We have a problem here in Oldham (alright, more than one. But one I am going to highlight). Dovestones Reservoir is a local beauty spot that has lots of walks, and brilliant views, set against the backdrop of Saddleworth Moor. Almost every year, a series of fires break out. They are usually containable. But in recent years, fires have broken out that threatened to destroy swathes of land and began creeping toward the built up parts of town and engulfed half of Greater Manchester in smoke.
Given those sorts of issues, it is entirely understandable that Oldham Council have sought to ban fires and barbecues on the moors. The frequency with which barbecues and fires have turned into unmanageable moorland fires has led to the move. Against this background, the Oldham Times reports of stand offs with locals who insist on continuing to light barbecues despite repeated warnings of the danger they pose to the area. You can read the full story here.
The pertinent details are these. A gang of youths took a barrel barbecue up to the moors. When confronted, they insisted on carrying on until police and the fire brigade were called. Upon their arrival, they ran off and lit the barbecue elsewhere. The fire brigade returned and the same happened again. The gang didn’t listen, eventually lighting the barbecue again and leaving the mess to be cleaned up by others.
In the grand scheme of things, this seems like a tiny issue indeed. But the consequences of those barbecues setting fire to the moorland, that happens with frequency, is serious. The fires may be dealt with by local farmers and fire brigades but, as happened last year, they can devastate vast portions of land and even threaten to take hold further into the densely built up areas of the town. The issue is more than a question of whether we can have a barbecue and centres more on the risk/reward. Oldhammers are belligerent and hate being told what to do. You can guess the rest of the story.
So often, this sort of stand off happens in the church. Rico Tice – in the Christianity Explored course – recounts a story of when he was in Australia with a friend. They went down to a beach to see signs warning them against swimming that said, ‘Danger! Sharks.’ Rico said, ‘there aren’t really any sharks, are there?’ His friend simply said, ‘you can read the signs yourself. You have to decide whether they are telling the truth or are just out to ruin your fun.’ And with that, he says, his friend walked off down the beach. Rico tells this story in respect to God and his warnings about sin. But I think the same applies in the church to elders who point to these same things.
Most elders are desperate to point people to Christ. They teach and explain his Word. They want people to be aware of the real risk that sin poses to them and to help them put it to death in their own lives. They want people to see Christ as greater than the allure of sin. They long for their people to press into their relationship with him, to read his Word, to pray, to serve and to do all those things that Jesus says will be to their eternal benefit.
But, like most Oldhammers, many of us are belligerent and still like lighting metaphorical fires on our church moors. We choose to disbelieve the warnings. We prefer to do whatever we want, irrespective of what our elders – and, often, the rest of our church – are telling us would be to our benefit and best serve God’s glory. We prefer to do things our own way because, regardless of the consequences, we want our barbecue and we definitely want it here, fire risk or not.
Of course, just as the fires often end up taking out vast swathes of land and wildlife, affecting the whole area for everyone, so the fires that take hold in the church affect things for everyone. In the worst cases, it destroys everything in its path, even the very church itself. Just as the moor that people love to frequent may be destroyed by literal fire, so the church that everyone claims to love may be destroyed by the metaphorical ones set by those who ignore the fire warnings from the church itself.
Nobody makes this point more clearly than James:
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.James 3:5-10
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
These fire warnings are in scripture. They will be pointed out by Bible-believing churches and godly leaders. They will be noted by godly members. But if we fail to heed them, the whole church may be set alight. Then we have to ask, was the barbecue really worth it?