Simon Arscott

What is a Christian?

For Jesus, being a “Christian” isn’t a blob of jelly that can be squished into any shape we want. It’s not a personalised experience, in which you tell “your truth” and create a customised “Jesus”. It’s believing the truth about the real Jesus of history, being changed by him, and belonging to his people. 

It may surprise you to know that the word “Christian” appears in the Bible just three times. The name itself was first coined in Antioch in south east Turkey, years after Jesus had returned to heaven. You can read about it in Acts 11:26. Up until then, Christians went by the name of “disciples”, “believers”, “brothers”, “saints” (which means holy ones), and “followers of the Way”. But a new word was needed to describe this weird new social group, made up of both Jews and non-Jews who followed Jesus. So, the name “Christian” was invented. And it’s stuck!
Today, billions of people claim the label for themselves. Locally, in the recent 2021 census, 36.9% of borough residents ticked the “Christian” box on the form. But, what is a Christian? Is it just an identity label that we get to claim for ourselves? Who gets to decide?
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Judge Not

Sadly, in Britain, it feels like we’re creating “no-go” areas where we’re no longer free to express moral disapproval – in sexual choices, or even religious matters. When Jesus says, “Judge not”, he’s not telling us to stop every kind of criticism, but to do it without a flame-thrower. Why? because, morally speaking, we’re all in the same boat. 

I reckon the best-known verse in the Bible today is “Judge not”. It’s a nifty, two-word response to almost any moral criticism. Are you meant to be on a diet and your friend sees you tucking in to a big bag of crisps? “Judge not”, you say. The church minister preaches a sermon from the Bible about a common sin in society; at the door, on the way out, an upset listener collars him: “doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Judge not’? A politician is explaining the damage that extra marital affairs do to society: “Judge not” the newspaper columnists say. These two words serve as a convenient moral force-field, which shield us from anybody’s disapproval.
It is, of course, a rather silly mis-use of the verse. Try putting it on the lips of a war criminal. “You’ve just killed innocent Syrian civilians” says the judge. “Judge not!”, says the army officer!
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“Help! I Can’t Concentrate When I Read My Bible”

Lots of us struggle to concentrate when we read our Bibles. What can we do about it?
– sharpen your resolve. Do you believe this book is more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10)? Do you want to hear the voice of your good Shepherd (John 10:3)? Has God attached the promise of his blessing when you read any other book or website (Rev 1:3)?
– keep track of your progress. The Bible is a big book, and the goal has got to be to read the whole thing. “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). If we just treat the Bible like a lucky dip, and only ever flick to our favourite verses, we’re not really listening to our Shepherd. So, record what you have and haven’t read. You could write the date you finished a Bible book on the contents page. There are tons of Bible reading plans online; you can print one out and tick off when you’ve read a particular book. However, you do it, plan to work through the whole Bible.
– start small. Don’t be too ambitious. You don’t need to study the Bible for ages. If you think you’re going to be able to concentrate for 30 minutes on a Bible study when you’ve never done it before, it’s probably not realistic. If you focus for 5-minutes to start with, that’s great! Remember, the tortoise and the hare. Better to read 12 verses a day and work through the Bible in 7 years, than to monster through half the Old Testament in a month, and then quit. As it becomes more of a rhythm, you can get more ambitious.
– use a paper copy. If you’re not concentrating when you read your Bible, this is a no-brainer. Screens are good for skimming the surface of text, but not for scuba diving and getting below the surface.
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Take Away the Love of Sinning

The end of our love affair with sin doesn’t happen in one, sudden moment. This divine “take away” is a long, drawn-out goodbye that only finishes at death. We love the idea of spiritual short-cuts. We love the idea that holiness involves a technique. If there was a daily sanctification pill we could take, it’d be a huge hit. But instead, this line is a prayer the 80-year old saint needs to sing as heartily as the freshly-converted pagan. 

“Take away the loving of sinning”
That line always stood out and stuck in my head as a teen. It comes from the second verse of Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling”. I think I was particularly struck by its honesty. It was strange to think that all the smart, suit-wearing men, and prim, proper women surrounding me at church were people who loved sinning! But, at the same time, it encouraged me to hear us all long for “Love divine” to rip that sinful love out of our hearts.
I think it’s a particularly helpful line for us at the moment:
a) It reminds us that life is filled with love for unlovely things. The slogan: “Love is love” is lazy, nonsense. No one holding such a sign believes loving Hitler, and loving Martin Luther King are moral equivalents. Jesus explains that “people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). With a “conversion therapy” ban in the pipeline, the government wants to give a particular sin a very special form of legal protection. There’s to be no questioning that sin, or naming that sin as sin.
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Why Every Church Should Practice “Open” and “Closed” Communion

It is important that whoever is administering the Lord’s Supper recognises what they’re doing. They’re holding a set of keys, which need to be used carefully. To simply leave all questions of admission down to the individual’s choice is irresponsible, like leaving the front door to your house wide open. But Jesus calls us to use the keys so that his Table is both opened wide to citizens of his kingdom, and closed shut to the spiritual DIY-ers, lone rangers, and the ignorant.

Does your church practice “open” communion or “closed” communion?
That’s not an unusual question for people to ask. The terminology isn’t completely clear, but by “open” communion, people usually mean that all believers are invited to partake of the Lord’s Supper. “Closed” communion usually means that only members of that local church can partake. Sometimes there’s a middle position called “close communion”, where people who are church members in similar churches may partake. It gets at a very practical issue, and one of some importance to the life of a congregation. Advocates of “closed” communion often fear that “open” communion lends itself to consumer Christianity. Advocates of “open” communion often fear that “closed” communion leads to a narrow, sectarian mindset. I think both concerns are valid.
But more basically, I think the question itself is unhelpful. Rather than bringing clarity, it reveals a basic confusion about the Lord’s Table. It’s like asking: “should your front door be open or closed?”. The whole point of a door is that it does both: it opens and closes! A door that doesn’t open is a wall, and a door that doesn’t close is a hole. The same is true of the Lord’s Table. It’s not an either/or choice, but a both/and.
In other words, the Lord’s Table is to be “open” and “closed” at the same time.
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The Power of Example

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“The Bible Isn’t Helping”

In those moments when the Bible falls flatly on us, yes, it could be because it’s poorly applied, yes it might be because it was mis-timed, but God wants us to cultivate an attitude that unquestioningly assumes the correct-ness and relevance of his word to our situation. It might well take some time for God’s word to “get through”. We can go days, weeks, months, and even years feeling in the dark spiritually, and it’s not simply our fault. But we must remind ourselves that, whatever it feels like, whatever it looks like, God’s word is always, always going to help. 

Have you ever felt depressed and had someone remind you of Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”? Or perhaps you’ve been in the thick of conflict and had someone read Ephesians 4 to you: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (v.32). You hear what the verse is saying, but the hurt of being wronged, and the other person’s lack of apology makes the verse bounce off you. I remember lying in a hospital bed after surgery, with my brain all foggy on morphine, and a well-meaning friend bringing a bunch of sermons for me to listen to; It wasn’t the right time. Christians can trot out glorious verses, like Romans 8:28, like they’re handing out sticking plasters to someone who’s lost their leg in a car accident.
There are times when it feels like the Bible isn’t helping. Christians can experience a huge gap between “life” and what the text says. What should we make of that? Can that be right?
i) The Bible itself recognises that experience. There is such a thing as poor application of Scripture. That’s what Job’s comforters show. Job had experienced unthinkable tragedy, and his comforters are all basically quoting the Bible to him. They preach biblical sermons to him. Some of their sermons are excellent – I wish I could preach like Zophar; he has big God theology (Job 11:7-11) and his imagery is fantastic (Job 20). Paul clearly considered Eliphaz’s doctrine to be orthodox, and has no problem quoting it (see 1 Cor 1:19; Job 5:12). But Job’s friends miss the point. Their timing is all wrong. Their application of truth to Job’s circumstances is mistaken. So, Job says: “Miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). That’s also God’s verdict on their counsel at the end of the book (Job 42:7). The Book of Job demonstrates to us the real possibility of misusing, and mishandling biblical truth, in ways that are unhelpful. Job could honestly and fairly say to his friends: “The Bible isn’t helping!”.
ii) But the moment in which it feels like the Bible isn’t helping me is also a point in which I need to be very careful. Pastorally, those moments are critical.
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Self-Examination for the Lord’s Supper

I have to check I know God’s grace comes to me in Jesus Christ alone. Am I confident that my friend Jesus has aced the exam set by God’s holy law? Do I know he’s passed that exam for me? I have to be ready and willing to express my gratitude to God. To take the bread and wine comes with obligations. Am I loving God by obeying his commandments? Am I loving my brothers and sisters at church, and my neighbour as myself? Where I’m being disobedient, am I willing to change? This isn’t about my perfection, but about my willingness and openness to be changed by Jesus.

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Cor 11:28).
The last time I sat an exam was in May 2008. It was a good feeling saying goodbye to exams. While some people do better than others, exams are associated with stress, whether it’s your driving test, or a Grade 7 piano exam. We can all remember the pressure, and the butterflies in the stomach. So, if I told you that God wants you to sit an exam every time you hear the Lord’s Supper announced in the notices, it might make you uncomfortable. Maybe it sounds anxiety inducing. Isn’t this going to turn the Lord’s Table into an experience of dread, rather than delight? Is Jesus really assigning me spiritual exams every fortnight of my Christian life?!
But, as we receive this homework, notice two things about it:
i) This is self-examination. The elders aren’t examining you. Your friends aren’t scoring you. Your mum and dad aren’t marking your answers. You mark your own answers to this test. The results of this homework won’t be displayed on a wall at church to compare yourself with others. If you cheat, no one else in church will be able to pull you up. If you skip this exam, no one else will even know – just you and the Lord.
ii) This exam doesn’t have a pass/fail mark. We don’t sit this exam to see if we’re going to eat. That’s often how we understand it, I think.
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Obedience Now, Not Next Week

It’s very common to put off an act of obedience, because we tell ourselves it’s too impracticable at the moment. To obey God now is too complicated, so we decide to postpone it to a time when, in our heads, it will be easier. For example:
– rather than cancel my commitment to play on a Sunday sports team, I’ll wait until the end of the season.
– I won’t stop wearing the rainbow lanyard now; I’ll wait until I’ve left my job.
– When I’ve finished my exams, I’ll make sure I give God more of my time.
– I’ll end this unhelpful romantic relationship in a couple of months, because I don’t think it’s fair to end it sooner.
– I’ll do my part to patch up a broken relationship when I’m in a better place.
There’s a brilliant example of this mind-set at work in 2 Chronicles 25. Amaziah, king of Judah, teams up with Israel’s military and hires an Israelite army for 100 talents of silver (v.6). That’s a lot of money!  But a man of God tells Amaziah he is not to take these Israelites into battle (v.7-8). Amaziah’s understandable response is: “But what about all that money I just paid?!” (v.9).
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“Non-Directive” Preaching

“Non-directive” religion will mean that the censors have to cut most of the apostle Paul’s letters in half, and put the second-part through the paper-shredder. The Scottish government are OK with Ephesians chapters 1-3. That’s just “teaching”. But when Paul gets to his “therefore” in chapter 4, all the “directive” instruction in chapters 4-6 needs to be binned. Censors will have to hunt down every verb in the imperative form and axe it.  We can say: “God is holy, God is love. Jesus is love, and Jesus teaches us to love”. But you can’t say: “Love God”. 

It sounds like something straight from George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth”. But it is in fact language that the Scottish parliament’s equalities committee are using as they explore out-lawing “conversion therapy”. The committee has concluded that religious teaching and prayer about sexual identity should only be permitted if it’s conducted in a “non-directive way” (para 3).
I love the thought of Christian preachers working out what “non-directive” preaching looks like! It’s a bit like the invention of the “stationary” car, an “opaque” pair of spectacles, and a wonderful bottle of “tasteless” wine.
The language of “non-directive” religious teaching is almost comical in its failure to appreciate the first thing about human beings and God. I can imagine the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, standing up to announce to the crowds that they have crucified the Christ, but God has raised him from the dead. When he gets to the climax of his sermon, Peter says: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). But then, he remembers the Scottish legislation and corrects himself: “Whoops, sorry, I mean… I’d love you to think about all of that, but in a non-directive way, of course! And if anyone would possibly, maybe, like the idea of being baptised, come and talk to us, but, please understand there’s no pressure, no obligation, at all!”.
Maybe the members of the equalities committee have experienced “non-directive” preaching from pulpits. I admit there’s plenty of it around, and it can be sleep-inducing. But it’s not actually real preaching. All true preaching is “directive” by definition. If it’s not directive, it’s not preaching! One 19th century text-book on preaching says: “Whenever there is no direct purpose in the speaker to educe an action of will in his hearers there is no proper oration”.
Likewise, a “non-directive” morality is nonsense. Morality is “directive” by definition. Right and wrong, good and evil, righteousness and wickedness are not abstract ideas to simply ponder, in glorious abstraction, but principles to act upon. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). If you hold moral convictions that are never expressed in the presence of what is wrong, they will end up shrivelling and dying.
“Non-directive” religion will mean that the censors have to cut most of the apostle Paul’s letters in half, and put the second-part through the paper-shredder.
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