Saturday, January 22, 2022

International Tourism

The sector of the New Zealand economy that has been worst affected by the Covid shutdown is tourism. According to the Tourism Satellite Account produced by Statistics NZ, large numbers of people (possibly 70,000) lost their employment in the tourism sector during the first year of the shutdown. By the time the figures for the following year are available, more than half the employment in the sector might have disappeared.

The tourism sector has always been a very noisy advocate for more government support. However, this publicity is out of proportion to the contribution that it makes to the economy. Prior to the arrival of Covid, the tourism sector contributed just 5.5 percent of GDP in NZ. Estimates for the year ending March 2021 suggest that the contribution has dropped to 2.9 of GDP. By the time the continued down downturn in tourism through 2021 is factored in, the contribution of the sector to GDP will be significantly less.

Strangely enough, the collapse of international tourism has not had the dramatic effect on the economy that was expected. In the September 2021 quarter, GDP was 0.6 percent greater than the quarter prior to the emergence of Covid. The economy has kept growing despite the shutdown. This suggests that tourism does not make as large a contribution to the economy as is often assumed.

The problem is that many tourism businesses are only viable if they can employ very cheap labour. In the past, they have tended to rely on young tourists from overseas travelling around New Zealand and taking casual employment when they need more money to keep going. The young people who want to travel the world without spending too much are the ones who benefit most from this practice.

Tourism is supposed to benefit the NZ economy because overseas tourists bring money from their home country and spend it here. However, if they earn it in poorly paid jobs that keep wages down for everyone, they are a drag on the economy, even if they spend all that they earn. They will still need to spend a significant sum for travel home with an international airline, which takes some of the money that they earn here out of the country.

That Covid shutdown has cut off the supply of cheap labour that much of the tourism sector relies on. Industry leaders are now appealing to the government for assistance. They want the border opened up so they can continue to find cheap labour. I hope that the government will resist these calls.

Tourism has significant economic costs (externalities) that tourists don’t always pay for. Increased tourism puts pressure on economic infrastructure. Better roads are needed. National parks need better support structures and maintenance. Investing in infrastructure to support international tourism is only viable if the sector is making a significant contribution to the economy.

Reliance on back-packer tourists who want to travel cheaply and spend very little money is not the basis for an economically viable industry. New Zealand needs international tourists who are willing to spend money and contribute to the economy. The Covid shutdown provides an opportunity to reposition the industry to become more economically viable. If the government encourages continuing dependence on cheap labour, it will prevent the necessary changes from occurring.

See Migration.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Labour Market Pressure

I suspect that we are going to see increasing pressure in the labour market in New Zealand. Despite Covid and the worldwide economic shutdown, the unemployment rate here has remained low. According to Stats NZ, 3.4 percent in the September 2012 quarter, which is low by international standards.

Despite the shutdown of the tourism businesses, and many related industries, such as accommodation, restaurants and cafes, transport, demand for labour is strong. Businesses are having difficulty getting staff to fill vacancies. Some industries are calling for the government to increase migration flows so that they can employ staff. One reason is that Covid restrictions in place, net migration has gone negative, with more people leaving than coming in.

Over the last couple of decades, successive New Zealand governments have allowed significant inflows of migrants. For the past decade, annual net migration to New Zealand was more than 50,000 in most years. It had peaked at over 100,000 in 2013. It was at similar levels during the first few years of the 2000s.

These high levels of migration had two consequences. The first was pressure to build enough houses and the infrastructure needed to support the large numbers of people arriving in New Zealand. Hundreds of new school classrooms have had to be constructed, and hospital capacity has felt the pressure. The housebuilding industry has boomed, and house prices have risen rapidly.

The other impact of migration is in the labour market. If there are large numbers of migrants willing to work for the minimum wage, employers have no incentive to pay their lower-paid staff more, because they can easily replace them with migrants on the minimum wage.

This external source of labour supply has now come to an end. The demand for labour will put pressure on wages. This is probably the best thing that could have happened for people in low paid jobs. They will have more choice, and should be able to negotiate better pay.

I suspect that we will begin hearing pressure on the government from industries that employ cheap labour for it to bring in more migrants, so that they can get the staff they need without having to pay high wages. The agriculture sector and the restaurant and café industry are already complaining that they cannot get staff (mainly because they have paid low wages for unsocial work hours).

I hope the government will resist these calls. It would be a mistake to go back to the policy of bringing in large numbers of relatively unskilled migrants so that we continue to be a low wage economy. The only ones who benefit from that policy are stingy employers, but they don’t have the right to cheap labour so they can earn greater profits.

In a competitive economy, not every business that is established will be economically viable. Some good business ideas will fail because their production costs, including wages and salaries, are greater than their sales revenue. Forcing wages down to make these uneconomic businesses viable is not a sensible economic policy.

In a free market, the solution to shortages is not a government mandate. Instead, prices should adjust until supply equals demand. This same applies to the labour market. Businesses that cannot obtain the staff that they need should pay more. If they raise their pay offer sufficiently, they will usually obtain the staff they need.

If businesses are not viable at prevailing wage rates (not those that applied last year when pushed down by cheap migrant labour), the business owner should be thinking twice about what they are doing. If they cannot pay their employees a reasonable wage rate, they are not contributing much to the New Zealand economy.

There are not a fixed number of jobs in any economy. An economist recently said that New Zealand has a shortage of about 2000 skilled an unskilled people, but that is the wrong way of looking at it. The real problem is that there are 500 odd businesses trying to operate even though they are not viable given the resources currently available.

Employees like a situation where there are more job seekers than jobs, but a situation where there are more jobs tham job seekers is more beneficial at this time when a lift in wages is needed by poor working families. 

See Employers and Wages.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Covid Shutdown

In his book called Shutdown, Adam Tooze describes the economic impact of the worldwide shutdown following the emergence of Covid19 in 2020. With all the debate about the virus and vaccines, the economic response by governments and central banks has largely been forgotten or ignored, but the issue is very important.

An initial supply shock occurred as workplaces shut down and trade ground to a halt, but this quickly translated into a demand-driven recession as people lost some of their income. The IMF predicted that world trade could collapse by 10-30 percent.

On 12 March 2020, stock markets collapsed all around the world. The drop in prices was worse than in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. As March progressed, the demand for US Treasuries collapsed. This was hugely concerning because US Treasuries are considered to be one of the safest assets that can be held. They can usually be traded in large volumes without influencing the price (a valuable property for a safe asset).

In 2020, 17 trillion US Treasuries were in circulation. They are usually bought during a crisis for safety, but during this one, they were sold. Economists were concerned that the collapse of this market could bring down the entire financial system.

Following the GFC, the Federal Reserve and the US Treasure had engaged in a massive monetary expansion to sustain markets during the crisis that began with mortgage-backed securities and related financial derivatives. This was supposed to be rolled back when the economy returned to normal, but by 2019 very little progress had been made on tapering the monetary interventions of the previous decade. Every time the Fed attempted to taper, the markets coughed, and the Fed relented. The result was nearly a decade of near-zero interest rates.

The Federal Reserve responded to the economic shock caused by Covid19 with an even greater monetary expansion than in the previous crisis. By 23 March 2020, the Standard & Poors share price index was down 30 percent. Worldwide, $26 trillion had been lost on the equity markets. After reducing interest rates, the Federal Reserve began a program to buy US Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. Within a few months, the Federal Reserve had brought 1 trillion worth of US Treasuries, which is about 5 percent of the total on issue. The Bank of England also purchased a huge number of Gilts, the UK equivalent government bonds.

At the same time, the Treasury provided fiscal support with various spending programs to support people and businesses through the downturn. My mid-August 2020, the situation had turned around. The Standard and Poors index had recovered all the value that it has lost since February. Once the markets were stabilised, massive corporate bond issuance occurred as large corporates took advantage of the Fed policies.

Treasury and the Federal Reserve support provided massive benefits for the investor class. Tooze estimates that worldwide, the wealth of billionaires increased by $1.9 trillion during 2020. Something seems to be wrong with this outcome. There is no reason why wealthy investors in the financial sector should be exempt from economic pain during a serious pandemic. In both this crisis, and during the GFC of 2008 and 2009, government agencies intervened to support the finance sector because it is supposedly too big to fail. Yet it is government protection and support that has allowed them to become as big as they have become.

Governments all around the world kicked in with fiscal support for their struggling economies to the value of 21 trillion by Jan 2021. Most of this additional spending was funded with debt. The OECD estimated that by the end of 2020 total debt issuance of governments was $18 trillion. This is far in excess of what was issued during the global financial crisis of 2008/9.

When purchasing government bonds, central banks claimed that they were just stabilising the financial system and massaging interest rates to keep them down during a period of uncertainty. Yet, in effect, the central banks were funding government debt, something they claim that they don’t like doing. When the Federal Reserve turns on the monetary spigot, the flow of new money floods around the world and all countries are affected to some degree. The problem with government-created money is that it usually produces inflation. Inflation does not affect an economy evenly. The inflation created by central banks efforts to mitigate the Covid 19 crises initially flowed into share markets. This was seen as a good outcome because it benefited the big investment funds (and the billionaires).

Here in New Zealand, the money creation fed a housing boom. The middle classes welcomed this outcome because they have benefited from a big increase in value for the largest asset they own. However, their gain is at the expense of the poor who cannot afford to own houses. The money gush has vastly increased inequality.

Now the inflation that was caused by the unprecedented money expansion is spreading into the rest of the economy. The prices of consumer goods are now rising fast all over the world. Consumer inflation causes the greatest pain for poor people, so inequality will be further exacerbated.

As the pain of this consumer inflation worsens, central bankers will try to hold it back by pushing up interest rates, but they struggle to turn off their massive monetary support because every time they do, share markets and house prices will fall and they will lose their nerve. Politicians will urge them to keep interest rates low and keep the asset boom going, so they are not punished in the next election.

In Bank Deposits and Loans, I explain the big problem with modern banking that the Federal Reserve is trying to resolve, but actually makes worse.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Real Hope

This current season is disturbing and confusing for many Christians.

In the western world, the church has been going backwards for the past fifty years. Some brilliant theology has been written, but the world is not listening. Some wonderful people have come out of seminary to serve the church, but they have been trained to preach to Christians; they have not been trained to do what Jesus disciples did. A few large churches have been established, but their growth does not compensate for the losses from thousands of smaller churches.

The consequence of this decline is that governments have been stopped being pro-Christian, and wore, the spiritual powers of evil have gained greater authority to work evil on earth. So the situation in the world has got worse, too.

Some Christians don’t care about this decline, because they see it as a sign that the end is near when Jesus will return to rescue them, but that is a false hope that is an insult to the Holy Spirit. Christians have been saying that the return of Jesus was imminent for the past century, but it now seems to be further away.

Although the church has been declining in the West for the last fifty years, most Christians have not been too worried, because they have always believed that a revival was coming, and that will turn the situation around. Even those who believe that the end is near are expecting a great end-time harvest.

The internet prophets continue to ramble on about a coming revival, and people who are desperate for hope draw hope from them, but those who are wise know that these prophets have been wrong so many times that they cannot be trusted.

Christians looking for revival will be disappointed because the next move of God will not come in the form that they are expecting. The revivals of the past were church-based movements where lukewarm or lapsed Christians were revived and drawn back into the existing church structures.

The reality is that the modern church does not want revival because it is unwilling to make the changes that God needs it to make so that he can accomplish his purposes on earth. Pastors have chosen to keep on doing what they know how to do, even though it does not work in the modern world, and the people are mostly happy to go along. The modern church is persisting with big-man leadership and big Sunday meetings, but these practices are serious obstacles to the next move of God.

God is not interested in reviving the church during this season. He wants to do something far greater. He wants to establish his kingdom on earth, and he needs people who are committed to working with his Holy Spirit to do it. Unfortunately, the modern church does not have a vision for the Kingdom of God that is real.

The modern church does not have the spiritual strength to engage a full-frontal attack on the kingdoms of the world to establish the Kingdom of God. The spiritual powers of evil are too deeply entrenched in our political and cultural systems to be easily defeated. To turn the situation around, the church will need to engage in guerrilla tactics and establish tiny strongholds on the edges of society and slowly expand out from there to gain more ground.

God wants to do something quite different from what the church has done in the past. His next move will be neighbourhood-based on the edge of society and away from the centres of power and privilege. To be prepared for the next season, followers of Jesus must seek out different ways of operating on the edge of culture.

The next move of God will not be like Billy Graham preaching to large crowds of lapsed Christians (who would struggle to get on board with what God is doing now), nor like televangelists preaching prosperity and comfort. They will be more like the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs, going to a village or neighbourhood of a town and living there in unity with some brothers and sisters in the Lord, loving one another, healing the sick and announcing the Kingdom of God.

I presume that the church will continue to implode as continues with the old way of working. Big-name pastors will be persecuted if they continue to push salvation by law as the solution to big social issues. At the same time, society will continue to disintegrate as the spiritual powers of evil are given more and more control on earth. But the idea that this is the beginning of the end is a lie that we should reject.

The best is still to come. God is calling and preparing a body that can work with the Holy Spirit to bring in the Kingdom of God on earth. When human political power collapses under the weight of its own evil, breaking the power of the spiritual powers of evil (and the Jews come to faith in Jesus), the Holy Spirit will move in power amongst those who have prepared. He will release a powerful move that will bring in the greatest harvest that the earth has ever experienced. Billions of people will choose to follow Jesus and join his kingdom, as they follow the leading of his Holy Spirit.

This is a discouraging season for those who trust in the church. Those who are trusting in the Holy Spirit and are open to his leading and looking for him to move in a new and better way should be excited by the opportunity that is open to them.

See Ekklesia and Kingdom.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (7) Polio and Diphtheria

Poliomyelitis was a serious infectious disease in the twentieth century. When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was huge fear of polio. The fact that it affected children worst increased the fear. Some people still thought that it was caused by excess sun on the back of the neck, so we were made to wear sunhats that covered the back of the neck when we went outside.

I did not know of any children who got the disease, but two men in the farming district where we lived had a seriously shrivelled arm due to contracting polio when they were young, presumably during the 1937 outbreak.

When I did some digging around I discovered that polio was a much more serious problem than I had realised, and large numbers of deaths resulted. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a virus. It is an incurable disease whose symptoms can range from none at all (95 per cent of cases) through to paralysis (up to 2 per cent) in limbs or the respiratory system. Unfortunately, the older the patient, the more serious the paralysis.

The worst years in New Zealand were

  • 1916 - 1018 new cases; 123 deaths
  • 1925 - 1159 - - 173
  • 1937 - 816 - - - 39
  • 1948 - 963 - - - 52
  • 1952 - 890 - - - 57
  • 1955 - 703 - - - 29
  • 1956 - 897 - - - 50
I had not realised that 70 children died of polio during my first years at school although I presume they were mostly in the North Island. It is not surprising that parents were fearful.

Quarantine practices were applied. During 1948 and 1949, children were prohibited from staying in motor camps and attending Sunday schools, and inter-island travel by school children was forbidden. Swimming pools in Auckland were closed to children. In Hamilton, a Christmas parade was permitted, provided the children stood at least 6 feet (1.83m) apart.

Suspect patients were isolated and school contacts excluded until the diagnosis was confirmed. All diagnosed cases were isolated, however mild. Peer group contacts and family contacts who were teachers were also quarantined for two weeks from the last exposure to infection.

I do not remember how old I was but I can remember being vaccinated for polio. Evidently, the start of the program vaccination had to be delayed when the first batch of vaccine intended for New Zealand failed tests in Great Britain. The first vaccine arrived in New Zealand in September 1956. 5-9 year-olds were vaccinated first, because they were at school they were easy to organise. Also, this age group had an "indifference to personal hygiene" which made them good spreaders of infection.

Consent cards were sent out to the parents of all primary school children The acceptance rate by parents was over 90% which was an incredibly high rate for any public health measure anywhere. By Spring 1959, all children between two and 16 had been vaccinated. Polio vaccine was later added to the recommended vaccine for diphtheria and whooping cough at three months.

We were also vaccinated against Diphtheria. This was another disease that created real fear. I remember my mother talking about what a nasty illness it was. She was glad to have her family vaccinated against it.

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that infects the throat and nose. While some cases were mild, the bacteria could produce dangerous toxins that caused severe complications which can be life-threatening, including heart trouble, paralysis, and kidney failure.

The worst year for diphtheria was in New Zealand was 1892, when 281 deaths occurred. In 1917, the year before the flu epidemic 240 people died of diphtheria. An outbreak in 1929–30 resulted in 150 deaths. During the second world war, a number of NZ soldiers died of diphtheria while fighting overseas.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (6) American Continent

The indigenous populations of America were decimated by infectious diseases brought by European conquerors and settlers, who took no responsibility for the harm they were bringing. Recent estimates suggest that the population on the eve of conquest was about one hundred million, with twenty-five to thirty millions of these in Mexican and an equal number in Andean civilisations. Within fifty years, the population of central Mexico had shrunk to a tenth of what it had been.

The first pandemics were smallpox and measles. A few decades later, typhus arrived. Unfortunately, the climate was suitable for the transmission of some of the worst African infections: malaria and yellow fever. These diseases were spread rapidly by slaves brought from Africa.

The scope of this disaster is hard to imagine. The sudden death of three-quarters of the population produced severe economic collapse and repeated human anguish, as entire societies fell apart.

The Europeans travelled to the Americas had a good understanding of quarrantine methods, but they did not bother applying them for the benefit of the people they were conquering, because they considered them to be inferior peoples.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (5) Black Death

The Black Death was a resurgence of bubonic plague that hit Asia, Europe and North Africa from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people. Several factors contributed to this pandemic.

  • An expansion of shipping and trade around the Mediterranean Sea provided a way for rats to travel and spread.

  • Europe was becoming more densely populated again.

  • Land was being cleared of forest and farms were established in many places where they had disappeared after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

  • The climate deteriorated in the 14th century.

The death rate for bubonic infections transmitted by rat fleas varied from 30 to 90 percent. The best estimate is that one third of the population died. The economic consequences were severe. The trauma and fear were intense. This uncertainty probably contributed to the emergence of the Protestant Reformation.

The plague did not disappear after its first massive attack. Instead, similar plagues continued at irregular intervals and with varying patterns of intensity in different places.

The incidence of the bubonic plague began to decline in the 17th century.

  • Quarantine regulations were effective in halting the spread. People from infected areas were refused entry to towns and villages. Ships with infected sailors were refused entry to ports.

  • Wood shortages led to stone and brick house construction and tiles began to replace thatched rooves, which made it more difficult for rats to live close to humans.

  • The grey rat spread across Europe. It preferred to live in a burrow in the ground instead of infesting roofs and house walls as the black rat had done. This increased distance between humans and rats made it more difficult for the fleass that transmitted the disease to spread to humans.

I note that when a serious plague struck Europe in both the sixth and fourteenth centuries, Christians assumed that the end of the world was at hand. In both cases, they were wrong.

Plagues and Pandemics (4) Caution

People reading my posts about pandemics and plagues should be careful about drawing conclusions that are not valid. Comparing events from different times is difficult, because the background conditions are so different. We should be cautious about saying one plague was worse than another because the outcomes were different.

For example, the pathogen Yersinia Pestis that caused the bubonic plague still circulates in some parts of the world, but it is easily contained with good quarantine and hygiene practices and antibiotics (because it is a bacterial infection).

Likewise, the Romans could have reduced the impact of the bubonic plague with better quarantine and a bit of rat poison. They knew about quarantine and how to kill rats, but because they did not understand the transmission of the infection, they did not bother. Basic masks would have reduced the respiratory transmission of the plague, which was the most fatal form of the disease.

Similarly, we don’t know what would have happened if Covid had arrived in the Roman Empire. The infections would have spread quickly amongst large numbers of people crammed together in slums and military camps. Without antiviral drugs, respirators and good nursing care, the death rate amongst malnourished people living with inadequate clothing and shelter could have been relatively high.

One thing is sure, for most people, life is much better today than it was in Roman times, but even then, the situation varies for different people. People living in the modern world can still struck by terrible tragedy beyond their control.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (3) Bubonic Plague in Rome

By the fifth century, the Roman Empire was under serious pressure with large hostile population groups were invading from the East. The Black Death first appeared in Egypt in AD 541 and from there it quickly diffused throughout the Empire. It persisted for two centuries. The last recorded cases were in AD 749.

The Black Rat that carried the plague-bearing, oriental rat fleas were prolific breeders. They were crafty climbers and willing travellers on ships and waggons. The Rome Empire had hundreds of granaries storing grain to feed soldiers, so it was an ideal home for rats. The plague spread swiftly by sea and slowly by land to every part of the empire.

The agent that causes bubonic plague is a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It lives and travels on rats. When the rat’s immune system fought back against it, the bacterium concentrated in the blood of the dying rat. When the rat population died, the desperate fleas would jump onto humans looking for more blood to feed on.

The injected bacterium multiplies and blackens the tissue under the skin. The lymphatic system drains the bacteria into the nearest lymph node, where they multiply explosively, causing the node to swell, forming buboes, often in the groin or under the arms. A secondary infection in the blood would cause haemorrhages that appeared as small black spots. Blood vomiting and diarrhoea would follow.

Victims first suffered pain, fever and boils, then swollen lymph nodes and blotches on the skin. After that, they vomited blood and died within a few days. Case fatality was often as high as 80 percent. The bacterium can also be spread by aerosol droplets causing pneumonic plague. This caused fever chest pain and a bloody cough. Case fatality was often 100 percent.

The ultimate death toll is hard to estimate, but the best estimates are that half the population of the empire were carried off by the plague. The population of the city of Rome dropped from over a million to as few as 20,000.

The economic and military consequences were serious. Harvests rotted in the fields, so food was scarce. Taxation was impossible to collect, so the State struggled.

The Roman army fielded half a million men who were supported by an extensive logistical system. With dwindling taxation, the army could not be paid, so the defence of the empire collapsed. The plague decimated the Roman soldiers so people from the periphery of the empire had to be recruited to take their place, but they were not as loyal to Rome.

The plague destroyed the trade that had sustained the wealth of the empire. Towns shrunk in size and many villages and manor farms disappeared. Many people went back to subsistence farming as the collapse of markets reduced their ability to trade. Building stopped, so demand for labour collapsed.

The persistence of the plague strangled hopes of a recovery. Environmental change made the situation worse. In AD 536, a year without sun, possibly caused by a serious volcanic eruption somewhere in the northern hemisphere, ushered in a season of bad weather and poor crops. This colder period lasted for a century and a half.

War, plague and climate change reversed a millennium of material advance and contributed to the collapse of the Roman empire.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (2) Roman Empire

A series of plagues contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. A massive expansion of travel networks and movements of large armies of Roman soldiers aided the spread of infectious diseases.

These plagues were reinforced by changes in the climate which caused food shortages. Rome emerged to power during a season when the climate was favourable (Roman Climate Optimum, 200 BC to 150 AD) for an agricultural empire. After the empire peaked, the weather became more disruptive (Roman Transitional Period, AD 150 to AD 450). The empire’s collapse concurred with a spell of frigid weather caused by volcanic activity (Late Antique Little Ice Age, AD 450 – AD 700).

Antonine Plague
The event called the Antonine Plague began in Asia Minor in about AD 160 amongst soldiers returning from fighting in Persia. It has arrived in Rome AD 166. Jerome recorded that it had decimated the army by AD 172, reducing its strength by at least a quarter. Roman documents do not name the pathogen that caused this plague, but historians have concluded that it was most likely Smallpox, as the symptoms were fevers, rashes and scabbing. They have estimated that this plague caused the deaths of ten to twenty million people or a quarter of the population. This plague was still around ten years later, but the population of the Roman empire recovered quickly from this plague.

Plague of Cyprian
A second severe plague struck when Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in North Africa. It came from Ethiopia and migrated west across the empire from AD 259 to about AD 270. This disease killed everyone in a household quite quickly. Fevers and headaches struck first and were followed by haemorrhaging from the mouth and bowels. Death was agonising and those who survived often had permanent disfigurement of limbs and loss of hearing and sight.

Historian Kyle Harper suggests that this pandemic was caused by a filovirus like Ebola. It was different from anything the empire had experienced before. It struck soldiers and civilians, city dwellers and villagers. The death toll was horrendous.

The pandemic seriously fragmented the empire as armies revolted and the frontiers were penetrated by enemies. Food shortages and difficulties collecting taxes made it hard to pay the armies and keep them loyal. By late in the AD 260s, there were essentially three empires and later emperors struggled to reunite them again.

The crisis sparked religious conflict and Christians were persecuted. Nevertheless, the gospel expanded, because the compassion of the Christians caring for the sick was conspicuous. Basic nursing care significantly reduced the mortality rate, as providing water and food kept many people alive who would otherwise have died.

The empire recovered from this pandemic much more slowly, but by the fourth century, it had become stronger again.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (1)

During the holiday season, I have been reading some books about plagues, infections and pandemics (as you do). Here are some of the interesting things that I discovered.

  • Right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death throughout the world.

  • One of the greatest blessings of living in the modern world is that the risk of dying of an infectious disease has become vanishingly small.

  • Because we live in an age where infectious diseases are under control, we have forgotten what it is like to live in a world where any or several of the following could strike at any time.

    • Typhoid
    • Smallpox
    • Leprosy
    • Tuberculosis
    • Diptheria
    • Bubonic plague
    • Rabies
    • Yellow Fever
    • Malaria
    • Hydatids
    Some of these diseases frequently decimated populations and destroyed families in earlier generations.

  • Up until the last few generations, the average life expectancy was about thirty years. A huge number of babies and children died of infectious diseases.

  • Life was not just short; it was also uncertain, as infectious diseases tended to come in waves and could strike at any time.

  • Because infectious diseases are so well controlled in the western world, most people now die of chronic diseases, cancers and degenerative disorders. The nature of dying has changed significantly.

  • Many aspects of modern life are designed to limit the effects of infectious diseases, even if we have forgotten the reasons.

    • cleaning floors and surfaces with disinfectants
    • flushing toilets
    • toilet paper
    • washing hands with soap
    • shaving beards
    • cooking food
    • refrigeration of food
    • chlorinated water
    • fly screens
    • grates on drains
    • hot drinks
    • washing clothes
    • changing bedding frequently
    • washing hair.
    All these regular activities help reduce our vulnerability to infections.

The tools available to mitigate the risk of infectious diseases are not perfect, and some of the pathogens that attack us adapt quickly, so future pandemics are inevitable. Covid is a reminder of this reality. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberation from infectious disease, but severe disruptions are inevitable.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Age of Government

I explained in my previous post that the church is going into a new era of powerlessness. The old era of Christian privilege and power is gone.

This change is hard to understand because the world itself is not going into a new era. Rather, the old era is rising to a climax. We live in the age of government power. For most of the last century, the scope of government power has been increasing as governments take up responsibility for economic and social problems that governments in the past would have considered too tough for political leaders to deal with. Governments are now expected to solve every social and economic problem that emerges in their nation. (Covid is just the most recent example). They believe that they can use the tools of modern science and technology to improve the lives of everyone.

To accomplish this vast and enormous task, governments have sought and been given immense powers. They now need to control every aspect of human life. There is no aspect of life that is beyond their reach.

Modern governments have taken responsibility for doing something that is not possible because they don’t understand the influence of the spiritual realms on life on earth. Intensification of political power always increases the power and authority of the government-spirits that control the nation and the spiritual powers of evil that work with them. So, every increase in government responsibility and power inevitably leads to an upsurge in disasters and calamities.

In the modern world, political power is being centralised and consolidated as never before. Expectations on political leaders are greater than ever, and they have demanded the power to deliver. This concentration of political power leverages the authority of the powers of evil. By attacking the people at the top of the political hierarchy, the spiritual powers of evil gain authority over all the people submitted to them. They have gained immense authority on earth, despite their total defeat on the cross, because people submit to leaders they control. By supporting political power, we have strengthened the powers of evil, when they should be weak.

When disasters multiply, governments will ruthlessly expand their power in a desperate attempt to bring the situation under control and restore their peace and prosperity. The majority of people will welcome their increasing control because they trust their government to bring back the comfort and wealth that they have lost. All opposition to government plans will be brutally suppressed with the support of the people who put their faith in government.

A vicious cycle will develop.

Widespread disasters give opportunities for increased government power and control to prevent them, but they will actually give the spiritual powers of evil great ability to do harm. The government will need more power to deal with the harm that they cause, which only empowers them to do greater harm.

Christians seeking to get different political leaders into power are participating in this process, because they still trust government power, just not the current government. True followers of Jesus do not trust any human government, because they understand the influence of the spiritual powers of evil.

Government power will eventually collapse under the weight of its pretensions and the troubles that it produces. Governments will unwittingly amplify the power of the spiritual powers of evil will be destroyed by the spiritual powers that they have empowered. The spiritual powers are arrogant so they will overstep the mark and turn against the human government that have empowered them and destroy them.

When political power eventually collapses and crumbles, politicians will flee their posts and sneak away. The destruction of human government will be so horrifying that the people of the world will never trust human political power again. Faith in political power will vanish forever.

Big government will shrivel, shrink and disappear. The principalities and powers that have amplified their power by controlling political authorities will also lose their place. The powers of evil will have lost their last scraps of authority on earth. The vicious cycle described above will go into reverse. The collapse of big government will undermine the power of the spiritual powers of evil. Their rapid decline will open the way for the advance of the Kingdom of God (See What is it Like).

The end of the era of government power will be a huge opportunity for followers of Jesus, but only if they have learned to live without the need for political power, and outside the scope of government authority on the edge of society. The governments of the world will disappear and be replaced by the Government of God.

Christians who are still hankering for the old era of privilege and power while ranting about the evils of their government and seeking to get a better one elected will be totally unprepared for this wonderful opportunity when it arises.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Disconcerted and Angry

I notice that many Christians, both here and in America, are angry with their political leaders and disturbed by events that are rocking their society. I suspect that they are disorientated because they are living at the end of an era. Certainties that they took for granted are being shaken and new certainties that they don’t like are being established in their place.

For the last few centuries, Christianity has been in ascendancy. There were occasional setbacks, but these have generally been outweighed by regular revivals. On the whole, the church was growing and its influence on society was strong.

During most of this season, the interests of the church and the policies of their national government were strongly aligned, regardless of which party was in power. Christian values were widely accepted across most of society, and the government backed them up with supportive laws. The education system reinforced Christian values in the hearts and minds of young people as they were moving into society.

The old era of Christian privilege and favour has now ended. In fact, it probably ended a generation ago, but the full effects of the changes in society are only now becoming clear. Laws that are anathema to Christians are being passed. Political leaders that they don’t like are being elected. The education system no longer supports the Christian worldview. Broadcast and social media are often hostile to the church and the gospel.

The strong influence that Christians had on the political and social spheres is gone. The society that they previously shaped seems to be disintegrating before their eyes. This is all very disturbing.

When the life you were comfortable with begins to disappear, fear and anger emerge. When you are used to being on top of things, it is disconcerting to find yourself at the bottom of the heap. When you are used to having the government on your side, it is frustrating to find it fighting against you. When you are used to being in power, it is frustrated to become powerless. Loss of power is hugely annoying. This is the reason for the widespread anger that has ensnared many Christians.

When people are disorientated, they can react in several different ways.

  • They can retreat from social life and hide from the changes by pretending that they are not happening. This is not a viable solution.

  • Some people look for conspiracy theories to explain what has happened to their society. They identify evil people or organisations that are secretly manipulating the political system and deceiving the people to destroy the good things that were established in the past. Conspiracy theories are a great way to shift responsibility. If the problems in the world are caused by powerful, evil people, the failure of Christians to share the gospel is not responsible.

  • Some people give their allegiance to unconventional political leaders who promise to restore the world that was lost. These leaders often strengthen their support amongst the people by encouraging them to follow conspiracies.

The problem with each of these responses is that the era which is finished will not come back. Politicians who promise to re-establish the old order will fail, so they should not be trusted. Political power is the problem, not the solution.

The frequent promises of Christian prophets that a revival will restore the era that was lost are also a false hope. Methods that worked in the old world will be ineffective in the new era that has emerged. The modern church’s disconnect with the new world that has emerged makes it look foolish and out of touch. Ranting about social issues that the world has accepted makes the church look like it is trying to impose its values and rules on people who have moved on. They don’t want to be controlled by an obsolete church and they will fight against any attempts to restore its power.

Rather than being stuck in the past, Christians should seek to understand the future. They should be looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead and preparing to live effectively in the new era. The church needs a new vision that will carry it successfully into the new world that is arriving. This vision will have to be radically different from what would work in the past.

The church must learn to operate without the need for power. It will have to learn to operate in the face of government hostility. It will no longer be welcome at the centres of power, so Christians must learn how to function effectively on the fringes of society, and bring transformation from the outside in.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Prophetic Frustration

I am frequently contacted by people who are frustrated because they know they are called to a prophetic ministry, but find there is no space for them to function. It is a difficult time to be a prophet (it probably always was). God currently seems to have far more people called to be prophets than is needed by the church or the world, so there are numerous underemployed prophets sitting around looking for something to do.

The most important thing that underemployed prophets can do is to prepare for the future. The time will come when they will be needed and they don’t want to miss the opportunity because they are not prepared.

I have explained that there are three spheres where prophets can operate.

  • Individuals
  • Church
  • City/State/Nation
Prophets need to discover from God the sphere that he wants them to operate in.

1. Prophesying to Individuals
We have seen a vast increase the prophetic gifting and the release of prophecies for individual believers, but there is still a long way to go. Too many of the prophecies given are flaky and without much substance. This role of the prophecy-giver has tended to be professionalised with a big-name prophet being invited to a church meeting and expected to prophesy over a large queue of people who are desperate for a good word. This does not work well for anyone. The people get shallow words, and the prophet focuses on quantity rather than quality.

When I was setting out to serve Jesus, a friend shared a word with me that was life-empowering, because it explained who I was and enabled me to pursue my calling with confidence. A huge number of Christians have collected many words, but they don’t have the substantive word that they really need to sustain them through the trials of life.

Prophets who are called to this sphere should concentrate on quality over quantity. They should learn how to give really good words to the people who come to them asking for a word from God. They should seek to purify their prophecy and hear more accurately from God, even if they speak out far less frequently.

In the future, when times get tough, getting a true word from God in a tricky situation will be far more important. People called to be prophets should be using the current freedom to get better at hearing from God and learning to deliver really pure and complete words to the people who seek them.

Some unemployed prophets have concentrated on getting their words posted on prophetic bulletin boards, but this is not very helpful, because it is not clear who they are speaking to, so there is not much accountability for the truth of their words. People can claim these words, even if they are not intended for them. This has resulted in a flood of prophetic mush circulating freely on the internet.

2. Prophesying to the Church
While the church continues to be pastor led, the opportunities for prophets to speak to the church will be limited. Pastors tend to be a bit insecure, so they are often not comfortable having prophets around. Even if they are uncertain about the direction that they should take, they will be reluctant to call on the prophet for advice, because they will lose control of the process.

This leaves the prophet sitting in church meetings grieving because they feel the heart of God, and his desire to achieve much more, and about people not being released into the fulness of their calling. There is not much a prophet can do about this except pour their intense feelings into focussed intercession. They can shift to a different church, but the problem is that the situation will be the same in the new church too. They will be less known by the pastor of their new church, and the pastor will be probably just as reluctant to have a prophet around.

A few prophets have gone out and tried to start their own church, but that does not work well, because they gather a following of people who like their black and white style, but they usually fail at shepherding them into maturity. A prophet needs a pastor and prophet working together to nurture them.

Demand for the calling/giftings of the prophet will not increase until churches switch to a different leadership model, based on team leadership with balance giftings, where pastors, prophets and evangelists work together in unity by submitting to each other.

3. Prophesying to the Nation
An increasing number of prophets are attempting to speak to the leaders of their city, state or nation. This is a noble development, but my observation is that we are seeing more quantity than quality. Too many prophets seem to be cheerleaders for American nationalism and American military power.

I believe that the United States desperately needs an honest and truthful prophetic voice, to challenge the nation’s sins, and speak honestly about the dangerous path that the nation is going down.

Prophets who are called to speak to the nation should be seeking God intently to hear what God is saying to their nation. They will need to shut out the voices of the cheerleader prophets who are currently holding the microphone.

Those who hear God clearly will probably not get an opportunity to be heard in the current season, but they need to be prepared, listening intently to God, so they can bring a true word when everything around them is collapsing. If they can keep their hearts clean and their ears open, the time will come when they will speak and be heard.

Underemployed prophets should be honing their skills and preparing their hearts so that they are fully prepared when God needs them to share his word clearly and precisely in a powerful way.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Not Living the Dream?

I have never voted for Jacinda Ardern, but I feel quite sorry for her. She never planned to be Prime Minister of New Zealand during a pandemic. She got into politics because she wanted to get rid of child poverty, a noble goal, but probably an impossible one. She was promoted to party leader because three other leaders failed and she was an effective communicator. Nevertheless, she has led her party to two election victories, the second a landslide.

Leading her nation through the ups and downs of a pandemic was not part of her plan for life. Now she is being blamed by everyone for every decision that her government makes that people don’t like. That level of scrutiny and criticism is probably not what she signed up for, but when she got a chance to lead her country, she had to take it.

Criticism of her leadership is getting intense. Some say that her government has moved too slow; others say it is going too fast. Some say it has not done enough, and others are saying it has done too much. I presume that Jacinda Ardern is a bit of a "people pleaser", so the intense hostility will be producing considerable emotional pain.

Government Decision-making
Part of the problem is that most people don't understand how government works and just assume that PM makes all the decisions. However, the process is far more complicated, and far more people are involved in the decision-making process than many people realise.

It is easy for outsiders to say, "That was a stupid decision", or "That will not work", or "The government should stop doing that". It is easy being an armchair expert because you are not accountable for the consequences if you are wrong. The political leaders making the key decisions for the nation don't have that luxury. If they get a decision wrong, the consequences will usually be obvious, and they will get the blame, and feel responsible for the harm done.

Political leaders don't have the luxury of trying a policy to see if it will work, because if the chosen policy does not work and they try something different, the news media will accuse them of flip-flopping, and the trust of the public will be undermined. Government decision-makers have one opportunity to make a decision, and they have to get it right. That brings heavy pressure to the decision-making processes.

Policy Analysis
When a decision needs to be made, the government department responsible (Ministry of Health or MBIE in the current situation) is tasked with preparing options and collecting information to help the leaders make a decision. They can't just say, "I think we should do this and not that." They need to canvass all the possible options and calculate the costs/benefits of each if that is possible. When recommending an option, they need to think about all the reasons why the option being proposed might not work. They need to get a good understanding of all the consequences of the policy, so that the decision-makers can understand of the risks involved.

In the case of Covid, the policy analysts will need to gather information from overseas about what has worked and how effective it is. That is a difficult task because there is diverse experience and collecting accurate information about what has happened in various countries is not easy. For most countries, there will be divergent commentators arguing about what has happened and how effective policies were. It is not sufficient to listen to those who advocated the policies implemented in various countries because they will tend to defend their decisions. Other voices need to be heard to get an accurate picture of what has really happened. The analysts will also need to determine which countries have experiences relevant to the New Zealand situation.

Once the government department has drafted a paper for the Cabinet to consider, it will be circulated around other government departments that will be affected, or have to implement it, for their comments. This process does not always lead to certainty; it often increases uncertainty.

Policy analysts supporting the government will also need to collect the insights of independent experts in the universities and other agencies. Again, that is not an easy task because experts often have conflicting views. For example, the various epidemiologists active in New Zealand often hold quite contradictory views. Decisions about which ones to trust are not easy. Relying on a majority view will not always be wise.

Cabinet
Decisions about which policy to implement are made by the Cabinet, not the PM. A recommended policy will be brought to the Cabinet by the relevant minister (the Covid Recovery minister or Minister of Finance). The minister bringing the recommendation will be the most informed about the issue, as they will have been working with the policy analysts preparing the options. They will have had time to read much more of the background information than the PM or other members of the Cabinet.

This does not mean that the Cabinet will just rubber-stamp the recommendation of the minister responsible. There will often be sharp disagreement. All members of the Cabinet will be acutely aware of the consequences of getting it wrong, and some will have more tolerance of risk than others.

Jacinda Ardern's view will carry a lot of weight. The other members of the Cabinet will be aware that she won two elections for them, so they will be reluctant to cross her. She will be acutely aware that she has not had time to read all the information that the responsible minister has read, and will be reluctant to go against him/her. She will also be reluctant to agree to a recommendation that she cannot communicate with confidence.

Uncertainty
The decision will often be hard to make because there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of the recommended policy. All of the options might have negative consequences, and sometimes the risk of bad consequences will be significant.

When I am faced with an important decision with uncertainty about the outcome, I can put the decision off until I get more information or the situation becomes clearer. The government often does not have that luxury. Often a decision has to be made because action is necessary. The news media and the opposition had probably been calling for a decision to be made a couple of weeks ago. The business community will be saying that they need certainty. The consequences of further delay might be serious.

Government leaders always have to think about what will happen if they do nothing. Sometimes the consequences of not taking action will be serious. Politicians who fail to act in the face of a disaster usually pay the price at the next election.

Implementation
Armchair critics do not have to operationalise their decisions. They can say, "The government should do such and such", without thinking about how, or if, it could be implemented. The people really making the decisions don't make them a vacuum. They have to think about how any policy decision they make will be operationalised. They have to work through their plans with the various government departments and agencies who will be responsible for implementing them. Sometimes, the response will come back that the right thing to do would be too difficult to implement. Thinking about how decisions will be implemented slows down the decision-making process.

And once an implementation process been decided, it has to be communicated to the various agencies responsible for implementing it. Rules will have to be decided to ensure that the policy is implemented consistently across the country and for all people. These will be defined by the department responsible, but the minister will need to watch carefully to ensure that the rules decided are consistent with what the Cabinet decided.

It is virtually impossible to write rules that deal with every possible situation that might occur. Usually, the media will carry stories about people who felt they were treated unfairly by the rules, or who believe the rules did not apply to their situation. The news media will challenge the PM to respond to the victims of their stories.

The rules will be applied by people, not robots. So the implementation of the policy will not always be consistent. Some will be tougher than others. Some will be influenced by a "sob story" and give way to an applicant, whereas others would not. Some will be officious, and others will be a soft touch. The PM and the Cabinet have no direct authority over these people but are still accountable for the decisions they make. And if public servants don't apply the rules correctly, or fail to implement the cabinet decision consistently, the PM and ministers will usually have to take the blame.

Rapid Change
All these problems are compounded during a pandemic. During normal times, the government can set their own pace of change. During a pandemic, new decisions have to be made all the time. Before one decision has been implemented, another problem will be rearing its head. The policy analysts in the government department responsible will struggle to gather all the information and analysis the options in a timely manner. Before the process is complete, they will be pressed to start working on others. The speed at which have to be made will make collecting sufficient information to support good decisions will be almost impossible. The situation will be constantly changing, so decision made and information collected quickly gets out of date.

At the same time, the policy agency will have responsibility for implementing decisions that have already been made. All this activity will put the policymaking process under serious pressure. It may be possible to bring in extra staff to help, but they often won't have the expertise needed to prepare good advice.

It seems fairly obvious that MBIE and the Ministry of Health have struggled with the task of providing timely and clear advice to the government about the management of Covid. That is not surprising given the number of decisions that have needed to be made and implemented. They have also struggled to implement decisions quickly and clearly, but that is not surprising given the pressure that they are working under.

Difficult Task
I don't envy Jacinda Ardern. She and her Cabinet are having to make decisions at a pace that they have never experienced before, and nothing could have prepared them for it. The range and difficulty of the decisions that have to be made are immense. Being responsible for the welfare and health of a nation is a huge burden to carry.

I did not vote for Jacinda Ardern. I don't believe in democracy and have not voted for many years, but I understand that most New Zealanders do believe in democracy and want a Prime Minister and government to lead the nation. Given that she was elected by a process that New Zealanders support, so they should cut her a little slack, given the immense difficulty of the task that she is trying to do.

The Labour government was elected with the biggest majority in the past twenty years, partly because they promised to deal with Covid in a conservative and careful way. They promised to put safety ahead of profit-making, so they cannot be faulted for doing that now.

I don’t agree with every decision that the government has made, but I am not sure that anyone else could have done any better. And of course, the good decisions are quickly forgotten as they become part of the new normal, while the bad decisions are remembered.

Anger
I find the vitriolic tone of much of the hostility to Jacinda Ardern quite disturbing, especially when it comes from Christians, who are supposed to honour their rulers (1 Peter 2:17). Some of her Christian critics seem to have become quite ugly in the way they speak. I can't help wonder how much of it comes from her being a woman (a relatively young one) given that many of her Christian critics have grown up under complementarian teaching that women should submit to men.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Teaching

In a previous post, I commented that modern “preaching/teaching does not add much value to the Kingdom of God”. Some readers disagreed with this deliberately thought-provoking comment. One of the clearest and gracious disagreements came from Rich Vermillion. I am reposting our discussion, and my response here, because it was buried down in the comments, and other readers might be interested. Rich commented

A question for the sake of clarity: Your 3rd bullet point up from the bottom begins by saying preaching/teaching does not add much value to the Kingdom of God. Leaving aside the preaching point for now, further down in the same paragraph you expressed the need to “teach” various things to the people being discipled. That appears to be a contradiction, so I am not confident that I understand your point of view there. Can you please clarify?
I responded with the following comment and link.
The problem is with the meaning of the word “teaching”. We tend to think of teaching as something that happens in a classroom. We mostly think of teaching as a transfer of information. Modern teaching is usually a process whereby an expert passes on information to a group of students. They are quite free to ignore what is taught.

The modern church has taken the classroom model into the Sunday worship meeting. The problem is that when people hear teaching week after week, they assume they are growing because they know more, but in reality, their practice, behaviour and character are largely unchanged. Modern Christians get significant theoretical knowledge, but very little practical experience. This is why I say that most preaching/teaching does not add much value. It makes people feel they are getting ahead (knowledge puffs up) when they are doing very little of eternal significance.

For the early Christians teaching was something quite different. They saw it as an activity involving personal direction and an exercise of authority. It took place within a relationship where the teacher had authority over the student. A student would submit himself to a teacher whose lifestyle he admired. Their aim would be to learn the way of life, and the truths which underlay it by copying it. So a teacher did not just give their views. They laid out what they expected the student to believe, and the way they expected them to live. So teaching in the New Testament was more like what we call "discipling". It included the formation of character.

We can see this in the way that Jesus taught his twelve disciples. He did not just impart information to them. By living in close proximity with them for three years, he developed a strong relationship with them. They submitted to Jesus and carried out all his instructions. He had complete authority over them. In this way, he formed their lives into a likeness of his own. And throughout the New Testament, teaching takes place within a similar relationship.

Jesus used a master/apprentice model, where the apprentice lived and worked with the master, copying what he was doing and learning while he was doing it. The master gave information to the apprentice, but it made sense because it related to what they were doing in the workshop. The parable of the sower makes more sense when you have been sent out two by two to share the gospel.

So there is stuff that needs to be taught/learnt, but it is best learnt while doing.

Rich’s response was as follows.
I appreciate you taking the time to explain those points further. I can agree with your point about the need for discipleship and enjoyed your metaphor with apprenticeship. However, I can’t agree that public teaching isn’t beneficial.

First of all, the growth of the initial assembly in Jerusalem was too rapid to possibly allow for the Twelve to disciple thousands of converts in this manner. Rather, it was public teaching:
Acts 2:41-42 (NKJV) 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added [to them.] 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 5:42 (NKJV) And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus [as] the Christ. Acts 6:2-4 (NKJV) 2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of [good] reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Remember that Jesus likewise taught publicly in the temple, synagogues, mountain tops, open squares, and homes, but only personally mentored a small number of people (which included the original Twelve plus Matthias and others). Additionally, the office of teacher doesn’t connote apprenticeship, but public instruction: Ephesians 4:11-15 (NKJV) 11 And He Himself gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ...

Lastly, I have personally experienced local church expressions that were very good at teaching truth (both theological and practical). I have experienced personally, and have seen firsthand in the lives of many others, that genuine spiritual growth in grace, with practical outworks, was the result.

In fact, I have pastored in two such churches.

I can’t help but think that the paradigm of “church” and related issues, about which you have been so critical, is specific to how perhaps the public assemblies are organized there in New Zealand. I get the impression that you have not been exposed to the wide variety of experiences available to us here in the USA. I have seen cold hardened religious expressions, along with lukewarm and apathetic versions, etc., but also excellent examples.

Looking at the different types of assemblies addressed by Jesus in Revelation chapters 2-3, I have observed or experienced churches in America that matched each of them. Hence, I tend to wonder if your strong views are not also born out of a limited experience regarding the possibilities of modern expression of biblical models (both good and bad).

I have gleaned some interesting things from reading your viewpoint, and am very pleased with your clarification regarding the Holy Spirit. In the light of the Word and with the context of my experiences, I can’t accept your every point. They appear to me to be “throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. That may not be your intent, but that’s how it appears to me at this stage. Please forgive me if I have misunderstood you in any way, however.

Here are few more comments

We have to be quite careful about how far we push the accounts in Acts about how the first Christians were discipled as the evidence is quite thin. Here is something else to think about.

I note that the believers met in homes and had fellowship, so clearly, they started doing discipleship in Jesus’ way. They knew that if people got together in the way he had trained them, the Holy Spirit would teach them (1 John 2:20).

When the apostles were in the temple preaching, they seemed to be mostly doing evangelism in the way that Jesus did it, by confronting the religious leaders, and calling the people to switch allegiance and follow him. I think this is the proper role for preaching. All the public messages recorded Acts were evangelistic, calling the people to change their ways and follow Jesus: Peter, Acts 2:14-40; Peter and John, Acts 3:12-26; Peter, 4:8-12; Peter and the Apostles, Acts 5:29-32; Stephen, Acts 7:2-53.

There is no record in Acts of a mass-discipling type sermon that is so common on Sunday morning in modern churches, so I presume that it was a sub-optimal method that should not be normalised. If people do need more theological information, there is plenty of top-class teaching available on electronic media, so making teaching the focus of Sunday meetings is not as relevant as in previous generations when many people did not have access to books or could not read.

I agree that if hundreds of people came to faith in Jesus at that same time, it might be necessary to give them introductory information in bulk teaching sessions, but that is not happening in many western countries. And it would seem to be a mistake to make something needed in an emergency, the norm for Christians for the rest of their lives.

The early Church seemed to get into a bit of a mess in Jerusalem. Instead of following Jesus’ example and being sent out into the world, Peter, James and John stayed in Jerusalem. They seem to have gathered a large congregation of people who enjoyed listening to their teaching. These people had no means of supporting themselves (offerings had to be sent from other churches to keep them going) because they were not doing anything of value. God had to send persecution to shock them out of their comfortable complacency (Acts 11:19-21) and get them out into the world.

I find it interesting that God had to get Paul to get Jesus’ model of making disciples and quickly sending out the best to start a new church in a new place fully operational again. The Holy Spirit used Paul’s experience to get a description of the apostolic way working in practice into the scriptures. In contrast, Peter seemed to create problems whenever he did go out into other places (Acts 10:44; 15:20; 21:20-25; Gal 2:11-14). See

Governmental Apostles
Centralised Finances
Church Councils
Paul and James
Annas and Saphira

I presume that the other apostles (like Thomas who possibly went to India) were not mentioned again in Acts, because they followed Jesus’ command to go out into the world and make disciples.

I have wondered how Paul learnt to be an apostle in Jesus’s way, given that he was not discipled directly by Jesus. He was a good listener to the Holy Spirit, but that was probably not enough. I presume that he had learnt from Barnabas, who was an early disciple in Jerusalem, and possibly taught well.

-----

I realise that the situation is different in New Zealand, although there has been considerable copying of American models here. Unfortunately, this has not turned back the tide of secularism in this nation, and Christian influence is declining rapidly. I observe that the church in the US is on a similar trajectory, although not as far down it.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Traffic Lights

The NZ government has implemented a new Covid Protection Framework, also called a traffic light system. If vaccination certificates are required by event organisers, there are no limits on the number of people attending. If vaccinations certificates are not required, there are significant limits on the number of people who can attend a gathering (such as a wedding or service of worship), depending on the protection setting: Red 25; Orange 50; Green 100.

Some church leaders are worried about excluding people from their services if they don’t have vaccination certificates. However, if they don’t use vaccination certificates, the number of people able to attend their meetings will be strictly limited. Auckland is currently in red, with numbers limited to 25. If it goes into orange, the number will increase to only 50.

I am not sure if the government is doing the right thing, or if it will be effective, but that is not the point of this post. I am intrigued by the response of church leaders, who have focussed on their inability to have big meetings. Some see this as a breach of people’s right to freedom of worship.

This "right to worship" seems to be a truncated form of "freedom of religion", which includes the right to practice every aspect of one’s faith. The right to meet for a big worship service is a small part (and probably non-essential) of what followers of Jesus should be doing.

Limits on the size of church meetings are only a problem for pastors/churches that are committed to the large meeting model. Being unable to meet is a serious problem if Christians have been trained to need a weekly sermon to grow in their faith, or need a worship band to inspire to worship.

The truth is that Jesus has promised to be present by the Holy Spirit wherever two or three people gather together in his name. When it was not safe to go to Jerusalem, Jesus was content to focus on training twelve disciples. A church that claims Jesus promise and follows his example will be able to continue functioning effectively, even if the size of gatherings is limited to twenty-five. His followers can still disciple those in their care and gather in the presence of the Holy Spirit. They can still go out two by two to share the gospel.

The reality is that under the red traffic light, church leaders can do almost everything that Jesus did.

  • They can send their disciples out two by two in the same way that Jesus did (Luke 10:1-2).

  • They can meet with the twelve disciples that they are training just as Jesus did (Mark 3:13-14).

  • They can go into a quiet place to pray in the same way that Jesus did (Mark 1:33; 6:31; 6:46).

  • They could join together with the people they are discipling for a fellowship meal (Matt 26:19-20). They could even sing a Psalm or hymn together, as Jesus did (Matt 26:30).

  • If they heal some people in a public place, as Jesus did, and a massive crowd gathers, they might have a few problems with the authorities. But if all the people with Covid are being healed, then the authorities would not be able to complain too much (Matt 9:22;14:14; 14:34-36).

The Covid Protection framework is probably a timely wake-up call. The big meeting model of church is not viable in the modern world. In a hostile culture, the influences imbibed during the week will overwhelm whatever Christian influence is imparted in a couple of hours on Sunday. As the culture becomes more hostile, followers of Jesus will need to find more effective ways of nurturing faith in Jesus and protecting vulnerable people from being overwhelmed by the pressures of the world.

The church would be more effective if it gave up its big meeting model of pastoral care and shifted to a model based on small groups living in the same locality watched over by elders raised by the Spirit from within the group.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Churched Christians

In my view, starting a house church with Churched Christians does not work. Trying to gather people who have left their church because they were dissatisfied (I call them Churched Christians) is an exhausting and impossible task that will wear out the leaders for very little benefit.

  • Christians who have been in a church for many years have been trained to be useless, so they struggle when the support programmes that they are used to are not there. For the leaders, meeting their unrealistic needs is an impossibly exhausting task. There is usually very little fruit because the problems are too deeply ingrained, and the people are unlikely to change. Meeting all these needs is beyond the capability of a house church.

  • Churched Christians who leave their church often carry spiritual baggage that they have not dealt with. They tend to blame their problems on the church that they have left, so they find it hard to handle them honestly.

  • Churched Christians often have a critical spirit that they developed by critiquing sermons, pastors and worship. They bring a tendency to watch the leaders of their house church to check if they are up to their standard. This is exhausting and debilitating for the leaders.

  • Churched Christians have high expectations of what a house church will deliver for them. They expect exciting worship, deep teaching, and solutions for their problems when things go wrong. They are intolerant of a performance that does not meet their expectations. Unrealistic expectations push the house church into attempting to do everything that the megachurch does, but on a smaller scale. This is impossible. A house church has a different ethos, and it should operate in a different way. Churched Christians struggle to understand and adjust to this new way.

  • House churches often struggle to share the gospel because Churched Christians have never learnt how to do it. This means that the house church tends to grow by attracting more and more disillusioned Churched Christians. This is a recipe for disaster because it just aggravates the burden of the house church leaders.

  • Most Churched Christians cannot get beyond the idea of having a single pastor who will serve them. They push the leaders of the house church into becoming a one-man band leadership style, even if they are trying to avoid it. This leaves the leaders exhausted because they are trying to do everything that a megachurch pastor does, but without the same resources. Worse still, they are usually trying to do it in their spare time, because they are also working for their financial support.

The following are essential for the functioning of a house church.
  • Plurality of leadership with balanced giftings is absolutely essential. It is hard to achieve, but it is better to wait until you find the right people to work with than to be exhausted by being pushed into the one-man-band-leadership role. Given human nature, this will inevitably happen, if it is not built into the DNA of the group.

  • Most members of a house church should be new Christians. They are much easier to disciple because they do not carry church baggage. If they are discipled effectively, they will grow quickly, and will soon be able to disciple others who have chosen to follow Jesus, so leadership in the church will grow.

  • New Christians will have lots of friends and family who are not. They will be easy to reach with the gospel because they will see the change in the friend/family member. Churched Christians usually have no non-Christian friends, so their reaching out with the gospel tends to be artificial.

  • Understand that worship and preaching/teaching does not add much value to the Kingdom of God. If people want teaching, plenty of good teaching is available online (just help them to find it). If they want corporate worship, they should go where it is done well, but they should understand that it is not essential for the advance of the gospel. Trying to provide these in a house church is exhausting and achieves very little value. The focus of the house church should be on discipling the people who have chosen to follow Jesus; teaching them to hear the voice of the Spirit and how to follow his leadership; teaching them to work with others, especially in pairs and to connect with others. If a leader of the house church has a need to preach, they should get out into the marketplaces and do it there where preaching the gospel belongs (the experience will probably kill the desire).

  • House churches should grow by sending out the best leaders as apostles to establish a new house church in a different place – most will not want to go, because it is hard. Those who stay will have opportunities to step up into leadership roles that will stretch them. I describe how this works in Apostolic Way. When a house church divides in two, divisions and criticism are inevitable, especially if many of the people are Churched Christians, because they will expect a decline in the services that they receive and feel dissatisfied.

  • We need to get beyond the Sunday meeting model, as it is exhausting for the woman who hosts it. I think we need to move towards working more with people who live near to us and doing their discipling with them in our daily lives.

No one has been honest about this, but the house church model practised in the western world is flawed. Although the motivation is good, trying to do everything that a megachurch does in a house church is exhausting for dedicated leaders. I think it is better to wait for some people who want to do something really radically different than trying to run a mini house church that is trying to do everything that a megachurch does, as it does not work.

More at Twelve Steps.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Dividing the Church

It is a bit hypocritical for church leaders to complain about the government dividing the church by introducing vaccine mandates and vaccine certificates, given that for the last few hundred years they have allowed the church to be divided by denominational loyalties, and more recently they have chosen a brand/label to distinguish their church from others.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Maps

Maps are an attempt to describe a three-dimensional earth in two dimensions. I recently saw this interesting map that describes the world from the perspective of the oceans.

Looking at the earth from this perspective, New Zealand is at the centre of the world, but a long way from everywhere.