Why Socialism isn’t evil (once again): a response to Rick Phillips

Quick reblog. American “conservative” Christians really confuse me… very different social perspectives to Christians this side of the pond.

The Arbour


Another day, another Christian denouncing Socialism. This time Rick Phillips offers his thoughts at the Reformation 21 blog in the piece titled Socialism is Evil. It was also linked via the Challies A La Carte feature for today. I have already discussed the nature of Socialism from a Christian point of view, in response to comments from John Piper here and John Stevens here. I will here address Phillips points directly.

Phillips offers  three reasons why he believes the Bible deems Socialism evil. They are:

  1. Socialism is a system based on stealing
  2. Socialism is an anti-work system
  3. Socialism concentrates the power to do evil

As I have noted both here and here, in response to RC Sproul Jr and John Piper respectively, Socialism is clearly not predicated on stealing. At the heart of most forms of Socialism is a high tax redistributive system. The state typically tax…

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Ash Wednesday


After the splurge on pancakes yesterday, many Christians today feel bloated, and a bit lethargic.   It’s just as well that the medieval church foresaw this problem, and made sure the first day of Lent was a super-fast day.

The whole point of Lent is to prepare for Easter – because it’s easy to boil Christianity down to certain holy days, instead of making it about a life of service.   So while Jesus fasted 40 days at the outset of his public ministry, someone had the smart idea that a 40-day preparation for the holiest of holy days – Easter – was a good plan.

Christian preparation ought – rightly – to involve confession of sin.   This allows us to more sweetly savour the work of Jesus, as both atoning sacrifice and cloak of righteousness.   It also forces us to face the need for reconciliation with our fellow humans, particularly in the church – “forgive us, as we have forgiven others” is a radical, life-altering prayer.

But because it’s very easy to reduce Christianity to ritual behaviour, a display of repentance became the focal point.   Searching the Bible, wearing sackcloth (the clothing of the utterly destitute) and sprinkling ashes (the ash-heap probably being the place of discarded rubbish) was identified as an outward display of grief, and by extension grief over sin.   The problem with ritual is that it builds symbolism upon symbolism.   The sprinkling became a little ashen cross on the forehead (while the priest intoned the words “repent and believe the Gospel”), and the ash itself was the blessed cinders of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branch-waving.

But what if these displays of repentance are better understood as cultural expressions, not divinely-commanded displays for all of human time?   In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compared the public displays of prayer – which he went on to teach as including repentance – with the way he expected his disciples to pray:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

(Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)

Instead of obsessing about ash-filled ritual today, why not get back to the radical heart of repentance?   Firstly, enjoy a private engagement with God.   The sweetness of the Gospel is that it doesn’t rely on public displays to affect inner peace.   The reward of a secret-seeing Father is that the secret hurts and grief are also seen, and tenderly healed.

Secondly, be reconciled to people.   Ritual masks – it papers over – the broken reality.   Show the love of God today, not by wearing an ashen cross, but in a broken heart that longs to be reconciled with your hurting wife or husband, with quarrelsome parents or siblings… the power of God to heal in these situations cannot be discounted.

Shrove Tuesday


Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

Everyone loves a good detox, especially after the excesses of the annual – Christian? – Christmas over-indulgence.   For contemporary, detox-addicted Christians, Lent is a sort of spiritual dryathalon.   Go for a month without some small luxury – what are you giving up, anyway? – as you prepare to celebrate the resurrection, rolling eggs down hills and other empty symbols.

That’s right, folks!   The annual 40-day fast, held by Christians since the 4th Century, starts tomorrow.   #thatsucks   But then, today is “Pancake Day” – so use up all them eggs, sugar and mmm… buttery goodnesses.   #woohoo

That’s just the first paradox Lent throws us – before we fast, we must completely finish our feast; just to be sure we waste nothing.   Ah, so it’s a fast with no real cost?   I’m sure God designed thriftiness as a feature of the spiritual exercise of fasting.   I wonder was there ever a committee testing slogans like, “Shrove Tuesday: Prepare to spiritually thrive without wasting a penny!”

There are a lot of problems with Lent.   Over the next 40 days I’ll try to highlight some of them in a series of devotionals.   Why?   I want you to know (deep down in your chocolate-craving soul) that ritualised Christianity doesn’t even come close to the splendid good news about Jesus.

If you really think abstinence is a detox – that you’ll be purer for abstaining – remember Jesus told us:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”

(Matthew 15:17-20 ESV)

Good luck giving up sin for the next month – hope you don’t try to get it all out of your system today!


Some choice quotes on “Love thy neighbour.”

I got to thinking today, didn’t the Prime Minister offer some Christian-sounding Easter messages over the last few years?

Careful observers might recall my disappointment with the woolly content of these messages, but… as the Good Book says, “Be sure your sins will find you out.”

“The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out. I think of … the soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by churches. They proved, yet again, that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds. That is something this government supports and celebrates.”

David Cameron, Easter 2014

“Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’, they live it out… in faith schools, in prisons, in community groups.
“And it’s for all these reasons that we should feel proud to say, ‘This is a Christian country.’ The church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force doing great works across our country.
“Yes, we are a nation that embraces, welcomes and accepts all faiths and none but we are still a Christian country. And as a Christian country, Our responsibilities don’t end there.”

David Cameron, Easter 2015

Then there was this interview with Premier Christianity magazine, last Easter..   It’s worth reading in full, but here are some choice quotes:

“As Prime Minister, I’m in no doubt about the matter: the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built.”

“But I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. And for me, the key point is this: the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values that we can all celebrate and share.”

“‘Love thy neighbour’ is a doctrine we can all apply to our lives – at school, at work, at home and with our families. A sense of compassion is the centre piece of a good community.”

Above all, his conclusion:

“I end my argument with this: I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out. Those values and principles are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion. They are something I hope everyone in our country believes.

That after all is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever.” (Emphasis both mine.)

I have, I guess, one question.


Christian principles, or “values” as David Cameron calls them, are only worthwhile if they shape our Character.   This one time, a lawyer – read “politician” – asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?”   It’s great that anyone, not least the Prime Minister of the UK’s Government can give part of the answer.   But remember, Jesus expanded his answer, when another (or possibly the same) politician asked him, “Ah but, just who is my neighbour?”

Love your neighbour.   But remember, sometimes your neighbour is Johnny Foreigner.

One final point in all this.   My Lord and Saviour was also an infant refugee.   And so, when the judgement comes, one charge will be, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,”   I hope our Christian values will lead us to reflect on that for a moment.

Reconciliation (& Deprivation)

Scotland has decided.

Indyref results

That’s it.   As a nation we can be proud of the level of engagement the #indyref generated – in our age of apathy, and disillusionment with politicians, a turnout of 85% was impressive.   Once we go back to ballots to elect a person, I doubt we will keep the vote at this level.   I suspect the electorate do care about political debate, just not the ad hominem point scoring played by professional politicians.   MPs and MSPs: please take note.

But, there are now two big questions to address: Reconciliation and Deprivation


There is no longer a 45%, or 55%, or even an 85%!   There is only one Scotland.   Our nation has to come together as one to face the enormous challenges presented to us.   That doesn’t mean we stop caring, or speaking about the issues – but the debate has to move on from the referendum’s binary choice, to normal political engagement.

It can’t be a superficial change.   It has been refreshing to see how quickly my social media streams drained of political symbols after Thursday’s vote.   But changing your Facebook profile certainly isn’t costly.    Reconciliation can’t be done on the cheap.

That’s why I’m disappointed with Scotland’s foremost churchman.   I couldn’t believe my ears Friday morning (BBC coverage, about 7:20am) as John Chalmers suggested his plan for reconciliation: Go and find someone from the other side and take a “selfie” with them.   It’s a sad symptom of the Church in Scotland: she has forgotten her foundation, and embraced the cheap self-indulgence of the age.   The Church doesn’t exist to encourage people to be nice to each other – we exist to call people to radical discipleship: Take up your cross and follow Jesus.   I suspect many parts of the Church can’t call people to costly grace because they don’t believe in a God whose grace was costly.

God’s model of reconciliation wasn’t to send his Son to take a cheap selfie with fallen people; to show off a chummy picture on social media.   He came to die in the place of people who had rejected God, God’s ways, and the good of God’s world.   As Paul put it, himself he emptied, taking the form of a slave, and then he went to the cross and died.

If there’s going to be reconciliation, it’s going to be costly.   If Scotland is to move forward as one, both the 45% and the 55% are going to have to die to their division, and work as one.   Leaving the fight we invested so much in for the last two years is where the real cost is going to be found.   And I think – even for my Christian friends on both sides of the debate – that will be hard.

Never let it be said that Scotland’s Presbyterian ministers offered only empty ideals, or pious rhetoric.   Here’s a practical suggestion:

Today, there’s a lot of talk about a movement emerging: #the45.   I can see why galvanising a partisan movement like this might be good for a future Independence battle.   But there might be a more refreshing route.   What if the diverse elements of the grassroots Yes campaign were to open up to include the huge number of No voters who today share the desire to hold Westminster to account for more powers?   That can only be done if they forsake their identity as a vehicle for Independence.   Moving on from the fight that ended on Thursday will be costly, because the way ahead doesn’t represent the interests of the 45% over against the 55%.   It has to include all of us.

If you think that’s impossible, consider this picture:



This needs another post – but this is why reconciliation can’t be cheap: the problems we face are huge, and demanding.

An Emotional Decision – Reflections on the Scottish Independence Referendum


An Emotional Decision

“I was, I think, the last speaker, and after dwelling on the encroachments made by the Court of Session, confirmed by the final judgement of the House of Lords, and on the manner in which we had been treated in Parliament, where the voices of the Scottish Members had been altogether overborne by the English majority, I said, on the spur of the moment, that such injustice was enough to justify Scotland in demanding the repeal of the Union. With that, to my surprise, and somewhat to my consternation, the meeting rose as one man, waving hats and hankerchiefs, and cheering again and again. No doubt the enthusiastic feelings of the people assisted our object, but I took care not to speak of repeal of the Union at our subsequent meetings” Annuls of the Disruption. Mr Wood of Ellie, describing his visit to the south of Dumfriesshire…

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How Should Christians Vote in the #IndyRef?

On Sunday evening past, I preached on what God’s Word says about how Christians should vote in the #IndyRef.   As the campaign reaches its closing stages, Scotland’s Christians need to be reminded of these things.


In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter takes some time to tell persecuted Christians how they are to relate to civil authorities – especially civil authorities they find they have little common ground with.   Polls are showing it’s going to be a narrow vote this Thursday, meaning about half of people – possibly half of Scotland’s Christians – are going to be disgruntled with the outcome.

So what does Peter say about how Christians should vote in the Referendum?   I suggest five things:

Submit to the result for the Lord’s sake

Peter urged Christians to respect the persecuting authorities in much the same way as Paul does in Romans 13.   Ultimately, they are appointed by God – a sovereign God who is working out a plan for his own glory, and the salvation of the saints.

There are going to be some Christians who really don’t like the #indyref result.   It’s important to therefore avoid bitterness, by walking into the polling booth with a heart resolved to submit to the result, because we love and trust a sovereign God who knows what he is doing.

Live as people who are free

Peter was writing to people who probably didn’t know a lot of freedoms.   Some were slaves, but even your average non-Roman had few of the civil liberties we take for granted today.   So why does Peter write to them, crushed under the heel of a persecuting government, to live as people who are free?

It’s actually because they were free.   They were set apart as a holy priesthood by God.   Christians need to grasp this – our unique status in Christ: as Jesus promised, free indeed.   The #Indyref can be dangerous for Christians, because it offers some sort of liberty (whichever way you see things!).   We need to vote on Thursday remembering this: the greatest liberty we want for our fellow Scots is freedom from sin and death.   We can’t go to the ballot box with confusion about this.

Have God’s heart for our nation

Along with living as free people, Peter (curiously) also reminds them that they are to live as servants – or literally, slaves – of God.   How are free people also slaves?   In Roman culture, the slave was expected to share his master’s goals and objectives.   He was, in a way, an extension of his master’s arm.   Christian freedom is actually a freedom to live our Master’s agenda: the counter cultural agenda of the Sermon on the Mount.

One danger for Christians voting in the #indyref is to accept the world’s agenda and priorities.   While the whole world sees the debate framed in essentially economic terms, maybe Christians want to remember they have counter cultural priorities?   When we go to the ballot box we ought to bear in mind that we have been given the heart of a servant of God, and ask ourselves hard questions accordingly.

Honour the Emperor.   Fear God.

Peter concludes the section with four people or individuals worth special mention.   I’ll come back to the brotherhood of believers last, but note the extraordinary thing he says about the emperor: honour the emperor.   That was probably Nero – of fiddle fame, who scapegoated the Christians while he torched Rome.   Peter’s point seems to be that the emperor ought to be treated with same honour given to all men.  But God alone is to be feared.

For Christians voting in the #indyref, it is alarmingly easy to fall into vitriolic or disparaging remarks of David Cameron and Alistair Darling, or Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.   We need to treat them with honour and respect.   But also with the right sort of respect.   After all, it’s not to them that we will one day have to answer.   Our vote shouldn’t be cast to impress people, or to fit in with the approval of peers.   Whatever hopes we have for the outcome of Thursday’s vote, again, God alone is to be feared – for he alone can deliver.

Finally: Love the Brotherhood of Believers

Peter, like other New Testament writers, expresses a common concern for the unity of the Church.   Groups under pressure are always likely to implode into angry recrimination and blame.   But the chief guard against that is to recall the brotherhood – the family ties – shared by believers.

At risk of cliché, we know the vote is on a knife edge.   Scotland is divided.   We really don’t know how that will play out over the coming months, but we do know this: Jesus meant for a united Church to be a powerful evangelistic message.   If we can go to the ballot box on Thursday resolved to be united with our brothers in Christ, whatever the outcome, then Scotland will be considerably well served.   It’s not about being seen as the broker of reconciliation for the political classes: it’s about being seen as loving people who are themselves reconciled around the risen, loving, Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all his children.

That’s how Christians should vote on Thursday.

God willing, we’ll have a bloodshed free final four days.