My pastor has been teaching through the book of Ecclesiastes, highlighting its critical message for our lives and our work, and our need for honest reflection on both. The Solomonic “preacher” of Ecclesiastes says that “under the sun”—life without reference or relationship to a transcendent God—is “vanity,” empty of sense, reason, hope, or purpose. If this world is truly “all there is,” then we are indeed in trouble—and Ecclesiastes provides as honest and true a description of this truth as can be found.
There have been countless long days during my aerospace career where I plowed hard to get through all the responsibilities and tasks. And yet sometimes, when I reached the end of the day, all that was left was a deep sigh. Is this all there is to this job?
Let God transform the list of things you dislike about your job into the reasons God has called you there.
In light of Genesis 3, we can understand such frustration; it sets the stage for problems we encounter throughout our lives and, particularly, our work. God has intentionally cursed the world to remind us of our rebellion against him and our need for reconciliation with him, each other, and his world.
Here are six ways God responded to humanity’s rejection of him in Eden.1. An Enemy
God promised that the world will include spiritual enemies seeking our harm (Gen. 3:15). Evil will exist, and we will be prone to hear and believe deceptive lies about ourselves, the world, and the value and role of work in our lives.
False promises of ultimate satisfaction from our work are whispered into our ears from the enemy.2. Alienated Relationships
Trust and mutual support with God and each other have also been lost. Misdirected blame and self-interest entered the scene (Gen. 3:12) and are now commonplace.
Our relationships with each other at work seem naturally vulnerable to problems, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Who hasn’t experienced difficulties with co-workers, bosses, clients, or suppliers?3. Pain
Suffering, whether emotional or physical, is now part of the deal (Gen. 3:16–17). Our labor causes pain and injury.
Even traditionally “safe” office work environments require regular attention to things like adequate ergonomic workstations and protections from abuse and harassment. Carpal tunnel injuries and work-related physical and mental stress typify many office environments.4. A Resistant World
Creation itself, including all the institutions humanity has formed, resists our best efforts to apply ourselves and produce good and useful work (Gen. 3:17–19). As much progress as we’ve made in sophisticated technology, innovation, and industry, we still experience deep difficulties in our daily labor.
Inflated bureaucracies, inefficient processes, outside disruptions, scarcity of resources, insoluble problems, and ineffective leadership—regardless of our skill level and personal efficiency—all remind us that our work sometimes just doesn’t want to cooperate.5. Death
The ultimate disrupter of work is death itself (Gen. 3:19). Decay, sickness, and death (even more so than taxes!) are guaranteed. The longer you work, the more this becomes a regular theme.
I’ve experienced the death of three employees over the years who were under my management; nothing intrudes on the workplace like the trauma and loss when a dear colleague passes away.6. Hiddenness of God
God removed Adam and Eve from the garden out of compassion, so they would know the consequences of life apart from intimate communion and trust with him, and would have the opportunity to be redeemed (Gen. 3:22–24). The angst and longing of Ecclesiastes is a direct consequence of both our rejection of God and also his removal of us from his intimate presence. Our lives and work beg for the meaning and restoration that would be always present if we had direct access to God’s face-to-face presence in a perfect world.
So when you get to the end of a long work day and feel that heavy sigh coming, remember your Maker, who transcends “life under the sun.” He created today with purpose, even in all its challenges, tasks, and “unfinishedness.” Though God seems far away at times, by faith we know he draws close and cares for all who seek him. Take your angst to him and let him bear its weight as only he is able.
And remember that though our work will always bear the marks of a fallen world, it is also a call for us to enter into God’s renewing work. Let God transform the list of things you dislike about your job into the reasons God has called you there. Love your broken world, care for your coworkers’ good, seek the flourishing of your work environment, and let God use your modest efforts to bless—and bring a glimpse of his kingdom into—the place he has called you.
It epitomizes contempt to say to someone, “I hope you fail at everything you do.” But what if I told you I hope you experience some failure at points? I am actually serving you by saying this.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, an article appeared on former figure skater Scott Hamilton. He was a medalist at the 1984 Games, and a longtime analyst for the event. “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career—41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche—the one that reminds you to just get up.”Failure Builds Muscle
That psychic muscle is built in failure. Spiritual muscle is built this way, too. To be sure, not all failure is the same. There are catastrophic failures with consequences one may not be able to get up from. It’s one thing for an Olympian to fall thousands of times on his way to a gold medal. Hamilton had to perfect his jumps and signature backflip, yes, but even with all his falls in years of practice and competitions, he was clearly not a failure at skating.
President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary believed no one should be allowed to work in the West Wing who had not suffered major disappointments in life—either as a result of others’ failures or their own. He believed the responsibility of working in the White House was too great to be entrusted to people who weren’t painfully aware of how badly things can go wrong.
Of all people, pastors should be keenly aware of how wrong things can go. He is a better pastor who painfully shares in the failures of his people. I don’t mean moral failures, which are catastrophic for pastors, nor do I mean chronic failure, where one repeats the same mistake over and over because he’s lazy or disorganized or incompetent in the work. Vocational intelligence is, more or less, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. But I pass on to aspiring pastors what someone observed eons ago: a pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
A pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
Why a rhino hide? Because others are going to fail you through their critiques and attacks, but you’re going to fail them, too. And if you want to quit over those failures, you miss your best opportunities for growth. I blush to recall the time I, from the pulpit, mocked the side effects of anxiety medication. I thought I was being cute, but that sent a young mother into the foyer crying. She had seen her ex-husband murder her father, and she was on medication as a result.
I failed her—miserably. She was gracious to forgive me, but I learned something about hurts within a congregation, something I probably wouldn’t have learned any other way except through failure.The Only Way
That’s the hard part: What have I had to learn through failure because I wouldn’t learn it any other way? Someone once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” I’ve been there and done that too in preaching. I regret it. Wish I could have those Sundays back.
I’m a failed church planter. The church I helped start years ago is doing well today—but not because of me. Though I poured my heart into it, I wasn’t right for the work. I see that now.
Some would say I failed in parenting because of my child’s troubles. Most of the fellow parents Lynn and I have met at drug treatment centers and therapy groups feel like failures. Among the many lessons we parents of addicts must learn is the unhelpful ways we’re prone to try to “rescue” our children from themselves. We convince ourselves it’s to keep them from more failure, but we’re virtually guaranteeing their ongoing failure when we rescue them in all the wrong ways. It’s counterintuitive to every parental impulse, but our son really does have to be on his own. I don’t mean not having a recovery community around him. That’s essential. But Mom and Dad can’t lead it. He has to stand in that community on his own two legs to truly walk the path of recovery. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t walked this broken road in parenting.Climb by Falling
I’m not a determinist when it comes to failure. I’m a “hopetimist.” When I sit with younger pastors or parents and tell them, “I hope you’ll know some failures along the way,” I say this because I believe growing is the most important form of succeeding. And I don’t believe we grow without some failure.
Growth is not automatic from failure, to be sure. But if we are always rescued, we don’t grow.
So let us be grateful to the Lord for failure—not for its causes, nor the pain and confusion it generates—but for the growth in humility and gratitude and perseverance it makes possible.
During my past six years serving as a college pastor, some of my most disturbing conversations have been with unrepentant sexual assault perpetrators and their defensive Christian parents. In their attempts to justify their actions, too often I would hear from the perpetrators (and their parents), “Have you seen her Instagram account? Do you know what she’s like at parties? But she made the first move. Well, she asked for it. She has a history.” And so on.
With more than 20 percent of female undergraduate students experiencing some form of sexual assault or misconduct, these tendencies to blame the victim have led some to demand action or even walk away from the faith. But does Scripture remain silent to the injustice of victim-blaming? Does God remain silent to the cries of victims for redemption from their shame?Defining Victim-Blaming
According to Harvard Law School’s HALT website,
Victim-blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault. Victim-blaming occurs when it is assumed that an individual did something to provoke the violence by actions, words, or dress. Many people would rather believe that someone caused their own misfortune because it makes the world seem a safer place, but victim-blaming is a major reason that survivors of sexual and domestic violence do not report their assaults.
Concerns of false reporting by victims should also be tempered by the fact that only 2 percent to 10 percent (the same rate for other crimes) of rape allegations turn out to be untrue. Hence, ministry leaders—especially those serving college students—must be hyper-vigilant in listening to their sheep, reporting suspected abuse, and protecting the vulnerable from perpetrators.
Contrary to those who argue Scripture normalizes violence by including narratives of war, pillaging, and sexual assault, it’s more likely such passages are included to compel God’s people to confront the uncomfortable realities of sin and brokenness in our world.
Few stories are as tragic and heartbreaking as Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. Tamar appears to have sincerely cared for her perpetrator’s well-being. And similar to many contemporary instances of victims initially trusting their perpetrators, her willingness to serve Amnon by herself revealed a level of trust cultivated through years of friendship. This is one reason why the harm done to her body, emotional health, and soul was that much more painful and enduring. It would take years, if not the rest of her life, to recover from the betrayal, depression, anxiety, distrust, and PTSD that followed.
Amnon’s sexual assault of Tamar has all the qualities of victim-blaming: (1) She accepted his request to assist him alone in his room (13:7–9); (2) she was physically close to him while he was lying in bed pretending to be sick (13:10–11); (3) she allowed her brother to watch her as she baked (13:8); (4) she hand-fed him bread that she baked herself (13:11); and (5) she was wearing an decorative robe signifying her virginity (13:18).
If skeptics are right and the Bible is merely ancient patriarchal propaganda, one could suggest that these details of Tamar’s rape are mentioned to (partially or fully) justify Amnon’s actions. One might expect Scripture to say, “She shouldn’t have been in the room alone with him. She should’ve worn something less suggestive. It goes both ways.” Yet even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar; rather, they unequivocally place the guilt on the conspirators.
Even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar.Hope for Sexual Assault Victims
Instead of condemning Tamar, chapter 13 alludes to how she will be redeemed by a future savior (13:13) and goes on to describe Amnon’s destruction (13:23–33). The former reveals God’s compassionate heart for victims and his promise of redemption; the latter his unwavering desire for justice against sexual assault perpetrators.
When Tamar cries, “Where could I carry my shame?” (13:13), our heavenly Father responds with good news of a future messianic king. God hears Tamar and answers her cry as her rapist brother dismisses it and as her own father, King David, ignores and minimizes it (13:21). But whereas Tamar put ashes on her head, tore her decorative robe, and waited for the true and better king to carry out justice and restore her stolen dignity, we now have access to Jesus Christ, the king for whom Tamar and those like her have longed.
Only this king compassionately carried all our shame to a cross and died so we could be cleansed of our perpetrators’ sins against us and forgiven of the many sins we’ve committed against others. And only this king rose from the dead to replace our tattered robes by clothing us with his garment of praise, replacing our ashes by covering us with his beauty (Isa. 61:3). In Jesus, our shame, doubts, and false accusations are redeemed and vindicated.Church’s Response
As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, our responsibility to care for the victimized in our flocks requires us to take seriously any claim of sexual assault, show victims respect, and put their safety as our top priority. To dismiss a woman’s account of sexual assault without any evidence because of her “reputation” is to deny our own “reputation” of sinful rebellion prior to coming to Christ.
As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, pastors have the responsibility to care for the victimized in their flocks.
Certainly we should pursue truth and justice for both victims and the accused, while upholding the judicial principle of innocent until proven guilty. Christ-like compassion and redemptive justice should extend to the accused as well as the accuser. But the tragic story of Tamar should compel us to avoid rushing to justify the sins of perpetrators in order to save face or to reassure ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Our Savior’s ministry to women, the powerless, and the marginalized should lead us to be wary of joining in the pervasive and toxic social phenomenon of victim blaming.
Few would disagree that we’re now living in an effectively post-Christian world. Secularism is on the rise, church attendance is in decline, and hostility to Christian values is ever-increasing. In light of this foreboding landscape, it’s appropriate to ask whether the church is on the right track. Have we missed something? Are we doing something incorrectly that we need to change?
Andy Stanley’s latest volume, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” We have been on the wrong track, and we need to change if we’re going to reach the next generation with the gospel. What is this wrong track? It’s that modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. The problem with the modern church is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives” (91).
As a result, Christianity has lost its mojo. These vestiges of the old covenant have led, Stanley says, to a variety of vices in the church: “prosperity gospel, the crusades, anti-Semitism, legalism, exclusivism, judgmentalism,” and more (158). Thus, Stanley offers a clear call to church leaders: “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” (315). This is necessary because “when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list” (280).
Put simply, when people struggle to believe, “the Old Testament is usually the culprit” (278).Bold Thesis
Needless to say, Irresistible certainly doesn’t lack in boldness. Indeed, the claims laid out above are genuinely breathtaking. In essence, Stanley has pinned virtually all the major problems of the church—from the Crusades to legalism—to our continued use of the Old Testament.
And his solution is no less bold. If the Old Testament is the problem, just cut it off.
Andy Stanley’s thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.
Of course, such a forceful, wide-ranging thesis would need to be backed up by an equally forceful and wide-ranging argument. But that’s where this volume runs into serious challenges. As I will argue below, Stanley’s arguments can’t bear the weight of his thesis. Indeed, his thesis is so far-reaching that his arguments become equally far-reaching—moving far beyond what the Bible (or church history) can support.What Stays and What Goes?
In a limited review such as this one, I can only offer a few specifics. I begin with Stanley’s view of what it means for the old covenant to be “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). Stanley is certainly correct that many aspects of the Mosaic economy are abrogated under the new covenant. Indeed, I commend his entire first section (17–65), which is quite a helpful discussion of how old covenant worship—with temple, animal sacrifices, and earthly priests—is now fulfilled in Christ.
But Stanley assumes that the abrogation of old covenant cultic laws means all kinds of laws present under the old covenant are also abrogated. He treats “law” under the Mosaic economy as a singular, undifferentiated lump. If part goes, it all goes. But this isn’t how the New Testament treats these laws. Nor is it how theologians have historically treated these laws. It has been widely recognized that there are “moral” laws under the old covenant order—in particular, the Ten Commandments—that have abiding relevance. After all, the foundation for moral laws (God’s own character) doesn’t change.
Because Stanley misses this distinction, he is willing even to reject the Ten Commandments: “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Though shalt not obey the Ten Commandments” (136, emphasis mine). He goes even further: “Paul never leverages the old covenant as a basis for Christian behavior” (209).
Aside from the rhetorical shock of such statements, they’re flatly contradicted many places in the New Testament. Just one example is Ephesians 6:1, where Paul calls Christian children to obey their parents. Surely, he must ground this exhortation in the new covenant teaching of Jesus, right? No, Paul actually cites one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother . . . that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Ex. 20:12).
Stunningly, Stanley does mention Exodus 20:12 but only as an example of what New Testament writers supposedly never do! “We new covenant types don’t honor our father and mothers so we can ‘live long in the land’” (236). Apparently, he missed Ephesians 6:1; he never mentions it.Divide and Conquer
In order to keep Christians away from the Old Testament, Stanley adopts a number of strategies. One of those strategies is to insist on as much discontinuity as possible between the covenants. They are, in Stanley’s mind, fundamentally opposed to each other (146).
For him, the old covenant is about hating enemies, the new is about loving them (107). The old covenant is filled with “misogyny” (290) where women are “commodities” (214), but under the new they are “partners” (215). In the old covenant God is “holy,” but in the new covenant God is “love” (223). The old covenant God is “angry,” but the new covenant God is “brokenhearted” (257). In the old covenant people relied on the Bible, but in the new covenant they just love people (234).
In essence, Stanley’s book stokes a radical discontinuity between the covenants in a manner reflective of the hermeneutics of classical dispensationalism. That may motivate people to “unhitch” from the old covenant, but whether it faithfully represents that covenant is another matter.
Take, for instance, the idea that the old covenant was about hating one’s enemies. Stanley appeals to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43–44). Stanley mistakenly assumes Jesus is arguing against the old covenant itself. Nowhere does the Old Testament say “hate your enemy”—it’s not there. Theologians, therefore, have rightly recognized that Jesus is arguing against Pharisaical distortions and abuses of the old covenant. After all, even the Old Testament says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty give him water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).
This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.
This is a common problem throughout Stanley’s volume: He often confuses distortions of the old covenant with the old covenant itself.
Another example is when Stanley talks about racism in ancient Judaism. He tells a story about a modern white couple who opposed their daughter’s marriage to a black man because they believed Moses was judged by God because he married a dark-skinned Midianite (148). But this story is perplexing for the reader. Clearly these parents have profoundly misunderstood (and misused) this Old Testament story to support their racist views. But what does that have to do with the nature of the old covenant itself? Is Stanley implying that the old covenant is racist or leads to racism? Surely not. But then why tell the story at all?
This strategy ends up caricaturing the old covenant as a harsh, cold, legalistic arrangement that we should all be happy to be rid of. Nowhere are we reminded that old covenant believers, though they were under a provisional arrangement filled with types and shadows, were still saved by grace through faith in the coming Savior (Heb. 11:22–40). Nor are we told that Paul indicates that circumcision was a sign of justification by faith for Old Testament saints (Rom. 4:11).
In other words, the discontinuity between the covenants isn’t nearly as radical as Stanley supposes.Lesson from Church History?
If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. Would the church fathers of the second and third centuries have agreed with Stanley’s view? No; they not only read, studied, and used the Old Testament in worship (e.g., see Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67), but they insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.
If we want to know how (or whether) Christians should use the Old Testament, we might ask what the earliest Christians did. . . . [T]hey insisted that Christ was their main subject. The Old Testament was valuable because Christ was there.
Incredibly, Stanley isn’t deterred by this fact. Instead, he doubles down and insists that the church fathers were simply wrong too! They just “ignored [Paul’s] warning against mixing and matching” (155). Indeed, he goes even further, insisting that attempts to find Christ in the Old Testament are simply instances of the Jewish Scriptures being “hijacked” by Christians who are “ignoring original context” (156). Even more, he argues this Christ-in-the-Old-Testament approach has led Christians toward anti-Semitism.
Many readers will be stunned by such statements. According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.
But there is a figure from church history who held a view similar to Stanley’s—the second-century figure Marcion. I only say similar because there are notable differences (Marcion rejected the Old Testament as the product of a false god). Nevertheless, they both share a deep conviction that the Old Testament is fundamentally at odds with Paul’s pure gospel. In fact, Marcion would’ve viewed himself as someone trying to help Christianity. He was trying to protect the gospel. Christianity had to be saved—even if it meant saving Christianity from itself.
According to Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.
However, Marcion’s view didn’t win the day. His approach was roundly and widely rejected by early Christians. Indeed, his story stood as a sober reminder for many generations thereafter that the church was fundamentally committed to the abiding value and relevance of the Old Testament.End Game
What is the pay-off of Stanley’s proposed paradigm-shift? He thinks it will help reach unbelievers more effectively. In essence, the final chapters of Irresistible offer a new (it’s not really new) approach to apologetics: take the focus off the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and put it on the resurrection.
People don’t need to believe the Bible to be Christians, Stanley reminds us. So, why debate its truth? That’s just a distraction. He states, “The good news is even if none of those [Old Testament] things actually happened it does nothing to undermine the credibility of our new covenant faith” (306).
Stanley is partly right. People don’t have to believe the Bible to be saved (at least not all of it). Indeed, they don’t even need to know a Bible exists to be saved (imagine a missionary preaching to a tribe in the remote jungle). But Stanley leaves out (or doesn’t himself realize) a key distinction: While a person doesn’t have to believe the Bible is true to be saved, the Bible has to be true for them to be saved.
Why? Because Jesus said the Bible is true. And if it’s not true, then he was wrong. And that raises issues for our salvation. But it’s even bigger than this point. If Jesus is the divine Lord of the universe, then he is also the author of the Old Testament. He (through inspired human authors) wrote it. So, yes, it does matter if it’s true.
Thus, Stanley’s view of the Old Testament stands in direct contrast to Jesus’s view of the Old Testament. Sure, Stanley claims to follow Jesus’s view (69), but there is an unresolved (or perhaps unresolvable) tension in his position. He does not recognize that the authority of Jesus is linked to the truth of the Old Testament. They stand or fall together.Road Block
Let me say that I appreciate the heart behind Irresistible. We all want to reach more people for Christ, and any road block that can be removed ought to be removed. We all can learn a profound lesson from Stanley’s passion for the lost. I wish more churches (and pastors) labored over how to reach non-Christians like he does.
Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. . . . He’s even out of sync with Bible itself.
But not every road block can be removed. Some doctrines are too central to the truth of Christianity and the health of the church to be taken away. When it comes to presenting the gospel, Stanley has become convinced the Bible, especially the Old Testament, simply gets in the way. I disagree. But it’s not just me. Stanley stands against the entire history of the church as well as the theological heritage of the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, as I have argued, he’s even out of sync with Bible itself.
There can be a sad irony in defending the faith. We can be so eager to oppose any and all obstacles, that we end up, unwittingly, opposing Christianity itself. If we’re not careful, we might end up losing the very thing we’re trying to save.
With a population close to 10 million, the Chicago metropolitan area is America’s largest Midwestern city and third largest overall. Known for its architecture, deep dish pizza, avid sports fans, and sprawling suburbs, the Windy City also boasts a sizable Christian population.
While only about half of the residents in Seattle (52 percent) and San Francisco (48 percent) identify as Christians, 71 percent of Chicagoans call themselves Christians (a large portion of these are Catholic; Chicago has one of the largest Catholic populations in the United States).
The Chicago area is also a global center of evangelical influence. It is home to many top evangelical colleges and seminaries (Wheaton, Moody Bible Institute, Trinity, North Park, to name a few) and publications (Crossway, Tyndale, InterVarsity Press, Moody, Christianity Today).
But even with its evangelical pedigree, Chicago needs more gospel-centered, Word-rooted churches where Christians see clearly how Scripture should guide and anchor their lives. That’s why The Gospel Coalition Chicago is hosting the Leading with the Word conference on October 26 to 27, 2018—a gathering to encourage and equip believers to take the highest view of the Bible and its application in the church, in preaching, teaching, and in their own spiritual lives.
I asked the conference organizer, pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith of The Orchard, as well as David Choi of Chicago’s Church of the Beloved, to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of gospel-centered ministry in Chicagoland today.Is ministry in the Chicago context different from ministry in similarly sized cities in other parts of the world?
Smith: Having come here from the UK I have been asked many times about what’s different from the context of ministry in London. But I have been much more struck by the similarities than by the differences. The first great need of all human beings in every time and place is to know God. When we come to know him we become aware of our need of a Savior. Another great need is for the strength to pursue the life to which God has called us, and that power becomes ours through the Holy Spirit as we look in living faith to Christ our Savior and our Lord. These are universal needs. They never change. And in all the conversation about cultural context, I think it is important to remember the relevance of the gospel in every time and place.Briefly describe your churches.
Choi: Our church, Church of the Beloved, was a parachute plant launched in 2012 in the near west neighborhood of Chicago. Since then, God has multiplied our plant to six locations in the city of Chicago, and two outside of Chicago. One of the most encouraging aspects early on in our ministry was how God began to lead nations to our church, in particular people who had never heard the gospel. Our first international student who came to Jesus had no previous knowledge of Jesus. She put her faith in Christ and was baptized several days before she moved back to her country. Another girl from an unreached country came to our Christmas Eve service. That night, she had a dream where she was running away from Jesus. When she woke up, she felt compelled to learn more about this Jesus she was running from. Several months later, after studying the Bible with one of our church members and hearing the gospel proclaimed, she trusted in Jesus and continues to be an important part of our church family.
Smith: The Orchard began in 1953. For the first 55 years it was known as The Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church. It was planted through the leadership of Will Norton, who was the professor of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1950s. The first pastor of the church was Gordon Addington, a student from the seminary. The name of the church changed to The Orchard in 2008 when we launched a second campus in Barrington. In the years that followed, the remaining members of two churches facing closure asked if we would receive them and continue the work of their church as a campus of The Orchard. Then in 2016 we launched a fifth campus in Northfield and are looking forward, God willing, to the opening of our sixth campus in the city of Chicago in 2019.
Many in our community have been helped by our community care program, in which volunteers offer material and spiritual help to people in need. The Celebrate Recovery program has been another means of help to many, and the children’s ministry is highly valued by many families in the communities we serve. But I think the greatest ministry to the community is through innumerable acts of care and kindness that flow from God’s people wherever he has set them down.What are the biggest discipleship challenges you face with Christians in your particular context?
Smith: Despite the rapid secularization of our culture, many in the communities we serve have some form of faith. They would consider themselves Christians, even without a personal faith in Christ or the experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Others have rejected a cultural Christianity without ever having tasted the joy of a living relationship with God, and that’s a challenge. Either way, it’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.
It’s hard for people to hear what Christ offers when they think they have experienced it already.
Another challenge is that many have an understanding of discipleship that revolves around individual mentoring and is often disconnected from the local church. Our model of ministry revolves around roots, life, and fruit. We believe Christians grow and mature where they put down deep roots in the Word of God, share in the life Christ gives us through fellowship with others, and bear fruit wherever God has set us down to serve him in the world. That’s different from what many people are familiar with, and so it can take some getting used to.
Choi: Transience. Every year about one-third of our congregation moves, usually to another major city. Not only is it challenging to sustain growth, but it is also difficult replenishing new leaders. We recently started a leadership pipeline to try and address this concern, and I have found that one of the most important things we need to focus on as a city center church is developing new planters and leaders who have a vision to stay in the city longer than the average stay of two to three years. Another challenge is the emotional drain of saying goodbye to so many church members and leaders you have come to love and care for. Many urban planters can empathize with the pain and subsequent feelings of loneliness that comes with having key leaders feel “called” to move away from their city. I have found it important to meet with other planters and pastors outside of my church who remind me that these emotions are a common problem among city center churches. It has also forced us to think through preaching calendars and discipleship, knowing that the average member may only be in our congregation for a few years. One of the unique struggles is how to balance casting vision to stay in the city for the long haul with the reality of embracing urban mobility, and learning to equip and send people out to be a blessing to the cities and churches they will be heading to.Are there contexts or demographics where the soil seems fertile for gospel advancement in the Chicago area? Where do you see the most life and fruitfulness?
Choi: God has grown our church through reaching urban millennials, including internationals who are studying here or working here. On a given Sunday, we have about 30 or so nations represented, and more than half our congregation grew up speaking a language other than English. When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old, and yet it has grown in what is often deemed the most difficult demographic to reach. We find that many internationals have no religious baggage to deconstruct, so they tend to be more open to hearing about Christ. One sister from a closed country was given a Bible from one of our leaders. Two weeks later, I asked her if she had read it. She hung her head in shame as she confessed to having only read Genesis and John. Seventy-one chapters in two weeks! It is extremely challenging for us as believers when we see non-believers being more eager to learn about Jesus and study his Word than many churched people.
When people cite surveys that millennials are leaving the church, I ask them: Which millennials? Our church’s average age in Chicago is about 25 years old.
Smith: I have been struck by the growth of multicultural ministry in our church. Historically our congregation was largely made up of Swedes and Norwegians. Multicultural ministry started with a lady who had a vision for translating sermons into Polish. Then a Japanese intern who served in our church had the vision for expanding this work. Now, we have ministry along people from multiple language groups, including Spanish, Indian, Polish, Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Ukranian.What areas of sin and injustice are most troublesome in the Chicago area, and what can churches be doing to address them?
Smith: Racial division is a burden to the heart of any thinking Christian in this area, as is the tragic loss of human life through abortion, and through murder in the city. The greatest opportunities we have for influence in areas of sin and injustice come, in my opinion, not so much through activity organized by the church, but through the influence of individual members of the body of Christ sent out into the world. Our people shine like lights as they act with righteousness, justice, and compassion wherever the Lord has placed them. Motivating and inspiring believers who gather for worship to see the purpose of God in their calling is, to my mind, one of the great privileges of ministry.
Choi: Chicago is widely considered one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Systemic racism, corruption, and injustice have plagued our city in both visible and also subtle ways. Shootings and homicides happen daily and often in neighborhoods that would normally be considered safe. I have had conversations with Chicago pastors who minister in diverse contexts both racially and economically. There seems to be a growing awareness among churches and leaders who recognize the need for coordinated citywide prayer initiatives as well as a united voice to speak prophetically against corporate sins, both inside and outside the church.How can TGC readers be praying for your particular church and the broader movement of the gospel in the Chicago area?
Smith: Pray for the launch of The Orchard Chicago campus that will meet at The Lakewood beginning January 6, 2019. Pray that ministry leaders may walk humbly and faithfully with Christ and that God’s Spirit will use his Word to bring lasting change in many lives.
Choi: For Church of the Beloved, please pray for us to continue to be humble before the Lord. Please pray for a sweet spirit of unity and cooperation among churches throughout Chicago in seeing gospel impact permeate every sphere of society. Pray that existing pastors and new planters would stay rooted in the gospel and that we would spend much time with God. Pray that there would be an increase of personal and corporate prayer among all the churches in our city.
Also in this series:
The problem of evil has long been a challenge to Christians. How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow pain and suffering in his good creation? The question never remains theoretical, of course. In one way or another, the problem will confront each us of directly. The question is, will we be ready when we get the inevitable phone call that brings us to our knees? What can we do today to ready ourselves for the heartache and pain of tomorrow?
It may be counterintuitive, but part of my answer is: Go to an art gallery.
The arts have always been a key means of spiritual formation and renewal in the church. Art beckons us to look higher, to look deeper—to recognize the transcendent in items as ordinary as canvas and clay. This transcendent experience poses its own dilemma that is a sort of counterpoint to the dilemma of evil.
Just as evil causes us to ask, “How could this exist if there’s a God?” the goodness and order we see in art causes us to ask, “How could this exist if there isn’t a God?” Indeed, we’ll only be able to make sense of the world’s ugliness in moments of crisis if we first try to make sense of the world’s beauty in moments of transcendent joy. Dealing with the problem of pleasure will prepare us for the problem of pain.
We’ll only be able to make sense of the world’s ugliness in moments of crisis if we first try to make sense of the world’s beauty in moments of transcendent joy.Seeing Beyond
The great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein put it beautifully:
Beethoven turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! . . . Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.
In the Christian account of the world, creation is sacramental: it points beyond itself. But if we haven’t trained our eyes to look for order and meaning in the symphony, we won’t be likely to see with eyes of faith in the midst of tragedy. So, be it a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture—all art should lead our eyes beyond the immediate and to the infinite, beyond the creation itself to the Creator himself.
This is a point C. S. Lewis makes in The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In the secular, de-mythologized West, our eyes are taught to look at and in, but never through, and certainly not up. Whatever you call this cultural phenomenon—objectivism, scientism, utilitarianism—its effects are palpable: we’re habituated to see creation as mere nature, an end in itself, an object for dissection but certainly not delight.
In such a culture, appreciating art takes more discipline and effort than ever before. At first, the clay appears to be just that: a lump of dirt. Yet if you make it your practice to stop by the same sculpture each time you visit the museum, over the months and years you will find the clay transforms into something different. It takes on new meaning and significance. But of course it is not the object itself that changes—it’s how we see it. The seeing is changed not by the seen but by the see-er.
To see more than a lump of dirt in a sculpture takes a patience that is rarer and rarer in our fast-paced age.
The thing is, seeing well takes intentionality, especially in our distracted age. To see more than a lump of dirt in a sculpture takes a patience that is rarer and rarer in our fast-paced age. But if we as Christ’s followers want to honor God’s beautiful creation (including the creations of his image-bearers), we need to cultivate this patient mode of seeing.Problems of Pain and Pleasure
The conditions that make art appreciation difficult are the same conditions that make reckoning with the problem of evil difficult. The same eyes that see only a lump of clay in a sculpture will only see discoloration and scars when looking in the mirror after a major surgery. Conversely, eyes trained to see meaning and beauty while sitting on the museum bench will be able to recognize the handiwork of God while lying in the hospital bed, even as they yet see through a glass, dimly.
This is not to say we will always discover meaning just by looking at something hard enough. Meaning in art, as in suffering, is sometimes elusive or even inaccessible. The death of a loved one or relentless hardship can often feel senseless, absurd, devoid of meaning. Some overly artsy music or films can feel the same way. But the extremes do not detract from the broader principle. The more we cultivate intentional, observant viewing of art, the more we’ll be able to make meaning of all of reality.
The arts are crucial in recovering the skills necessary to regain a right disposition toward reality. They can help us see order and cohesion in the true, the good, and the beautiful. Not only can a deep familiarity with the beautiful give us the standard by which we recognize and name the ugly, but once we’ve become accustomed to looking for meaning in moments of joy, perhaps we can also see with eyes of faith in moments of despair.
We might say it this way: The problem of pain becomes more manageable if we’ve already reckoned with the problem of pleasure.
- Why We Need Great Art (Terry Glaspey)
- What’s the Point of Art? (Jackie Hill Perry)
- The Disruptive Witness of Art (Alan Noble)
- In Christian Theology, Beauty Demands to Be Noticed ( Matt Capps)
“I want to introduce you to a generation shortly after the Puritan era. Let me tell you something about these folks. Their ethics and their epistemology matched. God always leaves a witness to his Word.” — K. A. Ellis
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- What Has Geneva to Do with Ferguson (Mika Edmondson)
- Meet Presbyterian America’s First Licensed Black Preacher (Darryl Williamson)
- The Pro-Life Movement Needs More Wilberforces (Gracy Olmstead)
Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.
As I engage in pastoral conversations, I am often greeted with a sincere question: “Pastor Tom, I certainly understand that loving our neighbors well requires resources, but didn’t Jesus caution us about wealth?”
Throughout the history of the church, there have been two prominent and diverging views of wealth. One view insists that material wealth and wealth creation are intrinsically corrupting, and therefore must be avoided at all cost.
The other view contends that material wealth and wealth creation are essentially good, and are part of our creation design and cultural mandate. Taken too far, this can lead to the belief that God blesses his true followers with health and wealth.
We can learn from both.Poverty Gospel
Underlying many manifestations of the poverty gospel is a contemporary form of Gnosticism, which devalues the true goodness of the material world. The poverty gospel often fuels a blinding, pietistic spiritual pride that asserts the greater the material poverty, the more spiritual the person. Inherent in this distorted biblical teaching is that material poverty brings spiritual riches, and material abundance inevitably brings spiritual poverty.
Proponents of the poverty gospel are right to remind us of many biblical texts that speak to the sizable dangers that accompany increasing material wealth. They also rightly call an increasingly affluent Western church to greater material generosity and deeper sacrificial living (see Matt. 6:24; 19:16–30; 1 Tim. 6:7–8; Heb. 13:5).
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance.
Yet those who embrace the poverty gospel in its many explicit and implicit forms make a theological error by too closely wedding evil with material prosperity. According to Dallas Willard, “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world. Stewardship which requires possessions and includes giving is the true spiritual discipline in relation to wealth.”
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance. In all economic circumstances, whether they are bleak or bright, faithful and fruitful stewardship of all God entrusts in required.Prosperity Gospel
A second dangerous distortion regarding material wealth is the prosperity gospel. Proponents believe the creation of wealth is an authenticating sign or a direct causal apologetic for God’s blessing. Prosperity-gospel adherents assert that God wants everyone to be materially prosperous. Embedded in the prosperity gospel is a good and admirable attention to what is often a neglected robust theology of the goodness of human flourishing.
Tragically, like most other theological distortions, important truth is ignored, minimized, or outright denied. In many cases, prosperity-gospel proponents have a paltry view of human suffering, tend to ignore Scripture’s call to a sacrificial lifestyle fueled by neighborly love, and blatantly disregard the sovereign will of God for some of Jesus’s followers to experience material poverty.
There are times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor.
While affirming some of the good aspects of prosperity-gospel teaching, John Schneider persuasively challenges its erroneous belief that God desires all to be materially prosperous: “It is that there are not times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor. And Scripture makes very clear that such times and circumstances often do exist.”
The prosperity gospel is not only inconsistent with Scripture, it also flies in the face of many devoted followers of Jesus in the present day and throughout church history who face and have faced great material deprivation in their apprenticeship with Jesus.Fixed Pie
Seeing that wealth is neither to be avoided nor praised but rather stewarded wisely and generously, how should we think about material-wealth creation?
Sometimes we assume there is a “fixed pie” of wealth or fruitfulness in the world. The common fixed-pie fallacy suggests that one person’s growth in wealth results in another person’s diminishing wealth. We see the effects of this fallacy in the contemporary pulpit. Both explicitly and implicitly, many pastors herald the notion that the wealthy create the poor in a causal kind of relationship.
A robust theology of creation, however, helps us see the error of the fixed-pie view. God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
This means the work of cultivating the Garden of Eden was a call to steward the raw materials of God’s creation and to create something that wasn’t there before, multiplying it many times over for the flourishing of all (Gen. 2:15).
God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
So we see wealth creation as a good thing, because through it, we reflect our created nature and have an increased capacity to love our neighbor. We were created to flourish, to be fruitful, to add value to others in the world. Paul writes, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
Whatever work God has called us to, we must ask: Are we becoming more fruitful workers? Are we increasingly doing our job better and gaining greater skill? If we are in a paid work context, what kind of job reviews are we getting? If we are pursuing more formal education, are we taking our learning seriously? If we do not earn a regular paycheck, how are we continuing to grow in our contribution to others? If we are a stay-at-home spouse, how are we becoming a more fruitful parent?
Our seamless gospel faith tells us that every nook and cranny of our lives matters. The fruitful lives we are called to have profound economic implications for our world. As apprentices of Jesus, the mandate to bear much fruit in every dimension of our lives is at the heart of faithful Christian discipleship.
A sweet friend said she enjoyed watching my wife and me smile and wave and delight on the Sundays when our 5-year-old daughter sings in the children’s choir. Indeed, there is a deep joy—a gleeful celebration—in watching our little angel sing praises to the Lord, complete with hand motions.
But there is both beauty and sorrow behind our elation.
You see, my wife and I didn’t expect our children to live past three years and 55 days. As I recount in my recently released book, Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy, our first child, Cameron, died unexpectedly at this point in his life. In our grief-stricken minds, we feared our second and third child were nearing the end of their lives when they approached this age, despite the fact that our son’s death wasn’t congenital. When they crossed the 3-year-and-55-day threshold, we viewed the remainder of their lives as an unexpected bonus.
None of these thoughts exists at the rational level, of course; they are the sad, post-traumatic remnants of losing a child. The tremors of grief in your heart continue to have a powerful presence, even years later.Two Wrong Ways to View Kids
There are many ways we can view our kids.
At times we see them as a project. We believe (largely because the culture tells us so) that we’re called to manage our kids as a lifelong project. We need to develop them into producers in the market economy. Start building that resume by hiring cheerleading trainers and batting coaches at age 6. Book the tutor before the school year, when we don’t even know if our child will struggle in a class. Skip family Thanksgiving to get to the showcase soccer tournament. God has given us this child to cultivate into a winner, by darn, and we’ll over-program this little human to ensure success.
We should see our children as a gift, not to be taken for granted.
At other times, we see our children as a burden. We long for the day when they’ll go to kindergarten or get their license or go to college. We wish for the days when we’ll get more sleep, have more free time, encounter fewer arguments, or have a richer checking account. Let’s be honest: Kids rock your world. They exhaust us, frustrate us, challenge us, and gobble up our free time, money, and hobbies. I still view my children this way far too often.
How does our view of parenthood change, though, when we view our children neither as projects nor burdens, but as gifts?Children as a Gift
Losing a child has given this perspective to my wife and me. We don’t take our children for granted as much as we did before Cameron died. We approach our kids with this attitude: “We’re just so grateful you’re here. We’re grateful you’re alive.” For us these sentiments are hard-won, but they represent a biblical perspective we all should espouse.
Thankfully, you don’t have to lose a child to view your children as a gift. The Word of God portrays children this way:
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them! (Ps. 127:3–5)
The psalmist paints children as a grace from God that generates happiness and well-being.
When we see our children as a gift, our need to control and micromanage subsides. Certainly, we take responsibility for the gift, but nobody clutches and chokes a present to make it perfect. We hold it loosely with gratitude.
Further, when we receive something as a gift, we understand it’s for our pleasure and enjoyment. Many people, when they know (or at least think) they’ve had their final baby, say they’re making a point to enjoy this baby. They savor the final stroller rides, infant clothes, and bedtime readings of Good Night Moon.
When we view our children as a gift, we give ourselves permission to enjoy them more. We don’t constantly have to be coaching, correcting, and managing. While we’ll always train our kids, we’re free to take pleasure in who God made them to be and in the limited time we have together.Hard Gift
It’s worth noting that God often gives us hard gifts. We look back at a challenge or disappointment from the past as a gift not because it was easy, but because it shaped our character. Sometimes kids are like that. God brings us to our knees as we parent a child who routinely pushes our buttons or breaks our hearts. He teaches us to pray more, to practice compassion, to repent from idols.
We all know we’ll never perfectly maintain this view of our kids. However, in those times when we are frustrated, tired, pressured, or afraid in our parenting, it may be worthwhile to look at our child and privately remember, “You are a gift from God. A hard gift, yes, but a precious one nonetheless.”
In the political confusion of recent years, many Christian leaders have invoked Old Testament stories to make sense of contemporary issues. Some have heralded Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus as examples of God using secular rulers for his ends. Others note David’s affair with Bathsheba, concluding that a leader’s moral failings aren’t necessarily disqualifying. Still others appeal to the story of Nehemiah as evidence that God supports building walls.
Almost invariably, such references are used to validate existing political loyalties. With his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, pastor, author, and TGC vice president Timothy Keller turns this trope on its head, appealing to an Old Testament story to draw us up short and confront both our personal and corporate sins. It explores the biblical narrative of Jonah, uncovering insights that even those most familiar with the story have likely missed.Learning from Jonah
Keller acknowledges that the story of Jonah presents difficulty for modern readers. After all, who would actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and propelled to land three days later? Surely this is a metaphor. Although Keller doesn’t take time to argue why a literal reading is best, he notes that Christians believe in an even greater miracle (the resurrection of Christ), and therefore, “there is nothing particularly difficult about reading Jonah literally” (4).
Instead of being distracted by the fish, he asks readers to focus attention on the message: “God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers [and] his opposition to toxic nationalism” (5)—all set under the overarching theme of God’s mercy and compassion for anyone who seeks him. No doubt for some readers, accepting this message will prove more challenging than accepting a maritime miracle.
Keller begins by presenting Jonah as “intensely patriotic, a highly partisan nationalist” (12) and suggests that his prodigal behavior was rooted in a wrongly ordered sense of identity. Keller writes, “Jonah’s relationship with God was not as basic to his significance as his race. That is why, when loyalty to his people and loyalty to the Word of God seemed to be in conflict, he chose to support his nation over taking God’s love and message to a new society” (51).
With this frame, Keller moves through the narrative, deriving insights about common grace and common good, our human tendency to idolatry, and the relationship between evangelism and social justice.Keller’s Legacy
Those familiar with Keller’s work will recognize The Prodigal Prophet as quintessential Keller, resounding with themes of justice, mission, grace, and an unapologetic love for the work God does in and through cities. This makes sense given how the book came to be. Keller preached on Jonah in 1981, then in 1991, and again in 2001, each time refining and amplifying the ideas. The result is a volume that itself spans the length of Keller’s ministry, offering readers the opportunity to see the themes that have marked it in conversation with each other.
But beyond being a compendium of sorts, The Prodigal Prophet illustrates why Keller is and will continue to be a beloved author with a place beside those he so frequently quotes—authors like John Stott, A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Since The Reason for God released in 2008, critics and readers have been taken with Keller’s intellectual gifts. But after a decade of published works, we’re in a position to appreciate his lasting contributions to Christian literature, specifically his ability to write timeless religious books that are accessible to the public. And this I believe will be Keller’s legacy.
When a writer attempts a book, he must often choose between writing a book that hits a contemporary issue, one that the public might deem relevant and buy because of its placement in the moment; or writing a book that industry insiders call “evergreen”—one that is not time-sensitive and maintains its appeal over decades. Somehow Keller manages to do both. He has found the ability to speak to contemporary issues without locking his books into a contemporary setting. By resisting the temptation to be too timely, his work becomes timeless.
One way Keller accomplishes this is by identifying the human problem behind our cultural sins and, in so doing, provides enough distance for the reader to make personal and cultural application himself. You will not find Keller writing about specific movements, political parties, churches, or religious leaders. Instead he writes about human behavior and our universal tendencies. He writes about sin, grace, insecurity, justice, and God’s love.
Like a good novelist who leaves room for the reader’s imagination, Keller doesn’t give us every detail of application. A good non-fiction book ignites the reader’s own process of thinking, sparking reflection and personal growth. The challenge is to write specifically enough to guide the reader but not so specifically so as to remove responsibility from her. Give too many illustrations or points of application and you’ll inhibit this process. Give too few and the process never starts.
From my perspective, Keller has mastered this balance, writing in a way that leaves sufficient space for both the reader and also the Holy Spirit.
Keller has also mastered the art of writing about spiritual realities without a hint of conspicuousness. He doesn’t give any indication that he believes he’s doing something special with his writing. He doesn’t shy away from religious language or apologize for citing theological concepts. Lesser Christian writers, on the other hand, are far too self-aware in their roles as “Christian” writers. Buying into the notion of a sacred/secular divide, they quickly succumb to either insider “Christanese” or make such profuse apologies for using religious language as to make you wonder whether they believe themselves.
But Keller writes with a religious straightforwardness that undercuts our professed secularism. He knows that humans are religious beings and speaks to his readers in ways that are natural to them, even if they haven’t yet learned their native tongue. He respects them enough to address them with theological language when they’re reading a theological work. And so he unflinchingly and convincingly parses ideas like substitutionary atonement, divine judgment, and God’s grace as if they were well within his readers’ capacity. Which, of course, they are.Understanding Abuse
Despite my profound appreciation for Keller and The Prodigal Prophet, I do have one point of concern. In discussing how God’s self-sacrificial love calls us to self-sacrificial love, Keller attempts to answer the objection that this teaching might enable abusive or exploitative relationships. He argues that this misunderstands the nature of self-giving love, countering that
[A]llowing someone to exploit you or sin against you is not loving them at all. . . . Some people do indeed allow themselves to be browbeaten and used, for many psychologically toxic reasons under the guise of being “self-giving.” In reality it is selfish, a way to feel superior or needed. To say that self-giving love must lead to abuse and oppression is to misunderstand it entirely. (149–50)
Keller is correct that we often misunderstand the nature of self-giving love and fail to see how it calls those we love to repentance. But just as often we misunderstand the nature and dynamics of abuse, including how abusers lure and trap their victims. And this is where Keller’s greatest strength—his ability to leave space for the reader’s own thought process—becomes a weakness when handling sensitive contemporary questions like abuse.
By relying on readers to “fill in the gaps,” Keller’s explanation is only as good as the individual reader’s knowledge of abuse dynamics. And given our general ignorance, readers are unlikely to distinguish between abusive relationships and codependent ones. It’s entirely possible they’ll read this paragraph as suggesting that those who suffer abuse somehow enable it out of a desire to “feel superior or needed.”
But Keller would never argue that those suffering under systemic racism or an unjust marketplace are at fault for “allowing” their oppressors to exploit or sin against them. Instead, he consistently argues that we must pursue justice, fight oppression, and free those captive to it. Within this book itself, Keller challenges those who attempt to transcend conversations about injustice and “simply preach the gospel.” Those who sit on the sidelines, he says, end up enabling injustice.
So if Keller generally understands the dynamics of oppression, why even bring this up?
It’s essential that Christians understand the nature of abuse, especially those who are charged with caring for the souls and lives of other. Pastors and counselors reading The Prodigal Prophet shouldn’t read this section as a diagnostic and attempt to apply it the next time a woman or man in an abusive relationship comes to them for help. Those subjected to abuse shouldn’t be seen as selfish for being unable to escape it. The guilt of exploitation rests squarely and unequivocally on the abuser.Growing in Grace
One of the dominant themes in The Prodigal Prophet is God’s patience with us as we grow in our understanding of both grace and justice. Keller writes,
We learn from Jonah that understanding God’s grace—and being changed by it—always requires a long journey with successive stages. It cannot happen in a single cathartic or catastrophic experience (like being swallowed by a fish!). (109)
Keller rightly argues that just as God had compassion on Jonah and the Ninevites, he has compassion on us as we travel our own journey to understanding grace. And this is perhaps the most countercultural message of the book of Jonah. Unlike human beings who demand immediate justice (as they define it), God patiently guides our halting steps as we move toward mercy, justice, and truth. He is patient with Jonah. He is patient with the Ninevites. He is patient with us. His mercy is so kind and so good that he extends it to human beings even when we don’t extend it to each other, and in so doing, makes us kind and good as well.
The mercy of God is greater than our prodigal ways. After all, Keller reminds us with his last words, “If [God’s mercy] can change Jonah, it can change anyone. It can change you.”
I interact with a lot of women who want to teach the Bible, but something holds them back. They seem to be waiting for a different stage of life, waiting until they are invited, waiting for the right situation, waiting until the kids are grown, waiting until they know everything they think they need to know to be able to stand up and teach.
Not Jackie Hill Perry. Perry is an incredible person, a godly woman, and a really compelling Bible teacher. I loved getting to sit on the front row and listen to her open up the book of Deuteronomy and teach it at The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference. But I enjoyed, even more, getting to sit down with her to talk about how God has saved her, is sanctifying her, and is equipping her to teach the Bible. We talked about her mentors (“the Pipe”), her method (ask questions of the text), her tools (her phone),] as well as her new book, Gay Girl, Good God, in which she says she is “leveraging my story so you can see the gospel rightly.”
You can listen to our conversation here.
Matt and Kelly Kaye live in Memphis with their two sons, Ross and Nash. To teach Ross and Nash biblical principles of saving and giving, they created TillSOS, a wooden till that helps children manage their money by dividing it into five categories: God, Others, Savings, Spending, and Extra. Under each category, a purposeful Scripture reference is overlaid on artwork, which helps them better understand the true source of stewardship (SOS). The Kayes are hoping to share TillSOS with interested families, but must meet a production minimum through a prefunding order process in order to proceed. Their website is tillsos.com.
I spoke with the Kayes about what they’ve learned about encouraging generosity in the next generation.
Where did your passion for stewardship start?
We think it’s important to define the heart of stewardship, since it’s so much more than handling money. Stewardship is a holistic approach of managing and being responsible for all things in your care. I (Matt) am in the grocery business, and I’m charged by God to manage my business to the best of my talents while it’s in my possession. As a business owner at a young age, I quickly realized that the better a resource is stewarded, the more options I have to enjoy and share the benefits in creative ways.
As far as the passion for stewardship, it certainly took on a new meaning when we had children. We want them to understand, at a much earlier age than we did, that stewardship isn’t our obligation to God, rather it’s our heartfelt response to him.
How did you develop an approach to stewardship with your kids?
Our approach is still evolving, but perhaps the closest thing to a Eureka moment came over Legos. No sooner had the boys gotten another Lego set than they’d turned their eyes to the next one. It dawned on us that none of those Legos held any value because it didn’t cost them anything.
So, we didn’t tell the boys they couldn’t have any more Legos; we simply told them their parents were out of the Lego business. The goal then became to find ways to get money in their hands and coach them on how to appropriately steward it.
We knew we had to train the boys through hands-on experience and to cultivate their hearts with teaching straight from the source of stewardship, the Bible.The original till
What’s the significance of the name of the product?
Till is defined in three ways, each applicable to our product:
- to prepare, cultivate, work
- a cash drawer for handling money
- a less formal way to say until
SOS is the universal call sign for help, which is relevant to the product’s purpose, and it conveniently serves as an abbreviation for the source of stewardship.
How did you pick the biblical passages you associate with each area of stewardship? How do they play into your routine?Attempting to incorporate biblical scripture
We have five categories—God, Others, Savings, Spending, and Extra—and we select verses that go with those categories and hopefully stir the heart. When the heart isn’t in it, we tend to slide down the slippery slope of legalism and self-justification.
We try to encourage generosity and some sacrifice. On payday we sit down; the boys say the category and read the verse out loud. Then they calculate the amount that goes into that category based on a predetermined percentage, which is paid and then they slide their money into the till slot. This is repeated for each category. At the end, they take their God money and place it in their Bible for church.
For Others, money is used for any variety of things: hurricane relief, the Salvation Army, supporting missionaries, and so on.
For Savings, we opened passbook savings accounts so they fill out deposit slips and go to the bank. We said this money is off limits until they’re 21.
Spending is for current and future spending. This money is completely at their discretion.
Extra is simply a rainy-day fund, which they can draw on if they’re low in one area.
In the beginning, we set the baseline percentages for each category. Since then, we let the boys choose percentage allocations that hold firm for one year. This has been a routine for us for nearly six years.
What’s your advice to families with young children who want to shape habits of giving, spending, and saving?Beginning to reimagine the concept and product
The most important thing is to actually start, and do whatever you do with consistency and repetition. Begin as early as possible and understand that, while you’re sowing seeds that will bear some fruit under your roof, the primary objective is to prepare them for adulthood.
For earning money, we’ve found that earning opportunities need to be creative, fun, achievable, and worthwhile.
For giving, consider beginning with a family-centered opportunity. One year, we made household buckets for World Relief each month.
For spending, it may sound counterintuitive, but the sooner children begin wasting money, the quicker they will develop an appreciation for it. They’ve got to experience that regret on their own. On occasion, we encourage them to wait 10 days and see if they still want an item. Often, they don’t. Bottom line: don’t make spending taboo, but try and minimize the worldly impulsiveness of it.
We’ve found it’s important to distinguish between short-term and long-term savings. This distinction leads to the “would you rather” conversations about the differences between immediate and delayed gratification. Short-term savings stay in the till for their consumption in the near future. Long-term heads to the bank for adulthood.One of many many prototypes
Ross and Nash, how do you think using the TillSOS has affected the way you think about work and money?
Nash: One time, Dad made me go through our routine when I hadn’t earned any money that month. So saying “zero dollars times my percentages equals zero dollars” five times was really annoying, but it made me understand I hadn’t done any work and I wasn’t getting any more money.
Ross: We started a beehive. Dad made me get up when it was still dark and do a lot of things that weren’t very fun. Also, the bee suit is really hot. My dad asked me why I thought he made me do it. I told him because it’s not all honey.From Concept to Creation. A treasured keepsake for now and a legacy for their children.
How did you decide to turn your experience into a product to share with others?
Well, I can assure you we didn’t begin with anything like that in mind. We were simply trying to teach our children about the concept of stewardship. It was actually Nash who came up with the idea of sharing with others. We’ve encouraged both boys to think creatively and entrepreneurially, so we asked them if they wanted to give it a go. They said yes.
Through continuous usage, brainstorming, many dead ends, and lots of tinkering, we slowly rounded into a product that seems to be a unique strategy to confront an age-old issue.
How is your TillSOS different from other approaches to shape the financial habits of kids?
Clearly, what we’re trying to tackle is nothing new. You see divided piggy banks, give/save/spend jars, envelopes, wallets, and so on. While each is well meaning and even intentional, something was lacking, and that something was drawing a direct line to Scripture.
We overlayed Scripture onto beautiful works of art on the lids of the TillSOS, which makes for wonderful visual reminders. By utilizing multiple lids, we keep the process fresh with new Bible verses coupled with different paintings. The lids not in use are perfect standalone art pieces that remind kids of the comprehensive nature of stewardship as well as the source of it.
Another difference is that our approach is serious, while remaining age-appropriate. Lastly, we created a product with high-quality materials that would serve as a keepsake for our children to use with their children, as opposed to a poorly constructed, easily breakable, disposable trinket.
What has been the most rewarding part of the TillSOS process for you?
Nash: Reading and seeing God’s Word and how it applies to so many things beyond me.
Ross: I really like drawing, so adding the artwork helps me sort of make it more real.
Nash and Ross: Well, it has been a little frustrating because it has taken so long and there have been a lot of dead ends, but seeing the final prototype was definitively exciting and rewarding.
Matt: Working and brainstorming on a real-life opportunity with the boys.
Kelly: The most rewarding part of the TillSOS process for me has been to watch my sons make the connection that all things (including money) come from the Lord and are his, and that we have the responsibility to use what we’re given for his glory and not just for ourselves. I’ve seen the transition from obedience and obligation to parents to genuine charitable giving to God and others.
For more details, visit us at tillsos.com or email email@example.com.
I have spent most of my adult life hating silence—but didn’t know it. It was a major blind spot. I dismissed my constant desire to be with people as merely being extroverted. I attributed my talkative nature to my heightened relational instincts. These qualities appeared to help my pastoral interactions with people, so I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until I began my own journey—through counseling—out of a personal crisis that I was confronted with this long-held deception.
My counselor observed some behavior in my life that went unnoticed by most, but became flags of concern for him. I ran from being alone. I was uncomfortable with silence. I often dominated conversations. This exposed my terrible listening skills, which the counselor was wise enough to connect to the silence issues. He pressed me in this area, and it was difficult. It led to an implosion of my soul, but it began a desperately needed process of healing.
Through this personal discovery, the Lord taught me four lessons about the value of silence.1. Silence Exposes the Soul
If emotions are the gateway to the soul, then silence exposes the soul. I wasn’t ready to face the ugly things that got exposed. But God in his grace met me in a powerful way, and my journey has brought newfound peace to my soul. It was through silence in a quiet place, meditating on truth, and prayerfully asking for God’s help that I experienced this deeper level of his grace and presence.
If a pastor is to have a long ministry, he must learn to pursue this sort of silence. Such quiet is not some form of secular meditation, but biblical silence and solitude. Don Whitney considers it a significant spiritual discipline of the Christian life. It’s a stillness that allows us to grow more aware of our soul’s activity as the Holy Spirit lives and works in us. It’s a discipline by which we commune with Jesus, becoming more aware of his truth and presence, and more receptive to his unending grace. Puritan scholar and longtime pastor Joel Beeke articulates well the kind of meditation that fosters this experience:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.2. Silence Confronts the Voices
These voices are the messages we hear about ourselves. They are voices from those across the span of our life that speak messages the enemy loves to whisper again and again in our ears. They are the interpretive messages of those presently in our life. When those voices are harsh, abusive, and lie about our value and identity in Christ, they are unpleasant, and we run from them.
These voices tormented me. Abusive voices from my past, lies from the enemy, and painful words of criticism all created these messages of failure and self-loathing. They were especially loud when I was alone. So, to escape from the voices, I ran from silence. But I needed silence to confront those voices, to counter the lies I’d long believed with gospel truth. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously addressed these voices in the context of depression:
The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
Silence allows us to confront the reality that when we listen to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves, we often hear harsh, soul-crushing words.3. Silence Teaches Us to Listen
I was deeply troubled to learn that I had been a pastor for so long, and yet remained a poor listener. Sure, I listened, but it was mostly to prepare a response. I needed to learn to listen without needing to respond—just to listen and empathize.
As I embraced silence, I realized I was learning to listen. I heard sounds around me I never noticed before. I felt more receptive to God’s Word. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not preoccupied with trying to figure out what to say or do next.4. Silence Tests Our Need for Noise
I had no idea I “needed” noise whenever my soul was tormented in silence. Silence exposes the soul and tests how much we’ve come to depend on noise to block out our pain. This is one of many reasons we all need blocks of time away from our phone, email, social media, and every electronic device that creates the constant source of noise.
Pastors don’t have to make much effort to find noise and distraction, but silence is another matter. We must fight for it. Silence challenges us to face our pain and allow the gospel to penetrate deep into our souls, where we find healing.Embrace the Quiet
While away on a silence retreat, I found these words in a room dedicated to silence and solitude:
The role of silence was deemed to be important here, as a means of ensuring that one did not fritter away precious but demanding leisure through acedia and small talk. Communities which respect human growth probably need to make explicit provision for solitude, otherwise a potential source of enrichment is lost.
I hated silence, but I slowly came to realize I needed to make “explicit provision for solitude” for the sake of my soul.
Jesus has set us free from the power of sin, shame, and death, and has rescued us from the wrath of God we deserve. It’s all by grace. Our identity is now in Christ, and we are eternally adopted children of God. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling each of us by faith, making us more like Jesus every day. And yet, so many Christians fail to experience deeply the power of God’s grace in the gospel.
This includes pastors, and it has been me for most of my ministry.
Silence is a wonderful tool and gift from God to bring that awareness. Embrace silence as that peaceful, healing balm for your noisy, restless soul.
Jonathan Edwards wrote that “a lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper” is “the true, and distinguishing disposition of the hearts of Christians.” And he has something to teach us.
Not many have identified gentleness as a major theme in Edwards (more common are titles such as Jonathan Edwards: The Fiery Puritan), and not many identify gentleness as a major need in the church right now. And yet gentleness is perhaps the most neglected virtue among Christians today.
Edwards wrote in his diary: “A virtue, which I need in a higher degree, to give a beauty and luster to my behavior, is gentleness. If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended.”
True for him then. True for us now.Is Gentleness Manly?
But some Christian men resist gentleness because they associate it with being effeminate. Strength and gentleness can seem mutually exclusive. As we picture what it means to man up and be a leader in the home and in the church, gentleness isn’t, for many of us, a defining element of that picture.
The way forward isn’t by choosing gentleness over against manliness, but by rightly defining manliness according to Jesus Christ. After all, if anyone was ever a man, a true man, he is. And while he could drive money changers from the temple, he also delighted to gather up into his arms the little children whom his disciples tried to send away (Matt. 19:13–15). He dealt gently with outsiders. He wept over the death of a friend (John 11:35). He welcomed healthy, manly physical affection with his dear disciples. The apostle John, for example, was (to translate the text literally) “reclining . . . at Jesus’s bosom” (John 13:23—the very relationship said to exist between Jesus and the Father earlier in John 1:18).
Gentleness is perhaps the most neglected virtue among Christians today.
The supreme display of Jesus’s manhood, however, was in his sacrificial laying down of his life on behalf of his bride, the church. When the apostle Paul defines what it means to be a husband, he can speak simultaneously of the husband’s headship and also the husband’s sacrificial, Christlike laying down of his life on behalf of his bride (Eph. 5:25–33). Such sacrifice isn’t unmanly: it’s the supreme display of masculinity.
Any immature man can be a forceful, unheeding, unloving “leader.” Only a true man can be gentle.Majestic and Gentle
Men who long to be the leaders God is calling them to be must see that the glory of Christ, into whose image they’re being formed, unites together awesome majesty and tender gentleness.
In the sermon preached at David Brainerd’s funeral, Edwards speaks of what saints in heaven will look on when they see Christ:
The nature of this glory of Christ that they shall see, will be such as will draw and encourage them, for they will not only see infinite majesty and greatness; but infinite grace, condescension and mildness, and gentleness and sweetness, equal to his majesty . . . so that the sight of Christ’s great kingly majesty will be no terror to them; but will only serve the more to heighten their pleasure and surprise.
True manhood, to Jonathan Edwards, isn’t a hard, tough exterior with a soft, spineless interior, but just the opposite—a steely, rock-solid interior mediated through an exterior emanating with the beauty of gentleness. Manliness isn’t machismo. Masculinity isn’t inadequacy-mitigating posturing and chest-puffing. On the other hand, gentleness isn’t cowardice. Both non-gentle masculinity and also non-manly gentleness are to be avoided.
Any immature man can be a forceful, unheeding, unloving “leader.” Only a true man can be gentle.
We’re after a life that’s both courageous and contrite, both tough and tender, both manly and gentle. But only in the power of the Holy Spirit can we be both at the same time (22).Walk in a Manner Worthy
The turning point of Ephesians drives home Edwards’s insistence on the importance of gentleness in the Christian life. After reminding his readers what God in Christ has done, Paul tells them what this means for their personal conduct: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all _________” (Eph. 4:1–2).
How would you expect Paul to finish that sentence? We might expect something like “with all sacrifice,” “with all zeal,” “with all boldness,” “with all fortitude.”
Paul says, “with all humility and gentleness.”
That is where the first three chapters of Ephesians take us. Jonathan Edwards understood this point. The lofty theological discourse of Ephesians 1–3 funnels down, above all else, into an aroma of gentleness exuded by ordinary Christians in their ordinary lives. Yet such an aroma isn’t ordinary. It’s extraordinary, supernatural. It’s where the Spirit takes us.
The Story: A fire chief that was fired for advocating a biblical view of marriage and sexuality will receive $1.2 million from the city of Atlanta as compensation suffered from unconstitutional harm.
The Background: In 2016, Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired by Mayor Kasim Reed for self-publishing a book on Christian manhood. In the book, Cochran describes homosexuality as a “perversion” and characterizes homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.”
After activists who disagreed with Cochran’s Christian views on sex complained about the book, the fire chief was initially suspended for 30 days and told he would have to complete “sensitivity training.” The city of Atlanta later initiated an investigation that led to the chief’s termination from his job. At the time, the mayor argued the firing of the chief had nothing to do with Cochran’s Christian faith, but rather was because a “lack of judgment.”
Until his dismissal, Cochran had served as the fire chief of Atlanta Fire Rescue Department since 2010. He had previously spent nearly 30 years with the Shreveport, Louisiana, fire department. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him as U.S. fire administrator for the United States Fire Administration in Washington, D.C. He took the job in Atlanta in 2010 at the urging of Mayor Reed.
Cochran was highly regarded in his field, having served as first vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and president of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association and authoring two chapters for the Chief Fire Officers Desk Reference. In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named Cochran “Fire Chief of the Year.” In his personal time, Cochran serves as a deacon and a Sunday school teacher at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta.
An investigative report by the city of Atlanta said that Cochran did not seek approval to publish the book—a claim Cochran disputes—but found no indication that the chief had allowed his religious beliefs to compromise his disciplinary decisions. The investigation claim that led to the dismissal was that there was a “general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”
In 2015, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a federal lawsuit on Cochran’s behalf, claiming the “Defendants fired Cochran solely because he holds religious beliefs concerning same-sex marriage and homosexual conduct that are contrary to the Mayor’s and the City’s views on these subjects, and because he expressed those beliefs in the non-work-related, religious book he self-published.”
According to ADF, in December 2017, a federal district court recognized that the city of Atlanta’s actions were unconstitutional. The court struck down Atlanta’s policy that requires government employees to receive permission before engaging in free speech outside of their jobs, the very policy the city used to justify firing Cochran.
This week, the City of Atlanta agreed to pay $1.2 million in a settlement, recognizing that Cochran had suffered unconstitutional harm.
Why It Matters: Fire Chief Cochran’s victory reveals—once again—that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are often intertwined.
In his 162-page devotional book, written on his personal time, Cochran briefly mentions his Christian views on sex and marriage. But the city of Atlanta used the “pre-clearance” rules as an excuse to fire him over speech and beliefs they disagreed with. That’s not allowed by the First Amendment, said the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in its decision in Cochran v. City of Atlanta,
This policy would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing. It is unclear to the Court how such an outside employment would ever affect the City’s ability to function, and the City provides no evidence to justify it . . . The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.
That ruling sets a precedent that will prevent other government employees from being fired for expressing their personal religious views without approval.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran last year. “We are very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should, and we hope this will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants.”
John Stott once said, “Every Christian should be both conservative and radical; conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it.” In this new video, TGC Council members Tim Keller, Don Carson, and Stephen Um discuss what this should look like in practice. They talk about the way Scripture is applied in different cultures, the danger of equating cultural traditions with biblical authority, and what it means to be “radical” in application.
Keller says, “You need to be absolutely true from generation to generation to whatever the text actually says. But then, you have to be extremely creative in applying it to new situations.”
- John Stott’s Prayer for the Next Generation (Trevin Wax)
- Equipping the Next Generation to Embrace Gospel Diversity (Jackie Hill Perry)
- How to Raise Radical Children (Champ Thornton)
The Story: A new study says Calvinists are prone to believe “myths” that may lead them to justify domestic violence. But is their evidence to support this claim?
The Background: Psychologist Steven Sandage, a professor of psychology of religion and theology at Boston University, recently published a study in the Journal of Psychology and Spirituality which implies that Calvinism sometimes justifies or rationalizes violence against women.
In an interview with BU Today, Sandage summarizes his research by saying,“Many Christian theologies emphasize the possibility of finding meaning in suffering, but the New Calvinism seems to promote a rather stoic and un-empathic attitude that valorizes suffering, particularly among women. . . Calvinist beliefs were related to higher levels of domestic violence myth acceptance and lower levels of social justice commitment.”
In the Calvinist view, “God causes all things, including hierarchical social structures and all suffering,” says Sandage. “Domination by the powerful,” be it God or men, “is just and appropriate, and submission to suffering by the less powerful is virtuous and redemptive.”
Sandage is quick to add that not all Calvinists endorse domestic violence myths: “There are many contemporary Calvinists who hold progressive views of gender and other social issues. But our research does offer some data suggesting the ‘New Calvinism’ that combines Calvinistic beliefs and very conservative, binary views of gender may be a kind of theological risk factor for the acceptance of domestic violence myths and other socially regressive attitudes.”
The BU Today article also notes that, “Scot McKnight, a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Illinois, lauds Sandage’s research for drawing ‘accurate and helpful correlations that ought to awaken more theologians and pastors to the implications’ of their theology.
What It Means: When I first heard about (and read) the study, I didn’t give it much thought. It’s the type of social science research that uses biased assumptions and flawed “tools” to generate unsupportable conclusions that can clear the low threshold necessary for publication in a middle-tier academic journal. In the publish-or-perish world of academia, this type of low quality, never-to-be-replicated work is often the norm.
But then I saw that some well-meaning people, such as the respected scholars Scot McKnight, were citing favorably. I’m not sure if those, like McKnight, who agree with the study are also embracing radical feminist theory, whether they didn’t read the study all that closely, or whether they don’t understand the theory behind the claims. For whatever reason, I figured that if reasonable Christians were falling for the spurious conclusions of the study then it might be worth addressing in detail.
As you might imagine, someone who think Calvinists believe “domination by the powerful . . . is just and appropriate” is not likely to be a reliable guide to Calvinistic beliefs. Initially, though, I assumed Sandage and his team were simply afflicted with a virulent case of anti-Calvinism. But it turns out that it’s not so much theological beliefs as an embrace of radical feminist theory that is the driving impetus of the study.
The study itself is rather shoddy and could be picked apart from many angles. But the simplest way to show why is it unreliable is to point out the flaws in its primary diagnostic tool, the Domestic Violence Myth Acceptance Scale.
The Domestic Violence Myth Acceptance Scale (DVMAS) was created by John Peters in 2003 as part of his doctoral thesis in social work. It uses 18 statements to gauge whether a person believes “myths” about domestic violence. To show why this study is unreliable, I’ll be pointing out five main flaws that undermine the credibility of the scale.
First, Peters defines a “myth” as “stereotypical attitudes and beliefs that are generally false.” But that is not the definition of a myth, which is always false, not “generally false.” If there are occasions when a claim is sometimes true, then we must understand the context to determine whether it true or false. But the scale relies on ambiguous claims about “myths” that exclude any nuance or context and negate the usefulness of it as a metric.
Second, the basis for the DVMAS is radical feminist theory. As Peters says,
The radical feminist model . . . contends that the violence supports and is supported by patriarchal oppression of women. This model of violence resulting from patriarchal socialization implies that rape, domestic violence, and other forms of violence against woman are part of broader social attitudes toward women.
As we will see later in this article, there is a paucity of empirical support for the radical feminist model of domestic violence.
Third, Peters defines domestic violence as, “Violence between intimate partners which has as its goal establishing and maintaining a culturally sanctioned pattern of power and control by men over women within the context of an intimate relationship.” While that definition is fitting under radical feminist theory, most Americans have a broader view of domestic violence. This mismatch in definition is likely to skew the results.
Fourth, the scale is intended to be a “reliable and valid measure of [DV] myths.” But Peters has no way of determining whether the answers to the 18 statements are in any way connected to actual beliefs about domestic violence. Instead, he simply measures how they are correlated with several other scales, including the Burt’s Sex-Role Stereotype scale  (“a well-validated measure of sexual conservatism which has been shown to be highly correlated with rape myths and with negative attitudes toward domestic violence victims”) and the Attitudes Toward Woman Scale  (“a unifactorial measure of both sex-role conservatism and general attitudes toward women (Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1974).
Rather than being a reliable measure of what people today believe about domestic violence, the scale merely reflects possible correlations with sexual conservative views held in the 1970s.
Fifth, the score on the DVMAS is determined by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with common statements about domestic violence. Each of these 18 statements are supposedly representative of a “myth” (as defined by Peters).
For this study, domestic violence myths were therefore defined as statements about domestic violence which invoke either character blame of the victim, behavioral blame of the victim, exoneration of the perpetrator, or minimization of the seriousness or extent of the problem.
Nowhere in his thesis does Peter explain how he determined that these statements, using the wording they do, are myths. He also doesn’t back them up with any empirical research. He simply expects that anyone who starts from the “correct” perspective (i.e., a radical feminist view) would answer in the way he want them to.
This is the fatal flaw in the scale, so let’s examine a few of the statements.
Statement #8 on the DVMAS states: “Most domestic violence involves mutual violence between the partners.”
This is a prime example of the way the scale combines ambiguous language and empirically questionable assumptions to devise a question where political correctness is supposed to trump reality. It’s also an attempt to dismiss anyone who is familiar with the empirical data.
In 2010, Murray A. Straus wrote an article for the journal Partner Abuse in which he says,
Although at least 200 papers report research that found gender symmetry in perpetration, many studies with similar results were not submitted for publication because the authors thought a paper showing gender symmetry would not be accepted or because the authors feared adverse effects on their reputation and employability.
In referring to early studies that had been ignored, Straus says,
Why were these statistics presented and the implications ignored? An important part of the explanation was that these results contradicted the feminist analysis of [partner abuse] that had made both the academic world and the general public conscious of [partner abuse].
This same criticism applies to the DVMAS: it delegitimizes any perspective on domestic violence that disagrees with or contradicts radical feminist theory. This is evident in several other statements, such as “When a man is violent it is because he lost control of his temper.”
For the DVMAS, this is considered a “myth” even though it is supported by empirical research. As Erica Birkleya and Christopher I. Eckhardta wrote in a 2015 meta-analytic review of current research on intimate partner violence (IVP):
There currently exists a substantial, and hotly contested, debate in the [intimate partner violence] field about whether anger has any meaningful relation to IVP whether anger-related constructs should be included in assessment for [intimate partner violence] risk, and whether anger-related variables should be the focus of IVP interventions to any degree. Much of this debate stems from assumptions based on the earliest, and still currently popular, model of IPV etiology: Power and control theory. This model, which is the predominant perspective in the broader IPV field, focuses exclusively on gender socialization patterns and defines IPV as male-to-female violence deeply rooted in gender-based power dynamics that play out in the romantic context. . . . Thus, adherents to this model place little emphasis on factors internal to the individual (such as anger or other negative emotions) as causes of behavior, preferring instead an analysis of community and contextual-based determinants of power-and-control socialization patterns.
The DVMAS is based on just this sort of “power and control theory,” and considers anyone who believes factors internal to an individual (such as anger) are a factor in domestic violence to be embracing a “myth.” The DVMAS thereby demonizes anyone who does not think that “gender-based power dynamics” are the sole factors in the problem of domestic violence.
This view is especially problematic since it has no empirical support. As Birkleya and Eckhardta note,
[T]here is very little empirical support for a strictly gendered analysis of IPV that restricts the understanding of IPV to the behaviors enacted by men towards women, or that organizes IPV risk factors solely around gender-themed attitudes or behaviors, especially as proximal causes of IPV-related outcomes. Rather, the available data suggest a gender-inclusive approach to IPV etiology that considers a wide range of individual, interpersonal, and contextual risk factors that may lead both men and women to act aggressively towards an intimate. Of relevance to this report, several theoretical models appear to offer support for anger, hostility, and internalizing negative affect as important risk factors for IPV perpetration. [emphasis in original]
Out of the 18 statements on the DVMAS, 3 of them (18 percent) are about anger. They are all claims that a reasonable person could believe to be true and yet not consider to be a justification for condoning domestic violence. (The other two questions are “Abusive men lose control so much that they don’t know what they’re doing” and “Domestic violence results from a momentary loss of temper.”)
Some of the statements are similarly biased. For example, statement #7 is “If a woman doesn’t like it, she can leave.” This is a strangely worded question that reveals the general incoherence and ambiguity of the DVMAS. What is the proper answer? The respondent is expected to reply in a way that denies the agency of women. While it is certainly the case that there are a variety of reasons why some women feel they are unable to leave their abusers, the idea that women being able to leave is a “myth” is not only empirically false but deeply misogynistic.
Two other statements on the DVMAS are based on ambiguous terms that require making assumptions based on estimations: “Domestic violence does not affect many people” and “Domestic violence rarely happens in my neighborhood.”
In the first statement, the respondent is expected to determine what is considered “many people.” While they might be wrong, it’s possible that someone could think that domestic violence is a serious problem that nevertheless does not affect many people. In the second, the respondent is expected to guess what is meant by “rarely” and “neighborhood.” Domestic violence is based on socioeconomic factors that are not evenly distributed in all areas of the country. It is numerically possible (and even quite likely) that there will be areas that could be construed as “neighborhoods” in which domestic violence “rarely happens.” There’s no reason to assume that giving the “wrong” answer is believing a “myth.”
Even if we have a strong opinion about how people ought to answer these two questions, we should be able to agree that the questions are not a reliable measure of beliefs.
Out of the 18 statements, four are contradicted by empirical evidence, one is a bizarre claim that denies reality, and two are hopelessly ambiguous. There is no justification—at least not for anyone who doesn’t have an idealogical ax to grind—for trusting a measurement where between 22 and 39 percent of the scale is flawed.
What the paper by Sandage, et al., shows is that there is potentially a negative correlation between Calvinism (which the study doesn’t really measure either) and uncritical acceptance of the radical feminist view of domestic violence. It tells us nothing about how Calvinists actually view domestic violence myths, much less their view on domestic violence. Yet is will lead some people to believe it has found a connection, and lead other people to assume that all modern psychological research is equally worthless.
What makes it even worse is this sloppy and biased study was produced by scholars who are Christians; it might have been more reliable had it been produced by Christian scholars. The distinction, as Nicholas Wolterstorff once said, is that, “To put it in a nutshell, I think the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.”
There is nothing in this current study that bears evidence of having come from a “Christian mind” nor dos it speak with a “Christian voice.” In fact, there is nothing in the research that could not have been produced by any non-Christian radical feminist scholar. For that reason, and all the other reasons cited, there is no reason why Christians—or anyone else who doesn’t embrace the intellectual fad of radical feminism—should take the study seriously.
In the early 2000s, J. G. Wentworth released a television commercial in which various people yelled from their window: “It’s my money, and I need it now!” The commercial ends with the company’s mascot, Mr. Wentworth, saying: “It’s your money; use it when you need it.”
Many consider the commercial cheesy. Nevertheless, it was effective, and it even won a few awards. But what stands out to me is how accurately the ad illustrates our natural disposition toward money and possessions.
As self-centered sinners, we’re inclined to believe the lie that everything we’ve been given belongs to us. I have worked so hard for this. Surely I have the right to do with it whatever I please.
The church-planting pastor is no exception. He may be more prone to view the church he planted as his possession, rather than God’s. But Scripture is clear: we’re stewards, not owners.Managers of God’s Gifts
God owns everything. “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). The word fullness conveys totality—the world and all the matter that fills it. In other words, there’s not a single atom in the universe that doesn’t belong to God. If that’s true, then the same goes for every penny.
In his wisdom, God has entrusted us to steward what he owns. Stewardship is the careful use and management of the possessions of another that have been entrusted to someone else. Stewards don’t own anything. Everything a steward does is in service to the ultimate owner.
There’s not a single atom in the universe that doesn’t belong to God. If that’s true, then the same goes for every penny.
I once worked in a financial-planning firm as a creative director and wealth coach. In one year, I learned more about money than I’d learned in my entire life until that point. In fact, the relationship between a financial planner and a client is an excellent illustration of stewardship.
The client owns the assets and entrusts the financial planner to act as a fiduciary on his or her behalf. A fiduciary has a legal duty to the client to serve in his or her best interests. Any breach of fiduciary responsibilities is met with stiff penalties by the law.
In other words, if a financial planner ever acts in a manner that benefits his or her practice at the expense of the client, the financial planner has violated his fiduciary responsibility and must be held to account.
Likewise, the highest crime we can commit as stewards is to treat what belongs to God as if it were our own. When we abuse his good gifts, we demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of our role as stewards.Faithful vs. Unfaithful Stewards
In Luke 12:42–48, Jesus tells the parable of the faithful and unfaithful manager. The faithful, wise manager is described as blessed since he’s found doing the right thing when his master comes. His master rewards him by entrusting him with more responsibility.
Jesus then turns his attention to the unfaithful manager. Assuming the master has delayed his coming, he beats the servants and becomes a glutton and a drunk. When the master returns to discover the servant’s poor management, he cuts him up and casts him with the unfaithful.
When we abuse God’s good gifts, we demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of our role as stewards.
Jesus highlights the urgency of good stewardship. As stewards of the sovereign Lord, we will be held accountable for how we manage everything that’s been entrusted to us: money, time, family, friendships, possessions.
If we use what God has entrusted to us for his glory, to serve the interests of his kingdom, we will be blessed. But if we act as owners—violating our responsibility as stewards—we will be punished.Stewardship in Church Planting
Jesus’s warning can be directly applied to the church-planting pastor: as a manager of God’s household, under Christ, it is your responsibility to care for God’s flock. Good shepherds of God’s flock recognize themselves to be stewards, not owners.
This charge can be challenging for church-planting pastors. Like entrepreneurs, church planters tend to feel a great sense of ownership, perhaps even more so than other pastors. They often labor long and hard: planting, nurturing, and sacrificing. This is right and good. But once harvest comes, it’s easy to view everything they’ve worked for as their own.
In 1 Corinthians 3:5–9, Paul explains that while he planted and Apollos watered, God gave increase to the church. Paul and Apollos were merely servants through whom the Corinthians believed. They were not owners who could claim credit for the growth; they were stewards whom God graciously used to accomplish his purposes.
If church history has taught us anything, it is this: Church-planting pastors are most dangerous to their flock when they act as owners—men who view God’s people as their possession, to serve their selfish interests—rather than as servants seeking the good of the church and the glory of Christ.
Church-planting pastors are most dangerous to their flock when they act like owners.
One practical way church planters can guard against acting like owners is by proactively seeking and welcoming accountability. A pastor who refuses to live as a man under authority is more likely to feed his selfish desires to the demise of his flock.
Are your fellow elders empowered and encouraged to address sin in your life? Have you surrounded yourself with “yes men,” or do your elders consistently challenge you? Are you open to constructive criticism from your flock? Or have you created a culture of fear and intimidation that encourages them to keep their concerns to themselves?
Every church-planting pastor should ask himself such questions. If you’re afraid of the answers, it’s imperative that you take time to honestly examine your heart. The health of your flock, and the glory of your King, are worth it.
TGC Africa has launched.
After two years of prayer, planning, and discussion, the inaugural public meeting has taken place. I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with 10 of the initial 12-man Council here in Africa, and I am impressed by their commitment to the gospel, to the exposition of holy Scripture, and to Reformed evangelical confessionalism.
Moreover, they have been drawn from several denominations, and from a variety of countries: two from South Africa, two from Zimbabwe, one from Zambia, one from Tanzania, and so forth. Several more members will be added shortly, representing a few more of Africa’s 57 countries.
The Africa Council has launched their own website: you can find it on a drop-down screen on this site, or at africa.thegospelcoalition.org.
- Introducing The Gospel Coalition Africa (Blaque Nubon and Lilly Million)
- Why The Gospel Coalition Africa? (Conrad Mbewe and Martin Morrison)
- The Gospel Coalition Africa Celebrates International Launch (Graham Heslop and Lara Moyles)
- A Coalition with Purpose (Ndaba Mazabane)
Early last week, 15 women Bible teachers from Latin American landed in chilly Portland, Oregon, to attend an event with the Women’s Training Network (WTN). The WTN is TGC’s initiative to equip women in the Scriptures. This week-long gathering was the culmination of months of planning to give women leaders in Spanish-speaking churches biblical instruction that they could then pass on to the hundreds they teach and influence.
The diverse group of women from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, many of whom didn’t know each other previously, attended full days of training, hosted by volunteers from Trinity Church and Hinson Baptist Church, pastored by TGC council member Michael Lawrence.
The packed schedule included teaching on Bible interpretation, genres, biblical theology, and the practical details of writing an expository message for a women’s conference. Teachers for WTN rotated through the sessions, engaging with the women and being encouraged by their love for the Word of God. The attendees heard the instruction in English, discussed it among themselves in Spanish, and presented their work to the group in a mixture of both.Benefits and Blessings
One attendee from Columbia told us:
This training opened my eyes in many ways. First, my heart is filled with joy as I rediscovered the history of redemption, seeing that I am part of that history, and recognizing the mercy of God from the beginning of time until now. I was filled with encouragement to start reading the Bible again with the perspective of the redemptive history of God. Second, the training allowed me to understand the importance of bringing Christ, his cross and his grace, to the women whom I teach. I want them to see that for each commandment there is a provision for the Lord’s grace to fulfill it, as a response to his infinite love for us.
In addition to the biblical training, attendees and trainers discussed what it truly means to be grounded in the Scriptures and centered on the gospel. These founding values of the WTN focus not only on the content we teach but also our hearts and attitudes before the Lord.
Each woman who came presented an expository message she had prepared on an assigned text. The group gave both feedback and encouragement. Each woman bought unique gifts to her teaching session, but all were committed to joyfully proclaiming Christ from the Scriptures in their local contexts.Serving Spanish-Speaking Christians
Coalición por el Evangelio, TGC’s Spanish-speaking counterpart, works to train women in the Scriptures. They’ve been doing this for years through articles, videos, events, and recently a new podcast. This event furthered their work by focusing on gifted Bible teachers from eight countries. It was the first event in a campaign to bring two-day training events to 12 locations across Latin America between 2019 and 2020.
These future training events will help ground women in what God has said, while encouraging them to serve others by teaching and speaking his Word. Coalición hopes to equip more than 2,000 women from 10 countries in gospel-centered teaching. Patricia Namnún, the director of women’s ministries for Coalición, is striving to organize and direct this great work. Would you join us in prayer for the work God is doing among the women of Latin America?
Coalición’s campaign to further equip women is launching this year in Latin America, but the work of WTN begins in the United States in 2019 as well. Our goal to is to train women to interpret, apply, and teach the Bible in whatever context the Lord has placed them. Our two-day intensive events are coming to Charlotte, Portland, Austin, Philadelphia, and Sacramento in the next year. Want more information? More details about TGC’s Women’s Training Network is coming soon.