With Iain Provan
Iain Provan was born and educated in the UK, emigrating to Canada in 1997 to become the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver. Retiring in 2022, he founded The Cuckoos Consultancy, which is designed to help serious Christians understand how they should answer the question, ‘What is a human being?’ and what this means for how they should live. It also aims to equip them to recognize the non-Christian roots of the powerful, competing ideas of ‘the human’ that they encounter every day and to have the courage to reject them.
Iain will be delivering the Thursday evening plenary, “Why the Church needs a biblical ethic of sexuality, birth sex, and gender identity” at EQUIP 2023. Kristal Toews sat down with Iain for an interview.
MBH: You have been invited to participate as a plenary speaker at the Canadian MB Equip conference in October 2023. What do you think is important for Equip attendees to know about you?
IP: I suppose it’s relevant that I’m a former professor of Biblical studies! I taught in the UK and then at Regent College in Vancouver for 25 years, and I have recently retired. I am married to Lynette, a retired child psychologist, we have four children and four grandchildren. I live in North Vancouver and am the founder of the Cuckoos Consultancy which helps people process challenging questions about humanness.
All of our 2023 Equip Plenary Speakers this year are active participants of MB congregations. Can you tell us which church you are affiliated with, what drew you to this congregation, and what has kept you there?
I attend Christ City, South Vancouver. I was drawn there because our family was a bit scattered at the time and our daughter and her fiance were attending. I didn’t want to go to church by myself, so I went with them. Then other family members returned and joined in. In the meantime I discovered that it’s a very excellent community. Very good, thoughtful, well-prepared teaching; smart, wise leadership; doing a lot of things well, including church planting, so it’s a very good place to be.
The topic for your session is, “Why the church needs a biblical ethic of sexual identity, birth sex and gender identity.” How have your areas of academic specialty and your experiences qualified you to speak on this topic?
The question, “Why do we need Biblical theology of this?” is part of a bigger question of, “Why do we need a Biblical theology of everything?” Why? Because the Scriptures are given to us by Christ to guide us on our journey. The Old Testament and the New Testament are both equally Scripture, and we have to read from Genesis to Revelation to find out what we ought to believe and how we ought to live. We also need to be able to recognize unbiblical, less than biblical, quasi-biblical ideas which interfere with our discipleship, and can be dangerous and damaging.
Having been a biblical scholar, I’ve developed quite a lot of expertise on the Bible, how best to read the Bible, and what the Bible teaches. I also have long experience of helping people to apply the Bible to all of their lives. And I have a lot of practical experience through friendships, acquaintances, and speaking to people wrestling with these issues.
If people browse through your website (iainprovan.ca), they will encounter a long list of resources you’ve written or created. Despite the breadth of your interests, you have intentionally chosen to focus, now, on what it means to be human: why?
I think this is a theological crisis at the moment in the church. Christians are really confused, and also have a profound loss of confidence in the ability of Scripture to speak to contemporary questions. The key question in the fourth century was, “Who is Jesus?” and the key question in the Reformation was, “How can we be saved?” I think our question, which goes to the very heart of the gospel is, “What does it mean to be human?”
Why do you believe that theological ideas surrounding the topics of sexual identity, birth sex and gender identity are issues of primary importance for the church?
When you step back from specific questions on gender and sexuality, with all of their emotional charge, you discover people saying that we settle ideas about what we ought to believe and how we ought to live, not fundamentally by going to Scripture, but actually by consulting some other authority. The favorite authority at the moment is what we find, or think we find, deep within ourselves. We think that we’re on our own, and can’t trust external authorities, so what we find inside takes on the status of Revelation.
That, I think, is not a matter about which we can be open-handed, because it speaks right to the heart of how you would know what a Christian way of living is. When you say, “Well, what you find yourself to desire is really the key to what you should believe and how you should live”, that’s not a trivial messing with Biblical teaching, it’s up-turning the entire thing.
You’ve written Cuckoos in our Nest: Truth and Lies about Being Human, and an interview with Jake LaFave from Christ City is available here. The following questions come from some key ideas in the book.
When it comes to the topics of sexual identity, birth sex and gender identity, what posture should the church take towards educating those inside the Christian community?
We need to admit that we have been asleep at the wheel, and our children are being catechized by strangers: people on the internet, social media, and Netflix. Who is really shaping our desires, our imaginations and those of our children? All too often, it’s not actually the Church.
So, we need to work out what our discipleship and community ought to involve. We need to be the church and not simply the religious wing of some other organization. The difficult thing in the modern world and urbanized environment, is genuinely practicing robust Christian community. Humans are creatures of the group, and if we’re spending more time in peer groups that are not focused on Christ, we are naive if we think that they’re not shaping us.
What posture should the church take towards engaging missionally with those who are outside the Christian community?
It ought to be what it’s always been. The church’s job is to be the church and to be salt and light to society. Part of that is preaching the gospel and inviting people to repent as we have repented, to join our community and be disciples. We ought to do this self-consciously as the church: an identifiable, discipleship community in which everyone has bought in. That involves loving your neighbour and all of the good works that Christians do in the culture. What it shouldn’t involve is blurring the boundaries between the church and the culture.
In your book you talk about churches being communities with hard boundaries. Can you define what you do and do not mean by this term?
We all have baggage in this area because we have seen people behave foolishly, in a nitpicking way, with the wrong posture. However, we can’t say that it is wrong to have boundaries because it’s biblical, apostolic and the Apostle Paul (for example) advocated it. Our Lord himself talked about sheep and wolves and he didn’t say, “Sheep and wolves are basically just the same, don’t worry about it!”
If you make a strong claim about Christ it offends somebody, it always has. The fact that church discipline has been done badly, doesn’t mean that it is, by itself, bad. It’s proper for parents to protect their children from bad influences, and it’s proper for us to protect the sheep. I rather shake in my boots when I hear people adopt a casual attitude towards protecting sheep, which is actually our primary responsibility as Christian leaders.
What posture should the church take with people inside the community who are advocating that the church soften its boundaries on these topics?
We need to persuade them that they are mistaken and try to dissuade them from ways of living that follow from those beliefs. So, we always take a gentle posture, we always try to persuade, to lead, to rebuke, discipline. But, if we are unable to persuade, the church must gather around the figure of Christ and be committed to what is true and good.
Community is a secondary matter. Our culture has made community and inclusion the primary matter, as if church discipline or even church splits were the worst thing that could ever happen.
After attending your session at the Equip conference, what do you hope people will walk away with?
I hope they will walk away with a renewed understanding of the moment as a crisis. I hope they will walk away with a renewed commitment to be part of the solution.I hope they will leave with a better sense of what some of the cuckoos in the nest are and be able to better distinguish between biblical and unbiblical ideas.
We’re all under colossal pressure emotionally, intellectually, and the pressure is not just outside, it’s inside our families and our church communities. The difficulty is that this is all recognized in the Bible as well, right? At the end of the day, our primary commitment must be to Christ. I don’t know if we could take too seriously the responsibility we have to lead people onwards on this journey.
Kristal Toews is the Pastor of Discipleship at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, BC. She also serves as a Member at Large on the CCMBC National Faith & Life Team.