I’m an avid reader, and social media brings an endless flood of articles my way—often very interesting, sometimes useful, occasionally mind-changing! So with that flood it’s hard to be sure, but I think the article that’s had the single biggest impact on my life and ministry was not published in The Briefing magazine. But that article by Ben Patterson explains why The Briefing has had more influence in shaping my Christian mind (and hopefully practice) than any book has ever done—apart from the Bible!
Let me explain—first about the article, and second, my deep thankfulness for The Briefing.
Patterson’s single-page article appeared in the mid-90s, in Leadership Journal. My copy has been framed on an office wall ever since! It’s titled ‘The inadequacy of “yes” theology’. In it, Patterson argued that every yes contains a no, and “if you can’t learn to say one, you won’t learn to say the other”.
He illustrates this, firstly from marriage. If you say yes to one woman, you are saying no to every other woman. Obvious, but essential. And sadly, not always appreciated.
Theologically, Patterson observed that it was insufficient for the Council at Nicea to say Christ was begotten of the Father—otherwise those modern-day Arians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, would affirm it today. Instead it had to say “begotten, not made”. The ‘no’ spells out what we did and did not mean by ‘begotten’.
Learning to say the yes and the no:
Few issues portend so much for the future of the church, because none carries so much potential to fly in the face of the spirit of the age. I speak of the infatuation with pluralism and inclusivism and certain brands of multiculturalism; the belief in the egalitarianism of opinions and feelings—that it is not only wrong, but rude and bigoted to think that some people’s ideas and feelings may not be as good or as valid as others.
But Patterson wasn’t the first person I’d heard this observation from. Although I never sat under his ministry, I’d heard Phillip Jensen teach at conferences—perhaps with a little more subtlety than I report—that when he preached specifically against Catholicism, everyone else got uncomfortable but Catholics got converted. Whereas when he simply preached a positive message of grace and justification by faith alone, the Catholics often felt good but remained untouched by the gospel.
And the senior pastor who trained me, John Gray, explained that you need to be specific in explaining not just that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, but that other religious leaders like Mohammed or Buddha are not. No-one comes to the Father, except through Jesus.
Of course, bluntness can turn into insensitivity and even sometimes inaccuracy. But I thank God for The Briefing because it was willing, again and again, to say the no as well as the yes: on the charismatic movement; on women’s ordination and other gender battles; on re-visionings of justification; on slippery theological liberalism.
I’d arrived at Moore College as a naive 21-year-old uneducated evangelical (who thought that word just meant ‘keen on evangelism’). I’d sort of worked out the sufficiency of Scripture, but I was also a ‘Gamaliel charismatic’—that is, I felt you ought to be open to pretty much anything spiritual, if it was kindly Christian people pushing the barrows (especially if they talked warmly about Jesus a lot).
Pretty much the last book I’d read prior to arriving at Moore College was by John Wimber. And the next thing I knew, in 1990, he arrived in person in my city. And so began one of the most famous episodes in Sydney evangelicalism in the past generation, and with it, one of the most well-known editions of The Briefing (#45-46). In a devastating way—though I thought it clear, courteous, and biblical—I was convinced by Phillip Jensen (with John Woodhouse and David Cook), by Andrew Shead, by Mark Thompson, by Dr Philip Selden, and others. Along with the most memorable chapel sermon I ever heard, from Ray Galea on Mark 8, they helped me to change my mind. I realized that if Christians marginalize the cross of Christ in God’s gospel, even in a well-meaning way as they seek to minimize suffering or find more power for evangelism, then such an approach is deeply un-Christian and must be resisted.
Other times, it’s just been fascinating and sometimes radical thinking in The Briefing: about the sacraments; about life and work and family and rest; about Sunday
worship services, oops, I mean ‘assemblies for gospel edification’!
I wasn’t quite reading from the start, only from edition #40 or so onwards. But who will forget titles like ‘No laughing matter’ (the Toronto Blessing), ‘Ministry of the pew’ (Col Marshall just warming up!), ‘The risks a preacher takes’ (Phillip Jensen on the necessity of unbalanced preaching), and yes, what is now proverbial and a Matthias Media bestseller title, ‘The trellis and the vine’.
Clearly you don’t want someone always saying no, even over secondary matters of relative indifference, let alone the negativity of only saying no. And sometimes you’d argue The Briefing got it wrong in part, either in tone or in some detail. Occasionally some will think it was wholly wrong on an issue. But the standard has always been what Paul says: test all things; hold on to the good; so test The Briefing too.
To take one example: I was fairly critical of The Briefing’s quickness to jump on the ESV bandwagon with such unqualified support. Maybe that tells you more of my problems than theirs! More to the point, it’s a sign of The Briefing editors’ maturity that they still took me on as an author, and even let me loose on the board of the parent company, Matthias Media (and later published my favourable recommendations about how to think through the new 2011 version of the NIV).
But The Briefing has never been just negative. The publishers, the editors, the authors, the support staff have always been pushing a Bible-driven, doctrinally deep gospel agenda, centred on proclaiming Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection, and helping us to help others live out discipleship to Jesus in his lordship and saviourhood.
For example, we have The Briefing to thank for a whole series of daily Bible reading notes—something like 1200 days’ worth from all over the Bible, along with some excellent topical work.
For me, I am incredibly grateful to Andrew Alexander, my fellow student in first year at Moore College, who recommended I begin subscribing to The Briefing.
Sure, The Briefing has been challenging, contentious, uncompromising, and perhaps even militant at times. And maybe that appeals to some more than others. But it has also been warm-hearted, funny, generous, mind-stretching, clear, godly and encouraging. And always it has sounded the clear note of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In regular, reliable, digestible magazine format, it has preached the Word, in season and out, correcting, rebuking and encouraging, with patience and careful instruction. And it has been unafraid to point out false teaching that merely scratches itching ears.
Ben Patterson spoke of how narrowness is often criticized. “But”, he says, “its narrowness is the narrowness of the birth canal, or of a path between two precipices—or of a lifetime spent loving one woman”.
So if saying no makes The Briefing narrow, so be it.
As it closes its doors and its time is done, thank God for it, for I am certain our heavenly Father has used The Briefing to achieve much and mighty good for many people in the cause of discipleship with Jesus.