Fight the Fight Good

Chris Benge

Softly spoken and peaceable, Gareth Jones doesn't seem a particularly controversial man. Otago University's Professor of Anatomy and Structural Biology teaches classes, conducts administrative meetings and preaches occasionally at his local Baptist church with a disarming, melodic Welsh lilt which matches his mild features.

But in this case, appearances are certainly deceptive. Dr Jones' books Our Fragile Brains, Brave New People, Manufacturing Humans and Brain Grafts have represented his attempts as a leading evangelical thinker to develop a Christian understanding of the perplexing new areas which have opened up in biology, medicine and ethics. They have also made him a vortex of controversy in some evangelical circles, especially in the United States.

Nothing prepared him, he says, for the storm which erupted when Brave New People was launched in the States in 1984. Previously released in the UK with no significant hostile reaction, editors had reworked the US edition to anticipate particular American evangelical sensibilities.

The book was a biblically-committed exploration of perplexing reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilisation, artificial insemination, cloning, amniocentesis, genetic engineering and the emerging technological environment within which these developments were taking place. But the rising storm triggered by Jones' book bypassed these chapters, gathering instead around the one chapter on therapeutic (induced) abortion. Gareth Jones' preparedness to consider abortion under certain limited circumstances made him a target of intense criticism, often anonymous, within evangelical circles. The resulting storm grew so immense that his publishers eventually withdrew the book entirely from the US market.

These events plunged the author into a period of intense personal crisis. Criticism of his views had not stopped at a debate of the issues involved: it moved on to attack his integrity and his faith. Some of his detractors accused him of dishonesty and hypocrisy, asserting that his real aim in writing the book was to advocate abortion, and that discussion of the new reproductive technologies was just a smokescreen for that insidious purpose. Critics who knew nothing about him accused him of espousing humanism, denied his standing as an evangelical, and questioned the genuineness of his Christian faith. In brief, he became the target of a substantial orchestrated smear campaign.

The campaign took its toll. For some months Jones could not bring himself to think about the issues involved at all. Eventually, however, as the emotional turmoil subsided, he applied his analytical frame of mind to what had happened.

Perhaps, he reasoned, the criticisms were true. Was he appallingly wrong? Was he a Christian at all?

Or was he a Christian, but not an evangelical? Had his secular academic training led him far away from his conversion as a youngster in the Welsh valleys and his discipleship under the great Welsh evangelical preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones?

Another possibility was that his critics were wrong - either in their arguments, or in the way they expressed their opposing views, or in their selective reading (or not reading) of Brave New People. Perhaps, too, they were mistaken in assuming that their views were the only tenable ones within evangelical Christianity.

Gareth Jones spent many further months considering these alternatives. He pored over biblical passages concerning false teachers and false teaching, examining what he had said and his motivations. Ultimately he concluded, "rightly or wrongly", that his position did not make him a false teacher. But the issue did not end there.

Both he and his critics, he saw, were responsible before Christ for their beliefs, their attitudes and the things they taught. After much thought and prayer, he says, he became able to consider his critics "as much Christ's representatives as I thought I was".

He also concluded that if they denied his standing in Christ, that was their judgment, and a matter between them and their Lord. Nevertheless, the question of false teaching remained a real issue.\

Ten years after the uproar over Brave New People, Gareth Jones published another book which explores the wider issues for the Body of Christ raised by his experiences of conflict and controversy within the Christian community. Coping With Controversy: Conflict, Censorship and Freedom Within Christian Circles is one of the most important Christian books published in New Zealand this decade, with a clarion call to Christian character and a full, biblical vision of what God requires of those who are members of the Body of Christ. It is Dr Jones' endeavour to confront false teaching in a biblical way: by showing readers how members of God's kingdom should treat one another when controversial issues are under debate.

Diversity

For Gareth Jones, expressions of difference amongst sincere Christians are not signs of failure. Rather they are cause for rejoicing: expressions of the multi-coloured diversity of the Body of Christ.

"Christians will have differences of opinion, differences of attitude; they'll have behavioural differences, different expectations. This is inevitable.

"Diversity within the Christian community is essential and is to be welcomed. Even diversity on some beliefs. I'm not talking about central beliefs in the person and work of Christ, or in the place of God's Word in guiding and instructing the believer, but on so many other issues.

"All too often, though, Christians run away from diversity. We want homogeneity, we want everyone to be like 'me'.

"We should welcome diversity, we should welcome differences of opinion, we should welcome differences of expression. But so often we haven't - because if we do, we have to work out how to cope with them.

"Christian communities and churches which have learned to cope with and benefit from those differences - because they see that they're an essential part of the Body of Christ - have developed a very strong community. But without that we only end up as little Christian clubs which impose limitations and regulations - which impose Scripture - in ways which inevitably exclude other Christians. And that, I think, is sub-biblical.

"What I long to see is an element of openness between Christians within a community. Of course that openness needs to be based on a clear understanding and acceptance of central biblical truths, and of the framework within which we are working.

"Instead of that making us narrower people, it actually makes us much broader people. I'm not talking about an openness where no one believes anything so they accept everything, but an openness where, although we believe quite specific things, we are free to be open to others. It is part of the freedom we have in Christ - not a freedom to do anything or believe nothing, but the freedom to accept each other the way we are, the freedom to encourage each other, and the freedom to be open to each other and to the work of the Spirit (which of course transforms both us and other people). That is an openness I would love to see more and more of."

Christian Character: Applied Belief

The building of Christian character seems to receive less attention these days than it used to. One counsellor commented recently that while we hear much about gifting in our churches, issues of character come a poor second.

It's taken Gareth Jones some years of experience to understand just how crucial an emphasis on Christian character is.

"My theological background taught me that certain doctrinal stances are extremely important. And I would still affirm that. But people believing the right things can still very obviously live the wrong way.

"When I was a student we were going through the great Calvinism/hyper-Calvinism/Armenian debate. I can remember on one occasion passing someone wearing a Scripture Union badge, and realising that I was on the verge of dismissing him totally as a Christian because he was on the opposite side of the debate.

"I suddenly saw that that person was a fellow Christian - I couldn't just write him off inside my head. That sort of attitude began to seem utterly inadequate and wrong.

"I have made a very clear move away from saying beliefs alone are important. The way in which those beliefs express themselves is equally important.

"One significant influence in my life was the well known Scottish evangelical scientist Donald MacKay, who died several years ago. Theologically he had thought issues through very clearly and deeply. He was very conservative, but he was prepared to think about and discuss anything, as a result of which many other conservative evangelicals wrote him off as a 'liberal'.

"About 25 years ago he came to stay briefly at our house in Perth. He had only just arrived when, without warning, we heard that my wife's father had died in Britain. We had two children (one only nine months old). We hardly knew Donald, and suddenly we found ourselves in this traumatic situation together.

"His being with us for those few days was God's providence. He had the most incredible influence on us, and he emerged as the most godly person one could ever have imagined. Yet he was being written off by other Christians - simply because he was prepared to discuss and analyse anything at all; no questions were out of bounds for him. He reminded me again that the way in which you apply your belief is absolutely crucial.

"On quite a number of occasions in Paul's letters he writes to his readers, 'You follow me, because I am following Christ'. I've never been able to get away from those words.

"Most of us tend to say, 'Don't look at me, only look at Christ'. But I am often the only Christian that people around me see. If I am inadequate, then those around me see something of Christ which is inadequate.

"That doesn't mean I am going to be sinless - of course I'm not. But the importance of Christian character, of behaviour, has become quite central to me. Faithfulness of character, faithfulness of behaviour, faithfulness in attitudes, is just as important as faithfulness in belief. I cannot see how one can believe the right things without putting them into practice. I mean, that's what James' letter is all about.

"Scientists get so much criticism for being reductionist. But I think sometimes Christians are reductionists too. We split people into their cognitive beliefs on one side, and everything else on the other. I just can't see how one can separate those things.

"We say: 'If someone believes the right sort of things on the central issues, we can give them a tick.' It's much more difficult to tick off whether you've been faithful in practice: how you react to people, how you treat your neighbour, who you consider your neighbour, what you think about people. We often like to be able to tick little boxes and fill in the multiple choice questions - when things get a bit fuzzy we don't like it.

"In the end, of course, the only judge is God. It's not for me to judge. But it is for me, I think, to emphasise to myself and others that our behaviour, our attitudes, are absolutely crucial."

They'll know we are Christians . . .

"I am an academic working very much in a secular environment - an applied, pluralist environment. Working and living in this sort of environment you've got to ask all the time: How do I influence other people around me? Do they see Christ in me?

"They know that I'm a Christian. But they don't know what great doctrines I do or don't believe. What they can see is how I operate, how I treat other people.

"They can see the sort of structure that I set up in a department. They can see the way in which the most junior technicians, the general assistants are treated. They can see that I am willing to fight for them. They can see that I'm prepared to say that their interests are as important as mine. They can see that I think that honesty and integrity are absolutely essential.

"I'm sure what applies to me applies to so many other Christians, whatever kind of work they are doing. It's our attitude - the ways in which our Christianity is applied - which is probably the strongest influence for Christ.

"The other important aspect is what outsiders actually see of churches. A church rife with division (where members are going their different ways for what appear to them to be extremely important reasons, but which mean nothing to outsiders) is one of the greatest possible hindrances to the gospel, both to those outside and those inside. How many Christians do we know who have just about been destroyed by division within their own community?

"You've got to ask: Of what importance is this division? What are people divided over? They are generally extremely minor issues. We're not talking here about the great theological controversies between conservative and liberal. We're generally talking about issues which are very minor, which I would see as very secondary issues.

"If people are put off by Christ and what he stands for, they're put off by what I would say is the Truth. They find the gospel objectionable. I'm prepared to accept that.

"On the other hand, if they miss what the gospel is all about simply because we have some differences on whether we should have wine at meals, or Sunday trading, or to what extent you do or don't speak in tongues, then it seems to me that that's quite different. They're being put off by something which is absolutely secondary, something which in gospel terms is insignificant.

"That's why I emphasise that the cohesion and integrity of the Body of Christ is so utterly important."

False Antitheses

Battles over disputable and peripheral matters, Gareth Jones believes, frequently jeopardise people's relationship to Christ. He has seen many instances of this as a tertiary teacher of the biological sciences.

"I have seen many Christian students come to university who have been taught quite explicitly that you can't touch anything to do with evolution ­- it's 'of the Devil', or words to that effect. They had to make a choice.

"If they accepted the evolutionary explanation (at least as a valid way of approaching reality), then their faith went. They couldn't be Christians any longer. Because of the way it had been put to them in the churches from which they came, they were faced with this black and white choice: evolution, and throwing away the Christian faith, or clinging to the faith and arguing against every single thing they hear about evolution.

"That false antithesis, it seems to me, should never be forced onto people. It has nothing to do with Christianity, but many throw away their faith, because they can't throw away everything they hear about evolutionary thinking.

"Another example of this is the abortion area. Some couples have been taught that abortion is wrong under any circumstances whatsoever. Then the woman is pregnant, and they find themselves in some very difficult medical predicament. They're advised to have an abortion. What are they to do? They probably have 24 or 48 hours to come to a decision.

"What I've so often seen is that they respond emotionally (quite a natural response), and say, 'We can't possibly put up with the consequences of this, we'll have an abortion'. They have been taught a total anti-abortion position which they can no longer hold to - perhaps for inadequate reasons - but they can't discuss it with anyone, because by and large it's a non-discussable, non-negotiable issue.

"If they go ahead with the abortion, they then consider themselves second-rate Christians. They have done something which they believe a good Christian never does.

"A healthy situation is neither a completely conservative nor completely liberal attitude within the church, but one where there is openness to discuss things, a willingness to accept that there is some divergence on viewpoints, and that true Christians, faithful Christians, can adopt somewhat different stances. The range of positions will probably be fairly limited, but there is a range.

"Sometimes one may be looking at situations which are clearly questionable biblically. But there should be an openness to full discussion and we should be able to ask 'Are you sure this is a biblical way?', rather than cutting communications and ceasing to talk to each other.

"What is so important is that, when there is an open atmosphere where there can be true discussion, where there can be prayer together, one can say, 'If you feel that you have to go down that track, it may not be the way I would go, but I will accept you, I will accept the validity of your decision and I will support you in it'. That is something we should be prepared to do within a Christian community. If we're not, what's the difference between us and everyone else?"

For Gareth Jones, a Christian's identity as a child of God and member of his family is inestimably precious. No supplementary doctrine, no pressure group cause, however worthy, should be allowed to build divisions which Christ tore down in his work on the cross. If God suffered beyond our comprehension in order to give birth to Christ's Body, we dare not dishonour it.

 

Coping with Controversy was initially published in 1994 by Visjon Publishers (37 Garden Place, Dunedin) and can still be obtained from the publishers. In 1996 a second modified edition was brought out by Paternoster Publishing in the United Kingdom (Coping with Controversy, Solway, Carlisle,1996), and this edition can be obtained from Christian booksellers.


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