Early in the year 1633, a rural Anglican priest named George Herbert lay dying of tuberculosis in the village of Bemerton, England. He was not quite 40 years old. Herbert entrusted a friend with a handwritten manuscript of religious and devotional poems. He asked him to deliver the manuscript to their mutual friend Nicholas Ferrar. Ferrar could burn it if he wished. Or, if he thought the poems might help others, he could publish them. Herbert had never before published his English poetry; he wrote his poems for God and kept them to himself, though he seems to have envisioned the possibility of eventual publication.
Herbert died soon afterward, on March 1, 1633. Nicholas Ferrar received and read his poems. Deeply moved, he had them printed that same year, and the book met with instant success, selling edition after edition. That single volume of poems established George Herbert as one of the great metaphysical poets. It also inspired many imitators and even more admirers over subsequent centuries (Richard Baxter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Spurgeon, and C. S. Lewis, among countless others).Rich Source
Many still read and prize Herbert’s poetry. But his only published prose work, Country Parson: His Character and Rule of Holy Life, is much less known. It wasn’t published until 1652, at which point Herbert was already long-dead, and it was never the publishing success that Herbert’s poems had been. It has existed ever since in their shadow, often used primarily as a means of understanding Herbert’s life or his poetry.
But what if we were to read Country Parson for its original purpose: as a guide for doing rural ministry? I’m eager to read it that way, because I’m a small-town pastor, and I want to learn from other small-town pastors. The book itself consists of 37 short chapters dealing with various aspects of a country pastor’s life and ministry. In his opening note to the reader, Herbert reveals he wrote the book as a goal toward which he might strive in his own rural ministry. It’s personal.
There’s plenty to question or disagree with in Country Parson, including Herbert’s sweeping generalizations of “country people” (are all country people “led by sense more than by faith” and “by present rewards or punishments more than by future”?) and his extremely broad mandate for the role of the country parson (should the country parson really desire to be “all” to his parish, “not only a pastor, but a lawyer also, and also a physician”?). Nevertheless, there is much to learn. I’ll suggest just three reasons (there are many more) why I’ve been drawn to read, re-read, and return to this classic work.Engaging the Culture
First, I care deeply about developing a theological vision for small-town ministry. That requires thinking carefully about small-town culture, and the culture of my own town in particular. Herbert is nuanced on the importance of engaging with local culture. He notes that pastors who “dwell in their books” will never understand their people, but if they “carry their eyes ever open, and fix them on [their parish],” they’ll soon discover the idiosyncrasies and particularities of country people.
Throughout the book Herbert models engagement with culture, both local and national. Sometimes he critiques it. “The Country Parson hath not only taken a particular survey of the faults of his own parish, but a general also of the diseases of the time. . . .” At other times Herbert seeks to affirm and engage it. After all, eschewing all local culture will only discourage your congregation. The country parson should accept what is good in local customs, leaving behind what isn’t. “If there be any ill in the custom that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on.”
Herbert’s careful discernment of local culture, and his encouragement to engage thoughtfully with it, holds enormous value for all pastors, including rural ones.Loving the Common
Second, although Herbert was from a wealthy family, was educated at Cambridge University, and had moved in the highest circles before becoming a country pastor, he calls for faithful ministry to simple, humble people. He is motivated here by a strong theology of God’s presence and a deep commitment to the gospel. The country parson doesn’t disdain “to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell never so loathsomely; for both God is there also, and those for whom God died.” Herbert believes it is good for the country pastor to spend time with the poor both because he is able to be of more comfort to them than he would be to the rich—and because it’s more humbling for him.
This impulse toward highly valuing what is common and unimpressive runs throughout Country Parson. Herbert says that a country parson’s parish, composed of country folk rather than of urban movers and shakers, is to be “all his joy and thought”—not a thing to be transcended, but a people to be loved. This emphasis on the importance of being fully committed to one’s local congregation is especially valuable in our day of social media, big conferences, and celebrity pastors.Beautiful Truth
Third, George Herbert doesn’t just see truth; he communicates it pithily, beautifully, and memorably (he is, after all, a remarkable poet). He describes the country pastor praying “with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.” He instructs preachers to dip and season all their words and sentences in their hearts (what an image!), so that their hearers will “perceive that every word is heart-deep.” Sermons, he argues, are meant to both inform and enflame. The pastor is to pray for his people that God will sanctify them so that they may come to church with “holy hearts and awful minds.” Herbert notes that “disputation is no cure for atheism.” And, reflecting on God’s comprehensive knowledge of humans, he writes that God “sees hearts as we see faces.” As in his poems, so here in his manual on pastoral work, Herbert’s ability to express truth cogently and attractively lodges it deep in the hearts of his readers.
A great poet and humble pastor writes a guide for rural pastors. That’s a book I want to read and re-read. It’s a book worthy of being reclaimed by small-town and rural pastors (and many others) in our own day.
Shortly after becoming a Christian I moved to Texas to study under a well-known pastor. His Bible teaching has forever blessed me, but he wasn’t the only person God used to teach me about Jesus during that season.
In my first few months at the church I started ministering at a local nursing home. Preaching there was good training, because no one remembered my name, most slept through my messages, and I was asked to come back if I simply projected my voice loudly enough. Many of those saints encouraged me, but one showed me the beauty of Jesus in a way I’ve never forgotten.
Mama Ruth was small in stature, but her presence was larger than life. Though her 99-year-old body was confined to a wheelchair, she didn’t let that slow her down. One of her mottoes was “Fun greases the wheels of life, and I keep mine well greased!”
Mama Ruth was full of wit and wisdom. She had walked with Jesus for 92 years, and his radiance shined in her. She was comfortable with silence, but she also had no problem breaking it to share a nugget of heavenly wisdom. I’d like to share a few with you.Bloom Where God Plants You
My first encounter with Mama Ruth followed a worship service. Her wheelchair was parked by a window, and her eyes seemed mesmerized by something outside. As I knelt beside her, her wrinkled face turned toward mine; without any introduction, she said:
When I first came to this place I was very sad. I thought God couldn’t use me any more. But one day while I was sitting right here feeling sorry for myself, the Lord reminded me that we should not worry because if God feeds the birds, he will take care of us. So I thought to myself, Maybe I can help God feed the birds.
And that she did. After every mealtime, Mama Ruth wheeled around and collected leftover bread from the residents’ plates. When people asked what she was doing, she invited them to join her at the window to see. She would wheel over to the door and have someone throw the bread into the courtyard. She then parked her chair to see the birds receive their promised bread. As they did, she would tell anyone in earshot that this is exactly how God treats his children. He always cares for them, just like he promised he would.
Mama Ruth didn’t want to be in a wheelchair or in that nursing home. But it was where God put her, and she made the best of it. She taught me to “bloom wherever God plants you” and to know that since God provides our most basic needs, he will certainly provide a way to serve him.Treasure God’s Faithfulness
A framed copy of “How Great Thou Art” and a few faded photographs decorated the walls of Mama Ruth’s one-room apartment. The hymn was her favorite, and God’s faithfulness to her could be seen in the stories told by those photos.
The most prominent picture was of a handsome man she affectionately introduced as Fred. They had been married for decades, but his untimely death had left her a widow. I was unmarried at the time and often received counsel about what sort of husband I ought be.
“The Bible tells us that words can be like a sword that cuts deeply,” she once said after staring at Fred’s picture for a while. “Garrett, if God gives you a wife, be careful with your words. Words can hurt. Or words can heal.” Then after a long pause she said, “Fred never hurt me with his words.” She went on to explain: “Fred knew he was supposed to show me the love of Jesus, and he always tried his best. I knew Jesus better because of how Fred loved me.”
Mama Ruth beamed as she spoke of Fred, but she always made it clear that every good thing, including Fred, was a gift to her from God. His faithfulness was her treasure. You could hear it in her stories, in her feeble singing, in her praying. She made me want to trust God more so that I could know his faithfulness just like she did. After 20 years of walking with Jesus, I look back at Mama Ruth as one of God’s great gifts to me. She helped me treasure the faithfulness of Jesus.Remain Amazed at God’s Love
On one occasion my roommate Scott was sitting with Mama Ruth, watching the birds eat. They had been silent for a while when she suddenly said, “I couldn’t have done it.” He asked her, “Done what?” She replied, “I have one son. I couldn’t have given him away for anyone.” They watched the birds for a few more minutes, and then she retired to her room.
That was Mama Ruth. As she got closer to seeing her God, she couldn’t help but grow in amazement of how God could love her so much. She knew that God giving his Son for her was something she didn’t deserve, which made it her most treasured gift.
Mama Ruth showed me the beauty of Jesus so powerfully because Jesus was beautiful to her. After 90 years of knowing him, she never got over how much her Lord loved her. In fact, her delight in this truth seemed to deepen until the day she died.
Her funeral was small and mostly attended by family. She was not famous in this world, but I trust things will be different in the world to come. Mama Ruth showed me the beauty of Jesus, and I hope that in some small way this reflection can help you to glimpse it too.
You can read previous installments in this series.
According to a recent survey, about half of all Americans believe that evangelicals face discrimination. Some have even talked about them facing persecution. Others argue that Christians are merely mistaking their loss of privilege for persecution. We are clearly living in a post-Christian society where Christian faith is no longer automatically respected. But does a post-Christian world mean that Christians are subject to discrimination?
Having studied Christianophobia—or the unreasonable hatred and fear of Christians—I can answer that question. First, I’ll look to see if Christianophobia exists to any meaningful degree. Then, I’ll examine the nature of Christianophobia to assess if it does represent unreasonable hatred of Christians. Finally, I’ll explore evidence of anti-Christian discrimination in one place in our society: academia.Anti-Christian Attitudes
Are anti-Christian attitudes widespread, or are we talking about a couple of nutcases? In my book So Many Christians, So Few Lions, I document that about 32 percent of all Americans like conservative Christians significantly less than other social groups. In comparison, about 31 percent of all Americans like Muslims significantly less than other social groups. So it’s fair to say that if we’re concerned about anti-Muslim prejudice, then we should also be concerned about anti-Christian prejudice—at least prejudice against conservative Christians.
It’s also worth noting who tends to have this type of animosity. My research indicates that those with anti-Christian attitudes are more likely to be white, male, wealthy, highly educated, politically progressive, and irreligious. Those first four markers indicate individuals who have quite a bit of per-capita social power.Mild Disgust or Irrational Hatred?
On to the second question, about the nature of those who don’t like Christians. Do they merely feel mild disgust, or is it irrational hatred that can lead to discrimination? I sent a questionnaire with open-ended questions to a group of progressive activists who tended to be white, male, wealthy, educated, and irreligious. They were the type of people one would expect to exhibit Christianophobia. And they did. Here are just a few of the answers I received on my survey:
Kill them all, let their god sort them out.
A torturous death would be too good for them.
I’d be a bit giddy, certainly grateful, if everyone who saw himself or herself in that category were snatched permanently from our societal peripheries, whether by holocaust or rapture or plague.
I am only too well aware of their horrific attitudes and beliefs—and those are enough to make me see them as subhuman.
Clearly we are seeing the type of hatred that is unreasonable and can lead to discrimination. It is the type of dehumanization one expects to precede unfair treatment. But does it? Is it possible that values of tolerance and fairness among secular progressives inhibit their willingness to mistreat Christians?Discrimination in America Today
To examine that question I looked at academia, an area where one expects to find the type of highly educated progressive secularists likely to have anti-Christian animosity. I asked academics if they would be less willing to hire someone who is either a fundamentalist or an evangelical. I found that more than half would be less willing to hire a fundamentalist, and almost two in five would be less willing to hire an evangelical. The academics answering my survey explicitly stated they would discriminate against a job candidate who is a conservative Protestant. (You can read about this research in my book Compromising Scholarship.)
There is other research indicating that conservative Christians face discrimination in academia. Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter find that academics with socially conservative perspectives wind up with lower-status academic positions even when controlling for their productivity. Albert Gunn and George Zenner show evidence of religious discrimination against Christian medical students.
Some will argue that Christians still have advantages in America, such as political power. I don’t dispute that there are benefits to being a Christian in the United States. However, such advantages don’t negate the fact that among powerful individuals who tend to be politically progressive and irreligious, unfair treatment of Christians is possible, and perhaps even likely.
For example, my recent book looks at the media. My co-author and I find evidence that media are less sympathetic to stories where Christians face hate speech or violence than identical stores where other groups are victimized. Social institutions such as academia, media, entertainment, and the arts are likely to be places where anti-Christian prejudice and discrimination take place. Those institutions greatly shape our cultural values, and thus those with anti-Christian attitudes are in a position to create and sustain anti-Christian perspectives.
There is evidence that anti-Christian hate can lead to discrimination. Is it persecution? This is a complex question I recently struggled with. By a clinical definition of persecution, yes, Christians are persecuted in the United States. But I still discourage Christians in the United States from saying they are persecuted, since what we face today isn’t what most people envision when they think of persecution.
However, as Christians we should be aware that anti-Christian discrimination is real. Further, those likely to engage in such discrimination have an ability to shape larger societal values. Thus, anti-Christian discrimination isn’t going away any time soon.
How should we deal with this reality?How to Live in a Post-Christian World
We must work together to protect each other from discrimination. We no longer live in a society generally supportive of Christians. We’re going to have to support each other. An important way to do that is to develop our Christian communities. For example, support of Christian-owned businesses may be vital to help minimize the economic costs of anti-Christian discrimination. Working together to socialize our children is vital for allowing us to pass down our faith in a post-Christian culture. We can’t count on support from the larger society.
But we can’t neglect working to influence the larger society. While those with anti-Christian perspectives have more power in cultural creation, we can still make our presence known. Our Christian colleges, media, and arts are going to be important, but we must also encourage talented Christians to work in mainstream academia, secular media, and the larger art community. We won’t immediately alter the anti-Christian attitudes in these institutions, but we can lessen some of the negative effects these institutions can have. Research on intergroup contact shows that it’s harder to hold onto negative stereotypes when we know members of the out-group.
Of course, Christians must also engage in politics. But we should consider how to use politics to defend ourselves rather than to assert power. When Christians look like they want power for its own sake, we only feed into the negative images some have of us. Don’t get me wrong: some who hate us won’t change their mind no matter what we do. But many individuals neither love nor hate us. They can be persuaded to reject measures that engage in religious discrimination if we’re seen as fighting for our freedoms and not to “take over” the country. A smart brand of politics, rather than a scorched-earth culture-war attack, is needed in a post-Christian world.
“Mom and Dad, can we talk?”
With this seemingly ordinary request, your 14-year-old son goes on to reveal that he identifies as a girl. He tells you he’s been quietly uncomfortable in his male body for years. Recently, he’s connected with transgender teens at school and online, and the similarity of their feelings and experiences has confirmed to him that he is transgender. He asks you to start referring to him as your daughter.
Perhaps you’re a parent of a teen or preteen who has told you something similar. Or you know someone going through this experience. According to a 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are approximately 500,000 trans children in the United States, or 0.7 percent of the population.
If they haven’t already, many Christians will face the resulting jumble of questions: Will I harm my child if I don’t embrace their trans identity? What should I say in response to their confusion? How can I help my child?
While Christian parents can’t affirm their child’s misplaced desires, they have a God-given responsibility to lovingly help their child through a real struggle with gender identity. Rather than being bewildered into ineffectiveness, parents can proactively care for their child in at least three basic ways.1. Acknowledge the Struggle; Speak the Truth
It’s true that transgender youth have higher rates of depression and other mental illnesses than others in their peer group. Whether or not this is a direct consequence of discrimination and victimization isn’t easy to discern. But the fact remains that trans students are more at risk for depression, self-harming behaviors, and suicidal ideation than their non-trans peers are.
Don’t let the possibility that gender-questioning, gender-dysphoric, or trans children will respond unfavorably to your words prevent you from speaking with them. Instead, acknowledge the particularly tender and broken hearts and spirits of children and teens who struggle with their gender identity. Approach them from a posture of steadfast love. Don’t refuse to speak, but be tender.
Loving your child doesn’t mean affirming everything they think or do. Parents in particular have the uniquely difficult calling of teaching their kids to reason through life from the perspective of God’s Word (Deut. 6:5–9). His Word is our most helpful resource. It’s living and active, with the ability to speak powerfully to the hearts of our children (Heb. 4:12). And what God says about gender and identity is what’s best for our teens. The law of God is the law of a compassionate King who created and sustains us and who, therefore, knows exactly what is best for us.
As we approach God’s Word with our children, we can use it to help them discern truth from falsehood, reality from feeling, true identity from counterfeit. For the parent of a child who struggles with gender, it means affirming your love and commitment for your child, while giving them tools to navigate a confusing series of feelings and messages coming from both without and within.
Approaching this information from a biblical perspective, parents and caregivers of gender-questioning, gender-dysphoric, or trans children will want to prayerfully speak the truth in love to the young ones under their care. God deals tenderly and compassionately with his children, remembering our fragile nature (Ps. 103:13–14; Isa. 42:3). He calls us to reason with one another gently and bear with one another in love, realizing we ourselves are recipients of his grace (Eph. 4:1–2).2. Discover the Struggle behind the Struggle
As you talk with your child, seek to understand why they feel the way they do. Ask questions that will help you understand some of those feelings and beliefs, such as: When did you first begin to feel uncomfortable with your gender? How did you come to understand that gender was the issue? How has this struggle led you to feel about yourself? What are some ways you feel that I’ve made this struggle more difficult for you?
Leading with this kind of empathetic, compassionate information-gathering will help you understand some of the struggle behind your child’s struggle with gender. And it will communicate to your child that though you may not approve of their gender self-identity, you unquestionably and faithfully love them and are willing to be present with them no matter what their particular struggle looks like.
If you’re a parent or a caregiver who can’t affirm your child’s gender self-identity, communicate to your child that you want this to be an ongoing conversation. Get to know the deep places of your child’s heart through the context of hard but authentic conversations that come from seeking the Lord’s wisdom together, from his Word, and through prayer.3. Talk About Self Harm
One thing to keep in mind as you have these conversations is that your child may experience thoughts about self-harm. About three-times as many trans youth contemplate self-harm as the general youth population does. You can be prepared to address these thoughts, if they arise.
As a parent or caregiver, include questions about self-harm and suicide in your conversations with your child. Ask if your child has ever thought about harming themselves, or committing suicide. Tell them it’s not unusual to think about such things. Don’t be afraid to hear that they’ve had such thoughts.
If your child does say that they’ve contemplated self-harm, ask how often they’ve thought about it, and whether or not they know how they’d carry out a plan for self-harm. Particularly if your child says they know how they’d act to carry out those thoughts, assure them there are better ways to cope than hurting themselves. At this point, don’t panic—but do contact a qualified mental-health professional as well as a Christian counselor as soon as possible to get your child into treatment. Until this happens, minimize the amount of time your child is alone. With help, your child’s suicidal thoughts can be brought under control, and depression can be healed—or at least, controlled.
And if you ever feel your child has the means, and is in imminent danger of acting on their suicidal or other self-harming behaviors, you should drive them to the nearest hospital or call 911 immediately.
Parents and caregivers can show their children the merciful love of God through their own steadfast love and mercy. Together, we can walk our children to the throne of grace, where God delights in lavishing grace in our time of need.
Being a youth pastor at one church for the entirety of my ministry career is one of the greatest blessings of my life.
My first students are now in their late-30s. I’ve baptized them, married them, and seen them raise their own kids. My own kids (whom they babysat back in the day) now babysit their kids. Some serve as volunteer leaders in the ministry.
I feel like the Lord has answered the psalmist’s prayer in my life: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation” (Ps. 71:18). I’m just a few years away from being able to minister to the children of my former students. I never would have anticipated it, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I appear to be one of the exceptions.Not My Plan
Youth-pastor turnover remains very real. The revolving door continues to spin at the churches all around me. People find out I’ve been a youth pastor at one place for this long and it’s like they’ve seen a UFO. But I never set out to stay at one place for this long. In fact, I never set out to be a youth pastor.
I fell in love with youth ministry accidentally. I needed a job out of seminary, and this random church up the road needed a youth pastor. Fine, I’ll do this for a year till something else comes along, I thought.
That was 21 years ago.
I can’t take credit for staying here as long as I have. In fact, I’ve tried to leave a couple times, but the doors I thought were opening elsewhere got slammed shut. Nevertheless, a number of key factors have contributed to my “unintended” longevity.Retention Secrets
Four important factors have kept me around. If you’re reading this as a leader in your church, whether paid or volunteer, take these to heart. If you can help your youth minister in these areas, there’s a much better chance he’ll be around for more than a little while. These are four things my church did right.1. My church validated me for choosing a career, not a stepping-stone.
My friend Jon Coombs wrote a terrific article that inspired this one. His message: Youth ministry is more than a stepping-stone; it’s a viable lifelong ministry. In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
They may or may not, but it’s an actual vocation, not simply a training ground for becoming a “real pastor.”2. My church helped me fight burnout.
In my experience, the number-one reason youth pastors don’t last long is that their pace is unsustainable. Most new hires are young, full of energy, and, Red Bull in hand, ready to conquer the world.
You want me to teach middle school on Sunday mornings, high school on Sunday nights; lead midweek Bible studies; visit students after school at their extracurricular activities; attend staff meetings; recruit leaders; plan the middle- and high-school lock-in, the middle- and high-school retreats, the middle-school summer camp, the high-school mission trip; and also be in a small group for myself? You’ve got it!
No wonder they only last 18 months. Youth ministry needs to be seen as a marathon, not a sprint—but churches like to hire sprinters. They look great in miles one and two. Yet running that hard out of the blocks, they’re never going to make it to mile four, much less mile 26.
Ideally, younger youth pastors will have a Jethro-type person in their lives (Ex. 18:17–23)—someone who can help them delegate, help them learn to say no to things that will burn them out, and who will have their back, no matter what. A youth pastor must be challenged to raise up leaders who can share the burden of ministry, rather than doing it all himself. Burnout is real and must be addressed head-on.3. My church paid me enough.
I know former youth pastors who would’ve loved to stay in youth ministry, but as their family grew, they simply couldn’t afford it. A simple rule of thumb is to investigate how much a local schoolteacher is paid—and do all in your power to match that salary as quickly as possible. Then do all you can to help your youth pastor buy (rather than rent) a house, which will help him settle into the community.
There was a crossroads about four years into my ministry where it was time to either put down roots or move on. A group of families raised money on the church’s behalf to help us with a down payment on a home. We still live in that house 17 years later. That was an incredible show of support for us, and the roots that went in the ground have only deepened over time.4. My church found opportunities for me to use my gifts outside of youth ministry.
Some youth pastors are content investing all their time in youth ministry. Others, especially as they get older, begin to look around and wonder, Are there other aspects of church ministry where my gifts and experience could be used? This isn’t always an option, but where it’s possible, give your youth ministers every chance to exercise and develop their gifts.His Plans Are Better
I wish I could say I had this life planned for myself. Far from it. But it’s a good life.
Churches, do everything in your power to make this possible for your youth ministers. You won’t regret it.
Of all the apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the type that is probably least persuasive to skeptics (though most philosophically compelling for believers) is ontological arguments, a category of philosophical arguments that rely on the nature of being.
Although such arguments may be of limited value in convincing atheists, they may be of more value in literary criticism and interpretation. The reason they can be useful is because they establish that the God of the Bible exists within the structure of every narrative and story that has ever been told.
Depending on your perspective this may be an absurd claim or a banal truth.* But before you dismiss it as either, let’s consider what that means and how it can illuminate literature.Why God Must Exist in All (Possible) Worlds
(Note: Ontological arguments are a bit complicated and aren’t always easy to follow. If you get bogged down trying to make sense of this section, try skipping ahead to the end of the article and then coming back to this part later.)
The acclaimed philosopher Alvin Plantinga formulated an ontological argument that relies on modal logic and the concept known as possible worlds. As Wikipedia explains:
Those who use the concept of possible worlds consider the actual world to be one of the many possible worlds. For each distinct way the world could have been, there is said to be a distinct possible world; the actual world is the one we in fact live in. The modal status of a proposition is understood in terms of the worlds in which it is true; thus:
• True propositions are those which are true in the actual world (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969.”)
• Possible propositions are those which are true in at least one possible world (for example: “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969.”)
• Contingent propositions are those which are true in some possible worlds and false in others (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969,” which is contingently true, and “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969”, which is contingently false.)
• Necessary propositions are those which are true in all possible worlds (for example: “all bachelors are unmarried.”)
• Impossible propositions (or necessarily false propositions) are those which are true in no possible worlds (for example: “Melissa and Toby are taller than each other at the same time.”)
The main concepts to pay attention to in this list are “necessary” and “impossible.” These are propositions that either must be true or must be false in any and all possible worlds
Plantinga uses the concept of possible worlds in his case for the existence of a “maximally great being” (i.e., a being who has such qualities as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection). A maximally great being would also be a necessary being (i.e., it must be true that the being exists). One version of his argument is as follows:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Note the key premise (“It is possible that a maximally great being exists”) is a metaphysical claim (i.e., relating to the fundamental nature of being) rather than an epistemic claim (i.e., relating to what can be known). Ontological arguments often try to use the establishment of the metaphysical claim (i.e., that God’s existence is an ontological necessity) to convince people of an epistemic claim (i.e., we should believe that God exists). But I want to use it in a slightly different way that is directed toward Christian theists.‘God in All Stories’ Theorem
Christians do not need to be convinced that God exists. We know that he exists and that he exists in this world, the actual world, the world he created. What the ontological argument helps us to establish is that God must also exist in any world in which we can imagine. The argument could be outlined as:
- By definition, only one maximally great being can exist.
- God is a maximally great being that exists in the actual world.
- If a maximally great being exists in some actual world, then that same being must exist in all possible worlds.
- Stories and narratives, whether fictional or true, are set in either the actual world or some possible world.
- Since God exists in both the actual world and all possible worlds, he necessarily exists in the world of every story or narrative (even if he is not directly acknowledged in the literary structure).
This means that, whatever the authorial intent, there can be no stories in which a writer or artist creates an imaginary world in which God—the real God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—does not already exist. By the rules of logic—which even nonsensical worlds must follow to some degree—the story cannot exclude necessary truths or necessary beings, such as the God revealed in the Bible.
Whether this “God in All Stories Theorem” has any substantial importance for literary criticism is something I’ll leave to qualified scholars of literature to ascertain. But I think there is at least one way it may prove useful to lay critics and ordinary readers of imaginary fiction.
As a reader of fantasy and sci-fi novels I tend to be drawn in by works that express a high degree of verisimilitude, or likeness to the truth. A story can have unusual or fantastical elements—such as talking animals—if it makes sense within the possible world. That is why stories that attempt to be atheistic, such as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, don’t resonate with me. The creators of such stories are trying to camouflage the existence of the Ultimate Creator within their sub-creations.
In contrast, stories such as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series**, seem more true because they are clearly set within a possible world that acknowledges the existence of the undeniable fact that we all know the one true God (Rom. 1:19-20). Even imaginary worlds populated with talking horses, wandering hobbits, and flying dragons feel more real because they are imbued with a tacit recognition that they are in a universe made by our God.
In this way these stories set in alternative “possible worlds” are similar to the American South as portrayed in Flannery O’Connor realistic fiction. As O’Connor once said,
[F]rom the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
The ontological argument may not help you win over an atheist. But it can help us understand why stories are, as O’Connor might say, all most certainly Christ-haunted.
*On reflection, this idea seems obvious, which leads me to assume I wasn’t the first to think of it or develop it as a concept. If you know of someone else who has previously made this type of claim or argument, please let me know.
** Throughout the series most of the characters appear to be polytheists or henotheists. But in the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, it becomes clear that the characters merely have a heretical view of Trinitarian monotheism:
“There is no cobbler above [referring to the Cobbler God],” Podrick protested.
“There is, lad . . . though you may call him by another name. Tell me, which of the seven gods do you love best?”
“The Warrior,” said Podrick without a moment’s hesitation.
Brienne cleared her throat. “At Evenfall my father’s septon [i.e., priest] always said there was but one god.”
“One God with seven aspects. That’s so, my lady, and you are right to point it out, but the mystery of the Seven Who Are One is not easy for simple folk to grasp, and I am nothing if not simple, so I speak of seven gods.” (p. 369-370)
When is the last time you heard an appeal in your church to serve a particular group of people? Maybe this summer you’ve heard appeals to serve at children’s VBS. Or in the winter to serve the homeless. Or in the fall to consider becoming a youth teacher or small-group leader.
How many of us have heard these appeals to serve somewhere in the church and have thought to ourselves, Oh, I’m not gifted in that area or I’m not called to those people.
We have to be really careful about this kind of thinking.
While there are certainly legitimate reasons to say no to a request to serve a certain group, using “calling” as an excuse can be dangerous. We are essentially putting our perceived “calling” identity above God’s call for us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30–31).How We Misunderstand Calling
For many Christians today, “calling” has become a hallowed thing that goes beyond a particular job or profession; it’s now a way to talk about destiny and ultimate meaning. As a result, anything that doesn’t fit squarely within this framework is viewed as a hindrance.
But in the Bible, God’s calling often works through detours and sudden left turns. God called many people in ways that probably felt like their destinies were being uprooted.
In the Bible, God’s calling often works through detours and sudden left turns.
Abraham was happily living with his family when God called him to pack up and leave (Gen. 12:1–4). Moses had run from Egypt and was comfortable as a shepherd, with a wife and two children. Then he happened upon a burning bush at the ripe old age of 80 (Ex. 3:1–6). David was a shepherd boy until the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king (1 Sam. 16:11–13). Mary was an engaged woman who became pregnant with the Son of God (Matt. 1:18–19). Paul persecuted Christians before God turned his life around and he became persecuted for Christ (Acts 9:1–16).
In each case, God called someone away from the path they felt they were on. Imagine if they’d said, “No, that’s not part of my calling”—instead of holding their perceived destiny loosely?God’s Glory, Not Ours
The Lord has a habit of taking people where they never expected they’d go—and not for their glory, but for his. Consider Hebrews 10:24–25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The author of Hebrews helps us rightly understand biblical community. The church does not exist to help us reach our destiny. We don’t meet together to gain key skills to add to our work résumés. We meet together to encourage and serve.
We are not called to use people in our church for our glory, but to serve them for God’s glory. Rather than using the idea of “calling” and “gifts” to make excuses for why we can’t serve a subset of church members, we should be exhorting one another to take risks in loving and serving others even when it stretches us outside of our comfort zone.
We are not called to use people in our church for our glory, but to serve them for God’s glory.
Admittedly, this is sometimes easier in smaller churches and church plants, where members need to wear multiple hats and fill in the gaps where needs abound. For example, someone on the worship team may also need to help with children’s ministry or small groups. It’s all hands on deck. On the contrary, larger churches and resource-rich ministries typically offer more choices and variety in service opportunities, and often encourage people to serve where they are most passionate. In these contexts, the temptation to find one’s “sweet spot” in serving is more prevalent.Value of Serving in Weakness
The late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International, spent the latter part of his life dedicated to providing love and community to disabled people forgotten by society. He said this about community:
Community is the place where we discover our own fragilities, wounds, and inability to love, where our limitations, our fears, and our egoism are revealed to us. We cannot get away from the negative in ourselves. We have to face it. So community life brings a painful revelation of our limitations, weaknesses, and darkness, and the unexpected discovery of the monsters within us.
This is what’s both beautiful and difficult about community. It reveals our own limitations and weaknesses. But rather than avoiding this by using “calling” as a cover, perhaps we should recognize that serving in uncomfortable areas is our calling. It’s how we grow as Christlike servants. Serving out of your comfort zone will expose weaknesses in ways that will cause you to come before the Lord in desperate need of help. This is what God wants for us: not to be affirmed in our strength, but to depend on his. His strength is gloriously seen in our weakness. When we’re able to serve and minister effectively, we’re reminded it wasn’t by our strength, but by God’s, and for his glory.
Serving out of your comfort zone will expose weaknesses in ways that will cause you to come before the Lord in desperate need of help.Greater Calling
I learned this lesson recently while filling in to lead the elementary program at our church for a few nights. I’d always avoided working with young children because I never felt “called” to this particular group. But I had no choice this time. I felt way over my head the entire 90-minute program. Questions, doubts, and prayers raced through my mind each night: How do I lead the children in song without any instruments? They’re used to singing with hand motions, but I don’t know any; should I just make something up? Why can’t I seem to do anything but jazz hands? Oh Lord, please give me the patience to help this child, who can’t seem to release himself from my legs, to memorize the Bible passage. I have to teach the Ten Commandments; how do I explain what adultery means?
But even with these mini moments of panic, I appreciated every moment of working with these children. I needed an extra measure of joy, patience, understanding, and compassion, but the Holy Spirit never failed to deliver exactly what I needed. In my weakness, I saw the Lord’s strength.
The next time you’re asked to help in a ministry that seems outside your skillset, or to serve a group of people you’re not comfortable with, don’t brush it off because you’re not “gifted” or “called” to it. Think of it as an opportunity to step out in faith and draw closer to the Lord in your weakness. Don’t see it as a detour from your calling; see it as an invitation to be used by God however he sees fit—a calling far greater than what we can dream up.
“If you wanted to take America back for God, how would you do that? Generally, we think in terms of acquiring greater social and cultural power and influence; that’s the way we will ultimately bring this country into line. We’ve got to throw that away. We need to recognize that we have a gospel that doesn’t require us having a position and a status for it to be powerful. . . . Let’s take America back for God—as in the sense of let’s preach the gospel, and let’s see lives change.” — Elliot Clark
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land
- Want Gospel Opportunities? Embrace Opposition
- Christians Need Gospel Audacity
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
This study supplies an initial framework for a biblical theology of hermeneutics. My thesis is twofold.
First, I will argue that the Old Testament (OT) is Christian Scripture, that God originally gave it to instruct Christians, and that the OT authors had a sense that at least some of their words would be more meaningful for those living this side of the cross than for those living before it, whether believer or non-believer. As such, the OT message is in many ways more clear and relevant for Christians today than it ever was for those before Christ.
Second, I will argue that faith in Christ alone supplies the necessary light for seeing and savoring God’s revelation in the OT and that Jesus’s appearing in salvation history supplies the necessary lens for more fully understanding and appropriating the divine author’s intended meaning in the OT.1. NT Reflections on the Audience of OT Instruction
Paul believed that God gave the OT for new covenant believers. Referring to the statement in Genesis 15:6 that Abram’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness,” Paul asserted that “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom. 4:23–24). Similarly, just after identifying Christ as the referent in Psalm 69, the apostle emphasized, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Further, upon recalling Israel’s history in the wilderness, Paul said, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). In each of these three texts, Paul used third-singular verbs to stress that the OT author wrote his text intentionally for the benefit of believers living this side of the cross. The apostle’s use of the passive does not clarify whether this was only God’s intent as the ultimate author, or whether this was also the OT human authors’ intention. What is clear, however, is that for Paul, the OT was Christian Scripture and fully applicable to believers when read in light of Christ.
How do Christians thrive spiritually in a visually driven media culture? The irony of this question isn’t lost on me. As you begin reading this review, your attention is being sought after as you interact with the screen. Other outlets are competing to draw you in. You might be receiving dings, alerts, and notifications. And like it or not, you and I are shaped by the diet of our attention. We become whatever spectacle we love most, argues Tony Reinke—communications director for Desiring God—in his new book, Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.
Competing Spectacles reads more like a concise instruction manual than a full-length book, with each of its 33 chapters rarely surpassing more than five pages. Divided into two parts, the first defines the concept of a “spectacle” as well as the various distractions they pose to Christians. Part two casts Christ as the true spectacle all humanity longs for, concluding with a number of points of application.Understanding Spectacles
A spectacle is any kind of projection that grabs human attention. And while spectacles exist outside the virtual world, Reinke largely focuses his treatment on digital media. Perhaps more than any other time in history, images invite us into alternate forms of reality that, as Reinke puts it, make the real world optional. So, it’s not the technology itself that distracts, but the spectacles they portray.
It’s not the technology itself that distracts, but the spectacles they portray.
Several sections of Competing Spectacles cover various forms of media—television, gaming, social media—and the ways they shape how we view ourselves and the world around us. Their effects are readily apparent on a daily basis. Our political views filter through whichever news outlet we choose to consume. Our posture toward our bodies and sex are shaded by the lascivious programming we either consume or avoid. None of these spectacles is neutral. Each bears the potential to lead us down dangerous or edifying paths.
The strength of Reinke’s argument comes from his anthropological grounding. Our spectacle seeking, he contends, exists because we’re made in God’s image. We’re hardwired to long for glory. But all created spectacles fall short of the glory we seek. The only solution to this shortcoming is to make the cross of Christ our greatest spectacle. Through it we’re invited into the glory found in belonging to God.Properly Embracing Earthly Spectacles
While the legalistic impulse would be to condemn earthly spectacles outright, Reinke doesn’t do so. In fact, he warns against it. Instead, he helpfully invites Christians to recognize the difference between earthly and heavenly spectacles. Whether they come in the form of video games, sporting events, or the latest superhero blockbuster, they invite us to participate in the glory they promise. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we see them for what they are.
Every year the NCAA caps off its annual basketball season with the “One Shining Moment” montage. For three minutes, viewers are treated to the best moments from that year’s March Madness tournament, culminating in the celebration of its champion. As a fan of the sport, it’s nearly impossible for me to keep from being drawn in, feeling the height of a season of hard work ending in victory. But eventually it fades because it’s only a taste of the ultimate glory we were created to enjoy in Christ. Still, that taste is real and shouldn’t be shunned.
Earthly spectacles offer us a glimpse of the true glory we find in our Creator.
As Reinke writes, “Biblical ethics is not about simply avoiding corrupting things, but learning to see and enjoy and embrace eternal things that truly bring meaning and purpose and joy into our lives.” Asceticism isn’t a reasonable solution, because earthly spectacles offer us a glimpse of the true glory we find in our Creator. If we look closely, we can see his reflection, all the while rejecting what is worthless.
In today’s society, not only are we inundated with screens and images that plead for our attention, we’re also beckoned to embrace pleasure at all costs. In a world broken by sin, pleasure can be a misleading, even dangerous guide. Competing Spectacles is a helpful primer for thinking through how to face a spectacle-obsessed world. It avoids sweeping condemnations of technology in favor of wiser conclusions. We were created to see Christ. He is the spectacle we seek within this earthly theater, and he has made a way for us to thrive, even in a world of competing distractions, when we see them for what they are—shadows of what is to come.
The title of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, immediately frames the movie as a fairy tale. One should not go into the film expecting a historically accurate depiction of Los Angeles in 1969, the Manson Family, and the infamous Tate murders—even though there are aspects of these things Tarantino takes great pains to depict accurately.
No, this is a fairy tale, and it’s set in a mystical dreamland—Hollywood, 1969. It’s a movie that idealizes both the glamorous (parties in the Hollywood Hills) and the mundane (making macaroni and cheese in a Van Nuys mobile home), saturating everything in vivid color and widescreen relief. It’s a movie that pays homage to cinema itself: its history, genres, personalities, and—above all—its ability to do god-like things such as transcend place and time, intervene in acts of injustice, and provide glimpses of a one-day world where everything sad will come untrue (see Rev. 21:1–8). Fittingly, it’s also a film that has one doozy of a Hollywood ending.
Indeed, its much-talked-about “what if?” ending (more on that later) reminds us that movies are an inherently eschatological medium. In their ability to traverse time—to “sculpt in time,” as Andrei Tarkovosky would say—and to “defeat death” by controlling their circumstances, movies present viewers with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them. The dark caverns of movie theaters provide refuges of suspended time—“thin places” that evoke joy because they remind us of longing.
And Tarantino’s film is nothing if not joyful. But in celebrating cinema’s “eternity-glimpsing” power, Once Upon a Time ultimately only stokes the fires of our desire for a better ending. The satisfaction of its ending is powerful, but provisional. We leave the theater pleased with the catharsis we’ve just witnessed—but then we remember it is fiction. Still, insofar as it inflames our longing for injustice to be addressed and death to be reversed, it’s a refreshing meaningful film.How Movies Battle Death
A beautiful scene in Once Upon a Time shows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in an L.A. movie theater, watching herself on screen in a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968). But Tarantino does something important in this scene, because the Tate we see on the screen-within-the-screen is the actual Tate. As Tarantino cuts between the real Tate and Margot Robbie’s Tate, we are reminded of the artifice of movies—something the filmmaker is always reminding us in his over-the-top features.
In their ability to traverse time and to ‘defeat death,’ movies present us with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them.
But we are also reminded of cinema’s haunting power to arrest death. Because even though we know that Tate is gone—that her death came tragically soon after she released The Wrecking Crew—she is still there on screen. Flickering pixels of flesh and blood. Forever preserved as a vital, bubbly, beautiful 25-year-old. When we watch any old film and see a long-dead star in the prime of their life, it’s a momentary defeat of death—a reminder that even though “our bodies are buried in brokenness,” Christians believe “they will be raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43).
This scene is a beautiful foreshadow of the film’s even-more-death-defeating ending. So here goes. Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film.Expecting the Worst
Once Upon a Time had been billed as Tarantino’s movie about the harrowing Manson-family murders of pregnant Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and three others on August 9, 1969. It was a (straight-out-of-a-horror-film) home-invasion nightmare that shocked the world and abruptly ended the groovy idealism of the hippie 1960s.
Knowing this is what the movie is about, and knowing Tarantino’s penchant for gruesome, over-the-top violence, viewers watch the film in a state of perpetual tension (as we do with all Tarantino movies). We know what’s coming. We expect the worst. There will be blood.
But from start to finish, the film surprises us. At various points we feel especially tense. When Brad Pitt’s stuntman character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch and encounters a creepy troupe of Manson Family hippies, we expect terrible things. When Manson himself (Damon Herriman) shows up at 10050 Cielo Drive (the house Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski shared) to scope it out, we fear violence. But there is no blood.
Instead, the movie is joyful and carefree for much of its runtime, relishing the banter and glamorous exploits of its central Hollywood pair (Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), who spend a lot of time in cool cars driving around a cool city, listening to cool music (the Mamas & the Papas, Neil Diamond, Deep Purple, and so on) on AM radio station KHJ. Still, the dread of the inevitable climax—Where is this all going?—lends an intensity to each otherwise-innocent scene, such that the mundane act of Pitt cracking open a can of “Wolf’s Tooth” dog food is terrifying.
When the film’s inevitable violence does come, in the final 20 minutes of a two-hour-and-45-minute runtime, it’s as bloody and extreme as expected. But in perhaps the greatest “what if?” twist of Tarantino’s career (or any filmmaker’s career, for that matter), the violence doesn’t happen to whom we expect it to happen. Much of how Tarantino depicts the actions of the Manson family killers (“Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel) is more or less accurate—up until the moment when they enter the house. They don’t enter 10050 Cielo Drive, where Tate lives. They enter the house next door, where DiCaprio’s character lives and where Pitt is hanging out. And instead of brutally killing innocent people, the Manson killers are themselves brutally killed.Longing for Justice
Watching the Manson killers face their vicious, imaginary comeuppance in this way is unapologetically satisfying. As theologian David Bentley Hart observes, writing about the film in The New York Times (!), the scene “[gives] glorious expression to a perfectly righteous rage,” transporting the viewer into “some other order of reality, if only an imaginary one, where ethereal sweetness had survived and horror had perished.”
This sort of cinematic revisionist history—the unabashed indulgence in cinema’s “what if?” power of supposal—is not new for Tarantino. Django Unchained (2012) presents a justice fantasy of a slave (Jamie Foxx) destroying a plantation and its villainous slaveholding inhabitants. World War II epic Inglourious Basterds (2009) ends with a band of Jews killing off Hitler and Goebbels and scores of Nazis in—what else?—a movie theater.
Don’t miss the significance of the movie-theater setting for the justice-fulfilling ending of Inglourious. Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings, in a world where such things are painfully elusive. He’s doing the same thing in Once Upon a Time, where the celebration of movie fantasy and the moral longing for justice are deliberately and movingly intertwined.
In this way, Once Upon a Time is one of the most redemptive films of the year. As Hart notes, “It is this moral longing for the counterfactual—for the total cosmic justice that history rarely embodies—that informs and animates the most truly redemptive forms of religious, philosophical, and social moral yearning.”
Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings.Reversing the Curse
The final shots of Once Upon a Time are beautiful and haunting, callbacks to that “ghost of Sharon Tate on screen” scene from earlier in the film. We don’t see Tate alive and well, but we hear her happy voice through a driveway call box—a voice from another world, a substitute dimension of cinema’s making. As before, the preserved Tate is mediated to us at a few removes. Here’s how Hart reads the scene:
It’s an exquisitely poignant reminder that she is speaking from that alternate reality, that terrestrial paradise that evil could not enter, that otherworld where the evils of time are all undone. And then the gate opens, and the film’s protagonist is allowed to enter this (for want of a better word) heaven. Even then, the last glimpse the viewer has of Tate is from behind and above, her face turned away because, after all, she is there, not here.
To me it seems obvious that moral sanity requires that otherworld. If it’s real, somewhere and somehow (and I’m one of those fools who wants to believe it is), then it is also the only version of this world worth loving unconditionally, and the only form of existence worth trying to make concretely actual here and now.
Hart eloquently captures how movies, at their best, can give concrete pictures of that “otherworld,” presenting unreality in ways that weirdly feel more real than reality. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Lewis’s Narnia, or all manner of other fictions and fairy tales, the dreamscapes of movies feel truer to us than waking life. Why? Because they give stirring expression to the reversal we long for: the curse-reversing reconciliation and renewal that fallen creation (us included) needs.
What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world?
Far from scoffing and dismissing the “what if?” fantasies of the narrative arts—like Tarantino’s masterful film—what if we valued them for reminding us that longing for a “what if” reversal of the curse is exactly what we should be doing? What if we saw these common-grace expressions as fertilizer for the soil of the gospel—the special grace of knowing the real Aslan, the man Jesus through whom the curse of death is replaced with the gift of eternal life (Rom. 5:12–21)? What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world?
It is widely acknowledged that the gospel was preeminent in Paul’s thought and practice. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians brings the gospel to bear on the many problems that were disrupting the God-given unity and sanctity of the church: divisions (1:10), pride (1:29–31; 5:2), sexual immorality (5:1), a shameful case of litigation (6:1–11), a disparagement of human sexuality (7:1–40), abuses of Christian freedoms (8:1–13), idolatry (10:1–30), and improprieties in corporate worship (11:2–14:40).
Paul signals his intent to apply the gospel to each of these matters early in the letter when he states concerning the emerging factions in the Corinthian church, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The core message of the gospel—“the word of the cross”—is foolishness to unbelievers but has power to transform those who believe (1:18). As Gordon Fee observes, “This paragraph (1:18–25) is crucial not only to the present argument . . . but to the entire letter as well. Indeed, it is one of the truly great moments in the apostle Paul.”
Paul confirms the importance of the gospel for the entire letter in his programmatic statement toward the end of the epistle: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:1–4). Beginning and ending the epistle with the gospel is not merely a literary device. Paul intends to set forth the gospel as the solution to every problem in the church. At times the gospel solution is direct and explicit. At other times, it is less direct but transformative nonetheless.
In keeping with the preeminence of the gospel in Paul’s writings in general, and in 1 Corinthians in particular, our interest in this present essay is to revisit the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16 with the gospel as the interpretive key to Paul’s argument [about gender, head coverings, and the Trinity]. As will become evident, seeing the explicit manner in which Paul appeals to the gospel in this passage serves to strengthen the standard evangelical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 while putting it in its larger gospel context.
Here is how the gospel can be shown to provide the integrative glue for Paul’s argument.
Every teacher gets a bit nervous about answering hard questions well—especially the hard questions being raised in the larger culture that all Christians struggle to answer well. These are the kinds of questions Rebecca McLaughlin deals with in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. McLaughlin’s crisp reasoning and winsome presentation helped me imagine that I might be able to respond to such questions more capably having read her book, which I highly commend.
In our conversation we talked through a number of questions regarding taking the Bible literally, modern science, the denigration of women, and homophobia. And because McLaughlin has a consulting business to help speakers improve their skills in getting their message across, we also talked about specific ways we can get better in our presentation of God’s Word.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
An old friend from high school reconnected with me recently, thanks to the wonders of Facebook. We did a lot of laughing when we hung out in high school, and he thought we could just pick up where we left off. I doubted it. For much of the time we were together—almost 50 years ago!—we were drunk.
Since then, I became a Christian. He’s continued to get drunk. After a few moments of “Wow!” “It sure has been a while” and “How have you been?” we made plans to meet and re-establish our long lost friendship. And we did meet. And we did laugh. But both of us realized things (i.e., he and I) had changed.
He did know I’d become a Christian. The last time we saw each other face to face, I presented the gospel to him and gave him a book about the resurrection. He told me that John Lennon shaped his religious views and that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” He visits Strawberry Fields, Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, whenever he’s back in New York.
Today, I continue to pray for him, reach out to him with phone calls and emails, and talk about meeting up when I’m nearby (we now live more than 1,000 miles apart). I’m convinced I need to pursue some pre-evangelistic conversations with him before he’ll be ready to hear the gospel in a way that can penetrate. I’ve tried the direct evangelistic approach several times, and that hasn’t worked. I need another strategy.
Most of us need another strategy to reach unsaved people around us. If ever there was a time when “people were ready to receive Christ” (and I doubt it was ever that simple), those days are gone. But how do we start?
Here are three strategies for pre-evangelism that might help your friends move from “Are you crazy? Christianity is ridiculous, narrow-minded, homophobic, and stupid!” to “Well . . . maybe I need to rethink this” to “OK, I’ve not been fair in the ways I’ve pigeonholed religious people” to “All right, I’ll take a look at that book about God you gave me.”1. Level the Playing Field
Sometimes, our non-Christian conversation partner feels superior to us. They may think they’re intellectually superior because, they assume, all Christians are simpletons, anti-intellectual, anti-science, or just plain stupid. (In some cases, they’ve seen solid evidence to support this prejudice.) They believe that science “proves things religion can’t” and that it’s the better basis for knowledge.
Or they may feel morally superior to Christians. They see themselves as open-minded and tolerant but see Christians as narrow-minded and exclusive.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too. In fact, with enough conversation, we may show them that Christians are in fact more open-minded than they are. This takes work and time and patience. But it’s absolutely crucial, or our gospel presentation will fall on deaf ears.
We can level the playing field by asking people how they’ve come to their belief that science is a better basis for knowledge than faith is. Their trust in science is a faith-based belief. It can’t be validated scientifically. We want them to see that we’re similar—we both hold our beliefs by faith. Now we want to compare our faiths. We should also pursue the realization that we both have doubts, and we should compare our doubts.2. Adjust the Thermostat
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace. Sometimes people get angry or sarcastic or harsh—on both sides of the exchange. Our current political climate exacerbates the problem terribly. In some cases, we need to point this out, take a deep breath, and ask if we need to take a break.
It can sound like this:
“You sound rather upset about all this. Why do you think this is so disturbing?”
“Wow. I think I struck a nerve. Should we change the topic?”
“It’s hard to talk about these kinds of things. Isn’t it? I’d like to try to continue. But I wonder if we can do that with a bit less anger. What do you think?”
In our current overly sarcastic, frequently dismissive, disturbingly insulting times, we would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Proverbs’s insight that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).3. Step on the Clutch before Shifting Gears
Sometimes we need to have a conversation about the conversation. Before we launch into a discussion about religion (often considered the worst taboo), we might need to ask permission to do so. Or we might need to introduce something they’ll accept to pave the way for something they resist.
It’s like stepping on the clutch in a car with a standard transmission before shifting gears. I realize this illustration may be too antiquated for some people. If you’ve never driven a car with a stick shift, just accept this: if you don’t perform a preliminary task (stepping on the clutch), you won’t be able to do the important task (shifting gears).
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace.
Here’s what it could sound like:
“I realize some people avoid discussions about faith. But I wonder if you’d like to try. Could we grab a cup of coffee sometime to compare our beliefs?”
“You’ve asked me some questions about my views about sexuality. I’m certainly willing to try to answer as best as I can. But I have to first say you shouldn’t be surprised if my views are unpopular. The Christian views about sex have always been in the minority.”
“I think the topic of faith is more complicated than what fits on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. But I’d still like to talk about it. Would you?”
More than 50 years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Pre-evangelism is no soft option.” He was reaching out to disenchanted, secular Europeans who had abandoned Christianity long ago. But he reached many with the gospel and saw a lot of dramatic conversions. His approach needs to be inserted into our evangelistic efforts now more than ever before. I certainly need to try these ideas with my old friend.
When Jessi Vos was a junior in high school, she told her mom and dad she wanted to go to a college that was more international and more urban than the Iowa town where she grew up.
She also wanted a place that wasn’t too big—her state university felt huge—and Christian professors and a Christian campus. (“I’ve learned that a Christ-centered education is the most important thing to me in pursing my college career,” she wrote on one application.)
Her parents wanted all of that for her, too.
“I remember spending time in prayer, saying, ‘Please don’t put my kid or us into a situation where they find the perfect college and we simply can’t afford it,’” her mother, Teri, said. “I talk to parents who say they will figure out a way to make the financial piece work, because you can’t put a price tag on helping your kid be in the best environment possible at this stage of life. But even so, there is going to be a point at which that doesn’t work.”
She’s not wrong. The average cost of one year of college—including tuition, fees, room, and board—at an American university doubled between 1988 and 2016, from $11,509 (adjusted for inflation) to $23,091. The price growth was eight times faster than the rate of wage growth during that period.
Among members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the cost is significantly higher—$35,488 a year (though significantly less than the average four-year, private, nonprofit colleges’ price tag of $44,551).
You’d think Christian colleges would be hiring new staff, raising salaries, and starting new programs. In fact, you’d think administrators would be buying yachts and professors would be purchasing vacation homes in the Virgin Islands.
The average cost of one year of college at an American university doubled between 1988 and 2016, from $11,509 (adjusted for inflation) to $23,091.
But that’s not what’s happening.
“The financial health of many Christian institutions of higher education is more precarious than ever before,” Trinity International University president David Dockery wrote in the Christian Education Journal this year. “The rise of costs, the challenge of financial aid, changing tax laws, and unpredictability of funding streams point toward questions regarding long-term viability.”
“There is a real looming crisis, that’s for sure,” said New Saint Andrews College president Ben Merkle. He remembers being at CCCU meeting where the impending financial future was likened to “driving off a cliff.”
In fact, the situation is worse than Dan Nelson, who has spent the last 20 years surveying financial data for CCCU schools, has ever seen it before.
So what gives? If Christian colleges are charging more than they ever have, why are their bank account balances so low?Enrollment?
It could be that Christian colleges cost more but are attracting fewer students, so they’re making less money.
While some schools—especially those in areas of the country that are losing population, such as Illinois—are struggling to maintain enrollment, others are growing. And they’re gaining more than the declining colleges are losing.
Overall, CCCU schools’ total headcount rose from about 425,000 in 2012 to nearly 448,000 in 2017. (Full-time student enrollment rose less, from about 302,000 to about 309,000.)
That trend is reflected in both the larger private nonprofit sector and also in public universities. Over the past 20 years, only the for-profit category has lost students, dropping sharply since 2010 after running into multiple lawsuits, negative publicity, and tighter federal regulations.
Numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics
In fact, it seems like attracting students to Christian colleges should be pretty easy. While fertility rates are dropping, Christians still have babies at a higher level than replacement rate—faster than any other religious group except Muslims, according to Pew Research Center.
In addition, the rate of children graduating from public high schools is at an all-time high—85 percent in the 2016–2017 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Most of them—about 70 percent—enrolled in college in 2016. That number didn’t set a record but came close. That meant 19.8 million students were in college in fall 2016—definitely down from the high of 20.6 million in 2012—when the for-profit schools were booming—but still higher than the 15.3 million in 2000 or even the 17.5 million in 2005.
So Christians are having babies, and high schools are graduating students, and those students are going to college more often than ever before. Everything should be great, right?Recession?
Everything was great, for a while.
“The heyday of Christian higher education was probably from the early 1990s to about 2007,” said Dockery, who was president of Union University in Tennessee for much of that time. At Union, enrollment grew for 16 straight years. The number of donors tripled. The school added more than seven undergraduate majors, six graduate programs, and five doctoral programs.
“I don’t think we realized how privileged we were during those days,” he said. “Enrollments were growing, budgets were increasing, and the Department of Education was friendly toward our efforts.”
That seemed to be true for most Christian colleges. Membership in the CCCU—a network of Christian schools founded in the 1970s—doubled from 88 in 1994 to 176 (including affiliate members) in 2006.
“As an association, it was a great run,” said Bob Andringa, who led the CCCU during those years. The budget almost tripled, from $3.8 million to $10.5 million, the staff jumped from 30 to 65, and the number of programs and projects expanded to 90.
And then, in 2008, the housing bubble popped, the government had to bail out the banks, and the economy deflated. The unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent.
On the face of it, this was more good news for colleges. People who couldn’t find a job headed to the classroom; the number of incoming students rose 12 percent in 2008. At CCCU schools, on average, both enrollment and tuition continued to climb.
But under the surface, the financial foundation of many Christian colleges started to wobble.Trojan Horse
In 1965, out of a desire to make college more affordable to everyone, Congress passed the Higher Education Act. This law allowed the government to guarantee student loans—basically shifting the default risk from banks to taxpayers, which made banks more willing to lend to students. In 1972, Congress followed up with the creation of Sallie Mae, which bought student loans from banks and eventually passed out student loans itself.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Student Loans Owned and Securitized, Outstanding [SLOAS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. LouisThe loans were virtually unrestricted, because the idea was to help anybody who wanted to go to college. As the number of students going to college went up, tuition—which is based on what students can pay—went up even faster, and the government loaned out even more dollars.
During the Great Recession, unemployment, flattening wages, and plummeting home values made tuition payments uncomfortable and sometimes impossible. The default rate ballooned, and the Obama administration introduced the “Pay As You Earn” repayment plan, which capped loan repayment and incentivized even more borrowing.
But it didn’t incentivize everyone.
CCCU students take their loans seriously. Their default rate is half the national average (6 percent versus about 12 percent) and their repayment rate is noticeably higher (78 percent compared to 65 percent).
During the Recession, the average amount of money borrowed by CCCU students began to slow down. In some cases, it dropped.
Correspondingly, the average educational debt of a CCCU graduate slowed as well.
“Starting with the recession, there was a shift in the attitudes of families in willingness to sacrifice to send their kid to their first-choice school,” said Nelson, who is the chief institutional data and research officer at Bethel University in Minnesota. “When Mom or Dad went out of work and they went from two incomes to one, they rethought how important it was to go to a higher-cost school.”
Christian parents started looking at less expensive options. By 2018, nearly half of responding CCCU schools (46 percent) told a Bethel University survey that a public university was their No. 1 competition.
“We know people who don’t want their child to look at out-of-state schools because they’re more expensive,” parent Teri Vos said. “They say the same thing about private education vs. public universities.”
That means Christian college recruiters have to work harder.
“My stars, the enrollment operation of liberal arts colleges 40 years ago was to have a couple young graduates who would go out and get your next class,” said Paul Corts, former president of Wingate College, Palm Beach Atlantic University, and the CCCU. Now “the cost of attracting a student is very high.”
Part of that cost is the campus.
“It’s an arms race,” Dockery said. “We all had to do what we needed to compete.” Colleges upgraded their technology and built new dorms, classrooms, and gyms.
At Union, student apartments offer private bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a washer and a dryer. (“They’re spectacular,” Dockery said. “That helped us recruit students.”) At Lee University, a “gorgeous new state-of-the art building with all the robotic equipment” was built for nursing majors, president Paul Conn said. The program, which didn’t exist five years ago, now has 400 majors.
Some of the upgrades were done pre-recession, when budgets were deep in the black, and it seemed like enrollment would ever only grow. Some were done later, in an often-successful bid to attract high-school seniors.
But “all that drove up the price,” Dockery said. Not so much for the construction itself—that was often paid for with capital campaigns—but for ongoing upkeep. “Now we hit a price point, and a lot of parents won’t pay.”
“We’ve overbuilt,” Nelson said.
But that’s not even the biggest problem.Student Aid
During the Great Recession, the percent of “needy” CCCU applicants rose dramatically, from a median of 67 percent in 2007–2008 to 77 percent in 2012–2013. While the number later dipped, it remains substantially higher than pre-recession levels.
Part of that was their parents’ ability to write tuition checks, which took a sharp dip in 2008 and then leveled off for a few years before beginning to climb again in 2014. But by then, tuition rate increases had left wage increases in the dust.
So schools kept sweetening the deal. The average CCCU discount rate—or the amount given to students as grants and scholarships—rose steadily from around 32 percent in 2006–2007 to 47 percent in 2018–2019. (Other private colleges have taken this same route—the average discount rate for incoming freshmen at private, not-for-profit American universities for the 2017–2018 school year was 50 percent.)
It’s not that Christian high schoolers are pitting CCCU schools against each other, though of course the financial packages they get do weigh into their decisions. More than that, “there is increased aggressiveness from public higher education,” Conn said. “When I was first president [in 1986], the state schools were almost like public utilities that provided a service to the public. They didn’t have the entrepreneurial model. But they do now.”
The average CCCU discount rate has risen to 47 percent.
Conn tells his recruiters, “Right now, our prospects are getting calls from other schools—Kennesaw State University, University of North Carolina, Middle Tennessee State University. Parents are thinking, You can go there with a combination of state grants and a little extra money. That’s probably what we ought to do.”
It’s the Christian parents who have been through the process who are a little savvier when thinking about college costs.
“We’ve learned that the initial price tag you see online and on the paperwork is not necessarily where you’ll land,” Vos said. The range of scholarships—from athletic to academic to leadership to music to theater to just “the average student”—is so wide that “whatever the price tag, no matter your student, [the final cost] can change so much.”
Maybe too much. All that aid means that many schools are giving away scholarships and grants faster than they raise their prices.
“This is the cause of our schools’ discontent,” Nelson said. “Prior to the recession, the amount of money they netted in a given year was going up by about 5 percent a year.”
That was about perfect. Nelson’s rule of thumb is that a college needs inflation plus 1.5 percent—that extra percent is because colleges spend most of their money paying faculty and staff, who need raises—in revenue in order to thrive. From 2000 to 2008, inflation bounced around 3 percent. Add the 1.5 and you’re right around 4.5 percent to 5 percent.
But now, “even with the increase of the family ability to pay in recent years, fully half of our schools are not even netting as much revenue as they did the year before,” Nelson said.
That’s the crux of the crisis—in order to attract students, schools are bringing in less money due to discounted tuition while at the same time spending more on upgrades.
And they haven’t even reached the cliff.Birth Rate Cliff
After World War II, American GIs came home, married their sweethearts, and started having babies.
What followed was a bust, then smaller population bumps as the populous Boomers had children and then grandchildren.
When the Great Recession hit, the population of 18-year-olds had just peaked and was entering a seven-year decline—though enrollment was propped up by larger percentages of those 18-year-olds going to college.
That decline lasted only a few years before catching and moving back up. For the past four years, the pool of potential college freshmen has increased.
But it’s easy to see why that increase won’t last. During the Great Recession, like nearly all other times of financial stress, Americans had fewer babies. That rate hasn’t picked back up; in May, the Centers for Disease Control announced that 2018 saw the lowest number of births in 32 years.
“What we see in California is that in 2026–2028 there will be a significant drop off in high-school graduates,” Biola University president Barry Corey said. “If we mirror that, which we have for 60 years, that will affect us—unless we decide now that we’re going to do something different.”Something Different
In May, Gordon College announced it was working on a 7 percent budget cut, which will include eliminating 36 faculty and staff positions, consolidating philosophy/history/political science into one department, and cutting seven majors—including chemistry, Spanish, and social work.
“The short story is that higher education is changing, and Gordon must adapt accordingly,” Gordon announced. “Gordon is taking strategic steps to meet new market realities out of financial prudence and not out of financial distress. (In other words, we’re choosing to be proactive now rather than waiting to be creative later, when financial pressure would be stronger.)”
Other Christian schools are also choosing to consolidate or eliminate shrinking liberal arts departments and lean into STEM fields, where the students are. Still others are adding graduate programs, jumping into technology fields, or moving more courses online.
We have to think outside the box and be innovative. We have to think about, What is the new frontier that is relevant to our institution, that fits who we are?
“Some of us are thinking, Well, we’ve turned up the dials as much as we can on traditional models,” Corey said. “We can’t keep increasing our discount rate or eliminate any more fat or excess. We have to think outside the box and be innovative. We have to think about, What is the new frontier that is relevant to our institution, that fits who we are?”
He recommends schools plan now, before financial pressure means “you have no recourse but to do whatever the new thing is.”
“We’re all so tuition-driven that we have to respond to the market,” Dockery said. “And that’s where the real tensions come, because where do you lose the mission in all of this? It’s not just a matter of surviving. It’s surviving faithfully.”
CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra calls it a “disrupted” time.
“We’re going from something familiar and predictable to something less predictable but on the edge of exciting,” she said. She’s optimistic because in the instability of the higher-education market, Christian colleges have advantages: “Generally, they’re run with financially sound principles. And they have an extraordinary, distinct mission.
“Today’s problems are very complex, which is why I think Christian higher education is needed today more than ever,” she said. “You can’t take out the spiritual components of society and life and expect to get the answers we need for the challenges we have.”
The Story: Fertility clinics across America are struggling with a growing number of abandoned embryos—many that are being left behind by Christian parents.
The Background: NBC News recently ran a feature story highlighting the problems of children being created and then cryogenically frozen and abandoned in the embryonic stage of development. While this may seem like a story from a dystopian science-fiction novel, it’s an all-too-common reality in the age of in-vitro fertilization.
As Mary Pflum notes in her article, in the 1990s, many fertility clinics considered it necessary to inseminate as many of a patient’s eggs as possible, because many embryos didn’t make it through the freezing and thawing process. Although IVF techniques have improved and made the creation of “excess embryos” unnecessary, the practice is still common. As embryologist Christine Allen says,
“[But] you still see many physicians with the mentality of, ‘the more, the merrier.’ So you see [some women] having 40, 50, or 60 eggs retrieved in a cycle and the embryologist gets the orders from her doctor to inseminate all of them—and the question isn’t asked if the patient even wants that many inseminated.
“Nobody’s going to have 30 kids,” she said.
Embryos that aren’t implanted in the womb are cryogenically frozen and put into storage. No one knows for sure how many frozen embryos are currently being stored in America, but the credible estimates range from 90,000 to several million. The cost of storage usually runs from $500 to $1,000 a year per IVF patient, leading many parents to abandon their created but unimplanted children.
Pflum points out that while clinics have different definitions of what constitutes an “abandoned embryo” the term generally refers to a situation in which a patient has not paid storage fees related to a frozen embryo for five or more years (sometimes as little as one year), and fails to respond to letters and calls from the clinic.
The clinics can’t simply give the children to other parents and are hesitant to destroy them:
“What if one day someone shows up and says, ‘Where’s my embryo?’ And you wind up on the front page of the newspaper for destroying someone’s embryo? The damage would be done,” he said.
For that reason, Patrizio said, his clinic doesn’t destroy abandoned embryos.
Richard Vaughn, a founding partner of the International Fertility Law Group, a national law firm that specializes in fertility matters, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, said he knows of no fertility clinics willing to dispose of abandoned embryos.
“They don’t want to be responsible for a wrongful death,” he said.
The result is that more children are being abandoned each year with no solution in sight. “I think many of us realize that we have a bit of a mess and I’m not sure doctors know how to fix it,” Craig Sweet says. “But we need to try.”
Why It Matters: The abandonment and death of embryos outside the womb is one of the most scandalous and oft-ignored issues with the Christian pro-life movement.
Over the last few decades the pro-life community has begun to show more concern for embryo destruction that occurs outside the womb. Yet while we have taken tentative steps to oppose efforts to destroy embryos for speculative scientific research (i.e., embryonic stem-cell research) we have turned a blind eye to how, out of the desire to have a child, our fellow citizens—including many Christians—have created “extra” or “spare” embryos that are abandoned to die.
Whether in the womb of a woman or in a storage locker in a fertility clinic, all human embryos have the same moral status and deserve the same level of protection from harm. The pain of infertility does not provide an exemption from this obligation.
Every year the suffering caused by infertility leads many Christian families to turn to IVF. These procedures are inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment, and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best technique offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in order to increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child by creating more embryos than will be implanted.
Whether IVF itself is completely acceptable for Christians is a question worthy of debate. In the absence of clear scriptural guidelines, there are bound to be disagreements (I would almost always advise against IVF, though I respect those who do not share my qualms). However, there are some methods and approaches that are indisputably unethical and temptations to act immorally abound. The result is that almost every fertility clinic in America has become a dystopian orphanage in which children are created and then put into suspended animation until they die.
The extra expense required to avoid moral wrongdoing may be substantial or even prohibitive. But the cost of destroying the embryo is even higher. It is never God’s will that we abandon or kill one child in order to give life to another. As parents and followers of Jesus our obligation is clear: we should never create a child that we know will be abandoned and left to die. If IVF cannot be done morally, then it must not be done at all.
Perhaps nothing is more encouraging to Christians than a conversion story. Like our Savior, we rejoice to hear of even one sinner who repents, which makes the latest offering from Randy Newman, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism, a particularly heartening read. He tells the stories of many who have come to faith in Christ, some in rather unexpected ways.
This is familiar ground for Newman. His well-known work Questioning Evangelism reflects on the evangelistic method of Jesus, helping us engage others with the gospel by asking questions. But this newest book follows a different path. Here Newman—senior teaching fellow with The C. S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C.—speaks with multiple unlikely converts, researching their testimonies, then gleaning observations both practical and also biblical for all would-be evangelists.Evangelism Is a Process
Coming to Christ takes time. If there’s one lesson that permeates Newman’s research, it’s this: people generally accept the gospel gradually. This isn’t to argue against conversion as a work of the Spirit at a point in time. But it’s a recognition that the Spirit often opens blinded eyes through a series of events. He tends to do so through the witness of believers over a period of weeks, months, even years.
Some do experience sudden conversion, of course; there’s no prerequisite to faith. But when we see dramatic transformation in a moment, we sometimes overlook all that led to that point. For example, instantaneous conversion stories from the Bible are themselves often the result of what some might call “pre-evangelism.” Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10), or the Philippian jailer (Acts 16), each had prior exposure to Scripture and the believing community.
Given this point, Newman suggests a number of applications. He reinforces the benefits of pre-evangelism, the work we do to prepare others to receive the gospel. But he also advocates for the work we do to prepare ourselves with the gospel, what he calls evangelistic brainstorming. To this end, each chapter concludes with questions to help us think ahead of time, before we try to speak the good news with others.
People generally accept the gospel gradually.
Understanding the process of conversion helps our evangelistic approach in other ways. Christians tend to withhold the gospel based on our assumptions of others’ interest in the gospel. But as Newman shows in the numerous stories, unbelievers rarely verbalize what they’re internally processing. In fact, sometimes their thoughts are in direct conflict with their demeanor and actions. Just because a person leads a promiscuous lifestyle doesn’t mean they’re convinced it’s either right or good. Only when someone takes the initiative to ask a personal question, give them a Bible, invite them to church, or speak the gospel is their internal processing on spiritual matters engaged.
Recognizing that conversion takes time also frees us from feeling like we must seal the deal in any given conversation. We haven’t failed if someone doesn’t respond immediately. We also don’t have to have all the answers on the spot. Simply starting the conversation is important. We can leave people with nuggets of truth. Or we can challenge them with a provocative question, then give them space to process their thoughts and return. As Newman puts it, “We want to engage more than amaze.”
There is a potential pitfall here. When we observe that people tend to believe gradually, does that mean we should always take a gradual approach? I don’t think so. Also, is it possible that these testimonies reflect more on the way we tend to approach evangelism (tentatively) than on the way God saves? These are significant questions. And however we might answer, I think Newman would agree that being patient in our evangelism doesn’t imply that we should avoid difficult truths (such as hell or judgment) or ignore calls for repentance.Evangelism Is a Community Project
Reading the stories of how various people come to faith in Christ, you soon realize that effective evangelism happens in various ways, and it includes a variety of people. One plants; another waters; but God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6–9). Evangelism, like gardening, is a process, and it often involves many participants. New converts typically need to hear the gospel more than once, and they need to hear it—sometimes in a different way—from more than one person. This book helps us see the part each of us can play with our variety of gifts. No one person or personality makes for the perfect evangelist.
This realization also plays into the importance of the local church for evangelism. As Newman asserts, “The concept of body evangelism can’t be overstressed. If people need to hear multiple presentations from numerous voices and see the gospel lived out in a variety of ways, what better place for that to occur than in a local church?”
Evangelism, like gardening, is a process, and it often involves many participants.
Over and over these stories show how people are attracted to Christ through his people. This, to me, makes total sense, because Christian conversion is more than just picking a belief system. It’s even more than “choosing Christ.” It’s like finding a family. We’ve all heard that Christian hypocrisy is one of the primary reasons why people reject the gospel. That assertion, if true, is truly disheartening. But it can also be very encouraging. Because, if the inverse is true, it would mean that a healthy church and gracious Christians will be a profound reason for unbelievers to receive the good news about Jesus.
Of course, this shows that, no matter how extraordinary someone’s conversion may be—and all Christian conversion is miraculous—evangelism tends to be ordinary. Many of these stories are of people who were, so to speak, surprising converts. But their conversion tended to be the result of the ordinary means of kindness, prayer, service, patience, and faithful witness.Unlikely Converts, Unlikely Evangelists
Newman’s book about unlikely converts is perhaps most helpful as it expands our categories. He wants us to see the capaciousness of the gospel, and of the act of evangelism itself. The gospel is for everyone. And the task of evangelism includes every Christian—even those you’d least expect. In all of this, the underlying theme Newman emphasizes is God’s powerful work in salvation from beginning to end. Nothing will be impossible with God. As such, Christian conversion is never truly “unlikely.”
The gospel is for everyone. And the task of evangelism includes every Christian—even those you’d least expect.
With the book drawing to a close, after introducing us to so many others, Newman takes time to remember his personal journey to faith in Christ. It’s almost as if he can’t help but tell his own story. It’s the story of a disaffected Jewish kid, disconnected from God, but who listened in on his friends’ prayers. It’s the story of a teenager who was invited to youth group and perhaps went for the wrong reasons. It’s the story of an intellectual college student who drank too much but still felt empty. It’s the story of a young man who kept encountering Christians, kept hearing the gospel, and who eventually became an unlikely evangelist.
When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way. (Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”)
Well Stevie, you may sing that, but I want to tell you about a mystery I’ve been trying to unravel that leads me to conclude that, for many, superstition really is the way. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin . . .
It all started one drab overcast London afternoon, a few months back. I was in my study preparing to do some teaching based on the theological anthropology of my hero, the Reformed missiologist J. H. Bavinck. Drawing from a life’s observations on the mission field together with a profound theological insight, Bavinck developed what he called the “magnetic points.” This refers to “a sort of framework within which the religious thought of humankind must move . . . . There appear to be certain intersections around which all sorts of ideas crystallize . . . [or] magnetic points to which the religious thinking of mankind is irresistibly attracted.”
In short, although grounded in creation, these points are our perennial human idolatrous responses (our suppression of truth and replacement of created things) to God’s manifestation of his “eternal power” and “divine nature” (Rom. 1:20) which, for Bavinck, pertain to our creaturely dependence and accountability to our Creator. The magnetic points provide a morphology to the messy mix in which sinful image bearers who know God and don’t know him and who are running to and running away from him, at the same time. These points make up the religious consciousness of humankind throughout history. I’ve renamed these points as “Totality,” “Norm,” “Deliverance,” “Destiny,” and “Higher Power.”
I am of the opinion that these “points” are a tremendous analytical and heuristic tool for out times, and my task was to describe these points, give contemporary cultural examples of where we see them, and to show how in terms of our apologetics and discipleship (surprise, surprise!) Jesus Christ both subverts and fulfills them. I decided to reach out to some current Oak Hill students and alumni to source me examples of the “points” they had come across in their lives and ministry. Examples began to come in, but one in particular piqued my interest. The “magnetic point” in question was “Destiny,” which deals with the riddle human beings wrestle with concerning the interplay of fate and freedom.
Throughout the history of philosophy and the great world religions this tension has been evidenced in the most sublime and sophisticated ways. I could easily reference a Greek tragedy, discuss the concepts of qadar in Islam, or karma in Hinduism. Maybe I could impress you with a memorized quotation from Spinoza or Schiller. However, let’s get real. Let’s talk your average Brit in 2019.
I did a double-take when I read the sign in front of a small white church beside a two-lane blacktop that snaked through the hills of western North Carolina. I stopped and backed up my SUV to get a second look. The weathered 12-by-18 sign read: “Welcome to Trinity Baptist Church. We are an Independent, Bible-believing, Trinitarian, KJV-only, amillennial, evangelistic congregation.”
Two things on the sign captured my attention: “KJV-only” and “amillennial.” The Bible translation didn’t surprise me much, but I’m more accustomed to churches affirming the KJV alongside some form of premillennialism, so the amil affirmation took me back a little.
But that church’s sign does raise an important question for confessional Christians: which doctrines should be included in a church’s or evangelical organization’s confession of faith?Theological Triage
In Albert Mohler’s helpful scheme of theological triage, issues such as eschatology or church music are third-level doctrines on which good Christians may disagree and (typically) still be considered not only orthodox, but part of the same denomination or church in good standing. Mohler, a TGC Council member and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, led the school back to its confessional roots in the 1990s after it had fallen into theological liberalism in the mid-20th century.
While Christians should never approach any doctrine with anything less than full seriousness, Mohler establishes three orders of doctrines that are helpful in establishing confessional non-negotiables:
First-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself. . . . The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. . . . Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most debates over eschatology, for example, in this category.EFCA and Premillennialism
Last month, 79 percent of delegates to biennial meeting of the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA) voted in favor of a motion to amend Article 9 of the denomination’s Statement of Faith. Previously, Article 9 affirmed premillennialism as the exclusive view on the timing of Christ’s return. Formerly the article read, “We believe in the personal, bodily, and premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Members voted to replace “premillennial” with “glorious,” thus avoiding narrow subscription to a millennial view.
How should confessional Christians stay out of the opposite ditches of making either everything or nothing a first-order issue?
The EFCA first proposed the change during its 2017 meeting. The Board of Directors, composed of leaders who affirm the Statement of Faith, including premillennialism, presented the motion to the assembly. EFCA leaders believed requiring members to subscribe to premillennialism conflicted with a higher core value of Christians uniting around the truths of the gospel. The length of the millennium and the timing of Christ’s return simply were not theological lines EFCA leaders thought should be drawn. For this, they should be strongly applauded. I say this as a confessional Baptist, committed to the Second London Confession of 1689.Two Extremes
Two extremes ought to be avoided when discussing theological triage and confessional statements. Fundamentalism tends to operate as if every theological issue is of first importance and, therefore, no second- and third-order issues exist. Theological liberalism, meanwhile, tends to operate as if no first-order issues exist. So how should confessional Christians stay out of the opposite ditches of making either everything or nothing a first-order issue?
Here are three questions we might ask to determine whether or not to include non-fundamental issues in a confession of faith.1. Have the major historical confessions addressed it?
The best of the historical statements of faith, particularly in the Reformed tradition, have not typically included third-level doctrines such as the millennium and the timing of Christ’s return. Architects of both the Second London Confession of 1689 and its Presbyterian cousin, the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), included articles on the reality of final judgment and the truthfulness of Christ’s return, but not the timing or the millennium.
Chapter 32 (“The Last Judgment”) in the Second London Confession begins: “God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness, by Jesus Christ.” The second paragraph reads: “The end of God’s appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient.” Chapter 33 of the WCF words it the same way.
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional statement, deals with “Last Things” in chapter 20: “According to his promise, Jesus will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth.” Others such as the Belgic Confession deal with the last things similarly.
The major confessions among Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (as well as the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles) have included mainly first- and second-order issues: all doctrines germane to orthodox Christianity and the gospel such as justification by faith, the person and work of Christ, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the resurrection of Christ, along with denominational distinctives such as church government, baptism, and the sacraments (or ordinances).
Congregationalists in England published the Savoy Declaration in 1658, and British Calvinistic Baptists drew up the Second London Confession three decades later with the specific intent of demonstrating that neither was a dangerous, heretical sect; both affirmed the same orthodox, evangelical theology as the Westminster divines. Baptists and Congregationalists, among others, were being persecuted as heretics and seditionists by the state-run church.
Churches and organizations have penned many other excellent confessions in the centuries following the Reformation; almost none of them has demanded specific views on third-level issues such as the millennium or the timing of Jesus’s return—for good reason.2. Does demanding subscription to this doctrine needlessly divide Christians?
If nothing else, the EFCA’s move is commendable because it aimed to avoid dividing good Christians needlessly. The board made clear that the EFCA is not pressing for relational unity at the cost of doctrinal purity. Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, assured members the revision did not represent a drift toward theological minimalism:
There are three issues in the question. First, it is never one over against another. Doctrinal truth and purity is always foundational to relational unity. Any true experienced unity is grounded in doctrinal truth. Second, this is not a matter of doctrinal minimalism. If it were, many biblical truths would not be included and necessary to affirm in our Statement of Faith. The better way to understand our Statement of Faith is that it is an essentialist statement, not a minimalist statement. This is also why it is necessary for all those credentialed to affirm the Statement of Faith “without mental reservation.” That means we are strict subscriptionists. It is required to affirm the complete Statement of Faith “without mental reservation.” There is no good-faith subscription allowed, which would grant certain exceptions or caveats in belief as long as they are approved. Finally, in the EFCA we take seriously the one new community God creates through his Son by the Spirit. This is experiencing and living out the truth and reality of the work of Christ. . . . It is a unity centered on the truth of the gospel, even if and when there are differences on secondary and tertiary matters.
I once spent several months as a candidate for the office of senior pastor in a church in the Deep South. I went through three rounds of interviews, including one for which I traveled for a face-to-face session. I wrote answers to theological and practical questions that totaled nearly 40 pages. The committee also interviewed my wife extensively. Numerous phone calls went back and forth between the chairman and me. I probably invested well more than 100 hours in the process, and it became clear that I was the leading candidate.
So the search committee scheduled a weekend on which my family would meet the congregation, participate in a battery of meetings, and then I’d preach on Sunday. Unfortunately, my candidacy ended abruptly when the committee learned that I didn’t subscribe to Scofieldian Dispensationalism, which was included in an appendix (which I hadn’t seen) to the church’s confession.
I wasn’t bothered so much by the fact that they didn’t call me as pastor; obviously, it wasn’t God’s will. I did, however, believe this confessional item was unwise and divided brothers needlessly. An evangelical confession should avoid that mistake. My current elder board includes men with a variety of views on issues such as the end times, church-music styles, and Bible translations—and we’ve never experienced division over it. Consciously reject the Trinity and you’re not a Christian. Reject believer’s baptism and you’ll need to join another denomination. Reject my view of the millennium, and we can serve on the elder board together.
Reject the Trinity and you’re not a Christian. Reject believer’s baptism and you’ll need to join another denomination. Reject my view of the millennium, and we can serve on the elder board together.
A church or denomination’s confession should affirm all the cardinal doctrines that define orthodox Christianity and important second-order issues that make up denominational or church distinctives such as baptism, the sacraments (or ordinances), issues related to complementarianism/egalitarianism, and church polity.3. Is it related to an issue that demands the church speak prophetically?
There are legitimate occasions that call Christians to speak prophetically by narrowing—often by adding to or clarifying—their confession of faith.
For example, in the late 1990s, rising feminism and the broader culture’s attack on marriage prompted the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt articles on male headship and the sanctity of biblical marriage and to add them to the Baptist Faith and Message.
In 2008, the EFCA revised its article on the doctrine of God to reaffirm God’s exhaustive knowledge and the reality of God’s wrath—old orthodox truths that were being challenged by open theism.
The Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 spoke to such issues as “Of the Mass,” “Of the Marriage of Priests,” “Of Confession,” and “Of the Distinction of Meats.” Similarly, Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles rejects the doctrine of purgatory. Centuries later, these may seem like tertiary issues, but they were of massive consequence and strident debate amid the early decades of the Reformation. Churches need to declare their colors on those matters.
Christian organizations often adopt confessions of faith to directly address burning issues in the culture, as was the case with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when it published the Danvers Statement on gender roles in 1987 and, more recently, the Nashville Statement affirming biblical sexuality.
Historically, the tendency to include premillennialism in mid-20th-century evangelical confessions came in response to the modernist–fundamentalist controversy. Premillennialism served as a badge of membership for conservative evangelicals over against amillennialism, which was perceived at the time as a view that signaled theological liberalism. Since then this perception, and thus the level of urgency, has changed.
If a church, denomination, or Christian organization needs to offer clarity or speak prophetically, then adding or revising articles is valid, even necessary. There are times when a non-first-order issue, such as egalitarianism/complementarianism, rises to a level of importance that it must be dealt with confessionally. In other words, our triage chart on second- and third-level issues may change as circumstances such as cultural pressure and theological debates demand.Guardrails
I’m thankful to have been a part of confessional Reformed Christianity for many years now, and I want to do everything I can to nurture it. But I don’t want to define membership by millennial views or Bible-translation preferences.
Confessions of faith should function as guardrails, not a straightjacket.
- Brian J. Tabb | Editorial: Fulfill Your Ministry. Tabb explains that Paul’s exhortation to “fulfill your ministry” means that the servant of Christ must fully carry out the assignment he has received from the Lord in a way that is biblically faithful and spiritually fruitful.
- Daniel Strange | Strange Times: Never Say ‘the Phones Are Quiet’. Strange examines the superstitious avoidance of “Quiet” and argues that Christian witness must be loud as we live with a bold freedom and not in fear.
- Jason S. DeRouchie | The Mystery Revealed: A Biblical Case for Christ-Centered Old Testament Interpretation. DeRouchie provides a biblical-theological foundation for a Christ-centered hermeneutic, arguing that Jesus himself provides both the light for enabling us to see and savor what is in the OT and the necessary lens that influences and guides our reading by filling out the meaning.
- Peter R. Schemm and Andreas J. Köstenberger | The Gospel as Interpretive Key to 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16: On Christian Worship, Head Coverings, and the Trinity. Schemm and Köstenberger interpret Paul’s challenging statements about head coverings as an apostolic application of the gospel—especially the idea of giving glory and honor to God—to dishonoring worship practices in the Corinthian church.
- Mark L. Strauss | A Review of the Christian Standard Bible. Strauss explains that the CSB translation follows a mediating approach between formal and functional equivalence and is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the HCSB, in terms of both accuracy and style.
- Coleman M. Ford | ‘Striving for Glory with God’: Humility as the Good Life in Basil of Caesarea’s Homily 20. According to Ford, Basil of Caesarea presents humility as the essence of the good life and as the chief virtue based on Christ’s own humility.
- C. J. Moore | Can We Hasten the Parousia? An Examination of Matthew 24:14 and Its Implications for Missional Practice. Moore critically examines appeals to an eschatological motivation for missions and offers a modified view that frees the missionary to simply proclaim the gospel of Christ with a proper recognition of God’s sovereignty over both salvation and the Parousia.
- Jackson Wu | The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization: Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy, and the Canon. Wu explores the relationship between contextualization and an evangelical doctrine of the Bible; he not only affirms the importance of contextualization but also identifies its biblical boundaries.
- Zachary Breitenbach | The Insights and Shortcomings of Kantian Ethics: Signposts Signaling the Truthfulness of Christian Ethics. Breitenbach compares three insightful objectives of Kant’s ethical system grounded in pure reason to three crucial ethical principles that are taught in the Bible, and he argues that shortcomings of Kantian ethics serve as a signpost to the truth of Christian ethics.
- Drew Hunter | Hebrews and the Typology of Jonathan Edwards. Hunter considers Jonathan Edwards’s typological interpretive practices and principles and shows the unique contribution that Edwards’s principled typological method makes to current discussions about typology and the use of the Old Testament in the New.