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A Common Denominator in De-Conversions

Mon, 09/09/2019 - 12:03am

As Christians in the West, we know we live in a secular age. Simply acknowledging that fact, however, doesn’t prepare you for when your friends or family members leave the church or abandon the faith.

Laura Turner’s recent article, “Sixteen and Evangelical,” summarizes almost exactly what my life looked like at 16. She describes her close group of friends whose relationships were knit by evangelical youth-group culture and how their “youthful zeal” seemed almost uncompromisable. Until, of course, age rendered such zeal incompatible with reality.

Why is this such a common story? Why does the youthful zeal of so many churched kids transition, over time, to the jaded cynicism of the de-churched? Much ink has been spilt diagnosing the reasons for these sorts of “de-conversion” paths. In this article I want to simply highlight one common denominator I’ve noticed between the friends who have stayed in the church and those who have left.

Stigma of Dogma

The common denominator concerns one’s knowledge and relationship to the doctrines of the church. Nearly all my friends who were naturally interested in doctrine remain faithful members in churches to this day, and those who were not have “moved on” from Christianity, as if it were an intermediary step on their greater “spiritual journey.” 

The “spiritual journey” narrative so common among the de-converted is indicative of what was prioritized in their (and so many of our) church experiences. Formal doctrine was held in less esteem than authentic spiritual experience. Doctrine was impractical; community life was practical. Theology was for the intellectuals in the church, but the average member just needed to be loved. Doctrine was less essential for the youth than the need to attend a purity conference. In short, the church was largely a pragmatic, life-enhancing place to encourage individuals on their own “spiritual journeys.” 

This low view of doctrine and high view of personal spirituality is often the first step for those at the precipice of de-converting. They begin to frame the church and its teachings merely as products of a distant time and culture, irrelevant to one’s personal spiritual experiences. At best, such teachings help some express their faith (mostly people in the past); at worst, they are man-made rules and tools of manipulation and oppression. 

A low view of doctrine and high view of personal spirituality is often the first step for those at the precipice of de-converting.

A prime example of such a mentality is the 19th-century Protestant liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, who said:

[Christianity] is not a question of a “doctrine” being handed down by uniform repetition or arbitrarily distorted; it is a question of a life, again and again kindled afresh, and now burning with a flame of its own. We may also add that Christ himself and the apostles were convinced that the religion which they were planting would in the ages to come have a greater destiny and a deeper meaning than it possessed at the time of its institution.

For Harnack, and for others who find this train of thought appealing, doctrines are likened to the “husk” of religion—free to be discarded as they grow outdated. The goal of religion shouldn’t be confessing a particular doctrine and interpretation of Scripture, for to identify and argue about such things is invariably divisive. Instead, we should simply find the “kernel” of religion, its essence, the spirit behind it all. 

Doctrine Should Define Your Journey

Part of this is rather appealing, since arguments over doctrinal minutiae are exhausting, are they not? And can American evangelicalism be blamed for wanting to break free from some of the baggage of church history and its uses of doctrine? The reputation of doctrinally focused churches being cold and unwelcoming is in some cases deserved, and many doctrinally focused churches in history were complicit in societal evils like slavery. But should the baby be thrown out with the bathwater?

The Christian life is more than knowing the right things about Christ, but it’s not less. Scripture is clear that Christianity is not merely about believing the right things; it’s also about placing faith in and following the right person (Rom. 10:5–13). But to follow him we must know whose image we’re being conformed to (Rom. 8:29). Our “spiritual journey” will be a directionless wander unless we have a deep and abiding knowledge of whom we are journeying toward, and why. 

Without the definition of doctrine, the guardrails of catechesis, and the accountability of a church community, one’s “spiritual journey” too easily veers into a subjective, fit-to-me thing where the focus is less on truth than on preference (what parts I like) and pragmatism (how it works for me). Only a Christian whose faith is built on the sturdy scaffolding of doctrine and church-based catechesis—rather than the shifting sands of subjectivism and pragmatism—will be able to withstand the tough questions and corrosive winds of secularism that increasingly define our age.

The Christian life is more than knowing the right things about Christ, but it’s not less.

Recasting Orthodoxy

The phrase “spiritual journey” assumes a kind of individuality: we are not in a story so much as we have (and star in) our own. By contrast, God’s people throughout Scripture didn’t see themselves only as individuals participating in a faith community. Their “spiritual journey” was the exodus—a departure en masse—and their individual stories were seen in the context of that community God was redeeming.

If the church is to not only retain its members but disciple them in everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20), we must invite our members outside of their individual “spiritual journeys” and into the thrilling story of orthodoxy, where God is recreating and consecrating an entire people. We must show, in our teaching and worship and discipleship, how this bigger story is more beautiful and compelling than our individual subplots. Jake Meador says it well: “Any response to our moment that focuses more on the individual story of lost faith and less on a fairly dramatic shift in our approach to liturgy, catechesis, and repentance will be inadequate to the demands of the day.” 

To scrutinize and focus on an individual’s de-conversion story—only to ask “what happened to them?”—is to isolate their story from the community they are leaving. Our strategy must not be to dilute our doctrine or distill it to what’s culturally acceptable, nor should it be to downplay the importance of story. Rather, our strategy must be to recast the beauty of orthodoxy and catechesis—not just as concepts to be believed, but as truth to be lived, from one century to the next, by the storied people of God.

6 Key Practices for Every Board

Mon, 09/09/2019 - 12:02am

It’s easy to lose accountability at the top.

In most churches, nonprofits, and companies, a pastor or executive director or CEO or president heads up the operations. The staff report to him.

In many of those organizations, the leader also influences the board—he or she reports on how things are going, offers plans for the future, and even recommends new board members.

Without careful attention, a leader can begin to operate without any meaningful accountability. If he loses sight of the organization’s goals, nobody redirects him. If her marriage falters, no one knows about it. Without a direct line from staff to board, a CEO’s incompetency or inappropriate behavior with those under him can continue indefinitely.

Without a direct line from staff to board, a CEO’s incompetency or inappropriate behavior with those under him can continue indefinitely.

TGC asked a longtime senior pastor, a chair of a seminary board, and a college president—some of the best in their fields—how they think biblically about authority, how they keep leaders accountable, and what to do if things go sideways.

Hire a leader who wants accountability.

“Unless the CEO/senior pastor/executive director wants to be held accountable, it’s basically impossible,” said Sandy Willson, who spent 22 years as the senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. “He’s the one who controls information. He has the microphone all the time. If he doesn’t cede power to those around him, it’s probably never going to happen.”

When Willson came to Second Presbyterian, he gave the church leaders authority to fire him. When Gordon Smith, author of Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, became president at Ambrose University, he asked that every board meeting include an “in camera” session—where he leaves the room—even if for less than an hour.

“Things that need to be said don’t get said because I’m in the room,” he said. “Those sessions can be unsettling because I know who they’re talking about. But if you don’t want to be talked about, don’t go into executive leadership.”

Living under authority is a spiritual discipline.

Living under authority is a spiritual discipline, Smith said. “Even the apostle Paul—who could not have been more convinced that he was supposed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles—still went to the Jewish council in the book of Acts. He said, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ and then deferred to them. Even Peter, when he went to Cornelius, came back to Jerusalem and accounted for his actions. He didn’t say, ‘Excuse me, who do you think you are? Jesus is building his church on me.’ He deferred to them.”

Working under authority “is deeply part of the fabric of New Testament shared life,” Smith said. That’s no less true today.

Create accountability that strengthens a leader’s authority.

In January, Smith noticed that one of his vice presidents wasn’t operating effectively. He told his board chair, with whom he meets regularly, about his doubts.

“How will you decide what to do?” Ken Stankievech asked him.

“I’ll monitor it over the next month and then make a decision,” Smith promised. And he did. He decided that the person wasn’t a good fit for the job. And then he did nothing, because letting someone go is “awkward and uncomfortable and the worst.”

A month later, Stankievech asked Smith about it: “Is he effective?”

“No,” Smith said.

“What are you going to do about it?” Stankievech pressed.

In April, Smith let the person go.

“Ken held me accountable to do what I needed to be done but was avoiding,” he said.

Boards can also catch what a leader misses—“We all have blind spots,” said Smith—and can lend wise advice from their areas of expertise. But perhaps the biggest way accountability lends authority is the most counterintuitive: by keeping a close eye on the leader.

Regularly ask intimate/hard questions.

At Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), chancellor Ligon Duncan meets with his board twice a year and his executive committee monthly. On top of that, he meets with a small group of three board members almost every month.

They ask about the pressures he’s experiencing inside the institution and in his personal life. They ask about his marriage and children. They ask about the weight of his schedule. They pray for him. They counsel him.

Perhaps the biggest way accountability lends authority is the most counterintuitive: by keeping a close eye on the leader.

Smith also has a four-person executive committee—“More than that is too many. How would they even do that?”—but they meet once a year. He intentionally provides a full update on his spiritual practices and the rhythms of his life—including sabbath rest. In monthly meetings with his board chair, nothing is off limits, including the quality of his marriage. (“The potential damage to this organization is so high if my wife and I are not in a good place,” Smith said. “My marriage is a public issue.”)

If a board doesn’t ask those questions directly, it should make sure someone is asking them, Willson said. They can find out, “Who are your close friends? How often do you get together? Is there someone to ask you if you’re viewing porn or having marital issues? What will your friend do if you’re in trouble morally or spiritually?”

What would your staff do?

Keep communication open between the staff and the board.

Every few years, Second Presbyterian did a “360 review” of Willson, which means they asked three or four of his staff how he was doing.

“You want to do that collaboratively with the CEO,” said Willson, who provided names of those who worked closely with him and urged them to be candid. “That way you don’t go behind his back.”

At Ambrose, when board members come twice a year for their meetings, they attend “listening posts” set up around campus.

“I need to not be defensive, because I know people are going to express concerns,” he said. “But I want my board to be excited about the students. I want them to believe in this faculty. I want them to feel the force of leadership in my provost and have high confidence in my CFO. That doesn’t happen if they don’t talk to them.”

‘The potential damage to this organization is so high if my wife and I are not in a good place,’ Smith said. ‘My marriage is a public issue.’

 

His board members are careful not to ask, “What don’t you like about this place?” but instead, “What’s encouraging you?” and “What’s furrowing your brow?”

If there are concerns about Smith, they’ll come up at those sessions.

Board members have to be trained to receive those, Willson said. They need to ask if the complaint-bringer has talked to his or her supervisor. If the problem is more serious, perhaps it needs to go to human resources. Or if it’s more serious yet, perhaps the board needs to discuss it with the president.

“The job [of board members] is not to solve the problem, but to get it into the right courtroom,” Willson said.

Board members need to be held accountable also.

Every RTS board member is either an elder or deacon in his local church.

“I’ve been on boards of nonprofits where most of the members weren’t under the authority of the church,” Ridgway said. “That was always an issue. Where’s their accountability?”

But at Second Presbyterian, the session members were the local-church authority.

“The board has to do the work,” Willson said. “They have to come to meetings. They have to participate. If they don’t, they have to go. How can you fire a CEO if you can’t fire yourself?”

Board members should honestly evaluate themselves and each other once a year, he said. (Over the years, Second Presbyterian has let some elders go.) “We’re all dying to the mission.”

How can you fire a CEO if you can’t fire yourself?

While longevity can sometimes work against accountability—think “good ol’ boy” networks—it can also work for it.

At RTS, board members sign on for six-year terms but are expected to serve for life. (The average tenure is more than 20 years.) That expected longevity deters the board from quick band-aids and prompts members to think of long-term solutions that are better for the institution, Ridgway said. “Time is critical to building unity and trust.”

“We’ve worked together for so long that we can be truthful and plain-spoken without being offensive,” he said. “And there’s such a commitment to the mission that if someone is the minority in a vote, we can let it go because of the unity and the fellowship, and because everyone has the same interests at heart.”

That deep unity is Trinitarian. “We don’t all think alike or have the same perspectives,” Ridgway said. “We disagree. We have expertise in different areas. But we’re all of one mind [regarding the direction of RTS].”

Nurture a healthy relationship between leader and board chair.

“I pray a lot for my wife and my kids and my grandkids and my pastor,” Ridgway said. “But I pray as much for Ligon Duncan as anyone.”

He meets Duncan every month for breakfast. “I don’t want to be a doting chairman, so I give him space,” Ridgway said. “But he’s the CEO. We have his back.”

Leading an organization effectively is impossible without a good working relationship between the CEO and the board chair, Smith said. “I have to be confident he can do his job—or I can’t do mine.”

Recently, a faculty member told Smith he can relax, knowing that he and Stankievech have a healthy relationship.

That’s only true “if the board chair doesn’t try to be the president, and if the president genuinely wants to be accountable,” Smith said. In other words, the board chair isn’t running everything with the president as a yes-man; neither is the president making every decision with the board chair offering only uncritical support.

Order out of chaos

“So many times when executive leaders go sideways, it’s because power has gone to their heads,” Smith said. “And then you have boards with egg on their face, saying, ‘We never asked the hard questions.’”

Because it’s “almost impossible” to add accountability structures to a current situation, creating guidelines happens best during times of transition, such as when a new leader is hired, he said.

Remember that “everyone is ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made differently,” Ridgway said. “We all bring our own warts and family systems and issues to the table, so the dynamic is always unique between a board and a CEO.”

Two of the best things a board can do is to be interested and engaged in the work, and to ensure a strong accountability process.

The procedures “aren’t set up to limit your capacity to lead, but to assure your effectiveness as a leader,” Smith said. “It’s a spiritual practice for the health of the organization. It’s part of what it means to be in community.”

Defective governance “hurts the body,” Willson said. “Let’s serve these people well. If you are out of order and have chaos, then they are in chaos.”

How to Handle Awkward Moments in Bible Study

Mon, 09/09/2019 - 12:00am

You don’t have to attend many women’s Bible studies before you experience a group discussion gone spectacularly awry. Maybe you cringe in the back row while someone pontificates—again!—about her theological pet peeve. Maybe you ever-so-casually get up for a coffee refill while two participants chase each other down another doctrinal rabbit trail. Maybe you silently mouth an apology to the church visitor you innocently invited to join the rapidly deteriorating group.

These all-too-common scenarios may be awkward for participants, but they can be the stuff of nightmares for group leaders. No leader wants to alienate or shame someone in her group, but she also has to do her best to help every woman leave with a clear understanding of biblical truth. A participant can slink down in her chair. A leader has to lead.

To assist Bible study leaders when they encounter headache-inducing moments in group discussion, I (Megan Hill) asked three seasoned leaders to share their approach for neutralizing awkward moments and pointing to Christ—even when they’d rather crawl under the table. When you are leading a Bible study, what do you say or do in the following situations?

Someone’s comments veer way off the subject of the study: “Speaking of Jesus’s crucifixion week, what do you think about Christians practicing Lent? I mean, I have so many friends who do, and I just don’t know what I think about it. Who here gives up something for Lent?”

Karen Hodge: As a teacher, remember everything you say or do is teaching. A gentle answer will teach not only the person making the comment but the entire group. You can affirm that person’s desire to learn and their curiosity. You can also model that Bible study should be a safe place to bring your questions. I would say, “You know, I don’t think you are the only one who has questions about that topic. I know our goal in our study is to think biblically about all of life, so I would love to take some time one-on-one after class to talk about it.”

Vanessa Hawkins: I say, “Those are all great questions. Sometimes when I study, other interests get sparked that can lead to wonderful new places of interest and research. For the purposes of this lesson however, I’m going to ask that we do the hard work of getting all we can from our current topic: [restate the original question].”

Someone makes a dogmatic statement about something that may be a gray area: “I can’t understand all these people getting tattoos these days. Christians should never get tattoos!”

VH: At the beginning of a new Bible study, it’s helpful to set ground rules that set the tone for how the group will interact with both Scripture and each other. One such guideline might be “Let’s work to point the gospel at our own hearts, which means we’ll do our best not to make broad, sweeping generalizations or judgments of others.” These ground rules are helpful to reference when dogmatic statements create awkwardness and stifle conversation, and they provide a way to say, “Pointing the gospel at our own hearts is so tough to do sometimes. I know it is for me. It’s easier to make observations and judgments, but I want to challenge us not to let ourselves off that easily. Let’s remember that we benefit most from the gospel when we point it at our own hearts.” Conclude by restating the original question to put the conversation back on topic.

Courtney Doctor: I usually try to use it as an opportunity to explain to the whole group how our salvation isn’t dependent on what we “do” but that it’s dependent on what Christ has done, and to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand. Occasionally I might engage the actual comment if I think it would be helpful for the group.

KH: You might say, “You seem to feel very strongly about this topic. My guess is that there is a story behind your words. I look forward to hearing more about your story and getting to know you better.”

If an offense happens because a judgmental or critical comment is directed at a group member, then the leader should seek the peace and purity of the group by offering to bring women together to seek understanding and reconciliation.

Someone uses her personal experience to justify a theological point: “I had a woman pastor when I was a teenager, and she was a wonderful person who taught me so much about the Bible. I don’t understand how we can say that women shouldn’t be pastors!”

CD: I would explicitly say that we don’t get to base our obedience on our experience but have to always base it on the Word of God. Then I would point out how gracious it is of God to use us and others at times in spite of our disobedience.

VH: [Affirm them] Thank you for sharing that experience with us. [Acknowledge their experience] It sounds like this experience was very helpful in your spiritual formation. [Relate] I’ve had circumstances like this in my own life. [Speak truth in love] No matter how compelling our experience is, Scripture is the final arbiter for how we are to operate in God’s world. Effectiveness and sincerity can never be the authority for what we do; it must be God’s Word. [Point them to God’s character.] I’m grateful that the Lord in his sovereign wisdom and kindness directs our spiritual formation for our good.

Someone makes comments too frequently or speaks for too long—taking up a huge amount of the discussion time.

KH: If the talker is to your left begin the next conversation by looking to your right and saying, “You know, Megan, I would love to hear your thoughts on this question.”

CD: If the problem is habitual, I start sitting next to the person. I remind the whole group that we want to hear from everyone: “If we haven’t heard much from you, please speak up! And if you’ve already answered several questions, hold off on a few so that everyone has a chance to speak.” I’ve told some groups that they should each plan on answering only a certain number of questions each week. If the problem persists, I call the woman and explain that, while I value her participation, she is monopolizing the time and she needs to leave room for others to participate.

Someone directly challenges or questions your teaching in the middle of the session.

VH: Such challenges are often used to discredit the teacher and/or to show what the challenger thinks she knows. I’ve found it effective to not allow the person challenging me to put me on the spot with unrelated questions but to turn the question back to her and say, “You seem to have something you would like to contribute to this topic.” This answer gives the person the space to be heard and gives you the final word to make any necessary corrections before moving on with your lesson.

The most important part of the response in this situation is a posture of humility. Remember you’re still teaching when you engage a person who’s challenging you. It might be the most important lesson you teach in that session.

KH: You might say, “I really appreciate how you are seeking to interact with the text. I know we both sincerely desire to discern God’s truth. Would you have time after class for us to sit down and work through the text together so that we might better understand not only the text but one another’s hearts?”

Now, if you are in the wrong because you have misspoken or misquoted a verse, you have an opportunity to own up to it publicly. Everything is teaching, so a humble, winsome response will go a long way in cultivating an environment where errors can be corrected and women can truly be discipled.

He Will Hold Me Fast – Conference Trailer

Sun, 09/08/2019 - 9:26pm

 

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast; When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast. I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path; For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast; For my Savior loves me so, He will hold me fast.

Those He saves are His delight, Christ will hold me fast; Precious in his holy sight, He will hold me fast. He’ll not let my soul be lost; His promises shall last; Bought by Him at such a cost, He will hold me fast.

For my life He bled and died, Christ will hold me fast; Justice has been satisfied; He will hold me fast. Raised with Him to endless life, He will hold me fast ‘Till our faith is turned to sight, When He comes at last!

 

 

Credits: Lyrics: vv. 1-2 Ada Habershon (1861-1918), Public Domain.

4 Ways Your Faith Should Shape Your Friendships

Sun, 09/08/2019 - 12:00am

Friends are the new family. With the traditional nuclear family on the decline in America, people are still searching for some form of stability—and for many, their gaze is turning to friendship. With the largest population of singles our nation has ever seen, we shouldn’t be too surprised.

Megan Gerber of The Atlantic made this same observation in 2017:

Friendships, increasingly, are playing an organizing role in society. Long conceived as side dishes to the main feast—marriage, kids, the nuclear family above all—friendships, more and more, are helping to define people’s sense of themselves in the world. During a time of emergent adulthood and geographic mobility, friendships are lending stability—and meaning—to people’s, and especially young people’s, lives.

This is an interesting development since, as Christians, we know that friendship is incredibly important. In Matthew 12:46–50 Jesus elevates our relationships—our friendships—with others in a profound way. And the Bible clearly doesn’t look down on singleness but actually showcases it as preferential to marriage in many ways (1 Cor. 7:6–7, 32–35). So it’s not a bad thing for friendship to take center stage.

But does that mean any expression of friendship is right? No, it can’t mean that because the Bible exhorts us to “see to it that no one takes us captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). The problem is that most people have never considered how their faith should affect their friendships.

So how does the gospel inform our friendships? What is friendship according to Christ? While the Bible doesn’t speak as directly to friendship as it does to marriage and family, that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. In fact, there is much we can glean from the fundamentals we already know.

Here are four ways our faith in Christ should influence our friendships.

1. Christian Friends Keep Jesus First

Jesus demands our ultimate loyalty, to be our friend above all others (Luke 14:26). Our devotion to him should be so paramount that all other relationships look like hate by comparison. But most of us know from experience that it’s all too easy to let God’s good gifts sneak into first place in our hearts. And friendship is no exception.

This means Christian friendship fights to keep itself out of first place. At its core, it’s companionship forged in the fire of the conviction that Jesus alone can satisfy our souls. Our friendships should foster dependence on God, not just on one another.

Christian friendship fights to keep itself out of first place.

Of course, an important part of how we run to Christ is with our friends. But there is a difference between looking to our friend to meet our needs and looking to our friend as a guide to the cross. So how can you tell if you’ve placed your hope in a friend, not in Christ? Well, if something threatens to interrupt that friendship (a move, a new marriage, a new friend) and you feel jealous, unstable, or undone, it may signal that too much of your hope rests on your friend.

But the good news of the gospel is that we have all we need in Christ. He is our Savior, our Mediator, our Shepherd, our Satisfier. So when our souls are thirsty, we don’t turn to a friend but to a Savior. When a friend comes to us with their deep longings, we don’t seek to meet that need but point them to Jesus.

2. Christian Friends Are Selfless

Second to our command to love God with all we are is the call to love others above ourselves (Mark 12:29–31; John 13:34). Our friendships with others should be marked by selflessness. But it’s all too common for us to allow our own desire for friendship to drive our actions. We often mask our internal greed with external generosity.

I’ve seen this in my own life. It shows up in my tendency to be extra kind to the popular person who could give my social life a leg up. In the way I’ve avoided speaking truthfully to my friends because I preferred a fake but comfortable friendship rather than something real. It’s all “nice” on the outside but, underneath, my own desires and preferences reign supreme. And as a Christian, that’s never acceptable.

The good news is that Jesus has given us access to God the Father, the source of all love and power. As we find all we need in him, we can come into friendship satisfied, not starving, and thereby find the power to love others sacrificially. We can be the kind of friend to others we wish we had ourselves.

3. Christian Friends Honor the Institutions of Marriage and Family

The Bible is clear that God is the architect behind marriage and the family that grows from it. It matters that we preserve the integrity of these relationships, since they’re shadows of greater and more important realities: union with Christ and the eternal family of God.

This doesn’t mean friendship is less important. In a way, it’s more essential than marriage and family, because while not everyone will marry, everyone needs friends. But just because it’s essential doesn’t mean we should practice friendship the same way we practice family.

This means two things for our friendships. First, we ensure our friendships aren’t mimicking the one-flesh nature of marriage. Healthy friendships shouldn’t foster exclusivity, jealousy, ownership, or sensuality. Rather, we hold our friends with open hands and invite others in. We celebrate the formation of new friendships in our friends’ lives and are open to building new friendships ourselves.

As we find all we need in Jesus, we can come into friendship satisfied, not starving, and find the power to love others sacrificially.

Second, we work to strengthen the marriages and families around us with our friendship, not take away from it. If a friend has to check with her husband before agreeing to a girls’ night out, we don’t bemoan that but celebrate it. If a friend is spending more and more time with us to play video games instead of being with his family, we confront the behavior, not enable it.

4. Christian Friends Stay on Mission

We’re a saved and sent people. Our time on earth isn’t just a waiting room for heaven but a mission field. There’s a war waging around us, and eternal souls are at stake. We live to serve the One who saved us, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. And a soldier doesn’t “get entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:4).

So what does that have to do with our friendships? It means we don’t allow our goal to become maintaining our comfortable social circles. We must be content with fewer friends and seasonal friendships. Otherwise, while we run from one coffee date to another, we’ll lose the ability to see the lonely neighbor in the house next door or the struggling single mom at the store.

The joy of this truth infuses our friendships with eternal purpose. We become more than friends; we become comrades. War experts tell us that comrades are closer than friends, because they unite for reasons beyond their own friendship. The same is true for us. When we unite together, not for the worldly purpose of satisfying our own friendship desires but with the eternal purpose of fighting side by side to see God’s kingdom come, our friendships will be more satisfying and will easily outshine their worldly counterparts.

How Should a Pastor Think About His Salary?

Sat, 09/07/2019 - 12:02am

Dear Pastor Brandon,

I hope this finds you prospering in the Lord. I am writing to you about prosperity—a lack of it in my case. The ministry trouble I’m experiencing now relates to money. No wonder Scripture says so much about this topic. My church plant is doing fine financially, but my family is struggling. We have four children, have incurred some medical bills of late, have a mortgage, and have incurred lots of other expenses related to providing the basics for a family. But my pastor’s salary is just not cutting it. At the end of the month, the amount needed to provide for our needs always seems to outstretch my income.

How do I work through this? I know God has called me to be a breadwinner for my family and also to pastor a church, yet one doesn’t seem congruent with the other. What should I do? Should I ask for a raise? Find a ministry position that pays more? Get a second job? Talking about money makes me feel incredibly guilty, because I realize ministry is not about money. Still, my family has to eat!

My education and experience are completely ministry-related, so getting a second job would be tough. I’m not even sure it would really help, and it would only tire me out further and risk lowering my energy level (and available time) for preaching and shepherding my congregation. Also, how can I guard my heart so that I don’t become obsessive, extremely stingy, or worse? It’s so hard for a pastor to talk about money. I’m afraid my congregation will merely view me as greedy. Will ministry ever meet my family’s needs? Am I just thinking wrongly about all this?

Faithfully your son in the faith,

Going Broke

__________

Dear Going Broke,

For the first decade of pastoral ministry, I enjoyed the luxury of never having to worry about money. Working in several affluent megachurches afforded my family a premium salary, generous insurance and retirement benefits, and huge margins for savings. Seven years ago, however, we experienced a financial crash.

When our decision to plant a church in urban Indianapolis forced a massive pay cut and a savings-account depletion, my security was threatened for the first time as an adult. The financial habits that I had considered virtuous for much of my life—hard work, aggressive saving, minimal spending, and calculated generosity—worked for me in the prosperity of my previous context. But in the face of this unexpected financial strain, I became obsessive, controlling, and manipulative with my family’s finances. Something had to change, but I had no idea where to start.

Recently, I was leading a conversation on ministry finances with some young pastors in my city. I asked, “Is your current compensation sustainable for your family’s next season of life?” Unsurprisingly, all of them said no. “If you could have a candid conversation with the people responsible for setting your compensation, how much would you need to make to support your family at a reasonable level?” Their answers reflected what I’ve consistently observed over the last several years—if these pastors didn’t receive a substantial increase in their salaries, they’d need to pick up a side hustle, look for another church, or leave ministry altogether.

Problems Unique to Pastors

The recognition of universal struggles, however, doesn’t negate the existence of some unique financial constraints on ministry families. Every vocation has its own set of “occupational hazards.” Let me highlight two that operate unconsciously in the social architecture of a local congregation.

1. Local-church ministry can place a constraint on wealth-building opportunities as typically defined in America.

In most modern work environments, employee compensation is directly tied to measurable performance indicators like sales, profit, technical competency, billable hours, networking, overtime, and industry experience. Success in these areas leads to financial incentives like promotions, bonuses, stock options, equity, and even lucrative consulting gigs that help build long-term wealth “airbags.”

Ministry, on the other hand, operates with a different set of rules. Churches are nonprofit organizations whose budgets are limited by external factors. Generally, pastoral compensation is determined by a constellation of subjective measures unrelated to performance: tradition, cost of living, level of seminary education, preaching aptitude, or even perceived reputation. “Ministry success” is ill-defined, and the lack of financial incentives creates a low ceiling for long-term wealth-building opportunities like savings, investments, retirement, or college funds.

2. Local-church ministry can place a financial constraint on pastors’ wives.

Despite the fact that more than 60 percent of families with children younger than 18 in the United States are now dual income, some congregations still hold an unspoken expectation that a pastor’s wife doesn’t work outside the home and doesn’t receive any compensation for work she does for the church. Although in some contexts pastors’ wives may find it desirable or necessary to work exclusively at home, the archetypical traditional family structure is a social pressure few outside the church must manage. This assumption puts pressure on single-income families. Consider how it makes women and children financially vulnerable to tragic pastoral failures such as addiction, depression, suicide, and adultery.

Conspiracy of Silence

As if these problems are not discouraging enough, there’s a deeper, more dystopian shadow at work—nobody is allowed to talk about any of it! Denominations, missions agencies, and financial teams are not bringing the conversation to their pastors, nor are many of my pastor friends initiating the conversation with their leadership teams. How do we live and lead those trusting us if we are unwilling or unable to discuss the truth about money?

When we attempt to ignore money or deny its power in our lives, we ironically end up empowering its dark side. Unable to articulate the stories and feelings that shape our relationship with money, we become complicit in the conspiracy of silence plaguing a number of churches and pastors’ families.

I first encountered this weird silence in a conversation with a ministry friend who served at another megachurch. While describing his church’s hiring process, he said: “We don’t share compensation information before hiring someone. We don’t want money to be a factor in a person’s decision to take this job. We want them to trust God to provide for their needs.”

As a person who didn’t grow up in the church, ran my own lawn business as a teenager, and majored in business during college, I found this conversation bizarre and naive. It exposed some of the unspoken assumptions that pastors face with money in the church. Is it really a lack of faith to inquire about the details of compensation before accepting a ministry role? Why would trusting God preclude the exercise of one’s God-given mental faculties to discern whether a particular opportunity is a good stewardship decision for one’s family? How much should money factor into a decision to accept a ministry calling? Who determines what constitutes a reasonable standard of living for pastoral ministry?

While many pastors choose to suffer silently, the reality is that these struggles conspire to create regular feelings of anxiety, isolation, and powerlessness.

Money Tells a Story

Financial anxiety is an ancient problem. In Matthew 6:19–34, Jesus identifies our compulsively anxious relationship to money as one of the barriers that hinders our ability to experience the good life of the kingdom: “You cannot serve God and money. Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” (Matt. 6:24–25). Jesus invites us to see that money is not some commodity we make to secure goods and services—it’s a primal power that can also make us insecure.

Money functions like a narrator or storyteller—it excavates the hidden motivations, values, myths, and longings that unconsciously drive our patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. In other words, how we relate to money reveals more than our financial principles; it uncovers our true ambitions.

The story of money both taught and embodied in the life of Jesus is an invitation to the dual nature of human flourishing. Jesus invites us to stand in the tension of both freedom and sacrifice. By freedom, I mean the financial flexibility that offers choices aligned with our human vocation, and by sacrifice, the willingness to risk financial loss for the good of others. The tension exists in the interdependence of freedom and sacrifice—in plenty or in want—in the story of the kingdom: money “answers everything” by providing the freedom for us to enjoy what truly matters in our life as human beings (Eccles. 10:19; Phil. 4:10–19), but that freedom must always be circumscribed by solidarity and sharing with the most vulnerable in our sphere of influence (1 Tim. 6:17–19).

Instead of obsessing over his basic needs, Jesus enlisted a group of trusted friends who funded his ministry and freed him to love, heal, teach, and serve his disciples (Luke 8:3; John 12:1–8). Rather than accumulating privilege and status for himself, Jesus redirected his power for the benefit of the most needy through intentional acts of vulnerability and sacrifice (Luke 11; John 13). This pattern of freedom and sacrifice yielded a life of surrendered contentment that unleashed flourishing for Jesus and those whom he loved.

Three Distorted Gospels of Money

Every pastor and church has a set of organizing assumptions that provide an implicit framework for how they relate to money. The problem is that few people acknowledge the narratives that drive those assumptions. I believe the two basic narratives of money—freedom and sacrifice—provide the subtext for the financial anxiety experienced in ministry. Certain people, owing to their wiring and upbringing, are drawn toward the freedom money can provide, while others will be inclined toward self-sacrifice. However, the truth is that we need to pursue both realities if we are to flourish as human beings in our ministries.

1. Gospel of Security

If we experience too much freedom without sacrifice, we can quickly become preoccupied with ourselves and isolated from the concerns of our neighbors. Ministry in this framework becomes another vehicle for pursuing our own comfort, security, and lifestyle privilege (1 Tim. 5:5–10).

2. Gospel of Suffering

If we experience too much sacrifice without freedom, we often become overwhelmed by the needs of others while ignoring the welfare of our own families (1 Tim. 5:8). Ministry in this framework becomes martyrdom, with families feeling trapped and obligated to long hours with little pay.

I’ve seen this mentality play out in historically rural denominations and lean church-planting networks where the assumption is that a low ceiling should be placed on a pastor’s earning potential.

3. Gospel of Stoicism

If we lack both freedom and sacrifice, we fall into the worst story: stoicism. Ministry in this framework feels like a cold war, where desire is stifled and everyone is passively resigned to waiting for others to make the first move. Nobody feels empowered or motivated to speak up for the financial health and well-being of the church or its leaders.

This is probably the most common narrative I witness in church planting. It’s rarely intentional, but so many churches (especially younger and more idealistic communities) suppress honest money conversations.

Leaning into the Tension

What does it look like for pastors to flourish financially?

Dear pastor, rather than seeking to balance the tension of freedom and sacrifice, I want to invite you to consider leaning into the area that is most underdeveloped in your life during this season. If you’ve pushed too aggressively into sacrifice in a way that has left your family feeling depleted (my story), then maybe you need to lean into freedom and make some decisions that could amplify your joy.

If you fall into patterns of comfort and security, then maybe the call is for you to lean into sacrifice and embrace downward mobility for the good of others. Either way, I’d strongly encourage you to invite a community of trusted friends and advisers into this process with you to help you see past some blind spots that may be keeping you from experiencing the comprehensive flourishing into which God has invited you.

The New Indie Film That Might Make You Worship

Sat, 09/07/2019 - 12:00am

I smiled pretty much throughout The Peanut Butter Falcon, a delightful new indie film that earns every adjective you might hear people ascribe to it: “heartwarming,” “life-affirming,” “feel-good,” and so on. This is a rare movies that is sincere, joyous, and un-cynical, but also artfully made. It’s not cheap or cheesy. In dark and anxious times, we need more films like this. They offer audacious but necessary visions of hope, “what if?” fantasies that bridge what is and what ought to be.

I don’t know whether the filmmakers (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz) are Christians, but Falcon feels like a model for what a quality faith-based film could look like. The 98-minute movie has a confident grasp of goodness, a beautifully compassionate and dignifying way of looking at its characters, and an infectious joy grounded in its observations about the dynamics of friendship and family—observations that led me to ponder God and praise him.

Restorative Family

Inspired by Huckleberry Finn, Southern Gothic fiction, and reminiscent of boys-on-the-run films by David Gordon Green (especially Undertow) and Jeff Nichols (especially Mud), Falcon is an adventure story where innocence and sin, play and danger often intersect. But more than anything, Falcon is a story about family. 

In this case it’s “family” in the found sense, as circumstances bring three very different people together to form unlikely but beautiful bonds that, as the film progresses, take on a more family-like shape. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a troubled fisherman on the run from bad guys whose equipment he destroyed. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome, who in the opening scenes escapes from the retirement home where he lives. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) takes care of Zak at the home and spends the movie searching for him on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Each of these three has wounds from their family past. Tyler lost a brother in an automobile accident. Zak’s parents abandoned him. Eleanor is a widow. When the three eventually become friends and coalesce as a healthy, functioning (if messy) family unit (“friends are the family you choose,” one of them points out), you can almost see their scars begin to heal. 

Such is the restorative nature of family when it functions as it should. 

Films like this offer audacious but necessary visions of hope—‘what if?’ fantasies that bridge what is and what ought to be.

Delighting in Familial Love

What Falcon has to say about friendship and family is not narrated but embodied—through the postures and facial expressions of the actors, through scenes of rope swinging, practicing secret handshakes, Tyler teaching Zak to swim, practicing wrestling moves, and so forth. Great films create space for characters to simply be with one another. These moments may not serve efficient storytelling purposes, but they are often where the magic happens. And these magical moments are plentiful in Falcon.

It’s a joy to watch Zak and Tyler begin to trust one another, serve and sacrifice for one another, lean on and just enjoy one another. A wordless scene of the two sitting side by side, looking out at the sea after a remarkable baptism scene (literally: Zak gets baptized midway through the film), brought me to tears. Likewise, I was moved by a scene where Tyler speaks a truth over Zak that few in his life have uttered: “You are strong.” Zak responds by speaking words over Tyler that he’s also rarely heard: “You are a good guy.” In this interchange we see the power of friendship to call us out of old identities and spur us on into newness and growth.

When Eleanor enters the picture and the duo becomes a trio, the two-way delight and care between Zak and Tyler becomes a three-way dynamic of familial love. Each member of the trio has their own identity; each pair has their own dynamic. Eleanor and Tyler develop a romantic love, and a parental relationship of sorts with Zak. Tyler and Zak have a father-son dynamic but also a brotherly love. Eleanor is both a mother and an older sister to Zak. In it all, everyone delights in the other. 

Does it sometimes feel a bit like a too-perfect fairy tale? Yes. But that’s the point. In our age of broken families, relational fragmentation, rising loneliness, and dehumanizing rhetoric, we desperately need art to do more than wallow in pain and cynicism about what’s bad. We need art to give us attractive pictures of what’s good and remind us why it’s worth fighting for. And there are few greater goods than the family.

We need art to do more than wallow in pain and cynicism about what’s bad. We need art to give us attractive pictures of what’s good and remind us why it’s worth fighting for.

Notes in a Chord

Last week at the beach with my wife and 1-year-old son, I had one of those moments of joy that feels like a caress of God. I watched my wife and son smile and laugh at each other, delighting in each other. I watched my son crawl over to me, pulling himself up to my lap, smiling from ear to ear when he caught my eye. I delighted in his delight in me, and vice versa. I delighted in my wife, and how she and her baby (and she and I) delight in each other. And I wondered if maybe God created the family unit, in part, to give his creation a little glimpse of their Creator’s glorious triune nature. I thought of this as I watched Falcon’s central trio in their expressions of mutual care and delight. The joy of watching them love one another felt like the joy I experienced on the beach—a joy downstream from a distant headwater, a faint echo of some thunderous heavenly symphony. 

In his book Traces of the Trinity, Peter Leithart explores the ways that trinitarian theology illuminates our world, from family to sex to musical chords. He writes: “Christians believe that the triune God created the world, and that should have some implications for the kind of world that it is.” 

This was in my mind as I thought about why the mutual love on display in Falcon was so soul-satisfying. Maybe we resonate with these stories not only because they remind us what’s possible in the glorious good of a family, but because they glimpse the infinitely more glorious Good of God, whose very being is a “triune fellowship of love” within what Fred Sanders calls “the happy land of the Trinity.” Sanders says, “This is what the doctrine of the Trinity helps us learn with greater precision: that God is love. The triune God is a love that is infinitely high above you, eternally preceding you, and welcoming you in.”

We are “welcomed in” to this divine love only by way of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 10:19–23)—an important theological truth that, to be sure, movies like Falcon don’t spell out. But to the extent that they shine a spotlight on the beauty of family and on healthy, interdependent love between humans—whom God created to image himself (Gen. 1:27)—they are common-grace notes that join creation’s larger chords of praise.

Why Pro-Life Christians (and LGBTQ Activists) Should Reject ‘Born This Way’ Ideology

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:04am

The Story: A new study highlights why both Christians and LGBTQ activists should reject biological explanations for homosexuality.

The Background: A recent study that included half a million people suggests genetics may have a limited contribution to sexual orientation.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that while genetics are certainly involved in whom people choose to have sex with, there are no specific genetic predictors that can determine whether someone will develop a same-sex orientation.

According to Scientific American, the researchers found five single points in the genome that seemed to be common among people with at least one same-sex experience. While two of these genetic markers sit close to genes linked to sex hormones and to smell, these five markers explained less than 1 percent of the differences in sexual activity among people in the study.

A conclusion of the study is that a “genetic score cannot in any way be used to predict same-sex sexual behavior of an individual.”

“It’s the end of the ’gay gene,’” says Eric Vilain, a geneticist at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the study.

Why It Matters: When it comes to homosexuality, those who support LGBTQ rights don’t often agree with conservative Christians. Advances in biomedical technology, however, should push the two groups to agree that the biological basis for the homosexual orientation is irrelevant. Although their motivations may differ, each side has reasons for promoting the idea that sexual activity is freely chosen behavior.

LGBTQ rights activists have, of course, been working against this idea for decades. They have been eager to find a genetic, hormonal, or neurological explanation for sexual orientation, which, they believe, will remove any doubt that individuals have no choice about their sexuality—and society will have no choice but to accept their sexual behavior as natural and normal.

Ironically, such an explanation could have the opposite effect of what they hope for. No one who has followed the trajectory of eugenics-oriented biotechnology will be surprised that one of the first targets for manipulation would be sexual orientation. In his 2002  book, Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama speculated that within 20 years we would be able to devise a way for parents to sharply reduce the likelihood that they will give birth to a gay child. Even in a society in which “social norms have become totally accepting of homosexuality,” he argued, most parents would choose the treatment.

While Fukuyama was wrong about the timing, he was right about the trajectory. Even if homosexuality were considered a benign trait such as baldness or left-handedness, a significant number of parents would still opt to have a heterosexual child (“What if we want biological grandchildren?”).

But what happens when a homosexual orientation becomes perceived as a being based on a preventable biological trait? The effects of such change will likely occur privately, behind the doors of the IVF clinic, the obstetrician’s office, and the abortion clinic. Soon after technology made it possible to detect sex and chromosomal abnormalities, it became acceptable to abort baby girls and children with intellectual disabilities. Children that possess the propensity to develop a homosexual orientation will join others groups with less-than-desirable traits in being quietly eliminated before birth.

Although they would naturally abhor the aborting of such children, many theologically conservative Christians would be amenable to changing sexual orientations in the womb. A prenatal treatment seems a humane solution for a moral problem, an easy way to deliver children from a particularly difficult temptation.

This acceptance of the “medicalization” of sexual orientations is misguided. Treating orientation as a malady promotes a reductionist view in which human behavior is explainable by the laws of chemistry and physics. As we’ve seen in other areas of bioethics, reductionism inevitably undermines both moral autonomy and also the dignity of the individual.

But even Christians who disagree with me should recognize that embracing the use of drugs and genetic engineering to correct behavioral orientations opens the Pandora’s box of natal eugenics. Bioethicist Samuel Hensley has warned that rather than unconditionally accepting offspring as a gift of God, we will be tempted to redefine parenthood to include choosing the particular characteristics we want in children.

Christians should reject this cult of choice. We should be vigilant in expressing the truth that children are a blessing from God, not a product we manufacture to our specifications.

However, Christians can agree with the LGBTQ activists that homoerotic desire might very well have a biological basis. We can also rightly insist that acting upon that desire in the form of sexual activity requires a freely chosen decision. While we might not be responsible for our sexual urges, we are always accountable for our sexual behavior. If LGBTQ activists would agree with us on this point, we could form a tentative alliance against the type of eugenics that attempts to change someone’s future behavior—or eliminate them entirely—while they are still in the womb.

But this would put LGBTQ activists in an awkward position. If they agree that sexual orientation does not require people to act on their orientation, they will have lost a key argument for pushing societal acceptance of their sexuality. Yet they could be harming their cause even more if they continue to argue that the orientation is normal and acceptable simply because it has a basis in our biological nature.

What will they say when a biological “fix” for homosexuality is discovered? How will they adjust when the societal expectation is that parents should have a child with such an orientation corrected or aborted? If homosexuals want to see their future, they should look at the plight of the children with Down syndrome—assuming, of course, any such children can still be found in their neighborhoods.

We need an entente between Christians and LGBTQ activists to prevent the issue of homosexuality from being determined by genetic engineers and abortionists. This will not lead to an agreement about whether such behavior is benign or immoral. But at least we will be able to discuss the issue with our human dignity intact.

What’s More Exciting Than Heresy?

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:03am

“Orthodoxy, properly understood, does not shut down further thought, does not stop further discovery. No, orthodoxy actually is what makes deeper thought and further discovery possible. Discovering the first truth means you now have something you can build upon as you look for a second truth. For some reason people tend to think that the way forward—the thoughtful approach to life and doctrine—is to break down boundaries, toss out taboos, do away with doctrines. But that approach shuts down the possibility of deeper thought before it’s had the chance to grow.” — Trevin Wax

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

Related:

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

David Platt’s New Book Is Surprisingly Vulnerable

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:02am

Something needs to change.

If you’re human, that sentence isn’t altogether foreign to you, and yet we have to admit that change is hard. We hear stories all the time of people making life-altering decisions to love God and love others, but we think, I could never do that. We’re left wondering, What makes someone uproot their entire life to serve others?

In David Platt’s new book, aptly titled Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need, he writes about a trip to the remote mountain trails of the Himalayas when he came face to face with this question. This startlingly honest book is part narrative, part confession. It’s apparent from the outset that Platt—a TGC Council member and pastor of McLean Bible Church—isn’t writing from the perspective of an “expert” who has it all together. Rather, he’s a sojourner, like you and me, seeking to learn from those he encounters on the Himalayan trail, as well as figure out what God’s calling him to do with his life once he returns home.

Difficult questions arise along the way. Where is God when people suffer? Why are so many people born into what seems like an earthy hell, only to move to an eternal one? These and other challenges drive Platt back to the Scriptures. At the start and end of each chapter he provides excerpts from his journal, bringing Scripture to bear on what he’s experiencing in real time.

Actually Doing Ministry

As you flip through the pages, you’re invited to join Platt on his eight-day journey—a journey that will bring you face to face with the suffering of others. One story in particular captures the heart of the book. The trip has concluded and David is sitting with Aaron, a fellow traveler. He asks his new friend, “So what made you leave pastoring a church in order to move your family here?” Aaron pauses before answering. “I felt like I was talking about ministry in the midst of urgent spiritual and physical need more than I was doing ministry in the midst of such needs. And I decided that needed to change” (186).

The point is that we don’t need to go overseas to find urgent need; we simply need to walk across the street.

Aaron’s words resonated with me. It’s deceptively easy to talk about ministry without actually doing it, which is why this book is so timely. Platt argues that we have “forgotten to feel what we believe.” He explains: “God didn’t design the gospel of Jesus to be confined to our minds and mouths in the church, yet disconnected from our emotions and actions in the world” (3).

Such focus on experience and action is a strength of the book. Rather than problems explained solely through stagnant statistics, here you find a living story. You learn about actual people who have experienced unimaginable pain. You also get to glimpse how God is using ordinary people to address this overwhelming brokenness.

Fighting Inward Paralysis

Platt isn’t simply writing to informing us of what to stop and start doing. More to the point, he captures the inward paralysis that keeps us from acting in the first place—and he addresses the fear head-on. As a leader of a not-for-profit working with churches, I was especially moved by how Platt processed the exploitation he witnessed firsthand. “We’ve all heard that solutions to sex trafficking are complicated and there are wise and unwise ways to go about fighting it. Regardless of what it looks like I just want to do something” (45). Later he admits: “I don’t want to make excuses and I want to do something but I don’t know what to do” (178).

Vulnerability is key to this book, and it challenges the reader to be transparent, too. Let’s be honest: how many of us have been there? We see a global issue, but we have no idea what we can do to stop it. Platt confesses he finds it “dangerously easy to walk past urgent need and do nothing about it. And I need God to change that in me” (89). Only Christ’s vulnerability for us, as reflected in the gospel, will ever empower and open our eyes to those most vulnerable around us.

The vulnerability of the people Platt interacts with reminds us of the vulnerabilities we see on a daily basis in our own communities. The point is that we don’t need to go overseas to find urgent need; we simply need to walk across the street. As Platt reminds us, “I don’t know the most urgent spiritual and physical needs around you, but God does. So ask him, ‘Where are the poor, the oppressed, the orphaned, the enslaved and ultimately the lost around me'” (196)?

Just like his trip didn’t happen from a “safe” distance, neither is loving the neighbors around you. Loving other people is often messy. It can be difficult, even painful, but in that difficulty you’ll find life and community. Something Needs to Change closes with principles that will aid you in discovering your own balanced, holistic approach to caring for image-bearers in need in your own community. Once you realize God has you where you are at this very moment for a reason, what will you do about it?

Matthew’s Gospel as You’ve Never Read It Before

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:00am

I don’t think I quite understood the beauty of the Gospels, and particularly Matthew, until I understood that meaning is contained not only in the content of the story, but also in the form. It wasn’t merely Matthew’s words, but the placement of those words—the way he tells his stories—that reveals his convictions about Jesus.

Matthew uses the form of his stories to depict the familiar—but with a twist. His Gospel, after all, furthers the story of Israel through the story of Jesus. Put most simply, one can read Matthew’s Gospel ably by asking three questions of the text:

  • How does this echo Israel’s story?
  • How does Jesus fulfill Israel’s story?
  • How does it move the story of Israel forward?

The Gospel of Matthew is best understood with one eye looking back to the old story, and the other attuned to shifts in the new story.

Joseph Story in Matthew’s Gospel

Take, for example, the story of Jesus’s birth. At one level, the story of Matthew 1:18–2:23 is simple. Jesus’s birth is described from Joseph’s point of view. He learns that Mary is pregnant, but then it’s revealed to him in a dream that this child from the Holy Spirit will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:18–25). In chapter two, however, Jesus’s family is on the run from King Herod. They flee to Egypt, come up through Ramah, and then go to Nazareth due to the danger (Matt. 2).

Yet Matthew is doing more than simply recounting the facts, ma’am. There was another Joseph who had dreams, who was righteous, who took his family into Egypt to save them, and then whose family left Egypt. Mary’s husband is the new Joseph whose actions echo, fulfill, and move Israel’s story forward. While Joseph in Genesis temporarily saved his people from famine by bringing them into Egypt, now the obedience of Joseph allows Jesus to survive and thereby save the nation from their ultimate enemy––their sins (Matt. 1:21).

The Gospel of Matthew is best understood with one eye looking back to the old story, and the other attuned to shifts in the new story.

Matthew’s account of the birth-and-flight narrative makes sense at a basic level. But if you look at Israel’s story you can see much more. By comparing it to Joseph the dreamer, Matthew has brought that old story to fulfillment.

And there is more. Matthew portrays Joseph, the husband of Mary, as the new Joseph—but he also portrays Jesus as the new Joseph. Both are chosen by their father, both are rejected by their brothers, both undergo suffering and exile, both are exalted in a foreign court, both turn and forgive their brothers who betray them, and both save their people. This Jesus is their new hope, their new rescue, and their new ruler to whom they must bow. Once the echoes are heard, it seems that more appear, and the depth and the beauty of the story is revealed.

Jesus as the New Joseph Pattern Joseph Jesus Chosen by his father Gen. 37:3 Matt. 3:17 Rejected by his brothers Gen. 37:4 Matt. 20:18 Undergoes suffering and exile Gen. 37:17–20 Matt. 2; 27:27–31 Exalted in a foreign court Gen. 41:39–41 Matt. 27:27–31 Forgives his brothers Gen. 50:17 Matt. 26:28 Saves his people Gen. 45:7 Matt. 1:21; 27:41–42

 

Moses’s Story in Matthew’s Gospel

Another example is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration in Matthew 17:1–8. Again, the story is quite simple at one level. Jesus goes up on a mountain and is transfigured beside Moses and Elijah. And yet while all three Synoptic Gospels include the mount of Jesus’s transfiguration, Matthew in particular draws readers’ attention to Moses and Sinai. The story he tells echoes Israel’s story, completes it, and moves it forward.

In all the Synoptics, Jesus—like Moses—goes up on a high mountain (Ex. 24:12) after six days (Ex. 24:16), three individuals are given special privilege (Ex. 24:1), a cloud descends (Ex. 24:15–18), and a voice calls out from the cloud (Ex. 24:16). Unlike the other Synoptics, however, Matthew includes three details that provide further fodder for seeing the Moses story as central. First, Matthew lists Moses first in the naming of Moses and Elijah (cf. Mark 9:4; Matt 17:3). Second, he includes an allusion to the coming of a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15). The statement about Jesus on the mountain is identical to the one at his baptism—“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”—except for the addition of this command: “Listen to him.” Why? Because Moses commanded the people that when the prophet like him comes, “to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Third, Matthew is the only author to reference Jesus’s shining face (Matt. 17:2).

Jesus moves the story forward, because unlike Moses, Jesus’s face now always shines, and he doesn’t have to cover his face. Jesus reveals the will of God in his shining face.

The parallels are clear, but to what end? Matthew portrays Jesus not only as the new prophet and the new mediator, but as the one who truly shows what it’s like to follow the law and thereby be transfigured in God’s presence. When Moses received the law, and was himself transfigured, this revealed the law’s aim all along: transformation before God. The goal of the Exodus was to place Israel in their land under the rule of Yahweh, beholding his face and thereby becoming like him.

When Jesus is transfigured before the three disciples, he completes the story of Moses. He becomes the new mediator who goes up on the new mountain and reflects God’s presence. This fulfills the hope of the people living under the rule of Yahweh and becoming like him. Jesus moves the story forward, because unlike Moses, Jesus’s face now always shines, and he doesn’t have to cover his face. Jesus reveals the will of God in his shining face.

Matthew’s Description of the Transfiguration Mount Sinai in Exodus 24 and 34 On a high mountain (Matt. 17:1) On a high mountain (Ex. 24:12, 15–18; 34:2–3) After six days (Matt. 17:1) the cloud covered the mountain for six days (Ex. 24:16) Three individuals are given special privileges: Peter, James, John (Matt. 17:1) Three individuals are given special privileges: Aaron, Nadab, Abihu (Ex. 24:1) A cloud descends and covers the mountain (Matt. 17:5) a cloud descends and covers the mountain (Ex. 24:15–18; 34:5) His face shone like the sun (Matt. 17:2) The skin of Moses’s face shone (Ex. 34:29) The voice speaks from the cloud (Matt. 17:5) Yahweh calls out to Moses from the clouds in (Ex. 24:16) They disciples are terrified (Matt. 17:6) Israel is afraid when they see Moses’s face (Ex. 34:30) The disciples are comforted by Jesus’s voice (Matt. 17:7) The congregation is comforted by Moses’s voice (Ex. 34:31)

 

Righteous Blood in Matthew’s Gospel

It isn’t only figures such as Moses and Joseph who provide fodder for deeper reflection, though. Symbols that echo, fulfill, and advance Israel’s story also fill out Matthew’s work. For example, Matthew uses the idea of blood—righteous blood—to connect the Old Testament to the New. Matthew wants his readers to tie the “blood narrative” from the beginning of the Hebrew Old Testament to the end and see it fulfilled in the blood of Jesus. In Matthew 23:34–35 he references the blood of Abel (the first murder in the Hebrew canon) to Zechariah (the last murder in the Hebrew canon). As Jesus explains, messengers have been sent to Israel, but they’ve been rejected and so there will be a divine reckoning:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matt. 23:34–35)

Jesus fulfills this righteous-blood theme from the Old Testament. Blood is everywhere in Matthew 26–28. Consider six examples:

  1. Jesus speaks of “the blood of the covenant” and the “remission of sins” in the Last Supper (Matt. 26:28; cf. Jer. 31:27–40).
  2. Judas claims he has sinned by betraying “innocent blood,” which mirrors the statement about the blood of Abel and Zechariah (Matt. 27:4).
  3. The chief priests call Judas’s reward “blood money,” and then Judas’s field is called the “field of blood” (Matt. 27:6, 8).
  4. Pilate washes his hand and declares himself “innocent of the blood of this man” (Matt. 27:24).
  5. The people call for his “blood to be on us and upon our children” (Matt. in 27:25).
  6. Pilate’s wife urges him to have nothing to do with Jesus, “that righteous man” (Matt. 27:19). In this last example, Jesus is described—exactly like Abel and Zechariah—as a righteous sufferer.

Look at the stories of Matthew in their larger context. You might be surprised at what you begin to see.

These references to blood cause readers to go back to Matthew 23:35 and thus read the “blood narrative” as echoing, fulfilling, and advancing the story of Israel. Jesus is the new rejected shepherd, whose innocent blood was shed. He is also the new Israel, who suffers the destruction of his temple, exile, and death at the hands of foreign enemies. But since his blood was wholly innocent, it brings forth the new exodus and the new temple.

In Israel’s history there were stories both of “innocent blood” shed—and of Israel’s blood shed by their enemies because of their sins. Jesus’s blood fulfills both narratives. While the story of Jesus’s death makes sense at a surface level, looking at the larger story of these symbols reveals a stunning depth to Matthew’s narrative.

Etc., Etc., Etc.

I don’t have enough space to explain how, for Matthew, Jesus is the new Abraham (who has many children from the East and West), the new David (who is the true king), the new Solomon (who delivers wisdom in his teaching), and the new Jeremiah (who laments the fate of Jerusalem). Judas is the typological betrayer of the nation (the new Jezebel, Ahithophel, and Absalom). The disciples are the new 12 tribes of Israel, and the Jewish leaders are the new rulers from Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. The mountains in Matthew are the new Sinais. The deserts are the new wilderness of Israel, and the rivers are the new crossings into and with the people of God.

The best way for Matthew to disciple and teach future generations––to fulfill the Great Commission––is through these stories of Jesus that echo, complete, and advance the narrative of Israel. Matthew’s inspired wisdom is embedded in his literary form.

So look at the stories of Matthew in their larger context. You might be surprised at what you begin to see.

Pastoring in the Forgotten Places

Thu, 09/05/2019 - 12:04am

Misconceptions about the small, forgotten places of the world abound today. On the one hand, rural communities can be seen as idyllic, utopian communities where life moves slowly and people are friendly. On the other, they can be viewed as places where people are uneducated, “stuck in the past,” and not worthy of much attention.

Such notions are unfounded and unhelpful. We can and must view the small places of the world with both realism and also gospel hope. Small towns across the globe are broken because they are filled, even if sparsely, with sinners like you and me. And these small, forgotten places need healthy churches.

That’s why we care about planting churches in rural communities across the world. But this is no easy task. What will it take to see healthy churches planted in rural communities? What are the unique challenges involved?

To discuss these things and more, I’m excited to have David Pinckney with me on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.

Related:

Leadership Lessons from Chick-fil-A

Thu, 09/05/2019 - 12:03am

About 40 years ago, marketer Steve Robinson went to work for a growing company called Chick-fil-A. The hiring process lasted more than five months of talking over desks and dinner tables, in various homes and offices, to dozens of people.

Finally, Robinson said it straight out to owner Truett Cathy: “What are you looking for in the ideal marketing candidate? And am I the guy?”

“I want to know that you and I can work together until one of us dies,” Cathy told him. “The most important decision we make here is who we invite to join the business.”

Robinson was floored. “I didn’t know what to say,” he wrote in his book, Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand.

It was another two weeks before Robinson had a job offer. But then, he stayed for 35 years, retiring soon after Cathy passed away. And even in retirement, Robinson is still cheering for the company.

He’s not the only one. Even after a public-relations crisis—prompted by president Dan Cathy’s affirmation of traditional marriage—that should’ve tanked sales among a population increasingly supportive of gay marriage, Chick-fil-A is growing stronger and faster than ever. (“Chick-fil-A is now the 3rd-largest restaurant chain in America, and McDonald’s and Starbucks should be terrified,” reads a Business Insider headline from June.)

TGC asked Robinson about the fast-food restaurant that inspires such an unlikely level of loyalty among both employees and also customers—and what lessons it can teach the church. Here’s what he said.

Surround yourself with people you trust. Then give them freedom.

The length of time it took to hire me wasn’t unique. In fact, it takes even longer—about a year—to vet someone as a Chick-fil-A operator. (The acceptance rate is very low—last year, only 100 operator applications out of 68,000 were accepted.)

There’s a great advantage to hiring slowly. Since Truett trusted our integrity of character and judgment, he was willing to give us great freedom. That led to an aspect of the culture I think is powerful: people were willing to take risks.

Steve Robinson
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Name announcement

For example, when a fire shut down a major interstate in Atlanta, Chick-fil-A operators provided free food for first responders, then later for carpooling commuters. When an elderly couple trapped in their home after Hurricane Harvey called Chick-fil-A to order food and a boat, our employees sent the boat. And when LGBTQ people were protesting outside the restaurants, operators gave them free food and lemonade.

When you attract the right operators, they understand that every customer interaction, every relationship in the community, is a reflection on them, the Chick-fil-A brand and, even more seriously for Truett personally, the reputation of his Savior.

So they’re protective about who they’ll invite to work with them. They aren’t going to bat 1.000; they’re going to get some wildcards now and then; but the hit rate is very high. Turnover is less than a third of the industry standard.

And really, what could be better than exercising your entire personality and value system in the workplace? Truett wasn’t siloed. He didn’t separate his faith from work or from fun. He figured out that if we live out our faith in all areas, people will notice.

Write down your purpose. Then actually use it to make decisions.

Our corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” Some might say that’s too broad or too vague—it really could apply to almost any organization.

When we wrote the corporate purpose in 1982, we weren’t writing it from scratch but from decades of Truett’s values and his leadership already inscribed on the business by the way he behaved and how he made choices.

If your purpose statement doesn’t affect how you make choices, it’s worthless.

That purpose statement became one of the greatest litmus tests of how we made decisions in the business. We’d think, Okay, does this decision or initiative or investment have the potential to glorify God? Will it have a positive influence on others? Is it good stewardship?

So there is no question that it’s a broad statement. But it is specific to Chick-fil-A in how it’s used to make decisions and govern what they spend money on and commit talent to. Any business can have a good statement, but if it doesn’t affect how you lead and make choices, it’s worthless.

Don’t be afraid to choose biblical principles, even when they seem like they’ll never work.

At one of our first meetings, I realized Truett was tithing corporate profits. He also kept the stores closed on Sundays, worked hard to eliminate all debt, offered college scholarships to employees, and allowed us to chose kids’ meal toys not based on what would catch a child’s eye, but on building meaningful relationships in a family.

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

On the surface, none of these may appear to be good business decisions. But keeping the store closed gives Chick-fil-A employees a chance to worship and rest. Eliminating the debt forces us to grow more slowly, which allows us to build the right infrastructure. Offering college scholarships means operators attract talented young workers and keep them longer.

The principles behind the behavior are often counter to current paradigms of culture and business acumen. All those things make Chick-fil-A not only unique but almost mystical—what is this business all about? Why is it humming along the way it hums?

It’s largely because Truett Cathy was a student of the Bible, more than any other book he ever read. When something in the Bible struck him as a good principle, he tried to live it out. His obedience, in my opinion, was rooted in his gratefulness for God’s grace toward him.

Recognize the importance of culture.

Building an organization isn’t about marketing or branding strategy. It’s about culture. And culture comes from leadership.

Leaders have to live out Chick-fil-A’s purpose statement. They have to demonstrate it in how they talk, in how decisions are made, in how they behave around customers and operators.

Culture comes from the language and behavior of leaders.

Culture is created in community. God didn’t create us to live alone, but to have a community of people to lean on and help support each other. We have that in the church, but there’s no reason why a business environment can’t also be a supportive and helpful community. But that almost always has to come down from the leadership.

To build better culture, stay where you are.

One of the biggest things that hinders an organization’s ability to build a strong, clear, sustainable culture is leadership turnover. One of the benefits at Chick-fil-A was how little turnover we have at the top. I didn’t think I’d be there 35 years, but I was. Our CFO was there 36 years, and I could go down the list. Not one of us went there thinking this was the last place we’d work.

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

But the values of the culture fit us. And Truett empowered us. The byproduct for him was that, because we didn’t go anywhere, we built institutional knowledge—not just in strategy and operating systems but in how we talk about things, in how we know what is important or not. You can’t do that if you have leaders turning over every three to five years.

You can put all the corporate purposes on paper that you want, but if it means one thing to this guy and another to a leader who comes three or four years later who wants to rewrite it, then it’s just words. If you don’t have continuity in leadership, it’s difficult to live out a purpose and clear values. I think that’s true in business, in ministry, in churches. Turnover is the No. 1 enemy of cultural sustainability.

Take the long view. Trade chasing numbers for building relationships.

I came to the business in the 1980s with some paradigms, particularly some marketing paradigms on how to drive sales. Within two years I realized, “Wait a sec—with this kind of culture and this operator model, we shouldn’t look like all the other fast-food brands or behave like them.” That was the fundamental turning point for me.

How do you channel that into different behavior? It was a journey of more than 30 years. We focused on creating enduring relationships with customers instead of driving transactions. I didn’t enter the business thinking that way. Nobody else does either. Everything you read is on transactions, analytics, and data. It’s potentially counterproductive to building relationships with customers.

We want the relationships, not to end with just a click.

It’s easy for people to sit in an office somewhere and count, weigh, and measure every marketing or media investment to figure out how many clicks or transactions we got. That’s easy. It’s harder to figure out how we are going to actually show people we care, to engage with them, to treat them like individuals, to give them more than they felt they were paying for.

That takes leaders willing to have a longer-term perspective of building the brand—or even the local church. It’s not just trying to get people in the pews but trying to build relationships with them. What are the issues they’re struggling with? How could the gospel speak to them in ways they don’t even know about?

This can be especially hard at church because you often have a lot of people in church leadership outside the staff, such as elders and deacons, who live in a performance-based environment at work or school. It’s even in the books they read.

There is a place for data-driven performance, but it must be held in healthy tension. We want the relationships, not to end with just a click.

Even when you’ve arrived, you haven’t.

Working for a company that has a reputation for integrity is scary.

That’s because it’s easier to build something than to sustain it. All you have to do is start taking a little of that for granted and it can lead to spiritual and intellectual laziness, to mediocrity, and ultimately to complete collapse. And that can happen very, very quickly.

Let’s not be reading our own press clippings. Let’s try to get better every day. Let’s give people an incredible experience and gracious service. And let’s remember we didn’t build this on our own strength and brains, but were blessed by God’s grace.

How to Spot—and Help—an Addict in Church

Thu, 09/05/2019 - 12:03am

Addiction has wrongly been “super-sized” out of the local church’s realm of care.

The rising wave of it—especially opioid addiction—is widely considered a “brain disease” that requires special medicine, training, and expertise. Many mistakenly believe there is little a church member can do to help.

To be clear, using drugs does alter the brain. Medical intervention is crucial. But it’s also true that stigma, self-loathing, guilt, and other issues common to addicts are within the arena of Christian counseling.

You and I have been called to care for the sick, the imprisoned, the suffering, and the sinners (Matt. 28:18–20; Matt. 25:36; James 5:13–15). As Jesus’s hands and feet, we must not ignore those in the throes of addiction.

The tricky part is—how?

1. How do I know if a someone is addicted to opioids? Do they have to tell me, or are there signs I can look for?

I often watch for isolation (Prov. 18:1). Family and friends can listen for language that reflects an “entitlement mentality” rooted in pride. The addict may also be inconsistent, lie when he doesn’t have to, seek pleasure in every area, and be prone to doing things his way. Look for idolatrous behavior that appears irrational, since it’s caused by extreme devotion to self.

You may be concerned about “missing” an addicted person in your congregation. But warning signals like missing work, school, or church activities aren’t always obviously tied to addiction and may appear innocuous. So sometimes it’s easy for a leader, a friend, or even a close family member to miss the signs and then feel guilty later.

The “what ifs” can be crushing. What if I could have noticed something? What if I had reached out? What if I’d caught it before it got to this stage? Did I say something to drive them away from church or from God?

While we are responsible to God for sins of omission—failing to love, or failing to speak truth in love, or failing to speak truth at all—we have to be careful not to feel all the weight of someone else’s choices.

While we are responsible to God for our sins of omission, we have to be careful not to feel all the weight of someone else’s choices.

More often than not, a family member comes to me for help regarding an addicted loved one. There is great value in creating an approachable culture among your church family. As often as you can, communicate, “Yes, please reach out to us when your loved one is struggling! We want to help you, help them, and glorify God in the process. Yes, come to us.”

2. How do I approach someone I think is addicted to opioids or other prescription drugs? Should I say something, or wait for them to reach out to me?

You might try saying something such as, “You have been a little erratic lately. Have you been using or maybe tempted to use? What’s going on?” The person may deflect, deny, or disagree, which makes it hard to know what is true. In gentleness, ask clarifying and probing follow-up questions, though you still may not receive a straight answer (Gal. 6:1). Since love believes all things (1 Cor. 13:7), you may have to err on the side of grace.

Typically, family members and concerned friends reach out and ask you to intervene. Since often the family has already spoken to the person about his addiction, you can think of your participation as the second step in the Matthew 18:15–20 restoration process.

It’s important to approach this intervention motivated by a desire to glorify God, not surprise and humiliate. A biblical intervention involves loving concern, careful planning, constant prayer, and multiple meetings with the family ahead of time. The goal is to discern—gently and kindly—whether the addicted person is willing to repent. And the family should be prepared for possible responses, which may include defensiveness and rejection.

We often want to talk the addict into changing, but that can lead to frustration. Instead, focus on communicating God’s love and glorifying Christ. It is always loving to call someone to repentance, but we must be careful we aren’t making it all about repenting and reconciling with us, before with God.

3. What do I do if someone tells me they’re addicted to prescription drugs? To whom do I refer them? How do I keep track of them? What’s the best way to support and love them?

An addict doesn’t often ask for help, due to shame, guilt, and pride. So this is a rare opportunity and cause for rejoicing!

First, ask about his spiritual condition. If he is an unbeliever, you want him to know the living God. If he is a believer, you want him to become a committed, obedient follower of Christ. Both strategies rely solely on the sufficient Word of God and power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, gather a small team of people from your church who are committed to the long process of relational disciple-making. Each person on the team could play a different role—encourager, prayer partner, accountability partner, church leader, counselor, and/or trusted Christian friend. Don’t do this alone. You need the body of Christ—especially since the addict should meet with someone from that team daily for the first 30 days.

It is always loving to call someone to repentance, but we must be careful we aren’t making it all about repenting and reconciling with us, before with God.

Third, insist on the addicted person receiving medical attention. Consider having someone you trust—one of his relatives, or yourself if necessary—participate in the initial medical encounters. The doctor needs to know the truth in order to help, and left alone, the person might be tempted to deceive, minimize, or ignore his addiction issue. Remember that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).

Fourth, find help at a biblical program designed to disciple the person. A secular addiction program is likely address his issues from a “spiritual” perspective and help him find sobriety, but will be unlikely to point him to Christ. You want more for this struggling person than just achieving sobriety. You want him to discover newness of life in Christ alone, not a “higher power” of his own invention. (You can find resources—such as recommended residential and non-residential programs, training for family and friends, and articles—at www.TheAddictionConnection.org.)

In the end, if the person abandons the process, allow him to go but continue to pray. You can extend grace by offering multiple chances. But remember that grace may entail enforcing consequences or even ceasing to work with him if he persists in his addictive choices. Indeed, God may use such consequences to get his full attention.

4. How can I think biblically about addiction? Isn’t it sinful? I want to show compassion, but I’m not sure which verses to stand on.

We shouldn’t categorize people by their drug or pleasure of choice—that’s merely the outward tool they’re using (Isa. 44:9–20) or broken cistern they’re drinking from (Jer. 2:13). Far more helpful is getting to the heart of addiction. Why we sin stems from desires in the heart—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16; Gen. 3:6).

But you have a sovereign God who redeems for his glory. As this once-addicted person learns more about Christ through biblical disciple-making, he has the opportunity to find everlasting hope, true victory, and a new identity.

So, yes, addiction stems from sin. But it comes from the same root that anybody else’s sin comes from—including yours. And the good news is that Jesus Christ overcomes it all (Heb. 2:17–18; 4:14–16).

Child-Centric Families Dole Out God’s Passive Wrath on Kids

Thu, 09/05/2019 - 12:00am

In 2017, a California news channel ran a short documentary on a 12-year-old receiving an implant to block the flow of estrogen, in order to facilitate a potential gender transition down the road. There is something surreal and eerie about watching a team of five adults—including a mother and a father—huddling around a preteen to assist in a procedure that stops a natural process. The room was filled with smiles, support, and celebration for the child, who has made a major medical determination before reaching the teenage threshold.

I write not to pass judgment on a child living with a great deal of confusion or parents navigating a situation for which they never asked. Instead, it’s worth looking at how this situation sheds light on the child-centric mentality of modern-day parenting. A growing number of parents believe we must honor children’s wishes, at all costs. The world insists it’s our responsibility, as parents and as society, to bless and honor a child’s autonomy.

For example, the prevailing ethos in secular sex education enables children to determine—on their own—when they will become sexually active. Contraception and protection are encouraged, but otherwise the wisdom of the age is clear: “You [14- or 16- or 18-year-old], discern for yourself when you are ready.” In other words, society leaves children to their own devices with no real hint of standards. The fear is that if we don’t grant and support all of our children’s desires, then they won’t flourish or may be damaged in some way.

In short, the goal is to enable children to be true to themselves.

Problem of Child-Centric Self-Rule

In the garden, God gave Adam and Eve one stipulation: don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Under this prohibition resided a principle: don’t forget that God is the Creator; you are a creature. He alone is all-wise, knowing perfectly each person and detail of existence. You are made to depend on him. If you forget this, you will die.

Adam and Eve forgot, and they died.

Often, we think about the wrath of God as fire falling from the sky. Certainly, there is the active judgment of the Lord, seen throughout the Old Testament and foretold in the second coming of Christ. But there is also the passive judgment described in Romans 1: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!”

In other words, God’s judgment came not in the form of fire from heaven, but in the natural consequences of people being left to their own devices. They resisted him so persistently that he withdrew his mercy and allowed them to self-destruct as they lived on their own terms.

Moses portrayed the harrowing trajectory of human autonomy in Genesis 4–9. Starting with Cain and Abel and ending with the flood, the human condition grew increasingly dark. Before God’s active wrath appeared in the flood, humanity was self-destructing by living according to their own devices.

Fallen humanity’s self-destructive impulse emanates from the desire to live independently. We want to be the lord of our lives. All sinful behavior flows out of this self-rule.

While gender-transition surgery is a somewhat extreme example of self-rule, in a more subtle manner, many American families succumb to child-centric pressure. The standard of “good parenting” involves ascertaining a child’s talents, preferences, and affinities—and then dedicating all energy and time to meet those desires, even if it harms the child or the family.

I know it’s a bad idea, but Johnny wants to practice seven days per week.

It’s too much, but Sally feels like she has to take that sixth AP class.

I want my teenagers in church, but they just don’t want to go, so we leave them at home.

Most parents are trying their best and want what’s best for their children. This child-centric current, however, represents society enabling and facilitating self-rule, the very thing Scripture says is the essence of sin. The tail is wagging the dog in a manner that often leads to self-destruction.

Learning Lordship

A critical ingredient in growing up healthy and wise is learning to live life on other people’s terms. The school hands you a schedule. Mom and Dad serve you broccoli. The teacher makes a test and grades it. There are curfews and tardy bells and workouts and chores and driving ages. All of these challenges, which frustrate young people to no end, communicate the most valuable lesson in life: you are not the center of the world.

Such practices can implicitly lead children in the direction of God’s rule in their lives. And living life under his rule leads a child into the ultimate form of human flourishing and satisfaction.

The Book of Proverbs was originally written as a tool for older people to train children in the way of wisdom. The central verse, from which all the others flow, comes in Proverbs 1:6: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Learning the critical delineation that God is God and you are not is the starting point to a wise and fruitful life. Living under the authority of his Word and depending on him for direction is the most significant ingredient that children need to flourish.

Institutions, churches, coaches, and parents can play a valuable role in leading kids in a positive direction. In fact, part of the value of teams, classes, groups, and community is portraying to kids that they will fall apart and fail if they desire to be a lone ranger or renegade.

All of this to say, the best thing we can do as parents is let the Lord lead the family. Too often it feels as if the kids and their aspirations dictate the direction of a family. Turning away from that mentality means seeking the Lord’s will with children in what they pursue. It also means that parents, using their God-given wisdom and considering the overall welfare of the family, have the authority to say, “No.” Such parental leadership models for kids how to live under the rule of God.

Let’s love children enough not to let them live on their own terms.

Ruling in Marriage and Filmmaking Case a Victory for Religious Freedom

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 12:04am

The Story: A recent federal appeals court ruling is a significant victory for free speech and religious freedom.

The Background: Carl and Angel Larsen are professional storytellers who use film and their artistic abilities to help their clients tell their own stories. The Larsens wanted to bring their talents to the wedding industry and use their gifts to promote their religious beliefs about marriage—but Minnesota’s government refused to let them to do so.

According to state officials, a Minnesota law mandates that if the Larsens tell stories that are consistent with their beliefs about marriage (i.e., that marriage is between a man and a woman), then they must tell marriage stories that violate their beliefs as well (e.g., that same-sex couples can be legitimately married). If they decline to do so, the Larsens would face steep fines and even up to 90 days in jail.

The couple has challenged the law in federal court, but their case—Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey—was initially dismissed.

Late last month the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should not have dismissed the lawsuit. The court reinstated the free speech and free exercise of religion claims of the lawsuit, and ordered the district court to consider whether the Larsens are entitled to a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law against them.

Why It Matters: Can Minnesota require Christians like the Larsens to produce videos of same-sex weddings, even if the message would conflict with their own beliefs? “The district court concluded that it could and dismissed the Larsens’ constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s antidiscrimination law,” the Eighth Circuit Court said. “Because the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say, we reverse the dismissal of two of their claims and remand with instructions to consider whether they are entitled to a preliminary injunction.”

As the court opinion notes, the Larsens “gladly work with all people—regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other classification.” But because they “are Christians who believe that God has called them to use their talents and their company to . . . honor God,” the Larsens decline any requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs. This includes any that, in their view, “contradict biblical truth; promote sexual immorality; support the destruction of unborn children; promote racism or racial division; incite violence; degrade women; or promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.”

But according to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), a decision to produce any wedding videos requires the Larsens to make them for everyone, regardless of the Larsens’ beliefs and the message they wish to convey. The MHRA also mandates that wedding videos must depict same- and opposite-sex weddings in an equally “positive” light.

The appeals court correctly pointed out that the Larsens’ videos are a form of speech and are thus entitled to First Amendment protection. The court also clarified that “regulating speech because it is discriminatory or offensive is not a compelling state interest, however hurtful the speech may be.” The effect of the Minnesota law would also have broad effects on other forms of speech and conduct, the court says:

Indeed, if Minnesota were correct, there is no reason it would have to stop with the Larsens. In theory, it could use the [Minnesota Human Rights Act] to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe “My religion is the only true religion” on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service. In fact, if Minnesota were to do what other jurisdictions have done and declare political affiliation or ideology to be a protected characteristic, then it could force a Democratic speechwriter to provide the same services to a Republican, or it could require a professional entertainer to perform at rallies for both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the same office.

“This is a significant win,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said, who argued the case before the Eighth Circuit in October 2018. “The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs.”

The Larsens are also pleased to hear they won’t be forced to make films that express messages in conflict with their core beliefs. “Angel and I serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message,” Carl Larsen said following the court’s decision. “We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion. This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs.”

5 Books You Should Read on the Prosperity Gospel

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 12:03am

I entered my pastor’s office in a heated fury. I was newly converted and had suddenly realized that the prosperity gospel is a lie. I roared with rookie passion, “I’m going to do something about this prosperity-gospel deception! I’m going to take those heretics down—every last one of them!”

My pastor, undeterred by my zeal, calmly sat back in his chair. “Have a seat, Costi.”

For the next several minutes he schooled me on the primary role of a pastor and the importance of faithfulness in the local church. He went on to explain that God has a “good handle” on his gospel and would call me if needed. Until then, I was to remember my call to pastor the people God had placed in front of me.

Humbled, and rightfully delayed, I was directed into years devoted primarily to quiet study and local service. Before long, my pastor’s wisdom helped me understand the important process of listening and learning before leading.

5 Books on the Prosperity Gospel

As I studied, the Lord used certain books to help unravel and realign certain beliefs. Here are the top five that shaped me in that season and continue to do so today:

1. Health, Wealth, and Happiness by David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge

In my opinion, there is no better first book on the prosperity gospel. It’s short, to the point, and packs a biblical punch that knocks out the prosperity gospel.

In my opinion, there is no better first book on the prosperity gospel.

They name names in an objective way, quote and cite sources, and teach biblical truth. If someone asks you, “What is actually wrong with prosperity theology?” this book will answer quickly and clearly.

2. Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel by Mbugua, Maura, Mbewe, Grudem, Piper

Written by a team of men who know this topic firsthand, this book offers a perspective like none other. Conrad Mbewe has called the prosperity gospel the number-one U.S. export to Africa and along with other authors has battled this issue for decades. This book is written in everyday language and addresses topics like suffering, misinterpreting Scripture, true blessings, and the true gospel. (Fun fact about this book: It was produced as an international-outreach project by TGC and was written as a result of the partnership between TGC and African Christian Textbooks Trustees.)

3. Managing God’s Money by Randy Alcorn

One of the most presumptuous arguments I hear goes something like, “If the prosperity gospel is so evil, are we all supposed to just live in poverty? God doesn’t want us to be blessed?” This couldn’t be more misguided. Thankfully, Randy Alcorn wrote a book all about managing money. It teaches balanced principles from the Bible that help us discern God’s will for us as money-managers. He covers materialism, generosity, poverty, prosperity, eternal perspectives on money, and more. Everything in this book points back to one thing: God’s Word on the topic of money.

4. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler

This isn’t something you’re going to read in a few days. It’s thick—loaded with citations, quotes, charts, and more. Think of it as a prosperity-gospel textbook more than anything else. Bowler isn’t looking to “slam dunk” heretics so much as help us see things historically and objectively before drawing conclusions. She shares numerous anecdotes from her research experiences, including a trip to Israel with my Uncle Benny. Her firsthand experiences are helpful, and the information about the prosperity gospel’s history and expansive influence on churches in America and around the world is overwhelming.

5. The History of New Thought: From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel by John S. Haller Jr.

This is another textbook that traces the lineage of prosperity theology. Haller’s work delves deeply into mystical and metaphysical beliefs and practices throughout history, and provides a clear sketch of New Thought characters like Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, and more. This academically rigorous work is incredibly helpful for the Bible student who wants to know how “name-it-and-claim-it” theology evolved.

Know the Truth

It should be noted that other books on suffering and the sovereignty of God are relevant when reshaping our minds and guarding against prosperity-gospel infiltration. No doubt many other topics need to be rightly understood.

Regardless of your title or vocation, seek to better grasp gospel truth. By knowing and loving the truth, you will strengthen your ability to spot and defy dangerous error.

Real Joy Has an Address

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 12:02am

As a dad, I’m not always pleased when my kids obey me. This is because they need to obey with a glad and sincere heart, and that is not always the case. Any child can muster grudging compliance. I’m longing to see a willing spirit and joyful trust.

The command to be joyful permeates the Scriptures, but it’s a bit strange if you think about it. Joy is an emotion, not a behavior. How can I be told to feel a certain way? What if I want to but just . . . don’t?

Let’s start with something we don’t often think about when it comes to God.

Deep Delights

It may sound somewhat strange, but God is happy. Happier than the happiest person you’ve ever known. His gladness stretches back before the beginning, when infinite joy was contained within a triangle of love. For all of eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three persons—delighted to share the joy of divinity with one another.

So why did the triune God create the universe? Was he lacking something, perhaps compliant creatures to complete him? No. The creation of the world was an explosion of joy—not a filling up, but a spilling out. Consider that for a moment: Not only the astounding natural world, but you and I, created by God, are an overflow of his exceeding joy. In extravagant generosity, the persons of the Trinity decided to share their boundless gladness with the work of their hands.

What does this mini theology lesson have to do with approaching your Bible joyfully? Everything—because that’s the God who exhaled its words, and in whose image you are made.

You were made to be happy in a happy God.

Not an Accessory

Tragically, of course, the “happily ever after” of Genesis 1–2 was short-lived. Now we inhabit a Genesis 3 world, riddled with darkness and dysfunction and death, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. (If you haven’t, keep living.)

Have you ever wondered why the Bible is so lengthy? One reason is because God is so patient. It’s the long story of his longsuffering. And why has he been so patient? Because he loves us, yes. But even more specifically, because he’s been carefully executing a plan—a plan to share his endless joy with his rescued people, a multitude no one can count (Rev. 7:9).

Have you ever wondered why the Bible is so lengthy? One reason is because God is so patient. It’s the long story of his longsuffering.

According to the Bible, joy is not an accessory to the Christian life, a perk for shiny saints who can turn their frowns upside down. Rather, joy is tenacious. It fights. It grips the promises of God and won’t let go. And joy is not a mere good mood; it is ballast in our boats, an anchor in our storms, an immovable rock to stand on when the waves of life threaten to flatten us.

Far from being a peripheral subtheme in Scripture, joy is the heartbeat of God. No wonder it is at the core of his ultimate story and is intended to shape our smaller stories, too. Consider a snapshot of its centrality:

  • What is the gospel? It is “good news that will cause great joy” (Luke 2:10).
  • What is death? “Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:21).
  • What is the goal of prayer? “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24).
  • What is the goal of fellowship? “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).

And what’s the goal of engaging with Scripture? “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight” (Jer. 15:16).

Gladness of heart, Jeremiah discovered, is downstream from the feast. The same is true today. Despite what our culture tells you, real joy is not found in listening to yourself; it’s found in listening intently to God. It’s found when your “delight is in the law of the LORD” (Ps. 1:2), when your happiness is tethered not to circumstances but to promises, when you can’t get enough of your Bible.

Despite what our culture tells you, real joy is not found in listening to yourself; it’s found in listening intently to God.

The New Testament only advances this theme. Here’s how Jesus puts it to his disciples:

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)

And here’s what he prays to his Father:

. . . now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. (John 17:13)

Observe also the words of John:

. . . we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)

Hear the refrain? These things, these things, these things—namely, words. Some spoken (by Jesus), some written (by John), but all the breath of God, and all preserved for us in his Word.

The purpose of the words of Jesus and his apostles—the purpose of your Bible, friend—is to flood your heart with joy.

When Delight Dries Up

I already mentioned that biblical joy is not the same thing as being chipper or maintaining a glass-half-full temperament. Hell is filled with former glass-half-full people. Real joy is so much more, and so much better.

It is the nature of discipline to give way to delight.

One last thing, though, lest you get the impression that Bible reading is an uninterrupted joyfest for me. It’s not. Cracking open God’s Word often feels like a duty, not a delight. It requires discipline. It will for you, too. But as with so much in life—eating healthy, working out, and other wise things I struggle to do—it is the nature of discipline to give way to delight. Not every time, and not all at once. But steadily and increasingly, until the day we see our King face to face and behold him in his beauty—with joy that never ends (Isa. 33:17; 1 Cor. 13:12).

Yes, Bring Commentaries to Bible Study

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 12:00am

Why is Jesus talking about a millstone? How much is a denarius worth? And what in the world is an alabaster bottle of nard?

Reading through the Bible means running into terms like these, unfamiliar to most 21st-century Westerners. We may love the story of the woman washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair in Luke 7. We may also know that Jesus forgave her, though her sins were many. Does it matter that we don’t understand much about the ointment she used on his feet?

For most readers of Scripture, the only way to understand the significance of such terms is to use an extrabiblical reference book, such as a Bible dictionary or commentary. Though we might at first be skeptical about the value of commentaries in Bible study, these books can be divine gifts—resources that help us better grasp God’s Word and better know God himself.

Why Some Avoid Them

Some Christians might be reluctant to use reference materials, particularly if they’ve been taught that true spirituality is separate from the academic world. Commentaries focus on the mind, whereas Bible reading ought to nourish the soul, the thinking goes. Commentaries are stale—irrelevant to my daily life. Some may associate commentaries with seminaries or academic institutions, or consider them only appropriate for educational settings, papers, and PhDs.

Others have been warned that commentaries present a direct danger to their personal Bible study. Naysayers caution Christians that reading the words of others may prevent them from thinking their own thoughts and coming to their own conclusions about Scripture. The vital steps of observing the text and interpreting it for ourselves, they worry, may be missed if we allow others to do it for us.

Why Christians Should Use Them

Because of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, the central message of the Bible can indeed be understood through simply reading the text, with no outside helps. But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from assistance. In fact, instead of preventing beneficial study, good commentaries can protect us from heretical interpretations, correct our personal biases, and help us come to the conclusions God intended when he wrote his Word. When used judiciously, these resources give rich, deep material for the Bible student, leading to informed observation, accurate interpretation, and appropriate personal application.

Good commentaries can protect us from heretical interpretations, correct our personal biases, and help us come to the conclusions God intended when he wrote his Word.

Commentaries also give us windows into the historical context of the people to whom the books were written. Imagine walking outside one night and looking at the moon with your naked eye. You could appreciate its beauty and be amazed by its ability to reflect the light of the sun. But its intricacies—mountains, valleys, incredible impact craters—would be inaccessible to your vision without a telescope. Commentaries act like that telescope, helping you to see more clearly the beautiful features of the text. They explain nuances of language and culture you wouldn’t otherwise know. They help break down barriers between the biblical world and ours.

Yes, we must still do the work of observing and interpreting the text. But with commentaries we can do so in an informed way, with a clearer understanding of the way the first hearers would’ve understood the passage. The Holy Spirit has gifted the church with professors and writers who have spent the better part of their lives studying certain biblical books, poring over the original languages and noticing word play, euphemisms, cultural references, and a host of other textual features. Such writers interact also with the church’s teaching throughout history, bringing the richness of centuries of Bible study to even the newest believer.

The Woman’s Nard: A Case for Commentaries

This brings us back to Luke 7 and the sinful woman’s bottle of nard. Commentaries tell us that this type of bottle was often worn around prostitutes’ necks in Palestine at the time of Jesus. It held expensive perfume, possibly this woman’s entire life savings. By breaking her bottle, the woman may have been indicating a break with her profession as she poured out her affection for Jesus.

Commentaries then explain that the Greek word used to describe the woman’s weeping also describes rain showers in the books of Matthew and James. This woman was not quietly dabbing her eyes. She was sobbing over the Savior’s feet.

A commentary also helps us to see a pattern in the Gospels: Jesus highlights the faith of the forgiven as the means of receiving God’s salvation gift. And this story illustrates one of Luke’s themes: the great reversal. As Christ welcomes the prostitute, he puts his upside-down kingdom on display. In him, the first are last, and the last are first. Without a commentary, we might miss this point.

Finally, commentaries can help us apply such a story to our own lives, reminding our shame-drenched hearts that Jesus is not ashamed of us (Heb. 2:11). Just as he did for the sinful woman, Jesus dignifies us with both words and forgiveness when we come before him, willing to give him all we have and are.

Two Places to Start

Just as you would carefully select a Bible teacher or pastor for orthodoxy and trustworthiness, so you must be deliberate in your use of commentaries.

First, ask your pastor what commentaries he trusts and uses. Ask if you could borrow one of his or buy it yourself to correspond with whatever you happen to be reading and studying in the Bible.

Second, read the Bible passage multiple times. Linger there before you open the commentary. Get a good idea of the story, teaching, or principles. Try to form a few questions—things you don’t understand or ideas you’d like to investigate. Then bring these questions to your commentary. Commentary writers—your brothers and sisters who have labored to understand the Word in a detailed and careful way—will help to clarify the text and encourage you as you read.

Commentaries are a gift to the Bible student—whether you’re a Sunday-school teacher, attorney, janitor, or stay-at-home parent who loves the living Word of God. Don’t be afraid of these resources. Rather, let them be a part of bringing the beauty and majesty of the Lord Jesus into focus as you seek him in his Word.

Does a Remote Worker Have to Put in 40 Hours?

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 12:04am

I’m a remote knowledge worker with a full-time job and three young children. I’ve been super conscientious about putting in 40 hours each week, but the other day my friend (who’s in much the same situation) told me her schedule. I was surprised to learn she does not put in 40 hours a week, but I know she is quite productive and does good work. Am I old-fashioned to think that full-time means exactly 40 hours? Am I cheating my employer if I put in less time? What constitutes full-time for a remote knowledge worker these days, anyway?

Now that’s what I call a tricky question! I’m old (and old-fashioned) enough to remember how the 40-hour workweek used to be pounded into us as a basic ethical imperative. We were told: if you take a paycheck, you owe your employer 40 good hours of work.

You don’t hear much of that nowadays, do you? Where did all that moral certitude come from?

Where Scripture Speaks

Scripture is clear that we need to be just in the earning and paying of wages. It does not, however, lay out specific content for the employment agreement—how much money for how much work. We see this freedom in action, for example, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The employer uses his freedom to pay some of the workers more than he could have gotten away with if he chose to be tightfisted. Other workers complain this is unfair—if some people get more than they’re entitled to, everyone should. The employer’s rebuke to their resentful envy, while couched in friendly language, is crushing:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? (Matt. 20:13–15)

Of course, Jesus is telling the parable to make a point about the kingdom of God. But the parable nonetheless entails a lesson about economic ethics. If Jesus tells us God is like an employer who uses the freedom to set terms inherent in contract negotiations (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”) as an opportunity to show generosity, this implies the freedom to set terms really is inherent in contract negotiations.

Such freedom is necessary for the gospel to go forward in every cultural context. God designed the church to follow Jesus faithfully in every time and place, from first-century Rome to eighth-century China to 14th-century France to 21st-century Malawi. You can’t impose a single set of wage and price controls across all those economies. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of terms for what constitutes a fair exchange of work and wages, beyond the overarching rules of honest negotiations, agape goodwill for each other, and structural justice.

Historical Context

The 40-hour workweek was the result of a social movement protesting the long hours of factory work in Britain and America during the Industrial Revolution. The stern moral admonitions—you’d better work your 40 hours for your paycheck—were part of an implicit grand social bargain. In effect, employers agreed to shorten the week to 40 hours, and in return, workers agreed to adopt a firm 40-hour work ethic rather than pocketing the employers’ concessions and immediately demanding a further shortening of the week.

If the workweek can legitimately be shortened to 40 hours, obviously it can legitimately be shortened again—at least for those able to deliver a valuable work product to a willing employer in fewer hours. In other words, if we fuddy-duddies condemn today’s whippersnappers for not living up to the standards we were taught, what’s to stop the 19th-century fuddy-duddies from rising up and condemning us as whippersnappers for failing to live up to the even stricter standards they were taught?

There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of terms for what constitutes a fair exchange of work and wages, beyond the overarching rules of honest negotiations, agape goodwill for each other, and structural justice.

Before we conclude that cultural contextualization destroys all ethical boundaries, however, let’s see what limits Scripture might justify.

Clear Expectations

Rather than setting rules for the amount and price of labor, the Bible focuses on prohibiting employers and employees from cheating or coercing one another. Kings and other big shots must not use their power to pressure people to “agree” to terms they don’t really accept (Ex. 5:6–11). And when employers and employees reach an agreement about how much work will be done for how much money, they both had better deliver whatever they promised—on time, in full, no shenanigans (Prov. 12:24; 19:1; 20:23).

One reason cultures often set up artificial and even arbitrary rules, like a 40-hour workweek, is to prevent coercion and shenanigans. Note that in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20), employer and employees are all familiar with the standard wage of a denarius per day. They don’t have to negotiate a new contract every day; there’s a cultural rule for what’s expected, and if you want to set the rate anywhere else you have to be explicit up front.

It seems clear that the 40-hour rule no longer serves us well in the emerging context of the gig economy. But that makes it all the more incumbent on us to make sure employers and employees communicate expectations clearly.

It seems clear that the 40-hour rule no longer serves us well in the emerging context of the gig economy. But that makes it all the more incumbent on us to make sure employers and employees communicate expectations clearly.

It sounds to me like you may not have clarity with your own employer about the terms of your employment. Is the agreement “we will pay you X for work product Y,” or are you a more traditional salaried employee working under the old assumption of a 40-hour week? If you don’t know, you ought to, and so should your employer.

You may even need to renegotiate your employment terms, if some other arrangement would accomplish the best reconciliation of your legitimate interests with your employer’s. Consider asking others in your line of work for advice. If you bargain in good faith and with goodwill, there’s no reason you shouldn’t emulate the shrewd economic savvy of the Proverbs 31 woman. She is careful to deliver a high-quality work product at a fair price (Prov. 31:31), but she also makes sure she gets a good deal, since she’s providing for the needs of her household (Prov. 31:18). A godly negotiation is about finding the win-win scenario that works for everyone.

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