A Broken World: Family Is Destiny

family

A family gathered around the table together for a meal. Note the absence of television and the home cooked food. Both the mother and father have cups of tea or coffee, a silent indication of adulthood. This kind of scene was nearly universal within living memory. Today, a regular family meal around a table involving interaction, fellowship and the practice of table courtesies is now so much a rarity as to be noteworthy when it does occur.

Family life for many people has radically degraded over the past half-century:
Recently I completed a seminar on the mental health problems faced by today’s adolescents and their families. One of the things that interested me was the insight offered by our facilitator. She was an experienced psychologist who trained in the years shortly after field began to really explode in many directions in the 1960’s.

As such, she was in a position to comment on the way things had changed over nearly a fifty year stretch of her professional life. Like many older psychologists, she believed that family life – and especially childhood and adolescence – had grown tragically complex over this time frame. Issues that are now commonplace were once rarities.

It is impossible to convey to a casual reader the feeling I took away from those 16 hours of instruction. The statistics were shocking. The stories that were shared were heartbreaking. Stories about broken families, dysfunction, mental illness, and all the other issues that are sandwiched in between, like unemployment and poverty make one realise that we live in a hurting world that is far, far from the straight path of our Creator.

A number of things were powerfully reinforced to me:

1.) Welfare services and government intervention only address the tip of the iceberg: It is a comfortable, middle-class delusion that massive welfare spending addresses the constellation of suffering of the poor or the dysfunctional. It does not. In fact, welfare only brings relief to a very small percentage of people. The majority of people with family problems or with, (say), mild psychosis, fall through the gaps.

This means many more people are suffering than we often realise. In fact, quite ordinary people just like ourselves who do not look noticeably different, may well be living in their own personal hell in their family life. Something to think about when you next brush shoulders with strangers in the supermarket.

Partially, this is the result of the great difficulty in collecting any reliable data about family or mental dysfunction. Any data that does exist is almost always drawn from a self-selecting sample, and there are strong biases in the system that prevent other data from being reported. For instance, coroners are extremely reluctant to ascribe a death to suicide unless there is such overwhelming evidence it is impossible to come to any other conclusion. This means that the number of suicides that are reported in the official figures are without a doubt greatly underestimated. In fact, any apparent suicidal death in which there is the slightest shred of doubt will not be counted as a suicide.

What the inadequacy of the figures means is that our society is more sick than even government figures will tell us. Amidst dramatic prosperity and material wealth in our society, there lurks a broken, sinful, wretched mankind, robed in the darkness that attends those who are far from God.

2.) Family is destiny:
If ever there was evidence that forsaking God’s design and purpose for marriage produces social decay and disharmony, then the current state of our society would be Exhibit A. When marriage is properly observed as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for mutual support, love, and the nurture of children, it produces functional and generally happy offspring. It is the very foundation of human flourishing.

The extreme acceleration of divorce over the last few decades was noted by a number of attendees at the conference. I paid careful attention their comments chiefly because of what they told me about the moral changes that are fast unfolding around us in a way that is not always evident. One woman, who was probably not much older than I am, made the following observation:

When I was at school, I never heard about divorce. Well, maybe there was one or two. But it was hushed up and kept behind closed doors. It wasn’t talked about. But now it seems that partners get divorced at the drop of a hat. If they have some conflict with each other they just get a divorce. And then six months later they’ve found a new partner. And then you end up with families where there are all sorts of relationships, with children belonging to this partner and not to that one, and so on.

Divorce and changing partners has become so prevalent that it is earned its own label: serial monogamy. Furthermore, as families become more blended, marriage is increasingly being reserved for a point long after the consummation of the union. In fact, long after the production of children and long after the couple have settled down into home together. I have been at weddings where the children of the couple are the bridesmaids. In times past this would have been an utter impossibility, both definitively and legally.

So great is the dysfunction among families that I am beginning to understand the flat truth that no society can prosper when the family unit has broken down. I used to think John MacArthur was somewhat exaggerating by putting it so bluntly, but I have certainly changed my mind on that score.

Bad family situations produce deeply traumatised children. These children will frequently go on to develop depression or to commit suicide (which is the leading killer of young males in my country – even more so than motor car accidents). Many will self-medicate their pain through the use of alcohol and drugs, which leads to a life of criminality. But this criminality is not just “someone else’s problem”, which can be a comforting narrative that once may even have been true. Not anymore. For as the number of young criminals increases, the likelihood of everybody’s life being touched in some way by that criminality also increases.

It almost goes without saying that these sorts of children seldom receive a meaningful education. How can anyone learn if they eat dinner at McDonald’s every night in the presence of a parent who is high on heroin or methamphetamine? How can anyone think about homework when the safest place after school is out of the home and on the streets? The offspring of dysfunctional families are unable to learn and ready themselves for the future. Therefore the number of skilled and capable people entering the workforce also diminishes, necessitating ever escalating welfare budgets to care for them.

In addition, these children tend to live reckless lives themselves. They smoke, drink, and take drugs. When they try to establish their own families, they have no example from which to draw of loving, wise discipline of children or even the operation of a home. There are Youtube videos teaching people how to make beds, for instance, since these skills are no longer routinely conveyed from generation to generation within the family home. It goes without saying that these parents often lack the social graces to deal with others in a way that will contribute to a peaceful life. Additionally, egotism and arrogance and contempt for authority are ingrained since these young parents had no such respect for the primal authority figure in everyone’s life: their parents.

It has become very clear to me, as I have looked at the evidence and the information provided by professionals in the field, that if you want to sabotage a society and plunge it into lawlessness, indulgence, a perpetually dangerous “party” atmosphere, into poverty, into a valueless wasteland dotted with the mirage of tacky entertainment, and to actually change society into a machine for producing sad and sick human beings, there can be no better way of achieving this than by destroying the family.

The prevalence of divorce; the glorification of the singles life; the celebration of sexual unions that are by definition sterile; the cheapness with which people enter marriage (unprepared and unfortified by the Christian instruction on the sacredness of the union); and the lack of the sacred in daily life – of prayer, church attendance, communion, daily devotional reading, the practice of walking in good works in “which God foreordained that we should walk” all results in a world that is truly broken.

parish

Parish life. It still exists in some places around the world. The parish organisational unit has some advantages over the congregational model, since it compels a community of believers together based on location. Thus local Christian families bonded through the Church; learning the Gospel of Christ. This was transmitted to their children, and reinforced through community events like this where different families and generations would come together and interact as Christians, neighbours, and friends.

What It Once Was:
It is all light years from what our society was not so long ago, when families were headed by husbands and wives who were adults both in body and in mind, prepared for marriage by a long process of training in which the qualities of stable family life with its routines and patterns were modelled by their own parents and grandparents.

They entered marriage “soberly, advisedly” as the prayer book puts it. They embarked on this sacred undertaking seriously in the full knowledge that divorce was either impossible or extremely hard to obtain. There was no artificial nonsense about marriage being a great “adventure”, which is a description that is custom-designed for an age fearful of humdrum realities; for a time period that celebrates excitement at the expense even of peace and routine. Neither was marriage about Disneyesque notions of romantic love that never faded, but rather about two people supporting and caring for each other and working together in their respective spheres to raise their children.

Mothers occupied the home life; fathers went to work. The Pauline concept of the headship of the father was unquestioned.

Parents disciplined their children because it was God’s will. They also disciplined their children for the sake of the family honour as much as from the fear that their children would grow up in some crooked habit. Ideas of virtue and nobility, that put our time to shame, were accepted by everyone as necessary imports into a child’s mind and heart while it was still young. Even class snobbishness – as it is maligned today – actually contained a kernel of Christian values, for parents were desperately concerned to keep their children from degraded patterns of life, and to live with the greatest amount of dignity possible.

Children were taught respect. Disrespect was seen as a social evil that, ultimately, threatened everyone. And most assuredly it does. We live in a society that has decided to dispense with the experience and wisdom of our forebears (enjoined upon us by God) and now indulges rampant disrespect for property and for people. The corrupting effect of this disrespect is visible on every bus shelter, every subway, every alleyway. It is visible in the portable public urinals set up in the centre of London to try to prevent party-goers from urinating or vomiting on the streets. It is visible on the acceptance of psychologists of adolescence being an age of rebellion, even declaring this “normal” and “healthy”. If this is so, then previous generations must have been dreadfully abnormal, producing teenagers that were productive and respectful.

There was a time when open discourtesy and contempt for authority would have been seen as a nightmare scenario worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the not-so-distant past, children learned respect first for the authority of their parents, for God, and then for their teachers, priests, ministers, the police, the King or Queen, and so on. In 2016, the vast majority of children learn respect for very few of these authorities.

No society can long survive an era where authority is hated, despised, received with suspicion, and rebelled against openly. No society can long endure when comedians and cultural agents actually celebrate naked defiance. Our society endures because of the residue of respect that remains from the past, and from the handfuls of people in the present who manifest continuity with the lived experience of those who went before us, and exhibit this in their values and their approach to life.

In the rear-view mirror of history, the 1950’s – so frequently derided as an age of frustration, of “white picket fences”, and patriarchy – begins to seem infinitely more civilised than the society that is evolving around us.

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Reflecting on The Temptations of Christ

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Immediately following his baptism, our Lord is led into a desolate place where he lingers for forty days and nights. After this time, Satan appears and the two engage in spiritual combat. The stakes could not be higher. Their battle echoes in eternity.

If Satan is victorious then God’s entire purpose is frustrated and the salvation of mankind is a failed project that must be swept into the cosmic trashcan. If the Saviour failed, then mankind would have suffer the same doom as the devil himself.

But if Christ emerges victorious – in the most weakened condition a man can reach without succumbing to death – then he is truly revealed as the Second Adam, the Man who is without sin and who does not submit to sin, unlike the first. Christ shows himself worthy to be the head of a new human race.

This incredible passage of scripture uncovers a glimpse of the deep and abiding spiritual realities that lay beyond the membrane of our seemingly ordinary existence. If we could only push aside these fragile, yet clinging surfaces that so captivate our minds, we would discover a spiritual dimension that is constantly interacting with, and influencing our experience of life. C. S. Lewis exposed some of this beautifully in The Screwtape Letters, but the account of Christ’s temptations does this best of all.

When reading this inspired passage of text one cannot help but raise the question: why does Satan bother to tempt our Lord at all? Surely he knows that Christ is fully God and fully man. Surely he knows it is futile?

The scriptures provide us with very little information about the psychology and motives of Satan and the demons (the fallen angels), but from what it does tell us we can deduce a few common-sense lessons.

Firstly, the fact that Satan and the demons are so concerned to corrupt and twist humanity and to subject us to the wrath of God, is surely a symptom of Satan’s contempt for humanity. For it is only a being who regards others as less worthy; less deserving than themselves that can engage in persistent and calculated cruelty toward them.

Most assuredly, Satan and the demons are cruel beyond measure. We need to recognise that Satan is not a sexually promiscuous fun-loving red devil, as the unbelieving world would vainly imagine and even celebrate. Rather he is the foul creature who worked to bring about the Holocaust. Who conspired to spark off the blood vendettas in Yugoslavia. Satan and his demonic host are behind every genocide and war; every torture chamber; every starved child; every dirty prostitute kicked around on the streets; every maltreated animal. All this, and more, are the products of Satan’s influence at one level or another.

Such cruelty is wedded to pride. Only the supremely prideful can inflict pain and harm on others without their conscience screaming. Satan possesses such pride, suggests C. S. Lewis, that it runs to anger and malice at the thought that God should both create and love humanity; we fragile race of beings formed from flesh and spirit. Satan attacks humanity with such vigour not because we are terrifically important, but because we bear the moral image of God. Unable to attack God himself Satan resorts to trying to efface, vandalise, graffiti, pollute, and twist the image bearers as his sole means of expressing his hatred of God.

Thus, when God assumes flesh and actually becomes man as part of his saving purpose, and when he faces down Satan – not in his divinity but by assuming our humanity – he demonstrates unimaginable power and unimaginable love.

Enough already. The Church Fathers are not “Roman Catholic”!

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No, you don’t have to draw fanciful pictures of the Church Fathers with halos, bung them into stained glass windows, pray to them, or name your children after them (it would be a tad cruel to name junior after Ignatius, Papias, or Hegesippus).

For many Evangelicals, the early Church Fathers need to be rescued from their association with Roman Catholicism. These men were not Roman Catholics. In most instances, we can count them as faithful disciples of the Lord. They wrote, preached, and lived out the gospel in their generation. Protestants must not be fearful of this part of church history, and in fact, need to learn to reclaim the early Church Fathers as part of our own faith heritage.

Among Evangelicals and Reformed folks you can often find a view of the Church that could be described as “rupturism“. Rupturism is a word I have coined to describe a church historiography where, long ago, there existed the early Church of the New Testament that was biblical and pure. When the last Apostle went to be with the Lord, there appeared a mysterious rupture. A long period of Roman Catholic darkness ensued, until the Protestant Reformation sprung into being and poof! The Church reappeared!

Some Evangelicals – especially our beloved American friends – sometimes go even further and imagine a Church that goes back only about 200 years, or at a stretch, maybe back to the pilgrims. They seem to conceptualise the Church as somehow arriving in world during the great revivals of the 19th century. Often they do not want to think back further, or even consider the issue as to where the Church was in the long Medieval Period.

I know this is how many Evangelicals think. I was raised to think the same thing, and only really started to ponder that long “middle bit” when I was at college. But, truth be told, I have come to a more mature evaluation of this only in the last ten years or so.

The conception of the church that I once had looks much like this:

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A lot of Evangelicals (and sometimes Reformed folks too) get a bit worried when people start talking about the early Church Fathers, like Athanasius, Jerome, Polycarp and Augustine. “Oh, that’s all Roman Catholic stuff!” they exclaim, evidently in the belief that Roman Catholicism sprung into existence the moment the last Apostle died.

In fact, this belief among Evangelicals and Reformed actually affirms Roman Catholic claims that they are the exclusive heirs to the ancient Church, and thus denies this heritage to us Protestants when it is our biblical beliefs that are actually the doctrines that are deeply rooted in history, including among the early Church Fathers. Thus, many Protestants abandon the field of battle and turn over their brethren in the ancient Church to the possession of the modern Roman Catholic Church whose teachings they would have fiercely repudiated had it existed in their day.

We need to understand that there has always been a Church and we need to understand that Roman Catholicism was a development over time. Like many churches, it accumulated false teachings as the centuries went past and inch by inch, gradually corrupted the truth of the gospel. These corruptions really hit the accelerator in the later Medieval era as popes jostled and battled to gain more earthly and spiritual power over others. It was during this period that they produced dogmas like Transubstantiation and heated up the virtual worship of Mary and the saints.

But that’s not the early Church Fathers. The Church Fathers were among the first generations of Christians and we Evangelicals and Reformed can learn much from them. They were fighting battles for Christ and defeating heresies right from the beginning. By the grace of God and with the Spirit of the Word, they were preserving the gospel and bequeathing to us a rich treasury of safeguarded biblical truths, such as the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, the Church Fathers and their writings are not infallible. They did not write scripture, although they quoted from it frequently. They did make mistakes on all kinds of things, as fallible human beings do when writing. There are many, many things that the Church Fathers did not agree on. In fact, their writings bear all the imprint of our humanity. Some writings of the Church Fathers make glorious affirmations of wonderful biblical truths like the recorded sermon of Melio of Sardis who preached on the resurrection of Christ and gave us one of the earliest testimonies to the deity of Christ. Other writings are long rambling overly-philosophical treatises that seem impractical and irrelevant to our eyes. And yet again, other writings consist of long personal prayers, such as Augustine’s famous confession, which documents the sins of his youth and demonstrates how God was mercifully dealing with him all the way back in the 4th century Roman Empire. It is also a fascinating practical work of psychology to boot.

There is a vast texture to the corpus of written material, with some being plain and straightforward like Clement’s letter to the Corinthians which is basically an extended collection of quotations from the New Testament, and others being rather dense, such as some of the material from Irenaeus. Undoubtedly, some of the philosophical stuff is a bit left-field. Some – even quite a few – of the Church Fathers were a bit muddle-headed about certain things, and one or two of them were clearly a little too obsessed with abstruse points that to our modern eyes have little to do with the gospel. But they were in the process of defeating dangerous heresies, building up the Church, evangelising a pagan world and leading souls into an eternal relationship with our great and mighty God.

Even the Desert Fathers – those who sought deeper, nearly mystical communion with God in the lonely regions of the desert – have insights that we can benefit from. Although there is a strong scent of dangerous aestheticism about their hermit existence, and although I am not convinced their way of life was the way God would have any of us live, nonetheless they lived devoted lives of prayer. Who knows how much they may have strengthened the mission of the Church with their prayers?

I do not advocate aestheticism or a hermit lifestyle. The Desert Fathers unquestionably went overboard in their lifestyle, and by so doing, helped to drive the beginning of a self righteous idea that those who deprive themselves of family, sex, wife, food, and friends can reach a higher level of sanctity than those who do not.  The Apostles Peter and Philip, who did not deny themselves these things, prove that holiness is not incompatible with a normal human life.

Nonetheless, I admire the zeal of these men and women. I admire their thirst to really know God at the expense of their flesh and earthly ambitions. And despite the manifestation of that zeal in isolation, one should never discount the wisdom they did acquire through their relentless pursuit of Christ in prayer and their long meditations on the word of God. Do I approve of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hagiography of these guys with their paintings, icons, monasteries and assorted encrusted religious junk? No. Do I recognise them as souls seeking the Lord? Yes. Do I think they went about it in a biblical way? No. Do I see something inspirational and significant in their quest to go as deep into the Spirit of the Lord as they could? Yes.

We have much to learn from the Church Fathers, although our learning must always be guided, tempered, limited, restrained, and governed by the words of true scripture.

We Reformed\Evangelicals need to understand that the true Church persevered throughout the Medieval era. Even if it was a mixture of wheat and tares growing together. This is evinced by the fact that even at the height of the corruption of Rome we find figures like Francis of Assisi reacting, almost by instinct, against the horrendous luxuriation of the era. We may not agree with Francis on everything, but we would probably find more points of agreement than not. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for this devout, committed man who sought to preach in the open to the poor and to live in faith on the provision of God. Much nonsense has accrued in typical Roman Catholic hagiography about his life – which presents Francis talking to animals and so forth – but when stripped of these clearly fictitious elements, he lived an inspiring and noble life trying to follow the exactitude of the words of Jesus as he understood them.

In the 14th century, of course, we find the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, John Wycliffe who realised the scriptures were the authoritative centre of Christianity some two hundred years before Luther. Wycliffe was translating the Bible into English in the 1400’s and sending forth itinerant preachers to declare the pure words of the New Testament to the common people. It is a testament, once again, to the reality of Christ’s work throughout the ages. Our Lord has always ensured that there has been a remnant of true Christians and true Christianity, enlightened and protected by the Holy Spirit, who kept them from the corrupt ideas, practices, and doctrines of their generation.

Roman Catholicism, since the promulgation of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, is now quite beyond reform. In fact, it has been beyond reform ever since it made clear its determination to persist in its errors at the time of the Reformation, and from those errors it has never departed since. This is something to bear in mind as we approach 2017, and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation is still quite relevant today.

So, let us dispense, therefore, with a “rupturist” view of church history. Let us reclaim our heritage of those ancient Christians who first heard the word and started worshipping long ago in ancient churches on the green slopes of England, on the grassy knolls of Ireland, among the wooded regions of Germany. Let us be inspired by the faithful who trudged through snow and forests to bring the truth to the pagans of Norway and Finland. Let us remember the pioneering missionaries who carried the word to the scorched regions of northern Africa; who established the faith throughout the Mediterranean. They wrote; they preached; they prayed; they lived, and all long before the corruption of what is now called Roman Catholicism.

Enough with the nonsense that the Church Fathers are “Roman Catholic”. They aren’t! And as an Evangelical or Reformed believer, you should know better than to claim that they are. I mean that in all kindness and sincerity. It’s time to crack open the books and grow in faith at the amazing fidelity of Christ to his people – the invisible Church of all true believers – that has always existed across geographies and across many centuries.

To the praise of his everlasting glory.