Of Fish or Frogs
We Do Not Know the Future but are to Trust God
It is one of the dangers of the western church, with our predictable food supply and wealth, that we can be lured into trusting in our own power of provision rather than the provision of God.
Jesus teaches trust in God’s provision: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Jesus is clear that we are to trust God for our lives so that we can prioritise the kingdom of God.
The apostles also expound this, whether it is not planning for the future in pride or not trusting in our own strength; “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit -– yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes… So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
Our responsibility is to do the right thing. Yes, this may damage our plan. But to prioritise our plan, instead of doing the right thing, is to trust in our power and the strength of our lives. Such ‘plans’ and ‘strength’ are implicitly based on a supposed knowledge of the future and trust in human power. Only God has a knowledge of the future and only his power can achieve his plans. We are to trust God and do the right thing, even when this appears to undo our plans and power.
Now these three truths above are, I would suggest, universally accepted, or should be, by those who hold to scripture being the Word of God. This is the water in which we swim. Yet, given that these truths are so central, they can be easily assumed rather than expressed and applied to the situations we face. This is especially so regarding the question of leaving or remaining in congregations or denominations affected by false teachers. Yet, I believe, we seem slow to answer serious questions like these:
What aspects of our current situation would encourage us to be dualists?
What aspects of our finances, or our buildings, or the way we use our bodies encourage us to put them in the ‘not spiritual and irrelevant to eternity’ box?
What aspects of our current situation as pastors, ministers, vicars or incumbents would encourage us to keep the sheep in the dark, either by not teaching them or not warning them of wolves? Of course, we may want to be slow and merciful in arriving at conclusions. Our approach does not necessarily need to name specific false teachers. This surely has wisdom. But if the apostles did name people, should we never do this?
What if we know individuals in Christian leadership who are clear false teachers, through personal conversation and examination of public teaching, should we encourage the sheep to welcome them and meet with them for political ends? Should we? If we are church members or on PCC, an eldership, diaconate or group of trustees, how are we obeying the command of Jesus to be on our guard for the wolves? How are the wolves being clearly recognised by us as they produce the fruit of division, doubt and denial of Christ as sovereign saviour and Lord? If we are content for most to be unaware of who is causing division amongst us, we may end up thinking that such division is coming from God’s people, will we not? If only a few are aware of the impact of false teaching amongst the sheep, those who obey Jesus and his apostles will be considered to be the scaremongering “troubler of Israel”  , rather than prophetic, won’t they?
What aspects of our current situation and political response carry with them an implicit belief about the future which only God knows?
What plans are in danger of using financial and political power rather than trusting in the provision and power of God? Are we failing to do the right thing, because we prefer our plans?
When it comes to the question of Biblical faithfulness, often, we ignore the water in which we swim and instead focus on particular proof texts that justify our strategic position of staying or leaving, be this inside or outside a particular political structure like a denomination. Yet, these strategic concerns are not in the Bible and so cannot carry the same weight as the texts we have considered. Were we to overwhelm the above truths, by our chosen strategy, will we not end up ‘straining out gnats and swallowing camels’? If we are overwhelming the clear and weighty teaching of scripture by lighter matters of its truth, are we any different to the Pharisees?
What unites the above central and weighty truths? I would suggest the issue of idolatry, and with it some very dark spiritual powers. It is idolatry to separate spiritual matters from the physical; false prophets have always led people into idolatry rather than away from it; trust in human power is itself idolatrous. This is why it is so important for every Christian.
Of course, remaining within a denomination does not rescue us from idolatry. It is only Jesus Christ who does this as we seek to obey his word in that situation. And it may well be that the pressures on those of us in a denomination are those of idolising the security of money and buildings that such a denomination brings, rather than obedience to God. Yet, equally, leaving a denomination does not rescue us from idolatry because only Jesus Christ does that as we seek to obey him in every area of life. Yes, there is greater financial insecurity, but idolatry can still be a temptation. To get a job rather than trusting God to provide for ministry (though he may do so through getting a job!). Or defining ourselves by our courage in leaving, rather than by faithfulness to Jesus Christ and love for all who are his.
Being within or without does not rescue us from idolatry, only Jesus does. He is able to keep his servants from falling and only him. We are more like fish than frogs.
The Revd John Parker at Cornerstone Church in Colchester is the author. (www.anglicanfutures.org).