Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.



More Lessons from the Garden

June 6th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Let me expand on my last post just a little bit. Last time out I shared ten lessons I’ve learned in my garden about the Christian life. Today I’d like to pivot slightly and share a few more lessons from the garden, but this time about ministry specifically. Here are five that come to my mind regularly.

 

  1. If you want to dig deep, dig wide. I’ve been planting a lot of shrubs lately, and I’ve learned an important trick. In order to get the hole deep enough for shrub’s root system, I need to make sure I dig a wide hole. I’ll never get as deep as I’d like unless I dig wide first. What does this mean for ministry? Well, I think it well-nigh impossible to go truly deep in the faith unless you are sharing the gospel widely. We often want to separate our maturity from our ministry, but the two are connected. If you’re not sharing the gospel regularly and using your gifts to serve in the body, you’ll find your growth stunted. To grow deep, you need to reach wide. This holds especially true for congregational life as a whole. Churches that focus inward exclusively (digging deep) will never get as deep as they like because God matures us through our carrying out his commission (digging wide). (Of course, the opposite is true in ministry [although not in gardening!] too: if you want to have a wide reach, you need to make sure you are going deep in your relationship with Jesus.)
  2. If you want continual blooms, keep deadheading! I mentioned this lesson in the last post, but referred it to one’s personal spiritual life only: I need to make sure I am constantly pruning whatever distracts me from my growth, even if it is good. But I think this lesson is even more important for local church ministry. Churches are famous for admiring spent blooms—programs, activities, ministries that blossomed beautifully in past generations. However, as with flowers, so with church life: if you’re not willing to remove the spent blooms—eliminate unnecessary and now ineffective ministries—you’ll soon have a withered, wilted church. Get rid of what is past its prime so that a new bloom can take its place. The next generation needs us to reach them in the here and now, not to tell stories of the way the garden might’ve looked a summer or two ago!
  3. The organic life matters most. There are lots of inanimate structures in a garden that help the garden grow as it should, such as trellises. These are often very important for the health of the garden when growing clematis or cucumbers or the like. However, as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne pointed out in The Trellis and the Vine, the trouble comes when we get enamored with the inanimate to the detriment of the organic. If you have a spectacular trellis, a gorgeous sculpture or two maybe, but nothing growing, you’re unlikely to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s the same in the church. There are many important support structures (such as programs), but nothing matters more than the organic life of the church in Christ. If the support structures begin to inhibit the life of the vine, or if they become the focus instead of the vine, the church will soon lose its vitality.
  4. It takes a lot of work to keep a garden healthy and growing. Because gardens are organic—living, changing, growing, dying—they require constant care. If you want it to be easy, plant artificial turf instead. Pastoral ministry is no different. Paul compares ministry to gardening (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and even mentions a small list of the many tasks required to keep it going, like planting and watering. A church—not the building, mind you (although that takes some TLC too!), but the people—requires constant care too. One never reaches the end of the task because the church is dynamic and ever-changing. A pastor’s work is never done. People who don’t like gardening shouldn’t plant large gardens because they require so much time and effort; in the same way, people who don’t like pouring out their lives in the service of others surely shouldn’t pursue pastoral ministry.
  5. You won’t always get to enjoy the fruit of your labor. Not too long ago I spent an entire summer working on my garden, and I had just about gotten everything where I wanted it. I was particularly excited to see a section of perennials fill in over the years, and to begin harvesting the raspberries I’d planted. But I never got to do either because we moved a short while later to start a new and wonderful ministry adventure. Not getting to see the garden grow was a poignant reminder to me that I had planted the gospel in the lives of different people at my previous church, but didn’t necessarily get to see it take root or blossom. So it will always be. People will move, or we will move. Change will happen. I can still labor faithfully knowing the bloom is far more important than my enjoyment of it. (And I console myself by trusting the family that moved into our old house is enjoying the garden in my place!)

 

I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn about life and ministry in the garden. What are some others you have learned?



A Virtual Gospel

March 28th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Yesterday, Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Yuval Hariri, the Israeli author of Sapiens and his latest, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Homo Deus Harari envisions humanity’s future (including its likely end) with specific focus on technology and artificial intelligence. Near the end of the interview, Harari makes this claim about religion generally, and Christianity in particular:

 

You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don’t really exist, but you believe these rules, and for your entire life you try to follow the rules. If you’re Christian, then if you do this, you get points. If you sin, you lose points. If by the time you finish the game when you’re dead, you gained enough points, you get up to the next level. You go to heaven.

 

Now, I’m hardly qualified to comment on AI or other cutting-edge technological developments, but Christianity I know decently well. And this description bears no resemblance to the Christianity I profess, nor the Christianity of Jesus’ followers throughout the past two millennia.

 

The root issue, of course, is the notion of merit. Do Christians do anything whatsoever to merit their own salvation? That is, do Christians really “earn” or “lose” points by our good and bad deeds, respectively, hoping somehow to attain a high enough score to pass through those famed pearly gates? Harari certainly thinks so, but the Bible teaches otherwise.

 

Paul, for example, says quite clearly, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our salvation is by grace (unmerited favor) alone, not by our deeds; no works involved, so no boasting allowed. Now, if you’ve ever played video games, you know much boasting succeeds a new high score, so Harari’s view of Christianity and Paul’s seem to be at odds.

 

So, as I read the interview, I was deeply troubled as I considered my own culture, and what misperceptions those around me might have about Christianity. I have had conversations with many people throughout the years that have echoed Harari’s sentiments about religion. Most do not understand grace, which means they do not understand the gospel, and can have no good understanding of why Jesus came to live among us before dying in place of us and rising again. In other words, we are surrounded by people who have rejected (or are at the least unpersuaded by) a version of Christianity completely foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles. They have rejected not the gospel, but their own misperceptions about the gospel.

 

Many who profess to be Christians reviewed the Vox interview, or gave it brief treatment on Twitter and elsewhere. In general, the tenor of the response was, “We can’t believe how dumb you are to misunderstand Christianity so badly.” I have to confess, I found this response wanting. I’d much rather our response had been, “How badly we have failed our culture, if we haven’t made clear what the gospel really teaches!” (I’d have liked to have seen some Christians engage Vox and Harari with what the gospel really says, to see if the seed might not just fall on good soil.)

 

This is the challenge I see for the church going forward: to communicate the gospel clearly and persuasively to a culture that doesn’t want to hear what they don’t understand. I believe that will take a few critical steps (repeated ad infinitum until glory):

 

  1. We need to present the bad news of humanity’s plight before the good news of the gospel will make sense. People today believe they are pretty good, and therefore probably could “score enough points” to earn their way into heaven. This is in marked contrast to Paul’s description of humanity apart from Christ (cf. Romans 3:10-18).
  2. We need to bear the name of Christ with much more humility and expressed repentance than we normally do. My question here is have we given the impression that we earned our salvation? Listening to Christians speak—especially when it comes to social or political issues—one might very well draw that conclusion. The church has been notoriously guilty of adopting a holier-than-thou mentality, leading to the same self-righteousness and hypocritical judgment that Jesus stridently condemned in the Pharisees of his day.
  3. We need to make very clear the distinction between Christianity and the other world religions. We live in a tolerant, pluralistic society. One will often hear that all religions are basically the same, in that they all teach the same basic moral requirements. Now, if Christianity is just one more set of rules to follow so that you can earn enough points to get to heaven, then truly it is the same as the other religions. I’d be hard pressed to argue that Jesus is the only way. But if, as the Bible teaches, Christianity is not a set of rules to be followed, but rather a grand story of God’s unfolding plan of redemption accomplished through the sacrificial death of his Son, then Jesus is, as he himself said, “the way, the truth, and the life”—and no one can come to God apart from him (John 14:6).
  4. We need to do a better job explaining why Jesus came and why Jesus died. In many ways, this is just restating the last point in different words. What is the heart of Christianity? Not that sinners try to claw their way back into God’s good graces by dint of their effort, but rather this: “While we were still sinners [trying to claw or not], Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to live the perfect life we were called to live but unable to live because of our sin nature. Then he took our place—bore our punishment in his body, absorbed the full force of God’s fierce anger at our sin on the cross—that we might take his place, welcomed as beloved, righteous children of God by faith: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). I am loved by God because of Jesus, not because of anything I have done.

 

I was reminded as I read the interview, that this is not a video game, and certainly is not an alternative reality. In a video game, when you die, you start over and try again. There are no consequences for making the wrong decision other than wasting even more of your life in front of a flickering screen. But this is no game. Eternity is at stake. Will the church answer the call and proclaim the good news of the gospel clearly and persuasively, or will we whine about how misunderstood we are while the world around us perishes?



The Great Gospel Opportunity

February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As I mentioned last week, we are currently living in a culture of division and hostility. Our desire to vilify our political opponents has led many to accept and promote #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts. We are more wedded to our ideology than to reality, in other words; more committed to our narrative than to truth.

 

This all feels fairly depressing, I admit. But the current backlash against #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts also presents us with a tremendous gospel opportunity. I’m not sure Paul’s words to the Ephesians have ever felt so apropos: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (5:15-16). So, then, what is the gospel opportunity before us, and how can we make the most of it?

 

Put simply, the opportunity before us is that truth is starting to become fashionable again. We live in a post-truth culture—it was OED’s word of the year in 2016—which is highly suspicious of absolute truth claims. But we are fast reaching the limits of philosophical relativism. Christians have long been saying truth cannot be relative, and if we live as if it is, well, we’ll end up in the mess we’re in. Our culture is waking to this reality. One cannot plant one’s feet in mid-air, as Beckwith and Koukl might put it. #FakeNews isn’t to be believed just because we like it; #AlternativeFacts aren’t facts at all because they don’t square with reality. If truth is real, and not a product of our wishing only, we get to ask the all-important questions: Which truth? How can we distinguish truth from error?

 

Now we can see how to make the most of the opportunity before us. These questions lead to God, for God is the ultimate Reality. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Christians should never fear truth, because Christianity is true—and the facts point in that direction, as you’d expect. (One thinks of the evidence for creation, for example, and especially the evidence for the resurrection.) As I joked in my last post, the non-existence of God is the original #AlternativeFact.

 

So if you have a friend, colleague, neighbor decrying #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts, pleading with humanity (read: those on the other side of the political aisle) to wake up to the truth, you have a gospel opportunity before you. This person believes truth is real. This person has stated that facts matter. In impassioned tones, this person is proclaiming an objective morality. That’s a place to begin a gospel conversation. “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. I’m concerned for justice too, because I believe God is a God of justice. Would you mind my asking you a question? How do you know justice is good and right and true? How do you determine what justice looks like in this situation? What ethic undergirds your passion for justice?”

 

These are questions one cannot answer without revealing an ultimate foundation. And if that foundation is in mid-air—“I just know it to be true!”—we can gently, lovingly suggest what the foundation actually is. We want justice, feel the burden of morality, because God has written the moral law on our hearts. And unfortunately, it is a moral law we have broken: we have all acted selfishly (time and again) when we should have chosen sacrificial love. Now we have a crisis. If justice is real, and we have been unjust, what does that make us? Law-breakers. Or, as the Bible would put it, sinners in need of grace. Enter Christ.

 

Now, Paul follows up his charge to live wisely with this statement: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have an opportunity before us, yes, but we have the opportunity to make fools of ourselves if we’re not sensitive to God’s will. In our cultural context, I think we can pinpoint the foolish opportunity pretty easily: to make the gospel secondary and our other political concerns primary. I hope and trust we can all agree that some political issues are more important than others. I hope and trust we can all agree that the Bible is not equally clear about where Christians should stand on all political issues. Sometimes the biblical principles are so clear, and the issue so black-and-white, that we can confidently state what the policy should be on the basis of those principles. More often, however, the principles are clear, yes, but there can be genuine disagreement over the best policy. For example, the Bible is undoubtedly clear that we as Christians should care for the poor, and that a concern of the state should be the welfare of its citizens. But well-meaning, loving Christians could certainly disagree about what government policies genuinely help the poor.

 

The foolish opportunity is to take a hard stand on debatable policy discussions rather than pursue the gospel conversation. If my social media feeds are any indication of how many Christians engage in these conversations, I think we can all agree we tend to be foolish, unwise, not understanding what the Lord’s will is. My advice is simple here. When it is an unimportant, secondary issue on which loving people may disagree (and that is most of the issues), yield the right to be right. It doesn’t matter. Pursue what matters most. Engage with the gospel. When we start the conversation with, “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. The problem is you’re an idiot and so is your whole party and if you all get your way we’ll all be dead in a week,” we’re unlikely to have many follow-up gospel opportunities.

 

Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether or not Christianity is true.” In too many cases, Christians have not shown love—to each other or anyone—and in so doing we’ve forfeited one of the greatest gospel opportunities in recent times.

 

If you’re a greater evangelist for your political viewpoint than the gospel—if you pursue every political conversation, often unlovingly, but can’t manage to find time to live or speak the gospel—repent. Be very careful how you live. Don’t be foolish, but understand what God would have you do here. Make the most of the opportunity.



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.



On Marriage, Intimacy, and Evangelism

November 18th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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2dQ7Qo8The elements in the title are meant to be a tad incongruous. While marriage and intimacy certainly belong together, what could they possibly have to do with evangelism?

 

One of scripture’s most common metaphors for our life in Christ, our relationship with God, is that of marriage. For example, the prophets routinely refer to Israel’s running after foreign gods as spiritual adultery. And at the close of the grand redemption narrative, we witness the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride, the church. I want to explore some of the possible implications of that metaphor for our lives, especially pertaining to our intimacy with Christ and our lifestyle of evangelism.

 

One occasionally hears of a married couple who maintain separate bank accounts or something similar, but these are the exception to a well-established norm. By and large, those who are married understand thoroughly what it means to live an integrated life, because they have had to integrate another person—their spouse—into the whole of their lives.

 

I have been married for a little over eleven years now. I can assure you that little happens of any substance that I do not share with my wife, whether that means recounting stories from the day, discussing an upcoming decision, or soliciting much-needed advice. I bring my wife into every aspect of my life because of the union we share, because I want to cultivate—not hinder—the intimacy I know with her. I cannot imagine spending some time with her in the morning and evening, and then living the rest of my time in isolation from, and without regard to, her. If nothing else, she wouldn’t stand for it! I don’t have the “marriage” part of my life, and then the “other” part of my life, and the twain shall never meet. To critique one of my favorite characters in all of television, there should be no such division between Relationship George and Independent George: there should only be Integrated George.

 

Now, the intimacy I should know with Jesus is even greater than the intimacy I know with my wife, for one simple reason: my wife dwells alongside me, whereas he dwells within me through his Spirit. I could, if I wanted, hide from my wife; but I have no such luxury when it comes to my Lord (cf. Psalm 139:7-10).

 

Here’s the crucial point: if the intimacy is greater, so should the integration be! I fear that too often I can compartmentalize my life, spending the requisite time with Jesus in the morning and evening, but then pushing him out of mind during the rest of the day. (And I’m in vocational ministry: God help me if I were in a different vocation!) Instead, I should bring him into every aspect of my life, not simply rehearsing the day’s events in conversation before dinner (as I do with my wife), but in ongoing, lively, transformative conversation throughout the day. He is my all in all, and should be in all that I do. What a difference in my day it would make were I to turn to him unceasingly, crying out inwardly, “Yours alone! Your will be done!” Would to God it were so.

 

But what about evangelism? Where does this fit in to the discussion before us?

 

Let me ask you this, if you are married: how long into a conversation can you go without referencing your spouse? Some conversations might never get there, if, for instance, you are having a technical discussion about a work-related project. But other conversations along more informal lines move steadily in that direction, I find. It is unlikely that anyone could ask me how my weekend was without my mentioning my wife, to take just one clear example.

 

Nor do I have to strain to fit her into my conversation. I am not looking for potential segues into awkward inquiries about my interlocutor’s marital status. She just comes up because she is so much a part of my life. She features in so many answers to so many questions because I have tried to integrate my life and she is a key component.

 

In fact, only one component is more central: my relationship with Jesus. He is the integrating substance even. What did I do this weekend? I gathered with a group of men and women committed to following him so that we might encourage one another and exalt him. How do I get through tough, exhausting days? By trusting that his strength is made perfect in my weakness. What did I think of the movie? I thought it diagnosed humanity’s wretched selfishness and desperate longing for joy perfectly, but missed the cure. Why am I not angrier about getting passed over for the promotion? Because I find meaning in him, not in my work. How’s it going? Not so well, because I’ve shot my mouth off again; but thank God it doesn’t depend on my good deeds, or else I’d be in a world of trouble.

 

If I am living my life in Christ, by his Spirit, my conversation will turn naturally to my relationship with him because my life is centered on him. I will be able to answer few questions without reference to him because my whole life refers to him. By the grace of God, these unforced, honest answers will lead to further discussion wherein I can share the whole of the gospel with a person ready to hear it, a person who knows this really is the focal point and wellspring of my life.



One Size Fits All?

September 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.

 

8589130452787-kids-playing-at-school-wallpaper-hdThe gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.

 

Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[1] Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.

 

  1. Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.

 

  1. Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).[2]

 

Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.

 

All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?

 

This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.

 

What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.

 

In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.

 

[1] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.

[2] Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.



Who Needs Youth Group?

July 16th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Last week I satirically alluded to the importance of young adults attending church and youth group, lest they should fall into an early, chronic church consumerism. Some might respond, however, that though church is an indispensable means of grace, youth group is unnecessary. After all, neither youth pastors nor youth groups appear in God’s Word; and, indeed, the onus for transmitting the faith to the younger generation falls unmistakably on parents (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7; Ephesians 6:1-4). Why, then, have youth groups at all? And, should we decide to have youth groups still as a support ministry, why the histrionics about youth who don’t attend regularly?

 

Fair questions, these.

 

I would submit some cautious replies. I confess at the outset that I will employ experiential arguments in defense of my thesis. I am not generally a fan of experiential arguments, for they lack the weight of reasoned biblical argumentation. (The trouble with arguments from experience, after all, is that someone else may have a different experience—and who is to judge between them?) Nevertheless, as I noted above, I haven’t got much in the way of biblical support for youth ministry—only a vast and distressing lacuna—so I’ll make do with what I have. I acknowledge at the outset, though, that my conclusions will have to be tenuous because my premises are necessarily so.

 

I want to be especially wary of teaching human traditions as the commands of God (Mark 7:8). The Bible regularly enjoins participation in the local congregation and submission to the authority structures of the church (e.g., Hebrews 10:24-25; 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:11-16); however, nowhere does God command youth to attend a mid-week gathering aimed at them especially. Thus, attendance at youth group is not a question of obedience to God’s commands, but rather a question of discernment and wisdom for widely divergent families. Should all families send their children to youth group? If not, who should? And why?

 

Who Needs Youth Group?

Based on my experience in different contexts, cultures, and churches, I would say two very different groups of students would benefit immensely from regular[1] attendance at youth group.

 

First, youth who attend public schools should probably make youth group a priority in their lives. At least in the United States, public education is now intentionally anti-Christian, indoctrinating children with a worldview fundamentally at odds with Christian belief. This is not just a question of specific issues, such as naturalistic evolution, but a comprehensive approach to truth. The sad fact is that this indoctrination process is remarkably effective. Fewer and fewer Christian teenagers have a robust biblical understanding of the world, and fewer still can meaningfully engage with culture where they do disagree. Biblical knowledge is at an agonizing ebb. And while I grant that parents could supplement and correct the false teaching their children receive at school, the cold, hard truth is that few do—or do enough anyway. For these reasons, I believe youth who attend public schools should attend youth group regularly, to receive the instruction and equipping necessary for their circumstances—especially with university looming on the horizon, where these challenges will intensify!

 

Second, youth who are homeschooled should probably make youth group a priority in their lives—but for very different reasons. Indeed, one of the main motives for homeschooling is to pass a biblical worldview on to one’s children. However, what is often lacking in children of homeschooling families is an ability to engage winsomely and boldly with the culture around them (occasionally even including the other kids in their youth groups!). Homeschooling runs the risk of being unbiblically insular: children receive an abundance of Christian worldview, but have little skill at communicating its message to those in desperate need of it. For this reason, I believe youth who are homeschooled should attend youth group regularly, to have opportunity to engage with the lost and struggling meaningfully—and to learn how to do so more and more effectively.

 

Who Might Not Need Youth Group?

While I believe youth group should benefit every teen who attends, nevertheless I can see two groups who—given the constraints of time and energy—need not make it a priority in their lives.

 

First, youth who attend Christian schools might not need to attend youth group regularly, though it would depend upon the school. Two questions must be asked of the school: (1) Does the school provide truly Christian education, or is it merely a private school that Christians attend? That is, does the school not only teach the content of the faith (e.g., Bible classes taught by professionals trained in the subject), but also the practice of the faith? Does the school have a compelling discipleship structure, and is making disciples the top priority of the school? (2) Does the school provide opportunities to engage with the lost and struggling, so that students learn to communicate the gospel winsomely and boldly? This might happen through regular outreach events or through welcoming a percentage of the student population that is not Christian. If these two criteria are met, then it is very likely that those youth could forego youth group if they had good reasons for doing so—provided they belong to the second group too, however.

 

Second, those youth who participate fully in the “adult” ministries of the church would not need to attend youth group regularly. By full participation, I do not mean spectating during the service and volunteering to hold small children in the nursery. That is not fellowship as Scripture defines it. Rather, full participation requires using one’s gifts to serve the church, leading to mutual edification and outreach, and partaking in genuinely Christian relationships. These would involve mutual confession, encouragement, admonition, prayer, and accountability. If a young man or woman enjoyed that sort of fellowship with other members of the congregation—in a small group, for example—while using their gifts to build up the church, they could forego youth group.

 

A Final Caveat

Of course, my whole argument demands that the youth group reflect a functioning biblical community, having the same priorities and ministries that Scripture enjoins. A spineless, shallow, merely entertaining, or even merely relational group isn’t worth attending regardless of one’s educational situation. If the heart of the youth group is seeing who can drink a soda through a dirty sock the fastest, then I would strongly encourage all the youth in the church either to participate in the “adult” ministries fully or to seek reform prayerfully and lovingly. If, however, the heart of the youth group is equipping young men and women become to become fully-devoted followers of Christ—making disciples, that is—then I can only encourage participation.



[1] By “regular,” I mean often enough to be a functioning member of the community: i.e., using one’s gifts to serve others in the group, and developing relationships of sufficient depth for accountability and admonition.



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!