Addressing a group of Moore College students at the end of 2016, Bruce Ballantine Jones pointed out the necessity of church politics. He noted how our disdain for engagement in ecclesiastical debate and processes arises from our good intentions to be engaged in gospel ministry in our local parishes. Nevertheless, politics are an inevitable part of ministry that, if avoided, will be taken up by someone else. We cannot be satisfied with merely preaching in our paddock without concern for those around us and the battles they face. Politics are not the highlight of ministry life, but if we evangelicals fail to engage in the politics of the wider church, someone else will. In his new book, Vaughan Roberts is right in his judgment, ‘If you like ecclesiastical politics, I’m sorry for you – and you’re probably a bit of a menace. Those who enjoy conflict are always a menace. The thing we should all love is being able to get on with the work of the gospel.’ – 14. If we thrive on politics, we’re probably missing out on the main point of ministry – the gospel. At the same time, if neglect politics, we are conceding something vital to those who may not want to see the advance of the gospel.
‘Faith in a Time of Crisis’ is a timely contribution to the discussion of involvement in church politics. Global Anglicanism, and denominations more generally, are facing disintegration. Tragically, the presenting issue concerns the complex, emotionally charged and divisive issue of sexuality, gender and identity. This book helps gospel minded people ask the vital questions: How should we contend for the gospel in the circles God has placed us in? How tightly do we hold our denominational convictions when the gospel is at stake? What could we lose if we fail to respond to theological shifts in our denominations?
A particular strength of the latest offering from Matthias Media is that Roberts brings church politics out of the shadows and into the bright light of orthodox theology. For too long our debates surrounding staying in compromised denominations have been in the realm of the pragmatic at the expense of theology. This book helpfully restores the conversation to its rightful place, examining what God wants for his Church.
The book opens with a survey of recent debates in Anglicanism, before focussing our attention on Romans 1:1-5, Paul’s summary of the gospel. Roberts calls for serious self reflection in light of Paul’s teaching, and shows how it is from within our own ranks that theological compromise has come. Later in the book, Roberts asks, ‘Is homosexuality an issue over which we should divide?’ (37). He follows up the question with an examination of our sexualised culture, and what the Bible has to say to it. Roberts pre-empts the unloving and bigoted caricature of evangelicals who hold a biblical view on sex and marriage and provides the corrective. ‘True love’, he notes, is a love that is gracious, principled and practical. Echoing his fantastic book ‘on friendship, he speaks on how churches should lead the way in demonstrating loving friendship-relationships between people of every age and stage (91).
The heart of the book surrounds the question of unity. ‘Unity is central to the gospel’, Roberts states (96). However, that unity is a unity in the truth, a unity expressed in the local church, a unity that means we don’t divide over secondary matters (which Roberts calls issues of adiaphora- matters of indifference). However, division is sometimes necessary for the sake of preserving the priority of the gospel. ‘False teaching should be resisted, and immorality should be resisted’, Roberts urges (111). The challenge comes in the fourth chapter, when the reader is asked to evaluate the price one will pay for unity. Will it be at the cost of, ‘integrity, at the cost of truth, or at the cost of souls.’? (113). In recent times, some evangelicals have proclaimed ‘unity at all costs’ when evaluating their own place in their denominations – Roberts plainly states what those costs are. Will we listen?
Peter Jensen writes in the final chapter, ‘Faith is only as good as the object of our confidence.’ (115). He re-centres the debate on sexuality as an issue ultimately with the authority of the Bible. Jensen shows how the recent history of the Anglican Communion has seen a fracture between those who hold to that authority and want truth upheld, and those who may or may not believe that authority, but nonetheless want to keep silent. It is a complex issue, and the dividing line is not always clear. Nevertheless, he urges Christians of all denominations to, ‘stand side by side in fellowship for the defence and proclamation of the gospel of the lordship of Christ.’ (131).
The book could not have come at a more vital time. The Scottish Episcopal Church has agreed to perform same sex weddings. It is only a matter of time before the Church of England follows, as it has historically done on other issues. ‘Faith in a Time of Crisis’ brings us out of the murky waters of ‘learning to live with one another’, to laying out what the cost of remaining in those structures is. It is the gospel itself that is at stake. How our generation responds will have an unfathomable impact on the next. As for us in Australia, we must not think ourselves as so remote from these conversations and decisions that they don’t impact us. Read the book, pray for our brothers and sisters facing these decisions and be challenged to stand up for truth in your context.