“Is the Gospel against Surrey?”
That was my colleague Bob Sneddon’s question at my first staff meeting in this circuit.
Is the Gospel against Surrey? We are the wealthiest county in the country, filled with butchers and bakers and movers and shakers. It is natural that when we pledge allegiance to a Jesus who upturns the moneychangers’ tables and the values of wealth and power that we ask hard questions about discipleship in this particular culture.
This may make you think, “Oh no, I’ve heard it before. Someone has just assumed that everyone in Surrey is rich and the streets are paved with stocks and shares. Doesn’t he know that several in this congregation are on limited incomes? Not another preacher here to condemn us, surely?”
No, I’m not here to condemn – although we must acknowledge that the message of Jesus poses uncomfortable challenges for his followers.
Rather, if we are to face the facts that Jesus challenges his disciples radically in the area of lifestyle, we need not simply to be hectored but to be offered a positive rôle model.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Boaz.
What would the Gospel life look like if, like some of our neighbours, you could spend Christmas on a cruise ship, or going to Australia, or merely going skiing? I think Boaz gives us some clues.
The narrator introduces Boaz to us as ‘a man of standing’ (verse 1). Because of his wealth – we shall soon hear that he owns land and servants – he has a position of influence in his society. This man could fit into Surrey.
But what kind of man? Plenty of people with standing in their communities prove to be uigly characters. This expression, though, can also mean that he is noble in character. As we shall find out, that is true of Boaz. If we want to know how influential and powerful people might live the life of faith, Boaz is worth our attention.
For certainly he is a man of faith. Note how he greets his workers: ‘The LORD be with you!’ he says, and they reply, ‘The LORD bless you!’ (verse 4).
Is this just some liturgical exchange? If so, a harvest field is a curious location for it. Is it simply the routine pleasantries of the day? It could be, but what we pick up from the rest of this episode is a man who has a good relationship with his workers and with others. So I believe his greeting, ‘The LORD be with you’ is genuine.
This, then, is a man who carries his faith into everyday life. One executive once said that at home his order of priorities was God, family and then work. However, when he got to the office, he reversed those priorities: work, family, God. Not Boaz. Putting his faith as his top priority influences everything about him. It shapes the way he conducts his business. This is more than someone whose faith means that he doesn’t swear and he doesn’t steal the paperclips.
A favourite story of mine about this concerns a man who was an elderly Local Preacher in my home circuit. No-one – but no-one – preached like John Evill. He had been born in Swansea and was a toddler at the time of the Welsh Revival. He preached like the Revival was still happening.
In his working life he had been the Secretary of the Enfield Highway Co-Operative Society. He used to tell a story about his interview for that job. “Mister Evill, if we give you this job, will you put the Co-Operative Society first?” he was asked.
“No!” he replied. “The Church of Jesus Christ comes first in my life!”
And he didn’t mean that he would huddle away in the church and not give due time to his work. Jesus was number one. That affected how he did everything. He took the Lordship of Christ into work every day.
Boaz does the Old Testament equivalent. But how does it manifest itself? There are several ways we see in this passage. One of them comes in that simple warm exchange of greetings with his labourers. This is a man who works on having positive relationships with his workers. They are not cogs in the machine, they are not merely the recipients of his orders, they are made in the image of God, and so they are treated with dignity.
When we were considering whether to move our children from Bisley School to Knaphill School, one of the things that impressed us about Kevin Davies, the Head at Knaphill, was the rapport he had with his staff. Yes, he was in charge, but there was a warm relationship evidenced by an easy humour between them. If someone who to my knowledge has no explicit faith can do that, how much more can the Christian manager?
A Christian friend of mine called Dan Collins is an entrepreneur and the founder of a company in Hertfordshire called Fresh Tracks. One of the things his outfit does is lay on innovative team-building events for organisations. Starting in their early days with quad biking, they now run a chocolate challenge that has featured on the TV show The Apprentice, and other events where teams have to make sculptures, wooden toys and films. The company has five core values:
Ideas are our life blood
Waste is wrong
Wealth creation for distribution.
These may not be overtly religious values, but then Fresh Tracks is not a specifically Christian company. However, it is clear to me that Dan has taken his faith to work as an influencer. Certainly others recognise what he is doing: he also tutors for the Cranfield School of Management.
So if I am a Christian in a senior position, am I thinking: how can I so take the Lordship of Christ into my daily work that I am known as a boss or a manager who blesses their staff?
But Boaz goes further. He crosses boundaries and seeks justice for the poor. What does he do when he learns that the unfamiliar young woman is a Moabitess, that is, a foreigner from an enemy country, and that her story is known as one of tragedy and suffering (verses 5-6)? Not only does he underscore his foreman’s decision to let her work in the field (verse 7), he especially protects her. He puts her with his own female servants (verse 8) and issues orders that the men are not to touch her (verse 9).
That command is quite significant for Ruth, if it is true as I argued when I preached on chapter 1 last week that when Naomi’s son ‘took’ her in marriage, that most likely indicated a forced abduction, and that she is therefore a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a man. In the words of one commentator,
Boaz is hereby instituting the first anti-sexual-harassment policy in the workplace recorded in the Bible.
Also, she can drink the water the men have drawn – in a culture where foreigners would draw for Israelites and women for men, this is extraordinary.
What has Boaz done? For him, it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s about compassionate justice.
How can all this play out today for Christians who have power and influence? It surely makes the case for being counter-cultural. It cannot only be about maximising the return for shareholders. Yes, profits may be needed to sustain a business and for people to flourish in employment, but the kingdom of God is about a righteousness that incorporates justice and faithfulness. It may well involve going against social convention. It may mean leading a team in which we say that we will neither practise nor tolerate bullying or oppression.
And remember, Boaz follows through on this. It isn’t a one-off gesture. He invites Ruth to join his workers at mealtime, something that she wouldn’t have expected. The text suggests that as a stranger, a foreigner, she had kept her distance until the invitation.
But not only that, Boaz, the big boss, serves her the roasted grain himself (verse 14). He leads by example in humbly serving the stranger. No wonder, then, that his words soon after that to his men to ensure that she has plenty to glean (verses 15-16) carry extra power. For Boaz, even in a culture where the word of the boss was law, his attitude is, ‘Do as I do, not simply as I say.’ Christians in leadership cannot require of their subordinates what they are unwilling to do themselves. Everywhere in Scripture healthy leadership is by example. That is why the Apostle Paul tells people to copy him. It isn’t arrogance: it’s a principle. That is why Jesus said he had set an example for us to follow. Same thing.
And in giving that order to his men, Boaz demonstrates one more thing I want to highlight about how he uses his power and authority. It’s a justice matter again. Not for him the idea that he can look good by letting Ruth glean a little, his instructions are designed to ensure that she has plenty for her needs and for Naomi’s. In fact, Ruth takes home so much (verse 17) it’s hard to imagine how she transported it all! So he doesn’t opt for the minimum effect he can have on the payroll, the least damage to the balance sheet. If he is going to do something right, it will have the potential to have a cost for his business, so that people may receive what they need in order to participate in society.
All this is all very well, but much of it could have been said in one form or another by someone giving a talk on how to run a business ethically without necessarily referring all of it to the life of faith. Which is why I want to draw this to a close by highlighting how God is the seam running through the story.
Some parts are obvious, whether it is Boaz saying, ‘The LORD be with you!’ (verse 4) or his recognition that Ruth has ‘come to take refuge’ under the wings of ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’ (verse 12). In the light of his godly behaviour, Naomi says, ‘The LORD bless him!’ (verse 20). In all these ways, God is explicitly acknowledged in the story.
But there is another hint, too. There is a comment I take to be ironic when Ruth first goes off to work in the field:
So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. (Verse 3, italics mine)
‘As it turned out.’ Is this luck? Are you kidding? Jews didn’t believe in luck, and nor should Christians. Later, someone would write in the Book of Proverbs,
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)
For the Jew, nothing happened by sheer chance. There were no coincidences, only what some Christians call God-incidences. Ruth’s arrival in the field of Boaz is of a piece with the cause of the famine and the bringing of Naomi back to Bethlehem with Ruth. This is the hand of God. This is providence.
Now I don’t know how you see providence. I certainly don’t see it as the Christian version of ‘fate’ but as God using his free will, which is greater in power than ours. But on any account, God has silently brought Ruth and Boaz into the same orbit.
And this is something to remember. However much power or authority we might seem to exercise in this life (at least in comparison to others), we are not in charge of our destinies, or the destinies of others. He is bringing people across our paths all the time for us to bless in his name. Indeed, that is also true for those who do not have the wealth and influence that others have.
Is it a coincidence that we are in certain networks, neighbourhoods and friendships? Of course not. God has either placed us there or allowed us to be there.
Now we are in those places, it is our responsibility in his name to say, how can I exercise my faith by engaging in positive relationships? How can I put my faith into practice by a concern for the kingdom of God that manifests itself in faithfulness and in justice for the poor and the unpopular? How can I cross boundaries in Jesus’ name? How can my example match my beliefs?
In this week’s episode, we see only the beginnings of Boaz’ influence for good. Much more will come, as those who know the whole story will testify. How much of a difference can we make for Christ in the world by being attentive to how we use the power we have been given for good and for justice?
A Christian businessman friend of mine, Dan Collins (his company is Fresh Tracks), twittered an article this morning that he had written for the website Financial World. Basically, he argues that if companies want to do well today, they should build a culture of trust, especially with their customers. He contrasts this to the woeful track record of banks, who have introduced cost-cutting policies at the expense of customer contact. Here is one striking story from the article. It appeals to me, because it refers to my native North London!
The example that first triggered this thought in my mind was a little restaurant in North London that was always full, predominantly with repeat customers. Despite being quite a trek from the centre of town it was renowned around the world. The reason being, there were no prices on the menu because there was never a bill at the end of the evening. Vasos Michael the 4’10” diminutive proprietor didn’t ever give his customers bills for their meal, he simply presented a list of what had been served, including drinks and asked that the customers paid what they felt the meal was worth. On the whole people rewarded his trusting nature by paying more than a comparable meal would have cost elsewhere and if someone abused the relationship by paying too little, Vasos wouldn’t hesitate to ask why, gaining either valuable feedback or the satisfaction of publicly embarrassing a miser.
I found it refreshing to read Dan’s piece today, not only because it was great to see a Christian friend writing something in the commercial world that is based on implicit Christian values, but because it made me connect with other thoughts.
For one thing, I’d put the breakdown in business trust earlier than Dan does. My father worked in the City for NatWest at the time of the financial ‘Big Bang’ of 1987, when regulatory practices were ‘reformed’. (Deformed, more like.) He always said that was the time when the old City ethic that a man’s (and it was generally a man, in the past) word was his bond. He saw time-honoured practices discarded recklessly by young bucks. That predates Dan – he’s too young to have been in the business world then, I think. But I’m glad to see him voicing these convictions, especially at a difficult time when businesses might be tempted to cut even more ethical corners to survive and prosper. Great stuff, Dan.
But it connects with church issues, too. Only last night I was reading that Todd Bentley may be back in public ministry sooner than expected. There is a large piece in the Canadian Western Standard, which I found via Bene Diction and Richard Hall. Now while there is a certain cynical tone to the Western Standard article that I might find uncomfortable, it isn’t surprising when you consider what it has turned up. Two points in particular stood out for me:
Firstly, Rick Joyner, who is supposed to be overseeing Bentley’s restoration process, now claims that God is overriding that process in order to bring Bentley back into ministry sooner. Secondly, the Standard provides evidence that in its opinion shows Bentley denying the formal relationship they believe was undoubtedly established between him and the Revival Alliance.
With regard to the second, I don’t doubt what the Standard are saying, but I think there was also an issue about what Peter Wagner and the others claimed was happening at Lakeland. It was a matter of considerable debate last summer whether Wagner said he knew Bentley well or not. (Here is what I wrote at the time.)
But the first point raises big issues of trust for me, not dissimilar from what Dan Collins was writing about in terms of business practice. Sin, repentance and restoration to ministry are serious matters. When people have suffered brokenness for a long time (and it seems to be that Bentley has honestly admitted that), then my experience suggests that the quick fix is rarely right or healthy. There is good reason for the process to take a long time. Some will be cynical about the motives behind any attempts to rush Bentley back into the spotlight. I can understand that. We like the crash-bang-wallop approach to spirituality in charismatic circles (or should I say, ‘Bam’?), because we have been seduced by an instant can’t-wait culture.
I can’t help thinking it would be much more merciful to keep Bentley out of the public eye. No videos, no nothing. It would be kinder to him. Remember how Jimmy Swaggart tried to wriggle out of the discipline imposed by the Assemblies of God when he fell? It didn’t look good, did it? Neither does this. I am so not convinced that it is God who is accelerating Todd Bentley’s return, unless others can provide some strong evidence to make me rethink.
In fact, to me there seem to be particular reasons in Bentley’s case why the restoration process needs to be long and slow. (And, I should add, ‘restoration’ is not primarily about a return to public ministry. It is first and foremost about a return to good fellowship in the Body of Christ. Public ministry may or may not follow, but it cannot be a priority.)
The particular reasons revolve around the nature of what brought an end to his ministry at Lakeland, and his personal history. The issue appears to be one of deceit, and that suggests a lot of learned habits to cover things up over a long period of time. There was deceit over the relationship with the woman who is now his second wife, even if there was nothing physically inappropriate. That deceit must have been towards Shonnah, his first wife, towards the now-renamed Fresh Fire ministry, towards the local leadership at Lakeland, and potentially others.
Furthermore, Bentley had a conviction aged fifteen for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy, along with other crimes based on his membership of a sexual assault gang. I don’t want to use the facts of those convictions in the way some of his opponents in blog posts have, to smear him, as if there were no such thing as forgiveness. I believe there is forgiveness for the worst of sins through the Cross of Christ. However, I would draw attention to the widespread experience of those who counsel sex crime offenders, especially those whose crimes are against children. Their regular testimony is that these people are astonishingly practiced in the art of deceit. Granted, Bentley clearly hasn’t reached the depths of many such people who so deceive themselves that they justify their behaviour, but they have to engage in serious deceit in order to cover up their deeds. It becomes ingrained.
That is why my own denomination will not anyone hold office who has been convicted of sexual offences against minors. Were Bentley to have been a British Methodist and not an independent, he would not have been allowed to minister in the first place.
Given, then, the likely history of deceit, it’s little surprise it came into play at Lakeland with the inappropriate relationship. This constitutes on the personal level the major breach of trust which Dan Collins laments in much of the business world.
There has to be a long journey back from such places. Real apologies. Deep repentance. New patterns of behaviour, tried and tested over a period of time. Attempts to make amends or restitution, if appropriate. And so on. Pastoral care is not a TV show. It is quiet and long term. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.
Perhaps, if I pursue this theme of trust, Rick Joyner and his colleagues would ask me to trust them. But I would struggle on this evidence. At best, I am concerned about the wisdom being shown in the ‘restoration process’. At worst, others will doubtless make more serious allegations about potential motives. I do not believe that what is being shown publicly presents the Body of Christ in a good light.
As on other occasions, I truly hope I am wrong. But to my mind so far, the evidence is pointing in a worrying direction.