A Holiday Rant

December 1st, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I’m not in the habit of ranting—at least not this early in the morning—and the holidays don’t bother me much, but there has been something brewing in me for several years now, and I feel it is time to let it out. As I say that, the wisdom of Proverbs assails me, imploring me to hold my tongue: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives,” I hear, “but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “a fool’s heart blurts out folly” (12:23), they tell me, but still I speak.

 

Here it goes.

 

There has been a growing frustration among evangelicals about the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which is now excoriated almost universally among my brethren as “offensive”HappyHolidaysGiftChristmasTree2012_freecomputerdesktopwallpaper_2560 and “politically correct” (an odd combination of critiques). It represents, so they tell me, the slow degeneration of the once great American society—a Christian society, you will remember—into the godless postmodern slough we now inhabit. Christmas is about Jesus (as it surely is), and December is about Christmas—that’s why your kids have a break, after all—so let’s all just acknowledge this fact and wish everybody a merry Christmas, and expect everyone to wish us the same, even if they’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist. It would be offensive for them not to, that’s what I says.

 

I confess I find this logic (a generous term) bewildering. Debates about just how Christian a nation America ever was notwithstanding (the evidence is a pretty mixed bag though—just ask the esteemed Mr. Jefferson), I still can’t understand why we make such a fuss about this. America is not now a Christian nation. Given the history of Christendom, I think we can all thank God for that; I would much rather we be yeast in the dough, rather than decreeing that all the dough has been successfully leavened by government fiat (see: Theodosius, Edict of Thessalonica). Many who inhabit this great nation believe in other gods, or believe in none at all. That is part of what makes our nation great, and is a tremendous spur to winsome, loving evangelism in one of the largest mission fields in the world.

 

And there’s the rub: how can our winsome, loving evangelism and our petulant, trenchant demands that everyone wish us a merry Christmas coexist? In the community of believers, it is a reasonable expectation. Outside, I’m not so sure. Do we imagine ourselves to be contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints by insisting everyone celebrate our holiday on our terms? Do we think we honor the name of Christ by demanding that our Hindu or Sikh or agnostic neighbor speak our language or face our wrath (and, worse still, our clever memes on social media)? Why would we expect someone who does not believe in the incarnation of Christ to pretend that matters to them? Would we even want them to?

 

In acting thus, many of us have defamed the name of Christ, and have given offense where none is needed. We imagine our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, have stumbled over the Cornerstone, when in fact we have simply tripped them (1 Peter 2:7-8). This is not the offense of the cross. This is a scandal of our own making. Rather than becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some, we have demanded all people come to us on our terms. Those terms are two: “merry” and “Christmas.”

 

If we would rather be the aroma of life this Christmas season, let us revere Christ as Lord in our hearts and in our Advent practices, being ready to give an answer to anyone who inquires as to our holiday plans or our seasonal worship customs (1 Peter 3:15-16). We have had a number of people ask about various family worship practices during Advent, leading to some rich conversations. Evangelism is a process, and we have the opportunity to encourage a step in that blessed process—or to stall it before it begins. As for me and my house, would to God it be the former.

 

Enough, already. Happy holidays, everyone.



The Ministry Revolution

November 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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8399885739_b54424da81_z“Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radially reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert mind and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul.”

 

So writes David Bentley Hart in his witty, provocative, and insightful Atheist Delusions.[1] He then points to Christianity as the most striking example of a “real” revolution, slowly but thoroughly overturning the old Western world order, permeating the whole of Roman pagan culture like yeast through dough. So thoroughly did the Christian vision shape the minds, hearts, and wills of its converts, that not even so zealous a pagan reformer as Julian the Apostate could stop the inexorable tide—and indeed, his understanding of the old pagan religion was itself subtly and overwhelmingly Christianized. That is a true revolution.

 

Today many of us continue to seek revolutions of various sorts. Many would love to see a cultural revolution undue the destructive influence of modernity’s unshakable narcissism, to redefine freedom within a resolutely biblical ethics, for example. Those who seek this—and I certainly number myself in that group—would do well to reflect on Hart’s insight: our revolution will not come about because of a Supreme Court decision or something equally sudden and legally cataclysmic. Democratic government reflects and adopts cultural trends; only rarely does it determine them. Instead, we need to seek a genuine revolution that converts minds, wills, and hearts through the patient proclamation of the gospel in redemptive relationships, transformative discipleship, and a winsomely prophetic voice through the pulpit and the paintbrush.

 

But my aim today is not to address a culture-wide revolution; rather, I would like to consider the practical implications of Hart’s historical insight on today’s church. How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?

 

Many churches today stand in dire need of renewal. Research indicates that as little as 5% of evangelical churches are experiencing conversion growth. Some 80-85% are in decline, while the remaining 10-15% are increasing numerically through transfer growth alone. There are too few fruitful churches left for us to celebrate and defend the status quo. Revolution is in order.

 

Unfortunately, evangelical churches incline towards slow adaptation. There is a legitimate conservationist tendency built into the historic faith: we are to guard the good deposit, to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3), which means we will forever cling to an unchanging theological foundation. There is also, however, an illegitimate expression of the same tendency, wherein we reckon our ministry practices to have been once for all entrusted to us at the same time we were given the theological foundation. Such is manifestly not the case: our preaching, our music (whether traditional or contemporary), our buildings, etc., would all appear completely foreign to the early church. They have changed because the culture has changed, and we need to communicate an unchanging message to a changing audience. This is all as it should be. The trouble comes when we decide they have changed enough, and then zealously defend a tradition that should be discarded as an old wine skin.

 

Granting the need for change, we now need to return to our initial question: How do we bring about that change? How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?

 

A wise leader or group of leaders—or even a wise congregant eager to exert godly influence on the leaders God has placed over the church—will pursue slow change through the conversion of minds, hearts, and wills. Structures, titles, logos, and programs may need to change—probably need to change, in fact—but we deceive ourselves if we think these will bring about a true revolution. They will simply paint a revolutionary veneer on an otherwise unchanged and intransigent edifice. Frankly, most of us have seen this happen—we have heard the name changes (are they small groups or life groups or fight clubs?), had the latest faddish program inflicted on us, and sorted through a bewildering array of org charts—and yet still haven’t seen a true ministry revolution. We need a different approach.

 

So, rather than decree change from the top down, let us stoke revolution from the bottom up. Let us convert minds through patient, dialogical teaching—including instruction in the difference between unchanging theological foundations and contextualized ministry practices; let us convert hearts through sustained prayer for gospel renewal and faithful application of the Word of God within the community of believers; and let us convert wills through redemptive relationships, slowly and lovingly cultivated in joyful fulfillment of the Great Commission.

 

Vive la revolution!

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009): 183.



Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.

 

Until another comes forward, that is.

 

Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.

 

Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!

 

The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.

 

Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.

 

  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.


Child Sacrifice in the Twenty-First Century

November 6th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Last month in India Rajkumar Chaurasia axed his nine-month-old son to death as a sacrifice to the Hindu goddess Durga (Kali). Kali is famously the goddess of destruction, so Chaurasia committed the horrific crime to please her. He thought that the sacrifice would bring happiness to childless couples, according to police.

 

As enlightened Westerners, we rightly recoil at such barbaric acts. If religion leads us to destroy, rather than to build up/inspire/encourage, then religion is wrong. That any god could take pleasure in child sacrifice is a testament to the destructive power of irrational belief—more proof that “religion poisons everything.” Thank goodness we’ve turned to more rational ideals and away from cruel superstition.

 

What would drive people to sacrifice their children? The purpose is to gain the favor of the god to whom the child is sacrificed, precisely what Chaurasia purposed. It is a wretchedly cruel instance of quid pro quo: “I will sacrifice something of great value to me, but then you have to do what I want.” If I burn my child on the altar, you have to provide a good harvest next year; if I throw her off the cliff, you will keep my enemies from overtaking me; if I axe him to death, you must make many wombs fertile in response.

 

In other words, people have sacrificed their children throughout the ages because they wanted something more than their children. It is the most severe form of pagan idolatry. Whatever idol I seek—whatever it is I want most in this world, whether that be security, riches, health, or even something as innocuous as self-fulfillment—I am willing to give up that which I should love most unconditionally to receive it. It is selfishness to the core.[1]

 

Once child sacrifice is reframed in these terms, however, our “enlightened” Western culture has cause to shift uncomfortably in its seat. In the United States, at least, we have been practicing state-sanctioned child sacrifice since 1973. In fact, we have killed more than 50 million babies in the pursuit of our idols. I am referring to abortion.

 

What would drive us to sacrifice our children? What are the gods whose favor we seek? They are not false gods like the days of yore—Molech, Ba’al, even Kali—but modern gods of our own making. We sacrifice children to the idol career, to self-actualization, to selfish visions of the perfect life (and there is no room for a child with Down’s syndrome in those visions, it seems). If a child would hinder my plans for happiness, I will happily sacrifice him or her on that altar.

 

So, before we judge the religious practice of child sacrifice too harshly, perhaps we should examine our own secularized, humanist, enlightened version of it first. It is no less cruel, no less barbaric, no less selfish than Rajkumar Chaurasia’s appalling act. If the latter shocks and horrifies us, so should the former.

 

A final word, for the evangelicals who constitute the overwhelming bulk of my limited readership: Before we slip into our own version of smug judgmentalism (not that we’d ever fall into that!), it may be worth noting our own version of child sacrifice. While we rightly oppose abortion vocally and vehemently, we may still fall into the trap of sacrificing our children spiritually for the sake of counterfeit gods. The idols of education, advancement, success, achievement, fun, athletics and extracurricular activities all clamor for our devotion. Will we keep our children from spiritual life for any of these? For what will we allow or force them to skip fellowship with believers? What gets in the way of our family worship times—opening the Word and praying together as a family? You get the idea. We are just as wont to place our desires above our children’s most important needs.



[1] Small wonder, then, that the God of the Bible detests child sacrifice so intensely (cf. Jeremiah 32:35 and the harsh response to Manasseh’s sin of child sacrifice in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33): God expects us to live self-sacrificial—not egocentric, self-serving—lives.



American Idols

May 28th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some time ago I noted the importance of “cultural discernment,” the willingness to judge the culture in which we reside and minister lovingly and incisively. Paul did so with Crete especially (cf. Titus 1:12-13). This is simply a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity, that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not even one. If this is true—and it seems to be empirically verifiable—then there are no righteous cultures either. This means that, if we are to be effective ministers in this present cultural darkness, we need to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ.

 

As I am living now in the United States, and as the bulk of my very limited readership is likewise, I propose to consider some of our peculiar, pervasive sins. For the sake of levity in the midst of much gravity, we’ll call them our “American Idols.” I will mention four, though I suspect this is not an exhaustive list.

 

Egalitarianism:

One would not normally think of equality as a sin or idol, but so it has become in most of the Western world, springing from our uncritical acceptance of democracy. At its root, this is the belief that every opinion has equal value and should therefore be given equal weight. It is at its worst when we applaud and accept every reading of a passage of Scripture in our small groups and education classes, no matter how ill-informed, anachronistic, or inane. Not only is this an unfortunate capitulation to the excesses of postmodernism, but it carries with it an implicit denial of the hierarchy God himself established.

 

God has made it clear that he has given some to be leaders in the local assembly of universal church (cf. Ephesians 4:11), and that they are responsible for the doctrinal purity of the congregation (as even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles would show). I have already written on the damaging effects of this “flip principle” on the church, especially the office of preaching, so I won’t belabor the point.

 

It is worth noting that some of the democratic egalitarianism of the church comes from a faulty application of the priesthood of all believers. While no one would wish to deny the importance of the whole body of Christ in ministering the gospel to each other and the world (cf. Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 2:9), it is an unwarranted leap then to the abolition of the leader-congregant distinction. What the Bible maintains, as in Ephesians 4, I would not wish to deny.

 

Individualism:

America has long prided herself for her doctrine of “rugged individualism.” We have developed asinine proverbs like “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our self-reliance (to use Emerson’s description of this vice he regarded as virtue). We worship the self-made person and seek to emulate those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The fact that this is a physical impossibility should have been our first clue that something is amiss.

 

The church has not been immune to this cancer. We have imported this mentality and so diminished the importance of regular fellowship—as well as radically distorting the nature of that fellowship. Consider the habits of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

At one time, the church gathered daily, sharing regular meals together and holding everything in common (including their schedules, it would seem). In marked contrast, many Christians today have a hard time attending church regularly, comfortably skipping if another event conflicts with their regular time of worship. Beyond that, many more find it difficult to fellowship regularly outside of scheduled church activities. Given our current culture of loneliness and isolation in the suburbs especially, it seems people simply cannot make time for Christian community, friendships, and engagement.

 

Unfortunately, this affects more than church attendance statistics. The trouble with this unholy brand of Christian individualism is that sanctification is a community project. Quite simply, we do not normally grow in isolation from other Christians; we need the ministry of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:1-2 and a host of other similar passages). Without the ministry of fellow pilgrims, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have achieved greater holiness than is true; we need loving reminders—living mirrors—of how far short we fall of the standard of God’s Word (James 1:22-24).

 

Remember, God is calling a people for his name, and a people is more than a collection of individuals (1 Peter 2:9). And that people will grow to become the mature body of Christ as a people, not as individuals (Ephesians 4:15-16). John Stott sums it up nicely, with all the necessary holy boldness: “We are not only Christian people; we are also church people.  We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ.  At least I hope so.  I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian.  The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”[1]

 

Consumerism:

Americans are driven by a consumer mindset. Inundated by an unceasing deluge of advertising—on the road, on the web, on TV, in the paper—really, anywhere they can put it—we have believed the lie. We do deserve it. We should have the latest and greatest. Our lives would be incomplete without those. And the adversary snickers. For we have exchanged shadows for substance, trinkets for the Trinity, things for the King of kings. We have “amused ourselves to death,” to use Neil Postman’s phrase—and the death has been spiritual, not physical.

 

Worse still, we have allowed consumerism to vitiate our experience of worship. At one time, not that long ago, people came to church expecting to meet the living God, to hear a heart-piercing truth from his Word, and to glorify him corporately in song and service. Now, should we even make it to church (see above: indvidualism)—that is, if it is the best program available in that timeslot—we expect to be pleased, appeased, to have our burdens eased. In short, we expect the church to provide for us what we think they should provide for us (see above: egalitarianism)—after all, every other segment of society functions in this way—and if they do not, we will find someone who will. We will vote with our checkbook, so to speak, by taking our tithes and offerings to the competitor, by which we mean another local congregation, where we will restart the cycle.[2]

 

And, even more sadly, many churches have accepted this as the ineluctable status quo, and so reward the fickle and disregard the faithful. It seems more and more churches today are willing to enter into the advertising business, to woo and coddle customers to a spurious gospel of self. To our shame.

 

Litigationism:

Sometimes a neologism is needed. Litigationism is a specific form of egotism in which we consider our rights more important than our duties. When we feel someone has trampled on our rights, we take to the courts with alacrity. I would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting epithet for our culture than “litigious.”

 

The notion of human rights springs from a Christian worldview. God has made us—all of us—in his image, and he has thus endowed us with worth and dignity. No less ardent an anti-Christian than Thomas Jefferson could acknowledge this much.[3] However, the Christian view of rights is actually framed in terms of duties. God does not command us to be loved by others, even our enemies, but to love them; he prohibits murder, for example, not so that we can preserve our lives, but so that we will not take another’s. Our focus, if we are truly Christian, will always be outward (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Such was the example Christ provided for us—an example he expected us to follow (cf. John 13:15, 34-35).

 

It was instructive to me that, next to our dietary habits, this was the aspect of American culture most amusing to my friends from other cultures. When large swaths of humanity find our approach to rights inscrutable, it may be because we are wrong. I have written on the subject already, so, again, I will not belabor the point.

 

It should come as no surprise that pride—the love of self—undergirds all of these sins. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pride as the chief sin, endemic to humanity, the “complete anti-God state of mind” that leads to every other vice.[4] Above all else, Americans love themselves. We are all, in the most painful sense of a familiar phrase, “proud to be an American.”

 

Our pride leads us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we expect to have a vote in every proceeding (egalitarianism). Our pride demands we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, so we neglect the community God provides for us (individualism). Our pride whispers that we have a right to whatever we want, so we expect to be coddled and comforted even in our churches (consumerism). And our pride insists on our rights, so that we will fight anyone who doesn’t do as we please (litigationism).

 

When a single disease produces such pernicious symptoms, we would do well to seek a cure. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

 



[1] The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007): 19.

[2] How do you know if you are a church consumer? Have you ever said something like, “I couldn’t worship today because . . . ,” as though our worship depended on the church’s programming abilities? Do you listen to the sermon critically, to see if the pastor was worth your time, or as if this were God’s Word for you today? What sorts of complaints are you likely to make about the church?

[3] An atheist, however, could not: there is no philosophical sleight of hand convincing enough to rescue dignity for the product of time, chance, and matter, despite the impressive efforts of “charitable” atheists like Luc Ferry.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1996): 110.



Poetry: “Sonnet”

April 24th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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God made us to enjoy beauty and to imitate his wondrous creativity as an expression of worship (cf. Exodus 31:1-11). Unfortunately, the church today too often neglects the arts as a serious Christian pursuit. To address this deficiency, I will post some poetry occasionally as a reminder and challenge to all of us (myself included) to embrace the artistic as a means of embracing the Artist. 

 

This is a poem I wrote in 2001 as a prayer of confession. It is my own personal Psalm 51, so to speak. The almost violent imagery is a tribute to John Donne’s masterful work “Batter My Heart.” I hope it will be an encouragement to others—perhaps even as a model prayer—in the same way that Donne’s poem has always been an encouragement to me.

 

“Sonnet”

Paroxysmal pleasure, meet sudden pain,

As white blood spills red blood of th’ unbent reed;

Transient, fleeting, the former can’t feed

Lust’s unassuageable maw.  Now are twain

Body, spirit, insatiate each: the one

For surfeit, the better for want of bread.

Raw meat arousèd hot, leftover feed

Cannot fill what can bread of God alone.

O Jesus! penetrate my maidenheart,

In doing so, unspoiling spoiled flesh.

Return to my lover me—virgin, fresh—

That I may lie from him no more apart.

Enter me that I may be satisfied,

Chastity to live now that death has died.



Why Do Christians Hate Gays?

April 16th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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It seems to be the question on everyone’s minds. How can those who proclaim a loving, forgiving God demonstrate such hatred and bigotry? Unfortunately, many self-proclaimed Christians have made this a legitimate question to ask, displaying undeniable cruelty to those God, in some sense at least, loves.

 

But if a handful of Christians have made the question necessary, some on the other side of the debate have asked it without challenging the presuppositions behind it. I would suggest that before we ask why Christians hate gays, we must first ask if Christians hate gays. After all, the Westboro Baptist sorts seem to be in the hate-mongering minority even among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. I belong to the latter category and I find the assumption that Christians hate gays to be intellectually (if not morally) offensive. So I will challenge it by first asking the related and seemingly never asked question.

 

Do Christians love gays?

 

I propose that they do—at least those of them humbly seeking to live faithful Christian lives by the grace of God.

 

Consider what it means to love someone. As far as definitions go, I have always preferred C.S. Lewis’: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it may be obtained.”[1] Love has little, if anything, to do with bare emotion, and rather more to do with spending ourselves wholly to see our beloved experiencing the very best. For this reason parents sacrifice time and energy to put their children through school so that they can follow their vocational dreams. For this reason patriots have given their very lives so that their families and loved ones back home can live lives free from terror and oppression. We may quibble whether these choices were wise; we may challenge whether the results were in fact the “ultimate good” the loved ones could experience. But we cannot challenge the loving intent of the actions.

 

Now, for Christians the definition of love remains the same, except that we would more narrowly define what anyone’s ultimate good is. Christians believe, as they always have, that God himself is the ultimate good, the very best that anyone can experience. It was for this reason, according to the Bible, that Jesus Christ came into the world and died his sacrificial death on the cross: that anyone who trusts in this work of Jesus might live the fullness of life, might experience perfect peace and complete joy through a relationship with God himself.

 

You may not agree that this is the ultimate good, but you cannot disagree that this is a central tenet of the Christian faith, and one to which Christians are entitled to cling.

 

According to this understanding of love, colored in distinctly Christian terms, do Christians love gays or not? Surely they do (or at least the bulk of them from my experiences in mainstream evangelicalism). If, as Christians believe, the ultimate good we could wish on anyone we love is God himself; and if, as the Bible states clearly throughout the Old and New Testaments, homosexuality—like all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage—is a sinful practice that separates the person from God; then the most loving action a Christian could take is to call the beloved homosexual out of life-destroying sin and into life-giving fellowship with God.

 

To the gay community, this approach is anathema. It is a violation of human rights, unjust discrimination, narrow-minded bigotry and hatred. Christians, we are told, should mind their own business, stay out of other people’s bedrooms, and quietly delude themselves with their pretended spirituality.

 

That may all be true. But note the sleight of hand that takes place in such a maneuver. The gay community and those who advocate it have asked us to adopt their standard of love, their definition of “ultimate good,” now given an individual, humanistic tinct. In addition, they have asked Christians to abandon outright the historic heart of Christianity—in essence, to cease to be Christian—by insisting that we no longer proclaim that message publicly.

 

In other words, the gay-rights movement has proven itself to be just as publicly vocal (evangelistic?), intolerant, and narrow-minded as the Christians they denounce. Both sides, in order to continue being what forms the core of their identity, must persist in trying to convert the other side: from homosexuality to celibate same-sex attraction on the one hand, and from evangelist to relativist on the other. But so far, only one group has acknowledged its proselytizing instinct.

 

Three conclusions follow. First, despite our entrenched positions, we need not give in to vituperative hatred, as the worst advocates on both sides have regrettably embraced. Second, this does not mean that Christians hate gays any more than it means gays hate Christians. Individuals on both sides may lapse into this lamentable stance, but the movements will necessarily forego them: Christians because they are called to love, and gays because they espouse individual freedom, including freedom of religious belief.

 

Third, and finally, the debate will continue. If love wins, it has to. For Christians will continue proclaiming their ultimate good, the fullness of life found only in Christ; and gay-rights advocates will continue proclaiming theirs, the autonomy of the individual to choose their own happiness.

 

I can only ask, as a Christian tired of being dismissed as a hate-filled homophobe because I believe in the authority of the Bible, that the debate continue honestly, not with the stunted reasoning of a meme-generation. Christians cannot preach love and then practice hate, as most of culture has vociferously reminded us; but neither can the gay-rights community preach individual freedom and practice cultural hegemony and vitriolic jeremiads against those who choose another way of life. To do so would be hypocrisy.



[1] “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 49.



Persecuted Freedom

December 11th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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A few of us were gathered recently to discuss the state of the church in the United States. One posed the question, “Would you rather be a missionary in a society that had freedom of religion or not?” It was an interesting query and caused a few moments of reflection.

 

A surprising consensus developed gradually, however. We all agreed that we would rather be missionaries in a society that had freedom of religion, but would rather be pastors in a society where the church faced regular persecution. It is far easier to scatter seed when you won’t be arrested or executed for doing so, meaning missionary work might prove more fruitful in an open society. Nevertheless, in open societies the church almost always grows complacent, compromising its integrity and mission. Persecution refines the church, however, so that those who remain show themselves to be committed disciples, as willing to suffer or die for the kingdom as the King himself was. Many of the problems facing the American church—cheap grace, sloth, consumerism, self-indulgence—would recede instantly if the cost of following Christ were made more immediately obvious through persecution.

 

What strikes me as interesting, though, is that the explosive growth of the church in the first century occurred in a society that was both open and hostile. The Romans had an official policy of pluralism, allowing Paul and the other apostles to proclaim whatever religion they might desire; however, the Romans also had an implicit policy against exclusivism, so that any religion that claimed pride of place faced reprisal. So Paul, Peter, and the others preached openly, and then were martyred gloriously.

 

Perhaps these are the ideal conditions for making genuine disciples: openness and hostility, a persecuted freedom. One may scatter seed freely—a necessary condition for explosive growth; but one may also expect persecution—formal or informal—ensuring that those who come into the fellowship of the saints have counted the cost of following a crucified Savior.

 

And perhaps more interesting for us in America today, these are the conditions we face in increasing measure day by day. We still have institutionalized freedom—and one suspects the Bill of Rights will not undergo many changes in the near future—but we also face increasing hostility from a cultural establishment that embraces pluralism and hates exclusivism.

 

Are the conditions ripe for explosive growth? Is our next revival on the horizon? Let us pray it be so! 



Postmodernism: Making Their Biggest Beef Our Greatest Asset

October 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”

 

Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.

 

Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.

 

It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else.  Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.

 

Experience Is Everything

Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back. 

 

Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.

 

Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?

 

Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.

 

Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.

 

Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________.  All __________ do or don’t do __________.  

 

No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.

 

And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.

 

How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)

 If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.

 

Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.

 

They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.

 

More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.

 

They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)

 

But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.

 

The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.



Abolishing the Secular

September 12th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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One of the practical ramifications of “the greatest commandment”—loving God with all of who we are—is the breakdown between the sacred and the secular. There are no longer some activities that are worshipful and spiritual, and others that are mundane and secular. As Paul says with as wide a sweep as any statement in Scripture, “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). However, acknowledging the breakdown is easy; the harder part is working out the practical implications.

 

As Christians we need to consider what it means to abolish the boundaries between secular and sacred practically. Though I’m sure we all recognize that the line has been erased because all has become sacred, in practice we often act as though all has become secular—which is good enough, we think, because somehow that makes it sacred. I think we need to be careful here. Looking at Paul’s leatherworking trade may help shed some light on this admittedly difficult subject.

 

Paul gives us a window into his leatherworking shop in his first letter to Thessalonica: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (2:8-9). The clear expression of restless love aside, note that Paul’s love for the Thessalonians led him to work hard—night and day, so that he could support himself—“while we preached the gospel of God to you.” That is a remarkable phrase. Reading through the Thessalonian correspondence carefully, you would note that nowhere does Paul indicate that he preached in the synagogue (though Acts assures us he did); that, coupled with the fact that his converts “turned to God from idols” (1:9), which he would not say of Jews, suggests that the majority of his converts were pagan gentiles. How did these gentiles hear the good news and come to Christ? Wanamaker argues,

the workshop formed one locus of missionary activity outside the synagogue. The workshop of an artisan was commonly a place for intellectual discourse, and in fact Hock. . .shows that at the time of Paul it was so used by Cynic philosophers. As Paul and his colleagues largely supported themselves in their missionary work at Thessalonica (1 Thes. 2:9; 2 Thes. 3:8), it is reasonable to assume that much of Paul’s time was spent in a small shop where people interested in his message could come and talk to him while he worked at his trade.[1]

Anthony Thiselton argues similarly for Paul’s ministry in Corinth, where he likewise supported himself.[2]

 

Other than having some fascinating tidbits to impress others at dinner parties, of what use is this portrait of Paul at work? I fear that by abolishing the distinction between the secular and the sacred carelessly, we have drawn an even sharper distinction between them than before. To suggest that ministry should happen in the local church, while work should happen in the workplace, not only ignores the apostolic approach, but also assumes that work should be done for work’s sake, and as such is glorifying to God. I cannot see this as being scriptural. Paul did not work at his trade simply because it had intrinsic value; he worked at it so that he could glorify God by making disciples in his name. Work was a tool for kingdom expansion.[3]

 

This is the point of a final passage worth considering, the parable of the talents—whence comes our treasured accolade, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I won’t comment much, as the parable is pretty self-explanatory. As in Colossians 3:22-25 and Ephesians 6:5-8, Matthew commends faithful service to the master (25:14-30). Of course, in contrast to the other passages, this is a parable. The master is unquestionably Christ, who is coming again at some unknown, imminent date. In the light of his coming, we must work diligently—using the resources and gifts he has given us in his service. (This and the surrounding parables commend our preparedness for Christ’s coming.) As the Greek word talent now covers a variety of “secular” skills in the English language, we might be tempted to read this as glorifying work for work’s sake again. If your talent is building bridges, then build bridges to the glory of God. This is not quite the point. After all, the parable has a literary context. It begins abruptly with the word “Again,” suggesting an indissoluble link with the preceding parable. That parable begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven…” (v 1). These are kingdom parables; the king who is coming is Christ. We use the talents he gives us to expand that kingdom to glorify the King.

 

Does this mean everyone should enter vocational ministry, as the only profession that matters? Surely not. That would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture. We can and should usher those who are called to the business world into that world. But to teach them that it is enough to be merely excellent in that arena—and not to use their talents within it to build the kingdom (as Paul did as a leatherworker)—would seem to be beneath the standard of Scripture.

 

Whatever we do, we do for his glory—in the marketplace as much as in the sanctuary. The breakdown between the secular and the sacred is absolute. But that means we must pursue our trade as a sacred act of worship and ministry, not that we can pursue it as our unbelieving colleagues do, only to call it good enough as though it has become magically sacred by virtue of our being Christian.



[1] C.A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 8. The emphasis is mine.

[2] The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000): 23.

[3] Only parenthetically, I will add that it is a mite interesting that nowhere in Scripture do we hear of the quality of Paul’s work as an artisan, nor of Christ’s work as a carpenter. An argument from silence, to be sure, but an interesting lacuna nonetheless.