Podcast counterpart | About Abortion with Dave Brennan
No, John Stevens: we actually have too many | 24 Oct 2023 | Episode 70
A military friend recently told me that morale is the critical element in the success of an army. (Tolstoy makes the same point repeatedly in War and Peace.)
Sooner have your comrades tie your shoelaces together, burn your toast, or even make a material error on the battlefield, than sap you of that all-important resource, morale.
Biblically, we see this principle addressed in Judges 7. From one perspective, Gideon had "too many men" because it was important that Israel not be tempted to boast that it was "her own strength" that saved her, the glory had to go to God - so they had to be small in number. (Note: victory is a not a numbers game in the way that we are naturally inclined to think that it is.) But from another perspective, he had too many men because more than half of them were afraid. You can do without comrades who are going to spread fear and sap morale just before a battle. So he sent home twenty-two thousand of them.
We shouldn't miss the fact that the fearful are sent home before the inept are (those who drank with their faces in the water). Morale is paramount.
But we also see this addressed in Numbers 13/14 and it is here that I want to focus most of all.
In this famous account of the twelve men who went to spy on Canaan, ten returned with a "bad report" and only two with a "good" - though they had all seen the same things (the fruit and the opposition).
Two things are noteworthy for our purposes here.
First, the "we can't" attitude had an immediate and observable impact on "all the people of the community". They started grumbling and complaining and wished they had died in Egypt or in the desert. Faithlessness is contagious. In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy 1 we read that these men "made [their brothers] lose heart". So pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, the "we can't" attitude is judged by God in moral terms. It is "rebellion"; they treated the LORD "with contempt". It dishonours God, since the "we can't" is perhaps more accurately rendered "God can't". It is theologically and spiritually a weighty thing to declare a "bad report".
Morale is a moral issue.
I have said elsewhere that cowardice has become one of those "acceptable sins" in 21C British evangelicalism. It is said with almost a laugh sometimes, "Oh I don't have the courage to do what you do!" And yet we read in Revelation 21:8 that along with "the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars", it is "the cowardly" who will find their home "in the fiery lake of burning sulphur". Indeed, the cowardly top the list. Cowardice, also, is a moral issue. Do we believe that?
It would probably be inaccurate (even, unfair) to equate a loss of belief/morale with cowardice, but there is a connection. Perhaps we could say that a lack of morale gives birth to cowardice in the same way that faith and hope give birth to courage. This is an example of why Paul in particular repeatedly comes back to faith, hope, and love as root virtues or super-virtues: from them spring other virtues.
So what we say can or can't happen is an extremely consequential thing.
My reason for taking to the keyboard this morning is that I caught sight of some comments from an influential evangelical leader that are, unless I am much mistaken, precisely the opposite of what is true and precisely the opposite of what is needed with regard to the spiritual, moral, cultural war in which we find ourselves - in a sense made all the more dangerous by the fact that they are under the (no doubt sincerely) promising heading, "Contemporary Culture: To Navigate The Present We Need To Understand Why Evangelicals Failed To Transform The Nation In The Recent Past". For those who don't know, John Stevens is the national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, a grouping of over 600 congregations in the UK.
As you will see if you read it, Stevens' central explanation as to why we failed in the '60s, as "liberal" and "progressive" legislation began to take hold, is this: "Christians didn’t have the numbers."
Of course, if we didn't have the numbers in the '60s and '70s, we definitely don't have them now. The logic isn't lost on Stevens: "we are even less likely to succeed today," he says. "We can make progress on issues where the liberal progressive consensus is already in line with Christian values (eg human trafficking) but not where it is opposed to Christian convictions (eg human sexuality)."
In a nutshell, we can't really do anything to the culture that wouldn't happen anyway without us, because we are just too small to have any transformative impact - so we may as well give up.
Stevens sees this as the only way forward: "Transformation will only come when there is significant church growth." So, nothing any time soon; but he's "optimistic for the future" because he thinks the evangelical church is growing and will continue to grow, whilst liberals die off. "The refining of the church to become more evangelical will also have the consequence that in coming years church leaders will be unequivocal in supporting Christian values."
But here is the fallacy. How will the proliferation of churches or evangelicals who don't care or speak about, for example, the baby genocide in our land, ever eventually lead to the overturning of the baby genocide? The problem is not our quantity, it's our quality.
Stevens appears to assume that those increased numbers who identify as "evangelical" will be "unequivocal in supporting Christian values". But right now, this clearly is not the case. As Stevens himself has conceded, some evangelicals will think it's ok to kill a baby if he or she is believed to be terminally ill, or "so severely disabled as not to be able to be able to enjoy a meaningful and conscious life". Sounds a lot like the Nazi "mercy killing" T4 Programme to me. Others will entertain killing a baby for the (sexual) crime of his/her father. Is this Christian thinking? Instead of seeing these as representing a crisis of moral and theological confusion, even heresy, within the wing of the Church that considers itself the most biblically faithful, Stevens refers to these merely as "nuances" to be wrestled with.
Would we call it "nuance" if evangelicals were broadly against racism, but just not in the case of racism against Chinese or Japanese people?
More than 130 attendees of the Keswick Convention 2023 (about as evangelical as it gets) were asked, "Aside from situations where the life of the mother is at risk, do you think abortion is ever justified?" Three in every ten said, "Yes."
The change that is needed is first and foremost in the mind and the heart of the evangelical Church. Our number is not the problem. Indeed, one could make the Gideonite assessment and say that we are still too many!!
Thinking back to the '60s, we can say that then, too, the problem was not the numbers. The problem was that, as Harry Blamires wrote in 1963, there was "no Christian mind", by which he meant that there was no substantial, sustained, shared stream of thought and discussion whereby Christians brought a biblical worldview to bear on the issues of the day, even internally, and much less out in the public square.
The diabolical 1965 Abortion Act, composed by the Church of England, is the perfect example of this. Claiming to bring a Christian/Church response to the question of "abortion", it hardly consulted the Bible at all but instead approached it in an entirely secular way, with a sprinkling of Christian jargon, and came out actively promoting child sacrifice. Can you believe it?
Lest we see this as a Church of England problem only, the "evangelicals" were hardly any better. The first "evangelical" book on "abortion" to come out in the '60s/'70s also promoted child sacrifice.
You see, the numbers were not the problem. In fact, we can thank God that we weren't any more numerous! Our net effect was most certainly negative; we can only assume that if there were more of us, it would have come out even worse!
Stevens' piece does make a nod to the problem of churchmen in high places lacking moral clarity in the '60s, but this is not given nearly enough attention. It is the very heart of the problem, that Christians arrived in the '60s not knowing how to think Christianly about almost anything.
We still have the same problem today and it grieves me to say that we are not facing up to it. I have begged the FIEC repeatedly to adopt something like the Life Affirmation to address the moral and theological chaos (not "nuance") of many evangelicals believing that child sacrifice is sometimes ok, but they have refused, remarking that as a "unity" movement it is not their business to draw more dividing lines.
The numerical growth of such evangelicalism will never lead to cultural transformation. What is needed is repentance and reformation, not multiplication.
We already have enough evangelicals; the problem is that we're not evangelical enough.
What we need is not more evangelicals, but to become more evangelical.
We desperately need to get our own house in order - in our thinking, in our affections - and then, as salt and light, we will start to see the transformation of society as we preach the gospel and live out truly Christian public lives. We don't need to wait until we're more numerous to make this necessary change; we can do it now. (Six in ten of the Keswick interviewees hadn't heard "abortion" even mentioned in church over the last five years. Is it any surprise that our public witness is so feeble?)
From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. If we, the people of God, allow our hearts to be conformed to God's on this all-important issue of child sacrifice, we can expect the overflow to follow and bring truth, righteousness, justice, and grace to Church and nation.
If Stevens' view, that this is fundamentally a numbers game, were correct, pessimism about what could be achieved anytime soon would be well-founded. But if, as we learn from Numbers 13/14 and Judges 7, God is looking for faithfulness rather than great size or physical strength, we can realise that we don't need to become more numerous before we can repent and recapture that clarity, conviction, and courage that can and will make all the difference.
For something of why I'm optimistic about the change we can see in our culture soon, if only we'll do the necessary things (which we're currently not), read this.
In the past Stevens has said that I see a sharper antithesis between our views than he does. I am not claiming that he is not "pro-life". Nor is he entirely "quietist". He is quite public, even forthright, with his personal convictions on this and other matters from time to time, for which I thank God.
But if you are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a fellow soldier on the battlefield, and he turns to you and says, "I don't think we can win this," but you think you can and you must, in a sense the antithesis couldn't be sharper.
Remember: morale is everything.