Those worthy of double honour

This year marks 21 years since I first heard the good news about Jesus. (For reference, I’ve been celebrating / complaining about Arsenal for longer!)

Like many who come to find Jesus beautiful and believable out of a non-Christian upbringing, I’ve never fit completely into one “tribe”. I’m convinced the gospel is of first importance, that salvation is wholly God’s gracious gift, that the Baptist family of churches have much to offer our watching world, and that old and new confessions of faith beautifully articulate what the Christian life is to be rooted in. After reflecting and meditating on a passage from 1 Timothy 5:17-25 and preaching it recently at Carey Baptist College’s student chapel, I’ve realised that one constant kindness from the Lord throughout my Christian walk has been the presence of least one older couple who have willingly opened up to Cheryl and I their life and family to us in honest and hope-filled ways.

I think it’s significant that in the midst of a whole host of church planting problems, the Apostle Paul doesn’t exhort young Timothy: “Go find a tribe of _____ists to ally with.” Nor does he say “You need to join the _____ed bunch”. And not “Go look for some ______ian Christians to side with.” Rather, through 1 Timothy, Paul tells him to guard the gospel, identify and seek out godly leaders… and then to honour them. “Let the elders who lead beautifully be worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17).

These past few weeks, I’ve been challenged to keep seeking out older mentors to help me run the race well without bias, hurry, or fear of what others think. At the same time, I don’t often thank those who have laboured in the Word and teaching over the years, so that my soul is full of hope in the gospel for others to glean. Time would fail to tell of all the πρεσβύτεροι who have mentored me. But here are some of them.

Thank you John. From our first Sunday halfway through the book of Ephesians (still my favourite letter), I learned how to enjoy walking through the Word and the beauty of no nonsense expository preaching from you and walking us from “milk” to “meat” in the Bible. You baptised me as a baby Christian, and together with Mihyon helped to lift my eyes and trace the hidden hand of God after losing mum at 19. Nor were you afraid to rebuke me for my youthful immaturity and lack of patience in the tearful ministry of church planting. Grace Baptist Church may no longer be around, but your passion for the gospel and heart for the lost still echoes in me today. And thanks for teaching me to throw an American football the Philip Rivers way!

Thank you Peter. After our first visit to Howick Baptist in 2008, Cheryl and I peppered you with questions about what the church’s position was on a bunch of things as we “reviewed” different churches. Yet in reality, deep down I knew your unflinching exposition of 1 Corinthians that day couldn’t be the last sermon we sat under. We still miss the sermons you laboured to write each week (late into those Thursday nights!), and so appreciate the way you and Francelle still seek to magnify Jesus through the Word each week at Grace Church Nelson.

Thank you Calvyn for taking a young not-yet-married couple under your wing. Your Ephesians 2 sermon was a shock to the oldies but still reminds me not to trash God’s grace even today. Thanks for taking our wedding in 2010, even though it was your first (and last!) at HBC. We love seeing how you and Alice continue to bless others at Whanganui East Baptist. When Paul says overseers and deacons are to be “hospitable“, you’re the first family that come to mind (and not just because you now run a B&B as a “side hustle!”)

Thank you Joe. You and Mandy shared not only the gospel but your whole lives with us through our mid 20’s. You kept pointing us to Christ through every area of our lives. You willingly walked through one of the deepest valleys our family experienced. Hearing Psalm 130 from you that one Sunday still gives me hope today that in the depths of woe, I can still trust in the LORD’s plentiful redemption. What I didn’t realise at the time was that over the years, you kept conveniently “placing” godly people into our paths who would keep bringing up the “have you considered full-time ministry” question (not even conference speakers were off-limits to your schemes!). Yet it was a question that we mostly ignored (that one “dream” aside), until we saw you and your family take up your crosses and follow Jesus to join the Harvest in Rolleston, and finally realised that the labourers were few. It’s a wonderful providence that among the “Foundations” boys who met at your place Sunday afternoons, nearly all of us are now ministry leaders here and overseas. Rolleston Baptist is so, so blessed to have you as their pastor.

Thank you Richard. I learned from you how powerful old-fashioned visitation and prayer ministry was. Thanks for letting me shadow you as an “intern” even when it was mostly us shooting the breeze over a Muzza’s pie or two (contrary to our wives’ health advice). I won’t forget how freely you preached at your first Easter at HBC: “τετέλεσται! It is finished!” (John 19:30) Thank for you for sending us out for ministry, for being a living sacrifice to your wife, and for showing me that the sermon can wait when brothers and sisters need our care. You still never taught me to fish, but I’m glad you’ll have more time to do so now you’re second-in-charge. Enjoy semi-retirement and the granddad years.

Thank you Tim. Our aim was to survive three years in Sydney soaking up everything at seminary, but we left indelibly shaped by your wise and gentle pastoring at Petersham Baptist. You were willing to invest in Cheryl and my life deeply. Yet you were not afraid to call out the “Bible college” hubris that barged into the student pastor sermons you faithfully gave feedback for. The day you lovingly rebuked an error in the middle of community news with the gentleness of Christ I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I caught from you that in preaching, mastering the content AND being concise brings clarity that blesses the congregation. I also learned how crucial it is to think of our most vulnerable at church, and that tone matters just as much as theology when we preach to the weary wounded.

And of course, thank you Albert. You first met me as a troublemaking 17 year old causing cross-cultural havoc at your Cantonese-speaking youth group. Over 20 years of ministry later, you have not given up being faithful to your calling, and I now have the privilege of being a fellow shepherd in the same church family and labouring in preaching and teaching together. Thanks for your trust. To serve together is an honour.

————-

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17)

How to speak in “tongues”: lessons from 1st century Corinth and the Chinese diaspora church

When translators of the Chinese Union Mandarin Version of the Bible first published the New Testament in 1907, they chose 方言 (fāngyán) to render the word γλῶσσα (glōssa) throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14. What does the word mean exactly? How can we encourage each other to “speak in tongues” more fruitfully, particularly in bilingual and multilingual church contexts?

Thanks to the team at MDPI, some long-form thoughts of mine on this topic have just been published in their Religions journal: https://mdpi.com/2691920.

The subject of this paper was inspired by our church’s cross-cultural journey through 1 Corinthians last year. (While I am pursuing postgraduate studies in New Testament theology, my PhD thesis will focus on delimitation criticism, a different area of Biblical studies). I’m grateful to the attendees at the 2023 Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Biblical Studies conference for the constructive feedback, my PhD supervisor for supporting this research tangent, and to friends, family and fellow scholars who critiqued and improved my (still imperfect) musings significantly.

If you’re interested, I’ve quoted the abstract of this paper, and summarised some practical applications below:

“…What did the Apostle Paul mean exactly when saying to Christians in Corinth: “I give thanks to God that I speak in fangyan (方言) more than you all” (1 Corinthians 14:18)?

Debates regarding Chinese Christian terminology are as old as the task of Bible translation in China, with no example more prominent than the “Term Question” (i.e., what Chinese term most suitably expressed “God”)… At stake when a Christian addressed “God” as shangdi (上帝) or shen (神) was not just a stylistic preference, but “whether Chinese were monotheists, polytheists or pantheists; whether there was the belief in Creation; whether the Chinese had the “idea of God”; what exactly was the nature and content of Chinese religion”, and more (Eber 1999, p. 135).

This paper presumes that exploring the fangyan question—what precisely should be meant by this biblical term—also has an important role to play in shaping Chinese Christianity today. By engaging with both the biblical text and its Chinese translation, I will argue that understanding Paul’s instructions regarding γλῶσσα/方言 within the context of a multilingual Christian worship culture strengthens the definition of γλῶσσα as languages used and understood among inhabitants of first century Corinth, and may offer more fruitful and relevant application to religious communities like it today…”

After arguing from a close reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14 in Biblical Greek, Mandarin and English, I try to point out the similarities between first-century Corinth’s cosmopolitan and multilingual setting and the many diaspora Chinese churches today. From there, I suggest three main areas of application when we read glōssa/fāngyán as human languages Paul and the Corinthian church knew and spoke:

  1. Translation and explanation during gathered worship. Diaspora churches with first- and second-generation members should recognise the problem of compartmentalisation between high and low varieties of language during their worship services. For example, in most Chinese churches it remains commonplace for the Mandarin CUV translation (now over 100 years old) to be preferred in readings, prayers, and liturgy, even if the preaching and singing are conducted in an entirely different vernacular such as Cantonese, present-day Mandarin, or English. However, without translating “formal” varieties of language into a “common tongue”, church members risk become engaged in prayer that is cognitively unfruitful as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:14. Multilingual and multigenerational Chinese churches in particular should prioritise and pray for Spirit-empowered wisdom, seeking ways to translate and retranslate for each other so that everyone is edified when meeting together.
  2. Global missions. Understanding glōssa/fāngyán with a multilingual Corinthian lens may also help to reshape the Chinese church’s global missions strategy. Despite ongoing opposition, today there are “myriads” of Chinese missionaries retracing either the ancient Silk Road or today’s Belt and Road in order to fulfil the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19–20). Could they benefit from praying for and seeking the grace gift of speaking in other known languages? Even within China, there remains a pressing need for Mandarin-speaking churches to consider the linguistic needs of the millions of “minority” people groups whose “dreams and visions” are shaped through myriads of fāngyán found throughout the country. Returning to a “missionary-expansion” understanding of the term fāngyán may serve the needs of these overlooked ethnolinguistic groups.
  3. “First nations” language and culture. Paul’s instructions aren’t limited to multilingual worship contexts in Chinese churches. In many Western countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA, there is a growing awareness and practice of incorporating the language and culture of indigenous or “first nations” people into the life of the church. While speaking in indigenous glōssa/fāngyán adds richness and diversity to Christian worship, Paul’s advice as a multilingual practitioner himself is to conduct it with sensitivity to those of different linguistic abilities and an attitude of love.

For those with the courage to wade through all 6000 words of the article, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback!

—————–

1 Corinthians 14:39-40

ὥστε, ἀδελφοί μου, ζηλοῦτε τὸ προφητεύειν καὶ τὸ λαλεῖν μὴ κωλύετε γλώσσαις· πάντα δὲ εὐσχημόνως καὶ κατὰ τάξιν γινέσθω. (“So then, my brothers and sisters, be zealous to prophesy and don’t forbid speaking in glōssa; and let all things be done with beauty and order.”)

Thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text

The book of Ruth is a perennial favourite in women’s bible studies, retreats and devotional material. Much of it unfortunately preaches a gospel of prosperity though – “go find your Boaz” and other similar summaries abound. Is Ruth really about a harvest-time romance? Or is there more going on in this ancient tale?

Our immigrant church recently had the joy of preaching through Ruth’s story over 4 weeks. What we found was a timeless immigrant story that showed God’s redeeming love through the faith of courageous individuals. Naomi follows her family to the fields of Moab but experiences tragedy and bitterness. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, has never been to the “Promised Land” but by faith courageously cleaves to Naomi (1:14) as they return to Bethlehem (literally “the house of bread”). Back here, Ruth chances upon the field of Boaz while gleaning for food to survive. He invites her to “stick closely” or “cleave” to his workers in the harvest field for blessing and protection (2:8, 2:21). After the harvest, Naomi actively seeks for an opportunity to provide “rest” for her daughter-in-law (3:1), Ruth daringly proposes marriage to Boaz in the night, and he swiftly becomes their willing guardian-redeemer at great cost to himself. The author concludes with the women of Bethlehem praising God for providing Naomi with a grandson and not bringing her family line to “rest” (4:14). The rest is “His story”….

While Ruth is a great book that explores themes like suffering, faithfulness, love and the immigrant experience, reading it again reminded me how God’s redemptive plan for his people ultimately comes through Christ our “guardian-redeemer” – someone willing to cling to us with loyal love through his death and resurrection for our sins.

In preparation for the series, I appreciated reading Ruth in Biblical Hebrew alongside two gifted sisters (both starting / finishing their PhDs and very sharp thinkers when it comes to the world of Old Testament and Hebrew!) On the text itself, there are lots of helpful guides out there including fellow alumnus Peter Lau’s NICOT volume on Ruth published this year. I found the most practical for preachers was Teaching Ruth and Esther: From Text to Message by Christopher Ash (from the Proclamation Trust series).

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts on preaching Ruth from the Hebrew text in no particular order:

  • Firstly, you can do it! If you’ve completed an introductory Biblical Hebrew course (e.g. Daily Dose of Hebrew’s free lessons keyed to Mark Futato’s grammar), recently or in the distant past, Ruth is a very suitable book to see first-hand the value of translating and teaching from the Hebrew text. It’s a biblical narrative with lots of first-year Hebrew vocabulary, the story gives you lots of practice with feminine parts of speech and word forms, and there are plenty of exegetical payoffs. For the less-confident and rusty (like me!), there are plenty of language-related helps out there from the likes of Aleph with Beth (free), Lingua Deo Gloria (free) and GlossaHouse (paid) to help you enjoy Ruth in the brilliant colours of Biblical Hebrew.
  • While Christians typically assume Ruth to be one of the “historical books”, this is an unfortunate result of the canonical tradition inherited from the Latin Vulgate. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts placed Ruth not between history books like Judges and 1 Samuel, but alongside Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (as the five Megillot or “scrolls”), and adjacent to other wisdom literature like the Psalms, Proverbs and Job. That’s good reason to preach Ruth as wisdom narrative (like Esther and Job).
  • Contrary to the stereotypical view of Ruth’s story, the only mention of “love” in the Hebrew text is in the final verses when the women praise Naomi for her daughter-in-law, “who loves you…” (4:15; the phrase “made love” in the NIV translation of 4:13 is better translated as “they came together”, e.g. NRSV). The greatest love story in the book of Ruth isn’t a romantic or sexual love between a man and a woman: it’s the loyal love between a mother and her daughter-in-law. This fact alone should reframe how we present this book to our sex and relationship-obsessed world. Ruth has much to offer to both married and unmarried, both young and old.
  • Needless to say, it’s therefore a wrong turn to present Ruth as a “how-to” on dating and romantic relationships. Despite the well-intentioned hopes of church members keen to set up “Ruths” in their church with guys like “Boaz”, unless you live in the time of the judges and live in a family clan that obligates you to ancient Near Eastern customs of levirate marriage (e.g. Genesis 38) and Israelite property redemption (e.g. Leviticus 25:25), what’s described in Ruth should not be prescribed without first considering what the text actually says. The fact is that Boaz (an older man based on how he describes everyone in his field as “young man” or “young women”) explicitly states his reason for marrying Ruth twice: “to maintain the name of the dead [Elimelek, Naomi’s former husband]… so that his name will not disappear…” (4:5, 4:10). Consider too that the climax of the story isn’t Ruth’s wedding: it’s King David’s family tree and the greater blessings that come from his royal line.
  • Rather, having spent a fair bit of time in the book of Job previously, I found it especially comforting personally and pastorally helpful to read the book as “Naomi’s story”, and to consider this book as the Bible’s feminine counterpart to the book of Job. No story of suffering is identical, yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw connections between Naomi and Job: both share stories of suffering and bitterness, and both end with restoration and redemption, and the main protagonist gaining a renewed vision of the LORD. The book of Ruth is far richer taught as a story of redeeming love amidst great suffering than a saccharine “boy meets girl” adventure.
  • On structuring a sermon series, the traditional chapters work well. I found it interesting how each chapter features a particular posture: there’s a lot of “walking” in chapter 1, lots of “coming” / “going” in chapter 2, lots of “lying” / “lying down” in chapter 3, and lots of “sitting” in chapter 4. The author seems to invite us to view Ruth’s story as poetry in motion, over four parts.
  • There’s a beautiful symmetry to the story that’s worth highlighting as you travel through the book. Ruth 1 and 4 bookend Naomi’s narrative arc, and emphasise her story arc from bitter and broken after a decade of loss in the “fields of Moab”, to full and satisfied after returning to the land of God’s promises. It’s also worth contrasting Ruth 2 and 3: in one chapter the scene describes immediate provision and loving-kindness out in the open field, the next scene shows the offer of permanent provision and loving-kindness in the more intimate space of the threshing floor.
  • While most of God’s activity is implicit, the author explicitly highlights the LORD’s sovereign hand twice: at the start, when He “visits his people” with food (1:6), and at the end when he brings a miraculous conception to a previously childless woman (4:13). Both are wonderful gospel themes fully expressed in the incarnation of Christ, who visits us in the flesh through a miraculous conception to the virgin Mary (Matthew 1:18-25).
  • The author repeats a number of Hebrew words that serve as key themes of this book. For example: 1) the word שׁוב (“turn”, “return”) punctuates the opening chapter 11 times as Naomi struggles with which way she and her daughters-in-law should “turn” in the opening episode; 2) the word חֵן (“favour”, “grace”) occurs 3 times and all in chapter 2 to emphasise that is exactly what Naomi and Ruth find when they return to the land of promise.
  • Other thematically significant words and ideas include דבק (“stick closely”, “cleave”; 1:14, 2:8, 2:21), חֶסֶד (“loving kindness” / “loyal love”; 2:20, 3:10), and the idea of rest (מָנ֖וֹחַ in Ruth 3:1, הִשְׁבִּ֥ית in 4:14). My favourite Hebrew language insight is that Boaz’s desire to “to raise up” descendants (לְהָקִ֥ים in Ruth 3:5 and 3:10) is the same root word Job uses to express his hope for a Redeemer who will “arise” or “stand” upon the earth (יָקֽוּם in Job 19:25). This “resurrection” hope becomes a reality when King Jesus walks the earth, goes to the cross, lies in the tomb, and finally sits at the right hand of God. The gospel, too, is poetry in motion from a Redeeming Love who was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
  • The variety of themes in the book of Ruth means it’s possible to preach Christ from the book of Ruth in a number of ways each time. Of course, the genealogy that closes the book can simply be extended further via Matthew 1 to show Jesus as the ultimate King that Ruth’s redemption leads to. But there is also: 1) the theme of immigrating physically (and spiritually) to God’s promised place in chapter 1, and the necessity for us to “turn” to God’s promises and cling to Him by faith; 2) the theme of finding a redeemer in God’s promised place in chapter 2, and the possibility of a greater redeemer than Boaz; 3) the intimacy of the marriage and redemptive proposal in chapter 3, and the greater union we that’s been promised to us through the new covenant that Christ proposes (and completes!) for His beloved Bride, the church (c.f. Eph. 5:31-32); 4) the costly sacrifice that Naomi and Ruth’s redemption requires (the loss of Boaz’s estate), which is a great opportunity to preach the infinitely costly sacrifice God the Son made on the cross for our sins.

Our church considered Ruth over 4 sermons. If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.

Thoughts on preaching the book of 1 Corinthians

In some Christian circles, it’s popular to look up the advice of “experts” and “consultants” for help with church planting, worship, preaching and strategy. Yet imagine if you could overhear a conversation between a young church plant in a strategic city, and the pastor and preacher who helped found their church. How helpful would that be?

Our church had the privilege of exactly this as we recently completed a sermon series through the book of 1 Corinthians called “Christ Amid Chaos”. Over six months, we heard directly how similar the church in Corinth was to ours today: gifted, but worldly. Diverse, but divided. Yet despite their (and our!) numerous issues, Paul’s words of love and affection were so helpful in calling us to follow Jesus alone (not other preachers), and to live holy lives. After first hearing an expository sermon series from this book in 2008 as a young follower of Jesus, I found it a huge privilege 15 years on to help guide our young English-speaking congregation through the gospel-saturated wisdom from this part of God’s Word.

To prepare for this sermon series, I translated 1 Corinthians from the Greek NT text (with occasional peeks at the Chinese Union Version / 和合本 for the sake of our more Chinese brothers and sisters). On the text, among the many available commentaries on 1 Corinthians, I found Andrew Wilson’s “1 Corinthians for You” commentary the most helpful and accessible for busy pastors, with Gordon Fee’s magisterial commentary helpful on the details. Andrew Naselli’s contribution in the ESV Expository Commentary was also helpful (and supported by his diligently prepared recitation of the whole letter from memory!)

Around the area of spiritual gifts, I found Don Carson’s “Showing the Spirit” unmatched for depth and breadth on exegetical and pastoral issues (if a bit dated regarding recent trends among Pentecostal and Charismatic movements). On the perplexing and sometimes heated discussions around women in the church of Corinth, I was most grateful for the perspectives from Claire Smith (“God’s Good Design”), Kathy Keller, Michael Bird and Craig Keener (arranged here roughly along the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum). There’s definitely less scholarship out there on 1 Corinthians from non-Western perspectives, so I look forward to keep discovering and learning in future!

For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts and tips in no particular order:

  • The questions in this book raise a lot of questions and difficult pastoral issues: interpersonal conflict, unrepentant sin, division, sexual immorality, singleness and marriage, eating and drinking, and worship culture. Be prepared to follow up your sermons or studies with time and willingness to chat with those who are struggling with personal or pastoral issues. The goal is not to condemn each other but to lift our collective gaze to our faithful God, who calls his holy people into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).
  • Paul saves his most important point to the end: it is the gospel that is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4), and the answer to our holiness amidst a messy church in a messy world. I made the most of this fact by preaching the gospel every time I could, and showing how the gospel is both the power and pattern for us to live as holy people in Christ. (A bonus was helping the kids in our church learn and recite this memory verse!)
  • One key insight for interpreting 1 Corinthians for me was to realise that the church in Corinth was young, cross-cultural, and multilingual — just like ours. This helped me to better connect Paul’s teachings to the actual issues and tensions faced by our immigrant church, situated in a cosmopolitan city like 1st-century Corinth.
  • 1 Corinthians is a fairly lengthy letter (after Romans, it’s the longest letter in the New Testament) – so introducing some variety into the preaching schedule and format may help your congregation make it through edified rather than exhausted. I was especially grateful that in the Lord’s providence, I could call on some fellow pastors also journeying through 1 Corinthians this year for advice on exegetical and pastoral issues, but also to guest preach some of the chapters in the series faithfully and reliably.
  • Another way to add variation to a 6-month sermon series is to employ different preaching styles and structures. As much as I treasure and prefer Jesus’s style of expositing the Scriptures (c.f. Luke 24:27) as the bread and butter of pastoral preaching, it can get wearisome without some creativity. Some ways I tried to vary my preaching style included a first-person narrative sermon (“Am I Not An Apostle?”, 1 Cor 9), a sermon structured around an extended Corinth x Barbie crossover to explain women in worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), and an 8-minute sermon preached mostly ex tempore to close off the series. Not everything worked perfectly, but perhaps that’s to help us see “foolishness” of the gospel in the world’s eyes, but the greater wisdom of Christ amidst this.
  • Concerning spiritual gifts, I found it helpful to flag to our leaders up front my own convictions on 1 Corinthians 12-14 regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and why. Prior to starting a “mini-series” on these chapters (“Spectacular Church”), I prepared an internal Q&A outlining my stance on various questions, and our pastors gathered as a preaching team to discuss areas of agreement and difference (almost unheard of in a Chinese church!) Doing this helped us to preach through this very contested portion of God’s Word in a way that honoured Paul’s own approach: offering pastoral wisdom so as the church in Corinth was not uninformed (1 Cor 12:1), yet making the basis of our unity as a church the belief that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3) and in His gospel “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3-4), rather than a particular view of spiritual gifts.
  • Finally, because of the pastoral and conversational nature of this letter, we offered the church multiple opportunities to ask questions about what they were hearing, culminating in a 30-minute Q&A panel (PDF version here). In our church the questions mostly revolved around spiritual gifts, but our hope was not just that we answered people’s questions, but did so in a gracious way that edified everyone in our worship services (the heartbeat of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 12-14).

We considered 1 Corinthians over 26 sermons (for 1 Corinthians 12-14, we looked at it over 5 sermons). If you’re interested, you can also listen to and download them on Spotify, Apple and elsewhere.

The Bible and politics for Kiwi Christian voters

This weekend, New Zealanders are going to the polls. How should Christians think about the elections?

Let me say from the outset that my aim is not to tell you who to vote for. My heart in writing this article is pastoral. I serve as one of the pastors in a church family that gathers for worship in the Pakuranga electorate of New Zealand. We are a cross-cultural whānau (family), baptised in the name of Jesus, with immigrant roots and connections to Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. Among our brothers and sisters are those who voted National, Labour and other parties. We have prayed for and served alongside local MPs from both major parties. Some members were first in line to get vaccinated against COVID-19, others were deeply scarred after being ostracised and punished for refusing the vaccine. We have rich and poor, young and old. Some have fled oppressive governments; others aspire to work for government. Some have been politically active here and overseas; others are apathetic towards politics anywhere. We are just like any other family in Christ: diverse in our unity; not perfect, but following a Perfect Saviour.

Something we’ve been trying to do intentionally at church this year is to explore the idea of cultivating a “gospel culture”. Ray Ortlund makes the case as follows: “The family of God is where people should find lots of gospel, lots of safety, and lots of time.”[1] In other words: gospel + safety + time. I pray these are reflections that help you within a context where you’ve heard “…the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), in relationships where you’re safe to speak and admit things honestly and receive sympathy and love, where we allow ourselves sufficient time to rethink deep-seated opinions and convictions that don’t quickly or easily change.

“God’s Big Picture”… politics included

The Bible contains 66 books that tell one big story. What we find in God’s Word though, is that politics runs through the whole Bible. Using Vaughan Roberts’s helpful “God’s Big Picture” paradigm to survey the Scriptures, here’s what we see.

First things first: the pattern of the kingdom. Genesis 1–2 describes creation perfectly ordered, beautifully governed, without sin, sadness – or dirty politics. The first three-party coalition did not arise from the introduction of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) form of government, but from the Triune God of Scripture: One God, three persons, relationally complete, needing nothing. God the Father, the Son (see Col. 1:16), the Spirit (Gen. 1:2), after crafting creation, speaks up: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule…” (Gen 1:26) The first command to our first parents and God’s image-bearers was to engage in “co-governance”: stewarding the moana (sea), rangi (skies) and whenua (land) the way our Maker intended.

Sadly, then followed the perished kingdom (Genesis 3). Tempted to doubt God’s good word, sin enters the world through a slithering politician. The serpent splits the vote: the woman doubts, then disobeys the divine Cabinet and eats forbidden fruit. Man follows suit. When God confronts the power couple, it’s all blame-shifting and bluster. “The woman you put here with me – it was her fault!” “The snake You made tricked me!” The first sting of sin’s curse looks like a self-centred squabble. Whether or not there were dinosaurs in Eden, one thing’s for sure: the slogan “in it for you” was first coined after the Fall, with no hope to get the world “back on track”.

On to the promised kingdom (Gen. 12:1–3, 15:5–6). Yes, father Abraham had many sons (and daughters), despite being almost as old as Winston Peters when he was first called into action. What’s also worth remembering however is that God’s big promise to this wandering Aramean—God’s people, God’s place, under God’s rule—was enacted through god-fearing men and women who took part in politics of the Ancient Near East. Some served faithfully through severe affliction – Joseph the Egyptian Prime Minister, for example. Others were less keen – if you thought Judith Collins was a reluctant party leader, spare a thought for Moses. Or suspicious Sarah. Daring Deborah. Doubtful Gideon. Flawed people who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised…” (Heb. 11:33), believing the LORD would fulfil what He promised (Gen. 15:6). The “cloud of witnesses” cheering Christians on includes these imperfect rulers, politicians and servants.

The height of Israel’s earthly power, we see the partial kingdom (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Kings). During this phase of history, it seems like things couldn’t be better. David the warrior King makes Israel great again. Solomon brings shalom, unprecedented peace. His wisdom, political judgement, and foreign policy wins admirers as far off as Sheba. Is this how “all peoples on earth will be blessed”? An earthly theocracy where [insert god/idol here] rules? Many churches and even political parties today would have you think so. Yet the rise and fall of biblical Israel warns us that while humans look at the outward appearance, the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Looks can deceive. Saul seemed impressive but was caught hiding behind the baggage at the wrong time. David ruled well, until he was caught abusing his power in a sex scandal (2 Samuel 11). Solomon starts well, but from the moment you realise that he’s designed his palace to be bigger than God’s temple (1 Kings 6:38–7:1), you start to realise something’s off. The result? Yet another head of state led astray by wealth, wine, and way too many women (1 Kings 11:1–6). Another political scalp. Oh, for a better King.

Despite Israel’s failure, God gives his people the hope through the prophesied kingdom. In song and story, proverb and prophecy, the authors of Scripture foretell the Messiah, God’s Chosen King, of whom Isaiah declared that “the government will be on his shoulders” (Is. 9:6), and call God’s people to repent (if you’re disappointed by a bad poll result, spare a thought for God’s verdict on Israel and Judah!). Even when God’s people are humbled, scattered and exiled, God prophesies through Daniel—a man of faith serving in secular government—of a Son of Man who will rule over all kingdoms, dominions and powers (Daniel 7:14).

Fast forward to the present kingdom (Gospels, Acts). Who would have thought that God’s Messiah would be a baby from a backwater town? But this Jesus of Nazareth is who God crowns the King of Kings. The worst of human politics and pride leads to His crucifixion and death, but he rose again to prove that He has the Maker’s mandate to rule and reign over all things. No earthly politician can “resurrect” like Jesus did!

So when we reach our phase of history, the proclaimed kingdom (Acts, Epistles), as Christians we do well to remember how it all started at Pentecost. A religious gathering, a cultural who’s who, but who’s missing? A bunch of Spirit-filled men and women who follow the Way of the Master. Unlike every other political bloc, these people called Christians have always included people from different social classes, genders and ethnicities. Jesus’s earliest followers included people of influence, involved in politics. Think of Simon the Zealot. The Ethiopian official. Lydia the purple cloth seller (a plum vocation for Europe’s first convert to Christ). Erastus the CEO of public works in Corinth (Rom. 16:23). The church at its purest should be a gospel party, that welcomes supporters of different political stripes without aligning herself to any one party, in order to proclaim God’s kingdom.

And what of the future? Will Christ return when a political party brings peace to earth? Or when our world descends into clamour and chaos again? The final visions of Scripture appear terrifying, but thankfully we know how it ends: with the perfect kingdom and the “return of the King”. When Christ returns, all politics will end. As Christians, our blessed hope is found in the Jesus Party. On that “decision night”, every political affiliation will fade into the joy of His glory as young and old, rich and poor, left-leaning and right-leaning voters feast at the table of the King of Kings. Far more important then, than which earthly party you give your two ticks to, is whether you have given the Lord Jesus two ticks. Have you accepted his death on the cross for your sins? Do you believe he was raised for your justification (Rom. 4:25)?

Voting for the King

If this is what the whole Bible says about politics, then how then shall we live? Here’s four brief suggestions from a (still!) undecided voter.

Firstly, no Christian will fit neatly into a secular political party system. Among the political parties that have a realistic chance of getting into parliament under MMP, none of them will completely reflect kingdom values. One party may deliver justice for the poor and the oppressed, yet denigrate the life of the unborn image-bearers among us. Another party might pitch traditional values that align with Christian convictions, while at the same time treat ethnic minorities with disdain. A gospel culture will mean feeling like we don’t fit in completely with one party’s values and beliefs. As Paul reminds the Philippians, our citizenship—or literally, commonwealth—is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

Secondly, politics is often a matter of wisdom and conscience (Romans 14). As Tim Keller helpfully points out, even if Christians agree on the importance of, say, alleviating the cost of living, how to go about it may look different. Fellow believers will come to different conclusions, sometimes having to make decisions between the “lesser of two evils”. If we’re to live as people who belong to a gospel culture, when it comes to politics we should welcome one another from across the aisle. How? As Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God (Rom. 15:6).

Thirdly, when electing leaders, remember that integrity and moral character matter. Again, God looks at the heart not just the outward appearance. Granted, the New Zealand election is not an exercise in deciding on spiritual leaders. Yet Christians more than anyone else should be the first to consider a potential Prime Minister or Cabinet Member’s personal character as well as their political convictions. Are they faithful to their spouse? Do they love their children? Are they well-regarded by their neighbours? Does their speech and conduct show integrity? It concerns me when Christians turn a blind eye to serious character flaws in our public officials just to get their political agenda over the line.

Finally, regardless of who wins the election, the Scripture clearly teaches that Christians have a responsibility to pray for our rulers, particularly for the freedom to live and worship peacefully and proclaim Christ’s Kingdom to all (1 Tim. 2:1-4). So whichever “Chris” becomes Prime Minister after this Saturday’s national election, bear his name before the throne of grace. Plead to King Jesus that he would govern New Zealand with wisdom. Entrust him and every other elected representative to the Father. May He through them, as our national anthem yearns for, “make this nation good and great.”


[1] Ray Ortlund, “The Gospel” (9 Marks: Building Healthy Churches), 59.