the concept of regeneration and we need to be aware of how necessary that is in our society today given the awareness of human beings as spirit beings. Revelation – we have talked about that a bit but I think I would like to say that the question still remains for us and this is obviously the elephant in the room: Has God spoken or does God speak? I would like to say that He HAS spoken and He DOES still speak. I agree on the authority, sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture but I have a love relationship with a God who has always spoken with human beings. So unless I am able to use that language about my relationship with Him I believe my Christianity is sub-biblical rather than fully biblical Christianity.

I want us to maintain the language of God still speaks today although the relative authority and the issues about how He speaks today is different from the written Word of God – it is not a new doctrine or a new morality – it is in personal guidance, direction, and I am alive today partly because that happened. On the morning of December 30th as we were getting up – my wife said to me, “I had a strange dream last night” and the impact and interpretation of it was that you are going to have to pray like you have never prayed in your life before. That afternoon I had a heart attack at 3pm which resulted in a cardiac arrest. In the grace of God the medics got there – but she knew that this was the moment that God had prepared her for in the dream. She and two of our children immediately engaged in prayer in a way that she had never seen previously. So that is a different category of God speaking but of equal significance for my life and future from the others.

The third thing I wrote was respect. 1. Regeneration. 2. Revelation. And 3. Respect. I look back to my days in Christian Union at university as I know many evangelicals do when there was a really vibrant unity that was able to embrace difference. We had robust conversations with Baptists – I was an Anglican paedobaptist and they believed in believer’s baptism. But we never questioned each other’s sincerity to Christ, the Bible or to mission. I was never described by my Baptists as not being “biblical”. I fear that within some of the tribes now there is an accusatory word that is used from one tribe to another – “You are not being really biblical, you are not being Scriptural”. There is an assumption that if you are being biblical then you will agree on every point of interpretation in the same way that I have interpreted that Scripture. I think we should respect each other enough to say; “I think you are being biblical – I know your heart but I just interpret those texts differently” – but actually you are equally evangelical as I am.

V.R: Anyone want to have a second bite in the light of what’s been said?

L.G: To what degree are we coming back to this later – that’s the thing?

V.R: Well – I guess for example John has mentioned “Has God spoken/does God speak” – I am quite sure we would all agree that God speaks. There would be debate I would imagine on how we would expect him to speak but I guess that may come as another issue to return to. Well let’s move on to another question. Our theme is “Spiritual Ministry” – each of you could speak for a long time on what you think that looks like in practice. But if I could limit you to a couple of minutes what would you want to major on when you think about Spirit-filled ministry? Let’s mix up the order – let’s start with Terry if we may.

Terry Virgo: I always think of the Book of Acts when they said; “Choose men who are full of the Holy Spirit to do this ministry” – it must have been very challenging because it looks like the whole church was very full of the Holy Spirit! Yet they selected men and found that Stephen was full of wisdom and full of power. I would feel that one of the marks of the early church as regards being full of the Holy Spirit was that there was a power to carry on witnessing in spite of hostility, opposition – it was perhaps their lack of courage at the Cross that so sadly seemed to disqualify Peter. For instance that made him deny that he even knew Jesus. Subsequently in the empowering of the Spirit there was a boldness. Certainly the word “boldness” is one that seemed identify believers in the early church – “Who are these unlearned fishermen – these non-trained rabbis – where did they get this boldness?”. I think boldness is something that characterised the early church when it was filled with the Holy Spirit. I think joy is another word you find characterising the Spirit-filled life. Even in the context of great opposition – Paul said to the Thessalonians; “Even in the midst of great suffering you received joy in the Holy Spirit”. It is not simply the kind of happy-clappy thing that can be dismissed as frivolous but a joy that can be found in the midst of pain. Maybe the kind of joy that Paul and Silas demonstrated in the inner prison late at night.

I would say the immediate Presence of the Spirit is huge – for me intimacy with the Presence of the Spirit – the coming of the Spirit was the recovery from exile - we are back into the Presence of the Lord.

So when on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon them – they knew God was with them in an intimate way that surpassed anything they had known from when Jesus Himself was with them. He of course said; “I won’t leave you orphans – I will come to you”. So for Israel to be back into the Presence of the Lord in an unprecedented way – for God to be among them – accessibility – “By one Spirit we have access to the Father”. A sense of God’s nearness – His intimate Presence – both for individual in his own devotions, the corporate meeting and the sense that God is with us, we are in His Presence, we have access to Him. These to me I think would be biblically rooted truths that govern the high prize I would put on enjoying the Presence of the Holy Spirit.

V.R: Thank you – Liam?

L.G: Boldness, joy and a felt sense of the Presence of God – what the Puritans refer to I think as a “feeling-sense” of the Presence of God. I wonder if we do expect in our churches (especially at the conservative end of the spectrum) to come expecting that God is present and when His Word is spoken that God is speaking to us? I believe that the second Helvetic confession is absolutely right when it says the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God and an expectation of immediacy when the Word is proclaimed especially in the Assembly of God’s people that there will be a living lively sense that God is there. So the boldness and evangelism and joy in our experience and relationship with God and a felt sense of God’s Presence – especially when we are together I think are vital. The effects and evidences that the Holy Spirit is present in power among us must be surely a converting ministry. We long to see a converting ministry. As you look over the evangelical scene isn’t it amazing that the Holy Spirit is quite indiscriminate about this. He gives a converting ministry to a charismatic person and to a very conservative ministry over here and He is quite indiscriminate about pouring that out on the church! But it seems the me the one thing we have lacked among us – how many can say that the Holy Spirit is present to do what we all believe whatever end of the spectrum we are on? I am convinced that where the Lord is – there will be a converting of hearts. And then I think there will be a sanctifying work in our hearts.

V.R: Thank you very much. John?

J.C: I have written down “Pleasure in God”, “personal transformation” and “power in witness”. Which seems to me to match up exactly with what you are saying. I think if you look at the difference in emphasis between charismatic churches and conservative churches – and none of us would be leading the way we are if we didn’t believe that what we were doing was Spirit-filled ministry so the consequence of our understanding of Spirit-filled ministry plays out in church life that we are leading. So probably instead of using general descriptions about what categories – we ought to look at what consequences. So what is the consequence of a charismatic, Spirit-filled view? My immediate observation would be that there is more evident singing. You go to a charismatic church and there is more singing for hours – sometimes it seems the same song! We drove the other day (probably not a good idea as it was about 18:30) through Piccadilly Circus as the whole place is buzzing with everyone going to the theatre. We drove round one corner and we heard a crowd singing. It was the Argentineans getting ready for a match last night. What do people do when they are full of joy? They sing – it is a natural human expression and emotion. It is interesting looking through some of the songs you guys are singing and seeing some of them come from the charismatic stable. We say that singing is the natural overflow of the Presence of the Spirit. We understand that pleasure in God is first not our pleasure in God but His pleasure in us. The Spirit on Jesus says; “You are My Son – I delight in You”.

Instead of the wrath of God falling on me – the pleasure of God embraces me. I am His beloved one! So my response is – oh Lord! Thank You!

And I want to express my gratitude to Him in song! I want to do that as well with my brothers and sisters because on my own I am not a particularly good singer and they help me sing and express that joy in a way above and beyond my own. So personal transformation (and that all comes from the Holy Spirit) comes in part through singing but also in part through the reading and the conformity of the Word of God thus also in part through the preaching and conformity to the Word of God. But there is another aspect – personal transformation comes through my own personal contemplation out in the quiet and beauty of the country and I can behold the beauty and glory of God. That is 2 Corinthians 3:18. As we contemplate the Lord’s glory we are transformed from one glory to another. Creation reveals His glory on the one hand and in worship we encounter His glory and Presence as well as in the Word He comes to us in His full glory. So what I am saying is that we expect to see light completely transformed. If that is not happening then we are not ministering in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I think that is common to us all so the drug addict can be delivered and set free. I am involved at the moment in a new church plant and it is a pleasure to see drug addicts coming in off the estate to getting converted in the last 3 months, of drugs, lives being changed. People are coming saying; “Who is this Jesus?”. So the Spirit changes us!

V.R: Thank you John. Hugh?

H.P: I am getting boring now saying that I agree with what is being said. But I would expect a Spirit-filled ministry to be full of Jesus. He is to be the One to whom the Spirit points and I am struck again and again how when people are filled with the Spirit in Acts how the next thing they are doing is speaking. And what they are speaking of is Jesus. The boldness comes through there – He is the content of the message and the ministry and I would expect people to be speaking of the Christ and living out the Christ – which is a phrase I know I have domesticated. There are loads of ways we have domesticated that, first of all we have horribly individualised it. Spirit is creating community. Secondly the radicalness of it all and John has touched on some of it – another one that has come across to me is the sheer generosity of those early New Testament communities which certainly humbles me and I know humbles many of our churches and would be a wonderful display if that kind of generosity was demonstrated in our communities.

Thank you very much.

Part 2 to follow!


dave bish said...

Thanks for transcribing this. Be good to see where it goes next.

Dan Bowen said...

Glad you liked - it gets v good! The review in Evangelicals Now critiqued the discussion for not being able to get deep into the topics and I could see the point. When Terry or Hugh Palmer got talking you just wanted them to go on for hours. I love panel discussions so much! And i loved how here gospel unity doesn't require a downgrading of differences but rather a celebration of them - even if Terry is still right. ;-)