Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

You are here:

Gospel Coalition

Subscribe to Gospel Coalition feed
The Gospel Coalition
Updated: 1 hour 31 min ago

The Whole Bible in 12 Verses

Sun, 05/19/2019 - 12:00am

If you had to summarize Scripture in 12 verses, which would you choose? Here are mine:

  1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
  2. “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
  3. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
  4. “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18).
  5. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods but me” (Ex. 20:2–3).
  6. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13).
  7. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).
  8. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
  9. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
  10. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen!“ (Luke 24:5–6).
  11. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6).
  12. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Where Sex Trafficking Occurs in America

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 12:03am

The Story: A recent report highlights the cities and states within the U.S. in which human trafficking is most reported.

The Background: Modern-day slavery, also referred to as “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking,” describes the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Trafficking in persons is estimated to be one of the top-grossing criminal industries in the world (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking), with traffickers profiting an estimated $32 billion every year.

Because the crime is kept out of sight no one knows for sure the extent of trafficking in America. But we can gain a better understanding of the crime by measuring the “signals”—phone calls, emails, and online tip reports—received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which maintains one of the most extensive data sets on the issue of human trafficking in the U.S. From 2007 to 2018, the Hotline received 195,215 signals representing 45,308 “cases” (i.e., distinct situations of trafficking).

The Geoffrey Nathan Law Offices recently analyzed the data from the Hotline to uncover where human trafficking reports are most prevalent.

Their report finds that on a per capita basis (cases per 100,000 people), Washington DC (6.1) and Nevada (5.6) have the most reports of human trafficking in the nation. In each of those states, trafficking reports are more than five times more likely than in states like Wisconsin (1.1) and Utah (1.1). Even larger states like California (1.9), Florida (1.7), and New York (1.1) had fewer reported cases than DC and Nevada.

The report also shows the total number of cases from 2007 to 2016 per capita among the 100 largest cities in America. The top five cities in America for human trafficking reports are Washington DC, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, and Las Vegas. Almost all of the top 25 cities for human trafficking prevalence are large metropolises, and many are major tourist destinations and/or have international airports. The exception is New York City, which has the twenty-second lowest rate of human trafficking in the country. Cities where human trafficking is less common tend to be smaller cities.

What It Means: Why is trafficking more prevalent in some cities and states than in others? A key factor appears to be prostitution. “Underlying much of the prostitution industry and illegal massage parlors is the horrible fact that many of the women supposedly working there are being held against their will,” according to the report.

“While some prostitutes may work entirely on their own accord, a very significant number of them are working against their will,” notes the report. “Even in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in certain parts of the state with a license, there are widespread reports of women working at brothels against their will or with falsified identification.”

Despite prostitution being frequently described as a “victim-less” crime, the connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well established.

Nearly half of all incidents investigated by U.S. law enforcement agencies between January 1, 2008, and June 30, 2010 (the last date for which data is available), involved allegations of adult prostitution (48 percent) while another forty percent involved prostitution of a child or child sexual exploitation.

As Donna M. Hughes has noted, “evidence seems to show that legalized sex industries actually result in increased trafficking to meet the demand for women to be used in the legal sex industries.” Melissa Farley adds that “wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases.”

Christians in America too often assume that trafficking is a problem that only occurs in foreign lands. While sex slavery is certainly more prevalent in other countries, we can’t overlook what is happening in our own cities and states. We can help these women and children, though, by knowing the signs to look for. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the indicators of human trafficking may include a person:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Shows signs of substance use or addiction
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where they are staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Appear to have lost sense of time
  • Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories

Each individual indicator should be taken in context and not be considered in isolation, notes the Hotline, nor should be taken as “proof” that human trafficking is occurring. But if you believe you may have information about a potential trafficking situation, you should contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

7 Things to Do When You’ve Blown It (Again) with Your Kids

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 12:02am

Every parent knows how easy it is to say hurtful things to their children. Some of us explode in streams of words. Others of us coldly level our kids with sarcasm. Still others drip with manipulation and self-pity. The ways to speak foolishly are endless, but each one proves false the adage that “words can never hurt me.”

Words can and do.

So what do you do afterward, when you can’t take back what you’ve said? There are a number of things that will make that moment worse—defending or excusing yourself, pretending it wasn’t that bad, ignoring what you did, trying to beg or buy your way back into your child’s good graces, or just hoping they’ll get over it. None of those strategies will rebuild a broken relationship.

Thankfully, the gospel can.

The Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to a deep truth in our relationship with God: He created a way to live with people who would continue to fail both him and each other. That system pointed beyond itself to what Christ would pay on his people’s behalf, but even in its embryonic state, God’s message was clear: Your sins do not have to end your connection with a holy God. There is a way to live faithfully with him in his world—even after failing him.

That’s not just good news in general; it’s good news specifically when you’ve sinned against your child. Here are some ways to live that out.

1. Remind Yourself of God’s Grace

Remind yourself of what God has done to ensure that his goodness—not your sin—has the last word (Rom. 3:21–26). Remind yourself that nothing—not even your foolish words—can separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). Remind yourself that he delights in you because he has changed your heart to love him and his people (Deut. 30:6–10).

2. Be Sobered by Your Sin

Let yourself be sobered by what you’ve done. Our tongues are so hard to control—the apostle James would say impossible (James 3:7–8)—because they provide an outlet for the restless sin nature that never quits fighting against God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Speaking hurtfully gives you a glimpse of how hostile your sin is toward God and those made in his image. Let that reality sink in—not to discourage you, but to strengthen your resolve to wrestle with it daily.

3. Stop and Think

Take a moment to think. Proverbs describes the fool as someone who gushes without first considering what they are saying or its potential impact on others (Prov. 12:18, 23). By contrast, the wise person is intentional and careful with their words (Prov. 15:28). Speaking badly means you’ve played the fool, but praise God, he has redeemed you to become wise. Live now what he has remade you to be.

  • Think about what led to you saying what you did to your child.
  • Think about what you wanted in that moment that was more important to you than loving them.
  • Think about what you wish you’d said in response to what they were doing.
4. Take It to God

The remedy for sinning against someone else (James 4:1–2) involves dealing first with your sin against their Maker (James 4:7–10). God has commanded you to love your neighbor—and your child, along with your spouse, is your closest neighbor. Every horizontal sin, including speaking badly, is first and foremost vertical (Ps. 51:4). So deal with that higher-order sin by confessing it to God and receiving his forgiveness before attempting to work things out with your child.

5. Go and Use Healing Words

Humble yourself and go to your child (Matt. 5:23–24). Ask if they have a minute. Tell them you really wish you hadn’t said what you did. Tell them what was going on in your heart that was wrong. Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs. Ask them to forgive you for what you said. Invite them to talk about how they felt if they want to, but don’t demand that they do.

Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs.

6. Check Your Motives

Ask yourself if this is a good time to talk about what they did, too. It might be, but be careful not to make your apology a backdoor way of confronting them. Remind yourself you’re apologizing for what you did wrong because you want to restore your relationship, not so you can tell your child how wrong they were. You can always come back later to address their issues.

7. Make Better Memories

Last, consider what you can invite your child to do with you, such as play a game, bake cookies together, take a walk, kick a soccer ball, watch a movie, or plan a trip. You can’t erase the bad memory of what you’ve done, but you can make new ones that give your child a different, better experience with you. In time, those new memories will push out the old ones.

Good News for Bad Words

Behind the glory of the gospel, going all the way back to the first sin in Eden, is the God of a million second chances. This great God comes to his believing people when they’ve fallen—and when they’ve fallen again—and says, “My child, get up. Because Christ has gotten up from the dead, no story has to end in tragedy. Every single one can be redeemed, even this one with your kid.”

Loving Jesus in a Secular Age

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:04am

“If you really do say truth is subjective, that you find truth inside, then you’ve got absolutely no ability to ground your calls to justice. You’ve got nothing to build on. . . . You’ve actually just destroyed your ability to talk about any moral obligation at all.” — Tim Keller

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video of the discussion.

Related:

Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

Why Christians Need More Paradox

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:03am

Life is complicated—it’s messy, difficult, and full of strange comings and goings. I crave certainty and stability. I want clear-cut answers and black-and-white truths. I often wonder, Why can’t life be easier? Lord, just tell me what I should do.

But just when I think I have a handle on life, God throws me for a loop. I lose a friend. I get laid off from work. His ways are mysterious, and his truths are not simple. But God also brings peace and joy and wonder to me in my valleys, in the presence of my enemies. What a paradox.

I’m learning that paradox is the stuff of sanity. Mystery is at the heart of the gospel. God coming in human flesh, the sinless one becoming sin for us, the God of Abraham saving Gentiles, Jesus resurrected of the dead—these realities are the mystery God has revealed to us (Rom. 11:25; Eph. 3:16; 5:32; Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 15:51). The difficulty of applying these mysteries to our lives is teased out in Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World.

For the Christian, paradox is the stuff of sanity.

Her book covers four themes: the incarnation, the kingdom of God, grace, and lament. Each section straddles a mystery of our faith that allows us to live before God. The four parts aren’t simply categories to hang your hat on; they’re glasses to see the way things are. Michel—a wife, mother of five, and regular contributor to TGC—unpacks how these mysterious truths open the door to seeing God at work, especially when life doesn’t make sense.

Mystery Is the Way to Sanity

The kind of faith seen in Scripture, Michel observes, is “riddled with fallibility and fear. I saw the heroes of Scripture as emphatically human, getting a lot wrong even as they tried mustering some praise” (6). Faith is mysterious, and seeing God at work in our sinful lives is hard.

The biblical path of faith doesn’t lead to the comfort and certainty I crave. Instead, the Lord uses the griefs I go through to awaken me to a hard-learned reality: I am only given peace and sanity when I learn to trust God in my weaknesses and conflicts. “Jesus remains God-and-man: advocating for his brothers and sisters whose weakness and frailty he bodily knows” (25).

God controls all things and works all things for his glory and our good because of Jesus. God’s glory isn’t opposed to our good; it’s a both/and in Christ. So I can relax and let go of my impulsive craving for certainty.

Surprised by God

Surprised by Paradox surprised me. I was delighted, moved, and filled with awe over these beautiful realities I so easily ignore. Seeing God at work in the mundane is so much harder for me than seeing him in the extraordinary. I’m learning this hard truth every day.

Surprised by Paradox surprised me.

For example, in my relationship to my fiancé, I am often tempted to see conflict as bad and “peace” as good. But it’s not that simple, is it? In describing her own marriage, Michel describes a reality that’s difficult for me to grasp:

[It] isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. . . . In marital faithfulness, I am, paradoxically, called to a daily dying and a daily showing up. (27–28)

Conflict in relationships isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. It’s often where we see God at work in my life and in yours. God sanctifies us in our conflicts, the everyday selfishness and misunderstandings.

Christ claims our relationships, lifestyles, personalities, and pocketbooks for himself. This reality described in Michel’s book hits home. When I don’t live in light of these mysteries, I drift by wanting ease, entertainment, and comfort, but this isn’t what Christ wants from me. He wants everything.

Michel urges us to begin to see our daily actions with the eyes of eternity. Christ’s Spirit energizes us to live for him when we serve the poor, change our children’s diapers, and share the gospel. We do this because “we follow a radically generous God who became poor for our sakes” (91).

Surprised by Paradox helps us recover the paradoxes and mysteries that keep us sane. By them we learn to trust in a God who is so much bigger than our finite expectations. As Michel writes, “God has set the world alight with his presence. We just need eyes to see” (41).

In order to fill the cup of my neighbor with God’s love, my heart must be moved by these mysteries. Sanity for our souls begins when we see Jesus at work in the world once more . . . and being surprised.

Why Good Theology Is Not Enough

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:02am

My favorite painting of Augustine is by 17th-century Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne. Augustine sits in his study with a feather pen in one hand and his heart, set afire, in the other. His gaze is fixed on a beam of light shining from above, illuminating both his head and his heart. Veritas, Latin for truth, is at the center of the light.

The artwork illustrates the importance of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, what Jesus called the summary of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:36–40). Paul made a similar point, showing us that we can be an eloquent speaker, a generous philanthropist, or even a martyr, and still fail in our relationship with God (1 Cor. 13:1–3). Without love, it all adds up to nothing.

It’s possible you’re wasting your life. Have you considered that? Is love for God captivating your heart? Are you more focused on having carefully parsed theology than on loving him?

I remember the day this question first made sense to me.

No Burning Bush

It was a day when nothing happened and everything changed. I was listening to an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. He was loud. He was pacing back and forth in front of hundreds of students at a youth camp, talking about what it means to follow Jesus. I was captivated.

I’d only been a Christian for about 24 hours. The night before, I believed the gospel message and received God’s love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. This night’s talk was about how followers of Jesus must love him with their whole heart.

The speaker’s final challenge to all the campers was to find somewhere after the service to spend time in prayer. He told us to stay there until we loved God with our whole heart. I was sincere, passionate, and naïve. I couldn’t wait to try. I found a nice quiet spot where I knelt between some bushes. I placed my hands on the ground in front of me and rested my forehead on my hands.

I prayed over and over, “Dear God, I want to love you with all my heart.” When nothing magical happened I began emphasizing each word. “DEAR God, I want to love you . . . Dear GOD, I want to love you . . .” Still nothing.

I was hoping for the miraculous. I was thinking the bushes might catch on fire and that I’d hear a deep voice like that of actor Morgan Freeman saying, “Yes Dan, you now love me with all of your heart. You can go play putt-putt and get a cheeseburger now.”

Still nothing.

After what seemed like hours, I finally stopped praying. I was only 15 years old at the time, and I bet I didn’t pray for more than 15 minutes. But it seemed like a really long time to my adolescent self. To be honest, back then it felt like a whole lot of nothing. I was a bit disappointed.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Those first two days of my Christian life sum up how it can be for many of us. Sometimes we’re wholehearted about living for God. Other times our hearts are elsewhere, with the cheeseburgers and putt-putt. Other things can easily eclipse our love for God.

Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

I wonder what you see as you look back? Was there a time when you felt you knew and loved God more than you do now? When you were wholehearted about following Jesus? Or maybe you’ve never been sure that level of commitment is really for you?

While I sometimes laugh thinking back to that youth camp, I also realize I understood then something I often miss now. Jesus wants my heart above everything else. It was true of me then; it’s true for each one of us right now. Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

Believing in God Isn’t Enough

Orthodoxy may sound like a painfully expensive dental procedure, but it just means having proper beliefs about God. A relationship with Jesus begins with truth—with orthodoxy—forming the proper beliefs about Jesus. This is illustrated when Jesus asked the disciples what people believed about him. They volleyed around some of the more generous titles overheard in the villages: John the Baptist, Elijah, or maybe another prophet (Mark 8:27–29). But then Jesus made the question more personal. Why did they believe in him?

Peter spoke up right away. “You’re the Messiah,” he declared. This is where Peter got an A on his orthodoxy test. But in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, we don’t find Jesus questioning Peter’s beliefs or orthodoxy.

We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and still miss the mark.

It would seem to make sense if Jesus did. After all, Peter is about to preach the historic sermon as God launches the church. A captivated 3,000 people will decide to follow Jesus in response (Acts 2:14–41). So it’s important that Peter gets his stuff right.

But what did Jesus ask Peter? He asked him about his love. He asked about his heart. Three times he asked, “Do you love me?” According to tradition, Peter did go on to die as a martyr, just as Jesus predicted. Love for Jesus led him to that place of obedience.

Orthodoxy—proper beliefs—is where we begin. But it’s not where we end. To be clear, we can’t grow much in our love for God without also growing in our beliefs about God. What we believe about God is vitally important. But it’s dangerously possible to grow in our knowledge of God without growing in our love for God. We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and miss the mark.

Confessions of a Divinity Master

If you came to my office you’d see some degrees on my wall. I have one degree that sounds really impressive: a master of divinity. It means I’ve taken a bunch of classes about the Bible and God, and I have the degree to prove it. Divinity has been mastered by yours truly.

How impressed is God with the degrees hanging on my wall? Not much. To be honest, I imagine he was more impressed with the 15-year-old boy who just wanted to love him with all his heart.

That day so long ago, it felt like nothing happened. But I was doing my best to love God. And that isn’t nothing. It’s something. In fact, it’s what it’s all about. May the truth of God captivate our heads and hearts for his glory. For without that, we’re just wasting our lives.

3 Ways to Steward Good Seasons

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:00am

One by one, the small-group participants shared heavy prayer requests: a lost job, a cancer diagnosis, a broken relationship. Though I was fighting to actively listen, my mind was scrambling to find something hard to share. After all, no one wants to hear a Pollyanna after such a litany of hardship.

As those around me were being tossed in the storms of adversity, it felt strange to be sitting beside still waters. I blushed at the abundance of God’s undeserved blessings in this season. We had recently purchased a new house, our children were thriving at a new school, and the Lord was blessing our endeavors in work and ministry.

God sends both seasons of hardship and seasons of prosperity. Christians know that we should strive to be faithful in difficult times, but it is just as important to be faithful in the good times.

Here are three ways to steward your prosperous times well.

1. Climb up the Sunbeam

In order to best receive seasons of prosperity, we must do the hard work of distinguishing between the gift and the Giver. While good gifts are intended to be enjoyed, they’re also meant to bring us to deeper knowledge and worship of the King who shares his abundance freely.

In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis aptly describes the arduous work of moving beyond acceptance of the gift to adoration of the Giver:

Gratitude exclaims . . . “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.

God’s radiant nature emits sunbeams of his grace. Rather than merely lazing in the warmth of such rays, we’re invited to climb up the sunbeams back to the sun, from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17).

2. Build for the Future

Every time the Lord blesses our family with calm and peace, I think of King Asa. Following a series of horrible kings, God blessed Asa’s obedience with a season of remarkable peace and prosperity. After years marked by disruptions and raids on every side, the land rested. But Asa went to work:

He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had not war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace. And he said to Judah, “Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers and gates and bars.” (2 Chron. 14:2, 5–7)

While seasons of adversity are marked by efforts to maintain, seasons of prosperity ought be marked by efforts to advance. Just as Asa invested his decade of peace to strengthen and grow his cities, we’re invited by the Lord to strengthen our own souls, households, and spheres of influence.

In seasons of plenty, we have a chance to dig more deeply into theology, spend more time in prayer, and build up relationships. Seasons of adversity will return, and we want to be physically, spiritually, and relationally ready to not only survive them, but even to thrive.

3. Invite Others into Blessing

God made clear the purpose of his blessings to his people millennia ago, as early as his call to Abram: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).

God blesses us so that we might bless others, even those beyond the fold of faith.

If he has blessed you with a season of rest and abundance, invest it by serving those who are currently being whipped by the whirlwind. Your paycheck bonus could be someone else’s groceries; your free afternoon could be someone else’s childcare; your extra car could be someone else’s ride to work. Even your energy—refreshed by the Lord’s abundance—can uphold someone else’s sagging arms by prayer.

Next time you find yourself trading prayer requests—whether you’re in the midst of a storm of adversity or sitting beside a sea of prosperity—you have no need to blush. Embrace and invest the season the sovereign Lord has apportioned, knowing that both storms and stillness are tools in his hands.

Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor on TGC’s Women’s Training Network

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:04am

Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor are excellent Bible teachers. They are also educated Bible teachers (Turkington earned an M.A. and a D.Min. from Western Seminary, and Doctor an M.Div. from Covenant Seminary.) And they are on a mission to train women around the country—in fact, around the world—to better interpret their Bibles. Through the Women’s Training Network, they want to teach women to handle the Bible, grasp the story of the Bible, and live and lead according to what’s taught in the Bible. At these two-day intensives, women get to choose a particular track that suits their interests and experience, choosing from workshops such as ministry practicals, unity and dignity, and Christlike leadership. I talked to Turkington and Doctor about how their love for Scripture and for teaching it developed in their own lives, and what their dreams are for the Women’s Training Network.

Watch this video about the Women’s Training Network and check out information on tracks, registration, dates, and cities. Registration is open now for workshops in Austin, Sacramento, and Philadelphia. For more information about the Biblical Theology Workshop for Women with Nancy Guthrie, go to nancyguthrie.com.

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

The FAQs: New Georgia Law Recognizes (Some) Unborn Children as Persons

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:03am
What just happened?

Last week the governor of Georgia signed into law the ‘Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act’ (HB 481). “Georgia is a state that values life,” said Gov. Brian Kemp. “We stand up for those who are unable to speak for themselves.”

The Act is similar to “fetal heartbeat” legislation passed in other states that bans abortions after the point where the heartbeat can be detected. But because the LIFE Act also expands the legal definition of “persons” the law also has broader ramifications that come from treating the unborn as protected citizens.

Who will now be considered “persons” under the new law?

Georgia law recognizes two classes of persons: natural and artificial. Artificial persons are corporations, which are created by law and are “subject to be changed, modified, or destroyed at the will of their creator.” Natural persons are any human beings including an unborn child with a detectable human heartbeat.

Under the new law ‘detectable human heartbeat’ means embryonic or fetal cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the heart within the gestational sac. ‘Unborn child’ means a member of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb.” (Note: For the purpose of this article, the term “unborn child” will be used an abbreviation of “unborn child with a detectable human heartbeat.”)

Can a woman be prosecuted under this law for having an abortion?

No. While the new law does not state that women are exempt from prosecution, other Georgia criminal statutes that explicitly apply to abortions and unborn children prohibit women from being prosecuted for terminating their own pregnancy.

As David French notes, in the case of Hillman v. State, the Court of Appeals of Georgia rejected the prosecution’s effort to imprison a woman who shot herself in the stomach to kill her unborn child. Interpreting the relevant statute the court said, “This statute is written in the third person, clearly indicating that at least two actors must be involved.” Accordingly, it “does not criminalize a pregnant woman’s actions in securing an abortion, regardless of the means utilized.”

Will unborn children be counted as part of the population?

Yes. According to the new law unborn children shall be included in population-based determinations.

Can the father of an unborn child be forced to pay child support?

Yes. However, the maximum amount of support that the court may impose on the father before the child is born cannot exceed the amount of direct medical and pregnancy related expenses of the mother of the unborn child.

Will an unborn child be eligible to be included as a dependent on the state tax returns?

Yes. The new law clarifies that if they meet the other qualifications for the term ‘dependent’ under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, any unborn child with a detectable human heartbeat shall qualify as a dependent minor.

Will an unborn child be eligible for certain public benefits even if the mother was an undocumented immigrant?

Yes. As Georgia’s Office of Legislative Council clarifies, the law would allow—and perhaps require—the state to begin paying some public benefits to an unborn child and that it would “be impossible to deny that ancillary benefit to the illegal immigrant parents of such a child.”

Does the law have any exception for when abortion is allowed?

The law does not prohibit an abortion prior to the age at which a heartbeat can be detected (i.e., prior to about six weeks’ gestation). The law allows an exception in cases of rape or incest if a woman files a police report and the pregnancy is less than 20 weeks. It also allows exceptions when an abortion is necessary in order to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman or when in reasonable medical judgment, an unborn child has a profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth.

Is the law already in effect?

No, the law is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The reason for the delay is because when a new law in Georgia includes a tax exemptions or deductions (see question above), it must start on January 1 of the following year.

Is the new law constitutional?

Under current legal precedents related to abortion, the Georgia law is likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the federal courts (four other similar fetal heartbeat laws have already been blocked by the courts). State legislators recognize this fact, of course, and are implementing such laws in the hope that it will force the Supreme Court to reexamine—and possibly overturn—such cases as Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.

Reclaiming Friendship in the Social Media Age

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:02am

Augustine once wrote that there are two things essential to existence in this world: life and friendship. Yet, as Drew Hunter insightfully points out in his book on friendship, “Friendship is, for many of us, one of the most important but least thought about aspects of life.” Most people feel the tension of knowing friendship is valuable while living as though it isn’t.

Social media hasn’t helped.

Sure, it’s nice to keep up with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, new and old, from all over the world. It’s nice to learn from a wide variety of voices and countless resources that fill our feeds. But social media is also distorting our view of friendship.

Friendship and Pseudo-Friendship

As we scroll through our feeds, full of pictures and updates from hundreds of people we haven’t talked to in years, we rightly ask, “Are these people really my friends?”

The paradox of social media is that we know many people while not feeling known by anyone.

Stephen Marche captures this well: “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”

A 2018 Cigna study found that people aged 18 to 22 experienced loneliness significantly more than people 72 and older. That is not a coincidence. In a recent University of Pennsylvania study, psychologist Melissa G. Hunt concluded that there is an inevitable link between loneliness and social media use by 18- to 22-year-olds.

“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.”

Social media promises social connectedness, but it often delivers social isolation.

Social media promises social connectedness, but it often delivers social isolation.

Four Ways to Reclaim Friendship

Social media’s distortion of genuine friendship and community presents Christians with a great opportunity to reclaim and reemphasize the priority of friendship. Here are four ways we can redeem the distortion of friendship in a social media age.

1. Prioritize Face-to-Face Friendships

About a year ago I made the decision to prioritize a smaller number of friends I lived in close proximity with instead of spending so much time keeping up with many distant acquaintances online. I scheduled biweekly meetings with these friends. Whenever I wanted to know how one was doing, I called them instead of checking their social feeds. Over time, I found that trading tweets and Facebook updates for real-time conversations strengthened my friendships and filled me with joy.

2. Value Deep Friendships

For the first time in our lives, we can objectively assess popularity. Social media has given us the ability to know exactly how many pseudo-friends we have. This silent contest often reorients our value systems. Many of us would rather have 5,000 followers than five deep friendships—all because we’ve wrongly attached our self-worth to a follower count.

Many of us would rather have 5,000 followers than five deep friendships.

But Christians should tip the scales in the opposite direction, valuing the few deep over the many shallow. We should seek friends who know our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, not just the superficial tidbits of our lives we post on Instagram.

3. Create New Social Media Habits

The FOMO effect is real. Fearful of missing out on social events and updates, we feel enslaved to social media. This constant fear, and the dopamine rush we get with every new notification, causes us to constantly check our feeds for the latest news or viral whatever we might be missing—all the while interrupting time with family, friends, and God. When endless streams of information are available at any moment, they tend to invade every moment. How do we get free? In his excellent book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch suggests we take planned sabbaticals from our screens: one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. Choosing to say “no” to social media frees us to recenter on God and enjoy the people he puts in front of us—even if we miss out on a few things online.

When endless streams of information are available at any moment, they tend to invade every moment.

4. Rest in Jesus, Our Ever-Faithful Friend

Jesus stands in the face of social media’s claim for authentic friendship, declaring: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The ultimate Friend does not come to us through a screen, but in a body. He wraps himself in flesh and adorns himself with our weakness so that he can say, “No longer do I call you servants . . . I have called you friends.” (John 15:15). Jesus reminds us we are embodied people, meant to live joyful, sacrificial lives for the good of others and the glory of God.

Our worth is not found in the number of followers we have, but in the fact that Jesus calls us his friend. When we rest in this glorious truth, we are freed from enslavement to social media’s definition of friendship and worth.

Most Abortion-Minded Women Aren’t Calculating Killers. They’re Afraid.

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:00am

She cried when the two blue lines appeared. Her fleece pullover got wet when she wiped her eyes, and she told me she’d just been hired at a new job that she feared she’d now lose. She was young. She faced eviction. Her boyfriend would be angry, she told me—maybe even violently so. I nodded, struck mute by a lack of solutions for her.

“I don’t know how to make it easier,” I told her. “But I know you will never, ever regret holding your baby. We can find help.”

I’ve volunteered in my community’s pregnancy resource center for a few years, and while I frequently feel nervous, sad, confused, and at a loss for solutions, there’s one concrete thing I’ve learned: Most women seeking abortions aren’t uber-political. They aren’t members of the aggressively pro-abortion, Twitter-argument-waging, shout-your-abortion crowd. They aren’t calculating murderers. They’re afraid.

Abortion is a great evil. It’s left an ugly, gaping hole in the world where millions of image-bearing children should be. While the church has largely excelled at calling this despicable spade a spade, she often fails to see this picture: a young, often impoverished, terrified woman—who knows her baby is a human!—but considers abortion anyway. Fear is incredibly potent.

Most women seeking abortions aren’t uber-political. They aren’t members of the aggressively pro-abortion, Twitter-argument-waging, shout-your-abortion crowd. They aren’t calculating murderers. They’re afraid.

When we assume a woman who is seeking an abortion or has had an abortion is an archetypal, uber-feminist activist, we can expect to be neither as loving as we should be or as effective in encouraging her to choose life.

Instead, we should remember that she is probably afraid. This will help us love her, empathize with her, encourage her to choose life for her baby, and, ultimately, point her to Jesus.

Fear of What, Exactly?

It may seem obvious that the fear of killing should naturally outweigh any other fears. But while we may wish that fear—and the fear of God—was our most compelling motivator, in our human flesh it often isn’t.

Women facing an unplanned pregnancy often have very reasonable, here-and-now fears. They may fear the loss of financial stability—or the loss of the ability to ever reach it. They may fear the loss of an already teetering status quo in which every available ounce of food is already consumed at home—perhaps by other children they’re already parenting. Pregnant women may lose a job, or they may not get the job they were hoping for. They may fear a violent boyfriend or father.

They may even fear pregnancy itself, which is often full of terrifying sickness, physical pain, loss of emotional control, and embarrassing bodily problems. All of these fears are real and oft-cited at crisis-pregnancy centers the country over. A common theme weaves through most of them: the fear of other people.

Evil often begets more evil. While many who support so-called abortion rights believe they’re serving needy women, they’re overlooking one critical reality: Women are often brought—reluctantly—to the abortion doctor. These women are compelled toward abortion not by their own empowering, my-body-is-my-own sense of autonomy, but by another person seeking control. Angry boyfriends, angry husbands, angry mothers, angry employers—these are so often the wind at the back of an abortion-minded woman.

Women may fear something else, too: adoption. Though morally clear, the thought is often experientially vague: It seems, or feels, much less repugnant to have a hidden medical procedure in the first weeks of pregnancy than to consciously hand over a smiling, babbling baby to a woman whose body never knew him or her. It’s cognitive dissonance, sure, but it’s a real—and understandable—fear.

Fear Is Familiar

Before my work at the pregnancy center, I may have quietly scoffed at the above. I meant well. I had read the books, seen the gruesome photos, and heard the apologetics. I believed that if the pro-life movement could successfully convince naysayers that a baby is a baby—imbued with all the God-given value of human life from the moment it is created—the debate would be over.

But then I started volunteering at the center. And then I became pregnant.

My pregnancies with my daughters were a revelation—and not necessarily a welcome one. I suffered health issues during each; some the typical pregnancy discomforts, others more serious. And despite my situation—which included financial stability, a supportive family, top-notch healthcare, and the fact that we had planned for these babies—I was still terrified. In my worst days, I identified with women who seek a way out.

Meet Fear with Empathy

Objective arguments against abortion based on an unborn baby’s humanity are true. And they have their place. Even images of pre-term and aborted babies may be persuasive—though in recent years many have begun to question their efficacy. But these arguments and photos usually aren’t best employed on the sidewalk outside an abortion clinic.

As ambassadors of Christ, we must remember first that women considering an abortion are often in a state of total panic. And acknowledging that has the power to greatly alter our behavior.

Women considering an abortion are often in a state of total panic.

When we presume others’ best intentions, we’re more likely to be softer, less frustrated, and more forgiving. If I can train myself to assume that the aggressive driver on the highway is actually rushing to the hospital, my anger toward him or her melts. And if we can train our hearts to recognize that a woman seeking an abortion is actually afraid—and even to accept that we would be feeling fear ourselves, were we facing her circumstances—we can shake off our unproductive anger and put on, instead, love and empathy.

Caring for the Fearful

That means one of our first steps in ministering to a woman facing a crisis pregnancy is to acknowledge her fear. Don’t judge it, don’t shrug it off, but take her seriously. It is scary. Don’t offhandedly offer adoption as a quick solution. Don’t immediately start in on the logical fallacies of pro-abortion apologetics. Let her be afraid, and tell her she’s not alone. (Better yet: mean it.)

Once we acknowledge her fear—and, if she’ll allow it, pray for her—we can start to talk through potential solutions to her various worries. If an angry parent is threatening to kick her out, we can explore other housing options. If a boyfriend is threatening violence, we can talk about calling the police (not to mention ending the relationship). If she’s worried about financial instability, we can help her explore the various public and private options for help. Many communities offer vast resources for women facing crisis pregnancies—think free cribs, free parenting classes, free prenatal care—and most local pregnancy centers can navigate the road to those resources with great expertise.

If a woman in crisis grants us the privilege of facing her fears with her, we may also have the opportunity to point her to the One whose perfect love casts out all fear. Life—and especially bearing life—requires physical, emotional, and financial resources that can ignite terror should they be hard to find. But as we help women find them, we also earn the relational capital to tell her about a God who clothes the lilies, calms the storms, and surely comforts us all the days of our lives—even the really, really scary ones.

20 Quotes from Don Carson on Gospel Centrality

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:04am

The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Don Carson’s new little book, Prophetic from the Center (10Publishing, 2019).

Perhaps more common yet is the tendency to assume the gospel, whatever that is, while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless. This overlooks the fact that our hearers inevitably are drawn toward that about which we are most passionate. Every teacher knows that. My students are unlikely to learn all that I teach them; they are most likely to learn that about which I am most excited. If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery. (4–5)

It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center. (5)

When we insist that as a matter of first importance, the gospel is Christological, we are not thinking of Christ as a cipher, or simply as the God-man who comes along and helps us like a nice insurance agent: “Jesus is a nice God-man, he’s a very, very nice God-man, and when you break down, he comes along and fixes you.” The gospel is Christological in a more robust sense: Jesus is the promised Messiah who died and rose again. (12)

The cross and resurrection are not nakedly historical events; they are historical events with the deepest theological weight. (13)

From the beginning, sin is an offense against God. God himself pronounces the sentence of death (Gen. 2–3). This is scarcely surprising, since God is the source of all life, so if his image bearers spit in his face and insist on going their own way and becoming their own gods, they cut themselves off from their Maker, from the One who gives life. What is there, then, but death? (14)

In all our sinning, God is invariably the most offended party. That is why we must have his forgiveness, or we have nothing. (15–16)

The God the Bible portrays as resolved to intervene and save is also the God portrayed as full of wrath because of our sustained idolatry. As much as he intervenes to save us, he stands over against us as Judge, an offended Judge with fearsome jealousy. . . . How often when we preach the gospel are people terrified? (16, 18)

To be saved from our sins is to be saved not only from their chaining power but also from their consequences—and the consequences are profoundly bound up with God’s solemn sentence, with God’s holy wrath. Once you see this, you cannot fail to see that whatever else the cross achieves, it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing. (21)

Any approach, theological or evangelistic, that attempts to pit Jesus’s death and Jesus’s resurrection against each other, is not much more than silly. (24)

The Bible never asks us to believe what is not true. By the same token, one of the principal ways the Bible increases and strengthens faith is by articulating and defending the truth. (30)

We are not saved by theological ideas about Christ; we are saved by Christ himself. (31)

The new humanity in [Christ] draws in people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. The gospel . . . is not universal in the sense that it transforms and saves everyone without exception, for in reality, those whose existence is connected exclusively to the old Adam are not included. Yet this gospel is gloriously universal in its comprehensive sweep. There is not a trace of racism here. (34)

Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted. (41)

When the gospel truly does its work, “proud Christian” is an unthinkable oxymoron. (41)

Corinth speaks to the lust for endless innovation that casually cuts a swath away from the practices and beliefs of other churches, while quietly side-stepping the careful instruction of the apostle. . . . Always be suspicious of churches that proudly flaunt how different they are from what has gone before. (43)

The gospel is boldly advancing under the contested reign and inevitable victory of Jesus the king. (45)

There is no place for triumphalism in the church of the blood-bought, in the church led by apostles who eat everyone’s dirt at the end of the procession. (49)

A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. (51)

The conventions and expectations of the world are pervasive and enslaving. The gospel must be worked out for these women, and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that it issues in liberation from the wretched chains of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape, apart from the powerful word of the cross. (53–54)

[Pondering how the gospel transforms various areas of life] must be done, not by attempting to abstract social principles from the gospel, still less by endless focus on the periphery in a vain effort to sound prophetic, but precisely by preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious gospel of our blessed Redeemer. (54)

The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:03am

Over the last few years, new terms like “cisgender,” “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “centering,” and “white fragility” have suddenly entered our cultural lexicon—seemingly out of nowhere. In reality, these words and concepts have been working their way through academia for decades, perpetuated by disciplines such as Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Critical Race Theory, among others. These fields can be placed within the larger discipline of “critical theory,” an ideology more popularly known as “cultural Marxism.”

But what is critical theory? And what should Christians think about it?

Modern critical theory views reality through the lens of power. Each individual is seen either as oppressed or as an oppressor, depending on their race, class, gender, sexuality, and a number of other categories. Oppressed groups are subjugated not by physical force or even overt discrimination, but through the exercise of hegemonic power—the ability of dominant groups to impose their norms, values, and expectations on society as a whole, relegating other groups to subordinate positions.

Space doesn’t permit a comprehensive treatment of this important subject, but we’ll highlight a few basic facts about critical theory that all Christians should know.

Understanding Critical Theory

First, not everything that critical theory affirms is false. Like almost any discipline, there are areas in which Christians should agree with critical theory. For example, critical race theorists affirm that race—as it has been defined historically and legally—is a social construct and not a concept legitimately rooted in human nature or human biology.

Second, the notion of hegemonic power is also legitimate. Christians have long recognized how various institutions can—intentionally or unintentionally—perpetuate ideas like secularism, naturalism, and relativism that create resistance to the gospel. Similarly, Christian parents have to fight against false standards of beauty and sexuality promulgated by the entertainment and advertising industries. These examples show hegemonic power in action, as the culture imbibes norms and values promoted by dominant institutions.

Third, critical theory functions as a worldview. It answers our most basic questions: Who are we? What is our fundamental problem? What is the solution to that problem? What is our primary moral duty? How should we live?

Christianity provides us with an overarching metanarrative that runs from creation to redemption: We are creatures made in God’s image, who have sinned against him, who need to be rescued through the atoning work of Jesus, and who are called to love both God and neighbor.

In contrast, critical theory is associated with a metanarrative that runs from oppression to liberation: We are members either of a dominant group or of a marginalized group with respect to a given identity marker. As such, we either need to divest ourselves of power and seek to liberate others, or we need to acquire power and liberate ourselves by dismantling all structures and institutions that subjugate and oppress. In critical theory, the greatest sin is oppression, and the greatest virtue is the pursuit of liberation.

These respective metanarratives will vie for dominance in all areas of life. Consider, for example, the question of identity: Is our identity primarily defined in terms of our vertical relationship to God? Or primarily in terms of horizontal power dynamics between groups of people?

Or consider the question of our fundamental problem as humans: Is our fundamental problem sin, in which case we all equally stand condemned before a holy God? Or is our fundamental problem oppression, in which case members of dominant groups are tainted by guilt in a way that members of subordinate groups are not?

The points of tension are numerous. Invariably, we will be forced to choose between critical theory and Christianity in terms of our values, ethics, and priorities.

Fourth, because critical theory understands all relationships in terms of power dynamics, it can’t be confined to a single issue such as class, or race, or gender. Consistency will push us to apply this framework to other areas. Critical theorists classify racism, sexism, capitalism, heteronormativity, cisgender privilege, and Christian privilege as forms of oppression. In all these cases, a dominant group has imposed its values on a subordinate group. And in all these cases, the solution is to dismantle the norms that keep the minoritized group in bondage. Christians who embrace the paradigm of critical theory as a solution to racism or sexism often question a biblical understanding of gender roles, gender identity, sexual orientation, marriage, parental authority, and even the uniqueness of the Christian faith.

Finally, critical theory claims that members of oppressed groups have special access to truth because of their “lived experience” of oppression. Such insight is unavailable to members of oppressor groups, who are blinded by their privilege. Consequently, any appeals to “objective evidence” or “reason” made by dominant groups are actually surreptitious bids for continued institutional power. This view is rooted in standpoint theory (organic to Marxism and repurposed by feminist theory), which argues that knowledge is conditioned and determined by social location.

This stance is particularly dangerous because it undermines the function of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth, accessible to all people regardless of their demographics (Ps. 119:130, 160; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 1 Cor. 2:12–14; Heb. 8:10–12). If a person from an oppressor group appeals to Scripture, his concerns can be dismissed as a veiled attempt to protect his privilege.

Engaging Critical Theory

While critical theory is a serious and growing threat to the church, a few important admonitions are in order.

First, we should be careful and charitable in our language. On the one hand, Christians should be hesitant to throw around words like “intersectionality” or “white privilege” without taking the time to understand the ideology in which these concepts are embedded. On the other hand, the bare fact that someone talks about “oppression” or “social justice” isn’t remotely sufficient to conclude that they’ve embraced critical theory.

The bare fact that someone talks about ‘oppression’ or ‘social justice’ isn’t remotely sufficient to conclude that they’ve embraced critical theory.

Here, basic rules of good dialogue are helpful: Avoid labels and name-calling. Engage with people’s explicit statements, not speculations about their hidden intentions. Attack ideas, not people. Ask questions. Speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15) with words full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). In an increasingly tribalized and fractured culture, Christians should be known for graciousness toward those with whom they disagree, particularly those who profess faith in Christ.

Next, we should reconsider our use of the phrase “cultural Marxism.” This term is used at times in academic literature to refer to “critical theory” because of the work of a number of 20th-century Marxian theorists who problematize hegemonic power, including Antonio Gramsci, T. W. Adorno, Georg Lukacs, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Terry Eagleton, Jurgen Habermas, and Paulo Freire (the latter two being qualified Marxists). Similarly, the term “cultural Marxism” has been employed by respected public figures like David Brooks and Albert Mohler. However, it also has shown up recently in the manifestos of mass shooters and makes frequent appearances on neo-Nazi websites. Because “critical theory” is the more common scholarly term and has none of the negative associations of “cultural Marxism,” it will convey our intended meaning more effectively.

Third, we need to recognize that the local church is a witness to God’s kingdom. In a world saturated with evil and divided by enmity, it’s no wonder that critical theory’s promises of justice and inclusion are attractive. When a church demonstrates true neighbor-love and fellowship across lines of race, class, and gender, it undermines the idea that critical theory is the only path to human flourishing and gives credibility to the charge that critical theory fails to deliver on its promises.

Finally, we cannot overstate the importance of being directly acquainted with primary source material. Christians, in general, are woefully ill-equipped to accurately represent and critique critical theory because of relying too heavily on secondary sources. If we had to recommend just one book at the popular level that demonstrates critical theory in action, it would be Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. It’s essential reading for anyone trying to understand the basic ideas and methods of critical theory.

As Christians committed to reaching our neighbors with the gospel, it’s vital for us to understand not only the concepts that are shaping the culture, but  also their relationship to a biblical worldview. Let’s commit to understanding critical theory so that we can recognize it, critique it, and show people that true freedom and joy are ultimately found in Christ alone.

8 Ways for Men to Make the Friends They Won’t Admit They Need

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:02am

Many men today struggle with maintaining male friendships. This claim doesn’t need to be argued. We know it. I personally have a sporadic friendship track-record. Particularly in my early years of ministry, my lack of male friendships was actually inhibiting the full expression of my humanity. I still have a long way to go.

But I’m learning. It has become more clear to me that Jesus and his disciples were genuine friends (John 15:15). They spent time sharing deeply of themselves. And even before Jesus had disciples, before he created the world, he was a friend to the Father and the Spirit. By being a friend we show forth the image of God.

By being a friend we show forth the image of God.

So how can men succeed in the old-fashioned but desperately needed art of friendship? Here are eight suggestions.

1. Distinguish Loving Your Neighbor from Being a Friend

God’s children must love all their neighbors, including the hateful ones. But doing so doesn’t mean we have friends. Friends share more than resources and respect. Friends share themselves. They embrace Paul’s call to “be open” (2 Cor. 6:13). They practice fellowship and communion (2 Cor. 6:14), cultivating a common life with shared physical presence, emotional openness, and spiritual understanding.

Being a good neighbor is non-negotiable, but friendship goes beyond the call of neighborliness.

2. Don’t Depend Solely on Your Wife for Friendship

Your wife can be your best friend, but she can’t be your only friend. If you depend on your wife for friendship, you will stunt yourself and stifle her. You’ll end up expecting her to fulfill your need for shared life—a need God intends to be met by a community. Marital discourse can stagnate without fresh insights gained through close same-sex friendships.

3. Be Emotional

John Calvin observed that the Psalms animate “all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the . . . emotions” that convulse our minds. Beautiful, right? Yet men often resist emotional friendships.

David wept over the impending separation between himself and his friend (1 Sam. 20:41–42). At Lazarus’s tomb Jesus sobbed, among other reasons, because he loved his friend (John 11:35–36). The Ephesian elders fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him as he departed (Acts 20:37).

The notion that men should restrain emotion is character-stunting folly.

The notion that men should restrain emotion is character-stunting folly.

4. Define Your Friendship with Words

The best friendships have a quasi-covenantal character, for covenants define relationships. David and Jonathan solemnized the terms of their friendship (1 Sam. 18:3; 20:8; 23:14–18). You might be surprised what happens when you articulate with your friends what your friendship means.

True friends also speak well to and about each other. And remember, your friendship also hinges on how you speak of your friends behind their backs. Jonathan stayed true when friendship to David was a kiss of death (19:4). Blaise Pascal once said that if men knew what their friends said about them, there would be few friends in the world. Be among the few.

5. Practice Celebration

Good friends know how to enjoy life. It’s no accident that God’s coming kingdom is described as a party (Rev. 19:9; cf. John 2:1–11). Celebrating life is a revolt against hoarding by those who know God’s grace is present, not just future. It’s been said that “modern man . . . always keeps on believing that the real thing is going to happen tomorrow.” Celebration reminds friends that the real thing is happening now.

6. Don’t Always Do Something

Kent Hughes acknowledges that “men’s friendships typically center around activities, while women’s revolve around sharing.” Men commonly view friendships “as acquaintances made along the way, rather than as relationships.” As a consequence, he notes, male friendships “rarely approach the depth of disclosure a woman commonly has with many other women.”

Undistracted face-to-face time removes the safety net of the activity and invites sharing. We must resist the urge to protect ourselves from a slow-paced, potentially awkward encounter that might actually move our friendship to a deeper level.

7. Include Jesus

I moved to California by myself at 19. Attempting to escape a destructive web of bad choices, I resolved that new friends must be people who would help me walk with God. And good friendships were one of the ways God restored me from backsliding. But even these friendships often lacked spiritual deliberateness. The night before I moved back across the country, my best friend remarked, “We’ve never prayed together.” We had rarely, if ever, talked about godliness. How is that Christian friendship?

Real men don’t hide their faith. . . . They talk with other men about Jesus as a mutual friend.

Real men don’t hide their faith. They don’t dance around spiritual matters. They are genuinely vocal about their only comfort in life and in death. They talk with other men about Jesus as a mutual friend.

8. Be Energized by the Gospel

On their own, rules cannot make us godlier people or better friends. The gospel alone—the perfect atoning work of God’s Son—is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). And yet as the Belgic Confession reminds us, God’s moral law “regulate[s] our life in all honorableness to the glory of God, according to his will” (Art. 25).

As we practice the laws of friendship, energized by the friendship of Christ, the better we will both know him and learn from him how to live as friends.

A Vocabulary for Life’s Dark Days

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 12:00am

It was late. So late, it was almost early. I’d been pacing my terminally dusty floor for about a quarter of an hour. I was sobbing.

That day, I’d come face-to-face with human trafficking. In the country where I was serving, it’s called child marriage. There were no authorities to call. No way to save her. She was gone.

I was seething with helpless rage, but I was also terrified. This was a level of depravity I’d never known, and my faith had no answer for it. And I was a missionary, for (quite literally) God’s sake! I’d come to South Asia to share the gospel, and here I was barely managing to believe it for myself.

A few days later, I shuffled into my mentor’s office and stammered out what she thankfully recognized as a cry for help. I met with my organization’s member care team, who diagnosed me with situational depression and set me on the path to recovery.

In short, that night wasn’t fatal, but I’ve learned since that it also isn’t exceptional. Our communities are drowning in unspoken suffering. We desperately need biblical language to bridge the gap between the sorrow we feel and the God we know, and that’s what Mark Vroegop—lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and TGC Council member—has given us in Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.

Learning to Lament

“Lament,” in Vroegop’s words, “is a prayer in pain that leads to trust” (28). He begins by tracing this prayer language of “turn, complain, ask, and trust” through the psalms (29). The first movement in lament (turn) is simply to choose to keep praying. Even if all we can manage is to stumble to Christ’s feet and collapse in a sobbing heap, that in itself is an act of faith. But we need not turn to him with fawning platitudes, for the second motion (complaint) “give[s] us permission—even encouragement—to lay out our struggles, even if they are with God himself” (48).

Pacing the floor that night, I wondered if a God who would allow sexual slavery to masquerade as marriage was a God worth praying to. I wondered, along with the psalmists, how my God could abandon his people (Ps. 10:1), forget their affliction (Ps. 44:23–24), and allow freakishly wicked people to go unstopped and unpunished (Ps. 94:3). What I didn’t know was that I had the right to say so.

Lament requires us to remember who God says he is, and then to hold fast to that truth.

There is space in Scripture to humbly and honestly tell God when he appears to be falling down on the job. More glorious still, there is space to request that he get up and do something. In Vroegop’s words, “Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help” (60), and lament is a place to ask for that help, and ask boldly. The psalmist appealed to God for justice (Ps. 83:16–18), for mercy (Ps. 51:1), for restoration (Ps. 80:3), and for vindication (Ps. 35:23–24)—and we have the privilege to do the same.

While we have the right to ask God to act in accordance with his character, we also have the responsibility to believe that he will. Lament requires us to remember who God says he is, and then to hold fast to that truth. “Trust” is the fourth movement of lament, but it’s not the final one. Pain is and will be an ongoing fact of life until Christ’s return, and “we must enter into lament again and again so that it can keep leading us to trust” (74). Vroegop does not offer a 12-step program or an artificially biblicized grieving process, but rather an accessible vocabulary for living in the meantime, in the space between the pain of our world and the promise of glory.

Individual Lament

The framework Vroegop proposes is remarkable for its sheer versatility. Anytime we feel the tension between the world we inhabit and the world we’re promised, we can turn to lament. It can shape our prayers in the wake of tragedy. It can shape our conversation amid conflict. We can use it to cry out for forgiveness amid our sin, or for justice amid someone else’s. From a bad day at the office to the downfall of nations, there’s no pain too great (or small) for lament. Every complaint is validated, and every ache, pain, and tragedy becomes an opportunity to glory more fully in the gospel of Christ.

For Vroegop is careful to root our trust, not in some kind of karmic payback within our lifetime, but in the ultimate hope of eternity. While God certainly can and does redeem our sorrows in beautifully obvious ways, there are things that nothing short of the death of God can repay, and nothing short of his resurrection can redeem: the breaking of a marriage, the abuse of a child, the suicide of a grandparent.

From a bad day at the office to the downfall of nations, there’s no pain too great (or small) for lament. Every complaint is validated, and every ache, pain, and tragedy becomes an opportunity to glory more fully in the gospel of Christ.

Lament allows us to transpose our pain into the symphony of cosmic redemption, for “lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150). Lament provides ample space to acknowledge the immensity and profundity of our suffering, but it also reminds us, over and over, that the love of Christ is deeper and wider still. And in so doing, it “helps us dare to hope again, and again, and again” (112), as we wait in eager expectation for Christ to make all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Corporate Lament

Lament is perhaps even more powerful as a communal practice. After all, Lamentations was written in the wake of God’s judgment on the nation of Judah for their idolatry and rampant injustice, so what better biblical text to guide a community coming to terms with its own brokenness?

“Lament,” Vroegop argues, “has the potential to provide a first step toward uniting people when hurt and misunderstanding are in the air” (184). When “the issues are so complicated and the pain so raw,” he observes, pastors and laypeople alike are all too easily frightened into silence, for fear of saying the wrong thing (185). But lament allows us to break that silence with honesty and compassion. It empowers us to maintain solidarity with our community while acknowledging the guilt we bear together. And it points us to the truth that God can redeem us, just as he redeemed the sinful people of Judah.

Vroegop suggests that churches use lament to open eyes and hearts to cultural issues such as sexual abuse, human trafficking, and abortion (131–32). He encourages believers to “talk to God about the challenges of generational poverty, divorce, teen pregnancy, racism, unemployment, drug addiction, and any other social ill you can remember” and to “allow lament to soften your heart to the problems around you” (132). Lament, he suggests, can propel us out of indifference and through compassion to action on behalf of our communities: “Be moved to lament; be moved to pray. And be moved to act—to make a difference” (132).

Vroegop notes that lament is insufficient for resolving complex systemic evils and reminds us that “[t]here is much work to be done in listening, understanding, addressing injustice, and fostering hope” (186). But it can provide a “starting point . . . a God-given means for vocalizing complicated and loaded pain” (186). And perhaps most importantly, it grounds our hope, not in policies or procedures or politicians, but in the infinite power of God, who alone is capable of doing the impossible work of redeeming rebels.

When #ChurchToo Hits Close to Home

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:04am

You’d think the church would be the last place where abuse would be ignored, but, regrettably, that’s not the case, as the #ChurchToo movement has shown. Even knowing the statistics on abuse within churches, it’s a shock when you find out one of your own members or leaders has abused someone in your church family.

In this conversation, Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell talk about how to be prepared if someone comes to you with a revelation of abuse, and how to overcome the shock of the moment to readily offer comfort and protection. All three women agree that police should be notified of any accusation of sexual abuse. Rosaria Butterfield recounts a recent conversation in which a woman requested prayer for an ongoing abuse situation: “I said, ‘Well, let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.'”

Too often, the pain of abuse has been intensified when church members or leaders respond to abuse revelations inadequately. We can’t always prevent abuse from happening, but we can prepare ourselves to respond—to do the right thing right away—when we discover there have been wolves amid the flock.

Related:

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

How to Showcase the Beauty of Repentance in Your Church

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:03am

Church planting is not about gathering a crowd. People gather for all kinds of reasons to rally around a cause—whether it be sports, politics, environmental activism, or something else.

In Washington, D.C. (where I live), people come from all over the nation, and even the world, to raise their voices in unity for various causes. But, by and large, these groups have no love for the city and make no lasting difference. Further, I’ve never seen a rally on the National Mall change the hearts of a group’s opponents.

The advance of God’s Word, however—as it is planted and grown in local churches across the world—shatters dividing walls of hostility between people to create new communities of love and grace. This is what Jesus died to achieve.

Of course, the early days of planting a church are filled with excitement. Planning for the good of a people and a place, calling people together, building excitement for the potential of what could be—it’s what church planters love to do.

Then people gather, covenant together, and a church is established.

As people humbly bear with, love, and forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them, a powerful apologetic for the gospel shines bright for the world to see.

As this happens—as redeemed sinners live alongside one another—friction will eventually and inevitably arise. Such friction can be scary. The unity and mission of every congregation can feel fragile, especially in the turbulent early days of a church plant.

But church planter, take heart. Conflict can provide beautiful opportunities to foster a culture of repentance and grace, which is a gift from God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps us see this:

Take your New Testament as it is. Look at the New Testament Christian, look at the New Testament church, and you see it vibrant with spiritual life, and, of course, it is always life that tends to lead to excesses. There is no problem of discipline in a graveyard; there is no problem very much in a formal church. The problems arise when there is life.

As people humbly bear with, love, and forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them (Col. 3:12–14), a powerful apologetic for the gospel shines bright for the world to see. When significant conflict arises, what compels people to stay? What wills people to lay down their own preferences for the good of others? Apart from the gospel, no such thing exists—at least not ultimately. But the uniqueness of the church is that we are a people marked by repentance and forgiveness.

But how do we—as church-planting pastors—foster this culture of repentance and forgiveness in our churches? Here are four ways.

1. Look for glimmers of grace in people’s lives.

Church discipline is important, and plants will be tested at the most unexpected points. Inexperienced church planters and elders can become overwhelmed by the weighty responsibility to oversee people’s souls (Heb. 13:17). I’ve seen that responsibility lead to a compulsion to hover over people and their lives, looking for things to confront. So, yes, church planter, be clear on truth. Don’t shy away from identifying sin when a church member clearly disobeys God’s Word. But realize that such confrontation is only one approach.

The privilege of pastoring gives us a front-row seat to marvel at how God is at work in people even while we work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12–13). Pastors would do well to view themselves as the “head cheerleader” for what the Lord is already doing in his people by his Spirit. When you promote a culture that celebrates God’s grace in people’s lives, you promote a spirit of openness and repentance.

2. Get your hands dirty.

In order to really practice number one, this second point is crucial. I recently stumbled on some case studies I wrote in seminary, where I articulated how I would navigate difficult theoretical scenarios to apply sound ethics and theological principle. Those papers were not altogether incorrect, but my goodness were they cold and disconnected.

The real stuff of life is always more complicated than classroom theory.

The real stuff of life is always more complicated than classroom theory. It’s important for a pastor to spend adequate time laboring in study and preparation to preach well. But it’s dangerous, especially for a younger pastor, to spend little time with the people. Real involvement in real issues—in the lives of real people—will help to both shape and sharpen perspective, and it will posture the church to see the evidence of God’s grace and forgiveness in its members’ lives.

3. Focus on love and restoration.

The tenor of church discipline must always be love, and the ultimate aim must always be redemptive and restorative. If the gospel rightly preached tells of Christ’s redemptive work and the imputation of his righteousness, then it’s never right to heavy-handedly punish an individual into greater piety.

Rather, it is the responsibility of the church to hold those in covenant relationship to account for their membership vows and, ultimately, to continually rehearse the gospel of Christ and cling more closely to him. This must be done in love and for the sake of restoration in community. And it typically means moving through discipline issues slowly and with great care.

4. It starts with the leaders.

A church’s culture will almost always follow the posture the leaders have toward each other. The elders’ table can too often be a dangerous place for openness and repentance, since admission of failure can quickly lead to suspicion about a man’s qualification for the office.

I’ve seen too many faithful pastors undergo painful investigations, which often fixate on personality or preference, leaving no room for repentance and restoration. Sure, there are times when confrontation is needed. Remember, though, that pastors are not mini-Saviors. We are fellow members of the church.

Pastors are not mini-Saviors. We are fellow members of the church.

To help cultivate grace-filled unity among our elders, we’ve separated our business meetings from meetings focused on prayer and pastoral care. This has taken the pressure off both these important times. It’s freed us to cultivate openness in pleading with one another for prayer and support as we all pursue Jesus together. We start with prayer and mutual care, and then spend time praying for the church together. It’s essential to cultivate openness and mutuality among the elders as we struggle through life, our own sin, failures in parenting and marriage, weariness at work, and everything else life throws at us. A culture of grace, repentance, and forgiveness among the elders will set the tone for how they lead and care for the church.

In all your strategies and plans for church planting, don’t neglect to cultivate a culture of grace and repentance. The Spirit’s movement in your church to showcase these evidences of the gospel will scandalize the sensibilities of some. Which means it will take intentional strategy and focused prayer.

But it’s worth the fight. A culture of Holy Spirit-wrought repentance will show the power of the gospel in the midst of a divided age.

Look Out for Friendly Fire! How Christians Can Be Our Own Worst Enemies

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:02am

At the risk of much eye-rolling from my wife, I want to make a bold statement: I am allergic to housework. If I dare to vacuum the carpet, fold the laundry, or dust the TV cabinet, my eyes and nose will become puffy, and I will cough, splutter, and sneeze.

That’s because I’m allergic to dust. Any activity that stirs dust in the house will invoke an allergic reaction from me.

But what causes allergies? It’s actually our own bodies’ defenses. Our immune systems—primed to defend against external threats, such as viruses and germs—are tricked into turning against our bodies. Our own antibodies start attacking our own cells.

Having an allergy is being attacked by our own friendly forces.

But this is also true of being a Christian. We expect the attack to come from outside—pagans, militant atheists, Western individualists. But what if the attack comes from inside? From our own Christian friends?

Recently, I googled the names of two prominent Christian leaders and was surprised to see them called out on some Christian websites as satanic, false teachers, and heretics. One particular website seems to take gleeful delight in saying the most ungracious stuff about well-known Christians.

At the start of each year, I usually share on Facebook that I’m going to use the Bible in One Year (BIOY) app for my daily Bible readings. I get many “likes.” But each year, well-meaning Christian friends will also ask if it’s wise to use the BIOY app because it’s written by Nicky Gumbel of Alpha. I’m sure it’s my innocent-as-a-dove naiveté, but I still don’t know why I’m supposed to be afraid of Nicky Gumbel.

Last month, I appeared on a friend’s vodcast. By and large the comments were positive, or they had genuine points they needed to clarify. But there was a small proportion of comments from Christians that were unnecessarily negative and nasty.

Many of the above examples are ignorable online slights. But even in the real face-to-face world, Christian conflict is a sad daily reality. Last year, the minister at my own church stepped down from Christian ministry after years and years of negativity from church members and leaders finally wore him down.

Why does this happen? What causes Christians to do this to each other?

1. It’s a Biblical Problem

First, this is biblically normal. Take the Psalms, for example. I used to think that the Psalms were largely a collection of happy praise songs to God. But now that I’m reading them in a more comprehensive way (thanks to the BIOY!), I’m noticing verses I previously ignored. Large chunks of the Psalms describe how the psalmist is surrounded by enemies—many of whom were once friends—who are plotting violence and harm against him (Ps. 3; 4:8–10; 6:6–10; 7:6–17; 9:3–6; and so on).

In the Gospels, the consistent pattern is this: When Jesus does something good, his enemies respond by trying to kill him. For example, Jesus heals a man’s shriveled hand. As a result, the Pharisees begin plotting to kill him (Matt. 12:13–14). Quite the non-sequitur. The next time you do something good and someone hates you for it, just be glad they’re not plotting to kill you.

2. It’s a Sociological Problem

Second, it’s also a consistent sociological pattern. Henri Tajfel’s seminal “Social Identity Theory” explains that we naturally form tribes for status, belonging, and security. But in order to create an “us,” we also have to create a “them” to whom we attribute the worst possible social evils.

Yet it goes further than this phenomenon. Tribes will find a way to turn on themselves. Fierce loyalty is expected. Moral purity—according to the tribe’s social norms—is required. But there will be a moment when a tribe fears it has been infiltrated, that the evil comes from within. This is when self-appointed judges call out their own members and accuse them of heresy. In doing so, they demonstrate their own credentials and are elevated within the tribal hierarchy.

There will also be public shaming. Children will turn on parents. Students on professors. Friends on friends. Just witness history’s Cultural Revolution in China, the present call-out culture, and, yes, what Christians are doing to each other.

3. It’s a Spiritual Problem

But, third, there’s also a scary spiritual explanation. Mark Sayers, in his brilliant podcast This Cultural Moment (from season 3, episode 5), explains that this is how spiritual warfare works. Often when we think of spiritual warfare, we imagine Satan attacking us in a full-blown frontal attack, complete with CGI effects, blood, and gore.

But Sayers explains that this isn’t how an underpowered insurgent enemy operates. Instead, insurgents spread half-truths, gossip, and misinformation to spark infighting among its foes. And that’s what Satan does to the church of Jesus Christ. He spreads rumors, feeds our fears, breaks down trust—enough so that we turn on each other and implode from within.

So how can we combat these tactics? Maybe a good place to start would be with the log in our own eye (Matt. 7:3). In our well-placed efforts to protect the truth of the gospel (Acts 20:28–31), we might unnecessarily target our own Christian brothers and sisters (cf. Mark 9:38–40).

Too Much Time

Interestingly, some present cures for allergies now include being exposed to more dirt, germs, and pathogens. We need to retrain our immune systems to distinguish between legitimate and innocent threats.

Perhaps it’s the same with us as Christians. If we only mix within our Christian bubble—church on Sundays, midweek Bible study groups, and so on—we risk inoculating ourselves from the world outside. And when this happens, we have too much time to turn our defense systems on ourselves.

Why Christianity Quit Growing in Korea

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:00am

If South Korea were a Disney princess, she would be Cinderella.

Oppressed and abused for years by her closest relatives, Japan and China, the country finally broke free in the early 1950s after World War II and the Korean War.

At the time, she was “one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries” in the world, with per capita income less than those of Haiti or Ethiopia. But through the Prince Charming of hard work, American support, and economically savvy governments, South Korea exchanged her rags for a ball gown. Today, she has the 12th-largest economy in the world.

The popularity of Christianity in South Korea followed much the same straight-up trajectory. The first missionaries were allowed access to the peninsula in 1884, but conversions didn’t really take off until after the wars.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity

By 1970, 18 percent of the population was Christian; by 2000, it was 31 percent. (Those counts include Protestants and Catholics.) By 2006, South Korea was sending out more missionaries than any other country except the much-larger United States. By 2015, Seoul was behind only Houston and Dallas in number of megachurches—and Seoul’s were much larger. (In the United States, 2,000 people constitute a megachurch. In South Korea, it’s 5,000.)

It looked like happily ever after. With 50,000 churches for 50 million people, “there was a belief that the church had saturated the population,” wrote Jae Kyeong Lee, president of the Foreign Baptist Mission Board of the Korea Baptist Convention. Since the number of South Korean missionaries jumped from 1,200 in 1991 to 13,000 in 2006, the goal of sending 100,000 full-time missionaries by 2030 seemed like a stretch, but not crazy.

And then, things stalled. Growth slowed way down, and church attendance began to shrink.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on—“the younger generation is leaving the church in startling fashion,” said Steven Chang, a New Testament professor in Seoul. The reasons are complex, ranging from Western secularization to materialism to high-profile corruption in the church.

But those young people are also a source of hope. “There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,” Chang said.

Tim Keller headlined the 2018 City to City conference in South Korea. / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

About 600 pastors and leaders came to City to City’s first public conference in 2017; last year, more than 2,000 turned out to hear Tim Keller at its second conference. The Gospel Coalition Korea launched a website five months ago; more than 1,000 are expected at its first conference in October.

“During my time in Korea I was so impressed with the Korean church,” Keller said. “It’s arguably the most fruitful gospel movement in all of Asia over the last one hundred years, but it’s willing to humble itself, repent, and seek new ways to minister to their people and the world in the 21st century.”

Presbyterian in Pyongyang

The first resident Protestant missionary into Korea was a Presbyterian doctor named Horace Allen in 1884, followed the next year by Horace Underwood, an ordained Presbyterian missionary who led efforts to translate the whole Bible into everyday Korean for the first time.

Korea was unusually fertile ground for Christianity—in just 15 years, there were already enough Presbyterians to start a seminary in Pyongyang. (One of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s great-grandfathers attended a missionary school as a committed Presbyterian; another was a Presbyterian minister.)

Frontispiece photograph in The Missionary, vol. 29, no. 10 (October 1896) / Courtesy of PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO.

A few things helped Christianity take hold on the peninsula. One was the indigenous belief in a supreme being, which easily translated over to belief in the Christian God. Another was that missionaries often followed the advice of Presbyterian John Nevius, who advocated for churches to become self-supporting and led by indigenous leadership as soon as possible. Third, missionaries brought with them Western medicine and education. Their hospitals and schools and universities—and the American Christian values they represented—were especially attractive to young Koreans.

So the conditions were right when, in 1907, an enormous revival—often called the “Korean Pentecost” or the “Pyongyang Revival”—broke out. Through preaching and public confession of sin—both by Korean pastors and American missionaries—the faith of thousands was renewed. By 1910, more than 200,000 of Korea’s 13 million people were Christians. So many of them were in the Pyongyang region (60,000) that the city was called “Jerusalem of the East.”

“The Great Revival transformed Protestantism from a foreign religion to a new national religion,” world Christianity professor Kirsteen Kim wrote in Christianity Today. And it’s true that while the revival was primarily religious, it was also soaked in nationalism. Because Korea was slowly losing the battle to Japan, which would annex the country in 1910.

Persecution

American Christians immediately sided with Korea in its struggle to regain independence. Missionaries and Korean Christians supported the country’s Declaration of Independence (16 of the 33 signers were Protestants), ran its provisional government from Shanghai, and refused to worship the Japanese emperor.

Being a Christian in Korea wasn’t easy—all students and government employees were ordered to bow down to imperial ancestors at Shinto shrines; all Protestant churches were forced to merge so Japan could control their affairs; and around 50 Christians were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

But to many Koreans, Christianity smelled like freedom, like home. It didn’t seem imperialistic or colonialistic, the way the Buddhism of China and the Shintoism of Japan did. By the time Japan was defeated in 1945, 3 percent of the Korean population was Protestant.

The end of WWII didn’t mean a happy ending for Korea, however. From 1945 to 1953, Russia/China and the United States battled over the ideological future of the country, eventually resigned to ripping it in half.

It has been perhaps the most thorough elimination of Christianity that has occurred in history, certainly in the 20th century.

In the north, the Soviet-backed Kim Il Sung fiercely attacked all political and religious opposition. Christians were imprisoned, tortured, and killed; thousands fled south. (An estimated 900,000—or 10 percent of North Korea’s population—moved below the 38th parallel between 1945 and 1953.)

“North Korea’s efforts to eradicate Christianity in Pyongyang and elsewhere in its territory have been so ruthless and systematic that today few outside of Korea know that it was ever there,” historian Robert Kim wrote. “It has been perhaps the most thorough elimination of Christianity that has occurred in history, certainly in the 20th century.”

Prosperity

Meanwhile, in the relative freedom of South Korea, Christianity was booming. The 1.6 million Christians in 1950 more than tripled to 5.7 million in 1970, then nearly tripled again to 14.7 million in 2000. Limited by space (South Korea is about the size of Kentucky) and drawn together by a communal culture, South Korean Christians began to build megachurches. Today, you can find the world’s largest Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

Today, you can find the world’s largest Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Assemblies of God congregations in Seoul.

Next the Korean church took to missions, sending 1,200 missionaries in 1991, 13,000 in 2006, and 27,000 in 2017.

“The church growth and economic growth happened at the same time,” City to City Asia Pacific catalyst Stephen Ro said. That correlation makes sense—Christians who are diligent and disciplined, who sacrifice for others, and who have a good work ethic and good ethics, make productive employees. But that connection was also a way for the prosperity gospel to slide in.

Stephen Ro at the City to City Korea conference / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“There’s a fine line between ‘God blesses us’ and health-and-wealth,” Ro said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, there were lots of signs and wonders, along with a lot of Western churches pouring money into Korean churches. Korean people interpreted that as, ‘If you’re a Christian nation like America, you can be rich.’”

And then, in an economic turnaround so rapid it was dubbed “The Miracle on the Han River,” South Korea was rich. In the 1990s, the country joined elite gatherings of the world’s strongest economies—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the G20. Home to companies like Samsung, LG Electronics, and Hyundai, South Korea in 2018 made the list of the top 25 richest countries by personal income and set a personal record with 45 billionaires on Forbes South Korea Rich List.

It seemed like the health-and-wealth theology had actually worked.

What Happens When the Prosperity Gospel Works?

For the past decade or two, the rapid rise of Christianity—both Protestants and Catholics—has slowed to a crawl. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates it will only grow from 31 percent to 33 percent of the population between 2000 and 2020, then stay at 33 percent through 2050.

“The young people are leaving the church,” TGC Korea president David Park said. “Sunday schools are closing. I think we have the same situation as America and Europe.”

Maybe worse. South Korea trails just Canada and Denmark in the list of countries that have the largest gaps in religious commitment between the older and younger generations. A little less than 40 percent of those younger than 40 are affiliated with a religion, compared to 63 percent older than 40. Fewer youth attend religious services weekly (24 percent compared to 33 percent of older Koreans), pray daily (19 percent vs. 40 percent), and say religion is very important to them (8 percent vs. 21 percent).

Some of the reasons are universal—from growing secularization to the ineffectiveness of the often-preached “easy believism” or soft legalism. “Many pastors look at Scripture more from a topical, systematic framework—as opposed to a biblical-theological framework—which lends itself to moralism,” said Redeemer City to City trainer and TGC Council member Stephen Um. “They’ll say, ‘Look, Abraham did this, so you need to do this.’”

Other reasons are specific to Korea. The public failure of church leadership, which happens everywhere, can be exaggerated by the enormity of the congregations. One pastor was jailed for raping eight female followers on “orders from God,” another convicted of embezzling $12 million, another blasted for attempting to pass his church of 100,000 on to his son.

Older generations, influenced by Confucianism’s veneration of leadership, can also be almost blindly loyal to a fallen pastor, Westminster Seminary California dean of students and TGC Council member Julius Kim said.

Ro sees the same thing. “Some older people are fanatical about their church. The pastor can get away with murder because of this reverence. People say, ‘Why are you making a big deal of this? He’s done so many great things. Don’t you know how to revere your leader?’”

Stephen Um teaches at a City to City Korea gathering / Courtesy of Stephen Um

To a younger generation, who are one step farther away from traditional ancestor worship and closer to Western individualism, that “totally doesn’t make sense,” Ro said.

The context for these changes is also different from the looming threat of Japanese occupation that informed the Pyongyang Revival. Now South Korea is developed and wealthy—Seoul, the cosmetic and plastic surgery capital of the world, “is like New York but five-times cleaner,” Um said. “Everything is new and modern and well-wired.”

“In Korea, money is winning,” Park said. “Their aim in life is to be rich, to succeed. . . . Money is the No. 1 enemy in Korean Christianity now.”

Ro agrees. “The biggest idol we have in Korea is mammonism—money. Our mentality, our worldview, our values didn’t catch up to the rapid growth of the economy.”

Hope

Wealth has not been a good savior for Korea. Children spend up to 16 hours a day in school and tutoring programs, working to get into the best universities. Employees put in long hours under immense pressure. Of the 34 OECD members, South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate, and its youth are the least happy.

Pastors, more than anyone else, are aware of both the need and also the declining membership in the churches. But when Um held the first City to City conference there in 2012, it didn’t go well.

“About 150 pastors came,” Um said. “We didn’t give them a lot of methodology or practical tips, but instead a robust theological vision. The next day only 100 came back. The next day, 70.”

Um didn’t know what was going on. “It couldn’t be because our gospel DNA content wasn’t good,” he said with a laugh.

Organizers told him pastors were looking for something new and trendy that would help them grow their church attendance. “Our executive team said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” he said.

It was weird, because City to City was birthed out of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. And Protestantism in Korea is still mostly Presbyterian.

“Korean Christianity still has categories for Reformed theology, but it’s not necessarily gospel-centered,” Um said. “They learn systematic theological categories—for example, they know about predestination—but they aren’t emphasizing the practical implications of the doctrines of grace through the finished work of Jesus.”

Pastors may say “grace precedes faith,” but then also “preach to the will as opposed to the heart by highlighting what the requirements are of the law and the commandments of God without first motivating the heart with the gospel,” he said.

For the next few years, Um focused his attentions elsewhere.

Initial TGC Korea explorative meeting in Seoul / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“Then, five years ago, a remnant of 20 pastors said, ‘Hey, we’re ready now,’” Um said.

The pastors were in their late-40s and 50s, and “humble enough to say, ‘We had a ghettoized version of the church. We need to be more gospel-centered.’”

Around 10 of them had already formed what they called the “big forest” group, where they gathered weekly to pray. The name came from their desire to plant churches—a forest of plants instead of several large megachurch trees.

“I told them about Tim Keller and Redeemer, and they were pleasantly shocked and surprised,” Ro said. “They were what we were looking for; we were what they were looking for.”

The group became the core of City to City Korea. They were happy to read Tim Keller—his intellectualism and Presbyterianism appeal to a country that likes both.

More and more pastors “gathered together, saying, ‘Look, we are not just here for church growth anymore. It does not work and is not pleasing to God,’” Ro said. “‘We are here for city renewal—to bring revival.’”

Like the pastors of the Pyongyang Revival, some repented publicly.

“One of our board members is in his mid-50s—a very capable, high-capacity leader,” Um said. “He confessed to his congregation. He said, ‘We weren’t focused on the centrality of gospel, and we have to change.’”

He’s one of 70 pastors who are “really committed to this network,” said Um, who has held about a dozen teaching conferences in Korea in the past five years. Six hundred came to the first public City to City conference in 2017; a year later, more than 2,000 showed up to hear Keller headline the second.

City to City Korea church planting incubator training / Courtesy of Stephen Ro

“We have a robust network of about 1,000 pastors—and growing—interested in networking, training, and resources,” Um said. As the vice president of Asia-Pacific initiatives for TGC, he started TGC Korea, which launched its site six months ago.

The nine original TGC Korea Council members have grown to 14 from six different denominations. “We are praying for 40 Council members,” Park said. “It is possible.”

Gathering 40 pastors in Korea is like having hundreds in the United States. Each of the 14 pastors leads a congregation of 3,000 or more. (Sometimes many more—for example, Jae-Hoon Lee’s Onnuri Community Church draws 75,000 in attendance.)

“We’re seeing a resurgence through the work we’re doing with TGC and City to City,” Um said. In March, The Gospel Changes Everything—edited by Um, with contributions by Keller and a handful of other Korean pastors—was released. Essentially a Korean-contextualized primer of Keller’s Center Church, it should do well: “Keller’s books are selling like crazy.”

Sober Hope

“My optimistic read on this is: I do believe TGC Korea can be a helpful catalyst for the growth of Christianity in Korea,” Kim said. “However, while I’m hopeful, I’m also sober, because I know we deal with sin and its effects on our hearts.”

Korea’s clannishness, its willingness to sacrifice for the good of the whole, is one of the country’s greatest strengths. That enabled the country—and its churches—to prosper rapidly.

City to City Korea gathering / Courtesy of Stephen Um

“But now you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or if you’ll be killed for your faith,” Kim said. “Now you worry about yourself. The whole collective starts to diminish.”

However, just as the “we’re in this together,” “we can’t do this alone” spirit drew Korea to God, so can the “what’s in it for me” questions of the next generation.

Because groupishness is also Korea’s “unique cultural sin,” leading megachurch pastor “demigods” to pursue power and status instead of gospel truth, and leading congregations to give it to them, Kim said. “Like young people in America, young people in Korea are looking for more authentic Christianity. They’re tired of the Christianity of their parents that is sometimes more of a shell. They’re asking, ‘How can the church benefit me as an individual?’”

The gospel has the answer. And seeing where churches veered off track makes the way that much clearer.

“It’s hard, but it’s easier now than 20 years ago when Korean Christianity was at its peak,” Ro said. Back then “everyone wanted to be a megachurch pastor. Now we’re more sober. Once the gospel gets a hold of them, pastors will realize they don’t have to be big-church pastors. They can get excited about the gospel more than their personal ministries.”

The renewal movement is small in Korea, but it is growing.

“Many Koreans are praying,” Park said. At his church, “we gather every morning to pray, and every Wednesday night, and every Friday night. So yes, we pray. And we hope.”

Should Christians Try to Become Rich?

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 12:04am

I have a friend who says they want to be wealthy in order to give more money away. Is the goal of wealth a danger or a snare? In our jobs, should we try to become rich?

As an economist and a board member for a struggling non-profit, I appreciate the tremendous good that money can do. Many ministries need lots more of it! So should Christians desire wealth in order to do good, in order to give money away? Or is it a snare?

A Christian’s ultimate desire is for God’s kingdom to come, however it comes. We desire for God to equip all people according to his purposes. If God makes us “hands or eyes” in the body, so be it. Paul tells us that mercy is a spiritual gift, but he doesn’t say, “Earnestly desire to have wealth in order to exercise mercy.” If Christians should desire wealth in order to do good, 1 Corinthians 12–14 would have been a good place for Paul to say so.

If you are talented and gifted for a lucrative job, desire to be faithful with the wealth you have. But know this—being good at earning money doesn’t necessarily make you good at giving it away. It takes tremendous effort to research where to donate substantial sums—the field of “effective altruism” exists precisely because philanthropy is hard to do.

Still, many of us desire to be the ones giving money away. This is a tremendous danger. Indeed, there are at least two theological reasons to doubt our own motivations when we desire wealth in order to do good.

Opportunity Cost

First, when Jesus met the rich young ruler, he did not say, “Follow me by giving your money away.” He said, “First give your money away, and then follow me.” His ensuing conversation with the disciples suggests this order is the rule, not the exception.

Because for almost all of us, earning money to give it away is not the best we have to offer others. Jesus equips us to serve in his kingdom by doing good directly through our work (not just indirectly through how we give) and directly through how we use our time (not just indirectly through how our time is remunerated).

Remember, there is always an opportunity cost. Choosing between two jobs—one that pays more than another—almost always involves trading off something good for the money. With rare exception, serving God by earning more means doing something rather than doing the other good things we could do by working another job with less time at work, less stress, more creativity, or more direct service to others.

The biblical and historical evidence is that God does not primarily—or even frequently—advance his kingdom through philanthropy. He has this strange way of choosing the poor and the foolish. He has this odd way of “wasting” jars of perfume on worship instead of feeding the poor. He has this unexpected way of ignoring the basic rules of economics and scarce resources and instead choosing to flip the world upside-down.

Your Heart’s Treasure

Second, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. The order matters. Unless we are vigilant in giving away our wealth before it accumulates, we will learn to accumulate, not to give. We might learn to love having wealth before we learn to love giving it away.

But when we do give our wealth away, our hearts will be with those to whom we’re giving. Our love will be re-ordered from desiring wealth in order to do good to desiring directly the good of those we’re financially supporting.

I know. I had one of those lucrative jobs. But a great mentor, Tom Sharp, discipled me well and showed me that being faithful with my money meant giving it away. My heart followed my treasure, and it didn’t take long for me to wonder if the best way to serve God was really by staying in a lucrative job I wasn’t suited for, even if I was donating my income. And because I followed Tom’s advice, I was better able to see the various ways God had equipped me to serve his kingdom.

Things would be different if our world weren’t dreadfully fallen. But money in our world is like Sauron’s ring in The Lord of the Rings. When offered it, Gandalf replied: “Do not tempt me! . . . The way of the ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it . . . the wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.”

Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit can wield power over our money. But until we are made perfect, any desire for wealth—even the desire to do good with it—might wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.

See previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

Pages