T.M. Suffield

Church as Blueprint

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Getting worship right really matters. Of course I’m fully aware that plenty will agree with me but their vision of “right” will not cohere with mine. It’s a challenge we have to work through. But, even so, it does mean that if we want to reform our communities we start by reforming the worship of the church.

We see this in the way it’s structured; it’s built as a copy of the Garden of Eden: a mountaintop land with trees. The Temple is on the apex of a mountain, it’s full of trees (the lampstands and the decorations), and it’s decorated with fruit (all those pomegranates, notice the connection between the Song of Songs and the Temple).
It’s also a model of the world, with layers. We find the ‘sea’ on the outside (the large replacement for the tabernacle’s laver), then an outer court with the altar, then inside the temple, and then into the holiest place with the Ark.
The Temple moves from the chaos of the sea, to the courtyard where sacrifice is made representing the land, into the heavens and then the third heaven in the holiest place. It’s a microcosm of the whole world.
More than that, it’s a microcosm of the whole of reality as it’s supposed to be. It’s a copy of the new creation, or the old creation before it fell at least.
The Church works the same way, except it actually is the new creation (2 Corinthians 5). Not the New Heavens and the New Earth, not yet, but the in-breaking of the New into the Old because Christians are new creation and the Church is the new society. The local church is supposed to be a mirror of true reality, a blueprint for the Kingdom; she’s a microcosm, a miniature cosmos.
As an aside, if the church has deeply hurt you, this sounds like nonsense. Believe me, I understand. We aren’t good at being a mirror, but that means we’ve been terrible mirrors not that we don’t reflect the new creation. I think this concept intensifies how bad it is when churches get things terribly wrong.
This is why Paul is so concerned about ‘order’ in worship (1 Corinthians 12-14), he’s concerned that worship appropriately reflect the reality of the world. It’s as we encounter true reality in Christian worship each Sunday that we start to be reordered—or as I would say ‘restoried’—into people who live like the new creation and then restory/reorder their own worlds (households, initially) into the image of the kingdom.
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What is Spiritual Warfare

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, April 5, 2024
Spiritual warfare looks like forgiving your enemies, like repenting of your sin, like loving your spouse and your friends. It looks like preaching the gospel and taking the sacraments. It looks like loving your neighbours. It looks like the fruit of the spirit. It looks like prayer.

We contest not with flesh and blood but with powers and principalities (Ephesians 6). This means the grand principles of the fallen world, ruled by evil personalities, and the everyday demons we all encounter all the time.
Which might sound strange as maybe you don’t encounter many demons, but my pastoral experience would suggest otherwise. I’m not going to write a manual for casting out demons but it’s a not uncommon part of pastoral ministry.
Interestingly though, I’ve been in a church which was majorly into this; it saw a lot of demonic opposition and many cast out. I’ve been in churches which just deal with them when they come up. It might sound like the first is facing opposition because they’re really at the sharp edge and should be emulated, but I think that’s the wrong reading. Instead, in normal pastoral ministry they come up and you deal with them, but they love attention because it takes the attention away from Jesus. Ministries or churches focused on demons have usually got things out of kilter.
My point in this post is different. Most spiritual warfare is not casting out demons. Most spiritual warfare is ordinary things.
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Stand Fast: Polycarp X

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, March 10, 2024
This congregation that Polycarp is writing to has lost a Pastor who’s fallen away. They are to watch their own lives and doctrine so that they do not go the same way. Don’t be swayed, don’t be dragged, don’t be seduced, or driven off the road. In order to stand firm we need to ‘love the brotherhood.’ Polycarp is quoting 1 Peter 2.17. The brotherhood here is just the church. Our standing firm requires that we are with one another.

This is the next part of my ongoing series exploring the letter written by St Polycarp to the church in Philippi, collaborating with my friend Adsum Try Ravenhill of the Raven’s Writing Desk.
You can read the previous parts at these links: I; II; III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.
Dear Adsum
Thank you for your last letter, particularly your guidance to ask God for patience in the midst of trials. Though, I must admit, this is a “thanks, I hate it” sort of thank you. Who wants more patience? People who want to be more like Jesus.
I am not a patient man. My wife is much more patient than me, as are many others I know. I think of the dear patience of a close friend whose debilitating illness has not been healed by the Lord and his desire to keep pressing in to follow Jesus anyway. It’s an inspiration to me.
Of course, I don’t think he’ll recognise himself in that sentence, because I don’t think he thinks he’s a patient man.
Today’s passage in Polycarp is:
Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one. When you can do good, defer it not, because “alms delivers from death.” Be all of you subject one to another, having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles,” that you may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed! Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.
Stand fast! Because of the example of Jesus and of the saints that we’ve already heard we should stand firm. Christians are to be boulders. The sort of obstacle that the wind and waves of life can’t move.
I find myself drawn to rural examples. I’ve lived in cities for my whole adult life, and for all my primary school had a flock of sheep (yes, really) I don’t know much about the countryside. I do recall once driving up a steep track in Wales that a flock of sheep had decided to sit down on at night. Progress was difficult.
Progress is even harder if something larger than your car, like a cow, decides to stop in the middle of the road. You can’t do anything about it except wait. The cow has no interest in the urgency of my journey, they go their own way. Oddly, Christians in this analogy are the cow, not the car.
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Mixed Fibres

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
The two fibres in question are linen and wool, and they are mixed on two occasions: in the High Priest’s ephod (Exodus 28 & 39) and in the tabernacle’s curtain (Exodus 26)—which are the same thing, because the High Priest’s outfit marks him out as a walking, talking tabernacle. You can’t mix because mixing is a holy thing. Only the high priest wears a garment of mixed fibres. Only the tabernacle is woven with them. Only in God is mixing allowed. Which might help us think about the wisdom here: the Church of God is a holy place where mixing is allowed. 

When someone wants to point out that Christians don’t believe the Bible—often because they want to poke holes in a Christian sexual ethic—they turn to one of two places, mixed fibres or shellfish.
Both are laws from the old testament, one part of the food laws which I’ve written on before, the other one of those esoteric things which seems bizarre to us. All the Law was given for our instruction, though, so it must teach us.
Before considering what it might have to say to us, it’s worth pointing out the common gotcha—perhaps most famous in a scene in the West Wing—completely misunderstands how Christians have understood the Law. For all there is debate about exactly how we should think of these things, Christians have always thought carefully about how these things work and decided that some are to be kept and other understood as wisdom to us. It’s not a gotcha at all. It’s also worth drawing your attention to the way that sexual purity laws function differently in Leviticus to mixed fibres or food laws, they aren’t the same sort of thing—perhaps a topic for another time!
So, what are we meant to do with Leviticus 19’s prohibition on mixed fibres? It’s clustered with a law against breeding different kinds of animals together and a law against planting different kinds of seeds in a field. We should immediately think that the clustering is meant to make us notice something about not mixing with different ‘kinds.’
I’m sure we could jump to all sorts of conclusions which would be out of step with the Biblical witness, but it must have something to do with this.
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Thinking about Plagues

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, February 24, 2024
As is always the way when Yahweh fights the gods, there’s not any combat, the actions of the Lord simply show them to be impotent before him. The first three plagues fit in a pattern of water, earth, and sky (nile →  frogs →  gnats), which is the biblical layering of the cosmos (waters below, earth, heavens above). We are meant to read and notice not just Yahweh’s conquering of foreign gods but his mastery of the whole world. 

We don’t like the ten plagues in Exodus, they feel like exactly the sort of thing we secretly wish wasn’t in the Old Testament because they afflict our innate sense of fairness and our unexpressed desire for God to be kind to everyone—even those who hate and afflict his people.
Our affections there are out of step with the Bible, I fear, for all we shouldn’t be flippant when discussing the issues. There’s lots to unpack, but I’d like to explore a particular side-alley which we probably miss when reading because we tend to pivot to apologetic questions.
The plagues are a tight literary unit, that is trying to express the mastery of Yahweh over the world and over the powers.
The first thing to note is that the plagues are in a pattern of 3 + 3 + 3 + 1. For the purposes of this blog post I’m going to look at the first nine, as the narrative has the last stand firmly on its own. Hopefully the last—what we now call the Passover—being separate is clear in the amount of time the text takes to describe it and the way the story unfolds. It takes two chapters for a start. The other nine follow an approximate pattern where each contains some sort of threat, plague, and interaction with Pharaoh, though not all in the same way.
How do we know they’re in a pattern of 3 + 3 + 3?
In plagues 3, 6, and 9, no request or threat is made to Pharaoh before the plague happens, instead God just tells Moses to go about causing the plague to fall. This literary feature leads us to think of them bracketed in three sets.
Then we might notice that the first three plagues fall on all the people in Egypt, Hebrew and Egyptians alike, but plagues 4-9 avoid the land of Goshen where the Hebrews live. The tenth plague distinguishes too, but in a different way.
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Pastors Need to Stand Up

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, February 7, 2024
Lots of people have a sense that some things in our culture aren’t right, but they aren’t sure about how to best think about them….Their own Pastor, who knows their life, talking to them about this is more helpful than any voice they find online….Please consider talking about cultural issues more in your own church.

We live in difficult days. My nation has fallen headlong into a sort of Protestant Paganism and is embracing all of sorts of beliefs and practices that are against the way of God.
This isn’t suddenly true, it has been growing steadily for some time, and it could all turn in any direction very suddenly. What is I think is universally accepted is that if you’re a Christian and you believe what the Bible says about personhood, marriage, sex and sexuality, gender, partiality, money—or honestly that the world is shot through with the glory of God—then saying those beliefs in a public forum is likely to earn you derision at best.
As a result, most people don’t speak up. That’s not a problem, as long as you aren’t being put into a compromising position in your workplace by not doing so. We do need to be careful of that, and Pastors need to speak more carefully and frequently about those decisions, I suspect, as congregants face them more than pastors do.
Most people not speaking up because of the potential backlash or consequences in their employment is reasonable. It does mean that we need the Pastors who are paid by their churches—and so granted a measure of freedom to speak as they will—to clearly speak to difficult and contentious issues.
Except, in British Evangelicalism at least, that tends to be not what happens. There are, of course, many wonderful exceptions who should be lauded. They tend to be in smaller churches all over the place, as the pressures to not do so increase with profile (though again, there are wonderful exceptions).
I think there are two primary reasons that (some) full-time Pastors don’t speak clearly on cultural issues here in the UK.
The first is that it doesn’t seem very British. It all seems terribly American (which, American readers, would not usually be seen as a positive thing in the UK). We have a cultural tendency to not speak to difficult or contentious issues. If they have a political angle, then British churches tend to veer away from that as well. As a result of this, often the only voices that can be heard are strident or crazy. This would tend to drive us the other way: people will interpret you as standing with the crazy person, or think you sound like the strident one, even if you are trying to be careful and reasonable in the way you communicate. It seems like causing a lot of bother we’d all rather avoid.
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The Gates of the City

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, January 26, 2024
More importantly for John is the shape—a perfect cube. We’re meant to think of the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26, 1 Kings 6), the place where Heaven touches Earth. The Church is a holy place, and where Heaven touches Earth. Do we think of what we do when we gather together like that? Do we think of ourselves as a people that embodies heaven touching earth? We should, because we are, and we will be.

In Revelation 21 the church (the ‘bride’) is described as a city, a new Jerusalem, in intricate detail. John is referencing from all over the Bible, he has the later part of Ezekiel and Genesis 2 in particular view, but liberally references elsewhere.
John is at this point in Revelation talking about the future; this is a claim that some will agree with that I’m not going to defend. I don’t think all the book is about the future, but I think these new heavens and new earth here are. But it’s a future that speaks into the church today for two reasons.
Firstly, the new heavens and new earth of the first verse were inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus, as John is at great pains to make clear in his garden encounters between Jesus and ‘the woman’ Mary. This is, by the by, where an argument that even these last two chapters of Revelation describe the world today would come from. We are stepping into this world, even if John’s account of it in chapters 21 and 22 of his apocalypse are what it will ‘look’ like in its fullness.
Secondly, and really saying the same thing from another angle, if this is what the perfected church looks like in her glory, then our churches should have this in view now. This is the goal that we are growing towards, so our efforts to tend and aid that growth should have this firmly in view.
What I’d like to zoom in on, as the title rather gives away, is three features of the city that can inform our churches today: its shape, its foundations, and its gates.
Shape
The city is a cube, just under 1400 miles in each direction, including up (15-17). Which is about 1392 miles beyond the heights at which we could breathe. This thing is massive. Why are we told this? While I suppose there could be literal Borg cube of a city in the age to come, I think this is missing it a bit.
The dimension given is 12,000 stadia. In Revelation’s language we should read that as 12 x lots, which we should read as Israel x lots. The Church will be enormous, and glorious in our breadth and depth.
More importantly for John is the shape—a perfect cube. We’re meant to think of the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26, 1 Kings 6), the place where Heaven touches Earth. The Church is a holy place, and where Heaven touches Earth. Do we think of what we do when we gather together like that? Do we think of ourselves as a people that embodies heaven touching earth? We should, because we are, and we will be.
Foundation
The foundation of the New Jerusalem has the names of the twelve apostles inscribed on it (14) and is adorned with twelve specific jewels (19-20): Jasper, Sapphire, Agate, Emerald, Onyx, Carnelian, Chrysolite, Beryl, Topaz, Chrysoprase, Jacinth, Amethyst.
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Lead vs Leader vs Leadership

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, January 20, 2024
It would help us to call people what they are. If someone holds a Biblical office of pastor/elder or deacon, then they aren’t a ‘leader’ and we should use the name of their office. Not least because these function institutionally: they are moulds that form us towards particular behaviours and habits. It would probably help fs we stop elevating some above others too, if we believe (as I do) that the New Testament dictates our churches are led by a plurality of elders.

Throughout the Bible, people lead. Whether they are judges, kings, or prophets, they lead the people of God by showing them a direction in which to go. Leading is good. Leading is required, for without it we are like sheep gone astray, crying for a shepherd and prone to false ones. Churches need direction (even if that direction is ‘sit still’).
Of course, if there’s leading to be done, we assume the people doing it are leaders and that the science of what they’re doing can be called leadership. This is where I fear we start to come unstuck.
I have two complementary concerns that I’ve touched on before. Firstly that the language we use to describe things actually creates reality. Secondly that we’ve imported a set of concerns and solutions from the business world uncritically, to the point that in some more extreme instances the governance of our churches looks more like a corporation—or a large charity—than it does the assembly of the household of God.
My point on language is not particularly sophisticated. When we use metaphors or shorthand to describe something that aren’t exactly what we mean, we will find that those metaphors are more effective than the unsaid thing we did actually mean. They plough furrows in our mind that our thought then will flow down like a well-irrigated field. If they lead us otherwise, it is hard work to think against the grain—to mix metaphors—and it is often helpful to plough new furrows that send the water where we wanted it to go. In other words, if we say something that isn’t what we mean, our thought, practice, and (crucially) vibes (a technical term) will align themselves with what we say rather than what we meant. This is a slow process and is particularly pronounced when passing from one generation to another, but it’s a real phenomenon.
When we start calling Pastors leaders, and some other people leaders too, is it any wonder if the distinctions between that office and someone who is leading something are worn down? Or, if we start calling Pastors leaders, is it any wonder if they start to act more like business leaders than Pastors?
My second point is essentially that ‘leader’ is not a noun used in the New Testament. You might point to Hebrews 13 and I’ll come back with ‘those who rule’ is not ‘leader.’ It’s particularly not the same as what most of us picture as a leader. Leadership is not a science that is known in the New Testament, either. Leading is mentioned as something some people should be doing (Romans 12). They aren’t leaders. I suspect they are engaging in leadership, but whether that’s the same thing as what you find in a leadership book is a question we should examine carefully.
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Noah and the Curse of Ham

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Tuesday, January 2, 2024
There is a common theme in Genesis of younger sons, or occasionally even first sons, wanting to usurp their father’s role. We know something similar is going on by the nature of the curse, it involves authority and submission, implying a sin of rebellion. We might notice that Shem and Japheth (typologically Jews and Gentiles—see Irenaeus On the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching) solve the problem by re-robing Noah, and that the robe bears the definite article ‘the mantle.’ Clothes, especially robes and mantles, are authoritative garments in the Bible’s symbolic world—much like the metaphorical meaning that ‘mantle’ bears in English today. They replace his authority.

There’s this strange moment in Noah’s life where he gets drunk, falls down naked, his son Ham sees him naked, and then he curses Ham. It leads to the frequent accusation that Noah was a drunkard, which at best might be true but is missing the wood for the trees.
You can read the story in Genesis 9. Is Noah just an angry drunk? What did Ham do wrong?
It’s also been the cause of much racist nonsense, with the curse of Ham linked to theories where a particular ‘race’ (in the modern sense rather than the Biblical one) are cursed because of their descent from Ham. All of that should be rejected as evil. The first thing we should notice is that Ham isn’t cursed. There is no curse of Ham. Instead his son, Noah’s grandson, Canaan is cursed as a result of Ham’s actions. Which feels instinctively unfair to us but is perhaps a hint that something more is going on here. It also makes us think of the eventual defeat of the various Canaanite peoples by the Hebrews—the eventual result of the curse. That doesn’t clarify what’s happening but it’s worth noticing the way this pans out in the story.
So, what’s going on? Let’s try and look at this interrogatively. There are three broad questions to answer: Does Noah get drunk? What does Ham do to him? Why does he curse Canaan rather than Ham.
Does Noah Get Drunk?
Yes. That was easy enough. It’s his characterisation as a drunkard that I take some issue with, partly because it assumes a habitual behaviour but mostly because it tries to find the moral of the story in Noah’s misuse of God’s good gift of wine rather than in whatever Ham has done wrong.
Noah may have been a drunkard, but there’s nothing in the text that would make us think so. It is possible to read the text as suggesting that he simply rested after drinking, though I think that unlikely looking at how the Hebrew word is used elsewhere in the Bible. I think the Bible says he got a bit merry and went to sleep—unwise, but not the parallel to Adam’s fall in the story. I don’t think this is a good thing or to be commended (Ephesians 5), nor is it incidental to the story, but it’s not its hinge either.
Noah’s planting of the vineyard was a good thing, a fulfilment of his declaration to be the man of rest. He prefigures Christ as the provider of wine at the table and is planting a new Eden.
A Snake in the Garden
There is a snake in the garden though: Ham. Noah removes his robe of office within his tent to sleep. Perhaps someone else wants to usurp or ridicule his role; the robe is a textual clue to this.
What is it that Ham does? A flat reading of the text is that he glances at his father without his clothes on and mocks him to his brothers, who then carefully recover Noah’s nakedness. This leaves us with questions though, why is it that this is worthy of a curse?
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Is All Sin Equal?

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, December 20, 2023
We must keep returning to the Cross. We gather there to weep over our sin and our wayward hearts, we gather to rejoice that the Lord God Almighty—he who knew no sin—has become sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5). We can be cleansed and forgiven, even from the worst of things.

No. That was easy.
Except, I think most readers will expect me to say “yes.” Aren’t we all without excuse before the wrath of God (Romans 1)? Yes, we are. Yet this is not saying the same thing.
Having been fed—mostly evangelistically—on the (true!) idea that even the smallest sin is the enough to damn you, that even the smallest sin needs redemption, we start to think this means they’re all the same. I encounter this fairly regularly.
It’s not right, as I’ll explore in a moment, and it prevents us from being able to say that some things are worse than others. We need to be able to tell people the truth.
In Numbers 15.22-31 we have “intentional”—called here “high-handed’—sins laid against “unintentional” ones, with different sacrifices and conditions needed for atonement. High-handed sin cannot be atoned for at this point in salvation history. We could, more simply, look at the way that the various Laws in the Old Testament ascribe different punishments to different crimes, clearly not everything that is wrong should be considered in the same way.
In Ezekiel 23, the prophet draws a parallel between two sisters in their sin in graphic terms. He makes it clear that they are allegories for Samaria and Jerusalem—the capitals of the two kingdoms. In verse 11 he says that the sins of Jerusalem are worse than those of Samaria, and that she was more corrupt. In Jeremiah 16.10, the prophet lambasts Judah for being worse than their fathers.
In 1 John 5.16-17, the Apostle makes a distinction between sins “leading to death” and those that don’t, which probably scares us a bit: I understand this to be the sin of refusing to repent and turn to Jesus. He moves on to say that all wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. There are different kinds of sin.
For a small aside, I’ve known people who would say something to the affect that “it was wrong, but it wasn’t sin,” as though sin only was the very worst of things. All wrongdoing is sin. Which means that we all sin all the time. Everything I think that’s not the truth is sinful—because thinking wrong thoughts after God is sin. It’s very possible that this post contains sinful statements. I don’t think so, and I would remove them if I did think so. If there are, I should repent. It is unlikely that I haven’t sinned in my writing so far, for all I’m not aware of where that would be. This is the nature of being fallen beings: ontological sinners made saints. As I’ll expound a little later, it’s also the wonder of grace: despite this the Lord loves me and has called me to be his chosen possession (1 Peter 2). I’m the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32). If you trust him, so are you.
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