What just happened?
A 27-year-old Indian man plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. Raphael Samuel, whose claim is based on anti-natalism, told the BBC that it’s wrong to bring children into the world because they then have to put up with lifelong suffering.
“There’s no point to humanity. So many people are suffering,” said Samuel. “If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.”
What is Anti-Natalism?
Anti-natalism (sometimes spelled antinatalism) is the view that it is immoral to bring new people into existence because doing so would be a harm to them. Anti-natalists assign a negative value to birth. (The term is the opposite of natalism, the view that childbearing and parenthood are desirable for social reasons and should therefore be promoted.)
What are the types of anti-natalism?
There are two general categories of anti-natalism: misanthropic and philanthropic.
Misanthropic anti-natalism is the position that humans have a presumptive duty to desist from bringing into existence new members of our species because they cause harm. Ecological anti-natalism (sometimes called “environmental anti-natalism”) is a subset of misanthropic anti-natalism that believes procreation is wrong because of the inherent environmental damage caused by human beings and the suffering we inflict on other sentient organisms.In the 2018 film First Reformed, the character of Michael Mensana is an ecological anti-natalist. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is also representative of this type of anti-natalism.
Philanthropic anti-natalism is the position that humans should not have children for the good of the (unborn) children because, in bringing children in the world, the parents are subjecting them to pain, suffering, illness, and—eventually—death. In Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, the character of Septimus Warren Smith expresses a philanthropic anti-natalist view when he says, “One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that.”
Is anti-natalism a new idea?
No, despite its current (modest) resurgence, anti-natalism is an ancient philosophical position.
Forms of anti-natalist thought have surfaced in ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Manichaeism. It has also been a view espoused by heretical gnostic Christian sects, such as the Bogomils, Cathars, Encratites, and Marcionites.
The most influential anti-natalist currently living is David Benatar, head of the University of Cape Town Philosophy Department in South Africa. Benatar’s view, as outlined in this book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is that (1) Coming into existence is always a serious harm; (2) It is always wrong to have children; (3) It is wrong not to abort fetuses at the earlier stages of gestation; and (4) It would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct.
What is the Christian view of anti-natalism?
Because Christianity is pro-natalism, it is inherently anti-anti-natalism.
The basis for Christian natalism is found in the very first command God gave humankind: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28) That command (along with verses 28b-30) provides a solidly biblical rejection of the premises of misanthropic anti-natalism.
Similarly, in Isaiah 43:6b-7 we find a reason to reject philanthropic anti-natalism:
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
While God has “formed and made” all humans that have ever lived, he creates his “sons and daughters” for his glory. As John Piper explains, “what Isaiah 43:7 means is that he created us to display his glory, that is, that his glory might be known and praised.” We cannot know before a person is born whether they will be among God’s elect. But by claiming it is better for all future children to never be born we are attempting to rob God of his glory.
Why should Christians be concerned about a fringe idea like anti-natalism?
Even Benatar admits that, “Anti-natalism will only ever be a minority view because it runs counter to a deep biological drive to have children.” Anti-natalists must win converts by convincing currently existing humans; natalists can literally create new people to convince.
But despite its numerical inferiority, a minority of anti-natalists can have an outsized influence on public policy. For example, anti-natalist conclusions have been used to support pre-viability abortion and to oppose economic growth (if you love babies, you should love economic growth). Anti-natalism is also often the hidden driver of attempts to limit population growth.
Anti-natalism also presents a challenge to the doctrine of hell. “If the default state of humanity is to spend a lifetime enduring some forms of suffering followed by an eternity in hell,” asks the anti-natalist, “wouldn’t it be better off to have never been born?” *
If we are to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15), we need to think about we respond to the challenges of anti-natalist philosophy.
* Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry has a brief, helpful response that is indirectly related to this question.
There are several ways pastors may be tempted to misuse social media. They may treat it as a highlight reel, showing off their ministry successes and building up an online identity disconnected from real life. Or they may become active participants in the outrage culture of Facebook and Twitter rather than diffusers of online conflict. Given the many ways using social media can go wrong, would it be better for pastors to stay away entirely?
Not necessarily, say Russell Moore, Trevin Wax, and Scott Sauls in this discussion. No pastor should find his identity in his online persona. But given how pervasive social media is in our society, there can be tangible benefits for pastors who engage with people online. Sauls sums up the pastor’s complicated relationship with social media this way: “It can be an opportunity to be a good example. It can also be an opportunity to ruin your witness.”
Does Scripture permit women to hold the office of deacon? In addressing this important question, we must bear a couple of things in mind. First, Reformed pastors and theologians, fully committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, have disagreed about what the Bible teaches concerning women and the diaconate. This state of affairs calls for particular humility in discussing this question. Second, all sides recognize that women in some way have served in the diaconate in various periods of church history. Believers who argue for women in the diaconate, then, should not be automatically accused of sneaking the Trojan horse of modernity into the church.
We must be clear as to what the question is and is not. The question is not whether the Spirit gifts women to serve in the church. He manifestly does, a point the New Testament underscores by way of principle (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:7) and example (e.g., Rom. 16:1–5, 6, 12). The question is not whether women may actively participate in the church’s service ministries. The New Testament highlights the hospitality of the women mentioned in Luke 8:1–3, of John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12), and of Lydia (Acts 16:14–15), even as it commends the charitable service of Dorcas (Acts 9:36). The question is whether the Bible permits women to serve in the office of deacon. The Bible opens the office of diaconate to men only.The Case for Men Only
The diaconate is one of two ordinary offices the New Testament prescribes for the church. The diaconate is an office of “service both to the physical and spiritual needs of the people,” and the eldership is an office of ruling and teaching (The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 7-2).
While deacons are not tasked with governing the church, they possess and exercise authority to carry out their calling of serving the church. We can see this point, for instance, in what is likely the establishment of the office of deacon in the church, Acts 6:1–6. The deacons take up from the apostles the work of daily distributing food to the church’s widows (Acts 6:1). The details of this kind of work find elaboration in 1 Timothy 5:1–16. Here, Paul’s instructions regarding diaconal ministry to widows assume spiritual authority on the part of the deacons. These deacons, after all, are charged with determining which widows qualified to receive the church’s benevolence. As officeholders in the church, deacons possess and exercise God-given authority to serve the congregation’s needs.
The New Testament limits the holding of office in the church to men. Paul writes to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). To be sure, the context of Paul’s statement is the church gathered in worship, and particularly the work of preaching (1 Tim. 2:8–15). Paul’s statement, however, is not limited to the preaching of the Word in public worship. Paul here forbids women from exercising authority in the church. The fact that proper household management—the due exercise of authority in the home—is a qualification for men seeking both the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:5) and also deacon (1 Tim. 3:12) indicates that Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 concerns the offices of the church generally. In light of the fact that the offices of elder and deacon entail the possession and exercise of authority in the church, Paul forbids women from holding either office.Two Crucial Passages
Two passages understandably surface related to this issue. Proponents of women in the diaconate appeal to either or both as evidence that women served as deacons in the apostolic age. On closer examination, however, neither passage yields clear and decisive support for this view.Romans 16:1–2
Here Paul writes to the church in Rome, “commend[ing] to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
The word that Paul uses in verse 1 to describe Phoebe (diakonos, ESV, “servant”) is the same word he elsewhere uses to denote the church officer (“deacon”). For this reason, some have argued Phoebe should be regarded as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
There is no doubt Phoebe is a believer distinguished for her service to the church and particularly to Paul. The question is whether the context requires that the word translated “servant” be more precisely translated “deacon.” The New Testament authors, after all, use this word of officeholders and non-officeholders in the church, and Paul even uses it of the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:4). It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of “deacon.” The context of Romans 16 requires only that Paul be commending Phoebe as a dedicated servant of God’s people. It does not require that she was a church deacon.1 Timothy 3:11
A second passage to which some have appealed in support of female deacons is 1 Timothy 3:11: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (ESV; “or women,” ESV margin).
The Greek word (gynaikas) Paul uses at the beginning of this verse may be translated as either “wives” or “women.” The possessive pronoun (“their” in the ESV) has no corresponding word in the Greek text. Paul could be referring to the wives of deacons or to a separate group of women altogether. Conceivably, women in such a group could hold the office of deacon, could hold an office (“deaconess”) alongside that of the diaconate, or could be a chosen body of assistants to the deacons.
It is noteworthy that Paul refrains from assigning a title to these women as he earlier has to elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1, 8). No matrimonial qualification is assigned to these women, as for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). No provision is made for testing these women, as for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 5:22, 3:10). Paul immediately resumes his discussion of the diaconate in 1 Timothy 3:12–13. All these things point away from understanding 1 Timothy 3:11 as speaking of women holding either the office of deacon or a parallel office.
Paul, rather, may be describing the qualities that must characterize wives of deacon candidates. In light of the sensitivities surrounding deacons’ work, and in light of the fact that wives may be called on to assist their husbands—particularly in addressing the needs of the church’s women—one could see why Paul might have desired that the church be satisfied with the character of a candidate and his wife as they assessed his suitability for the diaconate.Use the Gifts of Both
The New Testament, then, opens the office of deacon to men only. To leave matters here, however, would be out of step with the character of diaconal ministry in the New Testament. As we have seen, the New Testament routinely singles out individual women believers, distinguishing them for their selfless service to Christ and his church. It’s Paul’s expectation in 1 Timothy 3:11 that women will have a part in the church’s ministry of service to the needy.
This reality lays a particular burden on the deacons. As Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 show us, deacons are called “to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed” (The Book of Church Order, 9-2).
To do this effectively, the church’s deacons must identify, encourage, and promote the exercise of the gifts of men and women. They must acknowledge, with Paul, that aspects of the church’s diaconal ministry call for the contribution of the gifts, wisdom, and labor of believing women. And, as Luke and Paul routinely did, deacons must recognize and honor both men and women who selflessly and fruitfully minister to the needs of the saints. To aim for anything less would be unbiblical.
The question as to whether women should serve as deacons is unclear in the Bible, and so it makes sense that sincere interpreters of Scripture differ on the matter. Thus, we must beware of dogmatism and an uncharitable spirit when adjudicating the evidence.
The issue is addressed directly in only two verses (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:11), and the meaning of both is disputed. The disagreement surfaces in English translations. Romans 16:1 in the NIV reads, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” The CSB translates the same verse, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.”
A similar difference shows up in 1 Timothy 3:11, rendered in the NIV: “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” The CSB translates it as, “Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything.” The NIV in using the word “women” suggests they were deacons, while the CSB inclines to “wives” of deacons. Local churches don’t have the luxury of leaving the matter undecided. They have to decide whether women will serve as deacons, and I will argue that the best reading of the evidence supports women serving as such.Support in 1 Timothy 3:11
First, sometimes those who dissent from women serving as deacons and who don’t know Greek point to English translations which have the term “wives” (e.g., CSB, ESV, KJV), thinking that settles the issue. The ESV and KJV actually translate as “their wives,” but the Greek lacks the word “their,” and its insertion reflects an interpretation by translators. The word used here is gynaikas, which could be translated as either “wives” or “women,” and thus the Greek doesn’t really help us here. However, there is actually a hint that Paul refers to deacons rather than women, for if he’d used the pronoun “their,” we’d have no doubt that wives of deacons were intended. The bare use of the word “women” suggests that women deacons rather than wives are in view.
Second, the word “too” (CSB) or “likewise” (ESV)—hosautōs—in 1 Timothy 3:11 is most naturally interpreted as continuing the list of those who serve as deacons, especially since Paul returns to male deacons in verse 12. A sudden reference to wives is of course possible, but in this chapter it seems Paul is referring to offices and conduct in church (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15).
Third, another argument in support of female deacons is from silence, but it’s an important one. The argument goes like this: If the reference is to the wives of deacons, why does Paul omit a reference to the wives of elders, particularly since elders exercise pastoral oversight and overall leadership in the church? It would seem the character of the wives of elders would be even more important than the wives of deacons—and thus focusing on the wives of deacons, but not on the wives of elders, is strange. Yet if the reference is to female deacons, we have an elegant explanation for why the wives of elders aren’t mentioned—for the wives of deacons aren’t included either. In other words, Paul isn’t referring to wives at all, but to female deacons.
Fourth, the character qualities required for the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 are also mandated for elders and male deacons, which makes sense if an official capacity is intended. Just as deacons are to “be worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:8), so too female deacons must “be worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:11). Elders are to be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2), and female deacons must also be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:11). Two other character qualities are required of female deacons: They are not to be “slanderers,” and they must be “faithful” (1 Tim. 3:11). Such qualifications point to official responsibility.
It is imperative to recognize that Paul isn’t attempting to give a comprehensive list of character requirements for any of the positions listed in 1 Timothy 3. He sketches in quickly what is mandated, leaving it to the wisdom of readers to discern whether someone is qualified. Some object that women serving as deacons can’t be in view, since Paul refers to male deacons in 3:8–10 and then returns to that theme in 3:12–13. They think the one-verse insertion about women in 3:11 can’t, therefore, refer to female deacons. But the argument is not persuasive. On either view, Paul interrupts the discussion!Support in Romans 16:1
We saw in translations of Romans 16:1 that Phoebe was either a “deacon” or “servant” of the church in Cenchreae. With so little to go on, the decision could go either way, for the word diakonos in Greek may refer to a servant without having the idea of a particular office. Nevertheless, the addition of the words “the church in Cenchreae” suggests an official capacity. Verse 2 supports this understanding, since Phoebe is designated as a “patron” (ESV) or “benefactor” (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.
In addition, many commentators believe Phoebe actually carried the letter of Romans to the Roman church, which would fit with a diaconal position.Early Church History
My argument from church history is not determinative, since it isn’t from Scripture. Nevertheless, we see an early example of women serving as deacons in the correspondence between Pliny the younger and the emperor Trajan (AD 98–117). In a fascinating conversation, Pliny asks Trajan for advice about what he should do as the legate to the province in Bithynia with Christians.
We want to think about one small piece of the conversation. Pliny refers to two Christian women, who were called ministrae in Latin. In English we can translate this word as “ministers,” and that is a good translation into Latin of the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant” or “minister.” We thus have an early example—in the second decade of the second century—of women serving as deacons. Obviously, such an example doesn’t prove women should serve as deacons, but it suggests women functioned as deacons in the early church.Crucial Clarifications
Some worry that appointing women as deacons violates 1 Timothy 2:12, where women are prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men. We must recognize, however, that deacons occupy a different position from elders/pastors/overseers. The latter is one office, as Ben Merkle has convincingly argued, in which two qualities are required that are not required of deacons. First, elders must have an ability to teach biblical truth and correct deviant teaching (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9). Second, they must have gifts of leadership (1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:7). And remarkably, teaching and exercising authority over men is the very thing disallowed for women in 1 Timothy 2:12. Women therefore may serve as deacons because the diaconal office is one of serving, not leading. Deacons don’t teach and exercise authority, but rather help in the church’s ministry.
In many Baptist churches, deacons along with the staff pastor or pastors lead the church, but in these instances the deacons are really functioning as elders—and in such cases the deacons should be called elders, pastors, or overseers.
The earliest evidence we have is that deacons helped care for the poor and sick. There is some freedom in how deacons serve, since the New Testament doesn’t prescribe precise responsibilities. In the church I serve as an elder, deacons carry out many responsibilities. We have role-specific diaconates—that is, deacons of finance, of hospitality, of ushering, of greeting, of building maintenance, of sound, and so on. The deacons don’t meet together regularly as a group, since their tasks differ dramatically.
Christians who love God’s Word differ on whether women may serve as deacons, but the evidence presented here suggests they may do so. And in such a ministry they are a great blessing to the church, and the women who serve are encouraged as they use their gifts.
Is watching trash TV a sin? My husband describes ABC’s The Bachelor as “relationship porn.” But at my work, everyone watches reality shows, so it’s an easy way to both connect with my colleagues and discuss an alternative Christian viewpoint on relationships. In addition, my Reformed upbringing includes phrases like “common grace.” Are there some areas of media we should avoid altogether for our own godliness, even if it means giving up a possible avenue of connection?
First, let me pose a revised question: “Are there some areas of media that I should avoid altogether for my own godliness, even if it means giving up a possible avenue of connection?” In other words, what is “trash TV” to one believer might not be to another. (To be clear, I’m not speaking of shows that cause us to sin just by watching—for example, soft pornography. Everyone should avoid those.)
Under the canopy of common grace, God gifts believers and unbelievers alike with the ability to make art and entertainment such as movies and television shows. Yet Christians often err by adopting one of two extremes: We either hastily condemn media or gluttonously consume it for mere amusement.
I must critically evaluate a TV show—or any media offering, such as a song or a piece of art—by asking questions such as:
- What can I affirm here that is good?
- What is unredeemable about this?
- What boundaries should I place around myself for the sake of my own godliness?
I need to think as Paul did when he told his Corinthian audience, “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor. 6:12). I then need to ask, “Is watching or listening to __________ profitable for me and for others?”
The late Chuck Colson tells the story of meeting an unbeliever who had a love for Woody Allen films. Colson leveraged this common interest as an on-ramp to sharing spiritual truths with this young man. However, I am sure Colson would say, “If a show is negatively affecting your mind or heart, then trust God to provide another avenue of connection with your coworker.”
There will be times we have Christian freedom to watch what others may deem objectionable (1 Pet. 2:16); on the other hand, we’re also charged not to cause a brother or sister to sin (Matt. 18:6). In the case of The Bachelor, it might be a stretch to say the show could be used as an effective evangelistic tool. Almost anything “trashy” could then be justified under that logic.
There are many ways to love to our coworkers for the sake of the gospel—such as doing quality work, honoring them as image-bearers, and offering help. Sharing conversations about TV can—but doesn’t have to be—one of them.
You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.
Frederick Douglass placed a premium on education because he believed that reading gave freedom to enslaved men and women. A people who could read, he argued, were unfit to be slaves. David Blight, professor of American history at Yale, has provided an opportunity to read quite a bit about the 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer in his massive biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
New materials uncovered by historians and librarians make a new biography of Douglass not only useful, but in some ways also necessary to understand Douglass’s interactions with intellectual movements in the 19th century. Blight, more than any other biographer, places Douglass within the world of ideas he inhabited. By doing this, he shows Douglass to be a remarkable thinker, as well as a remarkable human.Douglass’s Life
Douglass’s childhood and adolescence in bondage, Blight argues, allowed him to understand not merely the civil and political oppression that accompanied chattel slavery, but also the massive psychological and sociological toll enslaved people endured. Douglass became particularly aware of the psychological isolation experienced by slaves. He had few friends on the Maryland plantation where he grew up, which may have been a coping mechanism he used to deal with the fact he almost certainly was fathered by a white man.
Blight pays particular attention to Douglass’s hatred of the economic aspects of slavery that transcended the ownership of bodies. Some slaveholders, particularly in urban areas and in the Upper South, allowed slaves to hire themselves out and keep a portion of the profits. When a master took all of what Douglass made, the latter’s fury turned his conception of freedom from one essentially concerned with freeing black bodies into a concern for black economic freedoms, too.
Blight notes that Douglass had some sort of religious conversion during his teenage years and believed in a personal and trinitarian Christian God. He also explicitly believed that sinners were reconciled to God through the person of Jesus Christ, and he had close relationships with African Methodist Episcopal pastors.
Blight also delves into less pleasant aspects of Douglass’s life. He often ignored his wife and children and stayed away from home for long periods of time.Douglass’s Work
Douglass eventually escaped from slavery and wrote about his experience in his magnificent first autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He dedicated his life to ending slavery. Making abolition and emancipation reality took more than goodwill. Douglass dropped the mantle of a strict reformist in order to find political allies in the Republican Party. Douglass wasn’t a partisan and didn’t seek political office, but he nonetheless saw politics as necessary to accomplish the goals of abolition and emancipation. He believed that the Republican Party was a flawed vessel—he chastised Abraham Lincoln and others for moving slowly on emancipation—but Republicans’ vision of the United States as a united cultural, economic, moral, and political nation shorn of chattel slavery convinced Douglass that Republicans deserved his support.
His support of the Republican Party included support for the party’s increasingly romantic nationalism. Douglass sympathized with the notion that American culture, typified by the bourgeois society of the Free States, was superior to that of 19th-century Africa. When other black leaders tried to convince Douglass that immigration to Africa was the best safeguard for African liberties, Douglass, in Blight’s words, attacked the idea. He called West African rulers—whom he faulted in some degree with bringing slavery to North America—savages.
Put simply, Douglass believed that the United States provided real universal freedoms; those liberties were, however, hypocritically and wrongly withheld from black men and women. When Douglass gave his famous “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech, he called on Americans to become a better version of themselves, not to become something entirely different. Douglass, it should be noted, remained thoroughly committed to liberal capitalism as a socioeconomic tool to potentially empower free black men and women. The statist measures he did support—and he supported quite a few—tended to be oriented toward dismantling Southern slaveholding agrarianism and creating black property-holding more than they were oriented toward dismantling liberalism or capitalism.
Douglass stayed focused on the issue of slavery even when other injustices were brought to his attention. When he toured the U.K. in the 1840s, champions of Ireland’s famine-struck poor encouraged Douglass to co-opt the struggles in Ireland against Great Britain into the broader battle for abolitionism. Douglass demurred. Slavery was a particular type of wrong that demanded particular types of reform. He didn’t entirely rule out violence to attain freedom for enslaved peoples, but he balked at physically or materially aiding John Brown’s proposed slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.Douglass the Prophet
Blight calls Douglass a prophet, and like many prophets Douglass didn’t live to see the fulfillment of his goals. He didn’t see the enfranchisement of most African Americans in the aftermath of the civil-rights era. Likewise, the level at which African Americans can freely and justly participate in liberal capitalism is still debatable due to continuing disparities.
Douglass’s prophecies await complete fulfillment, but that shouldn’t cause us to dismiss their significance in bringing us thus far and inspiring us for what’s ahead.
It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize the seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.
We’re talking about two different levels on which things are to be understood. And again and again in the Scriptures we have what seem to be complete paradoxes because we’re talking about two different kingdoms. We’re talking about this visible world and an invisible kingdom through which the facts of this world are interpreted.Suffering in Scripture
Take for example the Beatitudes, those wonderful statements of paradox that Jesus gave to the multitudes when he was preaching to them on the mountain (Matt. 5:3–12). He said strange things like this:
How happy are those who know what sorrow means. Happy are those who claim nothing. Happy are those who have suffered persecution. What happiness will be yours when people blame you and ill treat you and say all kinds of slanderous things against you. Be glad then, yes, be tremendously glad.
Does it make any sense at all?
Not unless you see there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of an invisible world. And the apostle Paul understood the difference when he made this stunning declaration. He said, it is now my happiness to suffer for you, my happiness to suffer (Col. 1:24). It sounds like nonsense, doesn’t it? And yet this is God’s Word. Janet Erskine Stuart said, “Joy is not the absence of suffering but the presence of God.”
It’s what the psalmist found in the valley of the shadow of death: “I will fear no evil” (Ps. 23:4). Now the psalmist was not naïve enough to say, “I will fear no evil because there isn’t any.” There is. We live in an evil, broken, twisted, fallen, distorted world. What did he say? “I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”My Suffering
When I stood by my shortwave radio in the jungle of Ecuador in 1956 and heard that my husband, Jim Elliot, was missing, God brought to my mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee” (Isa. 43:2). You can imagine that my response was not terribly spiritual. I was saying, “But Lord, you’re with me all the time. What I want is Jim. I want my husband.” We had been married 27 months after waiting five-and-a-half years.
Five days later I knew that Jim was dead. And God’s presence with me was not Jim’s presence. That was a terrible fact. God’s presence didn’t change the terrible fact that I was a widow, and I expected to be a widow until I died because I thought it was a miracle I got married the first time. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever get married a second time, let alone a third. God’s presence didn’t change the fact of my widowhood. Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God, my hope and my only refuge.
Suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth: God is God.
And I learned in that experience who God is in a way I could never have known otherwise. And so I can say to you that suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth: God is God. Well, I still want to go back and say, “But Lord, what about that little child with spina bifida? What about those babies born terribly handicapped, with terrible suffering because their mothers were on cocaine or heroin or alcohol? What about my little Scottie dog, McDuff, who died of cancer at the age of six? What about the Lindbergh baby and the Stams who were beheaded? What about all of that?”Mystery of Suffering
And I can’t answer your questions, or even my own, except in the words of Scripture, these words from the apostle Paul who knew the power of the cross of Jesus. And this is what he wrote:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:18–19).
The creation was made the victim of frustration—all those animals, all those babies who have no guilt whatsoever—not by its own choice, but because of him who made it so; yet always there was hope. And this is the part that brings me immeasurable comfort: The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God.
Where does this idea of a loving God come from? It is not a deduction. It is not man so desperately wanting a god that he manufactures him in his mind. It’s he who was the Word before the foundation of the world, suffering as a lamb slain. And he has a lot up his sleeve that you and I haven’t the slightest idea about now. He’s told us enough so we can know that suffering is never for nothing.
Medical practice abounds with impressions of God’s love. Moments when nurses tenderly dress a wound or hold a dying person’s hand reflect our mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Doctors who toil through the night to save a life embrace the call to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). Such poignant echoes of the gospel can entice us to equate medicine with Christian thought and to expect bioethics to stand firm with the church against the waves of popular culture.
But sometimes, medicine mirrors little that is good or lovely. Although the capability to heal is a gift from God, medicine is as corruptible as any other sphere of life this side of the fall. As we navigate the hospital hallways we need to practice discernment, with Scripture on our minds and prayer in our hearts.Definitions of Worth
One example from my training haunts my conscience. A woman arrived at the hospital with an acute illness at nearly 23 weeks pregnant. While doctors tended to her, she asked for an abortion. On learning of her request, her family filed into her room like a throng of mourners, their heads bowed, their faces drawn with grief. Some cried. Others offered to adopt the child. All begged her not to abort the baby who kicked within her, his limbs already fully formed, his heart dancing its vigorous rhythm. While they pleaded she stared into a corner, her eyes occasionally misting with tears.
Modern medicine is a gift from God. But it’s not a Christian institution.
The scene was heartbreaking. It also contrasted sharply with the response of her care team. Rather than sit beside her to explore the dark avenues down which her mind wandered, or to delve into the reasons why an abortion seemed her only answer, they worried she might not recover from her illness in time for an abortion to be legal. State law permitted them to perform the procedure until 23 weeks and 6 days. If she wanted an abortion, they urged, she needed to recover, and quickly, before the child magically became a person at 24 weeks. Before then, her right to self-determination superseded her child’s right to life. Her baby’s rights to live, to love, and to realize his purpose in the world arose not from his inherent dignity as God’s image bearer, but from whether he was wanted. But according to state law, all that would change in a single day. Time was ticking.
This unsettling example hints at the rift between biblical teaching and medical practice. Personhood depends on arbitrary time points. The right for an adult to self-govern holds sway against the unborn’s right to live. Modern bioethics upholds self-determination as an ultimate good, rather than a blessing to wield in service to God. It prizes individual freedom but wrenches it from its godly purposes. The result is a system that in myriad circumstances reflects God’s grace but that can also veer away from scriptural principles.
Modern medicine is a gift from God. But it’s not a Christian institution.Secular Roots
Medicine’s separation from the gospel dates to its beginnings. Although over the centuries churches and monasteries have embraced care for the sick, modern bioethics traces its origins not to Christian thought, but to antiquity and the Enlightenment. Hippocrates, widely lauded as the “father of modern medicine,” began his famous oath with the phrase, “I swear by Apollo the Healer,” followed by a litany of adorations to Greek gods. Medical students still recite his oath today as a rite of passage, their heads lowered in reverence to the profession.
Modern bioethics developed centuries after Hippocrates, when rampant abuse and paternalism in medicine broiled to a zenith. In the 1970s, exposure of the horrific Tuskegee study sparked national outrage as we learned that for four terrible decades, the U.S. Public Health Service funded syphilis research on indigent African Americans without consent. The crisis spurred a movement to define ethical medical practice, culminating in the establishment of four tenets that would become the cornerstones of medical ethics: nonmaleficence, benevolence, respect for autonomy, and justice. Thomas Beauchamp and James Childress, the American philosophers who outlined these principles, drew heavily from Immanuel Kant’s framework for autonomy, as well as from an appeal to common morality—in other words, the philosophy that certain principles are so widely accepted and self-evident as to be universal.
A medical system based on societal consensus rather than firm grounding in the truth will bend to the winds of change.
We can attribute much virtue in medical care to Beauchamp and Childress’s emphasis on human dignity. But Scripture warns us of the limits of human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:25), and advises us to trust in God rather than our own understanding (Prov. 3:5–6). As Beauchamp and Childress’s principles hang on public unanimity rather than divine authority, we expect their manifestations to shift and warp over time. A medical system based on societal consensus rather than firm grounding in the truth will bend to the winds of change.
Today, our culture esteems fulfillment of individual desires more than the gospel of grace. The idolatry of self-determination in medicine seems inevitable.Idolatry of Autonomy
Of all Beauchamp and Childress’s four tenets, respect for autonomy has achieved primacy in medical practice. Otherwise described as the right to self-determination, this principle intends to safeguard patients against exploitation, and in the 1970s it represented a crucial divergence from the horrors of paternalism. On the surface, it parallels Christian values. We all have intrinsic worth and dignity as God’s image bearers (Gen. 1:26), and God grants us a measure of freedom as stewards of his creation (Gen. 2:15, 19).
Yet the Bible diverges from secular medical ethics on the purpose of our God-given autonomy. From the biblical standpoint, God gives us freedom so that we may lead lives that point to his character; our freedom comes with the expectation that we exercise it for his glory. “And whatever you do, in word or deed,” Paul writes, “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). While we remain free in Christ, the cross must temper our conduct (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
In contrast, autonomy divested of its biblical context turns away from God and toward the self. The right to choose reigns supreme, regardless of whether our choices reflect our identity in Christ. The chief goal in life shifts from serving God to fulfilling one’s desires. Freedom becomes an ultimate good, an end in itself, rather than a vehicle to glorify the Lord.
While untangling its complexities, the secular roots of medicine warn us to practice discernment.
We’ve seen this before, and we know where it leads. Autonomy without God first bore sinister fruit in the garden, when Adam and Eve prized self-rule over the covenant with their gracious Lord (Gen. 3). It has plagued humankind since, enticing us to idolize the work of our own hands, rather than revere our Creator (Isa. 2:8; Jer. 1:16; Rom. 1:21–22).
The hospital corridors are as prone to this subversiveness as any other corner of the earth. In medicine, unbiblical autonomy weaves threads of popularism and transhumanism into care for the sick. Technical language dehumanizes unborn babies unless they are wanted. Advocates claim assisted suicide is a human right. Cancer patients who express religious concerns receive little support in the hospital, and doctors who do respond conflate humanistic gestures—holding a hand, spending extra time to talk—with spiritual care. So stark is the divide between Christianity and medical practice that in their excellent book Hostility to Hospitality, doctors Michael and Tracy Balboni characterize American medicine as “spiritually sick.”Discernment in the Hospital Corridor
All this does not mean we should distrust doctors or shy away from the modern remedies with which God has blessed us. Contrary to media depictions of doctors as greedy and power-hungry, most physicians pursue medicine out of a genuine passion for helping others, often at great personal cost. And modern medicine literally saves lives. At its best, it reflects the mercy, and love for our neighbors, to which Christ calls us as his disciples. Medicine is a blessing from the Lord, and we should accept it with heartfelt gratitude.
But the hospital is far from heaven. While untangling its complexities, the secular roots of medicine warn us to practice discernment. We can’t blindly place all our hope in the Western medical system, just as we shouldn’t idolize government or economics. This awareness is especially critical when we consider acute illness, when a threat to life can deprive us of the clarity to unpack ethical dilemmas biblically. The tumult of life may not allow us space and time to ponder medical questions at our own pace. We need to carefully define our values, and the principles that guide Christian discipleship, before calamity strikes.
Thankfully, our paltry hope in the broken systems of this world withers before the glory of our greatest and most steadfast hope. In the cross, we find an assurance of God’s love that surpasses all the meager philosophies of our own minds. And when Christ returns, the debate over medical ethics will fade into irrelevance, as Jesus marches back the hands of death, perfects our feeble bodies, and annuls the need for medicine at all.
Recently, one of my daughters came to faith in Jesus. She started talking to us and asking questions while driving home from our community groups on Sunday nights. As most conversations about the gospel tend to go, we talked about the character of God, sin, Jesus’s death and resurrection, faith, hope, repentance, and many related issues.
We’ve been praying for our daughter since before she was born. We memorized Scripture with her, read her the Bible, sang hymns with her, and catechized her from a young age. Yet, as we talked that night, she didn’t mention things she remembered from family devotions, the catechism, or the hundreds of sermons she’d heard Dad preach.
As we talked, she kept referencing conversations she had with other people in our church. She talked about encouraging notes people wrote her, something our youth pastor said in a recent sermon, and conversations she had with other family members.
No doubt the hundreds of hours we spent teaching her the Bible and talking with her played a role in her coming to know Jesus. But what ultimately showed her the reality of the gospel was hearing it from people in addition to her parents. She was engulfed by people who loved and followed Jesus. Their love, prayers, and conversations bore fruit one moment on a Sunday night as she trusted in Jesus.
As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, but unable to because of the joy I felt, I replayed our conversation in my mind and delighted in the wisdom of God. Not only did he give her parents who taught her about Jesus, he also surrounded her with the family of God, who spoke to her about the gospel and demonstrated its fruit in their lives.
I’ve spent the better part of two decades studying the church—what it is, what it should be, how its worship should look, and how we should order our life together. I’ve seen the church show itself to be what the Bible calls it, the body of Christ, and have been loved and encouraged. Yet on this night, I actively rejoiced in the body of Christ, giving thanks to God that I was not alone in pointing my daughter to Jesus.Family. Building. Nation.
Many have rightly noted the rampant individualism in our culture and the havoc it’s wreaking on church life. The Bible uses rich metaphors to describe the church. Each of them points us away from individualism toward a rich community that images Christ together. Three of these images cannot be lived out by a lone-ranger Christian.
In Ephesians 2, after explaining how the gospel tears down the wall between people who were formerly hostile towards one another and reconciles them through the blood of Jesus, Paul shows how God is building all the saints together into one body for the Father’s glory:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19–22)
In this paragraph, Paul lays waste the lone-ranger Christian. The church is a family. Members of the household of God cannot live the Christian life on their own—they’re brothers and sisters. When one is missing, there’s an empty place at the table. When one goes astray, the family grieves.
Paul also spoke of the church as a building. He’s not speaking of the physical buildings where local churches meet to worship. Rather, he pictures the church as a temple, built on Christ as the cornerstone, raised up to bring him praise and glory. If the church is a building, we are bricks in it. Those bricks are interconnected, and the whole structure is weaker if one is missing. The strength lies in the whole bound together.
He also pictured the church as a nation, its citizenship comprised of those who know Christ as Lord. Peter echoes this language: The church is “a holy nation, a people for his possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9–10). Here, the citizens show the glory of their King through their life together. They, as one people, proclaim the beauty and the glory of Christ through their words and deeds.It’s About One Another
When the Bible speaks of our witness together, it rarely speaks of one Christian alone talking about Jesus. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And Paul wrote, “We are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).
It’s clear the New Testament writers emphasized our corporate witness. Jesus speaks of us demonstrating the truthfulness of the gospel through our love for each other, and Paul says we represent the kingdom of Christ in the kingdom of this world, begging people to be reconciled to God.
Our culture loves to speak as if there is a church under every man’s hat. You grow as a Christian alone. You love your family and raise them alone. You bear witness alone.
But the Bible doesn’t sound that note.Joy in the Body
Rejoice with me today in the body of Christ. When this body, with Jesus as its head, loves one another, serves one another, and bears witness to the gospel together, brothers and sisters are encouraged in their walk with Jesus, and our neighbors encounter an embodied witness of love.
The Holy Spirit used Christ’s body to bring my daughter to him. In one sense this is remarkable, since every conversion comes from the miraculous work of the Spirit. Yet this is also unremarkable, since the Spirit has been at work this way for two millennia. I praise God that the corporate witness of the church led my daughter to faith. By his grace, she won’t be the last.
The Story: A significant portion of practicing Christians reject evangelism. Could it be because they also reject the doctrine of hell?
The Background: A new Barna report, based on research commissioned by Alpha USA, looks at the views on evangelism by practicing Christians (defined in the report as those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church within the past month).
Almost all practicing Christians believe that part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (ranging from 95 percent to 97 percent among all generational groups), and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94 percent to 97 percent). Almost all practicing Christians (ranging from 86 percent to 92 percent) also say they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith, and a majority of each generational group (ranging from 56 percent to 73 percent) believes they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people
Yet despite recognizing the importance of telling people about Christ and claiming to know how to share their faith, a significant portion of practicing Christians say it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.
Almost half of all Millenials (those ages 20 to 34) say it is wrong to share one’s beliefs, as do more than one in four (27 percent) Gen-Xers (ages 35 to 53), and one in five Boomers (ages 54 to 72) and Elders (age 73 and older).
What It Means: As Penn Jillette, half of the magician duo Penn & Teller, once asked, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize,” the famous atheist said. “I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”
Perhaps it’s the case that many evangelicals truly do hate their neighbors. But the more likely explanation is they do not believe in the existence of hell.
We know hell exists because Jesus—the one through whom all things were created (John 1:3; Col. 1:16)—tells us that hell exists. For example, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
In fact, Jesus has more to say about hell than he does about heaven. Jesus uses the term gehenna (which is translated as “hell”) a dozen times in the Gospels, and uses synonyms involving fire about 20 times. He also describes it in vivid detail, saying it is a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), and eternal torment (Luke 16:23). He says it is where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48), where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42), and a place from which there is no return, even to warn loved ones (Luke 16:19–31).
More than anyone else in the Bible, Jesus talked about the doctrine of hell because he wants us to take it seriously. As Leslie Schmucker explains,
Jesus has to talk about hell because it is the fate that awaits all people apart from him. Because of Adam’s sin, we’re all guilty and deserve God’s eternal punishment. Contrary to popular belief, hell is not a place where God sends those who have been especially bad; it’s our default destination. We need a rescuer or we stand condemned.
You cannot believe in the Jesus of the Gospels and not believe in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option. You can also not love your neighbor and be apathetic about their spending eternity in hell. Jesus doesn’t give us that option either. If we believe Jesus and love our neighbor we will bring the doctrine of hell back into our churches.
“[W]e should shudder at churches that don’t know what it means to shudder about hell, Trevin Wax says. “I don’t know how you can take Jesus’s message seriously and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. Mock ‘fire and brimstone preachers’ all you want, but take care that in the process, you’re not mocking Jesus himself.”
If Christianity is true, why do so many Christians act in horrific, un-Christlike ways? Why has Christian history been so consistently tarnished with war, violence, and oppression? Why should one believe Jesus is God if so much evil has been done in his name?
These questions represent one of the most popular objections to Christianity today. They are good questions: questions Christians should take seriously and know how to answer; questions that should chasten us and cause us to commit to living in ways that don’t besmirch the name of Jesus.
Thankfully, an excellent new documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined, features Christians honestly and soberly considering these questions.Christian History: The Horror
A production of the Center for Public Christianity (CPX), an Australian Christian nonprofit devoted to using media to enhance the public understanding of Christian faith, the documentary is hosted by John Dickson (CPX founding director), Simon Smart (CPX executive director), and Justine Toh (CPX senior research fellow). It opens in Jerusalem with a description of one of the many atrocities of the Crusades, and for the next 90 minutes it does not shy away from the ugly episodes of Christian history.
The film crisscrosses the globe, recounting various dark episodes in Christian history. In Belfast, for example, Smart ponders the religious violence that occurred in Northern Ireland over three decades. “How do people who claim a religious faith reconcile what happened here with what they believe?” he asks.
John Lennox, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and whose family’s store was bombed for employing both Protestants and Catholics, is interviewed in the film.
“I’m utterly ashamed of it,” he says. “I’m ashamed that the name of Christ has even been associated with a bomb or an AK-47. For the simple reason that people who do that are not following Christ. They are disobeying him.”
Shame indeed. So many horrors have been committed by people who claim the name—and even more troublingly, the cause—of Christ: wars, slavery, colonial oppression, the subjugation of women, segregationist policies, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and on and on. How do we reckon with all this? For the Love of God leans into this question.Christian History: The Heroic
But just as the documentary doesn’t shy away from the evils done by so-called Christians in history, neither does it shy away from celebrating the many ways Christian influence has shaped the world positively.
The film notes how ideas taken for granted in today’s world—universal human rights, the innate dignity of persons regardless of their utility, or even that humility is a desirable quality—came from Christianity. The arrival of Christianity and its theology of imago Dei revolutionized the way vulnerable populations fared in the Greco-Roman world, where barbaric practices like infant exposure were normal and equality between the sexes was a foreign concept.
The film shows how Christ’s teachings to love your enemy (Matt. 5:44) and turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38–40) inspired the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., while the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 (among other teachings) inspired a humanitarian emphasis that has characterized Christianity throughout its history. From early Christians in Rome caring for the sick and dying (not just their own, but everyone) to Mother Teresa and modern-day Good Samaritans like Kent Brantley, Nancy Writebol, and Rick Sacra, followers of Jesus have constantly been inspired to enter harm’s way to care for the vulnerable.
Throughout Christian history, followers of Jesus have constantly been inspired to enter harm’s way to care for the vulnerable.
Though at times the “good Christian” examples are a bit too predictable (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr.), the documentary does shine the light on lesser-known heroes. I enjoyed learning about Father Damien of Molokai, who gave his life to serving a leper colony in Hawaii, and the Serampore Trio of English missionaries (including William Carey) whose impact in India included launching a college and succeeding in efforts to outlaw infanticide and the killing of widows through the practice called sati.
There are countless other examples, of course. A film of this topic really could (should!) be a multi-season, long Netflix documentary (For the Love of God does have a longer version of four one-hour episodes). But with limited time, this film does a good job selecting illustrative examples and moving the narrative along at a concise clip.Tuning Our Song to Jesus
As documentaries go, For the Love of God is well-produced and compelling. It features a who’s who of historians, philosophers, and theologians weighing in on the good and bad of church history—scholars like David Bentley Hart, Lynn Cohick, William Cavanaugh, Miroslav Volf, Rodney Stark, and Christopher Tyerman, among many others. Some are more generous than others as to how Christianity comes off in the final analysis, but none is utterly damning in their critique. This is one area where the film could have been even stronger, perhaps: a willingness to give voice to truly stinging, well-articulated critiques of Christianity and its oft-ugly legacy. If Christians are to winsomely answer these arguments, we need films like this to engage them, presenting the strongest version (not the easily refutable version) of the anti-Christian critique.
What is the best answer to these critiques? This documentary uses a helpful musical metaphor to suggest a possible response.
“It’s easy to dismiss the religion of Jesus Christ on account of the many sins of his followers,” Smart says in the film. “But perhaps it’s too easy, like judging a piece of music on the basis of a bad performance.”
As we watch a cellist performing Bach, Smart continues: “A bad delivery doesn’t diminish the genius of the original composition.”
A bad delivery doesn’t diminish the genius of the original composition.
How consistently have Christians played the melody of Jesus, the new tune he gave the world? It’s an open question—a convicting question the film carefully engages.
“When Christians have played out of tune with Jesus,” Toh observes, “the results have been disastrous.”
Indeed. The dissonance of Christians living “out of tune” with Jesus has often sounded like nails on a chalkboard to the world—repulsive noise that attracts no one to the gospel. But when Christians have played the tune well, in harmony with Jesus, the song has been beautiful—an attractive symphony that can soften hearts to the gospel.
Are we playing in tune with Jesus, or are we hijacking his melodies to riff in our own way? For the Love of God challenges us to consider this question. For the love of God, and for the love of his world, may our lives sing a Jesus song.
“If you and your ministry consist only of doctrinal correctness and brilliant communication and organizational savvy—all of which matter—but if that’s all you cultivate and develop and lay hold of, it will hollow you out.” — Ray Ortlund
Date: October 17, 2018
Event: 2018 TGC West Coast Conference
Recommended in this podcast:
- “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way” by Francis Schaeffer in No Little People
- True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer
- Schaeffer on the Christian Life by William Edgar
- “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God” by Jonathan Edwards
- George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival by Arnold Dallimore
- Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain Murray
- Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden
- Here I Stand by Roland Bainton
- Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown
Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.
In Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, Katherine Gerbner, assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota, debunks a common myth: that early 18th-century Protestant missionaries to the New World laid the foundations for later abolitionism.
The dark reality is that many of them helped form a pro-slavery ideology that for decades would be used to defend the compatibility of Christianity and slaveholding.From ‘Protestant Supremacy’ to ‘Christian Slavery’
Gerbner’s argument traces three historical steps in the transition from the belief in “Protestant supremacy” to a full-fledged defense of “Christian slavery.” Along the way, she shows how the formation of racialized slavery in the Atlantic world was closely tied with shifting definitions of what it meant to be a Christian. Though she focuses on Anglican, Quaker, and Moravian missionaries, she demonstrates how their formulation of Christian slavery shaped and anticipated the thinking of key Great Awakening leaders like George Whitefield.
In the first step, many settlers and planters in the New World created an identity around the idea of “Protestant supremacy.” They tied their belief in the superiority of Protestantism to their belief in the superiority of white ethnicity and culture. They exploited this connection to assert their superiority not only against other religions like Roman Catholicism and Judaism but also against other ethnicities like the Native Americans and black Africans (they typically associated “inferior” race with “inferior” pagan religion, deeming them “hereditary heathens”).
This move had troubling consequences that anticipated later forms of white supremacy. For example, Gerbner identifies a change in the laws of 17th-century Barbados that moved from defining Christianity doctrinally to making it an indicator of ethnicity and class. The later laws juxtaposed “Christian” with the word “negro,” indicating that Christians were free whites and that blacks were non-Christian.
This shift was in response to a growing tension that questioned the legitimacy of Christians enslaving other Christians. So by contrasting “Christian” with “negro,” these laws “invoked Christianity as an indicator of ethnic identity” rather than doctrine in order to justify the enslavement of (non-Christian) blacks (45). The early planter classes also tied Christian identity with freedom, and this made many resistant to evangelizing their slaves, because they feared conversion would give them grounds to demand emancipation.
The second step complicated the first. Over time, an increasing number of enslaved and free blacks in the New World did convert, get baptized, and join a church. Their conversions undermined the foundations of Protestant supremacy by confounding the assumed bond between Christianity and white ethnicity. In response, the white plantocracy altered the definition of Christianity to include a wider ethnic diversity. However, they also altered the relationship between Christian identity and freedom, basing free status and social hierarchy no longer in religion but in race—i.e., no longer in their exclusive Protestant identity but in exclusive whiteness. In the 1690s and early 1700s, for example, they passed new laws in Barbados that excluded nonwhites from owning land, using racial categories rather than religion to establish the social hierarchy.
The third step is where the missionaries come in. Facing resistance from the plantocracy to evangelize slaves, missionaries of various Protestant backgrounds cast a vision for what Gerbner calls “Christian slavery.” They tried to assuage the fears of the plantocracy by arguing that Christianity and slavery were compatible, and that conversion wouldn’t grant slaves freedom or social equality. Many even promoted legislation that ensured baptism wouldn’t lead to manumission. They argued that while Christian conversion made slave and master spiritual equals, it had no bearing on social equality this side of heaven, which was determined by racial difference.
Moreover, rather than hurt the institution of slavery, they insisted that Christian conversion would produce harder-working, virtuous, and more obedient slaves. They advocated for Christian masters to assume a paternalistic role to care for the spiritual needs of their slaves like they would for their children, and to treat them more humanely with Christian virtue. Conversion would profit both slaves and masters. When properly done, they argued, Protestantism and slavery weren’t just compatible; they were conducive for the flourishing of a Christian society.Well-Argued Case
Gerbner’s book makes an important contribution to the history of religion and slavery in the Atlantic world. She draws on an impressive breadth of source material—from treatises on slavery and evangelism by leading religious leaders to legal codes, letters, church records, and missionary accounts from the Caribbean and North American colonies—and deftly sets her findings in conversation with the existing scholarship on the period. She doesn’t pick low-hanging fruit but instead builds her case researching the two groups that scholars have long assumed laid the groundwork for progressive Christian antislavery thought: the Quakers and Moravians.
At points her historical analysis could benefit from a deeper grasp of theology. For instance, she largely bases a major claim of her eighth chapter on what I think is a misreading of August Gottlieb Spangenberg’s 1788 account of Moravian missions. She interprets his story of a black woman’s conversion (73–76 of his Account) to mean that he outright opposed literacy for blacks and concludes that “Moravians redefine[d] ‘true’ conversion to exclude reading the Bible” (166).
She’s right that Moravians reduced the importance of teaching literacy to nonwhite converts over the years in order to placate elite whites who feared literacy would lead to slave rebellion. But she doesn’t address how the important and nuanced differences of Moravian understandings of Scripture informed Spangenberg’s account, and she missed his actual point—not that converts shouldn’t learn to read the Bible, but that literacy shouldn’t be a prerequisite for baptism. Spangenberg was merely reiterating a common evangelical impulse that faith is chiefly of the heart, not just the head.
Gerbner’s conclusion indicates that Moravians departed from the standard Protestant position that true conversion requires reading the Bible, but this wasn’t standard at all (they knew, of course, that the illiterate could hear the Word and be converted). Again, this doesn’t negate her main point, but closer attention to the theology might’ve sharpened it.Taking Stock
Her conclusion is haunting, and evangelicals should ponder it carefully:
The irony is dark and yet unambiguous: the most self-sacrificing, faithful, and zealous missionaries in the Atlantic world formulated and theorized a powerful and lasting ideology for a brutal system of plantation labor. (198)
Evangelicals engage culture with the gospel. But as this history shows, an evangelical penchant to compromise with the culture in order to achieve greater ends—like conversions or cultural influence—can often undermine the mission and reap lasting and destructive consequences. The gospel that should reconcile all peoples was compromised and weaponized to enforce racial hierarchy.
And if we’re tempted to think cultural compromise was a problem of the past and not consider its warnings for the way we go about church, missions, race relations, and cultural engagement today, woe to us.
It sounds so heartening when you first hear it: “No creed but the Bible.” You’re a young Christian, you love the Bible, and you’re eager to be around people who share your passion for the Word. But as time goes on, you realize there are some problems with this seemingly innocent sentence. “No creed but the Bible” actually functions as a governing theological statement that norms all others. In a dazzling burst of irony, “No creed but the Bible” fails its own test, because it is a creed.
Then you study a little evangelical history. You realize as you read up on the 20th-century controversies between evangelicals and Protestant liberals that “No creed but the Bible” was used over and over to steer churches away from sound doctrine. When seminaries and colleges hired professors who taught liberal ideas, evangelicals in the Northern Baptist movement—for one example—tried valiantly to lash their movement to a confession of faith in the 1920s. The motion failed. Why? “No creed but the Bible” won the day.
Today the Northern Baptists are a shell of what they were; they’ve been gutted by theological liberalism. Their schools are in many cases out of business; members have departed in huge numbers over the decades. This isn’t a strange outcome for the “No creed” movement. This is the same song, thousandth stanza. Unsound doctrine kills.Misleading Mantra
There is no text like Scripture. The Word of God is theopneustos, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Its holy origin speaks to its holy character. As the reformers understood, Scripture alone—sola scriptura—has authority to norm the doctrine of God’s people. Old and New Testament together bear nothing less than divine weight, teaching us the ways and will of God. No other source, authority, or voice comes close to the authoritative power of the Bible, which alone reveals Christ the alpha and omega (Rev. 22:13).
From the earliest days of the early church, Christians have been a Scripture people. Yet as unsound teaching arose millennia ago, church leaders recognized the need to standardize gospel doctrine to separate false teachers from true teachers. Tertullian promoted the “rule of faith,” a summary of core Christian truth. The apostles’ creed and four ecumenical creeds continued this standardizing work, helping the church distinguish false Christology and counterfeit Trinitarianism from the biblical Christ and the biblical Trinity.
In the era of the Protestant Reformation, the recovery of scriptural soteriology and ecclesiology fueled the rise of confessional groups. The English and American Baptists, for example, produced no less than three hefty confessions to guide and protect their churches (London 1644 and 1689, Philadelphia 1742). The Reformed movement looked to the rock-ribbed Westminster Confession of Faith. Believers from past generations didn’t think these foundational documents normed the Word of God; they did believe these statements “confessed” the core teaching of the Scripture, and did so with particular reference to areas where the faith might suffer attack.
The strangest thing happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. With the rise of liberal theology, different groups moved away from doctrinal standards. “No creed but the Bible” gained popularity in this age, as noted. It sounded so good: The person using this phrase valued the Word so highly that the Bible alone functioned as their confession. Their theology was so pure, so untouched by human opinions, so unsullied by human interpretation, that it couldn’t be reduced to a few hundred words on a sheet of paper. But in truth their theology was far from pure. The same theologians and pastors who deployed this statement to shut down debate were in fact revising the traditional doctrine of the Word. The Bible that supposedly was their “creed” was errant. Biblical authors weren’t fully trustworthy. Once the doctrine of inerrancy is denied, other doctrines necessarily follow. So it was among the Protestant liberals, as Jeff Straub and Greg Wills have shown.Biblical Creeds Give Life
Liberal theology steers clear of “systematic” theology, seeing it as manmade. But in doing so, liberal theology steers clear of apostolic teaching. When Paul speaks of the “deposit” of gospel teaching, for example, he’s referencing a standard, a proper conception of the message of Christ (2 Tim. 1:13–14). When he speaks of “another Jesus” that unsound teachers preach, he’s referencing the need for a right understanding of Jesus—a normative understanding (2 Cor. 11:4). When Peter tells us that false prophets “promise freedom,” he is communicating the need to distinguish between the truth and a lie (2 Pet. 2:19). Confessions and creeds help the church heed these apostolic mandates (and many others we could mention).
“No creed but the Bible” doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation. The apostles not only allow believers to systematize their doctrine—they demand the church do so. This isn’t because they wish to squelch joy. It’s because they want believers to know the truth, believe the truth, love the truth, and be set free by the truth (in fulfillment of John 8:32). They don’t want precious souls drawn off by wolves. They want men and women to flourish in Christ, and to be presented spotless on the last day (Phil. 2:15). Doctrine doesn’t get in the way of this lofty end; doctrine is the gateway to it. Unsound doctrine kills; sound doctrine gives life.
‘No creed but the Bible’ doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation.
“No creed but the Bible” may be used by some good-hearted, God-loving people. But all too often, schools and churches that embrace this creed end up teaching unbiblical ideas: annihilationism, inclusivism, biblical errancy, the denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the acceptability of homosexuality and cross-gender identity, the denial of a wrath-bearing substitutionary atonement, and more. These same schools and churches seem to speak softly, but their classrooms and pulpits conceal thunder. They foment unbelief. They reverence doubt. However well-meaning, they turn the hearts of the people away from God and his righteousness.
But not only this: They carry a big stick. They fiercely police their boundaries. They expel sound voices. They say they love tolerance and debate, but often act intolerantly to shut it down. They do all this, in many cases, quietly. They network and speak with exceeding shrewdness in public before evangelical parents, assuring them of their fidelity to God’s Word. But behind the scenes, many are enacting revolution, starting fights over truths once cherished and plotting the victory of a new creed and an altered Christianity. But not only altered—for, as J. Gresham Machen prophetically said, this Christianity rapidly ends up no Christianity at all.Rise Up
Let’s do better than “no creed but the Bible.” Let’s not fall prey to the old traps. Let’s raise up churches full of believers who search the Spirit-inspired Scriptures with affections entranced by the majesty of God and the mercy of Christ. Let’s stop serving up soft targets to unsound teachers. If our churches and institutions have strayed into falsehood, let’s take them back.
Let’s not send our beloved sons and daughters to colleges, universities, and seminaries as lambs to the theological slaughter. Let’s send them, with love and prayers, to be instructed in the most holy faith so that they trust the Bible and esteem the creeds and confessions that witness to the Bible.
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Ps. 127:3)
Between deep breaths and tears, I mentally quoted this verse as I stared at the pink plus sign that had ominously appeared on the pregnancy test in my hand.
While Abraham and Sarah laughed in disbelief over the idea of having a child in their old age, I stood frozen in sheer panic, weeping. Our house was still covered in unpacked boxes from our cross-country move to plant a church in Maryland. With no family or friends around to support us, welcoming child number five wasn’t part of our church plant’s strategic-growth initiative. And yet, here we were, pregnant with a baby we hadn’t expected.
I’d prayed for plenty of potential Abrahams and Sarahs who would’ve loved the surprise of a late-in-life pregnancy, but I wasn’t one of them.
I knew what to expect from my past pregnancies: the extended months of “morning” sickness, bedrest stints, home health-care workers in and out while I homeschooled, premature labors, NICU stays, followed by postpartum depression. As thankful as we are for each of our children, pregnancy has never been a Hallmark moment in our family.
Pregnancy has never been a Hallmark moment in our family.
In theory, I knew my baby was a blessing and a life created by God. But honestly, facing this unplanned pregnancy terrified me.Pregnant with Emotions
I dreaded making the announcement. I thought of all the times in the past five years I’d answered the “Are you done having children?” question, confidently (foolishly) assuring people we were. Everyone knew how difficult my pregnancies had been and how crazy it would be to add a baby. It was no secret; this baby was a surprise.
From the moment that little line turned pink, I knew I’d spend the next nine months answering a slew of awkward personal questions about how we’d arrived in this predicament and laughing uncomfortably at inappropriate birth-control jokes. Yes, I know how babies are made.
Then there was the unhelpful consolation I frequently received when I did choose to open up:
- Maybe this will be your easiest pregnancy ever!
- Wouldn’t it be wonderful, after three boys, if God were surprising you with a girl?
- You’ve done this so many times before, this should be a cinch!
- I’m sure God knows you could handle more. You’re so patient.
Nice thoughts, but they likely wouldn’t be reality.
It was also tricky to work through my feelings of grief within the church. Many of my friends had dealt with infertility and miscarriage, and I feared my news and hesitant rejoicing would cause them further grief and pain. Admitting that my blessing felt more like a burden would seem ungrateful to God and insensitive to others.
In those first months of processing God’s plan, I was desperate for someone to both understand the burden on my shoulders and speak God’s truth directly to the fear in my heart.
If you are facing an unexpected pregnancy, stuck in grief or struggling to rejoice, here is some good news.He’s with You
In Luke 1:28, when the angel Gabriel appeared with an unexpected pregnancy announcement for the virgin Mary, he led with words of comfort: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
You don’t walk this road alone. Just as the Lord was with Mary, he will be with you. Take comfort in knowing God will not leave you or forsake you (Josh. 1:5).He’s Sovereign over Your Life Story
Proverbs 16:9 instructs, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” When God interrupts your plans and establishes the course of your family’s life in a way you didn’t anticipate, remember that while your plans were rearranged, his were not. Avoid the temptation to consider the “if only” thoughts, blame circumstances, or fantasize about what could have been. Trust that nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign plan: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa. 14:24).He’s Strong When You’re Weak
As a Christian you haven’t been promised an easy road. So recognize—and embrace—the moment when you’re at the end of yourself. The Lord promised Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” and Paul responded, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Let your weakness lead you to Jesus.Children Are a Gift and a Heritage
God gives life and breath (Acts 17:25), and in his wisdom he has given you this baby’s life. What joy to know he fills the womb with treasure and reward (Ps. 17:14; Ps. 127:3).
Don’t think only of poopy diapers, buckling car seats, and sleepless nights. The hard work ahead of you shouldn’t eclipse your eternal perspective or prevent you from rejoicing over the coming joy of teaching one more child about Jesus, seeing her first smile, hearing his first words, or delighting in all the laughter, hugs, and kisses to come.Christ Is Bigger Than Your Fickle Feelings
In this fallen world, where there’s pain in childbearing and the ground fights back against the work of our hands, child-rearing is painful. No wonder we grieve the laborious trials ahead. But we needn’t be ashamed of our feelings of trepidation. Christ is sympathetic to our struggles (Heb. 4:15) and uses our fickle feelings to lead us to his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).
Christ is sympathetic to our struggles and uses our fickle feelings to lead us to his throne of grace.
It’s been three years since the news of my coming baby rocked me. Without a doubt, baby number five is indeed God’s good plan for the Carlson family. (A blessing who is deep into the “terrible twos” and recently projectile-vomited on me.) Without hesitation, I’m grateful for his life. I never could’ve expected this curly haired, blue-eyed blessing would bring us such immense joy—and sanctification.
Behold, unexpected babies are a heritage from the Lord, too. Acknowledge your surprise, yes, but then press on toward faith-filled rejoicing.
In 2016, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy [read TGC’s review] was hailed for explaining the “Trump voter” to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times readers on the other side of America’s class chasm. Vance explained his family’s slide into dysfunction, aided in part by dried-up factory jobs. White-collar professionals far from Appalachia devoured the book and testified to their newfound empathy for the working class.
Now meet Hillbilly’s wonkish cousin who works for a think tank, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America by Oren Cass. Like Vance, Cass writes to one side of America on behalf of the other. He explains why a good job is hard to find for more and more of our countrymen, especially those who don’t aspire (or aren’t able) to work in knowledge industries. He pleads for new policies that will create a new kind of labor market.Problem with Our ‘Prosperity’
The Once and Future Worker follows a problem-solution script. To explain the problem, Cass tells the story of how two economic ideas converged to create a problematic “prosperity.” First, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) became the favorite indicator of economic health. GDP tells us how much the economy as a whole is producing, the size of our “economic pie.” As GDP grew in the 20th century’s postwar booms, the second trend took hold: the rise of the American consumer. Of course, every individual is both producer and consumer, but public policy focused more and more on encouraging consumption.
Cass names the child of these two ideas “economic piety”: grow the pie (GDP) and make sure everyone gets to eat their fair share (consumption). And it worked! We have the world’s biggest economy. Our standard of living is higher than any before in history, providing affordable comforts like flat-screen televisions and smartphones for all. Our social safety net makes sure everyone gets a slice of the pie. We’re the most prosperous society in history, so what’s the problem?
The problem is what’s missing. Economic piety ends up sounding something like this: So long as the economy as a whole is producing (GDP), we don’t care if each individual is able to produce. We only care if she is able to consume. But “consumption without production creates dependence and debt,” whereas production (work) is good for individuals and communities in ways that can’t be neatly tallied. A prosperity that doesn’t include the ability to work is no prosperity at all.
Economic piety ends up sounding something like this: as long as the economy as a whole is producing (GDP), we don’t care if each individual is able to produce.
A better prosperity would ensure that everyone is productive. It would provide ways for laborers and their families to live self-sufficiently and contribute to the common good. The thick part of the book, then, is a raft of policy proposals to encourage work and self-sufficiency. Cass explains how environmental policy, education, immigration, labor law, and entitlements all affect the labor market. For each area, he proposes changes or new policies to get blue-collar Americans working again.Echoes from Eden
The Once and Future Worker is written for a broad, politically informed audience. I see several reasons to hope that Christians will be part of the readership.
First, its underlying premise is consistent with biblical wisdom. Cass is noticeably silent on philosophical or religious claims to support his assertion that work in inherently good. He states it as a matter of fact, then cites a convincing array of research. In taking this route, The Once and Future Worker sits in the “common sense” tradition that has long dominated American public dialogue, where self-evident truth plus more evidence is the way to persuade.
But this approach still leaves nagging questions: Why is a person’s work worth more than their tiny, fractional addition to GDP? Why is consumption without production bad for people? Thoughtful Christians will know the answer, for Cass’s findings ring with echoes from Eden. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Work is part of how we image God.
Work is part of how we image God.
Something is lost if this is left unsaid. I couldn’t help but wonder that if a culture loses sight of the dignity of work (grounded in the dignity of each individual, which is grounded in the image of God), is it any wonder that they create a “prosperity” that leaves some people without dignity? I’m not suggesting that Cass should have made this point. I’m suggesting that Christians should make it; we have unique wisdom to offer, sourced in Scripture, that isn’t common sense but is essential to the common good.Public Policy Education
Even when we see the God-given dignity of work, we might not know how that dignity translates into policies and politics. This leads to the second reason The Once and Future Worker deserves reading: It’s a crash course in “how things work!” In sections on the environment, education, immigration, labor law, and the tax code, I left with a better understanding of how our current policies came to be and their effect.
Cass’s question is always, “How does this affect laborers?” How does our education system prepare—or not prepare—people to find sustainable work? How does immigration policy affect immigrants and existing workers?
Looking through this lens leads Cass to conclusions that challenge orthodoxy on both the left and right. His most audacious chapter proposes a wage subsidy, that government should sometimes “pay for jobs.” He argues this would be more effective than the anti-poverty programs loved by Democrats, but he also allows that it would intervene in the free market often celebrated by Republicans. (Although he is essentially conservative, much of Cass’s quibble is with libertarian-leaning Republicans. The most robust critique of his ideas has also come from that stream.)
How is wrestling with all this helpful to Christians? Perhaps it could introduce more subtlety into our political logic. For example, in a chapter on the environment and the economy, Cass shows how stricter air-quality standards have curtailed manufacturing, which means there’s a trade-off between cleaner air and jobs. Based on Genesis 1–2, I’ve long believed in creation care, and I’ve tended to support environment-friendly policy. But what about the value of a stable, well-paying job to a blue-collar worker? Isn’t this also an implication of Genesis 1–2? This I had not seen as clearly, and Cass’s analysis left me chastened.Cross-Cultural Education
This leads to the last reason The Once and Future Worker deserves reading. Cass knows why I’m inclined to see the value of clean air but miss the value of a blue-collar job. It’s because I’m not blue-collar. As an educated knowledge worker, America’s job market serves me just fine. In a recent interview, he noted:
What we’ve done is to build a society oriented entirely toward the needs and preferences of highly educated people. We’ve created the conditions for a labor market in which those people do really well. If you go back to that list of policy areas I mention in this book for altering labor market conditions to create more of the jobs we need, they were mostly areas where the people who are thriving would have to make concessions for the sake of others.
I’m guessing that many of my fellow TGC readers are among the educated, “doing okay” crowd. The Once and Future Worker was a cross-cultural education for me. As Christians, we more than anyone else, should want that.
You might have noticed a recent trend in commercials: robots. It was a noticeable theme among Super Bowl ads this year. From Intuit’s RoboChild to SimpliSafe’s robopocalypse, these ads are playing on growing fears about technology and the rise of artificial intelligence: fears about losing jobs, feeling unsafe, being outsmarted, or being beaten in sports (as in Michelob’s Super Bowl ad).
Fears about the technological future are nothing new, and they reveal more about us than what the future might hold. I believe many of these fears stem from a faulty understanding of human nature and what it means to be God’s image bearers in this broken world.What’s Your Value?
Recent commercials have depicted advanced robots with human-like intelligence and emotional capacity. Intuit’s robo-child wakes up her “dad” to tell him she is hungry and can’t sleep, while SimpliSafe posits a future where robots take our jobs and even sit next to us at little-league games. These admittedly extreme, sci-fi visions nevertheless capture reasonable worries about how artificial intelligence (AI) will revolutionize society. But as AI changes so much about our world, we must remember that some things that will never change, no matter how blurred the lines become between humans and robots.
Scripture tells us God created humans in his image, giving us a responsibility to be his representatives on earth (Gen 1:26–28). Nothing else in creation was made like us, and nothing will ever be able to take the unique image of God from us. While God made certain parts of creation stronger, quicker, and more agile than humanity, he didn’t make anything as valuable and significant.
Human uniqueness isn’t based on the fact that we have the highest reasoning or intellect, because what would that say about our brothers and sisters with mental and physical disabilities? Is someone less human because they don’t have the mental capacity of another? And what if AI eventually gains higher reasoning and intellectual capacity than humans? Would that make robots more human than humans? No.
Our efficient, technological age tempts us to place ultimate value on one’s ability to contribute to society. We already see this faulty mindset in things like abortion and euthanasia. But while it may be true for how we view robots and other technological tools—that their worth is tied to their usefulness—it is certainly not true for us. Human utility does not determine our value; our identity as divine image bearers does.
Human utility does not determine our value; our identity as divine image bearers does.Misunderstanding Our Role
Technology can be a wonder—an impressive display of humanity’s creative brilliance. But it can also be a horror, as creepy robot commercials, sci-fi movies, and shows like Black Mirror can attest. Technology can be used in ways that dignify people; but because we live in a fallen world, it can also demean and deceive. For instance, Amazon just scrapped an AI system that demonstrated bias against women in hiring recommendations. AI also allows for the creation of deepfakes, where someone can appear to say and do things they never did. And these are just two of many examples.
Because we are called to love our neighbors, Christians must engage the conversation about how technology is being used for good and for ill, specifically in the emerging area of AI. Christians have rightly focused on dangerous aspects of technology like online pornography and excessive screen time. But we often miss the more subtle ways technology is redefining what it means to be human—and how AI specifically is raising urgent theological, ethical, and anthropological questions.
Christians must engage the conversation about how technology is being used for good and for ill, specifically in the emerging area of AI.
Every Christian does not need to become an AI expert, but we do have an obligation to our neighbor and those in our churches to learn how technology is affecting (and will affect) the ones that we love. We should read books and articles (e.g., Byron Reese’s The Fourth Age; Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers; Henry Kissinger’s Atlantic piece, “How the Enlightenment Ends”) on these emerging technologies, and spend time reflecting on what is changing and what will never change.Humanity Redefined
To many in the AI field, we are nothing more than fancy “organic algorithms” or hyper-advanced computer systems, with our bodies as the hardware and our minds the software. Elon Musk worries about how we’ll be able to upgrade humans to keep up with machines. Ray Kurzweil dreams about uploading our minds to computers so we can live forever. As believers, we must engage these dangerous and nihilistic ideas of the future with the unchanging truth of the gospel.
Jobs are going to be lost, but likely not at the rate some have predicted. You will daily interact with AI at some point in your future job, if you don’t already (and it will probably make your day easier). You may even be woken up by a robot one day soon (though hopefully not by a creepy robo-child). But regardless of how advanced AI may become, God created humans uniquely to exercise dominion over the world, stewarding it as his irreplaceable representatives.
Christians need not fear technology; we just need to approach it wisely. We need to be engaged in the conversations and working in the industries where these technologies are being crafted. God designed us to create and harness technology in ways that honor him and dignify our neighbors. Now more than ever before, Christians must commit to that task.
Devastating recent news of abuse has shown that wickedness can seep into any movement, whether the most developed hierarchy or movements characterized by autonomy. There is no silver bullet. Polity alone is no protection against evil and sin. Too often those who have committed abuse move to new churches and ministries with little personal consequence.
While some church plants belong to denominations with clear accountability structures for churches, pastors, and other leaders, plants from free church or baptistic traditions that value local church autonomy must be thoughtful and intentional to have clear accountability structures in place from the earliest days.
Establishing systems of accountability will prepare churches to protect people, and to pursue justice should abuse occur.Clear Policies and Procedures
From the earliest days of planting a church, policies and procedures for accountability and church discipline ought to be expressed—with clarity and precision—in a church’s bylaws and policies. In my experience, existing churches are often open to sharing their policies with new church plants. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on these matters, especially for church plants with a direct relationship to a sending church.
These policies and procedures ought to include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Conduct criminal background checks on all staff and ministry leaders. This is essential for all volunteers who serve in children’s ministry—for anyone who participates in church nursery/child care on any level.
- Develop and enforce a child safety policy for adults serving in children’s ministry and nursery/child care. This is the type of policy that states two adults must be present with minors at all times, etc.
- Train children’s ministry volunteers to recognize signs of abuse, and give them clear channels for reporting abuse.
- Know your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. These are a baseline minimum for reporting. If you have any doubt at all, report to authorities, and tell the victim that you intend to do so.
- Require mandatory reporting on any child abuse. Have a clear policy on how to handle adult victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse as well. Be prepared to contact authorities and to help victims through the difficult process of reporting to police and considering whether to press charges.
- Have a clear policy on how the church will handle registered sex offenders.
- Never guarantee confidentiality. In our discipline policy it is explicit that appeals will be made to authorities when necessary (Rom. 13:1–7).
- Develop relationships with local counselors and therapists for the sake of referrals and a resource to get advice.
Even with the best policies and procedures in place, it is essential that accusations of abuse be addressed with seriousness and sobriety.Plurality of Elders
In autonomous churches, the importance of a plurality of elders and meaningful membership is heightened. A true plurality of elders is a necessary and biblical form of accountability at the highest level of church leadership.
From the beginning, a focus on cultivating a broader leadership culture of elders and deacons—and other ministry leaders, including both men and women—will help to foster greater openness and accountability throughout a church.
For church plants at early stages that do not yet have a plurality of elders or covenanted members, it’s helpful to have a direct relationship with a sending church that provides accountability and support for the planter. Even with an emphasis on autonomy, we see the importance of interconnectivity in the early church and in the work of church planting (Acts 13; 15).
With or without that connectivity, it’s crucial that a church plant know to whom appeals can be made if clear sin or abuse is exposed.Meaningful Membership
Every member of the church is a member of Christ’s body, so their sin and pain affects the rest of the body (1 Cor. 12:22–26). Even pastors are first and foremost members of the church, and therefore subject to the discipline and policies of the church.
A church plant must thoughtfully implement clear and documented standards for membership, what decisions members will have a voice in, how leaders will be held accountable, and what mechanisms (i.e., regular members’ meetings) will be used to report on church matters. Moreover, all child safety policies should be shared with the entire congregation, to communicate to parents and non-parents alike that this is something the church takes seriously.
There will be times when matters of unrepentant individual sin and church discipline must be brought to the whole membership of the church. But these times of sorrow and mourning together offer opportunities for corporate repentance and a reminder of the gospel. Clear pathways for discipline and reporting will also help protect the church from ongoing sin.Protect the Flock
The call to pastors and elders is clear: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The church was bought at a great price. Therefore, when any sin—especially the grievous sin of sexual abuse—is committed, we must take it seriously. God will hold leaders accountable for the souls entrusted to their care (Heb. 13:17).
The newness of a church plant is no excuse to leave God’s sheep unprotected from those who would do them harm. Church planter, pastoral ministry requires the courage to confront sin and protect God’s people. We must take this responsibility seriously, especially in the most severe cases. The glory of God’s name and the good of Christ’s bride are too important to do anything else.
I returned to the church at age 25, with a buried abortion story and a 2-year-old in tow. In my mind, God was like many of the men I’d encountered in my short years—power-hungry and eager to take what didn’t belong to him, while giving no thought to the mess left behind.
I confessed these thoughts to the small group I’d begun to attend, and the men and women around me responded with compassion and understanding. The Lord awakened my heart to faith through the preaching of the gospel at that church, and in this tear-filled moment and the many that followed, the healing process began.Unrelenting Headlines
Sexual assault and abuse have filled news headlines over the past few years. While the #MeToo movement gains traction with more and more women sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault, many of the 1 in 6 women who have been victims of an attempted or completed rape remain in hiding, in large part due to the grievous ways their accusations are received.
In recent weeks, abortion has taken center stage with the Reproductive Health Act passing in New York, the same month as the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. One in 4 women will have an abortion by age 45, and memories can haunt us as people debate the issue on their news feeds.
Women affected by these issues are sitting in your church. We limp into the pew having been assaulted by headlines and social-media commentary—words and pictures that trigger memories, shame, fear, and disgust. Despite the healing power of the gospel, the effects of our traumatic experiences linger. Our consciences accuse us day and night, and we are spiritually weary. We doubt our belovedness; we wonder if we really belong to Jesus; we wonder if the gospel is sufficient to heal our bleeding wounds.
I’ve been blessed over the years to sit under the loving care of wise and compassionate pastors and elders. I’ve witnessed great humility in these men as they’ve listened to my story and grown in wisdom and understanding in their pastoral care for women. It hasn’t always been perfect, and we have hurt and misunderstood each other.
But they did a few things that ministered to me and other women in our church.1. They Discerned the Power of Their Words
Trauma leaves marks on the brain and body, and words and phrases can trigger a physical response the listener is unprepared for. They activate the brain’s stress circuits, throwing a person into a state of panic, unable to hear the words that follow.
Consider the effect of the word whore on a woman who has received that word as abuse, or how the Bible’s stark description of sexual violence affects women who are victims of sexual assault. Consider the shame that post-abortive women can feel as abortion is lamented from the pulpit.
The Bible is filled with words that elicit responses from a congregation. My pastors didn’t water down the offense of the gospel, nor did they ignore the unsavory parts of passages. But as they learned more about the women in our congregation, they gave more thoughtful care to the ways their words would affect them.
One Sunday several years ago, an elder at my church spoke out against abortion. He told the truth about its evil and lamented the ways we are complicit. He called the church to pray. But then he spoke a tender word of compassion and hope to post-abortive women. He proclaimed the gospel, carefully applying it to the hearts of those who desperately needed to hear it in that moment. And, after the service, he reached out to ask how I was doing, inviting feedback about how he could grow in being a compassionate preacher.
In his book Preaching the Whole Counsel of God, Julius Kim calls men to be sympathetic preachers:
Reveal your care and kindness throughout the sermon. It may be obvious, but being a sympathetic preacher is important . . . . You are a shepherd first, preacher second. . . . Good preaching involves revealing compassion, warmth, tenderness, and understanding in both your words and your deeds. (159)
Pastors who have taken this counsel to heart won’t always be able to guard against trauma-induced responses. But as they discern the power of their words, they will build deepened trust with their congregation. In my case, the words of these men became one of the instruments the Lord used to continue my healing (Ps. 107:20).2. They Distinguished between Victims and Perpetrators
Everyone in the congregation needs to hear a call to repentance and receive the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. But abuse and assault victims often believe the lie that they were the ones at fault.
It’s powerful and necessary for these victims to hear a word from outside of themselves. Their victimhood doesn’t render them sinless, but, in addition to an assurance of pardon for their own sins, they need an assurance of justice for the sin committed against them (1 Thess. 4:6; Rom. 13:4).
A wise pastor understands the complexity of trauma and its victims. I’ve been privileged to be part of churches who have a pastor designated to focus on the counseling needs of the church. These men seek to grow in their understanding of the issues facing both men and women (through resources like this book and this one, for example).3. They Demonstrated Genuine Concern
As my church and I fumbled through these difficult issues, it went a long way that my pastors demonstrated genuine concern. They didn’t always understand my struggles, or see the ways their words affected me. Sometimes I was overly sensitive, and often I communicated poorly. But my pastors stood humbly with me before the cross.
Their care came from the pulpit, and it also extended from there. They saw the women in our church as sisters, and we were welcomed into their families. They communicated a desire to understand and care, even when they weren’t sure of the right words to use. They sought the counsel of wise women in our congregation to help them see blind spots and receive assistance in caring for women in need. They prayed for the women in our congregation and considered their needs as they crafted sermons.
The Great Shepherd has compassion for his people (Matt. 9:36), and he has appointed undershepherds to carry out that compassion. The Lord has used the careful words of his undershepherds to warm my heart to the gospel and bring about continued healing. In this day of unrelenting headlines and social-media commentary, the need is acute. But when these things are done well, women with trauma can feel loved by their pastors and, ultimately, by Christ himself.
“This is the air all of us breathe. This is the vision of selfhood present in the world around us, and if you buy into this vision of selfhood, here’s how you will hear the seventh commandment: God’s asking me to be inauthentic. God’s asking me to deny my true self.” — Bob Thune
Text: Exodus 20:14
Preached: March 4, 2018
Location: Coram Deo Church, Omaha, Nebraska