On May 10, 2018, noted botanist Dr. David Goodall took his own life as Beethoven’s ninth symphony played in the background. At the age of 104, he was dejected and exhausted, weary of the constraints his advanced age imposed on life. After traveling from Australia to Switzerland, he bade his family goodbye, then fielded questions from the press. When he was ready, he self-administered a lethal dose of barbiturate prepared by a licensed physician.
Headlines called this unsettling case a “physician-assisted suicide” (PAS), and few could argue with the label. Although his impressive age meant death was near, Dr. Goodall died not from disease, but from an infusion triggered with the push of a button, and with medical professionals standing by.Nicer Word for Death
In the handful of U.S. states where it’s legal, the self-administration of medications to speed death is called “medical aid in dying.” Unlike Dr. Goodall’s Swiss case, these deaths require proof of terminal illness. But the softer language has profound implications. Not only does it normalize an immoral practice, it also muddies the already confusing waters of medical care for those grappling with tough decisions at the end of life.
The choice of terms is deliberate. In 2008, the American Public Health Association released a statement in which they distinguished the term “suicide” from “the choice of a mentally competent terminally ill patient to seek medications to bring about a peaceful and dignified death.”
PAS advocates argue that the label “suicide” is offensive and stigmatizing to those considering “dignity in an already impending exit from this world.” They assert that terminal illness, not suicide, kills people who request a doctor’s assistance to end life.
Unfortunately, studies confirm that gentler terminology sways public opinion. Since 2002, 51 percent to 68 percent of Gallup survey respondents have voiced support for physician-assisted suicide. When the question has excluded the word “suicide,” however, favor consistently increases by up to 15 percentage points. And up to 69 percent of those favoring it self-identify as regular churchgoers.
When a tweak in semantics shifts support for a life-and-death issue, we need to pay attention.Instrument of Death
Muted language doesn’t change the fact that in cases of physician-assisted death, demise is artificially—and intentionally—hastened. This is true even while terminal illness broils in the background, and even when the death’s purpose is to alleviate suffering.
Anguish afflicts those with terminal illness, and we minister to our dying neighbors in tenderness (Matt. 22:39; John 13:34–35). But when an infusion of barbiturate floods the veins of a dying person, that lethal dose of drug, not disease, is the instrument of death.
Physician-assisted suicide violates our call to love both God and neighbor, and we can’t erase its dangers with a turn of phrase.
The American Medical Association, which opposes PAS, recognizes this distinction, and retains the terminology “physician-assisted suicide” in its code of ethics. Moreover, Scripture points us to the sanctity of mortal life, and to our imperative as God’s image-bearers to protect life and commit our days to his glory (Gen. 1:26; Ex. 20:13; 1 Cor. 10:31; Rom. 14:8; Acts 17:25).
Physician-assisted suicide violates our call to love both God and neighbor, and we can’t erase its dangers with a turn of phrase.Death by Any Other Name
For years as a critical care surgeon, I “aided in dying.” When medicine couldn’t cure and death crept near, I titrated morphine drips to ameliorate pain and air hunger. I held the hands of the dying, some flushed with infection, others cool, as if their souls were already speeding away.
Few would equate this care with interventions to speed demise. Yet for the layperson, the mangled terminology of PAS worsens confusion surrounding end-of-life care, especially regarding palliative care and hospice.
Palliative care supports people through life-threatening illness, and by definition does not intend to hasten death. Its benefits for patients and families are numerous and include improved quality of life, less post-traumatic stress disorder among loved ones, and in some cases improved survival.
However, stigma already steers many away from palliative care, and the vague phrase “medical aid in dying” threatens to worsen that trend. Advocates of PAS are quick to claim that the practice has improved palliative care in Oregon, but a careful review of research refutes this argument.
Dr. Warren Fong, president of the Medical Oncology Association of Southern California, writes, “There’s a really big misconception about what hospice is, and this whole suicide debate has worsened that misconception. When people go on hospice, they [mistakenly] think, ‘I’m giving up, I’m failing my family. I’m committing suicide.’”
The Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians raises similar concerns:
Palliative care physicians provide medical aid in dying every day. The terms “assisted dying,” “physician assisted dying,” and “assisted death” are imprecise and ambiguous, and therefore potentially harmful. The essential concept is that of hastening or accelerating death. If patients believe that assisting in dying is the same as hastening death, then palliative care becomes a threatening option.True Aid for the Dying
Above all, softening language about PAS ignores the disturbing problem that compels the terminally ill to hasten death. The most common reason that people pursue PAS isn’t intractable pain, but loss of independence.
Diminished autonomy, an inability to engage in cherished activities, and loss of dignity far surpass pain as a motivator to end life. Perhaps, rather than blanketing the issue with innocuous words, we should focus on our neglect of the infirmed.
As believers, we’re called to care for those afflicted with severe illness (Matt. 25:36–40). What’s more, we can point one another to Christ’s promised renewal: one that endures even when our bodies twist and warp, and when crippling disease drains away hope (1 Pet. 1:3).
Christian love mandates that we see physician-assisted suicide for what it is—and isn’t. It requires us to care for the terminally ill, and to reaffirm their dignity as image-bearers of God. We ought to love one another so well that an imposed death, no matter its name, never seems the right answer.
Twenty years ago, Reformed theology made landfall on the shores of my life with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.
I’d been in ministry only a few months and preached only a few times when God put a few men in my path who gently and patiently guided me toward sound doctrine. They introduced me to Augustine and his Confessions, Luther and his Commentary on Galatians, Calvin and his Institutes, the five solas, TULIP, Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress, Spurgeon and his steel backbone in the Downgrade Controversy, Lloyd-Jones and his Romans series.
Consistent with the Reformed way, I hadn’t been looking for a Big God theology; it found me. And like the landscape after a massive hurricane, my mind and heart and ministry have never been the same.
My pastoral ministry has been deeply shaped by the Reformation—its key figures, its theology, and those who have followed in its tradition such as the Puritans and my Particular Baptist fathers. Space and reader patience would fail me were I to list all the ways the Reformation has shaped me, but here are seven ways it has helped me and can help every pastor.1. Regularly preaching the five solas means you’ll always be relevant.
At its most fundamental level, the Reformation was a recovery of relevance because it was a recovery of the gospel. The gospel—preached from a framework of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as found in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone—is relevant in every single age. And God’s Word is powerful “out of the box.” I don’t need to revise it, improve it, or update it. Scripture comes equipped with its own affirming power, and if I proclaim it faithfully to both the lost and the found, it will do its work through the Holy Spirit.
The Reformation was a recovery of relevance because it was a recovery of the gospel.
Recovery of the gospel was at the heart of the Reformation, and keeping the gospel front and center will always be the heart of faithful gospel ministry. Michael Reeves said it well: “The Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel.” In my exegesis, my exhortation, my application, and my own life and leadership in both home and church, I must always be moving toward the gospel.2. You don’t have to search for a silver bullet for transformation. God has provided it.
The formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura, is what helpless sinners need. How did Luther sum up his massive contribution as the unwitting founder of Protestantism? “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Scripture provides us with an all-sufficient framework for worship, for discipleship, for evangelism, for counseling, for life.
God has a people. He is sovereign. And so he will certainly save and sanctify sinners when we preach his Word. Yes, we must do evangelism and missions if we would obey Scripture. Yes, we must take the gospel to our neighborhood and the nations with compassion and zeal. But we must trust that the Spirit of God working through the Word of God is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. We press for repentance and faith, but the Word does everything in converting a sinner; we do nothing.3. God has told you how to interpret his Word and how he expects to be worshiped.
Jesus makes clear in Luke 24 that we are to interpret the Old Testament as finding its fulfillment in him. Thus, the New Testament writers show us how to interpret the Old in light of the person and work of Jesus. In his Institutes, Calvin identified the Reformed tradition’s bedrock method of interpreting and exegeting the sacred text:
It follows that the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares separate Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom we hear the doctrine of the righteousness of faith was imparted? . . . If the Lord, in manifesting his Christ, discharged his ancient oath, one cannot but say the Old Testament always had its end in eternal life.
Intrinsic to God’s Word is also a complementarity between law and gospel. The moral law of God as summarized in the Ten Commandments demonstrates God’s holy character, exposes man’s sin and need for a mediator, and provides a guide to sanctification. The law breaks; the gospel heals. The law says “run”; the gospel gives us legs. You need both to properly understand either.
In addition to an inspired hermeneutic, God has given us a regulative principle for worship. He knows best how he is to be worshiped. The regulative principle is by no means a straightjacket, but opens the entire Bible to us.4. Knowledge of both God and self line the path to genuine wisdom.
Calvin’s opening words in the Institutes represent an accurate summary of biblical anthropology and theology—and are irreducible pillars for life and ministry. Only when I see myself as a great sinner and Christ as a great Savior does my thinking become rightly ordered. God is holy, I am not; I need, therefore, his purity and wisdom and power every moment as both a follower of Christ and also a leader in his church.
I’m not as young or restless as when this journey in grace began, but I will always be reforming.
This critical truth has profoundly shaped both my devotional life and also my preaching. Without true knowledge of God, there is no true knowledge of self.5. You need living mentors.
Being my own pastor has always felt a bit strained. Every pastor needs a pastor. Timothy had Paul, Augustine had Ambrose, Luther had Von Staupitz, Calvin had Bucer, Beza had Calvin, Whitefield and Wesley had each other, Sproul had Gerstner.
I need at least one seasoned godly mentor, too—one able to guide, direct, chasten, and encourage me in the things of God, one positioned to keep a close watch on my life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).6. You need dead mentors.
As is often said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We were not the first to tread this territory, and we won’t be the last. Therefore, we need the insights of Scripture-saturated, God-entranced church leaders from the past to help affirm and amend our interpretation and application of Scripture. While history does not play a magisterial role for us, it can and should play a ministerial role in our lives and ministries through the figures and doctrines from our rich evangelical heritage.
So not only do I need a living mentor, I also need heroes from the past. And these men and women come with one benefit that living heroes don’t: the final chapter of their lives has been written. We know how they turned out. Though they are deeply flawed like our living mentors, neither Twitter, Facebook, nor lurid corners of the internet will suddenly topple their ministries.7. Reformation continues until Jesus returns.
The battle for the Bible wasn’t over when Protestantism germinated and blossomed in Luther’s train. It wasn’t over in the Southern Baptist Convention when key offices at last bulged with conservative evangelicals. It wasn’t over when conservative Presbyterians split from moderates. And it’s not over in local churches today. Our cry will always be semper reformanda—reformed, and always reforming (according to Scripture).
Our hearts are prone to wander from orthodoxy; in every age, therefore, we must reaffirm and guard our confessional integrity and our submission to God’s Word. I’m not as young or restless as when this journey in grace began, but I will always be reforming—in my heart, in my family, and in my congregation.
Praise God that it pleased him to work through flawed, ordinary men like Luther and Calvin to unleash afresh an extraordinary gospel. Every evangelical, no matter his or her denomination, is deeply indebted to the reformers and those who courageously followed in their wake.
Until Christ returns, may God continue building his church through the sin-killing, life-transforming gospel, recovered in the Reformation, which is none other than the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Songs from The New City Catechism Accompaniment Tracks by The Gospel CoalitionNow you can download instrumental background tracks for all of the Songs from The New City Catechism. Download individual songs or the whole album on Bandcamp. Feel free to burn your own CDs, use in church services, or make your own music videos (just don’t sell or profit from these songs in any way).
I first came to Japan in 2004. A decade later, my wife and I were praying about planting a church here.
We started by simply opening up our home in order to disciple a group of people who’d never heard of Jesus. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were confident that God had a people for himself (Acts 18:9–10), and that our job was to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20).
We also started meeting with musicians in studios and other venues across Tokyo. As many Jazz musicians came to play together, we had countless opportunities to share the gospel. But the spiritual soil here in Japan has been hard ground.Perseverance Amid (Perceived) Fruitlessness
In the first two years, we saw no visible fruit. This was hard, and we were discouraged. But in the fall of 2016, one of our friends, “K-san” (pseudonym), professed faith. He was the first convert among this group we’d been meeting with. And when he came to Christ, he immediately started telling his friends about Jesus.
In Japanese culture, which is very group-oriented, people are mindful of others. Putting the group’s interests ahead of personal interests is of the utmost importance. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also foster a culture where approval is idolized and rejection is feared.
But the gospel addresses both idolatry and the also fear of man. For K-san, coming to know the Father’s approval of him in Jesus Christ freed him from living for the approval of others. And in this, we rejoice.Weakness in a Culture of Strength
When I was an assistant pastor, it was easy to hide my weaknesses. I was able to serve largely in my own strength, and the other pastors I served with made up for areas where I was weak.
But church planting changed this dynamic. It exposed my weaknesses and forced me to depend on Christ’s strength.
Japan is an honor-shame culture, and therefore men rarely show their weaknesses in the workplace. Not only is it unprofessional to show weakness, it’s even deeply shameful. If you want honor, you do not show weakness. You maintain an aura of strength.
Japan is an honor-shame culture. If you want honor, you do not show weakness. You maintain an aura of strength.
Sadly, this only compounds the already incredibly demanding working culture in Japan. More than 40 percent of Japanese men suffer sleep deprivation due to work-related stress. As a director of a Tokyo telephone helpline put it, “Men are especially reluctant to talk about problems at work. They don’t want to expose their weaknesses. By the time they are middle-aged, they are at their most uncommunicative.”
As you might expect, the church is not immune to these problems. Japanese pastors rarely talk about their weaknesses with others, which hinders others’ ability to speak the gospel into their lives. It took two years for a young Japanese man to ask me if I ever argue with my wife. It was only as I shared openly about how God’s grace addresses my marriage that he opened up about his own struggles.
If your shame is too unbearable, it is often considered more honorable to take your own life in order to atone for your mistakes. But as we set out to plant our church, I sought to lead in weakness. I tried to be intentional in displaying my vulnerabilities. I wanted people to see that hiding weakness is not only unhealthy, it is anti-gospel (2 Cor. 12:9). Pastors should model repentance, both in life and in the pulpit, and this has proven especially important here in Japan.Gospel Culture
In order for the Japanese to make sense of the gospel, they must both hear it proclaimed and also see the effects of it lived out. One of the best ways for this to happen is through deep, committed friendship.
Lifelong friendships are highly valued in Japan. We have many people among us who have not openly professed faith, but they also haven’t rejected us or our community, because we’ve sought to develop meaningful friendships with them. At the same time, we’re grateful to see some believers becoming vulnerable and admitting their weaknesses as they become secure in the gospel.
As we set out to plant our church, I sought to lead in weakness. I wanted people to see that hiding weakness is not only unhealthy, it is anti-gospel.
It’s rare in Japan to have a safe place where people can share their weaknesses, confess their sins, and not be shamed or condemned. I can remember waiting at the train station for a Japanese friend who was running late. In this hard-working culture, if you’re late and don’t have a good excuse, there’s no grace for you. Knowing this, I sent my friend a text as I waited for him, reassuring him of God’s forgiveness and grace. When he finally arrived, he said, “すごい心が広いですね” (literally, “You have a big heart, brother”). To which I replied, “神様の恵みによってです” (“it’s all owing to God’s grace”). As we rode the train together, he opened up about some of his fears in life. He felt safe to do this because I hadn’t condemned him for being late.
But this kind of gospel-centered culture doesn’t come easy. It’s a work of the Spirit, and it takes time to cultivate in the life of the church. It’s easy to create a far more superficial culture, by idolizing methods and programs. Creating a gospel-culture requires patience, humility, and prayerful-dependence on God. But I know that it will be worth it in the long run.
Please pray for the Japanese, for whom Jesus gave his life, and for our church plant. Soli deo gloria.
What just happened?
On Saturday Robert Bowers entered a Pittsburg synagogue armed with four weapons, killing eleven people and injuring six others.
A federal criminal complaint said Bowers made statements “evincing an animus towards people of Jewish faith.” Bowers told one law enforcement officer, “they’re committed genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” According to the complaint, Bowers repeated his antisemitic comments regarding genocide, his desire to kill Jewish people and that Jewish people needed to die.
What is antisemitism?
Antisemitism is defined as hostility toward or prejudice against Jews as a religious or racial group.
Should it be spelled anti-Semitism or antisemitism?
Both ways are grammatically correct, though many Jewish groups prefer the non-hyphenated spelling. In 2015, a group of scholars issued a statement explaining why the term should be spelled without the hyphen:
[T]he hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism’, which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo- scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews.
The philological term ‘Semitic’ referred to a family of languages originating in the Middle East whose descendant languages today are spoken by millions of people mostly across Western Asia and North Africa. Following this semantic logic, the conjunction of the prefix ‘anti’ with ‘Semitism’ indicates antisemitism as referring to all people who speak Semitic languages or to all those classified as ‘Semites’. The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone.
Where did the term antisemitism originate?
The German journalist Wilhelm Marr, founder of the Antisemiten-Liga (Anti-Semitic League), coined the term “anti-Semitism” in an 1879 pamphlet opposing the influence of Jews on German culture. Marr was an instigator of anti-Jewish sentiment in nineteenth-century Germany who came to regret his animus. Toward the end of his life, he published another pamphlet, Testament of an Antisemite, renounced his own hatred of the Jewish people, and expressed concern that anti-Semitism in Germany was becoming entangled with mysticism and nationalism.
What constitutes antisemitism?
While there is no universally agreed upon standard for what constitutes antisemitic prejudice or behavior, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by 31 countries, defines it in terms of 11 key areas:
- Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
How pervasive a problem is antisemitism?
Antisemitism has increasingly become a problem in Europe. A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found the main perpetrators of antisemitic incidents are ‘Islamists’ and radicalized young Muslims, including schoolchildren, as well as neo-Nazis and sympathizers of extreme-right and extreme-left groups.
But antisemitic attitudes are also mainstream in some European countries. For example, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey on religious belief and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe asked its respondents in the general population whether they would be willing to accept Jews as members of their families, and found that 53 percent of respondents in Greece and in Romania, 48 percent of respondents in Lithuania, 37 percent in the Czech Republic, 32 percent in Bulgaria, 30 percent in Poland, and 26 percent in Hungary answered negatively.
In America, Jews make up only 2 percent of the population but are, according to the FBI, annually subject to the most hate crimes of any religious group. For example, in 2012 62.4 percent of hate crimes victims were because of an offender’s anti-Jewish bias.
Is antisemitism a modern problem?
No. While the term did not originate until the nineteenth-century, the animus toward Jews conveyed by the term dates back at least to the dates back to the fifth-century B.C., when Haman “sought to destroy all the Jews . . . throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus [i.e., the kingdom of Persia]” (Est. 3:6).
Other pagans throughout ancient times similarly persecuted Jews because they were exclusively monotheistic. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “pagans saw Jews’ principled refusal to worship emperors as gods as a sign of disloyalty.”
After the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the exile of Jews from Palestine in 70 A.D., some Christians interpreted the event as punishment for Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus (using Matthew 27:25 as their justification). This led to a virulent strain of Christian antisemitism that has plagued both the church and the Jewish people from the first-century until today.
What is Christian antisemitism?
Christian antisemitism is antisemitic attitudes that are derived from or based on theological reasons. (For the sake of clarity, it should generally be distinguished from similar antisemitism of people who may call themselves Christians but are antisemitic because of cultural, ethnic, or nationalistic reasons.)
The road to the Holocaust was paved by centuries of antisemitism, and crosses through a large swath of the history of Christianity. It was Christian antisemites, for instance, who originated such destructive concepts as blood libel. Even after the scandal of Shoah (i.e., the Holocaust) it took until the end of the twentieth-century for the Christian community to finally and forcefully repudiate antisemitism and repent of our sinful disdain, prejudice, and hatred toward the Jewish people.
Such is the only proper response, since at its core Christian antisemitism is inherently anti-Christian. As Russell Moore says,
As Christians, we should have a clear message of rejection of every kind of bigotry and hatred, but we should especially note what anti-Semitism means for people who are followers of Jesus Christ. We should say clearly to anyone who would claim the name “Christian” the following truth: If you hate Jews, you hate Jesus.
Anti-Semitism is, by definition, a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism. This ought to be obvious, but world history, even church history, shows us this is not the case. Christians reject anti-Semitism because we love Jesus.
Was Martin Luther antisemitic?
Yes. And as Bernard N. Howard says, Luther’s antisemitism should be acknowledged without qualification.
The great reformer wrote at least two treatises—The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name—that are antisemitic. His open animus toward the Jews at the end of his life has made Luther one of the most notorious purveyors of Christian antisemitism.
“Luther is to me both hero and anti-hero; both liberator and oppressor,” says Howard, an Anglican pastor and a Jewish believer in Jesus. “Spiritually speaking, he has been my teacher, but in relation to my family he has acted as persecutor.”
What is “blood libel”?
As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains, “blood libel” refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians—especially Christian children—to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread).
In the twelfth-century a myth began to circulate that each year, Jewish leaders around the world met to choose a country and a town from which a Christian would be apprehended and murdered. This myth persisted and expanded throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. As ADL notes:
When a Christian child went missing, it was not uncommon for local Jews to be blamed. Even when there was no evidence that any Jew had anything to do with the missing child, Jews were tortured until they confessed to heinous crimes. Some Christians believed that the four cups of wine that Jews drink at the Passover Seder celebrations were actually blood, or that Jews mixed blood into hamantaschen, sweet pastries eaten on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Others claimed that Jews used Christian blood as a medicine or even as an aphrodisiac. Scholars have documented about 100 blood libels that took place from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. Many of them resulted in massacres of Jews.
What can Christians do about antisemitism?
While we may not be able to directly stop the violence and harassment ourselves, Christians can, as a community of believers, calm some of the concerns of Jewish Americans by showing we are in solidarity with them.
We can say, as the Southern Baptist Convention did in 2003, that we “denounce all forms of anti-Semitism as contrary to the teachings of our Messiah and an assault on the revelation of Holy Scripture” and that “we affirm to Jewish people around the world that we stand with them against any harassment that violates our historic commitments to religious liberty and human dignity.” We can send them the message that we Americans who worship the King of the Jews will no longer tolerate antisemitism in our country.
Many churches claim to want an ethnically diverse congregation. Such talk can seem like lip service, though, if the church’s leadership teams are mono-ethnic. The decisions a church makes when it comes to power and authority say far more than any mission statement could about the value a congregation puts on ethnic diversity.
In this roundtable video, TGC Council members Danny Akin, Darryl Williamson, and Kevin DeYoung discuss why and how churches should actively pursue ethnic diversity in their elder board or leadership teams. Pastors may say “anyone can be an elder here” and sincerely mean it, yet be unaware of invisible barriers keeping ethnic minorities out of church leadership. Akin, DeYoung, and Williamson also talk about ways for churches in very mono-ethnic areas to pursue a kingdom vision of ethnic diversity through missions and church planting.
- How the Country’s Largest White Presbyterian Church Became Multiethnic (Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra)
- Why Asian Americans Struggle to Feel at Home in White-Majority Churches (Steve S. Chang)
- The Blessings and Challenges of Multicultural Churches (Joel Kurtz)
Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, recently looked back on 32 years of church ministry. What does he miss, now that he’s no longer in the pastorate?
His surprising answer: funerals.
One of the big reasons is that after a funeral, he was typically invited to a family member’s home. People milled about, picked at food, nursed their grief, shared stories, and both laughed and cried. In that hour, people often lean on “the pastor” for both human and divine comfort. Ministers become part of a sacred trust, Barnes observes, when church members (and others) they care for deeply are “walking around with their souls exposed.”
When Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, there’s reason to think he was exposing his soul to coworkers who needed to (re)open theirs to Paul, and even more to God. Having spent a few years pondering these letters, I’d like to point to a couple of passages that telegraph a depth of emotional connection that may elude readers either unfamiliar with Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, or so overfamiliar that they’ve come to seem staid and commonplace.Poignancy Markers
Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:11, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” This translation omits one little word before “man of God,” a word translatable as “O!” In Greek the word marks emphatic personal address and is usually emotionally charged, as the exclamation point implies (1101).
There is surely deep feeling in Paul’s appeal. Nowhere else in the New Testament is anyone called “man of God.” The phrase is used, however, in the Greek Old Testament (well known to Paul and Timothy) of notable figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. Paul likely uses it here to rekindle Timothy’s sense of the sacred bond that secures him—with God and with those under his pastoral care. Elsewhere in the sweep of 1 Timothy, Paul both bolsters Timothy and summons him with a repeated stirring charge to oppose false teachers and to transcend these perilous times in which “some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (4:1). Similar poignancy markers dot the Pastoral Epistles.
Paul’s deep feeling, appealing to Timothy to reciprocate in persevering at Ephesus for the gospel cause (1 Tim. 1:3), is no less on display with flourishes like “flee from this” (6:11), “fight the good fight of faith” (6:12), and the climactic “In the sight of God . . . I charge you to keep this command” (6:13–14). One can imagine Paul choking back tears as he wrote or dictated.The Trapped and Their Trauma
Sometimes insight into Scripture comes from study of the text and its ancient setting. Other times a current event opens our eyes to something we’ve seen in Scripture a thousand times but missed. Take “trap” in these verses:
He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Tim. 3:7)
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim 6:9)
. . . and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Tim 2:26)
While writing this article I was reminded of what “trap” means. My wife and I live well off the county road in a rugged wooded area. A neighbor runs livestock, so wire fences line our steep driveway. At lunch today someone alerted me to a dead deer along an eight-foot bank above our road. That fence had become a trap.
I took the tractor down to investigate. A 100-pound whitetail doe, seemingly asleep seen from a distance, lay quietly on its belly, chin flat on the ground. But its eyes were open straight ahead, and it was covered with flies and stank. Its rear flank and one hoof were snared in unforgiving woven wire. It must have tried to jump over, but misjudged.
What was most painful to see was the wide stretch of bare ground and mounded dust to the right and left of the carcass. The doe had obviously bucked and pawed and twisted and writhed and tried every way possible to liberate its hind legs. I’m guessing it died of a combination of exhaustion, terror, and thirst. That deer was trapped.
The grotesque vision of people trapped like animals can move a minister to Christlike compassion.
Paul knew the feeling. He was once trapped in doing the devil’s work—in his self-righteous spleen at Stephen’s stoning and at other junctures where he had lethally pursued Christ’s followers. He brings this up to rally Timothy’s wonder at God’s mercy and grace (1 Tim. 1:12–17).
Paul was moved by Jesus’s voluntary entrapment—the glorious Son of God confined for a time to humanity, to servitude, and eventually to the most inglorious death the Roman empire could concoct (Phil. 2:7–8). He became poor, that others through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul reminds Timothy of the peril of the devil’s trap. It’s a hazard with horrible possibilities both in this life and the next. As a pastor Timothy must be vigilant in avoiding that trap himself, and he should let the plight of the ensnared move him to exemplary gospel outreach.
For example, those needing to “escape from the trap of the devil” (see 2 Tim. 2:26 above) are, in context, Timothy’s opponents. Paul states in the preceding verse, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2:25). Instructing detractors gently in the hope of their repentance is far from easy. It’s easier to join the fight and cut them off. But the grotesque vision of people trapped like animals can move a minister to Christlike compassion. We surely glimpse a wounded heart in Jesus when he said, “Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:16). Here one exposed soul reached out to another.Pastoral Letters, Pastoral Heart
Paul’s Pastoral Epistles have long been regarded by some as non-Pauline and hailing from a post-apostolic era. They’re viewed as sterile, institutional, and shallow, quite apart from being forced and fake representations of the real Paul.
But pastors who study, teach, and preach the Pastoral Epistles do well to look closely for something else. Their own involvement in the care of souls may give them eyes that scholars who write commentaries too often lack. They may then detect the vibrancy of a Christ follower who learned an openheartedness toward God, developed deep rapport with coworkers like Timothy and Titus, and penned the Pastoral Epistles in the same mode he lived, served, and was martyred: with his soul exposed.
Affection should be a part of pastoral ministry. It was for Paul:
I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:8)
. . . being affectionately desirous of you . . . because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 1:8)
Affection isn’t quite identical to kindness or even love. In these verses, for instance, affection involves yearning (Phil. 1:8), desire, and dearness (1 Thess. 1:8).
Put it this way: to do ministry well, you need to not only love people, but like them. You need to give your heart to them. But amid the strains and seasons of ministry, it’s easy for affection to cool. Just as in a marriage, romance does not keep on happening all by itself; you have to be intentional to keep kindling it. So also pastors, we must be intentional to keep kindling affection (for instance, yearning, desire, dearness) in our ministry relationships.
How do we do it? Here are seven ideas.1. Show Interest in Their Families
As a dad, I know one of the things that means the most to me is when people care about my kids. Loving someone’s family is a way to love them. Little things that can go a long way in this regard. For instance, learn their names (use note cards and keep them in your pocket if necessary). Find at least one thing to talk about with each of the kids in your church, as much as you can depending on the size of your church (soccer? Halloween candy? Their favorite superhero?).
Write a note to all the outgoing college freshmen once they’ve landed on their campus, to encourage them, give them counsel on how to thrive spiritually in college, and communicate that you are praying for them.2. Celebrate Evidences of Grace
As a pastor, it is easy to focus on all the problems. So we should be deliberate to look for, notice, talk about, and celebrate the good things God is doing in his people’s lives. Maybe it’s a graduate student working long hours with a non-grumbling attitude because of the gospel’s work in her heart. Maybe it’s a longtime member who is showing slow but discernible progress with a besetting sin. Maybe it’s a new visitor who was positively impacted by the ministry. These are not minor trifles. They are huge causes for celebration. Don’t brush them aside. Let their full weight be felt in your heart!
It’s difficult to have affection for people when you’re focusing only on the problems. It helps to draw up and identify the good stuff.3. Visit Their Work Place
People appreciate you taking an interest in them in this way. And it changes your relationship with them for the better. They see you a little differently after you’ve been in “their world,” even after a single visit. And it can open opportunities to meet their co-workers.4. Say ‘I Love You’ a Lot
My granddad (I’m told) once stopped in the middle of a sermon, looked around the room at different parts of the sanctuary, and said, “I love you” several times over. It had an impact on those who recounted this story to me (probably because, knowing my granddad, he meant it).
This might look differently for different people in different contexts. And of course, words by themselves, apart from actions, are not enough. But the words matter, too. Say the words out loud, “I love you,” and watch what they do. Especially when there has been strife and conflict previously, expressions of love can help rebuild trust and good will.
I will stake everything in my ministry on this, that love’s power to heal is greater than sin’s power to destroy. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).5. Pray for Them Regularly
This one is so basic, but it is easy to neglect or forget. It helps to have a schedule or system. My practice is exceedingly simple: I simply pray for one member of our church each morning after doing my quiet time. Of course, we should pray on other times and in other ways also. But this basic baseline practice can enable you, depending on the size of your church, to pray for every member of their church each year, possibly several times over.6. Let Them Serve You
Sadly, churches have a lot of critical people who will attack their pastor. But most churches also have people who sincerely want to encourage their pastor. Sometimes these people don’t know how, though, or they need you to open that door for them. The encouragers and prayer warriors are often less visible and less vocal than the wolves and contrarians.
It’s understandable that pastors are often reluctant to show vulnerability to their congregation, and there are appropriate boundaries to set. But for healthy ministry to occur, we must learn how to receive from their people as well as give to them. We are members of the body as well as shepherds over it. If we wall ourselves off emotionally from people, affection will cool.
When people offer to babysit your kids, let them. Don’t feel guilty. When people ask to pray for you, be honest about your real prayer needs, as much as you are able (I know this is complicated). If you truly need a vacation or a sabbatical, be honest about it. Better to get fired for pursuing ministry health than keep your job but shrivel up inside.7. See Them through God’s Eyes
These people are the sheep of the shepherd. God loves them with a jealous, yearning, husband-like love:
Love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord. (Song of Songs 8:6)
If all else fails, remember how much the Lord loves your people. Jesus, the One before whom you stand, is affectionate for your people. He was thinking of them, also, as he slowly died on the cross. He now intercedes for them as his precious, blood-bought people. That’s the measure of their worth in his eyes.
If Jesus gave his blood for them, we can give our hearts to them.
America is in crisis: our “communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before.” We are, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse argues in his latest book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, “literally dying of despair.” Massive economic and technological upheavals have increasingly isolated individuals, hollowing out the three “local tribes” that “give us true, meaningful identity—family, workplace, and neighborhood.”
A media that preys on discord and polarization has rushed into the vacuum where “that hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling” once lived, sorting us into anti-tribes and factions, in which we’re “defined by what we’re against rather than what we’re for.” Partisan tribalism is “statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War,” as we “soothe our lonely souls with the balm of contempt” toward those we disagree with but do not understand.
Sasse’s diagnosis of America’s social fragmentation is unsparing, and if “literally dying of despair” seems overwrought, Sasse is ready to supply the statistics to show he’s not making up these problems. He also supplies personal anecdotes to contextualize all that data and give readers a sense of the communal life that’s disappearing.Narrative of Decline
Little in Sasse’s decline-narrative will be new for those who have read their Robert Putnam, Yuval Levin, or other contemporary imitators of Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s made up of quotes from classical sources, anecdotes, and data lamenting a bygone era. The social sciences do most of the heavy argumentative lifting here, which results in what Helen Andrews calls “bloodless moralism,” that is, “moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical.” The form of argument itself may be indicative of the decline Sasse worries about: Without any kind of shared educational tradition, our public discourse hangs on assembling a bricolage of numbers and personal vignettes.
Still, Sasse does an admirable job of tying the many threads of decline into a compelling narrative. Them is American bloodless moralism at its finest, which proves both useful and also good (if limited). As a sweeping narrative about American society, it has to overlook some details, and critics will find plenty to question—yet when many people have a sense that society is in upheaval, giving them a story to help them live better through it is an important task.
Sasse is known for offering digestible civics lectures, which are often infused with an aspirational description of American life that borders on unhistorical romanticism. This aspirational Americanism and pleas for civility that animate Sasse’s public presence pervade Them. While the book might seem at points like a nostalgic lament, Sasse also has deep convictions about the resilience of American ideals and the American people. Sasse, we might say, is afflicted by these changes without being crushed, perplexed but not despairing.
Despite the sweeping panoramic of Sasse’s story of decline, his prescriptions are surprisingly individualized: we need to change “habits of the heart” in order to set the conditions for social change. There’s a great deal of wisdom in Sasse’s counsel about setting limits on technology usage, and I was delighted beyond words to read a sitting senator advocate for buying a cemetery plot to acknowledge our bodiliness, mortality, and communal bonds.Role of the Church
The sources of social fragmentation that beset us are so many that any response will be partial and fragmentary. Even so, Sasse says nothing about the church in either his narrative of decline or his prescriptions. It seems impossible to tell the story about decaying American civic life without including the demise of mainline Protestantism, which functioned as a (highly problematic) bulwark against America’s pluralism devolving into warring factions.
But it also seems impossible to imagine a renewed sense of civic concern without it being connected, somehow, to a recommitted Christian community. It’s understandable that a sitting senator would be apologetic about even coming near to theological claims; people still are eager to decry “theocrats” in our midst. But if America’s problems are spiritual, the renewal must be equally so—and a spiritualized conviction about “America,” untethered from a more fundamental commitment to the kingdom of God, can only generate the kind of romanticized nationalism that will throttle the renewal Sasse seeks.
Ben Sasse’s diagnosis is helpful, if nothing else, for making churches alive to the task before us.
Sasse’s diagnosis is helpful, if nothing else, for making churches alive to the task before us. And to take a cue from his odd commendation to buy a cemetery plot, churches might consider reviving the practice of church graveyards and burials for the indigent. Such practices might seem like lavish wastes of money, but they also bind the church to time and to the land in ways that remind the surrounding communities of their own mortality and limits. And if our churches, who have reasons to do this that no one else has, won’t bear witness to the body’s limits in this particular way, who will?
Besides such eccentric responses, churches might read Sasse’s book with an eye toward countering the media-saturated “anti-tribes” by providing occasions for dialogue among competing outlooks that aren’t specifically tied to religious belief. Some churches in the mid-2000s gained notoriety for hosting dialogues inside of bars—which is precisely the kind of opportunity for ongoing friendly argument and persuasion that local communities need. Such practices seem impossibly irrelevant against the tidal wave of polarization, yet wasting time on the seemingly insignificant is precisely what Christianity does.
Churches have an opportunity to unabashedly announce the message of the gospel and becomes centers for responsible and charitable civic pluralism, two tasks that are inherently complementary and urgently necessary. Additionally, if countering the “anti-tribes” requires deepened commitment to the value of the local church, then Christian communities might participate in their renewal by declining to make podcasts or services available to others who use them as substitutes for their own corporate worship experiences or local conversations.Loving Them
Other responses by churches will doubtlessly be demanded, if they’re to play their part in renewing America’s civic life.
Part of the burden of Sasse’s book is to point toward a path forward, but to leave it underdetermined. If the reversal of our social fragmentation is to occur, some experimentation might be necessary—and many failures will be inevitable. The story of America that Sasse tells is an imaginatively potent one: if a romanticized, aspirational Americanism has dangers, it also has the prospect of making us alive to what our communities might yet become.
If a romanticized, aspirational Americanism has dangers, it also has the prospect of making us alive to what our communities might yet become.
We need to pursue not simply a civil public discourse, but a limited peace that appreciates the goods we have in common. But that peace can only emerge as the byproduct of churches and individuals being faithful in a hundred smaller and more limited tasks.
To that extent, Sasse’s emphasis on the “habits of the heart” is right. But those habits will only be formed by communities unafraid to embrace the weirdness that arises when we embrace practices that are overlooked and forgotten, which helped to form a world that is now passing away. And few communities should have that confidence like the church.
Just weeks before my husband Jim’s death, he told me I could finally leave work to be a homemaker. That had been my plan from the first day I went to work as a nurse.
I hadn’t planned on my husband dying. He picked a fine time to leave me: Two kids in college. Our home renovation barely past demolition. Seriously, Lord? Contrary to many people’s assumptions, life insurance did not leave me a wealthy and well-cared-for woman. Instead of transitioning home, I would need to work for many years to come.
When Jim and I married, he asked me to make one more promise in addition to our wedding vows: Should he die prematurely, I must continue to live. I mustn’t crumble into a ball of self-pity and resentment. Doctors had diagnosed Jim with cancer in his teen years, and although he was considered medically cured, he lived in the understanding that his life was a vapor.
So, after the funeral I returned to work full-time. Family and friends said, “Think of it as a new normal.” I hated the term. I called it the “not-my-plan plan.”
It wasn’t a secret that I spent most of my nursing career praying and planning to leave it. Work was a means to an end. I couldn’t see what God was doing through my coworkers, patients, and 12-hour shifts that made my feet ache. My children’s tears when I dropped them off at daycare, the room mother sign-up sheets I let pass by, and the women’s Bible studies I could not attend—those were the things I saw.Reluctant Christian Worker
A calligraphy of 2 Corinthians 12:9 rests on my bedroom wall. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It served as a reminder to get out of bed on the days I didn’t feel like it—which seemed to be every day.
I had been well-schooled in the theology and dignity of secular work. I knew the chapters and verses that spoke about it, including Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Still, I operated under the unconscious notion that I was living a second-best option. Returning to full-time work in my 50s was hard.
Once a younger nurse approached me and said, “I’d like to ask an older nurse a question.”Photo courtesy of Gaye Clark
I raised an eyebrow. “When you find one, ask her.”
She hung her head and started to walk away.
I sighed. “Hold on. What did you need?” We walked into a patient’s room and battled a troublesome IV, held his hand, and laughed at his jokes. I looked up, blinked back tears, and smiled.
She frowned. “What?”
“It’s just the first time I’ve laughed at work in a long time. Thank you.”
From that day forward, I endeavored to find delight in my work even in the difficulty. I invested in younger nurses. I also began to see that some of the very rules I railed against actually made good sense. I stayed long enough to see many of my mistakes turn into object lessons and then hospital policy. I gave two self-deprecating presentations to our new nurses—one bluntly subtitled “What to do when you really, really screw up.” As I prepared for those talks, the pages of Scripture seamlessly found their way into my power points—everything from “As far as it depends upon you” (Rom. 12:18) to “All things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).
All things. Even an unplanned death, and the ensuing heartbreak. But God had been with me all along. As a nurse friend once told me, “The sorrows of this calling make the nurse.”Retirement Plans
In June of this year, my daughter and son-in-law had their first child, Clark Jaymes. They extended the sweetest of calls to me: “Consider moving closer to us, Mom. We want our daughter to know you.”
So, I turned in my resignation, and on September 20, I wrote:
Dear University Hospital,
Tomorrow I drive to work one last time.
We didn’t always get along.
There were days I drove home in tears and said I’m not coming back tomorrow.
But then I did.
Thank you for stopping an anaphylactic reaction that could have killed my son. Thank you for opening a clogged artery in my children’s grandfather before he had a massive heart attack. Thank you for wrapping your arms around me and calmly escorting my husband to eternity when complications from open heart surgery became too much. Thank you crying with me as we watched his heart quit beating.
Looking back at the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process that was being a nurse at University Hospital, I’m very grateful I had the opportunity to grow up as a professional at this place.
Some of the most resilient, brave, insightful, intelligent and, competent people work at University. I’m grateful to have had the privilege to work shoulder to shoulder with these heroes.
So tomorrow I will leave University Hospital, and truly this time, I won’t be coming back.
Funny, I always thought that moment would feel good. Awesome even.
And yet, it has me in tears.
Godspeed to all of you brave folks, my beloved University Hospital.
There’s a lesson here that has taken me 30-plus years to learn: Work is not a call to meaning and significance so much as a call to die to self on behalf of others. Christ did this for us. Are we not to follow in his steps?
Work is not a call to meaning and significance so much as a call to die to self on behalf of others
I am grateful the Lord never allowed me an opportunity to quit his assignment for me. He kept me where he willed, and that was University Hospital for almost 30 years. I can look back now and call it the “A plan.” The better-than-I-could-have-chosen-for-myself plan.
Ten years ago, when I was still living in Beijing, I asked a Chinese friend what were the main challenges facing Christians in China. Her answer surprised me. She stood up, banged her fist on my dining room table, and said, “It’s way too easy to be a Christian in China today. We need more persecution!”
It was an interesting perspective.
There are signs today that persecution may be increasing. Stories out of China in recent months report on crosses being torn down, church buildings being demolished, and house churches being forced to close. Further, the government has been promoting a campaign to “Sinicize” religion, to conform it to both traditional Chinese culture and also socialist realities.
Given these stories, it’s tempting to think that Christianity in China is being singled out for pressure, harassment, and restriction. But as is always the case with China, the reality is far more complicated and must be understood within the broader political context; because in China, everything is political.
In the case of the crackdowns we read about, they’re part of something much bigger than antipathy toward religion in general, or Christianity in particular. They are about Communist Party control.Playing Outside the Sandbox
A useful way to think about it is this: imagine that China is a beach, and on the beach is a sandbox. The walls of the sandbox are the political, civil, and religious boundaries set by the Party-state. In other words, the beach may be China, but society (its people and institutions) is restricted to the sandbox (in theory). However, over the past couple of decades, as the Party-state relaxed its control over and enforcement of these boundaries, individuals and organizations slowly climbed out of the sandbox and began playing in the relative freedom of the beach. Evidence of this move was everywhere:
- Government officials loosely enforced or even ignored Party-state directives.
- Lawyers began paying attention to human-rights abuses, environmental degradation, and other social problems affecting the daily lives of Chinese citizens.
- The internet allowed anyone with a smartphone to report on things happening in society, and provided a new public space for people to express themselves.
- Businesses adopted “anything goes” practices in order to maximize profits.
- Schools, especially universities, opened themselves up to “Western influences.”
- Online booksellers offered anything and everything for sale, including Bibles, even though officially they can only be sold in registered churches.
- The number of Christians worshiping in unregistered churches has exploded.
Now, the Party-state, under Xi Jinping, is attempting to reassert its control over all aspects of China’s political, civil, and religious life. It realizes the boundaries have been ignored. Too many people are running up and down the beach outside of its control. In response, it’s trying to get everyone back into the sandbox.Getting Back in the Sandbox
Getting back in the sandbox will present challenges for believers in China. As the Party-state attempts to shift from merely “managing” religious affairs to “actively guiding” religion, Christians (and especially church leaders) will have to make difficult choices about how to respond. Some will want to maintain a confrontational stance, while others will seek to function within the space still allowed, even if it may be smaller. Differing opinions regarding these responses may lead to even more division, not just between the registered and unregistered churches, but among house churches as well.
It’s likely that many activities common during the time of relatively more freedom will be curtailed. These include Christian publishing, Christian education, and online religious activities, such as forums and live-streaming of church services. Religious activities within the educational sphere—such as campus Bible studies, Christmas parties, and children’s camps—are also likely to be restricted.
But these new challenges may also provide new opportunities. Many house church leaders are beginning to rethink issues of church structure. The increasingly popular “megachurch” model of large, unregistered congregations gathering publicly may no longer be viable. Dividing into smaller congregations, distributed over a wider geographical area, may actually provide opportunities to affect more communities. Or, as I like to call it, “Communist-Party-led church multiplication.”
As the government encourages registered churches to “serve socialism” by doing more in their communities, believers may also see more opportunities to be salt and light. In addition, the new charity law may make it possible for Christian groups to establish locally run nonprofit organizations to meet societal needs. In some places this is already happening.
Finally, the increasingly restrictive environment may, as persecution did in the past, strengthen the faith of Chinese Christians as it becomes less easy to simply be “Sunday Christians.” As happened before, the season of pruning may well lead to greater growth down the road.
Maybe my friend was right after all.
The Story: About 1 in 20 deaths around the world result from harmful use of alcohol, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO). This represents more than 5 percent of the global disease burden. What can Christians do about this epidemic?
The Background: The WHO’s global status report on alcohol and health 2018 looks at alcohol consumption and the disease burden attributable to alcohol worldwide, as well as what countries are doing to reduce this burden.
As the report notes, despite some positive global trends in the prevalence of heavy episodic drinking and number of alcohol-related deaths since 2010, the overall burden of disease and injuries caused by the harmful use of alcohol is unacceptably high, particularly in the Americas and Europe.
An estimated 237 million men and 46 million women suffer from alcohol-use disorders, with the highest prevalence among men and women in the European region (14.8 percent and 3.5 percent) and the Americas (11.5 percent and 5.1 percent). Alcohol-use disorders are more common in high-income countries.
Of all deaths attributable to alcohol, 28 percent were due to injuries, such as those from traffic crashes, self-harm, and interpersonal violence; 21 percent due to digestive disorders; 19 percent due to cardiovascular diseases; and the remainder due to infectious diseases, cancers, mental disorders and other health conditions.
“Far too many people, their families, and communities suffer the consequences of the harmful use of alcohol through violence, injuries, mental health problems and diseases like cancer and stroke,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO. “It’s time to step up action to prevent this serious threat to the development of healthy societies.”
What It Means: As this report points out, more than half (57 percent, or 3.1 billion people) of the global population ages 15 years and older had abstained from drinking alcohol in the previous 12 months, while about 2.3 billion people are current drinkers. (Alcohol is consumed by more than half of the population in only three WHO regions—the Americas, Europe, and Western Pacific.)
These groups—let’s call them Abstainers and Imbibers—mirror the evangelical community. A poll taken in 2016 by Barna Research found that 54 percent are Abstainers while 46 percent are Imbibers. (Full disclosure: I’m an Abstainer).
This divide is often reflected in our attitudes and debates about the use of alcohol. For the past 50 years, evangelicals have tended to argue in absolutist terms, either making the case for Christian liberty (Imbibers) or the case for abstinence (Abstainers). If you were to go back to 1948, you’d likely find the same discussions about alcohol that we’re having in 2018. But while the debates are the same, our societal context has changed. Here are just a few examples of why conversations today should be different from ones in the past.
We now consume more of almost everything—including alcohol.
Because the debate about alcohol consumption tends to be binary—consumption is acceptable/consumption is unacceptable—it rarely moves to considerations of how much consumption is acceptable.
In the modern age, food and drink has become both cheaper and also more abundant. This has lead to an increase in consumption rates that would astound our ancestors. For example, in 1955, the size of a soft drink at McDonald’s was a mere 7 ounces. By the 1990s, a kid’s size drink was nearly twice that amount (12 oz), and the “Supersize” drink was six times larger (42 oz).
We’ve had similar increases in the consumption of alcohol. Total alcohol per capita consumption in the world’s population older than 15 years of age rose from 186 ounces of pure alcohol in 2005 to 216.4 ounces in 2010 and was still at the level of 216.4 ounces in 2016. The highest levels of per capita alcohol consumption are observed in countries of the WHO European Region.
Current drinkers consume on average 32.8 grams of pure alcohol per day. Consumption is about 20 percent higher (40 g/day) in the African Region and about 20 percent lower (26.3 g/day) in the South-East Asia Region. Drinkers increased their alcohol consumption since 2000 in almost all regions, except the WHO European Region.
Until 2025, total alcohol per capita consumption in persons ages 15 years and older is projected to increase in the Americas, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific. This is unlikely to be offset by substantial declines in consumption in the other regions. As a result, total alcohol per capita consumption in the world can amount to 223 ounces in 2020 and 236 ounces in 2025 unless projected increasing trends in alcohol consumption in the Region of Americas and the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific Regions are stopped and reversed.
Both Abstainers and Imbibers should be able to examine the empirical evidence and come to a general agreement on what constitutes imprudent, unhealthy, or dangerous levels of consumption.
Modern wine is much stronger than the wine in biblical times.
For centuries Abstainers and Imbibers have argued about how much alcohol content was in the wine in biblical times. While we can’t know for sure, we can roughly estimate an upper limit of 8 percent to 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The reason is that for most of human history all wine was fermented on “wild yeast” which delivers an alcohol content of between 4 percent to 10 percent.
Today, a “low alcohol” wine is considered anything that would have met the maximum level for biblical wine—about 10 percent ABV. The typical wine sold today is in the range of 11.5 percent to 15 percent ABV, with the strongest wines having 17 percent to 23 percent ABV.
This increase in alcohol content is due to advances in science and technology. As Madeline Puckette notes, in the 1950s the yeast would not survive in alcohol levels too much higher than 13.5 percent ABV. Today however, we’ve developed resilient yeasts that can survive in alcohol levels as high as 16.5 percent ABV.
“It’s not your imagination. Wine really has gotten boozier,” Jennifer Frazer writes in Scientific American. “In the past two decades the maximum alcohol content of wine has crept up from about 13 percent to, in some cases, northward of 17 percent, a side effect of the growing popularity of wines with richer fruit flavor.”
On a single-glass basis the increased alcohol content may not be troubling. But if a person has two glasses a day, he or she is consuming almost 10 percent more alcohol per day than someone in the 1950s—and double the amount of a wine drinker in New Testament times. This also means that “heavy drinkers” (8 or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks a week for men) are consuming significantly more alcohol from fewer drinks than heavy drinkers from four decades ago.
While Imbibers and Abstainers may disagree on how much alcohol content was in the wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12), we should all agree that the increasing alcohol content of wine can have serious ramifications on the health of society.
Around the globe, alcohol is a significant problem for teens.
The one area where Abstainers and Imbibers can most easily agree is the problem of teen drinking.
Worldwide, more than a quarter (26.5 percent) of all 15- to 19-year-olds are current drinkers, amounting to 155 million adolescents. Prevalence rates of current drinking are highest among 15- to 19-year-olds in the WHO European Region (43.8 percent), followed by the Region of the Americas (38.2 percent) and the Western Pacific Region (37.9 percent).
Results of school surveys indicate that in many countries of the Americas, Europe, and Western Pacific alcohol use starts before the age of 15 years, and prevalence of alcohol use among 15-year-old students can be in the range of 50 percent to 70 percent with remarkably small differences between boys and girls.
Worldwide and in all WHO regions, prevalence of heavy episodic drinking is lower among adolescents (15 to 19 years) than in the total population, but it peaks at the age of 20 to 24 years when it becomes higher than in the total population. Except for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, all heavy episodic drinking prevalence rates among drinkers of 15 to 24 years are higher than in the total population. Young people of 15 to 24 years, when they are current drinkers, often drink in heavy-drinking sessions. Prevalence of heavy episodic drinking is particularly high among men.
It’s no longer enough to tell kids not to drink. We need to find a way to come together and address how and why our culture is enticing teens into early and extreme alcohol consumption.Good Enough for Jesus
“It is fair to say that both total abstinence and moderate use were acceptable to Jesus,” J. Lawrence Burkholder says. If those positions were acceptable to Jesus, they should be acceptable for us too. But while tolerance of differing opinions about alcohol should be our starting point, we have a duty to consider how our views should be shaped by our cultural context.
The harmful use of alcohol is no longer an issue Christians can ignore. To truly seek the welfare of our cities—and the world—we need to find a way for all believers, whether we’re Abstainers or Imbibers, to find a way to talk about alcohol in a way that better serves our neighbors.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome, and while the name might not be familiar to you, the concept behind it is sure to be. Imposter Syndrome is the haunting feeling that you can’t really do what everyone expects you to be able to do. It assumes any success you’ve experienced was an unrepeatable fluke. You’re a fraud, and any moment now everyone is going to realize that.
It’s common to experience this in our work contexts. I’m actually experiencing it right now. I’ve just been speaking at a conference where all the other speakers are people I deeply admire, people unusually gifted and able. So what am I doing here? Surely there must have been some mistake.
There’s a similar feeling that easily creeps into our Christian lives as well. We walk into church on Sunday and look around. Everyone else looks as though they belong here. They seem to have the Christian life figured out (or so we think). But Christianity doesn’t feel so natural to us. It feels far from second nature.Holy Is Who You Are
Perhaps this applies most when we think of holiness. We hear the commands to “be holy, as your Father is holy.” We know we’re meant to live in a way that’s worthy of the gospel. Yet it feels so alien to do so. All our default settings seem lined up in the other direction. And in the fatigue we can start to think, There’s no point. This isn’t me. I’m just trying to be someone I’m not.
But natural though it might seem to think this way, it’s actually completely untrue. The Bible is, of course, deeply realistic about the continuing presence of sinful tendencies in our lives. We aren’t yet rid of our sinful nature. But that’s not all there is to say on this point. Yes, the sinful nature is still kicking around, but it’s not who we now truly are.
The key to all this is understanding our union with Christ. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean that we’ve decided to “vote Jesus” or that we admire him from afar. The most common way the New Testament describes believers is as those who are “in Christ.” We’re united to him, like a branch to a tree (John 15:1) or a body to its head (Eph. 4) or a husband to his wife (1 Cor. 6).
One of the glorious implications is that who we are now is who we are in Jesus. Listen to these startling words from Paul:
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17)
This means our relationship to our old self, our sinful nature, has decisively and dramatically changed—forever. So Paul can say:
Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ. (Rom. 6:11)
Sin is no longer our master. This doesn’t mean it exerts no influence over us, but that it has no authority over us. We never have to do what it says. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever sin. But it does mean that every time we do, we didn’t have to.Sin Is Not Who You Are
Grasping this point is life-changing. Most of us will have particular besetting sins that seem so established we can’t imagine them ever going away. So when temptation comes, it says, This is who you are. This is how we roll. Stop pretending to be something you’re not. It can sound so compelling, and we can easily give up.
But here the message of the gospel is wonderfully liberating. This or that sin may well have defined our lives. Perhaps it was who we were. Even so, it’s no longer who we are.
Paul makes this point to the Christians in Corinth:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9–11, emphasis added)
When the New Testament calls us to holiness, it’s calling us to be who we now are. If I am who I am in Christ, then holiness—not sinfulness—is truest to who I am in the deepest core of my being. However deep sinful feelings may go, the new love and life I have in Christ goes deeper still. Sin goes against the grain of my true self; therefore, pursuing Christ is the most “true to self” I can ever be.
I write this as someone who has wrestled with homosexual temptation his whole Christian life. It defined my affections and feelings for so many years. At times it still exerts a powerful gravitational pull on my life. But while it may describe some of my temptations, it isn’t who I am. Indulging such feelings is never being true to myself as I now am in Christ.Danger of Getting It Backward
What is most true of believers is never going to be an aspect of our sinful natures. If we get this backward, though, we’ll never feel that we have the power to live like Christ.
Attempting Christian ethics with an unchristian identity produces an unstable compound. We need to reform our identity in order to live out our ethics, or else we will give up the fight for holiness as we cling, well-meaning but deceived, to “who we really are.”
Tim Keller believes that every emotional condition, every life situation, is covered in the psalms in some way. Thus, whatever our condition, the psalms ought to be always on our lips.
In preparation for the Sing! 2018 conference in Nashville, Keith Getty sat down to talk with Keller about how to incorporate psalms into corporate worship as well as family worship, counseling, and personal prayer. Getty and Keller agree that immersion in the Psalms helps believers become more authentic. The Psalms allow us not only to express our own raw emotion, but also to understand God more authentically. Keller remarks, “If you’re in a relationship with somebody, it’s not authentic to say, ‘I want you to know who I am, but actually I don’t want to know who you are. . . . I want you to be the person I want you to be, not the person you are.'”
- Do the Psalms Pass the Gospel-Centered Test? (Philip Revell)
- 6 Reasons You Need the Songs of Jesus (Tim Keller)
- Why Congregational Singing Matters More Today than Ever (Keith Getty)
It’s a photograph embedded in both memory and history. A child flees toward the camera, her arms poised aloft as if to carry her into flight. Her mouth gapes open in a scream. Flames have peeled the clothing from her scorched body, and her left arm features a ghostly pale sleeve of burned flesh. Other children, alternately agonized and stunned, encircle her in retreat, while soldiers amble at their flank with disinterest. Behind them all, smoke looms like a black leviathan, swallowing the sky.
From the moment of its publication in 1972, the “Napalm Girl” picture—originally titled The Terror of War—shocked the world. The iconic image captured all that is tragic, perverse, and horrifying in warfare, and its appearance in major newspapers fueled controversy about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. So influential was this one picture, that Nick Ut, the photographer who snapped it, earned the Pulitzer Prize.
But the photograph harbors an even deeper story than the terror apparent in its lines and shadows. The napalm girl survived the horrors of that day. In her memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness and Peace, Kim Phuc Phan Thi reveals that even amid the bombs and terror and pain she suffered, God remained steadfast. Her book is a powerful reminder that even in the most devastating of calamities, God’s love and grace endure, working for the good of those who love him (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28)The Fire Road
Kim Phuc’s famous photograph, taken when she was nine years old, offers only a glimpse into the anguish she suffered in the wake of the bombings. Napalm decimated her childhood home and killed her cousin. It scorched the skin from her back, shoulders, and arm at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Farenheit. As she fled down a puddled road screaming, “Too hot!” a well-meaning passerby doused her with water, which only re-ignited the napalm clinging to her. She awoke in a morgue, left for dead, with maggots worming through her wounds.
Phuc’s parents rescued her from that morgue, but not from further torment. Daily therapeutic baths in the hospital inflicted such excruciating pain that Phuc would pass out in the burbling water. She eventually returned to the charred remains of her village, but as a disabled child, whom neighbors ostracized for her disfigurement. As she grew, she longed to study medicine, but that dream, too, withered away when the Vietnamese government discovered her value as a propaganda tool.
As officials dragged her from university classes to participate in press conferences, her last lingering hopes faded, and she sank into despondency. “The searing fire that penetrated my body,” Phuc writes, “the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. The lack of pain pills, the lack of ice, the lack of acceptance, the lack of love, the killing of my hope—what could hurt worse than these hurts?” (86).
Initially, Phuc begged for help from the gods of CaoDai, the syncretic religion her family devotedly followed. But silence resounded, and her hopelessness deepened to suicidality. “After years of unanswered prayers, it was clear to me that either [the gods] were nonexistent or they did not care to lend a hand” (97). With no hope in sight, Phuc forged a plan to hurl herself into oncoming traffic, to finally end her tortured life.
God had a different plan.The Story Beneath the Story
Too emotionally crippled to endure another press conference, and with the threat of suicide still bearing down on her, one day Phuc hid from government officials amid the stacks of a university library. As she crouched from view, she found a copy of the New Testament. The grace she encountered in its pages, and Christ’s radical claims, stole her breath. “Despite all that I had learned through CaoDai—that there were many gods, that there were many paths to holiness, that so much of my ‘success’ in religion rested atop my own weary, slumped shoulders—Jesus presented himself as the way, the truth, and the life” (98).
From that moment hiding among books, Phuc embarked upon a journey toward Christ. The suffering continued, and in fact worsened as her faith estranged her from her beloved family. She faced political oppression, loneliness, poverty, and crushing physical pain. She struggled to forgive her enemies. Yet gradually, she saw how God had been pursuing her while her wounds contorted into aching scars. He had been chasing her along that dirt road, with the smoke billowing at her back. He was with her in the morgue, in the baths as the water lapped her tender scars. “There was a story beneath the story,” she recalls. “A divine underpinning that for many decades even I could not detect, a set of spiritual stepping-stones that, unbeknownst to me, were paving a path to get me to God” (vii).
In Fire Road, Phuc lays those stones at our feet, and invites us to walk with her. She carries us through pain that hollowed out her soul, to the one who sought to fill it—the one who had also born scars. “As to the greater meaning behind my pain, for so long I had been in the dark,” she writes. “And yet here were so many people telling me that my picture had prompted them to pray . . . . Those bombs led me to Christ” (257).True Peace
Phuc weaves her narrative with grace and tenderness, and with an optimism that she musters not from promise of worldly gain, but only from abiding in Christ. Years ago, UNESCO recruited her as an ambassador for peace, and she now travels the world as a motivational speaker and an advocate for children of war. But she has no illusions about the source of her peace.
“The education, the money, the food, the family, the healing, the freedom, the reunion with my ma—all of the things I craved along the way were never going to satisfy my soul,” she says. “It was only the peace that Jesus offers that could settle the flames inside of me” (290).
In sharing her saga, Kim Phuc also carries us down that fiery road, beyond the agony trapped in pictures, toward the God who is there, the God who draws near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
Have you ever tried to picture heaven and worried you’ll be bored? Clouds, robes, harps—these cartoon images abound and fail to rouse longing. The idea of singing an infinite loop of praise choruses can fill us with dread. Some sure promises lift us up, like when God declares he will wipe away all our tears. But what about our tears now? Our lives are often heavy, and our open Bibles can seem mute in the face of our questions. What does ancient Israel have to do with my hurting child, my lost job? How could the promise of future golden streets palliate current global poverty or systemic injustice?
Nancy Guthrie—a Bible teacher, speaker, and host of Help Me Teach the Bible, a podcast of The Gospel Coalition—wants to speak life to God’s people in the midst of confusion. Her latest work, Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything About Your Story, puts forth a simple premise: We must read the Bible as one grand story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end—and the distinctions between these parts matter, even to our everyday lives.Read the Story Rightly
Why would this knowledge be transformative? As Christians we know that the Scriptures start at the beginning of creation and wrap up when Christ comes again. Yet this is right where Guthrie presses us. What do we imagine when we picture that coming day? What would be the consequences of letting that future soak our present?
Guthrie argues from decades of experience as a Bible teacher that we often stumble right out of the gate on these important questions, because we misunderstand the beginning. She writes, “We tend to think of [Eden] in perfect and even ultimate terms” (12). But Eden was never meant to be the end. It’s not where Christ is preparing a place for us. Instead, Eden was chock-full of potential—potential that was stymied with the fall, but which God through Christ by the Spirit is restoring.
Eden, then, isn’t the goal we run toward. Instead, it’s like a treasure chest containing down payments of what we will one day receive in full. Guthrie invites us into nine mini-stories stretched across Scripture—the wilderness, the tree, God’s image, clothing, the bridegroom, sabbath, offspring, a dwelling place, and the city—to see just how glorious and life-changing these treasures truly are. She also shows us how to read the Bible with wisdom, joy, and hope.With Wisdom
The amount of biblical data Guthrie processes as she traces each of her themes through the whole canon is impressive. She holds up familiar passages, turning them so a given theme can refract through it with added meaning.
Take, for example, the theme of clothing. Guthrie argues effectively that we don’t see a redemptive arc back to the nakedness of Eden. Rather, we press toward a new type of clothing: immortality. But this topic isn’t merely found in Genesis and 1 Corinthians. She argues that the extensive, even exhaustive descriptions of Aaron’s priestly garments in Exodus picture our need for covering that is glorious, beautiful, and holy. The high priest couldn’t enter naked. Just the same with us: unless we’re clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we can’t enter God’s presence.
Over and over again, Guthrie reveals the redemptive significance of familiar Bible stories. She demonstrates how to translate knowledge (the possession of information) into wisdom (the right use of knowledge). Readers are inspired to consider other well-known stories, and ways they may whisper the gospel freshly. Furthermore, Guthrie demonstrates that even difficult passages must connect somehow to this bigger story. Will we wrestle with God to get their blessing?With Joy
A choice fruit of wisdom is joy, which Guthrie tends like a patient gardener. But she isn’t unfamiliar with grief. A main theme of the book is how massively the sin of our first parents interrupted what might’ve been a trajectory of glory. She shares her own and other people’s stories of deep pain, including the loss of children. Yet even in these tender, vulnerable places, she shows how various redemptive themes bring balm.
How can this be? It’s not by simply looking forward, twiddling your thumbs, and waiting for heaven while everything burns down around you. That type of eschatology has been preached before and been found lacking. While it emphasizes the goodness of what is to come, it has no power to meet the challenges of today.
Guthrie instead labors to show that the promises of the future should shape us now. Someday God will permanently dwell with us, but even today he has died to be with us wherever we go. We’re never truly alone. Someday we will perfectly reflect his image back to him, as we were designed to do. Our sin and flaws will be gone. But even now he is changing us from one degree of glory to another. Someday we will embrace perfect rest, released from cursed work into purposeful, joyful action. But even now we’re invited into peace. Even now we can reclaim our work as unto him alone.
To read this book is to remember how God sees and knows us. He will never leave us nor forsake us, and he infuses every day with his presence and purpose. We can look for it, and we can find it.With Hope
But sometimes the realities of our broken world only find their suitable conversation partner in the world to come.
The story of the bridegroom is a case in point. Marriage was designed to bring blessing to God’s people. Even more, it was designed to communicate the unique, intimate, and joyful relationship between God and his chosen ones. Embedded into every culture are living pictures of God’s faithfulness, so that humanity might understand.
Embedded into every culture are living pictures of God’s faithfulness, so that humanity might understand.
But everywhere this picture is defaced. Husbands and wives leave, physically or emotionally. They give their bodies to another. Or less perniciously, though not less grievously, they’re taken by illness or accident. Some men and women who long for marriage never attain it, and their hearts and bodies can ache. What way forward can be found in a sign ripped down?
Guthrie asks us to lift our eyes. All earthly marriages point to a coming consummation, the joy of which will overwhelm us. No one who is in Christ will be denied that wedding day. No believer will find his or her future spouse lacking. Even pain can teach what something should be, because we can feel what’s missing. As Guthrie writes, “Our less-than-perfect marriages or our longings to be married can serve to whet our appetite for this perfect marriage to come” (90).
This doesn’t remove the pain of adultery or unwanted singleness now, but it challenges us to answer the most prominent question of the Bible: Can we trust this God? No trite “yes” will do. Instead the broken body of Jesus, and his resurrection to indestructible life, invite us to consider who he is, and who he promises to be for us.Our Only Hero
Guthrie cherishes the fact that Jesus is the Bible’s hero, the true second Adam, the one who redeems all things. Even Better than Eden is an invitation to experience him as that Hero in your own life, now and forever. It’s also a subtle tutorial in how to read your Bible with purpose, and it gives tools to communicate this many-faceted gospel to the world.
Read Even Better than Eden and lend it to a friend. May it stir us up to love and good works now, even as we say with eagerness, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Changing one dirty diaper doesn’t mean you can scratch “diaper changing” from your to-do list. You’ll repeat this task hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. An argument with the boss doesn’t eliminate arguing in the future. Correcting third-grade math assignments doesn’t get less boring, whether you do it three or 300 times. The latest dull sermon may not be the last.
Such unpleasant, repetitive tasks can seem entirely meaningless. They certainly remind us of the curse that haunts our daily lives. Pain in giving birth and toiling against thorns and thistles are the order of the day (Gen. 3:16–19).
But our everyday tasks do more than remind us of the curse on creation. The reformers of the 16th century, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin, knew that the tasks of daily life, as unexciting and wearisome as they often seem, are necessary for the sustenance of individual life and the functioning of society. And even beyond that, they’re assignments—the reformers’ word is “callings”—from God himself, a part of his provision for his human creatures. Everyday tasks are opportunities to serve on God’s team—opportunities that keep his world running and in good repair.Luther and Calvin on Calling
Scripture, of course, speaks of God calling all people to himself, to repentance and faith in him. However, medieval Christians developed another usage for the word vocatio or calling. Callings were holy jobs—like priest, nun, or monk—that served God in a more meritorious fashion than others. But Luther didn’t believe any human activities merited God’s favor. He believed that if everything done without faith in Christ is sin (Rom. 14:23), then everything done in faith pleases God, even though it doesn’t earn his favor. Those who trust in Christ have been given God’s favor apart from their performance, simply because of the Creator’s unfathomable love for his people. They go on to live with gratitude wherever their Creator places them.
The tasks of daily life, as unexciting and wearisome as they often seem, are necessary for the sustenance of individual life and the functioning of society.
Luther and Calvin challenged the medieval idea of calling, but they accepted the medieval configuration of society: first, the home, and with it, economic activities; second, civil society; and third, the church. Some modern scholars suggest that the medieval analysis of society is no longer useful. But we all experience life in the family circle, in economic activities, in society with its political and other aspects, and in religious life.
Humans serve one another within these structures because God knows people shouldn’t be alone (Gen. 2:18). He provides for human life through this network of mutual service as individuals and groups take on functions—God’s assignments—that support and foster good living. People exercise their responsibilities in specific roles in family, occupation, society, and congregation and sometimes simply as Christian sister, brother, or friend.Our Work Brings Pleasure to God
It’s encouraging to know God has created us to embody his love for his world and its people. The God who humbled himself and became a servant in order to rescue his people cultivates in them this attitude of Christ (Phil. 2:6–8). This means abandoning selfish ambition and humbly doing whatever God calls us to do. It’s easy to be discouraged when we’re caught in repetitive activities that never seem to accomplish much. There’s genuine solace, even inspiration, in being reminded that God doesn’t change diapers, correct math tests, or greet the same people Sunday after Sunday at worship services. Instead, he has placed us “mere mortals” in positions to keep life going with such activities.
Realizing we’re part of God’s providential care for his world even in the lowliest tasks reduces jealousy and self-deprecation and emboldens us to be ready for self-sacrifice as we answer God’s calling. It also helps us make ethical decisions about how to use our time. Christians are well-schooled in obedience to biblical commands, but we obey these divine mandates within our callings. Making good decisions requires knowledge of God’s commands and our God-assigned vocations.
God calls, and we respond, in the vocations of home and occupation, society and congregation. Here we live out the kind of life that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has restored and keeps on restoring.
- 3 Things Your Calling Is Not (Ivan Mesa)
- Stop Overspiritualizing ‘Calling’ (Bethany Jenkins)
- 20 Quotes from the Most Insightful Book on Calling and Vocation (Ivan Mesa)
- When Choosing a Career, Don’t Just Follow Your Passion (Bethany Jenkins)
Linda and Connie didn’t come to church but were regular attenders at women’s Bible study. They did their workbook homework, never missed a week, and were big fans of our video teacher. When we switched to a more intensive, inductive study one fall, they weren’t happy, though they continued to attend.
But then something happened. Linda and Connie started delighting in God’s Word. As they studied the passage for the week, they began to spend hours each day looking up every cross-reference in their study Bibles.
Their new love for God’s Word then ignited a new love for God’s people. They began attending church and became hospitable, servant-oriented members. These women traded their obsession with a video teacher for an obsession with Scripture, and it resulted in their spiritual growth—which ultimately encouraged the whole congregation.
When women truly study the Bible for themselves, they change. God uses his Word to ignite robust spiritual growth that spurs women on and unifies the church. I’ve participated in women’s Bible study in three different churches over the past 20 years. In each case, the whole congregation profited because women were growing in their knowledge of the truth.
Not all women’s Bible studies are created equal. So what made these studies so profitable? Here are three ways we strengthened our studies—and you can strengthen yours:1. Be Church-Based
When women worship together in church, sitting regularly under expositional preaching of God’s Word, it feeds their souls. They become united in their theology, engage in covenant relationships where they spur each other on, and benefit from the same elder oversight.
A church-based Bible study furthers the work of the main gathering and helps to build up not only the women but also the whole congregation, as fellowship becomes more intimate and women connect their families and friends. There’s a synergy that takes place when we root women’s Bible study in the local church.
There’s a synergy that takes place when we root women’s Bible study in the local church.
At my current church, we encourage women who attend Bible study to also attend our church. We invite them to become committed members of the congregation—to sit under biblical preaching, affirm our statement of faith, reach out with hospitality, and serve and be served. We encourage these things in large-group talks, smaller discussion groups, and one-on-one conversations. Women and families now regularly join the church and become involved through the vehicle of our Bible studies.
Outreach-oriented Bible studies in the community, workplace, or school can be fantastic ministries where people hear the gospel and meet Christ. There’s a place for parachurch Bible studies, but to maximize spiritual growth in Christian women, keep your Bible study under the authority of your local church. It’s good for women, and it’s good for the church.2. Turn Off the Video
Women need confidence in their ability to understand the Bible. Some video studies are theologically solid and helpful, but many focus more on eliciting emotional responses than leading women to understand the Scriptures. Polished teachers can make us laugh and cry, but if we remember illustrative stories more than the text we’re studying, we miss the point and can become dedicated to the teacher rather than God’s Word. Video teaching can also intimidate women into thinking they can’t handle the Bible themselves.
At the United Christian Church of Dubai, we stopped the videos. We introduced a regular diet of inductive studies through books of the Bible with straightforward questions that lead women to understand and apply the text. We devoured Kathleen Nielson’s Living Word Bible Studies, and since it was so hard to find pure inductive studies for women that were theologically grounded, I began writing my own (most recently two volumes on the Gospel of Mark). These got women’s noses in the Bible.
It’s important to make sure any materials we use are closely tied to the Bible. Look for studies that accurately focus on the meaning of the text and apply that meaning to women’s lives. Wean yourselves off videos and study the meat of the Bible for yourselves.3. Find Qualified Leaders
In the past, our Bible studies had leadership problems. Anyone could volunteer to lead, using any study she chose. Some leaders weren’t members of the church. Others weren’t even Protestant, so they had no teaching or oversight from our elders and weren’t united by any particular theology.
As we started getting to know the leaders, we realized that one didn’t believe that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. She had 40 women in the group she was leading—some Hindu and Muslim—and she had never considered that some of these women didn’t know the one true God. It was the Wild West of women’s ministry!
Changing leadership took time, effort, and patience. Our elders taught a systematic theology class for women leaders, encouraging them to think deeply about what they were teaching. They asked past leaders to become members of the church. The church also cultivated new leadership among women who were delighting in the Scriptures and committed to the church. We patiently waited, worked, and prayed for the culture of leadership to change, along with the culture of the entire church.
Fast-forward 10 years and now our leaders are excited about their Bibles, have sound theological instincts, and are committed to the larger congregation. They are women intent on understanding the meaning of the text and serious about applying it to their lives. Our leaders are from Egypt, Ghana, Australia, India, Kenya, Burundi, Ireland, Zambia, Kazakhstan, and America. We may not have much in common, but we all love the Word of God.Worth the Work
By God’s grace, our women’s Bible study has been reformed along with the whole congregation. We now use God-centered biblical studies, our women love the church, and our leaders are all on the same theological page. We’ve seen women come to know the Lord. We’ve seen women get excited about studying his Word. And we’ve seen women get plugged into the church and start discipling others.
Strengthening a women’s Bible study won’t be easy. It will take wisdom, gentleness, and patience. You may even face opposition. But whether you’re leading a group of three women or 300, it’s worth your time, energy, and even delight.
Paul and Barnabas’s first missionary journey in the book of Acts provides us with an inspiring model of perseverance in the work of making disciples and planting churches. Numerous sacrifices are made on this journey. At the end of the trip, Paul is nearly stoned to death by his persecutors. But Paul gets up and keeps going. He then tells the saints “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Church planting, like all true gospel ministry, will involve suffering. This does not mean everyone will suffer to the same degree or extent, but suffering—in some form—will come. This is not only true of Christian ministry, it’s true of the Christian life. Paul told Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:14). It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
As church-planting pastors, we will not only experience our own suffering, but we will also be responsible to shepherd the flock through theirs. How do we do this well? What does it look like to endure suffering, and shepherd others who are suffering?
Today, I’m excited to have Philip Moore with me on the podcast to talk about suffering and church planting.
You can listen to this podcast episode here.
Recently I watched a man berate a beleaguered-looking cashier over something beyond her control. His insulting tone was still ringing in my ears when I read about the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, where a staggering 8 million people are on the brink of starvation. This crisis is getting worse, but national attention in recent weeks has been riveted on the fallout from the Kavanaugh hearings, an excruciating drama that only intensified partisan division.
What if lack of civility, indifference to suffering, and political rancor are somehow connected? What if they’re all related to a loss of appreciation for human dignity?
Enter Daniel Darling’s new book, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity. I didn’t need Darling to tell me that we live in a world of daily assaults on human dignity—it’s written all over the headlines. But I did need him to give me hope that we can forge a meaningful path through the present divisions.Recovering Dignity as Christian Doctrine
The Dignity Revolution presents a reasoned and passionate call to rediscover the dignity invested in every human being. In the first three chapters, Darling lays biblical groundwork for an understanding of human dignity grounded in the gospel. Beginning with creation, he demonstrates that men and women are imbued with indelible dignity and worth because they’re created in God’s image.
The Dignity Revolution presents a reasoned and passionate call to rediscover the dignity invested in every human being.
Dehumanization is a consequence of sin that distorts that image. Only Jesus Christ—as the image of God—has perfectly embodied what it means to be an image bearer; indeed, “his life, death, and resurrection . . . hold out to us the offer of being remade as the humans we should be” (27). Through Christ our broken humanity can be fully restored. And once renewed, we carry the responsibility of reflecting God’s image into the world by caring for creation, loving our neighbors, and filling the earth with God’s glory.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently observed that “today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities.” Christianity, Darling contends, is the worldview that best provides a moral and spiritual foundation for appreciating the dignity of each person and working to healing the fractures within society.Christian Activism or Social Gospel?
Darling’s book is a robust apology for spirited Christian activism that prioritizes respect for human life. He suggests that a deficient understanding of human dignity harms the church’s ability to live out both the Great Commission (the call to make disciples of all nations) and the Great Commandment (the call to love our neighbors).
Since the church bears the task of communicating and illuminating the gospel—proclaiming the good news and showing the world glimpses of the kingdom through acts of mercy—these activities are complementary and inseparable. Divorcing proclamation from ministries of care, healing, and justice impoverishes our witness. As Darling explains, “We grasp the full and radical nature of the gospel when we stop seeing communication and illumination as two warring Christian camps, and [rather] view them both as part of the radical mission of the church, seeing both as results of the personal and cosmic fruits of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom” (56). It’s significant that Darling identifies these tasks as fruits of the kingdom, not as means to enter it.
A recovery of human dignity is unlikely to resolve all political disagreements, but it may change the tone of the conversation.
While Darling sees Christian activism that upholds the dignity of every human being as an implication of the gospel, he makes clear that social justice is not a definitional component of it. Moreover, he reminds us that “the work of the gospel in bringing sinners to new life and changing sinners to be more and more like Jesus is the fullest expression of dignity for humans” (54). Social activism, then, is a fruit of the spiritual transformation of image-bearers through Christ; but it’s no substitute for the gospel.Transcending Politics? No . . . and Yes
Darling hesitates to identify his book as political. “This isn’t a book about politics,” he insists (17, 202). And yet advocating for the value and protection of human life is bound to have implications for public policy. More than half of the book is devoted to considering the outworkings of a biblical understanding of human dignity, and in many cases the issues discussed are political minefields—racism and white supremacy, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, eugenics, immigration, criminal justice, gender and sexuality, and religious liberty.
Certain policy positions on these issues are consistently associated with either right or left. The dignity of unborn babies is championed by the right while the dignity of the poor and refugees is championed by the left. But Darling asks why Christians should have to choose between recognizing the dignity of one group of people over another—politics shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. He invites us to suspend our uncritical alignment with one party or another and instead look at these issues through the lens of dignity.
A recovery of human dignity is unlikely to resolve all political disagreements, but it should change the tone of the conversation. We’re less likely to demonize those on the other side of an issue when we remember that they, too, are made in the image of God.What Sort of Revolution?
Revolutions tend to be chaotic and violent, but Darling is calling for a quiet revolution. This quiet revolution “begins with applying the kingdom ethics of dignity and service within our own hearts” (61). It’s fomented in conversations at our dinner tables and it gains momentum in our churches and communities when we’re intentional about meeting, befriending, and talking with people across racial, social, and political lines.
If we truly grasp the significance of a biblical understanding of human dignity, it’ll affect all of our relationships. “For every argument we make online or in the office of a public official, there are hundreds of interactions in our daily lives that test whether we really think every person is made in God’s image. Human dignity is more than a platform; it’s a way of life” (212). It’s here in our personal, everyday interactions that Darling’s call to a quiet dignity revolution is likely to have the most lasting effect. But it will impact our politics as well.
“Imagine,” Darling urges, “a political system where we hold loosely to our tribes, but hold firmly to our broken-heartedness about the vulnerable, our theology of human dignity, our hope in the power of the Spirit to change people, systems, and nations, and our pursuit of the true, and good, and beautiful” (209). I want to imagine a politics like this, but I keep wondering how to realize this vision within a rigid two-party system. Darling’s non-partisan vision is attractive in its idealism, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s realistic.
It’s one thing to imagine a politics founded on a robust Christian doctrine of human dignity; it’s another thing to live it out in our polarized society. But doing so may well be the key to retaining a vibrant Christian witness in our world, the sort of witness that actively seeks the restoration of souls and bodies, the healing of hearts and communities.