Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Why Church Planting Is So Hard

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:02am

Planting a church in Boston is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s cold. It’s expensive. And people don’t want us here. It’s like we’ve started a business that offers a product everyone needs but no one wants.

The same is true for hard places all over the world.

You won’t just be disliked and ignored; you’ll be hated and opposed. Church planters, therefore, must be prepared to withstand opposition from three directions: outside, inside, and above the church.

Opposition from Outside

I knew planting in Boston would be hard. I was aware of the stats. But I wasn’t prepared for how this opposition would affect virtually every aspect of life—from the struggle to reach sustainability to the seemingly impossible task of finding a space to rent for corporate worship.

It’s like we’ve started a business that offers a product everyone needs but no one wants.

And the direct opposition we’ve faced only makes these realities more difficult to endure. So, you’re planting a church? What kind? Open and affirming? You don’t really believe Jesus is the only way to God, right? Surely you don’t believe in hell?

But the “raised eyebrows” aren’t so bad. What’s taken getting used to is the outright hate. I’ll never forget the letter I received a couple years into our church-planting journey.

“Jesus. Is. Evil.”—written in bold letters across the top of the page. The anonymous author wasn’t happy about our presence in the city. Here’s a small taste of the letter’s content, “If god exists, then god is evil; and, therefore, god does not deserve respect in any way, shape, or form. If this honest observation means I will be eternally punished, then at least I can rest assured that, as I burn, I will be in good company.”

Initially, this letter haunted me. How could someone be so against us? Why do we have to endure such opposition? But then I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

I’ll take hostility over indifference any day.

I’ve come to take heart in the fact that this person knows we’re in the city. I’ll take hostility over indifference any day. And the opposition has given me fresh appreciation for Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11–12)

In the same sermon, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). I’m learning to receive the blessing of being reviled while praying fervently for those who oppose us.

Opposition from Inside

Opposition from outside the church stings; opposition from inside the church devastates. I’m used to having people storm out of worship services because the Scriptures offended them. I’m used to getting chewed out for holding to orthodox beliefs. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to self-professing believers who sow discord among God’s people.

Opposition from the outside stings; opposition from the inside devastates.

The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). The most dangerous wolves don’t look like wolves. They look like the sheep you’ve tended, fed, and loved.

You see one sheep stray from the flock. Then another. You begin to notice a pattern. They were all part of the same community group, with the same leader. Someone you’ve loved and cared for has been drawing away disciples after them.

And most don’t leave quietly. The emails usually begin, “Just a few parting words of advice . . .” Lately, much of the internal opposition has been about sexual ethics and/or gender issues. You better know the Scriptures and be prepared to defend the truth. No wonder Jesus warned, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

The deepest wounds are often caused by those who were once members of your church. Perhaps your families were close, but they’ve decided to leave. You get an email like this: “While church planting is a good vision, it’s not what we want in a church.”

I’ve never been a super emotional guy. But pastoring hurts.

I’ve never been a super emotional guy. I’m Russian, and I was raised in New England. It’s a miracle I can smile. But pastoring hurts. After you take a few of these emotional hits, it’s tempting to harden your heart and withdraw. Don’t. Hiding never brings healing. Only taking refuge in the Lord Jesus does. He was betrayed by those he loved, and you will be too.

To plant a church, you need thick skin and a soft heart. Though this doesn’t come naturally, we can look to Jesus, who is both fierce as a lion and tenderhearted as a lamb.

Opposition from Above

Before planting our church, I believed in the existence of Satan in theory. Now I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Satan exists. Demons exist. They despise your church. They despise you. And they’ll do everything they can to take you out. Be prepared for bouts of depression, spiritual funks, and heightened temptations. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might (Eph. 6:10). He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, but Jesus opens blind eyes by the power of the Spirit (2 Cor. 4:4–6). So trust in him to build his church. The worst opposition, even the gates of hell, stands no chance against the advance of his church (Matt. 16:18)—no matter where you are or how hard it gets.

New Year, New You? The Allure of Transhumanism

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:00am

We’re all used to the New Year’s Narrative. Make some resolutions. Reinvent yourself—or at least fix a part or two. But even the most enthusiastic of us knows not to get too carried away. Some things you can change, but some things never change. Go to the gym? Maybe. Say “thank you” more? Sure. But where’s the line? What doesn’t change?

On one hand, this should be an easy question. We live in a culture that puts more and more in the “changeable” category. Not only do we have increasing abilities to change things about ourselves, but our culture champions the right—even the necessity—to change in order to follow our hearts. So the line isn’t easy to find in our wider culture. And if we’re honest, Christians are losing sight of it as well. We’re not doing it intentionally; it’s happening slowly. We simply imbibe this broader narrative—not just the New Year’s Narrative but the Construct Yourself Story. You can be whatever you want to be. You must be true to yourself.

This self-construction narrative connects to various Enlightenment ideas and sensibilities of the past, but it doesn’t stop there. It also connects to transhumanist visions of the future, visions that claim there should be no limit on “self-improvement”—no matter how you define “self” or “improvement.” That might seem startling at first—how have we jumped all the way to sci-fi visions of disembodied humans and powerful robots? But transhumanism isn’t only about “extreme” versions of the future; it’s about endless possibilities, many of which are on offer right now. And transhumanism isn’t only about uploading our minds into computers and living immortally in a digital world; it’s a vision of what it means to be human in relation to technology. Of course, this vision can lead to various conclusions. In fact, many of us might be surprised by the degree to which we already agree with transhumanists. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get a better understanding of transhumanism.

Transhumanism moves toward posthumanism—that stage when we’ve moved beyond the human.

At root, transhumanism is a commitment to use whatever we can to move to the next stage of human evolution. If humans have the ability to take more control, why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we change in the ways we want to? Transhumanism inevitably moves toward posthumanism—that stage when we’ve moved beyond the human. One way of distinguishing the two is to think of transhumanism as a commitment to a process and posthumanism as a vision of a future. They’re related and inseparable, but still distinguishable.

We can follow transhumanism through three steps. Let’s think of it as progressing (or digressing?) farther and farther away from the human body and closer and closer to those sci-fi scenarios we’re so sure are far off. I’ll briefly explain each move, then answer two questions: (1) How is this an issue today? and (2) Why is it a problem for Christians?

Step 1: Morphological Freedom

The first vital element of transhumanism is morphological freedom. In its most basic sense, this is the freedom to take advantage of any technology to change yourself in any way you desire. We’re not talking basic therapy here: you’re not pursuing transhumanism if you’re wearing eyeglasses or getting reparative surgery to replace a lost tooth. We’re talking enhancement: actions to add to or change what’s within the range of normal human life. (Though take note: some transhumanists refuse to acknowledge any sense of “normative,” thus rendering this distinction impossible and making it harder to distinguish between transhumanist morphological freedom and everyday glasses.)

For transhumanists, morphological freedom is a right, full stop. The logic runs like this: Everyone has both a right to life and also a right to seek happiness. Happiness can only be defined through self-determination and self-construction. Both survival and happiness require a right to freedom. Therefore, the right to modify one’s body logically follows. (For an example of this argument, see Sandberg, 56–60.)

Our immersion in digital technology has given us many more opportunities to indulge this fantasy that we are the makers of ourselves.

How is this an issue today?

The right of self-creation is fundamentally a product of Enlightenment individualism, but our immersion in digital technology has given us many more opportunities to indulge this fantasy that we are the makers of ourselves. An obvious example is virtual reality. Popular versions such as Second Life start by giving you the chance to choose your form: What are you going to look like? Take your pick. On another level, social media work this way, encouraging us to broadcast chosen parts of ourselves in selected ways. It isn’t much of a stretch to think you can modify your physical body in any way you see fit.

Why is it a problem for Christians?

At one level, freedom isn’t a problem at all. Christians believe in a God who freely created us in his image and gave us creaturely freedom for our flourishing and his glory. The problem isn’t the freedom in morphological freedom, but in the total commitment to self-determination. Christians believe that true happiness is found in God, not in self-creation. Any freedom we exercise in relation to our bodies, therefore, should be oriented to that chief aim—to flourish in relationship to God. Morphological freedom is built on a perspective of grasping control rather than obeying the call of God.

Morphological freedom probably doesn’t sound too frightening to you. But as we take the next step in transhumanist logic, things might get a little more shaky.

Step 2: Augmented Reality

The second element is the hybrid or the cyborg. If we have the right to morphological freedom, and we can take advantage of whatever technology we wish to, then what about beginning to merge with technology? This leads to “augmented reality,” in which the technological connection mediates reality to you and changes your reality. We’re used to hearing about augmented reality in connection with Google Glass, Pokemon Go, and other smartphone-based applications, but it’s broader than that.

For transhumanists, augmented reality is a way to pursue life expansion via cybernetics, merging human and machine. It can happen with minimal integration—looking through special glasses or a smartphone—but it expands far beyond. Laura Beloff uses the term “hybronaut” for the person living in augmented reality, with body-embedded and artificially controlled elements enabling different interactions with the environment (85). This state can be achieved in various ways, but the results are similar: The person’s world is changed, and their behavior is, too.

It may seem like we’re just talking about tool use, even if the tools are particularly immersive. Transhumanists themselves note this connection but argue for a difference. Scholars such as Andy Clark emphasize a certain view of the human that compels this vision of augmented reality. According to Clark, humans are essentially open to deep, transformative restructuring, which can be facilitated by augmented reality (113). In other words, what it means to be human is open and changeable. This augmenting of reality isn’t merely something we switch on and off; it’s something that will profoundly change us. According to transhumanists, we have a right to this transformation of our world-and-life view.

Augmented reality could be used to create a reality that excludes some of the neighbors we’re called to love and serve.

Augmented reality includes a wide variety of processes. We’re talking about the interface between the biological and the mechanical, which can obviously take a multitude of forms. For example, scientists are studying the effect on monkeys. They embed chips in their brains that enable them to move a robotic arm with their thoughts. This alters the way they engage with the reality around them, the way they think about themselves, and the way they behave in their world (Clark, 118). The merging of monkey and machine profoundly changes the monkey.

Augmented reality doesn’t just involve what we can do, but also how we see. Some transhumanists are promoting the idea of reality filters. As one puts it:

Reality filters may help you filter all signals coming from the world the way your favorite mail reader filters your messages, based on your stated preferences or advice from your peers. With such filters you may choose to see only the objects that are worthy of your attention, and completely remove useless and annoying sounds and images (such as advertisements) from your view. (141)

In this example, the world a person inhabits radically changes.

How is this an issue today?

Human-machine interfaces that lead to the implanting of chips in brains for controlling robotic arms aren’t part of our everyday lives. That sort of thing seems so far off. But when we consider augmented reality in general—especially the way it changes what we see—its practicality comes into focus. It’s happening today. Wearable technology such as watches and glasses provide a degree of augmented reality, filtering our experiences. And basic wearables interface us with information technology in more immersive ways. Smart glasses immerse us even more deeply, “augmenting” reality with other information and perhaps filtering our experiences. Virtual reality, especially as virtual reality gear becomes more common, provides an even more immersive move. Our experience with virtual reality games will make us more interested in and open to augmented reality in our everyday lives.

Why is it a problem for Christians?

Augmented reality is harmless is some ways, but potentially harmful in others. What happens if our augmented reality “filters” out aspects of our world that we should engage? Some scholars fear that reality filters will be used to avoid individuals, classes of people, or places we’d rather not see. In other words, augmented reality could be used to create a reality that excludes some of the neighbors we’re called to love and serve.

Moreover, augmented reality further promotes this vision of grasping for control and mastery over our worlds, rather than living faithfully before God who is in control and who calls us to serve. Consider the words of secular futurist Yuval Noah Harari:

Devices such as Google Glass and games such as Pokémon Go are designed to erase the distinction between online and offline, merging them into a single augmented reality. On an even deeper level, biometric sensors and direct brain-to-computer interfaces aim to erode the border between electronic machines and organic bodies and to literally get under our skin. Once the tech giants come to terms with the human body, they might end up manipulating our entire bodies in the same way they currently manipulate our eyes, fingers, and credit cards. We may come to miss the good old days when online was separated from offline. (92)

Eroding the distinction between online and offline might promise great possibilities, but it will bring limitations that should concern Christians, especially when it comes to inequality and living humbly as limited beings in service to God.

We’ve shifted now from transhumanism as the right to morphological freedom to one potential use of that freedom: merging with machines. But what about the next step, the sci-fi step, the leaving-the-biological-altogether step?

Step 3: Mind Uploading

This is the (as of now, and perhaps forever) sci-fi scenario of uploading your consciousness into a computer and living immortally in the machine. This scenario is what people often envision when they think about transhumanism. It’s certainly a piece of the potential future that transhumanists point to. It isn’t the first piece or the dominant piece, but it’s still worth considering.

Transhumanists disagree on how mind uploading might be achieved. Some point out the difficulty of moving consciousness to a computer: While we might one day be able to transfer all data from a biological brain to a computer, how would we have more than a copy at that point? How would consciousness transfer and become immortal? Others observe that we’re already putting much of our “brains” online by putting so much on social media. Martine Rothblatt spells out some possibilities:

Information technology (IT) is increasingly capable of replicating and creating its highest levels: emotions and insight. This is called cyberconsciousness. While it is still in its infancy, cyberconsciousness is quickly increasing in sophistication and complexity. Running right alongside that growth is the development of powerful yet accessible software, called mindware, that will activate a digital file of your thoughts, memories, feelings, and opinions—a mindfile—and operate on a technology-powered twin, or mindclone. (3)

For Rothblatt, we’re well on our way to creating beings that exist—digitally but independently—and who deserve rights and other considerations. For her, you’re on your way to creating your mindclone every time you post on social media.

This third step is admittedly different to wrap our minds around. For our purposes we can simply note this idea of moving from the biological to the digital—leaving our bodies behind for a more durable “body,” however it might be achieved.

How is this an issue today?

As noted above, we’re already getting used to putting a lot of ourselves into the digital realm. If Rothblatt is correct, social media use is moving in the direction of digital immortality. All the data we generate is capable of being drawn together in a way that serves as a striking representative of us—striking enough that some would call it a “clone.”

Even if we aren’t volunteering to uploading ourselves into a computer, we’re putting a lot of ourselves into the format through what we share and what we do.

Why is this a problem for Christians?

With this third step, we’re more clearly in a realm where Christians are uncomfortable. As followers of Christ, we worship a God who took on flesh, who became a person in order to redeem humanity. Salvation for Christians isn’t an escape from the biological to the digital, for God has redeemed the biological in Christ.

Salvation for Christians isn’t an escape from the biological to the digital, for God has redeemed the biological in Christ.

Few Christians today would opt in for this aspect of transhumanism. I trust that few in your small group want to create a mindclone or upload their consciousness to a computer. But as we’ve seen in these three steps of transhumanist logic, we’re not as far from this as we might think, given our different degrees of acceptance of morphological freedom and augmented reality. In other words, we may be more on our way toward this vision for existence—due to our acceptance of other practices and ideas—than we care to admit.

Who Are You?

New Year, New You.

But who are you? And how much “new” can you reasonably and faithfully achieve?

As you process your new year and prayerfully consider self-improvement, consider the story you’re a part of.

Are you seeking “progress,” or Christlikeness?

You Can Teach Theology with Picture Books

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:04am

As parents, we are our children’s first theology teachers. Like the women at the tomb on Easter morning, we run fearfully and joyfully to tell the people we love, “The tomb is empty! Christ has risen.” With hope-filled hearts, we teach our children about the living Lord.

God has ordained a means for teaching our children how to love him—and not primarily by sending them to AWANA, or buying another picture Bible, or using the right curriculum. Learning about God begins with wonder, and worship is our great goal. Teaching our children theology is as simple as having conversations with God and conversations about God “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7).

We have conversations with God by reading his Word, giving thanks and praise, and praying to him. In our family, we have conversations about God as we go about our daily routine—sharing meals, walking outside, and perhaps most delightfully, reading books.

Book Adventures

Every new book is a new place, a new journey into new worlds. My husband is our courageous captain. He navigates our ship through the shining seas of Bunyan, Lewis, and Tolkien. These days, we are on an excursion in a dragon’s lair.

Theology, like food, tastes better when one is hungry. Young sailors are often hungry for definitions and explanations, while being full of questions and interruptions. When our captain recently explained various heretical views of the Trinity, our living room roared with laughter. I didn’t know that was possible.

Before the current days of chapter books, however, there were years of shorter adventures in picture books. These too held truths and metaphors helpful for understanding the things of God.

Illustrate and Illuminate

The following picture books aren’t theology books. They should be enjoyed for their clever plots and likeable characters. But they can also illustrate biblical concepts. Through conversations, these picture books may illuminate truths about God in unexpected ways.

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

Mother bunny gives us a great picture of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. The Lord never leaves us or forsakes us. He is faithful to pursue us when we run away. He is the fisherman who fishes for us and the “tree we come home to.” His sovereignty is like the wind that blows us where he wants us to go. The little bunny is a lot like Jonah, the runaway prophet. But unlike Jonah, we see the bunny repent.

What Do You Love? by Jonathan London

The question “What do you love?” echoes Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. Parents can help our children to see that the child in the story loves his mommy not for “park slides and piggyback rides.” Rather, he enjoys these good things because he is with his mommy. The nature of true religion is to find our greatest happiness in Christ, not merely his gifts.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Sam Barnett

This book hilariously illustrates double-mindedness. As Sam and Dave dig down, down into the ground they miss enormous chunks of diamonds because they keep changing their minds about which direction to dig. Let us pursue the Lord single-mindedly!

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy,” or where a big hungry bear might break in and steal. Our hearts are bound up with our red ripe strawberries. I asked my children: What are your red ripe strawberries? How may we store up treasures in heaven instead?

Waiting Is Not Easy by Mo Willems

This book helps us think about why we need patience and serves as a lesson in eschatology for toddlers. How do we answer the question, “Mommy, when is Jesus coming again?” This humorous book gives us five surprisingly profound answers: One, a surprise is a surprise. Two, waiting is not easy. Three, it will get darker before the surprise arrives. Four, sometimes waiting feels like a waste of time. Five, it will all be worth it.

Wonder at the Light

Like John the Baptist, parents who have seen the light are called to be witnesses to the light. Reading with our children will not save them. But we can be the voices crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the LORD” (Isa. 40:3). We can look for clues to Christ and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Learning theology begins with a sense of wonder at our risen Lord. May the families of the world fall down and worship.

Learn to Hear ‘Exodus Echoes’ in the Whole Bible

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:03am

When we hear the word exodus, we probably think about Moses and Pharaoh, Egypt and slavery, plagues and Passover, redemption and Red Sea. We think about the book that bears its name.

But if you think the exodus is just some story near the front of your Bible, think again. In their new book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture, Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson want to convince you that the exodus is one of the most pervasive patterns in the Bible—a melody recurring again and again until it reaches its crescendo in the true Passover lamb, who redeems his captive people and his groaning creation.

Roberts and Wilson are known for working together on the Mere Fidelity podcast with Derek Rishmawy and Matthew Lee Anderson (to whom the book is dedicated). Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church in London and author of several books. Roberts is a scholar who divides his time in the United States between no less than three theological Institutes (Davenant, Theopolis, and Greystone) and is otherwise known for writing long-form articles online. This is his first book.

And frankly, it’s a wild and crazy ride and will sometimes stretch the limits of your credulity. At times I was left scratching my head. But more often I was staggered at the textual connections they were making (e.g., the exodus-shape of the book of Revelation, 150–51). And more than once I was in tears from the poetic beauty of their prose, especially when connecting it all to Jesus (see esp. 114–115, 152).

It’s a wild ride, but it’s worth it. Because even if you hear only half the echoes of exodus they want you to, you’ll likely be hearing twice as many as you do now. So prepare to be challenged, and hopefully transformed.

If you hear only half the echoes of exodus they want you to, you’ll likely be hearing twice as many as you do now.

Musical Reading

When we discuss biblical typology, we often use visual metaphors. We speak of seeing Jesus in the Old Testament; we say that the exodus is a picture of our salvation. This is good—even biblical (2 Cor. 3:13–18). But as the book’s title implies, Roberts and Wilson have chosen to explore auditory metaphors in what they call a “musical reading of Scripture.”

We acknowledge this musical reading anytime we speak of the Bible’s storyline being orchestrated by God, containing themes and rhythms and discordant notes that need to be resolved or harmonized (21). This musical reading helps us see connections in the Bible’s storyline in the following way:

As the Bible commences its overture, we hear a melody, and a regular rhythm begins. As things develop, various harmonies and counterpoints arise, some of which complement the melody beautifully, but some of which chafe against it, leaving us . . . to wonder what the Composer is doing. . . . Then the melody returns . . . bringing a temporary sense of resolution. . . . [The] rhythms of Scripture continue to be accented. . . . But every bar, every bar . . . heightens the sense that the piece is still incomplete. Eventually, after an uncomfortably long silence, the score builds to a massive crescendo in Christ, as the various themes come together and resolve in a fashion that nobody could have imagined, bringing the audience to its feet. Yet even then, the piece does not end. . . . Only at the finale, when the Christ-crescendo is recapitulated . . . do we ultimately see the full scope of the Composer’s vision. (25–26)

The pattern and elements of the exodus story are thus heard as a theme that reemerges with slight variations throughout Scripture.

For example, take one element of the exodus theme: that of leaving your home to sojourn in a foreign land only to return home with riches—or as they put it, “people going out empty and coming back full” (84; Gen. 15:14; Ex. 12:36). Ruth gives us a variation of this theme, as Naomi leaves full and comes back empty (Ruth 1:21). The authors note that Naomi’s experience reflects Israel’s frustration during the period of the judges. “We have had our exodus . . . we are now back in the land—but we are not living in the abundance we had hoped for” (85). Not only is this a variation on the theme; it’s proof the symphony is “still incomplete.”

Musical Structure

This musical reading structures the entire book. The chapters are thus organized into five parts: an “overture” followed by four “movements.”

The overture introduces the musical concept and then looks at the Last Supper, which they creatively call “The First Supper,” since the original Passover celebration was patterned after the true Passover and meant to “evoke the Last Supper in advance” (much like marriage was meant to evoke Christ and the church in advance).

The first movement unpacks the exodus story from Exodus through Joshua, introducing basic elements like wicked king, defeated gods, and rescued people. The second movement jumps back and covers the exodus in Genesis. (Yes, you heard that right. The parallels in Abraham’s life will blow your mind. Think going down to Egypt to escape famine, only to have your wife taken captive by Pharaoh and then freed when God sends plagues on the Egyptians! The book is full of this sort of thing.)

The third movement attends to the echoes in the remainder of the Old Testament, from Ruth to Esther. Roberts and Wilson make a good case that the exodus didn’t technically end until the building of the temple under Solomon. (Again, read chapter 14 and prepare to have your mind blown.) The fourth movement plays the crescendo-fulfillment in the New Testament, from Gospels to Apocalypse. In good biblical-theological fashion, the authors view this crescendo as a two-stage, already-not-yet finale, which leaves us as sojourners redeemed from slavery but not in the Promised Land.

The book closes with a brief coda on “living the exodus.”

Maximalist Hermeneutics

As I said earlier, this book may stretch the limits of your thinking, depending on where you fall on the hermeneutical spectrum. Some interpreters are more minimalist in their interpretation, preferring to see types and hear echoes only where the New Testament (or later Old Testament) explicitly identifies them. To them this is safe, as it staves off the wild allegory that finds Jesus under (or in) every rock in the Old Testament (1 Cor. 10:4).

But from the beginning, Roberts and Wilson make clear that they’re going to take a more maximalist path (14), citing influences like G. K. Beale (Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament), Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels), Peter Leithart (Deep Exegesis), and James Jordan (Through New Eyes). They anticipate possible skepticism:

Sometimes you may disagree. You may think we’re reaching, or you may think we’ve missed something. In many ways, that doesn’t matter. As long as we recognize that The Lion King is based on Hamlet, we can agree to disagree on whether . . . we can see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the characters of Pumbaa and Timon. (13)

Read and make up your own mind. Given my own influences (James Hamilton, Jonathan Pennington, and so on), I almost always found their connections credible, even if not conclusive. At any rate, there are worse things than Jesus you could find under every Old Testament rock.

Memorable Takeaways

I’ll close with two memorable points for Christian living.

First, the exodus highlights both our liberty and also our responsibility. The Israelites weren’t delivered from Egypt in order to “wander off and do their own thing” (145). Neither are we delivered from sin and Satan in order to live for ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15). Rather, we’re set free from one master that we might serve a new one. Besides being a key part of the exodus, this truth is “at the heart of Christian discipleship” (145).

And finally, as “exodus people,” Christians must always be those who sympathize and advocate for the truly oppressed. You don’t have to embrace liberation theology to acknowledge that those who have known both the oppression of Satan and also the elation of freedom ought to be disposed toward those who still suffer under various forms of Satanic oppression. “We use our power to serve the interests of those without it, because the exodus was never just for us” (158).

So I would encourage you to take up this slender volume and read. Learn to hear the echoes. Learn to tell the story—the story of a “cosmic exodus stretching from Eden to New Jerusalem” (151). Tell it to your neighbors. Tell it to your children. Because “one day the Jordan will divide, and the trumpets will sound, and worldly powers will collapse, and the vines will stretch as far as the eye can see” (158).

Even so. Come, Lord Jesus.

Should I Stay at a Christian Organization That Doesn’t Seem Christian?

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:02am
I work for a Christian organization that doesn’t look Christian from the inside. I’ve been trying to patiently change the culture from within, but I’m just one person, and I’m getting worn down. Is it worth it to stay in a job at a Christian organization that is currently culturally unhealthy because of what the organization could be or was intended to be?

Knowing what to do when there isn’t a specific biblical verse to give us the exact answer, which is the case for most of life’s decisions, requires us to be the kind of people who have kingdom “know-how.” This means much more than memorizing a list of steps; we must be people characterized by biblical virtue. Godly wisdom is formed as we root ourselves in a community of saints, model our lives after Christlike exemplars, prayerfully meditate on the Scriptures, and practice habits that direct our hearts to the King.

With this backdrop in place, two theological guardrails can help you navigate this question.

Two Guardrails

First, you need to be realistic about what you can expect from work in a fallen world. There is no perfect job fit. Even when you are in a relatively healthy organization with a job that matches your skill set, some days will be hard. The problem could be that you’ve become jaded from an overly idealistic view of what work should be. Theologians call this over-realized eschatology. If this is the case, remember that, east of Eden, we’re called to work in the midst of thorns and the thistles, which will be found even in Christian organizations.

Second, if your superiors are asking you to do something unethical, you shouldn’t do it. This could mean you’ll have to leave, but not necessarily. When you let your superiors know you can’t do what they’re asking and why, your transparency and integrity could spark a healthy conversation that leads to organizational change. In any case, if the choice is between obeying God or your boss, you must be willing to walk away.

Important Questions

Within the guardrails of chastened expectations—even for Christian organizations—and commitment to a high standard of personal ethics, there are a few questions you should ask yourself.

Does the culture of the organization, including its practices and functional aims, almost inevitably malform those within it? Again, I’m not suggesting a smug self-righteousness. All of us have blind spots—times we’re unaware of the consequences or appearances of things we do routinely that are less than ideal. But are there many people in the organization who have had a long tenure and who have retained Christian virtues and integrity? Or have most long-termers been so influenced by the maladies of the organization (perhaps the dualism between work and faith that excuses dishonesty or dehumanizing practices as just “the way things are done”) that recurring vices (such as greed, dishonesty, apathy) are all too pervasive?

If God is not providing another option, most of the time the prudent decision is to stay, at least for the time being, and seek to be faithful, serving your colleagues, clients, and company the best you can.

Our vocational contexts form us. Often the label “Christian” can blind us to the dominant functional worldview (not the same at the stated worldview) of the organization and how it is shaping us. It might be prudent to stay, at least for a while. But make sure, if you stay, you do so with your eyes wide open. If you remain in such an organization, you need to place yourself in counter-communities that help you to identify the false narratives of your workplace and to offer a counter-catechesis. Centering your life in a faithful church is essential, but you could also be aided by like-minded co-workers or Christian professional guilds.

Finally, if you were to leave, where would you go? It’s easy to imagine that the grass is greener on the other side, but the other pastures may be closed or just as unhealthy as—if not worse than—your present organization. If it’s not a situation where the company is asking you to do something unethical, you have some time. Don’t prematurely run from one unhealthy situation to another. Yes, the Lord provides, but at times he asks us to stay and trust that his grace is sufficient. If he’s not providing another option, most of the time the prudent decision is to stay, at least for the time being, and seek to be faithful, serving your colleagues, clients, and company the best you can.

Previously in this series:

5 Lessons from Persecuted Christians in China

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:00am

I spent a year teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1990s. Even back then I recall how friends from the “underground church” in the People’s Republic of China had experienced much persecution. At the time I was certain that in a decade or two, with the flattening of the world and greater international exchange, life for Christians in China would vastly improve.

Fast forward to December 2018. Social media were abuzz with reports and prayer requests for Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, a central region province in the People’s Republic of China. The church’s pastor, Wang Yi, was arrested, along with his wife, the elders, deacons, and dozens of members. Many members and leaders were unaccounted for after a massive effort by police and other authorities raided and detained Christians over the course of several days. On the eve of his impending arrest by police, Pastor Yi penned this powerful message for his parishioners.

For the watching world, including believers who share the same faith with our brothers and sisters in China, we have much to learn from them. Here are five lessons we can learn through their sacrifices.

1. Gospel obedience may sometimes mean civil disobedience.

Power does not reside in the changing of a government. While some may long to see Christians occupying political offices in order to make the People’s Republic of China a Christian nation, Chinese Christians are making Declarations of Faithful Disobedience: “Changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” With the ultimate goal of obtaining dual citizenship (one on earth, and one in heaven), we are often caught in the tension between the City of God and the City of Man—both admired for our good deeds and  also persecuted for our uncompromising faith. We should not put our faith in a “Christian” government, with the expectation of easing our suffering. Sometimes citizens of heaven will be required to disobey their earthly governments and rules of law where they are contrary to Scripture.

2. Know that trouble will come.

Imagine preparing for Sunday worship as a member of the Early Rain Church the day the church’s pastor, leaders, and their families were arrested and charged with various crimes. The church was raided and the building shut down; doors were locked and boarded. You heard rumors that police would be waiting to arrest anyone who showed up to a worship service. Despite all of that, members showed up. They worshiped outdoors since the church facility was shut down; many were promptly arrested, as rumored. Our brothers and sisters embraced the reality of suffering. As the Lord warned his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble . . .” (John 16:33). Since the earliest days of the Christian church, “trouble” has been part of the story. As recorded in Acts and other historical accounts, the church has often grown in the presence, not the absence, of suffering and persecution.

3. Understand what persecution really means.

The threat of religious nonprofits losing tax exemption keeps some North American Christians up at night. But I would not call this persecution. It may be right to be angry about the hostility Christians face in a secularizing North American context, but this anger is categorically different from the persecution our Chinese brothers and sisters, and some other Christians in the majority world, are experiencing. 

4. Always be prepared to give an answer.

When persecution comes, we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15). When members of Early Rain Church were being interrogated and charged for inciting subversion against the state, they were asked what ideological positions they were spreading. I heard that one Christian under interrogation responded by sharing part of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and death? Answer: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Dear Christian, even if we are never under police interrogation, may we always be prepared to bear powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.

Even if we are never under police interrogation, may we always be prepared to bear powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.

5. Maintain a heart of gratitude. 

The suffering church in China is not alone; there are persecuted Christians all over the world from whom we should learn. Last summer I visited an immigrant Korean-language church in Houston and heard the prayers of a 90-year-old pastor. He prayed a prayer of thanksgiving in Korean for God’s faithfulness, beginning from the days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s and 1940s. He then thanked the Lord for opportunities to worship during the Korean civil war of the 1950s. He thanked God for his faithfulness in the midst of immigration stresses that come from not knowing the English language or American culture, yet still being able to worship the Lord freely. By the end of the prayer, I was bawling. I wondered if I even knew the same God as this brother. Such a heart of gratitude is something we can all learn and benefit from.

The church of Jesus Christ continues to suffer in places like China, North Korea, and many other nations around the world. We have much to learn from these brothers and sisters who maintain their faith in the face of persecution. Let us continue to pray for and learn from them. Let us count the costs of following Jesus, and let us follow him anyway.

Related:

What Made #TylerStrong?

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 1:52pm

Tyler Trent, who died this week at age 20, captivated the sports world and the nation after ESPN told his story. Tyler’s four-year battle with cancer and his indomitable perspective were inspiring. When cancer ended his college experience, he pledged to return to Purdue for the Ohio State football game. He predicted an upset. After an inconceivable victory by Purdue, students stormed the field. His dad said, “Tyler, this is for you.”

#TylerStrong became the rallying cry for the student body, and Tyler’s story spread like wildfire. Millions of people watched his ESPN interview. His inspiring battle led to awards, trips to bowl games, interviews on TV and radio, and calls from the vice president. He wrote a book.

The gravitational pull of Tyler’s winsome spirit, his interest in others, and his unflappable courage attracted fans from all walks of life. It wasn’t hard to enter Tyler’s orbit.

People marveled at his attitude and wondered, How is he so strong?

As Tyler’s pastor for 10 years, I can tell you. It’s simple but profound: Tyler loved Jesus. That’s it. And it made him #TylerStrong.

Spirit and Strength

On the day when Tyler learned his broken arm was infected with cancer, he read 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 in his morning reading of the Bible. As his parents gently and tearfully broke the news to him, Tyler reacted with his typical spirit and strength. His first response was to encourage his parents by quoting what he read that morning. Tyler knew it was providential timing.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).

These verses became Tyler’s battle-cry and the theme for the yellow wrist bands in his honor: #TylerStrong—1 Thess. 5:16–18. Friends, family, and members at College Park Church were the first to wear these bands. They’d eventually find their way on statues at Purdue and don the wrists of professional athletes, coaches, politicians, and news reporters.

However, Tyler’s strength didn’t come from the prospect of healing, even though every medical option was pursued. His hope didn’t rise from the national support, as encouraging and remarkable as it was. His courage didn’t emerge from personal grit or self-discipline, although Tyler had both.

Tyler’s strength was rooted in the gospel—the bedrock truth he believed.

Tyler knew that his greatest need was to be right with God. He trusted in Jesus, and his confidence and kindness overflowed from the forgiveness granted to him through Christ. That changed everything, including his perspective on cancer.

Tyler’s strength was rooted in the gospel—the bedrock truth he believed.

Tyler’s life was saturated with a passion for Jesus long before osteosarcoma invaded his world. And while cancer took his earthly life, it could never penetrate a soul transformed by the beauty of God’s grace. Early in his battle he told his dad that he just wanted to honor his parents and the Lord. He wanted his life to count for God’s glory.

Mission accomplished.

Fountain of Grace

Being #TylerStrong wasn’t new for Tyler. I’ve seen it up close. Tyler’s parents are dear friends, and my wife and I were part of their small group for a few years. Tyler played on a basketball team with one of my sons. He didn’t get a lot of playing time, but no one was a greater encourager. Additionally, for ten weeks Tyler served on a team that helped me with sermon applications. He provided deep insight into suffering as we studied the book of 1 Peter.

While cancer took his earthly life, it could never penetrate a soul transformed by the beauty of God’s grace.

Tyler’s strength sprang from the deep fountain of God’s sovereign grace. He believed God had a purpose for his life, and cancer couldn’t take that away. His friends and family would tell you that Tyler didn’t change because of cancer; it just made his Christ-centered strength more apparent.

Image courtesy of Tony Trent

During one of his first hospital visits in 2014, Tyler’s dad sent me a photo of the door to his room. He would frequently write verses or thoughts in the opaque window—a small reminder to him and a witness to others. The picture contained these words:

“God is holy—I am not—Jesus saves—Christ is my life.”

At the time, our church was walking through a series on identity, and I attempted to summarize the gospel in that simple statement. Tyler was listening. And typical of Tyler, he found new ways to apply the gospel to his life.

A hospital door was the first of many platforms.

Tyler knew that there are some things more important than physical healing, more attractive than fame, and deeper than life working out as planned. Tyler modeled what it looks like to walk a path rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus.

Tyler knew that there are some things more important than physical healing, more attractive than fame, and deeper than life working out as planned.

During one of my last visits with Tyler, I sat next to his bed. His parents were standing nearby, and I invited them to come close, because I wanted them to hear what I was about to say:

“Tyler, as your pastor, I want to thank you. You have modeled what we talk about on Sundays. You are honoring Christ through cancer. And I just want you to know how proud I am of you.”

His head tilted back. A tear streamed down his cheek. He took a long breath, closed his eyes and said, “Thank you. That really means a lot to me.”

I knew it would. Because one thing had been clear for years when it came to Tyler Trent: he loved Jesus and wanted to finish strong.

And that’s exactly what he did. He finished #TylerStrong.

How to Talk to Your Kids About ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 12:03am

Why it’s worth talking about: While not directly religious, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a deeply moral movie that examines the importance of choices and virtue from a common grace perspective. A compelling story and visually stunning animation make it one of the best comic book movies of the decade.

Note: The rest of this article contains spoilers. None of the revealed information will lessen your enjoyment of the movie, and it will prepare you to have a robust discussion after seeing it with your child.

What it’s about: Miles Morales is a middle school student in Brooklyn struggling with the expectations put on him by his family. After being bitten by a genetically engineered spider, he gains powers similar to his hero, Spider-Man (Peter Parker).

Spider-Man is killed after attempting to stop the evil crime boss Kingpin from opening a portal to other dimensions. As Peter Parker is dying, Miles Miles promises he’ll find a way to shut down the portal before it destroys New York City.

Miles soon discovers that five other “Spider-Men” from other universes have entered our own. He joins forces with them to save his city and help his new friends get back to their own dimensions.

Talking Points and Discussion Questions

Choices and Expectations — A primary theme of the film is facing difficult choices and dealing with the results of our actions. Miles feels he often doesn’t have a choice and that some things—such as a going to a new school and having to deal with his new superpowers—are being thrust on him against his will. He feels he is no longer in control of his own life.

  • Most people would love to have superpowers. Why does Miles originally not want them?
  • Ask your child what choices they are afraid they will have to make as they grow up.
  • Miles has to write an essay on the book Great Expectations but instead paints a mural that includes his own silhouette and that says “No expectations.” Why is he so bleak about the expectation he has for his own life?
  • Ask your child if there are ever times when they, like Miles, feel stifled by parental expectations.

Weird Changes — Miles initially doesn’t understand the changes his superpowers are having on his body. He even blames them (to humorous effect) on “puberty.” At one point Gwen tells him Miles, “I don’t think you know what that word [puberty] means.”

  • Miles doesn’t seem to know, but do you know what puberty means? (This can provide an opening to explain to younger children that puberty is the time in life when the body of boy or girl goes through changes to make them a man or woman.)
  • How are the changes of puberty similar to the process of becoming a superhero?
  • Ask them what changes they have gone through that are similarly confusing.

The Role of Fathers — Miles has one father (Jefferson Davis) and three father figures—his uncle Aaron, his hero, the original Spider-Man (Peter Parker), and Peter B. Parker. Each of these men play an important role in his life.

  • Jefferson obviously loves his son (and tells him so several times). Why then does Miles feel he can’t turn to his own father about his problems?
  • How do his uncle and the two Peters help Miles deal with his conflicts?
  • Ask your own child if they ever feel they can’t come to you with their problems.

Loss and Grief— Almost every main character in the film, including the primary villain, is in grief over the death of a loved one.

  • Which characters in the film have lost someone they loved? (The answer includes Miles and Jefferson (Aaron); Gwen (her best friend Peter); Peter, Peter B., Peter Porker (Uncle Ben); Peni (her dad); Kingpin (his wife and son); Mary Jane and Aunt May (Peter Parker).)
  • Ask your child if they can relate to such grief, either from losing a loved one, a friend, or a pet. How does it help them understand the loss the characters feel?
  • Do you ever feel, like Gwen does, that it’s scary to care about people because you might lose them?

Friendship and SacrificeWillingness to sacrifice one’s own life to save your friends is a major plot point of the film.

  • Miles is told a couple of times that he needs to take a “leap of faith.” What do they mean by this? How does that “leap” reveal his character?
  • Jesus says in John 15:13 that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” At what points in the movie did the characters provide examples of that type of self-sacrificing love?
  • Miles says that “anyone can wear the mask.” What does he mean by that? (Miles is implying that what makes a hero is not just one’s power but the choices we make to do good.)
Concepts and Characters You Need to Know

Into the Spider-Verse is a complex movie that brings together twelve main characters from five different alternative dimensions. To aid in your discussion, here is one concept and twelve characters you need to know.

The Multiverse — In comic books you often have superheroes starring in multiple different books each month with varied, often conflicting, storylines. To manage the problems this causes with continuity, Marvel Comics created the “Marvel Universe.” In reality, the Marvel Universe is a multiverse, a collection of simultaneously existing universes.

In an attempt to keep them straight (which merely adds a layer of confusion) the individual universes are labeled with “Earth” and a number. For example, the main Marvel universe (which we live in) is designated Earth-616.

For this film, all you need to know about the multiverse is that variants of Spider-Man are brought to our universe (Earth-616) and meet each other, hence the term “Spider-Verse.” The word “dimension” is also frequently used in the movie as a synonym for these individual universes.

The Superheroes

Peter Parker / Spider-Man — The “original” Spider-Man of our universe, known in the comics as Earth-616. Peter dies soon after meeting Miles Morales.

Miles Morales / Spider-Man – A biracial teenager (his father is African American and his mother is Puerto Rican) who is bitten by a genetically engineered spider. In the film, he becomes the new Spider-Man in our universe, Earth-616.

Peter B. Parker / Spider-Man — Peter B. is alternate variant of Spider-Man from a currently undesignated universe similar to our own (i.e., Earth-616).

Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman — Gwen is an alternate variant of Spider-Man from Earth-65. In that alternative universe, it is Gwen who is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a superheroine instead of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man. (In our universe, Gwen Stacy is a friend of Peter Parker.)

Peter Parker / Spider-Man Noir — A brooding, black-and-white alternate variant of Peter Parker from a 1930s universe. He specializes in fighting Nazis.

Peter Porker / Spider-Ham — Porker is a variant of Spider-Man from Earth-8311, an alternative universe populated by anthropomorphic versions of Marvel superheroes. He was originally a spider named Peter who was bitten by a radioactive pig.

Peni Parker / SP//dr — Peni is a variant of Spider-Man from Earth-14512, an alternative anime-like universe. She’s a Japanese teen girl who co-pilots a biomechanical suit with a radioactive spider with whom she shares a telepathic link.

The Villains

Wilson Fisk / Kingpin — A powerful crime boss who kills Peter Parker. He owns Alchemax, a company that creates a super collider to open a hole in the multiverse.

Aaron Davis / Prowler — Miles’s beloved uncle, who we learn is a villain that works for Kingpin.

Olivia “Liv” Octavius / Doctor Octopus (or “Doc Ock”) — The head scientist at Alchemax who is working for Wilson Fisk.

The Non-Hero Supporting Roles

Jefferson Davis — Miles’s father, a police officer for PDNY (i.e., the Police Department of New York).

Rio Morales — Miles’s mother, a nurse.

Aunt May Parker — The aunt of Peter Parker. After his death she helps Miles and the other superheroes.

Mary Jane Watson — The wife of Peter Parker (in our universe) and the wife of Peter B. Parker (in his universe).

Extra Information

You don’t need to know this stuff to enjoy the movie, but it might impress your kid.

• The movie doesn’t explain why Miles takes the last name of his mother (Morales) rather than his father (Davis). In the comics, Jefferson had been a criminal before becoming a cop. He temporarily took his wife’s last name to hide his shame, and so his son took that name too.

• The man who sells Miles the Spider-Man costume is the late Stan Lee. He’s the co-creator of Spider-Man, and the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics. Lee has made 58 cameos in the Marvel universe (and one in a DC movie—Teen Titans Go! to the Movies.)

• Morales is the second biracial Spider-Man. In 1992, a geneticist of Mexican and Irish descent named Miguel O’Hara appeared in the series “Spider-Man 2099.”

The Challenging Joy of Communal Living

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 12:03am

Communal living spaces—apartments with shared living areas and great amenities—are on the rise in large cities like New York and Washington, D.C. Tenants pay a hefty price for a “curated living experience” with built-in community, made up of individuals looking for connection in an increasingly isolated society.

But the goal of communal living shouldn’t be merely to live in comfort, enjoy amenities, and connect with people just like you. True communal living is forged in shared homes where our first priority isn’t our own comfort.

The Manastery

One example of Christian communal living is four single men who live together in a home I affectionately call “the manastery.” Their apartment is nestled between abandoned homes in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Baltimore.

They intentionally moved here and put away their preferences, their desire for comfort, and other people’s measures of success in order to serve and learn from their neighborhood. Their home is a place for community and meals. It’s not always an easy place to live, but it prioritizes Christ’s glory.

When a neighbor was killed, the men knocked on doors, offering empathy and praying with their neighbors. Their neighbors saw them model godly mourning and grief and welcomed the men’s willingness to share in the community’s sorrows. My friends’ home became a mission station that day and has continued to shine gospel light in the community since.

Where Selfishness Dies

Not only do Christians engage those outside, we also must fight the enemy within. In co-living, we’re forced to face how easy it is to be selfish and confront our temptation to serve selectively.

This is something I’ve experienced personally. Two years ago, I traded my two-bedroom apartment for a lovely room with a family of six and a housemate. Recently, my housemate was having an extremely hard day, and I was too. I planned to eat my dinner quickly and disappear upstairs, but Romans 12:15 was ringing in my head: “Weep with those who weep.” I wanted to focus on myself, but our co-living arrangement pushed me to demonstrate concern for her instead.

The gifts of friendship and sympathy are abundant, and these are gifts I might have missed by living on my own. Living intentionally protects me from prolonged times of isolation or patterns of sinful habits. I’m less tempted to hide from others when involved in the everyday fold of family life.

Where Sin Can’t Hide

Before I moved in, the husband of the family I live with said, “You’re welcome to live here, but know that we are sinners, and you’ll see that in your time living here.” He was honest, and he was right.

Sin is uncomfortable: it separates, it divides, and it sparks conflict. When people live together, sin can’t be easily ignored. During a family dinner, the couple I live with asked me to adjust my living space. I’d had a long day, and I made some harsh remarks in response. I wanted to live my way and not care about others. My unkindness isn’t new, but co-living offers me a startling opportunity to confront it and kill it.

Christians are heralds of a gospel of peace. Our Savior reconciled us to himself by dying on the cross for our sins, giving us a new life. Communal living helps me live in light of that grace. Sharing kitchens and bathrooms forces me to reconcile with my housemates on issues I’d otherwise avoid. And in our mutual forgiveness, we model the work of Christ.

God of Grace

In the difficult moments of sharing living rooms and meals and space in the washing machine, we can be reminded of how patient Christ is. We appreciate afresh how he empathized with those who were hurting, weak, sinful, and frail. And I’m convinced that in these awkward and uncomfortable interactions we come face to face with the God of grace.

Welcoming others to live in our homes or pursuing living arrangements that forsake comfort allows us to cultivate the blessings of true gospel community.

8 Silent Films Christians Should See

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 12:02am

When movies gained the power of speech, thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, a universal language was lost in the process. In the midst of today’s busy, talky culture, a great silent film can feel like a transmission from another plane of existence, transporting us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn referred to as “a realm beyond words.”

Unfortunately, the overwhelming amount of new content swirling around us can make hunting for these rare experiences a challenge. Here are a handful of time-tested gems (listed in chronological order) that communicate deep spiritual truths in a vital way, and some suggestions for where to find them.

1. Hypocrites (1915)

An early landmark of cinematic social commentary, Hypocrites takes aim at the false pieties of an affluent, urban church congregation. It was an instant blockbuster and catapulted its director, Lois Weber, to fame and fortune. Weber’s bold visual choices—one character appears literally as the Naked Truth—galvanized audiences at the time, garnering widespread acclaim on one hand while inciting calls for censorship on the other. More than a century later, it survives as a compelling celluloid sermon. Available as a standalone DVD from Kino Lorber; there is also a fine HD transfer from KL’s recent box set Pioneers: Early Women Filmmakers.

2. 7th Heaven (1927)

Frank Borzage, a Catholic and practicing Freemason, won the first Oscar for best director for this primal melodrama about a Parisian sewer worker (Charles Farrell) who marries a pitiful waif (Janet Gaynor, pictured above) in order to save her from prison. They retire to the paradisiacal attic of a tall building (the “seventh heaven” of the title), and their love for each other begins to grow. The intense, Dantean romantic gestures, the haloes of light that form around the couple, and the barefaced supernaturalism of the ending all point toward a divine presence permeating the natural order. Available on a magnificent DVD set called Murnau, Borzage, and Fox.

3. Sunrise (1927)

Released by Fox Film Corporation the week after 7th Heaven, F. W. Murnau’s elemental drama—recipient of the first best picture Oscar—fully earns its grandiose subtitle: “A Song of Two Humans.” A farmer is seduced by a woman from the city, who persuades him to drown his wife. He almost goes through with it, but breaks down in shame at the last moment. He and his bride—now thoroughly shaken—run away to the city, and there among the raucous sounds and sights of the metropolis, their marriage is restored. Supported by a technical and artistic mastery unsurpassed in silent cinema, Sunrise is a hymn to the power of holy matrimony, which despite its precious fragility finds the strength to endure. “What God therefore has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

4. Sparrows (1926)

Mary Pickford was the most popular movie star in the world when she produced and starred in Sparrows, an uncharacteristically downbeat vehicle for America’s sweetheart. This grimly Dickensian fable, set in a fairy tale swampland where penniless parents send their offspring to labor for food and shelter, contrasts the innocence of children with their sinful, corrupt masters. One memorable sequence, in which the Good Shepherd appears to usher the soul of a departed ragamuffin into heaven, is the kind of irony-free religious imagery you simply don’t see in mainstream cinema anymore. Available to stream on Fandor.

5. Visages d’enfants – Faces of Children (1925)

Children also play a central role in Jacques Feyder’s neglected masterwork about a secluded community of Christians living in the Swiss countryside. A young boy’s mother dies; his father remarries. As the child struggles to accept his new circumstances, the stepmother endeavors to reach him, culminating in a powerful image of maternal love. The austere beauty of the isolated village and Feyder’s dedication to psychological realism conspire to melt the heart of the sensitive viewer. Available on a DVD set called Rediscover Jacques Feyder.

6. Body and Soul (1925)

Paul Robeson made his screen debut as a convict who escapes custody and reinvents himself as the Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins, a charismatic man of the cloth whose wickedness is concealed beneath a veneer of righteousness. A stinging indictment of Christian hypocrisy within the black community, Body and Soul was written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, the first great African American filmmaker. While firmly rooted in the social milieu of the 1920s Deep South, Micheaux’s quirky yet commanding film is a universal warning against mendacious religious leaders, and those who blindly follow them. Available at Internet Archive, as well as the Criterion Collection’s Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist DVD set and Kino Lorber’s excellent Pioneers of African American Cinema.

7. Häxan – aka Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

For Christian viewers, Benjamin Christensen’s morbidly fascinating docudrama—the most expensive Danish film of the silent era—is a reminder of the powers and principalities against which they must arm themselves (Eph. 6:11–12). Inspired in part by the Malleus Maleficarum, an infamous medieval tractate on witchcraft, the film blends fictional re-enactment with historical discourse. Though it attempts to justify the Devil as the product of religious hysteria, the disturbing primacy of the imagery bypasses reason altogether, touching a spiritual nerve. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

8. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Carl Theodor Dreyer spent more than a year researching his transcendent masterpiece about the French war hero who was tried and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Forsaking both politics and theology, Dreyer dramatizes the triumph of the personal experience of God over fear and death. As Joan, Maria Falconetti gives a peerless performance, her face rendered beatific in a series of brilliantly wrought close-ups. (For this black-and-white film, Dreyer had the walls of the sets painted pink so that the faces would stand out in relief against the background.) A sobering reflection on the limits of dogma, as well as a painful reminder of the link between intense suffering and spiritual salvation, the film is as difficult as it is sublime—a testament to the power of cinema to exalt the mind and illumine the spirit. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Also in this series: 

Pursuing Faithfulness in an Age of Anxiety

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:04am

“Yes we are surrounded, but not by cultural challenges and the gospel’s enemies. We are surrounded by the large cloud of witnesses. We are not alone.” — Trevin Wax

Date: April 4, 2017

Event: The Gospel Coalition 2017 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here. Find more audio and video from the 2017 National conference here.

Related:

New Books You Should Know (January 2019)

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:03am

Darwin Devolves: The New Science about DNA That Challenges Evolution

Michael J. Behe

Harper One, 2019

Here the famous author of Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Darwinism continues to expose the scientific flaws of the Darwinian theory of evolution. He argues that Darwin’s mechanism actually damages genes that are necessary to survival. If you’re into the scientific arguments surrounding the evolution debate, this is the new “must read.”

 

 

The Legacy of Preaching: Apostles to the Present Day (2 volumes)

Benjamin K. Forrest, Kevin King Sr., Dwayne Milioni, William J. Curtis (eds.)

Zondervan, 2018

A marvelous compendium of Christianity’s preachers and a one-of-a-kind resource for preachers. Traces out and examines the church’s outstanding preachers from the first century through to the 21st, from Paul and Peter to Milito of Sardis to J. I. Packer. Each preacher is presented in his historical life-setting along with an examination of his theology of preaching, method of preaching, contribution to preaching, and a brief sample of his preaching. A genuine contribution to studies in church history and to those who preach. A new benchmark in the study of Christian preaching.

 

 

Justification (2 volumes)

Michael Horton

Zondervan, 2018

A new classic on this central doctrine. Horton provides extensive analysis of the doctrine from the standpoints of historical, biblical, and systematic theology. Gives extended attention to contemporary discussions of the New Perspective and a thorough exposition of the classic Reformed teaching. A new must-have for the study. [Runner-up in the Academic Theology category of the 2018 TGC Book Awards.]

 

 

The Church in Babylon: Heeding the Call to Be a Light in the Darkness

Erwin Lutzer

Moody Press, 2018

Beginning with observations from Jeremiah and Daniel concerning Jewish life in exile in Babylon, Lutzer provides insightful counsel for the contemporary church living now in a foreign culture and examines what a wise and faithful Christian stance in this anti-Christian world looks like. Lessons today’s church must learn if it is to survive in “Babylon.” Lutzer’s usual discernment with faithful application. Available with DVD of Lutzer’s teaching on each chapter, with study guide.

 

 

Textual Criticism of the Bible (Lexham Methods Series)

Amy Anderson and Wendy Widder

Lexham, 2018

If you work at all with the Bible’s original languages you inevitably need to understand at least something about those pesky variants. It may be a field for experts, but Anderson and Widder have provided a wonderfully accessible introduction to the study of textual criticism for both Old and New Testaments. If you feel weak in this area, this is the place to start. Clear, accessible, and even practical.

In Humility, Count Other Ministries More Important Than Your Own

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:02am

What are your goals for the New Year? We often re-evaluate our priorities and commitments in January. We decide how and where to spend our time in the coming months. We may commit ourselves to a new level of involvement in a particular ministry. And sometimes, in our enthusiasm, we become overzealous for others to commit to the same cause.

“God is doing such amazing things in this ministry. I just wish more people would get on board.” As a pastor’s wife for the past 16 years, I’ve had this conversation on more than one occasion.

I understand the feeling. I’m passionate about women’s Bible studies and have been involved in various groups over the years. Sometimes I get frustrated or discouraged, wondering why all the women in the church aren’t passionate about the thing I find to be such a blessing.

When it comes to ministries we love, it’s easy to have tunnel vision. We think our ministry should be flooded with volunteers and have a generous church budget. We wonder why others aren’t as excited about our ministry, and why they’re not willing to invest the same amount of time and energy as we do.

Sometimes the area we’re passionate about requires special abilities or availability. For instance, someone struggling with chronic illness can’t rebuild houses or serve meals to the homeless each week. The man who just lost his job can’t afford to buy fair-trade coffee to benefit adoption. The working mom can’t attend a Monday morning Bible study.

Other times, our fellow believers aren’t doing “our” ministry because they’re already committed to doing other valuable ministry.

Sadly, our disappointment that they aren’t serving in the way we want can lead to judgment and bitterness. I’ve watched relationships falter and people walk away from the church because their ministry wasn’t given the attention, money, or volunteers they felt were necessary.

One Body, Many Members

When we’re disappointed with others in ministry, we find a relevant exhortation in Romans 12:3:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Paul realizes that the basis of our frustration is pride. Our negative assumption that others aren’t as invested in Christ’s kingdom as we are, or are choosing to spend their time on less meaningful things, is rooted in thinking that our agenda is most important.

Instead, we should rejoice over the various gifts and passions God has blessed us with in the body of Christ:

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are the one body in Christ, and individually members of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them. (Rom. 12:4–6)

God grants us different gifts that are necessary within the body of Christ. What one person lacks, another has. And without either, the church wouldn’t be complete.

In much the same way, the passions God has given us for ministries will differ. While one person is excited about street evangelism and mobilizing others to share their faith, another person might quietly serve by visiting the sick or elderly.

Ministry for the Common Good

With this understanding, here are five ways to free others from the burden of our expectations:

  1. Remember that we’re all invested in the most important ministry of the church, which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. In our everyday ministries and especially in our corporate worship, we’re participating together in our highest calling. Our ministries aren’t in competition with each other but serve the same end goal.
  2. Be grateful for the variety of gifts in the body of Christ. Instead of lamenting why more people aren’t serving in your area of ministry, be thankful for the multitude of ways God is using his people to serve others.
  3. Acknowledge that the body of Christ would be incomplete without the various gifts and ministries of people within the church. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” (1 Cor. 12:14, 18).
  4. Confess any judgmental thoughts. Repent and ask God to help you extend grace and kindness to those who have different priorities.
  5. Free others to serve. Be excited for new ministries popping up within your church body. Come alongside others in prayer and encouragement for what God has given them to do. Release them from the expectations you may have on their time and energy so they can freely focus on their own calling.

Our unique gifts and callings are a way we can minister together for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Instead of focusing on what we wish others were doing, let’s wholeheartedly pursue God’s plan for us and free others to do the same.

From Seminary President to NFL Head Coach

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:00am

Imagine Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler taking over the Dallas Cowboys. Or Trinity International University president David Dockery coaching the Chicago Bears. Or Covenant Theological Seminary president Mark Dalbey heading up the Los Angeles Rams.

This fall, former Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) Charlotte campus president Frank Reich began his first season as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

“I could never have predicted this path,” Reich told The Washington Post. “It’s crazy. It’s fun.”

It’s not the first time his path has seemed crazy.

When he enrolled in his first RTS class in 1997, he was a backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.

“When I was playing, I always thought I was going to be a coach,” Reich told TGC. “When I went into full-time ministry, that was for all the right motives—a real, sincere, heartfelt love for God. I was trying to do the right thing.”

He was “selling everything” to follow Jesus. And he did—he graduated from seminary, led RTS for three years, then pastored a local church. But he didn’t feel called to it.

And RTS had taught him that pastoring isn’t everyone’s calling.

“I came to recognize more and more this false dichotomy between sacred and secular work,” Reich said. He learned about “the priesthood of all believers—that every Christian is called to live out their faith in their sphere of influence.”

And Reich’s sphere of influence is football.

Comeback Kid

The first thing to know about Reich, the Indianapolis Star told readers when he was named head coach in February, is that “he knows about comebacks.”

Reich, who grew up in a religious home, has been playing organized football since sixth grade. He went to the University of Maryland on an athletic scholarship, where he was a year behind All-American quarterback Boomer Esiason. He backed up Esiason for three years. When Esiason graduated, Reich finally had his chance to start in 1984.

But one month in, he injured his shoulder. Three weeks later, the coach told him the team would stick with his replacement, and Reich was back on the bench as backup.

Reich couldn’t believe it.

God, I thought you and I were good, he remembers thinking. Why are you doing this to me?

He realized that “football had become my God. . . . When that was taken away from me, I realized I had to reprioritize my life.”

So he worked at it. And a few weeks later, in a game against the Miami Hurricanes, he came off the bench at halftime. The Terrapins were down 31-0.

Over the next two quarters, Reich threw three touchdowns, handed off for two more, and ran one in himself. Maryland won 42–40, and the comeback remained college’s greatest for 22 years.

Football had become my God. . . . When that was taken away from me, I realized I had to reprioritize my life.

Almost 10 years later, he did it again, this time coming off the bench in his first NFL playoff game with the Buffalo Bills. Three minutes into the third quarter, the Bills were down 35–3 to the Houston Oilers. Reich handed off for the first touchdown, then threw four in a row. The Bills won 41–38 in a 1993 game that would get its own name (“The Comeback” or “The Choke,” depending on the fan), its own Wikipedia page, and its own NFL record (largest comeback in NFL history).

But Reich’s not a prosperity theologian. He knows getting himself straight with God didn’t lead to touchdowns and paychecks. Four weeks after The Comeback, the Bills lost the Super Bowl 52–17.

They would ultimately lose four Super Bowls in a row, from 1991 to 1994. And Reich never would land that starting quarterback position.

Frank Reich / Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts

“[A]fter our crushing 52–17 loss to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII, I was devastated,” he wrote. “The devastation was compounded by the fact that I had played more than half of the game. I couldn’t understand how God could allow us to get beat like that, especially after the Houston miracle.”

He was flying home from Pasadena when he realized the answer.

“For the first two hours of the trip, I was going crazy trying to figure out why the Super Bowl went the way it did,” he wrote. “Finally, I could take it no longer. I realized I could be asking the same questions the rest of my life. I needed some peace of mind. The only thing I could think to do was to put on my headset and listen to [Michael English’s] ‘In Christ Alone.’”

It was a song his sister had introduced him to. He’d listened to it hundreds of times, even reading it at the press conference after The Comeback.

Now, he “sought comfort from the song which gave me peace during the stressful week prior to the Houston game. The message I was now hearing was that we can experience victory in all our circumstances through Jesus Christ. He gives us the strength and hope to overcome all odds.”

Not Just a Testimony

Reich grew up Catholic, coming to know Jesus as a University of Maryland senior through Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) and Athletes in Action.

As a ball player, Reich “was very involved in Bible studies and traveling around and sharing the gospel at different events,” he told TGC.

“As I was growing, I felt like I needed some more formalized training to be able to use the platform that sports had provided to be able to share the gospel,” he said. Not only that—“my heart was not just to share my testimony. I also wanted to be able to teach the Bible.”

My heart was not just to share my testimony. I also wanted to be able to teach the Bible.

Because Reich was playing for the Panthers, he was living in Charlotte. After “a little bit of research,” the backup quarterback of the Carolina Panthers ended up in a couple RTS classes in the offseason.

(“Of course, I heard about it pretty quickly,” said Ric Cannada, then president of RTS’s new Charlotte campus. Reich even hauled some buddies along with him—the campus still has former Panthers in the classroom.)

Reich kept taking classes during his time with the Panthers, then the New York Jets, then the Detroit Lions. After he played his last pro game in 1998, he took classes while he worked on a few business interests (a sports memorabilia display company and a boot store).

“I was in my fifth or sixth year when [Cannada], who had left to become chancellor over the whole system, called me up and said, ‘Can you come into my office?’” Reich said. “So I went into his office and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve been praying about this for a long time. I’d like to ask you to be the next president.’”

Reich laughed.

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he told Cannada. “I haven’t even graduated yet!”

Natural Leader

As a general practice, RTS doesn’t ask its students to take over operations.

But Reich “was an older student when he came,” Cannada explained. “He was mature. He had been reading and studying for 10 years already, and you could see that he was a knowledgeable and serious student in his classes.”

Reich was also “easy and personable, a natural leader.” Early on, Cannada started asking Reich to come along on speaking engagements to share his student testimony.

“We spent a lot of time together in the car, going places and sharing vision,” Cannada said. “I got pretty close to him.”

That closeness ran both ways—on the road, Cannada and Reich “would stop and eat and talk, and I got to learn the inner workings of the seminary,” Reich said.

So when Cannada was elevated to chancellor, and tasked with finding his replacement in Charlotte, Reich was “a natural choice.”

“I’d been with him enough that I knew his character was right, and he could set an example,” Cannada said. “He was comfortable with faculty and students, and his character was strong. And there was vision there—and that’s what you need in a leader.”

Teacher and Coach

Frank didn’t say yes right away. But he respected Cannada enough, and loved RTS enough, to agree to pray about it. Then he went down to Jackson to meet the board. Then he agreed to give it a try for a few years.

“It went exceedingly well,” Reich said. “I really did enjoy it.”

The school enjoyed him too.

“During his tenure as president, Frank Reich was known as a man with a vision not only for the growth and well-being of the RTS Charlotte campus, but also for striving to elevate the strategic importance of each faculty and staff member serving with him,” said Rod Culbertson, director of admissions and professor of practical theology under Reich. “He was highly respected for his straightforward communication, integrity, trustworthiness, and humility. Like a coach, he relied upon the insights and advice of others who could help him gain wisdom in decision making.”

Reich and quarterback Andrew Luck at an off-season workout / Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts

“One of the things that impressed me most about Frank was his humility,” said Michael Kruger, who was RTS Charlotte’s academic dean while Reich was president. “While he had accomplished amazing things in his football career, Frank was never interested in talking about himself. His focus was always on Christ and how to bring glory to him.”

Reich’s best leadership was through example, said Kruger, who is now RTS Charlotte’s president.

“Leaders today often underestimate the power of their example,” he said. “They tend to lead by telling people what to do, rather than showing them what to do. Frank was not that way. He would not ask someone to walk a path he was unwilling to walk himself. He sought to embody the values of the seminary, not just talk about those values. That’s been a great lesson for me.”

But at the end of three years, Reich “just didn’t feel like I was called to be an administrator. I’m more of a teacher and coach.”

He knew he was only qualified to teach two things—the Bible and football. He tried his hand at being an interim pastor, but it only took “about a year to figure out that wasn’t the calling on my life. That’s probably the hardest job in the world.”

And his theology told him that preaching isn’t the only work that honors God. “I learned that calling—for most people—is to stay where you are and do your work to the Lord.”

So Reich circled back around to football. “If pastoring isn’t what I’m called to do, and it’s not an accident that God has given me a career in football, then I guess I should make an impact in that arena in whatever way I can,” he figured. “I decided to start coaching at that time.”

45-Year-Old Intern

At 45, Reich took a coaching internship with the Indianapolis Colts. He moved up to offensive coaching staff assistant, to quarterback coach for Peyton Manning, to wide receivers coach. He coached for the Arizona Cardinals for a year, for the San Diego Chargers for three, and for the Philadelphia Eagles for two.

Reich and his wife, Linda, after the Eagles Super Bowl win in 2018 / Courtesy of Ric Cannada

Perhaps not surprisingly, Reich coaches like a teacher—”He does a great job letting us understand the why, teaching us why we are running a certain thing,” quarterback Andrew Luck told the Indianapolis Star. “I think when you understand an offense, as a player, you are going to buy in.”

Reich isn’t shy about his faith, but isn’t obnoxious about it either.

“I do think there’s a time to be assertive and proclaim what we believe and stand up on the rooftop and shout it out,” he told Penn Live. “But there’s also a time where we need to keep our mouth shut and just live it out and make someone else ask, ‘Hey, why do act like that? What is it that shapes how you act?'”

“And then when people want to know the why,” Reich told TGC, “you have the opportunity to tell them.”

Reich’s been telling them. Stories of his faith have popped up in news articles: “Reich Answers Higher Calling,” “Philadelphia Eagles Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich Balances Religious Beliefs in Coaching Role,” and, most recently, “Reich, a Man of Deep Faith, Will Need Plenty of It As He Leads the Rebuilding Colts.”

Because when Reich took over the reins in Indianapolis this year, the team was coming off a dismal 4–12 season. Star quarterback Andrew Luck was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The Colts owner was asking fans for patience.

And then the team lost five of its first six games this fall.

Theology of Sports

If you congratulate Reich on being the Comeback Kid, he’ll remind you that he also holds (shares, really) the record for most fumbles in a Super Bowl game.

Football is like that. After losing nearly the entire first third of the season, the Colts won nine of the next 10 games to become the third NFL team in history to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start. (“No NFL playoff team came further this season than the Colts,” The Washington Post observed.)

Faith “really keeps you grounded and centered” during the wild emotional swings of professional sports, Reich told TGC. “It gives you perspective. . . . We don’t always understand the ups and downs of life, but we try to stay steady, loving and serving people and being committed to the process of doing things the right way and making an impact that way.”

Frank Reich / Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts

Reich is sure that God doesn’t have a favorite football team. (A quarter of Americans say God has a hand in determining the outcome of sporting events; 28 percent have asked him to help their team.)

“I have two little kids, and when I see my children playing a game together I don’t care who wins that game,” Reich told Team NFL magazine in 1993. “I’m their father. What’s important to me is that there’s character being built and they’re learning the lessons that come along with that activity. I think God looks at us the same way. I think the football game is insignificant to him. But what is significant is that we learn what he wants us to learn out of that game, win or lose.”

Reich roots his view of work in Genesis. “Our job description comes from Genesis 1:28—bring out the best in the environment and the people around you.”

As a quarterback, he tried to “be a good teammate, to bring out the best in players around me, to make a good locker room environment, to do my job right.” As a coach, he “works hard, trying to create a culture where people can flourish.”

The ability—and charge—to work well is given to everyone, from seminary presidents to head coaches.

It’s also a lesson that RTS teaches.

“I wasn’t disappointed or bothered by it,” Cannada said of Reich’s decision to leave ministry. “At RTS we very much hold a Reformed worldview, where calling from the Lord can lead us in all kinds of directions. Church ministry is a good one, but it’s not the only one. We’re to serve the Lord wherever we are.”

Current RTS Charlotte president Kruger agrees.

“Frank’s story is a perfect example of what we value here at RTS,” said Kruger (who wouldn’t turn down a job coaching the Liverpool Football Club in the English Premiere League).

“The Reformers taught that all callings matter, not just callings to vocational ministry,” he said. “God’s sovereignty extends to all categories of our life, not just to the ‘religious’ category. And thus God’s Word applies as much to the banker, the farmer, and the athlete as it does to the pastor.”

Church Planting in a Politically Divided Age

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:04am

We live in a divided age. Partisan politics has gripped many nations—including the United States—and, sadly, many of our churches. Modern-day American Christians are becoming increasingly split along party lines.

And in a split-party system, it can be difficult to make biblically informed decisions about how to vote. Even more challenging is the call to love those who vote differently than we do. How does the church remain united even when—especially when—we disagree over decisions regarding the ballot?

While the current political landscape is certainly complex, we must not despair. There is hope for the church in a politically divided age. If the gospel is powerful enough to unite Jew and Gentile, it’s powerful enough to do the same for Republican and Democrat.

So how do we plant and lead churches in a politically charged age? Today, I’m delighted to welcome Bill Riedel to the podcast to talk about this issue.

You can listen to this podcast episode here.

What the ‘Quarter-Life Crisis’ Says About Young Adults in Your Church

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:03am

The quarter-life crisis (QLC). If you’ve not come across this increasingly popular phrase, it’s time that you did.

It’s a phenomenon that can strike any time in your 20s or early 30s—the dawning realization that you’ve reached the age by which you assumed you would have it all figured out, only to find that you don’t. The QLC creeps up around birthdays and New Year’s Day, and rears its head any time you see on social media that someone you went to school with has gotten engaged, gained a promotion, or simply had the audacity to look happy in a photo. It’s the uneasy realization that comes when you take stock of everything around you—the people, the places, the relentless routines of work and washing dishes—and wonder, Is this it?

The networking website LinkedIn found that 75 percent of 25- to 33-year-olds report having a quarter-life crisis.

I’m one of them.

Beyond the Stereotype

When I first pitched a Christian book on the quarter-life crisis, the idea was met with bemusement. I was in a room full of older people with bigger problems. What could I possibly have to complain about by comparison?

The QLC phenomenon seems to feed into a wider cultural stereotype about miserable millennials who moan their lot and refuse to grow up. It’s a stereotype common in Christian culture, too.

Don’t dismiss the Quarter-Life Crisis phenomenon out of hand.

You might be reading this as a bemused older person who thinks millennials having some supposed “crisis” are overreacting. And we might be. But don’t dismiss the phenomenon out of hand. At least, it tells you some helpful things about what the 20-somethings in your church are feeling, what discipleship challenges they’re facing, and how the church can help.

They Feel Rootless

For a host of economic and social reasons, rates of homeownership among this generation are at a record low. The combination of renting and rising mobility leads many 20-somethings to feel unmoored. In the five years since I graduated, I’ve lived in five different houses with a revolving cast of roommates. This isn’t particularly unusual. But even as 20-somethings long for the permanency of home, many of us harbor an equal fear of settling down.

Millennials in your church need help to see that home is where God’s people are—the household of faith—and that this is a community worth committing to. They need help to see that to follow Jesus is to follow the one who “had no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20)—and that their sense of rootlessness is an opportunity to set their hearts on heaven, not on home ownership. They need the conversations that happen over coffee after church to not be dominated by the topics of buying, decorating, and renovating houses (a recurring theme at my church at least)—but about the things that ultimately matter.

They Feel Paralyzed

“What should I do with my life?”

You’d be hard pressed to find a 20-something who hasn’t contemplated this question with a degree of terror. What job, whom to date, where to live—this is the paralysis of adulting. We can feel unable to make decisions, because there are so many paths to choose from, and we’re not even sure where we’re aiming to reach. We struggle to figure that out because we don’t know will fulfill us. So we keep our options open—even as they overwhelm us—so that we don’t miss out or get it wrong. And in doing so, we never go anywhere.

Twenty-somethings need older, wiser saints who are ready to listen and willing to help us wrestle through life decisions with eternal perspective.

But we all want life to go somewhere. And we need the church to remind us that our existence isn’t one of aimless drifting—we have a destination. Where we’ll be in 50 years’ time is uncertain. Where we’ll be in 500 years is not. We’re part of a story that’s building to a climax where Jesus is glorified forever. Twenty-somethings need older, wiser saints who are ready to listen and willing to help us wrestle through life decisions with this eternal perspective.

They Feel Lonely

As we move through our 20s, our relationships are in a state of flux. People move away or move on—a new job, a new girlfriend, or a new hobby changes the dynamics first in one relationship and then another. Eventually most of us reach a point where we look around and ask, Wait . . . where did all my friends go? In one recent study, more people in their 20s reported feeling lonely “often” or “very often” than those older than 75.

The quarter-life crisis needs a whole-life view of Christ.

We need to be reminded that God is the one who searches us and knows us (Ps. 139:1). When we read his Word, we’re listening to a loving Father who is speaking to us—not as a politician does through a TV screen but as a friend does face to face. And we need a church community, of all ages and stages, that embraces us as family and encourages us to be known by others as we are honest about ourselves.

Whole-Life Christ

I could go on. I could write about how God’s people can help us fight discontent, about the sense of meaning found in dying to self in the service to Christ’s body, about how a church family helps when it feels like all our friends are getting married and our time is running out.

But one thing is for sure. I couldn’t have ridden out my quarter-life crisis without my church family, and the millennials in your church can’t ride out their quarter-life crisis without yours. Their quarter-life crisis needs a whole-life view of Christ. Together, we can fix our eyes on him—the one who gives purpose, peace, and joy in every season.

How Total Depravity Changed My Life

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:02am

Total depravity is the doctrine that human nature is thoroughly corrupted and sinful as a result of the fall. This doesn’t sound like good news. But it changed my life.

It was a Sunday morning in 1996 when I heard the sermon. As a single man of 28, I had struggled with same-sex attraction for much of my life. For years, I had been acting out on that attraction.

And, I was a Christian. I knew from an early age that the Lord had chosen me to be his. As I struggled with a confusing and unwanted sexual desire that was nonetheless intoxicating, I gradually learned how to lie to others and to myself, simultaneously justifying and denying the reality of my sin. I lived a double life: I was the good Christian to everyone I wanted to impress, and I was the flirt and tempter to all the men I wanted to draw into my embrace.

With each passing year, the ease with which I justified my sinful behavior grew. Particularly when I felt lonely, unloved, unaffirmed, tired, or ashamed, I ran into the arms of lovers with less and less resistance. I was Pavlov’s dog, mouth watering for satisfaction each time I heard the ringing bell of my emotional emptiness.

Accruing Guilt and Shame

With the momentary pleasure of sin, however, came a mounting awareness of guilt and shame. They were the weeds that kept me from truly enjoying the flower of sin. No matter how often I pulled those weeds, new ones sprang up. Though I didn’t see them as such at the time, the guilt and shame I felt (and despised) were the Holy Spirit’s tools to teach me, through pain, that sin is not what I was created for.

Over the years, that guilt and shame compounded in my soul with interest. It was like accumulating credit card debt. I’d made a thousand small impulse purchases—and couldn’t ever pay off the balance. The burden felt increasingly crushing.

My theology was an uninformed and strange mixture of Arminianism and Christian perfectionism. I felt a certain love for God and from God. But the haunting awareness of my love of self—and of the pleasure sin brought me—undermined any assurance I had of God’s love for me. Surely, I felt, I need to somehow accumulate more “good” toward God than “bad.” But I had a sinking feeling, for I knew this was impossible.

Depravity Confronted  

Back to the sermon. The preacher was James Boice, the church Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia. And the sermon was the first in a series through Romans. The first topic: total depravity.

I’d never heard that concept before. I thought people are essentially good—sin is just an anomaly to be overcome. Even with my guilt and shame, I thought I was essentially good. If only I could put my same-sex issues behind me, I told myself over and over, then I’ll be all right.

I thought homosexuality was my biggest problem. And because I had tried unsuccessfully to change, because I had prayed without answer 10,000 times that God would give me the same lust for women I had for men (or, that he would make me a practical eunuch and remove all sexual desire forever), I was convinced I could never overcome it.

But hearing about total depravity was a game-changer. I was being told that I wasn’t essentially good, that everything about me was broken by sin. Neither homosexual behavior nor the same-sex attraction that drove it was my biggest problem. My heart was.

I was confronted with the reality that I could never repay my sin debt to God. The problem wasn’t I hadn’t tried hard enough; the problem was the debt itself was impossible to pay. And that is precisely why Jesus had to come and die in the flesh, as the propitiation for my sin—because my debt of sin was so overwhelming, so comprehensive, it utterly bankrupted me.

Joy in Total Depravity

The doctrine of total depravity became an encouragement because I began to see for the first time what familiar verses actually meant:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:4–5)

I was born spiritually dead—not just spiritually indebted, as I’d thought. God loved me, and through no work of my own, except the faith he himself granted me as a gift, he made me alive together with Christ. Here was grace, only grace. It had to be this way. Because I really am that bad.

The flip side of total depravity is that now, inseparably united to Christ, I share in his righteousness. This isn’t the moral perfectionism I previously tried to cultivate; it’s the unmerited love of God the Father declaring me just before his throne. Christ was “made . . . to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And that unmerited declaration of righteousness is meant to empower ongoing repentance. As Paul says in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”

War Goes On

The reality of total depravity is that it is “total.” Even in repentance, the brokenness of everything in me and about me can lead to times of fear and despair. Victory has been secured, but the war wages on. The enemy will fight until the bitter end.

The comfort is in knowing that though I am thoroughly corrupted and hopelessly lost, Christ has chosen to love me and rescue me. He completely paid off all my reckless debt—even the debt I continue to accrue through my faltering love for him. On top of it all, he delights in making me his own forever.

Total depravity changed everything for me. Not because of its message of brokenness, but because for the child of God, it’s a gateway to hope. Only through total depravity do the beauties of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints come into their full glory. Only through understanding how indebted we are in Adam do we ever even begin to perceive how deeply loved we are in Christ.

To Prepare for Evangelism, Put on Your Oxygen Mask

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:00am

“Secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting other passengers.”

This directive is familiar to anyone who has traveled in recent years on a commercial airplane. In the event of an emergency (“a sudden loss of cabin pressure”), we’re told that an oxygen mask would descend from the plane’s ceiling for each person.

Naturally, in such a scary moment, parents would instinctively try to get the air to their children first, husbands and wives would want to ensure that their beloved spouses could breathe, and adult children would focus on preserving the life of elderly parents seated next to them. Such altruism might be instinctive, but it isn’t wise, the airlines warn.

A passenger who is herself wheezing is in no condition to rescue others. If she passes out from lack of oxygen, neither she nor her helpless seatmates will survive.

In our evangelistic efforts, we should take counsel from the flight attendants. We are in an emergency situation: all around us, people are gasping for spiritual breath. But in order to best assist them, we must have our own supply firmly affixed.

Nearly 2,000 years before the advent of commercial air travel, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy with these words: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). If you want to labor effectively for Christ, secure your own soul’s oxygen mask first.

The oxygen that nourishes us and fuels our evangelism is largely composed of four things.

1. Knowing Christ

As evangelists, our first and most essential resource isn’t something we can secure for ourselves. Instead, someone else secured it for us. While we were yet sinners, while we were enemies and strangers to God, while we were far off and lost and blind and ignorant and dead, Christ died for us.

And knowing this Christ—loving him, worshiping him, meditating on him, enjoying him, and becoming more like him—is the primary resource every evangelist must have.

You may have met Christ when you were obviously rebellious or when you were seemingly upstanding. You may have met Christ in a crowded worship service or in the solitude of your own bedroom. You may have met him suddenly and unexpectedly or as the inevitable answer to your persistent questions. But somewhere along the way, you met Jesus. And you haven’t been the same since.

It’s because of our own experience with Christ that we invite others to meet him too. Like Philip, we have been found by Christ, and so we hurry to find others (John 1:46). Like the woman at the well, we have heard the voice of Jesus, and so we speak to others (John 4:29). Like Paul, we affirm, “I know whom I have believed” (1 Tim. 1:12) and like Peter and John, we insist, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

We know Christ in our experience, and we know Christ through his Word. A thorough knowledge of Christ in the Scriptures equips us to answer our neighbors’ questions and objections. Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16).

2. Prayer

The second resource of the evangelist’s heart is prayer. Though outwardly unremarkable, our prayers are a spiritual weapon in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:10–20) that God uses to accomplish both judgment (Rev. 8:3–5) and also salvation (2 Cor. 1:11). And by the prayers of his people, God sends out gospel laborers into his abundant harvest field (Matt. 9:37–38).

Prayer humbles our hearts, shapes our desires, spurs our obedience, and invokes the mercy of a God who delights to save sinners. For the work of evangelism, we have no better tool.

The prayer of every evangelist is an act of dependence on God. We know that one may plant gospel seed and another may faithfully sprinkle gospel water, but God is the one who makes soul seedlings grow (1 Cor. 3:6–7).

On our knees, we acknowledge our own weakness and ask the sovereign God to work in our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors. When we pray faithfully for our neighbors to come to Christ and be saved, our naturally indifferent hearts are continually stirred with compassion for their souls.

3. Holiness

The next resource evangelists need is a life of personal holiness. The Bible exhorts every believer: “as he who calls you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15).

Our daily acts of obedience can be used by the Lord to awaken faith in our neighbors. As your car pulls out of the driveway every Sunday morning on its way to church, you reinforce the existence of an unseen God to your watching neighbors. As you speak kindly to your children on the playground, you demonstrate the Spirit’s power before the other moms. As you refuse to participate in office gossip, you bring honor to Christ in the breakroom. Even in your response to your own sin—admitting wrong and asking forgiveness—you testify to the truth of the gospel you proclaim.

Sadly, the opposite is also true. If we’re unkind to those around us, if we dismiss the needs of others and speak harshly to our family members, if we’re more often at the ballpark than church on Sunday, if we ignore our sin and fail to repent, we communicate to our neighbors that God isn’t important and his Spirit is impotent. As Al Mohler explains, “We shouldn’t expect that the gospel will have credibility if we don’t look like gospel people.”

4. Commitment to a Church

Commitment to the local church is also one of your vital resources as an evangelist. In the church, you are yourself discipled. You join with God’s people to receive his Word, offer him worship, use your gifts for his glory, and serve his saints. Two skills that you most need—handling God’s Word rightly and talking easily about it with others—are modeled, encouraged, and practiced in the church.

Moreover, to invite someone to church is to invite them to hear the gospel proclaimed with power and to see the gospel lived out in the lives of a diverse group of people. As we obey God’s commands in the context of the church, we bear witness to the power of the Spirit to transform all kinds of people into a holy community—and we invite our neighbors to join us.

The whole life of faith equips and compels evangelism. These things aren’t particularly flashy, and they certainly aren’t new. And yet they are the spiritual supply that God gives to equip evangelists for their spiritual task.

Are You Carrying Your God?

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:04am

“All of the gods, whatever they are, demand their upkeep. The gods may promise freedom and fulfillment, but in reality they burden you. They weigh you down. They make you have to maintain them. So here’s the question. Are you carrying your god, or is your God carrying you?” — John Folmar

Text: Isaiah 46:1–13

Preached: November 2, 2018

Location: United Christian Church of Dubai, United Arab Emirates

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

Related:

You Can Trust the Four Gospels

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:03am

Christian claims stand or fall with the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament Gospels provide the greatest amount of information about that person. How reliable the Gospels are, therefore, is a question every thoughtful person should want to answer in order to evaluate Christianity.

A new small book by Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?, works through this question. Sometimes Williams—New Testament scholar and warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge—rehearses evidence that’s available elsewhere, but he does so with commendable clarity and brevity. Topics include the nature and contents of a Gospel and the manner of its composition, the faithfulness of the oral tradition to preserve the teachings and deeds of Jesus, and the question of what counts as extraordinary evidence for extraordinary events.

Wonderful Overview

Several sections cover well-plowed terrain but with interesting twists. Williams lists all the main non-Christian testimony to Jesus we have from earliest times, but teases out just how much is actually implied. For example, Josephus’s undisputed reference to James, the brother of the so-called Messiah, reminds us just how much this early leader of the Jerusalem church would’ve known and been able to transmit faithfully about his half-brother. Undesigned coincidences have been noted before, but Williams cleverly arranges and illustrates several by highlighting two women (Mary and Martha’s similar characterization in Luke and John independently of each other); two brothers (James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven and being called “sons of thunder” in independent contexts in Mark and Luke); two fish (Mark and John’s coincidence of “green grass” and Passover-time); and two wives (Josephus’s mention of God’s punishment via the defeat of Herod Antipas’s army, and the Gospels’ explanation that he’d married his half-brother’s ex-wife).

We’ve also known for some time how remarkably carefully the Gospels’ texts have been transmitted, notwithstanding widespread popular misinformation to the contrary. But Williams, whose recent scholarship has focused especially on textual criticism, sketches the amazing amount of agreement between Erasmus’s Greek text and modern scholarly editions. He then tells the story of the new Tyndale House Greek New Testament, which arrived at a critical reconstruction strikingly similar to Nestle-Aland, even when changing significantly the criteria for evaluating the external evidence of variant readings.

If any of the Gospel authors weren’t natives of Israel in the time of Jesus, it becomes hard to account for this much accuracy, which makes it likely that the events narrated are likewise accurate

By far the longest, newest, and most interesting chapter deals with the barrage of details that the Gospel authors got right. With the aid of numerous charts, Williams catalogs all the references to towns, regions, bodies of water, and other places in the Gospels. He surveys roads and travel, gardens, botanical terms, financial practices, local languages, and unusual customs. He goes into greatest detail to list names of people, including names that are “disambiguated” (e.g., Simon Peter, Simon the leper, Simon the Pharisee). Throughout, Williams’s points remain clear. When they can be tested, the places Scripture mentions are accurate. Specialized terms show authorial familiarity with a broad cross-section of life in Palestine, down to minute elements. Names that are clarified consistently turn out to be the most common in the land at that time, though not necessarily in other parts of the empire or at other times.

If any of the Gospel authors weren’t natives of Israel in the time of Jesus, it becomes hard to account for this much accuracy, which makes it likely that the events narrated are likewise accurate. No reference works existed for fiction writers to consult to create an aura of historicity! As a foil, Williams notes how the apocryphal Gospels consistently disclose a paucity of all these details in comparison, and the occasional anachronism when they try to include them.

Small Concern

One could quibble over a few small points. The chapter on contradictions focuses exclusively on theological paradoxes in John and spans a meager five pages. Williams plausibly points out that these are intentional, stressing different sides of complex realities: God loves the world but we’re not to love the world; people did or didn’t believe when they saw Jesus’s signs; some knew where Jesus came from while in fact they really didn’t know; if Jesus testifies to himself his witness is true but in another sense isn’t; and so on. But these aren’t the most commonly cited (apparent) contradictions in the Gospels.

More well-known and puzzling to many are the small but stark variations among Synoptic parallels on the one hand, and the large-scale differences between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel on the other. The kind of “interlocking” that Richard Bauckham has stressed, in which John seemingly unintentionally explains Synoptic puzzles in passing, along with the instances in which John presupposes knowledge like that found in the Synoptics without showing any literary dependence on them, form a more powerful and convincing set of undesigned data.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren’t merely history, but theological intent and literary artistry don’t compromise their accuracy so long as they’re judged by the standards of their day.

I’m still waiting for an accessible survey of the various fictional genres in use before or during the New Testament world. (Craig Keener has done some of the work but at a fairly technical level.) I get so tired of hearing skeptics simply assume that historical fiction as we think of it was an option in the first-century Roman empire, when we really have no such example that is at all close. Would-be historians and biographers worked with varying degrees of care and concern for precision, while mythology at times overlapped in small ways with what can be known about real people and places, but the gaps remain great between these works and volumes like the canonical Gospels. To be sure, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John aren’t merely history, but theological intent and literary artistry don’t compromise their accuracy so long as they’re judged by the standards of their day.

A small book, however, can’t do everything. What Williams has tackled he does well throughout, and at times he does it exceedingly well. This work deserves a wide audience.

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