Mark Burkill considers marriage and the young generation

It is three years since I last took a marriage service. Thus far this year I have had one set of banns to read in our parish. There is a substantial Muslim minority in the area but that is not the explanation for this state of affairs. This region of East London has huge numbers of people of marriageable age. The reality is that the Christian understanding and institution of marriage has virtually collapsed in the younger generation.

A few months ago the Evangelical Alliance published the results of a survey it did in which the attitudes of Christians and non-Christians to cohabitation before marriage were compared. 83 per cent of the unbelievers in the 18–35 age group agreed with the statement that ‘cohabitation before marriage is all right’. The comparable figure amongst Christians was 33 per cent. It is this latter figure which is so depressing. Perhaps some will take the cynical view that for even two thirds of this generation of Christians to disapprove of cohabitation is something to cheer about. Yet in reality this figure is testimony to a real failure to communicate ‘one of Christianity’s core lifestyle messages’ as the EA report put it.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? We must acknowledge the responsibility that every individual has before God. Those who profess to be Christians and yet fail to see that cohabitation is a symptom of rebellion against God’s ways are culpable. But they are not the only ones, and perhaps not the chief ones either. As the EA says, this statistic ‘throws up a serious challenge to the Church in discipling young adults about relationships and marriage’.

In the Old Testament the exile to Babylon was regarded as God’s judgement on the rebellion of the people of God. Yet the prophets regarded the leaders of Israel as particularly culpable (Jeremiah 23.1–4). Then in the New Testament Jesus saw the people as being like sheep without a shepherd and castigated the blind guides (Matthew 9.36, 23.24) to whom they were subjected. It is no use our wringing our hands about the deplorable state of morality within and without the Christian community of this country. This state of affairs highlights a failure of leadership in local Christian Churches. Of course national Church leaders making unbiblical statements on morality is profoundly discouraging and damaging, but the blame cannot simply be pinned on bishops.

There has been a failure in the shepherding of local congregations. In the Scriptures one of the prime ways in which leadership of the people of God is understood is through the shepherding perspective. To mention sheep and shepherds in Scripture is usually the cue for thoughts of cuddly sheep that I have (and have not) known. However, to understand leadership and the shepherding perspective properly we must lay aside the images of twee posters and grasp what the Bible really says about this.

The Bible operates on the assumption that our world has gone badly wrong and that God is now seeking to gather a people who can live under his rule and enjoy his blessings in the place of his choosing. As the story of God’s work in gathering a people gets under way we find that Jacob in Genesis 48.15 speaks of God having been his shepherd all his life. Then when the people of God grow more numerous we find the Chief Shepherd calls human figures to do his shepherding work. Thus Moses in Isaiah 63.11 is looked back to as the shepherd of God’s flock. But supremely it is the institution of the monarchy that is seen in shepherding terms. When the tribes gather to make David King in 2 Samuel 5.2 David’s calling is explicitly expressed as being that of shepherding God’s people. His work in doing this is celebrated in these terms in Psalm 78.70–72.

The failure of subsequent kings (which led to the exile) is viewed as a failure to be good shepherds. Ezekiel 34 paints a picture of the leaders’ self-interest. Their leadership is not one of serving the welfare of God’s people, it is seen rather as an opportunity to enrich themselves. The future hope is therefore born that one day there will be a perfect king who will rule properly, who will be a true shepherd (see Ezekiel 37.24). In this verse it is striking to note that the purpose of the shepherding leadership is to make a people who are careful to follow God’s laws. That is why the exile was seen especially as a failure of leadership and why we can speak of the same in our circumstances today.

Of course in the gospels we gradually recognize Jesus as the fulfilment of the hope for a perfect shepherd. Indeed, he famously announces himself as such in John 10.11. Yet we note that he has to speak of himself as the good shepherd. After so much experience of failed leadership he has to clarify his role in this way. Then the rest of the apostolic writings consistently see Jesus as the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13.20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5.4).

However, Jesus is now ascended in glory and we must consider how Jesus exercises his shepherding leadership today. John 21.16 where Peter is literally commissioned to shepherd Jesus’ sheep is a reminder that the apostles are the first provision for good leadership today. The shepherds do their shepherding through feeding the sheep. The feeding is done through fulfilling their apostolic calling of testifying to the truth about Jesus. The Spirit who will be sent upon them to equip them for their ministry is the Spirit of truth. The apostolic witness about Jesus is the way sheep are shepherded. Good leadership depends on testifying to the truth about Jesus.

Elders are appointed for congregations with the commission to be shepherds of the Church of God, which Jesus Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20.28). We see that the sheep are gathered by the sacrifice of the Chief Shepherd and that the Holy Spirit equips the under shepherds for their task of shepherding or oversight.

This same relationship between Shepherd and under shepherds is referred to in 1 Peter 5. It is this passage above all that has so much to speak to the failure of leadership today in which the collapse of Christian morality, even among the Churches, is a symptom. These verses put the spotlight on the motives of all who are engaged in the leadership of local congregations. Is there a willingness to act as an example to the flock? Is there a desire to care for the flock rather than exploit it? This care is not what I think is best for the flock, but what God deems best and what will please him. That is why good shepherding involves the nurture and encouragement of obedience to the Word of God, just as Ezekiel 37.24 says.

The Church of England prides itself on its parish system whereby pastoral care is provided throughout the land. The ministry of bishops, presbyters and deacons through this system is a wise and godly way of organizing pastoral care and giving the shepherding leadership that God’s people need. However we must not make the mistake of thinking that simply because this system exists therefore God’s people are properly shepherded. The evidence of the Evangelical Alliance survey tells us that this is not happening. The reality is that if the under shepherds are not faithful to the Chief Shepherd then there is no way that the right organization and structure can provide pastoral care.

Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 demonstrates that this is no theoretical problem. Recently I was deeply struck by the way in which a community that thought of themselves as God’s people is denounced by the Lord Jesus as a synagogue of Satan (see Revelation 2.9). If this could happen then it surely can happen today as well. We must get away from our idolatry of the parish system and instead focus on the work and ministry of those who have been called to be under shepherds. This is how the collapse in Christian morality must be addressed.

That is why the Thirty-Nine Articles declare that ‘the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’ (Article 19). This is an expression of how true leadership is to be exercised. This is how the people of God will be gathered and shepherded.

Yet we must be clear about what it means to preach the pure Word of God and to minister the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance. The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are intended by Christ to point to his work and ministry as the foundation of the Christian’s life and discipleship. Paul says in Colossians 2.6, ‘Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.’ Furthermore, preaching the word of God has to be accompanied by discipline which shows we are convinced it is the truth. The debate in Reformation times as to whether discipline was a mark of the true Church of God was surely simply a discussion of whether preaching the Word of God comprehended the exercise of discipline. It is no use teaching what the Bible says if we do not take practical steps to ensure that the confessing community of Christians lives by what is thus taught.

The sad reality is that the sort of leadership enjoined by Article 19 is badly neglected today. The example of marriage illustrates this only too well. Teaching the pure Word of God means being able to explain to people why the Scriptures forbid cohabitation and what the difference is between cohabitation and marriage. It means explaining why the marriage commitment is lifelong and exclusive. I am not confident that the shepherds of many congregations in this country and in the Church of England could do this even if they wanted to. Some of us seem to think that repeating the fact that the Church or the Bible forbids cohabitation will be enough to convince the younger generation of Christians not to practice it. The reality is that the mantra of ‘the Church does not allow it’ or ‘the Bible condemns it’ will not do the job.

To shepherd the people of God means giving the flock first of all the gospel and then a proper biblical understanding of the institution of marriage so that they may carefully follow God’s laws and please him. Mere moralizing will not have any impact, and to shepherd the flock in this way the under shepherds themselves must be convinced that God’s laws and ways are for our good. We must have confidence that the arrangements for marriage and many other areas of life which are ordained by God in the Scriptures are genuinely for our blessing and happiness. I am not sure that this is indeed how God’s ways are viewed by Church leaders at the present time.

As we survey the wreckage of people’s lives in the area of our human relationships today, we must resist the temptation to blame others. Certainly every person is accountable to God for their actions, but disobedient leaders amongst God’s people are especially blameworthy. Bad shepherds are not simply those who teach what is wrong. They are those who fail to teach what is right. And even if they appear to care and to be very nice people, their failure to care truly in the biblical sense leaves the flock harassed and helpless. One day such shepherds will be brought to account by the Chief Shepherd.

In response to the sexual chaos amongst the Corinthian Christians Timothy was sent to remind them (by word and deed) of Paul’s way of life in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 4.17). Today we need leaders like Timothy who will be faithful in reminding people of Paul’s way of life in Christ Jesus. That is the best way of serving and caring for the Church’s Generation X.

Mark Burkill is Vicar of Christ Church, Leyton in the Diocese of Chelmsford.