In Conversation with Vaughan Roberts
Vaughan Roberts is an author and speaker, and the Rector of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, UK. Currently in South Africa as a keynote speaker for the GWC Reformation Symposium (29-31st Aug), he is also scheduled at various other platforms and training initiatives during his visit.
Grant: Could you give us a heads-up on what you’ll be speaking about at GWC?
Vaughan: Well, it’s an academic conference, and they’ve got all sorts of very learned academics doing very learned academic things. I’m neither academic nor learned, so they’ve given me the topic Luther: the Man, which is gloriously open. I’ve studied Luther so much this year, but in the end I’ve focused on the particular spiritual struggles he faced. He struggled with assurance, doubt, depression and guilt throughout his life. What’s very helpful is that he reflected on that theologically. He found things that helped him which he then passed on – he was a great pastor. So I’ll be passing on some of the lessons he learned to help us engage with the spiritual struggles we face in life.
Grant: Concerning spiritual struggles, you write on the thorny issues facing us today, like the transgender and assisted suicide debates. Do these resonate in the South Africa you’re seeing?
Vaughan: Oh definitely, it’s a global world isn’t it? Wherever you are in the world, there are some currents that affect us all.
Grant: Are you speaking to these during your visit?
Vaughan: Well, just this morning at the minister’s training, we’ve been looking at what I call – picking up on Dale Kuehne’s phrase – the iWorld where individualism reigns. That has completely changed how people are looking at sex and marriage in now largely individual terms, looking for something that will give them a sense of freedom and fulfillment. And that is a massive challenge to Christians, because a lot of Christians have adopted this worldly mindset, that life is basically about finding fulfillment. What the Bible has to offer in response to that is not simply a set of moral laws – which the world doesn’t want anyway – but a wonderful liberating gospel. So we need to think deeply how do we engage in such a way that, to use Glynn Harrison’s little phrase, we’re promising a better story. That’s a really fine book, by the way, don’t know if you’ve seen it? A Better Story. It’s worth getting hold of.
Grant: Speaking of really fine books, when reading yours, one senses a deep compassion driving them as you engage on questions of gender and sexuality. Has the church struggled to express this compassion during the sexual revolution decades?
Vaughan: It’s hard to generalize because different Christians and churches have responded in different ways. It’s hard to get it right, so some have rather gone with the flow. I know plenty of churches who’ve just adapted to fit in with the culture. Others have been adamant that we have to take on the culture and have been quite aggressive. Others have simply withdrawn to preserve their purity. Yet we’re called to engage in a way that doesn’t compromise the truth of God – not lobbying verbal grenades from afar, but in the context of relationships. The Lord Jesus is our model. He never compromised on truth, he did not withdraw, he engaged, he got involved, he loved them… but he did call them to repent. Our temptation is to shout truth from a distance, but that’s not what the Lord Jesus did. Like him, we need to be loving, truthful, practical.
Grant: Do you enjoy writing?
Vaughan: Whenever I write a book, I always think I’m never going to do it again ‘cause it’s such hard work. But then, maybe nine months or a year later, something bubbles up that I want to get out. And that’s basically how things have developed.
Grant: Do you have a sense of your writing being a God-given calling?
Vaughan: Well, I hope so! In retrospect, after I’m done with the hard process of writing, it’s a wonderful thing. I mean, here I am in Cape Town, as a result, 6000 miles away from home. People are reading my books. I appreciate that it’s got a big reach.
Grant: In your book Faith in a Time of Crisis, you encourage those who face sexual struggles to see restraint as a gift from God, a sacrifice. Considering how far sexual licence has slid, do you think that’s a message people can embrace today?
Vaughan: It’s a huge challenge, but we don’t start there. Our message to the world is not “Deny yourself sexually”. Our message rather is about Christ, and how He’s given Himself for them. It’s only when someone considers who Christ is and what He’s done, that they’ll even consider any change that might mean denying themselves. So the no’s of the gospel flow from the yes’s. And the yes’s are God’s massive love for them.
Grant: In Assisted Suicide you warn how categorizing people – in this case, the terminally ill – has, throughout history, led to a licence to treat people differently. You mention the Holocaust. It strikes one as ironic, because so many sub-cultures today intentionally categorize themselves in order to find their identity, for example, the LGBTI groups. In our desire for equality, humanity is becoming increasingly splintered. How on earth are we going to bring humanity back to seeing itself as a whole?
Vaughan: Our identity comes from Creation. We don’t have to find an identity. But if we just emerged by accident, then of course I will latch onto anything to give myself an identity because I have no intrinsic value. So our identity mark has become hugely significant in our search for meaning. It has also become very well defended because that’s all we’ve got. And that identity has become defined by difference. But if we start with Creation, then God has already given us value by creating us in His image. We are much-loved creatures distinct from the rest of the created order. And that means that every single human being has a common humanity and a common dignity because we’re all made in the image of God. Of course there are differences, male and female, cultures, backgrounds, but fundamentally we share a common humanity. That’s how we should recognize one another, rather than emphasizing the differences. And then in Christ, there’s an even deeper connection, not just in our common humanity, but relationally when we become brothers and sisters and share a fundamental union in Him. In Christ we really find who we are… and then we find each other.
Grant Griffiths enjoyed chatting with Vaughan at CBD’s bookshop in Belvedere Road, Claremont, Cape Town on Friday, 25th Aug.