This Sunday, as we gathered for worship, a member of our church approached me and asked if I would lead the congregation in prayer for his friend whose son died in a car accident. He was 21.
I asked God to provide his family with supernatural comfort and peace. As I did so, I realized just how often we pray: Lord, bring peace. Bring peace to those affected by the hurricane, to victims of sexual abuse and assault, to the poor and vulnerable, to those who bear the brunt of injustice.
Burdened by the weight of the tragedy, I prayed, How long, O Lord? which then led me to cry out, Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Bring with you the fullness of your kingdom, our hope. Sorrow led to lament; lament, to eschatological hope.
But something else happened as we prayed. I realized that this church, gathered in solidarity and prayer, is a small foretaste of the comfort to come. The local church is a glimpse of future hope. It is deeply eschatological, and this is good news.The Church Is Eschatological
In Revelation 21, John sees the city of God descending from heaven and describes it as “a bride adorned for her husband.” This city is the bride of Christ, the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes. John’s eschatological vision, full of hope and wonder, centers on Jesus but climaxes with the revelation of his church. The church is the city to come.
As we plant churches, we’re bringing a taste of the future to a present world trapped in sin.
Local churches, then, are eschatological communities—small, scattered foretastes of the future. They rest in a future hope, work toward a future goal, and preview a future reality.
Church planting, then, is a profoundly eschatological exercise. As we plant churches, we’re bringing a taste of the future to a world trapped in sin. Here are two ways that a church is a vision of the future.1. Eschatological vision of family
I remind my church regularly that we are not like a family; we are a family. We are brothers and sisters, adopted by the Father, through the blood of the Son (Eph. 1:5), and sealed by the Spirit (Rom. 8:16). We are God’s household (1 Tim. 3:15).
This is both a present and also a future reality. God is gathering a people for himself now. He is adopting children into his covenant family. And we, along with all creation, eagerly await the future revelation of the children of God (Rom. 8:19). It’s easy to miss how powerful this vision is.
A recent study named our city, Washington D.C., the second loneliest in the United States. When you add the divisions exacerbated by economic and educational disparity, gentrification, political tension, and racial distrust, you get a city filled with people looking for true, lasting community. Amid that, we get to be and plant churches that picture the eschatological family of God comprising people from every ethnic group (Rev. 7:9), gender, and socio-economic stratum (Gal. 3:28).
In the early stages of our church plant, we gathered in smaller groups for dinner parties. Four to six members would get together in a home with the intention of inviting four to six people from outside the church. These groups weren’t novel, but it was remarkable how often non-Christians would comment that they rarely got invited to someone’s home for dinner, let alone sit around a table with people who look, believe, and even vote differently from them.2. Eschatological vision of society
I love utopian movies. They paint a picture of what society could be at its best. Yet, embedded in each of them is the understanding that these perfect worlds, these inventions of humanity, are frail and finally fraudulent. The hope of the ideal captivates, but we know it’s too good to be true.
We know this because we’ve seen it. Political parties, national identity, and economic theories all present an eschatological vision of the world. They promise a better, brighter future. But none delivers.
Scripture promises a society that outdoes the best utopian vision and yet is neither frail nor fraudulent, since its architect is God.
That’s what’s amazing about Scripture. It promises a society that outdoes the best utopian vision and yet is neither frail nor fraudulent, since its architect is God (Heb. 11:10). Consider the Bible’s eschatological vision of society:
- No need for weapons (Isaiah 2:4) or closed gates (Rev. 21:25) because there is perfect peace.
- No poverty (Rev. 7:16) because there is perfect prosperity.
- No mourning, crying, or death (Rev. 21:4) because there is perfect harmony.
- No sin because there is perfect righteousness.
And there, right in the middle, is God, dwelling with his people. What’s remarkable is that Jesus calls his followers a city on a hill. His church is a foretaste of that city. As we proclaim the gospel, pursue righteousness, do justice and mercy, love our enemies, and make peace, we showcase this vision of God’s new society to the world.
The early church lived this reality, and it made them an anomaly. They were a Jewish sect who accepted Gentiles. They welcomed outcasts, the sick, women, even slaves. They called each other brother and sister. They were radically devoted to holiness and justice. They held everything in common and met one another’s needs. They presented to the world a new society formed and shaped by Jesus. They obeyed the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:36–40) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16–20).Church Planting Is Eschatological
The apostles understood this was embedded in the mission Jesus gave them. This was disciple-making: seeing people enter the covenantal, eschatological family of God (baptizing them) and living as God’s new, eschatological society (teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded). They knew the proliferation of churches was the best way to accomplish this goal, so they planted church after church—big and small, urban and rural—as outposts of a kingdom that is both here and yet to come.
Church planting rests in a future hope, works toward a future goal, and presents a powerful vision of a future reality.
Our prayer continues to be, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Until then, let’s be the church. And let’s plant churches that bring a taste of the hope of glory into the present darkness.
Curtis Heffelfinger offers one of those tools in his new book, The Peacemaking Church: 8 Biblical Keys to Resolve Conflict and Preserve Unity, published by Baker Books. Since 2003 Curt has served as the pastor-teacher of Orlando Grace Church in Florida. He joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to explain how churches can make peace, why this work is especially difficult for Reformed believers, how we can head off conflict before it starts, and why trouble so often starts with music leaders and youth ministers, among other topics.
You can listen to the episode here.
- The Difficult Call to Promote Peace and Unity in the Church (Curtis Heffelfinger)
- Redeeming Church Conflicts (Matt Smethurst)
- 5 Reasons Ministry Staff Conflict Can Be Good (Rebecca Hannah)
Albert Mohler, the well-known conservative podcaster, began a recent episode of The Briefing noticing that voices on both the political right and left agree on one thing—how crucial today’s midterm elections are in the United States.
First, he pointed to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine Decision. It declares in all caps on its cover, “Why This Is the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime.”
Meanwhile, he noticed that Mother Jones, a bimonthly from the far left, said the same on its cover: “The Most Important Election of Our Lives.” The only graphic is an exclamation point.
Those seem like pretty high stakes for today’s elections. Are they that high?Sizing Up the Stakes
I don’t have a clue. No one does. And I can’t imagine how anyone would presume to render history’s judgment on which is the most important election of our lifetimes, as if anyone could add up all the causes and effects of 80 years’ worth of elections and weigh those in the scales of justice, comparing the good and evil done.
But that’s how today’s political rhetoric goes. Rendering historic judgments always grabs attention. Turns heads. Gets clicks. Draws dollars. Mobilizes votes.
Trouble is, these kinds of exclamation points often hurt our civic discourse. The subtext of “Most Important in Our Lifetime” is “Yes, the other side really is that bad. Don’t trust them if they win.” It makes you fear and loathe the other side.
The Babylon Bee, the Christian parody site, captured these dynamics in a mock lead sentence: “A new study released Monday confirmed that every single election of your life is ‘the most important election of your lifetime,’ definitively proving that you need to get really worked up about each and every election that occurs during your time on earth.”Believer’s Approach to the Ballot Box
I want to try a different approach here. No, I’m not going to tell you, “Today’s election is unimportant—don’t bother voting.” The election is important.
I’m not going to tell you you must vote. The Bible doesn’t say that.
I will say, as a way to love your neighbor and do justice, which are biblical imperatives, you should vote if you can. In a democracy, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s involves voting.
The question is, how should you vote today? The adverbs of how we do something are always important for the Christian.1. Vote Thankfully
Thank God we live in a country where we can vote. Very few people in the history of the world have been able to participate in the decisions of their government. That’s a good gift from God.
As you go to the polls, thank God for the opportunity.2. Vote Righteously
Governments exists to do justice (see Gen. 9:5–6; Rom. 13:1–7). “By justice a king builds up the land” (Prov. 29:4). That’s the government’s job: to do justice.
What is justice? In Scripture, doing justice means rendering judgment in accordance with God’s righteousness. That’s what I mean when I say vote righteously. When you step into the ballot box, choose righteousness. Choose justice.
Justice requires different things in different domains of life. For the government, doing justice means making laws and applying laws in a way that best upholds people as created in God’s image. “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed, for man was made in God’s image” (Gen. 9:6).
So when you vote, ask yourself, which of these two candidates holds positions that affirm all people as God-imagers? And will these propositions on my ballot help or hurt people’s ability to live as God-imagers? I’m not saying this is the only grid you should use, but it is a primary grid.
As you go to the polls, ask God to help you choose justice and righteousness.3. Vote Strategically
Now, figuring out which candidates and positions better affirm people as God-imagers is not easy. We need God’s wisdom to vote wisely and strategically. Listen to the people’s response after King Solomon solved his infamous two-prostitutes-and-a-baby dilemma: “And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice” (1 Kings 3:28). Both women claimed the baby was hers. Solomon wanted a just outcome. For that he needed wisdom, which God richly gave.
American Christians today have their own baby dilemma. One group of Christians says to care for babies in the womb. Another group says to care about babies at the border. I hope all Christians care about babies in both locations. But one party has been tagged as caring about one, while the other party has been tagged as caring about the other. How do we reason our way through this dilemma?
To be clear, this is not a matter of moral equivalency. Just the opposite. I’m saying it’s complicated. Like Solomon, we need wisdom to figure out which claims are legitimate and which considerations are most weighty. And so it is with a hundred other issues we could raise.
As you go to the poll, ask God to give you wisdom.4. Vote Evangelistically
By voting evangelistically, I mean two things. First, choose candidates and positions that won’t prevent the church from doing its Great Commission work. God establishes governments, ultimately, so that his plan of redemption can unfold. Genesis 9 (the creation of government) comes before Genesis 12 (the call of Abraham) for a reason. To put it another way, churches ordinarily depend on the work of governments in order to do their work. That’s why Paul says to pray for kings and all those in authority—because God wants everyone to get saved (1 Tim. 2:3–4; see also Acts 17:26–27).
Second, be mindful of your witness among colleagues and neighbors. This has less to do with how you vote and more to do with how you talk about it. Do you really need to tell everyone what you think? When you do speak, remember your call to share Christ with your colleagues and neighbors.5. Vote Ecclesiologically
Okay, that’s an awkward way of putting it. Maybe I’m trying too hard to stick with adverbs? What I mean is, vote remembering the unity you want to share at the Lord’s Table with other believers. Brothers and sisters in Christ might disagree with how you voted. They might share the same goals but have different opinions on the tactics. Remember that you’re not an apostle with the spirit of revelation. You don’t have a direct line to Jesus on political tactics.
Even if you’re right in all your judgments (I think I’m right in mine!), remember Paul’s words in Romans 14 about forbearing with those who are weak and not passing judgment. Also remember, the Pharisees were sure they were right in their moral and political judgments as well.6. Vote with a Loose Grip
Forget the adverbs. Here’s what I want to say. Today’s election is not the most important election in our lifetime. God’s election of us was more important. Our decision to become Christians was more important. Even our votes on whom to receive as church members—symbolically at least—are more important, as Russell Moore so often observes. We’re not going to bring heaven to earth in this or any election. So keep a loose grip on it, at least compared to your grip on the gospel.
I’m not saying this election has nothing to do with the gospel. Justification and justice are inextricably tied together. Their relationship is nothing more or less than the relationship between faith and obedience. The justified will pursue justice.
Further, I recognize how easy it could be for someone like me who has enjoyed economic, social, and political privileges all of my life to point flippantly to our hope being in the gospel, using that as an excuse to neglect the Bible’s concern for justice.
Still, apart from the hope of heaven, I have no message of hope to offer. I cannot promise hope in this election or in this present world.
So, friend, keep a loose earthly grip on today’s election and a firm, stronger-than-death grip on the hope of heaven. Jesus will win. The gates of hell won’t overcome the church. Isn’t that a sweet relief, no matter what the final word is tonight when the newscast ends?
- 20 Quotes from Jonathan Leeman on Rethinking Faith and Politics (Matt Smethurst)
“Why can’t we be friends?”
“Friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them.”
“I can tell that we are gonna be friends.”
Do any of these lyrics sound familiar? Whether it’s the soulful vibe from the 1970s, a melody from Michael W. Smith, or Jack White singing over a soft guitar riff, the idea of friendship resonates in our culture. In Made for Friendship: The Relationship that Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles our Joys, Drew Hunter—teaching pastor at Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana—tells us we were made for friendship based on the image of the One who created us. Friendship is innate to humanity because it is innate to God. Hunter’s premise is simple yet profound: “The greatest power for becoming a better friend is being befriended by the best Friend” (15).Being a Friend
Friendship exists because God befriended us, and created us to befriend one another. But though friendship is crucial to human life, we live in a world where friendship with God and friendship with one another has been fractured and frayed. Because of this dramatic loss, we’re unable to experience the fullness of joy even in the best of our (still broken) friendships.
While the fracturing of friendship is a result of living in a Genesis 3 world, that fracturing has noticeably increased in recent decades. True friendship escapes us due to busyness, an increasingly disembodied social experience, and a shallow definition and experience of friendship in general. Our dilemma, Hunter observes, is that our soul longs for the intimacy we once had with God and each other. It’s our “primal longing” and hence it’s “essential for the good life because God wove it into the fabric of the world” (43, 41).
Friendship exists because God befriended us and created us to befriend one another.
After establishing our need for friendship, Hunter moves into the practical implications of what friendship accomplishes. Friendship completes our earthly happiness (as far as it is possible). Leaning on an excellent line from J. C. Ryle, Hunter takes readers through the journey of how friendship “halves our troubles and doubles our joys” (59). Our joy in friendship comes from sharing our joys with others. Additionally, our sorrows and burdens are lightened when we walk with a dear friend amid those trials. Friends are consistent and present. Hunter, with a sneaky rick roll any good friend would appreciate, asserts, “A real friend will never give you up or let you down. He will never turn away or desert you” (82).
The formula for friendship here is simple: “Honesty + Acceptance = Real Friendship” (87). But the best and deepest bond can only exist if Christ is at the center and Christlikeness is the goal (92).Cultivating Friends
If the heart of true friendship is Christ and the goal Christlikeness, how should we cultivate friendship? Hunter has a few practical suggestions.
First, we need to understand how to say yes to friendship by saying no to other things.
Second, we need to be aware of forming new relationships where we live.
Third, we should consider the weight of losing or straining friendships as we consider moving. Sometimes moving may be necessary, but extra wealth shouldn’t be sought at the expense of friendship.
Though friendship requires immense work and dedication, simple things can contribute to its growth. Finding more opportunities to get together, making time to call or video chat, engaging in spiritually enriching conversation around a book or Scripture, and other “side-by-side” activities are all ways friendships can grow. Hunter reveals nothing profound or new, yet he does help readers reassess their priorities through the filter of friendship.
His suggestions are simple yet will require a reorientation of our life so that meaningful relationships may be cultivated. Hunter observes, “In the end, the best advice for cultivating friendship is not to find a better friend but to become one” (116).Our Best Friend
Hunter weaves biblical truth, including theological and historical depth, into this short and approachable book. He dedicates the last chapters to a biblical theology of friendship and the character of Jesus Christ as friend. Among all the relationships we have to Jesus, one that is often overlooked yet describes him best is that of friend. When we see the cross as an act of friendship, when we discern that in Jesus we’re never truly alone, and that in Jesus our circle of friends can and should increase dramatically, we can better understand how friendship is the “goal of our salvation and the ultimate end of our existence” (150). When we have entered into the covenant of friendship by faith in Christ, we can “enjoy the privilege of walking every step, every day, onward into the eternal world of friendship to come” (157).
Christians aren’t immune to the disconnecting devices of our age, and thus we need all the biblical wisdom we can get in order to pursue friendship.
Made for Friendship is timely and urgently needed for our cultural moment. Christians aren’t immune to the disconnecting devices of our age, and thus we need all the biblical wisdom we can get in order to pursue friendship. Hunter’s gift to the church is the simple clarion call of pursuing friendship. Were we to heed his appeal, how might it affect our witness outside the church and our ministry inside? How might it increase our joy? How might it better inform our view of redemptive history and the person and work of Jesus Christ?
I believe that if we sit across the table from this Christian friend and glean his wisdom, every aspect of our Christian life will change drastically. So pull up a chair and listen to the wise words of this friend as he relays to you the message of the Great Friend.
Exodus 20:1–2 introduces one of the most famous sections in the Bible—indeed, one of the most important pieces of religious literature in the whole world—the Ten Commandments. Oddly enough, they’re never actually called the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew expression, which occurs three times in the Old Testament (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), literally means “ten words.” This is why Exodus 20 is often referred to as the Decalogue, deka being the Greek word for “ten” and logos meaning “word.” These are the Ten Words that God gave the Israelites at Mount Sinai—and, I would argue, the Ten Words that God wants all of us to follow.2. They show us who God is.
The law is an expression of the Lawgiver’s heart and character. We must think about that before we say, “I don’t care for laws,” or before we bristle at the thought of do’s and don’ts. The commandments not only show us what God wants; they show us what God is like. They say something about his honor, his worth, and his majesty. They tell us what matters to God. We can’t disdain the law without disrespecting the Lawgiver.3. They set us apart from the world.
As Christians, we’re a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). We must be prepared to stand alone, to look different, and to have rules the world doesn’t understand. Of course, we aren’t always the holy people we should be, but that’s what he has called us to be. That’s who we are. We’re God’s people, set apart to live according to God’s ways.4. They don’t strip our freedom, but instead provide it.
We too often think of the Ten Commandments as constraining us—as if God’s ways will keep us in servitude and from realizing our dreams and reaching our potential. We forget that God means to give us abundant life (John 10:10) and true freedom (John 8:32). His laws, 1 John 5:3 tells us, aren’t burdensome.
The Ten Commandments aren’t instructions on how to get out of Egypt. They are rules for a free people to stay free.
God isn’t trying to crush us with red tape and regulations. The Ten Commandments aren’t prison bars, but traffic laws. Maybe there are some anarchists out there who think, The world would be a better place without any traffic laws. A few of us drive as if that were so! But even if you get impatient when you’re at a red light, try to zoom through the yellow, and turn left on a stale pink—overall, aren’t you glad that there is some semblance of law and order? People stop and go. People slow down when driving by schools. They stop for school buses. You wouldn’t be able to drive your car to the grocery store without laws. When you drive on a switchback on a mountain pass, do you curse the guard rails that keep you from plunging to an untimely death? No, someone put them there at great expense, and for our good, that we may travel about freely and safely.
The Ten Commandments aren’t instructions on how to get out of Egypt. They are rules for a free people to stay free.5. They were not given so that we could earn our salvation.
Some people view Christianity as: God has rules, and if I follow the rules, God will love me and save me. That’s not what happened in the story of the exodus. The Israelites were an oppressed people, and God said, “I hear your cry. I will save you because I love you. And when you are saved, free, and forgiven, I’m going to give you a new way to live.”
Salvation isn’t the reward for obedience; salvation is the reason for obedience. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you obey my commandments, I will love you.” Instead, he first washes the feet of the disciples and then says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). All of our doing is only because of what he has first done for us.6. They are more trustworthy than our intuition or cultural code.
We live in a paradoxical age where many will say, “Right and wrong is what you decide for yourself,” and yet these same people will rebuke others for violating any number of assumed commands. As a culture, we may be quite free and liberal when it comes to sex, but we can be absolutely fundamentalist when it comes to the moral claims of the sexual revolution. The old swear words may not scandalize us any longer, but now there are other words—offensive slurs and insults—that will quickly put someone out of polite company. We’re still a society with a moral code.
But the Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). The way to find moral instruction isn’t by listening to your gut but by listening to God. If we want to know right from wrong, if we want to know how to live the good life, if we want to know how to live in a way that blesses our friends and neighbors, we’d be wise to do things God’s way, which means paying careful attention to the Ten Commandments.7. The church’s most important instruction has been based on them.
The church has historically put the Ten Commandments at the center of its teaching ministry, especially for children and new believers. For centuries, catechetical instruction was based on three things: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
In other words, when people asked, “How do we do discipleship? How do we teach our kids about the Bible? What do new Christians need to know about Christianity?” their answers always included an emphasis on the Ten Commandments.8. They are critical to our understanding of the rest of the Old Testament law.
While it’s true that the Bible doesn’t say to print the Ten Commandments in boldface, we shouldn’t undersell their special stature in ancient Israel. They came from God as he spoke to the people face-to-face (Deut. 5:1–5), and they came from Mount Sinai amid fire, cloud, thick darkness, and a loud voice (Deut. 5:22–27). Exodus 20 marks a literal and spiritual high point in the life of Israel. It’s no wonder the tablets of the law, along with the manna and Aaron’s staff, were placed inside the ark of the covenant (Heb. 9:4)
There are many more laws in the Old Testament. But these first ten are foundational for the rest. The Ten Commandments are like the constitution for Israel, and what follows are the regulatory statutes.9. They are central to the ethics of the New Testament.
Think of Mark 10:17, for example. This is where the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments.” Then he lists the second table of the law, the commandments that relate to our neighbors: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (v. 19).
Jesus isn’t laying out a path for earning eternal life. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus is setting the young man up for a fall, because the one command he obviously hasn’t obeyed is the one command Jesus skips—do not covet (vv. 20–22). But it is noteworthy that when Jesus has to give a convenient summary of our neighborly duties, he goes straight to the Ten Commandments.10. They are still relevant for Christians today.
Can we keep the commandments fully or perfectly? No. Do they serve to show us our sin and lead us to the cross? Absolutely. But the commandments also show us the way to live, the way to love our neighbor, and the way to love God with all our heart and soul.
We still need the Ten Words handed down at Sinai. Have they been changed in some respects by the coming of Christ? For sure—transformed but not trashed. We can no longer keep the Ten Commandments rightly unless we keep them in Christ, through Christ, and with a view to the all-surpassing greatness of Christ. As new creations in Christ, the law is not only our duty but also our delight. If we want to love Christ as he deserves and as he desires, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15).
It’s no secret that the Western world has undergone a dramatic transformation regarding issues of sexuality and gender identity. Twenty years ago, the widespread acceptance of gay marriage seemed largely unthinkable. Even just 10 years ago, issues of transgenderism were far from mainstream consciousness. Many in our culture have seen these shifts as an unqualified good, a needed sign of progress toward a more just and inclusive society.
But for many Christians these changes have been bewildering. The world we thought we knew has been pulled out from under us. The Christian view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and the basic assumption that we’re all made as men and women, may not have always been championed by our culture, but it was at least seen as a legitimate (if quaint) part of Western thought. Now such views are increasingly seen as an actual danger to society.
So how did we get here, and what should we do about it?
I want to suggest at least four changes that account for how our culture has come to this moment, and then propose seven ways in which we can respond.Four Significant Cultural Changes 1. Our moral intuitions have changed.
In his landmark book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows that our moral convictions tend to come about intuitively rather than rationally. We have a gut feeling about what is morally right and wrong—and the intuitions driving that gut reaction have changed in the past decade or so. Particular moral taste buds have come into play: Does a given course of action seem harmful or not; freeing or oppressive; and fair or discriminatory? These primary factors, Haidt argues, determine our moral conclusions.
This being so, we can see how Western culture so quickly embraced gay marriage. Applying the first of the three moral taste buds: Does it do harm to anyone else? Surely if the lovely gay couple down the street is allowed to marry, it’s not going to affect me in any adverse way?.Second, prohibiting gay marriage feels oppressive rather than freeing. Surely someone has the right to love whom they want and to express that love in the way they want. And, third, it seems deeply unfair to oppose this. How can it be fair or just for one couple to be able to marry but not another couple? Viewed this way, supporting gay marriage seems intuitively right. No wonder many once opposed have shifted their thinking in recent years.
Additionally, we can see why so much Christian reasoning against gay marriage seems to fall flat: it’s not accounting for these changing moral intuitions. Many Christians, without knowing it, are appealing to moral reasoning that simply doesn’t connect to a typical secular person. I remember watching a TV debate about whether evangelical churches should allow gay marriage. The proponent for doing so made a succinct (and, to the audience, compelling) case: “God is love. I have found love with another woman, and so this is something God wants to bless and the church should celebrate.”
In response, an evangelical pastor kept replying, “But the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.” He is right. And yet he was appealing to something (the authority of Scripture) that had little traction with those watching. (The response to the “God is love” argument is to point out that God being love doesn’t mean he approves of everything we think is love. It means God knows far more about love than we do, and so we must listen to him if we are to know how to order our loves—and thereby love one another appropriately and well.)2. Our view of minorities has changed.
Secular people today look back on previous discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and feel appalled. We are now aware of the pain caused by past homophobia and demonization of the gay community. We see movies like The Imitation Game and TV shows like Transparent and are moved to compassion for the people our culture once overtly victimized. In many ways, we Christians can applaud this change. There’s ample biblical reason to be appalled at bullying and of this (or any other) kind.
This sense of societal shame over past discrimination has led to the phenomenon of intersectionality. Because of what has happened in the past, and of how certain groups have been silenced, we now privilege minority and victim status. And if someone’s at the intersection of more than one such status, that voice has exponentially more credibility in the public square. It’s not a level playing field—and intentionally so. If someone is, say, black, female, and lesbian, her voice counts more than someone who is male, white, and heterosexual.
This dynamic has also led to great concern about minorities being emotionally or psychologically harmed. Some time ago I was invited to speak on sexuality and the gospel for a Christian group on a secular university campus, and the campus LGBTQ+ advocacy group organized a protest. I met with the protestors shortly before the meeting started, to listen to their concerns and see if there was any assurance I could give them. As they voiced their worries about the event, it became clear that the most significant concern was that my words would be harmful to any gay people of faith who might be present at the meeting. When I pressed further, I discovered that at least part of what they meant by harm was simply the presence of a contrary opinion, however graciously it might be expressed.
We can see, then, why so much progressive thinking is censorious, especially on our university campuses. If someone’s viewpoint is going to cause harm, then it doesn’t need to be engaged with or debated. It just needs to be silenced and shut down.3. Our view of sex and marriage has changed.
This has taken place over a longer period of time than the others, going back to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
First, our view of sex has changed. For many, it has been uncoupled from procreation. It’s simply a means of recreation, and shouldn’t have to be anything more. This goes some way to explaining why, despite advances in ultrasound technology and growing understanding of the sensitivity and development of an unborn child, the pro-abortion lobby is so vociferous. It’s not ultimately about the status of the fetus; it’s about the right to have recreational sex without reproductive consequences.
Second, our view of marriage has changed—not just in that many Western countries now legally recognize same-sex marriage, but also in a prior and more significant way. Marriage is no longer a lifelong covenant ordered toward procreation. It’s now effectively a flexible romantic contract; an opportunity to celebrate deeply fulfilling romantic feelings for one another. And should those feelings subside—should one partner no longer be a means of romantic fulfillment for the other—then either or both are free to dissolve the marriage. This view of marriage obviously doesn’t demand that the couple be heterosexual. If marriage is about celebrating romantic feelings, then it would seem deeply unfair to exclude certain types of relationships from marriage.4. Our anthropology has changed.
Today, the “real” you is the you that you feel yourself to be deep inside. The hero narrative of our day is the person who searches deep within, discovers who they are, and then persists in expressing what they’ve found even in the face of opposition. The “real” you is someone only you can discover; no one else can determine your identity.
In addition, the physical body is entirely accidental. In atheistic evolution, the body is simply the lump of matter you’re attached to. It has no intrinsic meaning or significance. Indeed, evolution shows us that any physical thing can literally become anything else, so there’s no reason why we can’t fashion our physical body into something entirely different from what it started out as. If accidental, then it follows that it’s incidental. The body is canvas on which I can express my identity, but it doesn’t in any way determine that identity.
If your body is accidental, then it follows that it’s incidental.
These four changes reveal something vitally important if we’re to navigate our cultural time: the traditional, Christian understanding of sexual ethics and gender identity isn’t just quaint and old-fashioned. It’s dangerous.
We need to bear in mind that the above changes affect not just secular society They’re also deeply ingrained in many people within our churches. For those younger than 25, this is the oxygen they breathe. It’s the only reality they’ve ever known.
The upshot is that there are many people in our churches who aren’t biblically convinced about how to understand these issues; and many others who are biblically convinced, but not emotionally convinced—they understand what the Bible says, but it sure doesn’t feel compelling.Seven Ways We Need to Respond
As we begin to think about how we respond to this cultural reality, we need to take on board the following suggestions.1. We need to listen well.
One of the most underused verses in pastoral ministry is from the book of Proverbs: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
A similar point is made a couple of chapters later: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).
We need to listen well, because so much of where someone is coming from isn’t immediately apparent. Our hearts are “deep waters.” Our initial impression of someone, and their initial words to us, may reveal only a small part of what’s stirring them in the depths of their heart. Listening well will help us to see what’s going on under the surface. If someone is happy to share something of their story (and we must always ask to see if they are, rather than simply presuming), then we’ll get a sense of where they’ve come from and how they’ve come to be where they are now. We’ll know something of the ups and downs they’ve experienced along the way.
This can help us to know where we might best start to share something of Christ with them. If they’ve been particularly hurt along the way, we might start by talking about how Jesus won’t break a bruised reed; about how he’s someone to whom we really can entrust our deepest bruises. If we sense considerable pride, we might show how humbling and challenging the words of Jesus are for us all when it comes to issues of sexuality. If we sense confusion about who they are, or a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with life, we might introduce them to Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well in John 4, and how he both reveals our identity and also offers living water that will always satisfy.
The danger of not listening is that we speak reflexively without giving due thought and consideration to our words. We can be unsympathetic, not having taken care to discover sensitivities that might be present.2. Don’t say to someone what you can’t say to everyone.
Some time ago I spoke at a secular university in Canada, and a student approached me afterward: “I’m gay, and I’m not a Christian. I used to run an LGBTQ advocacy group at another college. I’ve read your book and am meeting up with a pastor to look at the Gospel of Mark.” Intrigued by his involvement in Christian things, I asked him what was drawing him to think about Christianity. He thought for a moment before saying, “I realized Jesus treats me the same as he treats everyone else.” He explained that the advocacy group he’d led had been predicated on the notion that “we’re different: we have a parade; you celebrate us. When it comes to Pride month we try to see which companies we can get to give us the most stuff.”
As he began to look at the message of Jesus, though, he realized he wasn’t different. He didn’t want to be. At the most fundamental level, the message of Jesus is exactly the same for him as it was for everyone else. It struck me at that moment that there’s an equality we have with the gospel that we don’t get in a culture that prides itself on equality.
There’s an equality we have with the gospel that we don’t get in a culture that prides itself on equality.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have concerning sexuality is that Christianity is unfair. We have one set of rules for one group, and another set for another group. People think we hate and want to condemn the gay community. The assumption is that Christians think LGBTQ+ people are beneath them.
The best way to correct this misconception is to show how the gospel puts us all in the same boat. Jesus always levels the playing field. All of us are fallen and broken in our sexuality. All of us have disordered desires. None of us is all we should be in this area. All of us will have to learn to say no to certain sexual desires if we are to follow Jesus.
The same is true for gender identity. We all come to God with deeply flawed views of our own identity. None of us truly understands who we are, and all of us locate our deepest meaning and sense of self in the wrong things. When it comes to gender dysphoria, all of us experience forms of brokenness with our physical bodies. None of us is in a position to be looking down on others, however different their fallenness might look to our own. None of us is a freak; all of us are painfully distorted image-bearers of a wonderful God.
This isn’t to say that all of us have had the same experience. I have experience of living in a body that has been subject to the same fall as everyone else. But I’ve never experienced the pain of gender dysphoria. So while I want someone with that struggle to know that we’re all in this together, I’m not going to pretend to know what they’re going through. They will need to teach me on that point.
Nor is it to say that all sexual sin is alike. Some sexual sins are more grievous than others. Some represent a greater departure from the Genesis 1–2 blueprint of one man and one woman in covenant marriage. Bestiality represents a more significant departure than adultery, homosexuality than heterosexuality. But in a fallen world none of us has grounds for feeling superior. All of us by nature fall catastrophically short of the glory of God.
So especially in early stages on interaction, don’t say to someone what you can’t say to everyone. Let someone know what the gospel of Jesus says to everyone on this issue before attempting to explain what it says to them. My fear otherwise is that they’ll think they are being singled out in a way others aren’t.3. Recognize the cost of discipleship for all.
The cost of discipleship looks high for those coming to faith from an LGBTQ+ background. But that must not disguise the fact that the cost of discipleship is high for everyone. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The key word is anyone. To follow Jesus, all of us will have to say a deep and profound no to some of our deepest intuitions and longings. Jesus doesn’t put “self” in front of “identity”; he puts it in front of “denial.”
By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
This call needs to be spelled out. Jesus goes on to say that there is a sense of “losing our life” in following him (v. 35), that there will be times when it feels like obedience to him is taking life from us. And yet the glorious paradox is that by going through this loss, we are actually gaining life. By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
But this cost of discipleship is going to look cruel and unusual if it’s applied rigorously to those following Christ from an LGBTQ+ background but isn’t seen to be applied to everyone else. If the cost of discipleship is too high for LGBTQ+ people, then it is too high for anyone.4. Show the goodness of God.
A friend of mine has a 2-year-old daughter who, most of the time, is an absolute delight, but at mealtimes is—how shall I put it?—challenging. Like many 2-year-olds, food is frequently deemed unacceptable to her, regardless of whether it was her favorite even a few days before. Needless to say, this is exasperating for her parents who want to her to be well fed and grateful, preferably without having food flung across the room at regular intervals.
The problem is that many people view God like that 2-year-old. They think he arbitrarily decides he doesn’t like certain things, and biblical sexual ethics seems to confirm this view. It all seems so random.
This being so, it’s not enough to simply teach what the Bible says. We need to be sure to teach why the Bible says it, to show that there is a rationality and goodness to what God says.
Every time God gives us a prohibition, he’s protecting something good.
Every time God gives us a prohibition, he’s protecting something good. So we need to teach the positives behind the negatives, and show that God’s Word isn’t in fact arbitrary but instead points toward what is best and most life-giving for us. Whenever God says no to something, he is saying a much bigger yes to something else. Unless we thrill people with the biblical vision for marriage and human sexuality—especially how they point beyond themselves to God’s love shown to us in Christ—we won’t be providing the full spiritual resources needed to fight deep and besetting sinful desires. As Thomas Chalmers reminded us many centuries ago, we need “the expulsive power of a new affection.”
Rebuttal isn’t persuasion. Pointing out the errors of unbiblical thinking isn’t by itself going to awaken hearts to God’s truth.5. We need to keep the storyline of the Bible in view.
Ultimately, marriage is a biblical-theological issue. The Bible begins with a marriage, between Adam and Eve, and ends with a marriage, between Christ and his bride. This first marriage points to the final one.
It’s no accident that the plotline of the Bible starts in a garden with a man and a woman coming together. They have been made for each other. The created binary of male and female joined together is a picture of the eventual union of heaven and earth, when all human marriages will take a bow and leave the stage for the ultimate marriage between Jesus and his people. This is heady and beautiful stuff. It’s a narrative we all enter into and anticipate in our earthly states now, whether married or single. If marriage points to the shape of the gospel, then singleness points to its sufficiency, for this union with Christ is the only marriage we truly need.
This being so, we can’t mess around with the definition of marriage without going against the grain of what the whole Bible is about. Our theology of marriage flows from our understanding of the gospel. It’s why I’ve yet to see a church that has changed its view of marriage without also ultimately changing its view of the gospel.
It’s why I’ve yet to see a church that has changed its view of marriage without also ultimately changing its view of the gospel.
It also reminds us of the crux of all our theological reflection and discussions about human sexuality. Even if the Bible made no direct mention of homosexuality, we would still know what to think on these matters, given what Scripture says about marriage being by definition heterosexual and the only godly context for sexual activity. The Bible doesn’t give us a theology of homosexuality; it gives us a theology of marriage. Which is itself a theology of the gospel.6. We need to keep pointing to Jesus.
We need to point to the life of Jesus. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived wasn’t married, never entered into a romantic relationship, and didn’t have sex. So while (in the appropriate context) these are good gifts, they can’t be essential to individual human fulfillment. To say we must have them to be complete is to diminish the humanity of Christ, which Scripture warns is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:3).
We need to point to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that sex outside of marriage is sinful (Matt. 15:19–20 and parallels), that sexual desire and not just behavior is morally culpable (Matt. 5:28), that marriage is between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:3–6), and that the only godly alternative to marriage is celibacy (Matt. 19:10–12). We have to come to terms with these teachings. Contrary to the impression commonly given today, Jesus isn’t neutral when it comes to sexual ethics.
If we have a problem with these positions, our problem isn’t with the church, or evangelicalism, or Christianity, but with Christ himself. We can’t turn away from these beliefs without turning away from him. We believe what we believe about marriage and sexuality because we believe what we believe about Jesus. If someone wants me to abandon my view of marriage, they must first persuade me to abandon my view of Christ. As the saying goes, “Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad.” We can’t expect people to fully understand how we live and what we believe unless they understand who Christ is to us.
Finally, we need to point to the claims of Jesus. He alone brings ultimate and lasting satisfaction (John 6:35). In fact, God created human sexuality for this reason: to point to a deeper appetite, a more powerful longing, and a greater consummation that can only be found in him. Jesus, not sexual fulfillment or any other contemporary idol, is the one who truly feeds and fills our souls.7. We need confidence in the gospel.
Reading between the lines of the early verses of Romans 1, it seems that the believers in Rome thought Paul was reluctant to come to them. His gospel message had borne fruit way out there in the provinces of the empire, but this was Rome. This was different. Rome was the center and apex of the world. Greek thinking and influence could be seen everywhere. What could the gospel possibly have to offer here?
So Paul makes it as clear as he can that it hasn’t been reluctance that kept him from Rome. Quite the opposite:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but have thus far been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew and also to the Greek. (Rom. 1:9–16, my emphasis)
How these Roman Christians felt about their fellow citizens being beyond the reach of the gospel is how so many of us today can feel about the LGBTQ+ community, as though the gospel is somehow less effective with this part of our society. Yet it takes God no more strength or grace to save one kind of sinner than any other.
When it comes to responding to the cultural changes we see all around us, we mustn’t think our job is simply to “hold the line.” Instead, it is to discover with Paul the harvest that awaits.
- 7 Ways to Navigate a Sexually Shifting Culture (Sam Allberry)
Eight years ago this month, my expectations met their death.
Like millions of parents before us, we rejoiced at the faint pink line that showed up on our positive pregnancy test in the early morning hours. We went to work as different people that day. We went hopeful. We went excited. We went with smiles on our faces, knowing we had a secret.
I made my first OB appointment in my car while on my lunch break, lest anyone find out I was pregnant. I wanted to tell people on my terms, in my way.
I never got that chance.
Instead I had to tell my boss that I was pregnant and miscarrying all in the same breath. Just like that, it was over. I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t.
Month after month after month passed until the months became years, and we still didn’t have another faint pink line. Tests and medicine and more tests and more medicine and surgery all promised something—a baby. All failed us, until one morning we saw the line again.
Our story is a broken one. We miscarried, we were infertile, and then we had twins. We miscarried again, we had Seth, we nearly lost Ben (and me), but we are here—a family of six, with two in heaven.Is a Normal Birth Too Much to Ask?
My birth stories are scary, and not what we like to think of as “normal.” So when I heard about a documentary that talks about birth trauma, I looked into it. As I watched the trailer, one line in particular struck me: “Is it too much to ask for a woman not to have a traumatic birth?”
I resonate with that question. It’s a visceral response to a poor outcome, one we’ve been told over and over shouldn’t be the case: We shouldn’t have to settle for a C-section. We shouldn’t have to settle for formula-feeding our babies. We shouldn’t have to settle for a body ravaged by the childbirth process. We shouldn’t have to settle for a doctor or nurse not listening in a moment of great pain.
These are the gut responses to things not working out the way we wanted. I can sympathize. My responses to my babies’ births ranged from disappointment to severe depression.
Perhaps we are asking too much of our birth stories. . . . Every birth story is broken.
It’s no small thing to bring a baby into the world, even more so in ways you didn’t expect. But I’m not sure the question being asked by the documentary is the right one. I’m concerned that when we talk about birth we forget that, while our bodies are doing something amazing when we bring forth life, we are doing it in a post-Genesis 3 world.Telling Post-Fall Birth Stories
What this means is that everything can go wrong (from doctor error to our bodies failing us). It doesn’t excuse bad behavior from medical professionals. It doesn’t remove the pain women endure because of horrifying and traumatic deliveries. It doesn’t even remove the disappointment women feel when it doesn’t go according to plan. But it does give a theological framework for understanding it.
We aren’t in Eden anymore. This means our births and bodies don’t always do what they were made to do.
There’s a lot at play when we talk about birth, far beyond the scope of this article. There are systemic issues that contribute to poor outcomes for women of color, as The New York Times recently highlighted. Doctors and nurses are human, and sometimes they sin against us. There are also insurance complexities, family dynamics, hospital regulations, and a whole host of things that can contribute to a birth going poorly. On top of this, all women must confront the fact that our bodies are broken.Hope for Broken Stories
I care about this not just because I have faced my own (and my kids’) mortality in birth, but because I have met so many women who find their bodies coming up short. I’m concerned for women crushed beneath the weight of mantras like “Your body can do this.”
What do you tell the woman whose body clearly can’t? Whose body doesn’t do what it was “made” to do? What about her? Or what about the woman who doesn’t have a choice about how she births her baby? Is there room for her?
I’m concerned for women crushed beneath the weight of mantras like ‘Your body can do this.’
Perhaps we are asking too much of our birth stories. Perhaps in Eden, birth would’ve been two pushes and warm feelings as the baby latches on moments after delivery. But this just isn’t the case now. For every perfect story there are probably five where something went wrong. Welcome to life this side of Eden, life in a cursed world.
As believers, we can rejoice in the birth stories that go well and weep over the ones that don’t. We understand that every birth story is broken, since every one of us is tainted by the effects of sin. As we mourn imperfect hours in the delivery room, we cling in hope to the One who suffered in our place, removed the sting of death, and unites us to himself in his resurrection.
While we often feel frustrated and disappointed when we experience physical pain—and it’s not wrong to desire relief—we often fail to see our suffering through the lens of our theology. We live in a world where systems and tools fail, births can be deaths, and everything is crying out for the redemption of all things (Rom. 8:22). On the hospital bed or in the birthing tub, we groan with pain, adding our voice to the universal groan of all creation.
Let’s not pretend that birth always makes for a picture-perfect post. Instead, let’s tell the truth. This world is broken, and so are we. But Jesus is coming again, and when he does, he will make all things new—even our broken birth stories.
Various groups and organizations, including many religious institutions, have expressed serious concerns with some pressing for restrictive policies to the growing incidence and acceptance of out of wedlock births. They consider the decoupling of sexual relations and procreation from marriage as a serious problem undermining the institution of marriage, the centrality of the family for childrearing and the overall stability and wellbeing of society.
Here are nine things you should know about the global problem of out-of-wedlock births:
1. Out-of-wedlock childbirth refers to a baby born to parents who aren’t married. Of the world’s 140 million births that happened in 2016, about 15 percent (21 million) were born out of wedlock. This global average, however, does not reflect the enormous variation in the proportion of births outside of marriage across countries and regions.
2. Out-of-wedlock childbirths have become more common worldwide since the 1960s. In 1964 most countries in the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) had no more than 10 percent of their births outside of marriage. However, since 1970, the proportion of children born outside marriage has increased by at least 25 percentage points in most OECD countries. In 2014, on average across OECD countries, less than 40 percent of births occur outside of marriage.
3. In ten OECD countries—Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, France, Mexico, Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden—more than 50 percent of children are born outside of marriage. In Chile, Costa Rica, and Iceland, the rate is as high as around two-thirds of births (i.e., more than 70 percent). In only five OECD countries—Greece, Israel, Japan, Korea and Turkey—are less than 10 percent of children born out-of-wedlock, with rates particularly low (at around 2 percent to 3 percent) in Japan, Korea, and Turkey.
4. Just as there is wide variation among countries, there is wide variation within countries. For example, while the national average for the United States in 2014 was 40 percent, the proportions of births out of wedlock for whites was 29 percent; Hispanics, 53 percent; and African Americans, 71 percent. The proportions of such births for all these groups were substantially lower 50 years ago. (In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a top Labor Department official and later a U.S. senator from New York, warned of a “tangle of pathology” that was resulting from the number of black children—25 percent—that were being born out of wedlock.)
5. In the West, many out-of-wedlock births are to cohabitating couples rather than to single mothers. Around 2010, 1 in 10 European children up to the age of 2 lived with a single mother, compared with 4 of 10 children who lived with a couple that was not married. While the average OECD proportion of children living with two married parents declined from 72 percent to 67 percent between 2005 and 2014, the proportion living with cohabiting parents increased from 10 percent to 15 percent over that decade. The highest proportions are observed in five countries—Estonia, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Sweden—where one-quarter of the children are living with cohabiting parents. (In Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States, more than one-fifth of the children live with a sole parent, which substantially exceeds the proportion of children with cohabiting parents.)
6. The proportions of children living in single-parent households vary considerably across countries. At the lowest levels—where 10 percent or less of the children live in single-parent families—are countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. High levels of single-parent families are found in Latin American and African countries where close to 40 percent of the children live with mothers only, and about 4 percent live with fathers only. Other countries with high levels of children in sole-parent households include Mozambique, 36 percent; Dominican Republic, 35 percent; Liberia, 31 percent; and Kenya, 30 percent.
7. The shift toward illegitimacy is having a detrimental affect on children. According to a report produced by researchers from Columbia and Princeton Universities, children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents. The research found that children born to unmarried parents are disadvantaged relative to children born to married parents in terms of parental capabilities and family stability. Additionally, parents’ marital status at the time of a child’s birth is a “good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children’s longer-term wellbeing.”
8. The Columbia and Princeton report found that father involvement declines over time for out-of-wedlock births. By age 5, only 50 percent of non-resident fathers have seen their child in the past month. While formal child support from non-resident fathers increases over time, informal cash support and in-kind support (such as buying toys or clothes) declines. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, children who live without their biological fathers and are, on average, at least two- to three-times more likely to be poor; to use drugs,;to experience educational, health, emotional, and behavioral problems; to be victims of child abuse; and to engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents. In contrast, children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, avoid high-risk behaviors, and exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior.
9. What should Christians do if they have a child out of wedlock? The first step it to seek, if necessary, God’s forgiveness for having sexual relations outside the bonds of matrimony. As John Piper says, “sexual relations belong only in the safe, holy, beautiful sanctuary of a marriage covenant between one man, one woman, while they both live. So, the presence of a child in the womb outside marriage is either the result of being sinned against in rape or the result of sinning.” (Piper also adds, “it is crucial that every Christian and every church make clear that any stigma to pregnancy outside marriage is because the pregnancy signifies previous sin, not because the pregnancy is sin.”) Second, the couple should stop cohabiting and, if possible, get married—even if one partner is an unbeliever. As Russell Moore says,
Even in repentance, you cannot simply “move on.” You are now, and forever will be, the father of her child. She is the mother of your baby You had a responsibility not to entangle yourself with an unbeliever. You had an obligation not to violate God’s command for sexual chastity outside of marriage. But you have done these things and you can’t turn back time. Your only question now is whether, in addition to being a fornicator, you will also be an orphan-maker. . . .
The Scripture also tells us we are to give to everyone what is due (Rom. 13:7). What is due to the woman you have impregnated and the child you have conceived? The answer, I believe, is what our Father God models for us: provision, protection, and covenant faithfulness. A child is meant to have two parents, a mother and a father (Gen. 1-2). Love this woman, and love this child.
Third, if marriage is not a viable option (e.g., one partner refuses to get married), both parents have an obligation to support the child. As Paul tells us, one who does not “provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household” has “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
Other posts in this series:
Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
The poems discussed below—by Milton, Rossetti, and Hopkins—are just three of many classic poems that should be read and cherished by Christians today. The three selections are examples of what I call “devotional poetry.” They are taken from my new volume, The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Crossway)—a collection of more than 90 poems that, when read devotionally, provide a unique way for Christians to deepen their spiritual insight and experience.
Along with the text of the poems below, I have included my commentary on them, which I hope will enhance your experience of the poems and highlight their specifically devotional aspects.1. “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” John Milton (1608–1674)
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The occasion of this sonnet is Milton’s becoming totally blind at the age of 44. An early editor coined what became the familiar title for the poem—“On His Blindness.” The poem develops two lines of thought, both encapsulated in the last line (“They also serve who only stand and wait.”). On the one hand, the poem is a statement of resignation, as the poet expresses an implied submission to the situation of standing and waiting. But the poem is also a statement of justification, as the poet finds a way to assert that “they also serve” who only stand and wait. The poet’s meditation is based on an underlying quest motif in which he searches for and finds a way to serve God acceptably. The poem is built around the implied question, What does it take to please God? The entire poem assumes that God requires service, and the key verb serve appears three times.
This poem is constructed on the classic two-part structure of the Italian sonnet. The argument in the first seven-and-a-half lines is that God requires active service in the world. This line of thought becomes an increasingly intense anxiety vision for the blind poet, who cannot perform active service. The sestet then offers an alternative type of service, placed into the mouth of a personified Patience. The alternate service consists of standing and waiting, and this has multiple meanings. It is an image of monarchy, first of all, and is offered as a picture of serving God in heaven as the angels do, in praise and worship. The last line also evokes a picture of a life of private retirement, out of the public eye, and it is helpful at this point to know that before Milton became blind he was a famous international figure in his role as international secretary to Oliver Cromwell.
The poem is a mosaic of biblical allusions. Particularly prominent are the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16) and the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30). Both parables portray God as the master who calls workers to their tasks and as the judge who rewards stewards for active service and punishes them for sloth. Also important is Jesus’s famous saying about doing the works of his Father “while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” The last three lines are based on angelology (the study of angels), and the contrast between active angels who fly about the world and contemplative angels who remain in God’s heavenly court.2. “Good Friday,” Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)
Am I a stone and not a sheep
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the sun and moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon—
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
This is a subtle poem in which the first three stanzas gradually build a tension that reaches a breaking point in the packed last stanza. The point of unity in the first three stanzas is the speaker’s self portrait of being unmoved by the spectacle of Jesus’s crucifixion. The speaker emerges as the archetypal outsider, ignominiously out of step with the sorrow that other people and even nature showed when Jesus was crucified. Even though the speaker does not respond with appropriate grief, the very pictures that the poem paints lead the reader to sorrow for the dying Christ. The imagery of the opening line—stone and sheep—are a subtle setup for the memorable last stanza.
The first three stanzas are the speaker’s self-address, but in the last stanza the poet turns in prayer to Christ. Having implicitly declared herself to be a failure in the Christian walk, the speaker asks for a rescue operation. The prayer draws upon three separate biblical reference points. The first is Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks and saves his lost sheep. The second is Moses, a supreme hero of the Old Testament and yet someone regarding whom Christ is declared superior in two famous New Testament passages (John 1:17 and Heb. 3:1–6). The climactic prayer—to be smitten by Christ and subdued by him—draws upon the Peter’s denial of Jesus. On that occasion, Jesus is said to have “turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61), leaving Peter convicted. Further, the name Peter means rock, so (as the last line has it) Jesus can be said to have smitten Peter with his look, and additionally Moses smote the rock in the wilderness.
The devotional potential of the poem is at least two-pronged. One is to move us to the grief that we should feel when confronted with the details of Jesus’s suffering for our sins. The second lesson is that to follow Jesus requires that we repent of what is lacking in us and submit to him. As we live with this poem, it gradually emerges as a confession and plea for forgiveness.3. “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The subject of this sonnet is the permanent freshness that nature possesses: no matter what the human race does to exhaust nature, it remains perpetually resilient and living. The interpretive slant that Hopkins gives to this phenomenon of nature is the assertion that it declares God’s grandeur or greatness. The poem is thus a nature poem that becomes a psalm of praise, even ending with a specifically theological statement about the Holy Spirit in his role as Creator.
The poem is organized on a three-part, envelope principle. The first four lines celebrate what might be called God’s nature. The question that concludes this unit is actually a transition to the middle section, which describes the ways in which the human race does not reck or heed God’s rule. Lines 5 to 8 describe humankind’s “nature,” that is, their exploitation of nature and failing to nurture it. The last six lines then return to God’s nature, declaring that the creative power of the Holy Spirit makes nature indestructible.
As with other Hopkins’s poems, this one requires that we take the time to unpack the meanings of the individual images. Verbal effects like internal rhyme within a line and alliteration (repetition of initial sounds in words located close to each other) enliven the effect.
“[God]’s able to take the harsh realities of life in a fallen world and employ them as instruments of redemption. How’s that for grace? You only need the cross to understand that God can take the worst thing ever and make it the best thing ever. Now I think there are thousands of believers who don’t get this. There are thousands of believers who in moments of difficulty are crying out, Where is the grace of God?—and they’re getting it. But it’s not the grace of relief, and it’s not the grace of release—oh we get those in pieces, but largely that’s to come. It’s the grace of refinement, because that’s precisely the grace that they need. ” — Michael Horton
Date: October 4, 2014
Event: TGC New England Regional Conference 2014, Boston, Massachusetts
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Your Most Ordinary Life Now (Matt Smethurst interviews Michael Horton)
- God’s Will for Your Life Is Simple (J. T. English)
- Only Messy People Allowed: Toward a Culture of Grace (Sam Allberry)
Carter sees with wonderful clarity how the story of Jonah reflects the big, Bible-long picture of God’s gracious pursuit of sinners, and he has a remarkable ability to expound each step of Jonah’s story with theological and practical insight. A thoroughly enjoyable read for any Christian and a stimulating and helpful aid for the preacher.
Ray Rhodes Jr.
You know Spurgeon, but what do you know of his wife? Did you know, in fact, that we would not know the great British preacher as we do if it weren’t for his wife, Susie? You’ll love their love story, and you’ll love their whole story. This book fills an important gap in church history studies, and its importance is matched only by the enjoyment it gives in reading. And it’s easily accessible to all readers besides. Thoroughly delightful!
Sinclair B. Ferguson
Reformation Trust, 2018
Anytime I see a new book from Sinclair Ferguson, I get it. He’s one of a handful of authors whose works I’ll read and recommend every time. This book is his survey of 20 centuries of church history in 20 brief chapters. The approach is unique and the pace is swift and broad, providing an excellent overview of the church’s past. Each chapter features a representative selection from that given century, in addition to Ferguson’s insightful survey. A great read and a great choice for anyone on your Christmas list.
The Good Book Company, 2018
The Bible is a story about Jesus, and to understand Jesus rightly we must understand the Bible story. This little book is designed to highlight that story for children at Christmastime. Reaoch traces the story of Jesus from Genesis and the Pentateuch through the Davidic promise and the prophetic hope to Matthew 1–2, Luke 2, John 1, and the incarnation of Christ. Each step is drawn out with engaging questions and even a place for your child to draw. This little book is a wonderful idea and a wonderful resource for parents to teach their children about Jesus and the Bible story.
Brian Rosner, Andrew Malone, Trevor Burke (eds.)
Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, 2017
A one-of-a-kind analysis of Acts and Paul’s epistles to draw out the nature of the apostle’s pastoral heart and work. It’s a dimension of study that was needed and that’s eminently useful for the pastor’s own enrichment and for enriching his expositions of the many, many Pauline passages examined in this book. A genuine contribution to New Testament and pastoral studies.
Columba was a sixth-century abbot who left his native Ireland with 12 men to bring the good news to the Picts, a pagan people in Scotland. The missionaries founded an abbey on Iona, which would become a vibrant center of literacy and faith for centuries to come.
But shortly after reaching Scotland in an animal-hide-wrapped wicker boat, Columba did something drastic. He knew he and his companions might be tempted to leave when life became uncomfortable or dangerous. And so, the story goes, Columba burned the boat.
After reading about this single-minded commitment, I’ve began noticing how, by contrast, I like to keep my options open, just in case.
One of the hallmarks of my generation is an aversion to commitment. We suffer perpetual FOMO (fear of missing out) and, more seriously, struggle to commit to a marriage or a career. In a world full of potential paths, we have a hard time picking one and remaining on it.Let Me First Bury My Dad
But while the fear of commitment is trendy, it’s nothing new. Jesus himself engaged would-be disciples with similar struggles:
He said, “Follow me.” But [the man] said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” . . . Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” (Luke 9:59, 61).
While these requests may sound understandable, it’s helpful to know that the first man’s father may not have been dead—or even close to dead. In the culture of the day, “Let me bury my father” was often used in an idiomatic way to express, “Let me get my family and personal life in order.” Put in 21st-century terms, it might sound something like, “I’m interested in following Jesus more seriously, but first I want to find a spouse and get some traction in my career.”
One of the most common phrases I hear from would-be disciples on college campuses carries a hint of that first-century hesitation: “When I have children of my own, I’ll make Christianity a bigger part of my life.”
When called to Christ, we sometimes want to hedge our bets, to buy ourselves a little more time. But such responses—even when expressed warmly and kindly—reveal a heart not captured by the wonder that the God of the universe is personally inviting us to himself.Don’t Look Back
Both men in Luke 9 have a desire to follow but a reluctance to commit. Jesus’s respective responses bear particular poignancy in our FOMO culture:
Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:60)
No one who puts his hands to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62)
Jesus didn’t mince words, nor did he lessen the cost of discipleship. He didn’t lower the bar or paint a rosy picture of a life spent following and proclaiming him. He didn’t alter the truth to expand his audience or make a hard pill more palatable to swallow.
Jesus was in the business of full disclosure. But he also knew the sweetness and rewards of a life centered on him would far exceed the inconvenience and discomfort.
In essence, when we decide to follow Jesus, we must burn—and keep burning!—the boat. Tensions and temptations will meet us on this path. We’ll be tempted to look back, and turn back, to an easier way of life. But from the outset, Jesus summons us to commit to him.Burn the Boats
Columba and his crew had to burn the vessels that might have tempted them to escape back to the familiarity of kin and country. Likewise, each new disciple of Christ has a boat (or fleet of boats) that might lead back to a life more lucrative, more culturally celebrated, or simply more comfortable.
For some, a former relationship that trumped Christ is the boat that beckons backward. For others, the approval of unbelieving family continually whispers, Don’t be a religious fanatic. Loosen your grip on Christ, just a bit. Often in our money-minded culture, the boats that demand burning would drift us back to a more padded retirement fund or some financial frivolity.
Whatever their shape or style, any boats that lead us away from following Christ must be burned as often as they’re built. While this sounds overwhelming and almost impossible, remember that the One who asks for a commitment to himself, his Word, and his ways has also fully committed himself to us.Committed to Us
Before we were born, before time was wound, the Son of God was committed. He knew he would leave it all so we could have it all in him. Even now, he gives us his Spirit to work within us, coaching, convicting, and comforting.
When we have Christ, we have not missed out on anything. We have gained everything.
By his grace and his power, may we burn the boats that might take us back to a comfortable and cross-less life. May we fix our eyes on him who has gone before us (Heb. 12:1–2). And may we find courage in his constant commitment to us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
- Why Christmas Is the Antidote to FOMO (Sam Allberry)
Last week, within the span of a few days, The New York Times published two articles (first, second) pushing back against the Trump administration’s plans to roll back an Obama-era policy concerning gender identity. As I’ve written elsewhere, the administration’s impending memo is hardly controversial, despite what activists say. Despite the impression given by the Times, these articles reflect the viewpoints of LGBT activists rather than impartial science or sound philosophy.
The first article, published a day after the initial story, is by science journalist Denise Grady and titled “Anatomy Does Not Determine Gender, Experts Say.” In the article, Grady quotes from only one source, Dr. Joshua D. Safer, executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. Safer is also president of the United States Professional Association of Transgender Health.
Right away in this article, readers are told that defining one’s sex based on biology is “oversimplified and often medically meaningless.” But when asked about what determines gender identity—whether one is male or female—Safer speculates. It’s biological in some capacity, he grants, but he cannot say for sure. All that’s left to define one’s gender is their “identity”—“a person’s powerful, core knowledge of who they are.” It’s worth noting that the ambiguity of Dr. Safer’s argument is only exceeded by the disagreement among transgender voices on whether any biological component is necessary at all.
The second is an opinion article, “Why Sex Is Not Binary,” by Anne Fausto-Sterling, emeritus professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University. Fausto-Sterling, a lesbian and feminist whose career has focused on critiquing traditional understandings of gender, explains the sequencing of how persons develop sexually in-utero and through puberty.
According to Fausto-Sterling, “It has long been known that there is no single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories—male or female.” This is a breathtaking and sweeping claim. If such a statement is accurate, it means that, up until now, all of human history’s attempt to understand the embodied reality of men and women has been in error. It would mean that every human society with norms that reflect the male-female binary has been wrong.Has Humanity Always Been Wrong?
To bolster her claim, Fausto-Sterling relies on the existence of intersex people to prove that the male-female binary is neither binary, clear, nor stable. In her view, an exact determination of sex is difficult, since sex is the result of embryonic and post-natal “layering” and a “balance of power among gene networks acting together or in a particular sequence.” In layman’s terms, according to Fausto-Sterling, identifying sex is fruitless and indeterminate because no stable norm exists to measure male and female. The male-female binary is a teeter-totter.
But is that accurate? How should we understand the existence of intersex persons? First, it’s a category often distinct from the transgender phenomenon (though a high percentage of intersex persons also report discomfort with their internal sense of gender). Intersex persons have medically diagnosable conditions affecting their chromosomes, genitalia, or both. Yet the vast majority of transgender-identified persons have no chromosomal or bodily impairment. Second, to use intersex conditions as a way to undermine the reality of male-female binary is akin to saying that individuals born without a left arm constitute a new species of one-armed humans. It overlooks the reality of a norm to evaluate what has gone wrong. Moreover, the idea that sex is a balance of power between genes means the primary and secondary sex characteristics that men and women develop do not communicate any real male or female essence. In short, male-female do not exist, but are imagined, fluid, and permeable categories born of genetic conflict.
To use intersex conditions as a way to undermine the reality of male-female binary is akin to saying that individuals born without a left arm constitute a new species of one-armed humans. It overlooks the reality of a norm to evaluate what has gone wrong.
What’s the conclusion the reader draws from these stories? Two of the world’s foremost experts confidently dismiss the timeless truth that sex and gender identity are chromosomal and embodied realities—while admitting no one knows where gender identity originates or, for that matter, what constitutes male or female. This admission means humanity is left with no stable definition of itself. And the lack of stable definition for male and female highlights one of the most problematic implications of the transgender movement—the abolition of humanity.
The consequences for society cannot be overstated. From bathrooms to medical treatments to housing prisoners, how we identify sex matters. Without a stable definition of what a man or woman is, society’s most important constituency—humanity—is left wondering what, in fact, it is.
For determining what constitutes a male or female, we’re left with what UCLA sociologist Rogers Brubaker argues is the “asserted objectivity of subjective identity that makes it possible to defend choice in the name of the unchosen and change in the name of the unchanging.” To be clear, this radical subjectivity is incoherent and allows for absurdities, such as transracialism (e.g., Rachel Dolezal) or transageism.
The New York Times does not give a full, accurate picture of the larger debate. To be fair, Safer and Fausto-Sterling are reputable professionals in their field. But to exclusively feature their viewpoints sends the signal there is no other reputable thought that disagrees with their perspective. This is hardly the case, as a growing body of research, testimony, and dissent shows.How Christians Can Respond
Scripture speaks of the male-female binary on both special revelation and general revelation grounds simultaneously. What exactly does this mean?
The Bible provides a substantive and coherent account for defining male and female identity, an account that comports with what is true of human nature and human design. This design reflects both what the Bible teaches and also what is true of creation itself. More specifically, Scripture affirms an objective, enduring male-female binary (Gen. 1:26–28), the presence of which is established on creational and teleological grounds. This binary is objective, universal, intelligible, and differentiated (e.g., primary and secondary sex characteristics).
Without a stable definition of what a man or woman is, society’s most important constituency—humanity—is left wondering what, in fact, it is.
Speaking even more specifically, what does it mean, creationally and biblically, to define male and female?
According to natural law scholar Ryan T. Anderson, “Sex, in terms of male or female, is identified by the organization of the organism for sexually reproductive acts. Sex as a status—male or female—is a recognition of the organization of a body that has the ability to engage in sex as an act.” Anderson’s use of “organization” is crucial. According to the natural law tradition, the identity of something is determined by its purpose.
Anderson adduces research from Johns Hopkins psychiatrists Paul McHugh and Lawrence Meyer, who issued an extensive report looking at the field of scholarly research around sexual orientation and gender identity. According to their findings, academic literature that argues gender identity is distinct from biological sex does not provide sufficient evidence to verify the claim. In response, McHugh and Meyer offer important insights into why basing male-female identity on biological and reproductive design provides a “stable” conceptual basis. According to them:
The underlying basis of maleness and femaleness is the distinction between the reproductive roles of the sexes; in mammals such as humans, the female gestates offspring and the male impregnates the female. More universally, the male of the species fertilizes the egg cells provided by the female of the species. This conceptual basis for sex roles is binary and stable, and allows us to distinguish males from females on the grounds of their reproductive systems, even when these individuals exhibit behaviors that are not typical of males or females.
In the above definition, male and female are not culturally constructed; they are God-constructed, through his special design of—and organizational purpose for—male and female bodies.
The above definition is, strictly speaking, biological in nature, in that each refers back to the reproductive organization of the sexes as the primary characteristic for distinguishing sex difference. Mayer and McHugh note these distinctions are “binary and stable,” which implies that any definition of man and woman apart from reproductive organization is on shaky ground.God’s Design Defines Sex
The above definitions parallel with the creation account of man and woman revealed in Genesis 1:26–28. The creation of man and woman in Genesis is both structural and dynamic. As male and female beings made in God’s image, their design is ordered toward a particular purpose—filling the earth, subduing it, exercising dominion. More specifically, that purpose is accomplished through male and female design. The act of being fruitful and multiplying hinges on—and springs from—their respective sex distinction. In this account, general revelation parallels with special revelation. As each of us knows, sex makes babies, and the sexual act relies on male-female complementarity.
Genesis 1 and 2 explains categorically, thematically, and observationally what biology confirms as reality.
What is happening in the description of male and female offered in Scripture? A biblical view of what defines a man and woman, then, must be defined according to God’s creation design: the biological design of a man and a woman is (a) made for a covenantal marriage union with (b) their sexually opposite counterpart and is (c) oriented to fulfill a creational mandate.
The biblical narrative around Genesis 1 and 2 explains categorically, thematically, and observationally what biology confirms as reality—that maleness and femaleness are biological realities according to their respective reproductive organization.
 There are two main camps espousing a basis for gender identity. There are biological theorists who put gender identity within the arena of biology (e.g., “brain-sex theory”) and constructivists who see gender identity as purely a matter of self-description. For an example of the latter, see Sophie Searcy, “Why We Don’t Need Brain Scans to Confirm Trans People Are Trans.” Searcy writes: “Trans brain research and its recent coverage seek to measure trans people according to a cis standard—a standard that is itself a debunked fiction originally created by publication bias. The legitimacy of trans identities does not hinge on whether or not trans brains look like cis brains. We don’t need brain scans that cost thousands of dollars to legitimize or diagnose trans people; if we inform children about trans identities and remove stigmas that keep trans people marginalized, we can already validate the genders of trans kids free of cost simply by asking them who they are.” See also Alex Barasch, “Biology Is Not Destiny: Seeking a Scientific Explanation for Transgender Identity Could Do More Harm than Good,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2018.
I try to keep episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible less than 60 minutes, but this time I just couldn’t do it. There was simply too much you’ve-got-to-hear-this insight offered by Jim Hamilton, professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
I had to begin our conversation with a short discussion on the book that brought him to my attention—The Glory of God in Salvation Through Judgment—as it was a paradigm-shifting book for me when I read it. The rest of our conversation deals with four aspects of the Psalms:
- typology in the Psalms;
- use of earlier Scripture in the Psalms;
- psalms quoted in the New Testament; and
- the flow of thought in the psalms.
And, frankly, most of it was new to me. This is one of those episodes listeners may want to listen to more than once to catch all that Hamilton is presenting. Fans of the broadway musical Hamilton will appreciate the numerous ways Hamilton (no relation so far as he knows) draws upon the form and content of the musical to illustrate aspects of the Psalms.
You can listen to the episode here.
- Sermons on every Psalm preached by Jim Hamilton at Kenwood Baptist Church (look for sermons March 2015 to June 2018)
- Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation: Commentary on Psalms by James Hamilton (planned release in late 2019 or early 2020).
- What Is Biblical Theology: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns by James Hamilton
- The Glory of God in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton
- Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by D. A. Carson and G. K. Beale
In her new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield writes: “I know I can’t save anyone. Jesus alone saves, and all I do is show up. Show up we must.”
When Christians fail to show up, those around us remain unreached. Complacency is a sickness that keeps us from loving our neighbors. In fact, we misrepresent the gospel when we fail to bring it to our unbelieving neighbors. This proves our lack of love for them, our lack of gratitude for our own salvation, our underestimation of its primacy in our lives, and our rejection of God’s call to go.
But Christ’s love is the antidote to complacency, and it compels us to go to the lost. Jesus spent his life among the needy, and that’s where he sends us (John 17:18). We shine his light in the darkness. We speak up where the truth is silenced. We welcome when the world abandons.
We misrepresent the gospel when we fail to bring it to our unbelieving neighbors.
This is what happens in church planting. We show up and speak up to meet the needs, both seen and unseen, of people in our communities. Here are three ways to do this as we plant churches.1. Strategically
We think strategically about how we can live out our mission to make disciples of the nations (Matt. 28:19). The global refugee crisis has, in many cities in both the United States and across the world, brought the nations to our neighborhoods. They’re coming to us. We have an unprecedented opportunity to show up.
My local church, Imago Dei Raleigh, cares for refugees who live in an apartment complex in our city. We seek to build friendships as these families transition to life in Raleigh. Recently we facilitated a vacation Bible school inside the complex. The gospel was shared with the children and their parents through Arabic and Burmese translators. My boys played soccer with new friends who speak multiple languages and have multiple skin tones.
I also met a Syrian woman with her four children. She lives in isolation, because she speaks little English. One tangible way I can love her is to help her practice conversational English. We exchanged phone numbers so that we can make plans to visit together. I’m committing to show up—not to exegete Romans, but to love her by helping her to learn English. Hopefully, as we become friends, I’ll have the opportunity to share Christ with her.
Think strategically about opportunities you may be overlooking. Talk to others in your church about how you can corporately meet the needs around you. Is there a specific area in or near your city that needs the gospel? Perhaps you could gather people to pray about seeing a church planted there. Take the initiative to start this kind of discussion, and see what good might come.2. Creatively
God orchestrates the placement of his people for his purposes. Our presence in our neighbors’ lives creates space for us to share the gospel. Engage your relational networks with gospel intentionality. Who’s better equipped to reach your neighbor than you are?
We’re not bound by one playbook for how to reach our neighbors. Be creative! For example, my friend hosts a neighborhood book club. Ladies come to her house to spend time with their friends as they discuss the latest bestseller.
Who’s better equipped to reach your neighbor than you are?
Over time, as they get to know each other better, the group begins to see the genuineness of my friend’s affection for them and her love for God. They see gospel fruit displayed in and through her life. Planting a church presents opportunities to think creatively about reaching the lost. It forces us to ask questions that push us to create new spaces for people to encounter Christ.3. Sacrificially
Disciples are made in the church. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Discipleship is costly.
Planting a church is no exception. It’s a costly endeavor. Time, money, resources, comfort, energy—all these and more are invested in church planting. But herein lies an opportunity to take up our cross and follow our Savior.
Planting a church is a costly endeavor.
When Christ showed up for us, he did so as a sin-bearing substitute. As his image-bearers (Gen. 1:27), our love for others will cost us, too. When we show up for our elderly neighbors, we sacrifice our time and our plans to help care for them. When we show up for our coworkers, we give up casual relationships for intentional conversation and care. It requires effort, and it’s worth it.
Caring for vulnerable neighbors isn’t an inconvenience; it’s a kingdom investment. When we show up sacrificially, we love like Jesus.What Propels Us
We don’t show up to invest in the lives of others because we’re “do-gooders” or “super Christians.” We invest in people for their good and God’s glory. As churches are planted across the globe, God’s kingdom advances, and God’s fame is magnified.
In his book Radical, David Platt writes, “Disciple making is not a call for others to come to us to hear the gospel but a command for us to go to others to share the gospel.” Ours is a going faith. And we go because we long for God to be honored among the nations.
To show Christ to others, we first must show up. But we never show up alone. He’s always with us, which means we can go to the lost with confidence in Christ, trusting his promise to build his church (Matt. 16:18). We act strategically, think creatively, and give selflessly. We show up for others because Christ showed up for us.
Our God is working. By grace, he invites his people to join him in the work, gifting and equipping us to serve those around us. This beautiful task of building the church and making disciples has been given to us all.
Excited by the work God is doing in and through his people, the goal of the Women’s Training Network (WTN)—a new initiative from TGC—is to come alongside the local church to further equip women both for individual growth and to serve the various ministries to which each has been called. Some women are called to facilitate Bible studies in the local church; others will write Bible studies. Many will share the gospel with co-workers and neighbors; others might exposit the book of John to her women’s group. Many will disciple other women, and others will be further equipped to instruct children. There are a variety of ways God gifts and calls us to serve, all informed by his Word.
Thus, the mission of WTN is to encourage and train women to use the Scriptures well. To do this, WTN will launch five events in the U.S. in 2019. These events, called Two-Day Intensives, offer multiple tracks of curriculum, inviting you to choose the track that best fits your need. Together over the two days, we pray the interactive teaching in the workshops will practically train women, and the plenary sessions will offer encouragement to their hearts. They’ll hear the WTN values repeated as the heartbeat of the work: we labor to be grounded in the Scriptures and centered on the gospel as we equip women to serve, all for the glory of Christ.
So if you’re looking to grow in the ways you disciple women, we have workshops on discipleship. If you teach the Bible and want to think more deeply about the structures of biblical poetry or tracing biblical themes, we have workshops just for you. If you want to be able to better articulate what the Scriptures say about suffering, justice, or the gospel, we have workshops we can’t wait to share with you. And if you want to grow in your understanding of how to read, study, interpret, apply, and explain the Scriptures, then know that everything we teach is grounded in the Word of God.
We hope you’ll join us! These are the 2019 events:
- Charlotte, North Carolina, February 1–2, Christ Covenant Church
- Portland, Oregon, April 12–13, NW Gospel Church
- Austin, Texas, June 28–29, Austin Stone
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 27–28, Covenant Fellowship
- Sacramento, California, November 1–2, LifePointe Christian Church
For more information, and to see which workshop tracks are offered at each location, visit TGC.org/WTN.
The Gospel Coalition is delighted to introduce Women’s Training Network (WTN). TGC is dedicated to strengthening the church by training a network of women who are steeped in the Word of God. WTN is an initiative aimed at training women to use the Scriptures well, equipping them to faithfully read, interpret, apply, and teach the Word as they serve in every sphere of life to which they have been called: their churches, homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities.
You may have seen the work WTN is doing in collaboration with Coalición por el Evangelio, already planning events for women throughout Latin America. WTN will begin in the U.S. in 2019 with five regional training events, called Two-Day Intensives. WTN will partner with a local church or seminary to offer these events, and they’re open to any woman desiring to be further equipped. Different tracks will be offered to accommodate women with various levels of experience and knowledge. Our Women’s Training Network page is newly live if you want to find out more information about the events.
Taylor Turkington serves as director of Women’s Training Network. She holds an MA from Western Seminary, where she has also just completed her Doctor of Ministry degree. Taylor, her husband, and their daughter live in Portland, Oregon. She greatly enjoys the privilege of teaching and training women to use the Scriptures. Joining her are Courtney Doctor and Ann Westrate, serving as the coordinators for WTN.
Please join us in praying that God will bless these efforts so they will bear much fruit both in and through the lives of women all across the globe—and, as he does, that the church would be strengthened, the kingdom would grow, and the name of Christ would be proclaimed.
- Equipping Women through TGC’s Women’s Training Network (Taylor Turkington)
Andy Stanley’s claim that we need to unhitch from the Old Testament has created quite a splash, and he defends his view in a new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. The old covenant has passed away in its entirety, Stanley argues. In a blog post (“Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All”) he quotes me in support of his view: “Paul argues that the entirety of the law has been set aside now that Christ has come. To say that the ‘moral’ elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.” He ends the post by saying that we don’t treat others based on the Ten Commandments but on the law of love, the love Jesus expressed for his disciples (John 13:34–35; 15:12).
Michael Kruger has written an excellent response to Stanley from the standpoint of covenant theology. I’m in fundamental agreement with Kruger, and we nearly end up in the same place, but I get there a different way and would frame the issue a bit differently as one who subscribes to progressive covenantalism instead of classic covenant theology.Distinguishing Old Covenant and Old Testament
The quote Stanley attributes to me is correct, but it needs to be set in proper context. Yes, the old covenant has passed away in its entirety, and believers aren’t under the old covenant but the new covenant, which was inaugurated with Jesus’s death and resurrection (cf. Jer. 31:31–34; Gal. 3:15–4:7; Rom. 6:14–15; 7:4–6; Heb. 8:1–10:18). But moral norms still exist for believers. Love isn’t just a sentimental feeling.
Saying that the old covenant has passed away doesn’t mean the Old Testament is no longer (or somehow less) the Word of God. All of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are the final authority as God’s infallible and inerrant word. All of the Old Testament has a revelatory and pedagogical authority for believers in Jesus Christ. We must interpret the Old Testament in terms of God’s progressive revelation in his covenants in order to discern how to apply it today.
New Testament writers don’t decide how to apply the Old Testament based on the moral, ceremonial, and civil divisions, where the moral law continues to function as a moral norm. Such categories are actually quite useful, and there is significant truth in such divisions, but the New Testament itself doesn’t apply the Old Testament law to believers based on these categories. Doing so can introduce distortions when applying the Old Testament to our lives.
Since believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant, we’re not under the stipulations of the old covenant as a covenant. The Mosaic or Sinai covenant was enacted with Israel, not with us. Yahweh inaugurated the covenant with Israel when he freed them from Egypt. Israel’s covenant with the Lord contained both religious and political elements, and thus Israel as a nation, as a distinct people, received specific commandments for both its religious and political life. The laws given to Israel were its charter as a nation, as God’s special people in the ancient world. But the laws and stipulations aren’t the requirements for the church of Jesus Christ, which is under a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8–13).
Such statements make some people nervous, and they might say progressive covenantalists are antinomians! They might say we don’t even believe we should keep the Ten Commandments! But we need to be careful here, because progressive covenantalists don’t end up at the same place as Stanley, and we do believe in universal moral norms.Distinguishing the Law of Christ and the Law of Moses
When we consider the Ten Commandments, we have to situate them in their covenantal context. After all, they’re part of the Mosaic covenant, and Christians aren’t under that covenant. For instance, the sabbath is the sign of the Mosaic covenant, of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (Ex. 31:13, 17), but believers in Christ are no longer under the sabbath command, since it’s a shadow that points to Christ (Col. 2:16; cf. Rom. 14:5). The sabbath points to our rest in Christ (Heb. 4:1–11), and I make this case in a book on progressive covenantalism. Since the sabbath is no longer required for believers today, it’s too simplistic to say that believers must obey the Ten Commandments.
Since the sabbath is no longer required for believers today, it’s too simplistic to say that believers must obey the Ten Commandments.
We need to remember in interpreting the Old Testament that there is both continuity and discontinuity, both abolition (Heb. 8:13) and fulfillment (Matt. 5:17–20). The law points to the fulfillment in Jesus. It doesn’t follow, however, that there are no moral norms for believers. The law of Christ functions as a norm for believers (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:20–21), the heart and soul of which is love for neighbor. And this love was exemplified supremely in Christ’s self-giving on the cross.
Someone might say at this point, “You do hold the same view as Andy Stanley!” Not so fast. Romans 13:8–10 helps us unpack the nature of love, and Paul tells us that love keeps particular commands, which include commands that prohibit adultery, murder, stealing, and coveting. Paul tells us that other commands fall under this umbrella as well. In fact, when we read the New Testament, we discover that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament (again, the exception is the sabbath). Such moral norms prevent us from sentimentality in defining what love is.
So we know from the New Testament itself—from the new covenant, from the fulfillment in Jesus—the moral norms that guide our lives. No one can claim to be living a life of love while transgressing such moral norms.Moral Norms and the Character of God
The commands that are normative for believers today aren’t normative merely because they’re in the Ten Commandments or because they’re part of the old covenant. We know from the New Testament, from the new covenant, which moral norms apply today, and they remain moral norms because they express the character of God. There are indications even in the covenant with Adam and the covenant with Noah—which is in many respects a recapitulation of the covenant with Adam—that such moral norms were present at the beginning, prior to the Mosaic law. For instance, the permanence of marriage (Gen. 1:26; 2:18–25), the prohibition of murder (Gen. 9:6), and complete devotion to the Lord are present from the beginning, showing that the commands of love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40) are anchored in creation.
Progressive covenantalism and covenant theology come close to saying the same thing about moral norms. We just get there a different way, and we don’t disagree that idolatry, dishonoring parents, adultery, murder, stealing, lying, coveting, or same-sex marriage are morally wrong and transgress the love command.
The Old Testament is God’s authoritative Word to us, but we have to read the whole Bible covenantally, and in light of the fulfillment of Christ, to apply it well to our lives.
“In everything man does without God, he must either fail miserably or succeed more miserably. The cruelest thing God can do to you is let you succeed and think you did it on your own because you’ll live your life independent of him—and that’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.” — Mark Bates
Text: Daniel 4
Preached: November 9, 2008
Location: University Presbyterian Church, Orlando, Florida
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
I saw them as I drove up our street. Both girls had beautiful, long hair and were about 16 years old. Then I noticed they were holding hands and sharing intimate embraces. Just friends? Maybe. But probably not.
This scene is common nowadays. Christians can’t ignore the subject of homosexuality, as it’s so interwoven with our culture. We need to know how to engage with it, following the example of our Lord Jesus who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And this requires us to pull up a chair and listen well to those who’ve walked its road.Full of Worship
Jackie Hill Perry is one such woman. Growing up in a broken home, she had an absent father and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a friend’s older brother. Her first book, Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been, recounts these circumstances that shaped her gay identity, but in Perry’s words, “Sexual abuse is not what made me gay. Nor did fatherlessness. They only exaggerated and helped direct the path for what was already there––which is sin” (37).
Having struggled with same-sex attraction (SSA) for as long as she can remember, Perry recounts her story with humility, pointing us ultimately to her good God. From the beginning, she tells us that’s her agenda:
Leaving this word-filled place with a developed understanding of me and a shallow revelation of God would make all of my efforts worthless. . . . This work is my worship unto God that, with prayer, I hope will leave you saying, “God is so good!” (3–4)
And it does that. I know Perry better, and have a better understanding of SSA, because of this book; but more importantly, I know our good God better. It caused me to revel in the miraculous––that God awakens the dead and opens blind eyes to the truth that’s in Jesus, that he’s gracious to relentlessly pursue those who’ve rejected him, and that he does the impossible in saving rebels.
I’m worshiping, and for that reason I’d say Perry did what she set out to do.Full of Grace
Perry tells her story in a winsome way. She writes on a hot-button topic with compelling grace and compassion. The overarching tone of the work isn’t instruction, but invitation; not “I’ve arrived,” but “I’ve endured and enjoyed––taste and see!”
There’s also something unique and attractive about Perry’s poetic language. There were a few places I found it hard to follow, but this was the exception. Her writing is warm, inviting, and striking all at once:
- “Sin, when in the body, cannot not stay put. It’s not a guest that stays in one room, making sure not to disturb the others. It is a tenant that lives in everything and goes everywhere. It can bleed into every part, choking out anything holy” (20).
- “The thought of death was so matter-of-fact that it made an immediate mess of my mind. Like God had thrown himself inside of my world, in one immediate gesture, while I watched everything shred, fly up, and rain down all at once” (70).
- “Underneath my gown, white with a train, was a fight none of the guests could see. . . . They thought I was walking on the aisle runner the usher had rolled out before I entered the sanctuary. I knew it was water. I knew it was the impossible” (138).
Whether you struggle with SSA or not, and are a Christian or not, Perry’s writing will resonate. She captures the essence of the human heart by sharing her own, welcoming our questions and unveiling our deepest desires. Her tone, storytelling, and message make this a great book to hand to an unbelieving friend or someone from your church who has questions about or a personal struggle with SSA.Full of Truth
What I love most about Gay Girl, Good God is how it unashamedly declares what’s true. Perry centers on and celebrates who God is and what he’s done. In writing memoir, we can be so focused on ourselves that we forget who wrote our story, and whose story ours is meant to reflect. We end up pointing people to us, rather than to the God who saves.
But Perry’s story points to Jesus Christ through and through, and without hesitation. Her practical theology is clear, robust, and will equip those who read.
My favorite chapter was “Same-Sex Attraction and Endurance,” where Perry writes about the lifelong battle SSA Christians face, and the sympathy and sufficiency of Jesus to face it: “The crucified life is the life set on enduring until the end when, once and for all, the cross is replaced with a crown” (169). She explores the endurance of Jesus unto death, a strength and encouragement for the weary: “If Jesus needed strength to endure for the sake of obedience to his Father, how much more do we?” (172). So much more. Praise God, he gives us what we need in himself.
Perhaps Perry’s most helpful theological point is this: “God isn’t calling gay people to be straight” (177). This isn’t the true gospel, but the “heterosexual gospel,” a misleading message that’s hurt many people and kept them from the truth and from knowing Jesus. While being clear that homosexuality behavior is sinful, Perry helpfully points out that God’s ultimate call on gay people is not straightness. Perry clarifies that God is calling all people—whether SSA or not—to a life of faith in and obedience to Christ. Her clarification was helpful for me as a believer who desires to build up the church and minister to those outside of Christ. I want to love people well—all people—by pointing them to the only true gospel of salvation.
At the close, Perry delivers a beautiful gospel presentation that all readers will do well to remember:
Our sexuality is not our soul, marriage is not heaven, and singleness is not hell. So may we all preach the news that is good for a reason. For it proclaims to the world that Jesus has come so that all sinners, same-sex attracted and opposite-sex attracted, can be forgiven of their sins to love God and enjoy him forever. (190)