Would you vote for a political candidate who is an atheist? Would you vote for one who is Muslim? What about if they are gay or lesbian?
A recent poll by Gallup finds that most Americans will vote for a presidential candidate who is atheist (60 percent), a Muslim (66 percent), or gay/lesbian (76 percent). They’ll even vote for an evangelical (88 percent). The only group that can’t seem to garner a majority of support is socialists (47 percent).
Would the percentages change if the candidate also claimed to be a Christian? Obviously, someone who said they were both Christian and an atheist or Muslim would be confused about what they believed. And many Christians would say you cannot—or at least should not—identify as both gay and Christian.
Yet there is another category that is as incompatible with Christianity as being gay, an atheist, or a Muslim—being a habitual liar.God Hates Lying. We Should Too.
God has made his attitude about lying clear throughout the Bible. Here are but a few examples:
Leviticus 19:11 — “‘Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.”
Psalm 119:163 — “I hate and detest falsehood.”
Proverbs 12:22 —“The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.”
Proverbs 13:5 — “The righteous hate what is false.”
Colossians 3:9 — “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.”
Non-believers should never be able to say that Christians are liars, that we are deceptive people, or that we are oath-breakers. This should be a basic standard for all Christians.
Most Christians, of course, would nod in agreement. We’s say we’re committed to the truth and to being truth-tellers. So why they aren’t we consistent about it when it comes to politics?
Imagine you go to a car mechanic who says she’s a fellow Christian. You hire her to change the brakes on your car but find out she lied to you—she never replaced the faulty brakes with new ones. You later find out she does this all the time, and that she has a reputation for lying. Would you hire her to fix your car again? Would you trust the safety of your family to her work?
Or imagine you tell a Christian baker your child is allergic to peanuts and they lie to you about their bread not having peanuts when it does. Or imagine you go to a Christian doctor for surgery and they lied about the procedure they performed. Imagine just about any occupation where someone tells you they are a fellow Christian, they repeatedly lie to your face, and yet you continue to trust them to do their job.
Can you think of any jobs like that? I can think of only one: the vocation of politician.God Doesn’t Give Political Exemptions
What do we do when we hear a politician tell us they are a follower of Christ and yet they also repeatedly lie to us? Most of the time we just shrug. Politicians—even Christian politicians—are dishonest. Lying is part of their job, isn’t it? What are you gonna do?
The Bible is clear about what we should do. If someone claims to be a Christian then you hold them to the same standard you do all other Christians. You should do to the Christian politician who lies to you what you’d do to the mechanic and the baker and the doctor who lied to you. You don’t use their services. You don’t support them. You don’t give them your trust.
Does that mean you shouldn’t vote for a Christian politician that habitually lies?
To answer that question we should ask ourselves: Does it promote the common good to elect politicians who habitually lie? Does it bring dishonor to the name of Jesus to elect people who habitually lie and yet claim to be citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
You can search all of Scripture and you won’t find an exemption for Christian politicians when it comes to lying. In fact, there is not a single principle, rule, law, or command in the Bible that is applicable to Christians for which Christian politicians get a pass. There is no verse that says just because a Christian is running for a secular office that they are exempt from the ethical standards of being a disciple.
God expects all Christians—including politicians who claim to be Christians—to follow the standard he’s set before us in his Word. His standard is clear as Scripture tells us that habitual liars will be consigned to hell (Rev. 21:8). Why then do we give politicians a special exemption to sin? Why do we encourage or overlook behavior that threatens their soul with damnation? There are two primary reasons.
The first reason is that our approach to politics is more frequently more shaped by Machiavellianism than by Christ. Is the political party I support dishonest? Well, the other party is worse. Does the politician I support lack integrity? Well, the other candidate is bad too. Head down that path and you’ll find you can justify anything. What started as a commitment to promoting the good soon becomes an exercise in the ends justifying the means.
The second reason is that we have a naïve view of “realism.” We think that when it comes to politics there are certain realities—such as they politicians lie—we have to accept. But that isn’t realism; it’s mere pretext. The God who created all of reality determines what is “realistic.” If he says those who follow him should not lie, then that is the only reality we should accept.
When it comes to politics, Christians in America have become adept at making excuses for why they can overlook what God forbids. We seem to take solace in the idea that since other Americans—including other Christians—are doing it too that God will give us a pass. He will not.Pledge Allegiance to the King
If a politician claims to be a follower of Christ then they are to be judged by the same standard that we judge all Christians. If they sin, we lovingly rebuke them. If they confess, we forgive. If they repent, we seek restoration. But if we’re committed to following Christ we won’t overlook their sin, even if it advances our preferred political causes.
To believe in Jesus—to really believe, not just give some mental assent to the idea of Jesus—requires taking up our cross and following him. At worst it means we may have to suffer and die because of our commitment to King Jesus. At best it means that we have to be out of sync with the rest of society and doing things that make other people—including our fellow political partisans—despise us.
If our first and true allegiance is to King Jesus, then we should be more concerned when his name is being sullied by the actions of his followers. And if we’re more concerned about politics than we are about the reputation of Jesus then we have our priorities in disorder. We should prefer to see our political institutions crumble and our nation reduced to ashes rather than do that which brings shame to our King. It’d better for us to lose elections than to overlook behavior that could cause someone to lose their soul.
Have you ever wondered what it would’ve been like to plant a church in 16th-century Geneva? Imagine starting a new church at the center of what’s come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. At the very least, it would’ve been nice to talk with John Calvin (and others) about life and pastoral ministry.
Even 500 years later, there’s still much we can learn from Calvin and his compatriots that’s applicable to our ministry today. This is why I’m thankful that a friend encouraged me to read Calvin’s Company of Pastors at the end of 2018.Calvin’s Legacy
Calvin’s legacy is due—in large part—not simply to his writings, but also his gathering a “company” of other ministers around him. As he did this, he established institutions, practices, and structures that would positively affect people for centuries.
Calvin’s Company of Pastors gives church planters a fascinating and insightful window into the practices of 16th-century Genevan church ministry. And as I’ve discovered, there’s surprising contemporary relevance for us as we seek to faithfully plant healthy churches.
Church-planting pastors will find Calvin’s work relevant in any ministry season. Here are four.1. When we feel isolated
In modern-day Western culture, the self rules. And this reality no doubt shapes our understanding and experience of the Christian life and, therefore, pastoral ministry. This—among other things—can cause church planters to feel isolated, frustrated, and burned out. In the worst cases, it can lead to leaving the ministry altogether.
As I read about Calvin’s ministry, one thing that struck me is how he sought to actively foster a city-wide ministry mentality in Geneva. He consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
Calvin consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
For example, Calvin organized a weekly Friday-morning gathering where local pastors would listen to and critique an exegetical talk. They would then spend the remainder of the morning praying together and encouraging one another to press on in their respective ministries. It’s evident Calvin understood the deep need for mutual encouragement and support in pastoral ministry.
So I’ve had to ask myself: Am I more concerned with building my own ministry than I am about God being glorified through all the local churches in my city? Are there ways I could help to foster a generous city-wide vision in my context? I’ve tried to intentionally schedule time with other local pastors, get to know them, their churches, and actively look for ways to bless and encourage them.2. When we’re distracted by the latest ministerial ‘silver-bullet’
Central to all that took place in the Protestant Reformation was an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. This was evident in the expositional preaching, public prayers, and numerous writings. Additionally, Genevan pastors—under Calvin’s influence—sought to visit every household under their care each year—with the aim of knowing their sheep well and privately opening up the Word with each of them.
So again, I’ve had to ask: Is there a danger—especially for those of us involved in church planting—that we’ve lost our confidence in the power of God’s Word? Do we too heavily rely on other (good) things such as leadership, personality, organizational skills, or even flashy websites and flyers?3. When we’re feeling entitled and struggling with ministry hardship
Church planting, like any other Christian ministry, is not easy. But even a cursory read of Calvin’s work reveals that pastoral life in Geneva was certainly no walk in the park. And in Calvin’s Company of Pastors, readers will discover the messy truths of ministry life among a band of pastors who were fully integrated into the life of the city and countryside.
The reformers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
Personal struggles included substandard housing, a lack of finances, family and marital struggles, unpleasant and unkind church members, complicated church discipline issues, the reality of death and mortality (especially in childbirth), political strife, as well as persecution from unbelievers. In short, we can see that these brothers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
This has forced me to ask: In an entitled world that increasingly expects comfort, how can we better prepare ourselves for the reality of suffering as we follow in the footsteps of Christ? How can we grow in long-term personal resilience? How can we support and encourage each other to keep going past the initial three-year stint?4. When we’re only putting out fires and not planning for the long-term
Our culture is increasingly frenetic and fast-paced. Of course, we know in theory that planting a church is more like a marathon than a sprint (though many of us are still sprinting!).
One of the helpful challenges from Calvin’s example is the importance of strategic forward-thinking. It’s clear that Calvin sought to establish firm foundations that would enable and catalyze long-term gospel progress. For example, Calvin and his team set up a seminary and employed modern technology (in the form of publishing) that enabled pastors to be trained long after Calvin was gone.
So I’ve had to consider: Do we have a long-term vision? Or are we too short-sighted and focused on the treadmill of week-by-week ministry that we can’t take a step back and plan projects or structures to help enable growth and long-term fruit? Partly as a result, I’ve reinstated a much needed retreat day—wherein, once every six weeks, I get away to pray and consider longer-term plans and priorities.
When it comes to facing the challenges of today, may we listen to and learn from the saints who have gone before us.
A few years ago, I was meeting with a family on a Sunday morning to prepare for a baptism. The entire family—parents, children, and a few extended family members—gathered in my office. I introduced myself, led the family in prayer, then explained how we’d do the baptism. After we’d discussed everything, I asked if anyone had any questions.
Grandma raised her hand and asked: “So, when is the pastor coming?” She figured there was no possible way I could be the pastor; I was too young.
I’d like to say her question didn’t bother me, but that’s not entirely true. At the very least, I haven’t forgotten that interaction. It caused me to question my validity and ability as a young pastor. Am I too young for this? Am I fully prepared to do all that is required of me in the pastoral ministry? Do I possess any substantive wisdom if I have no gray hair and only two of my four wisdom teeth have come through?Keep Everything the Same
Young pastors sometimes encounter a strange form of ageism. People gaze at them with a curious mix of suspicion and hesitancy, intrigue and hopeful excitement.
This ageism, however, has benefits. Some expect that you have fresh ideas for engaging people in great ways. People think we possess some sort of cheat codes for ministry success known only to the secret society of young pastors: press up, down, left, right in succession to unlock hidden evangelism tools. The assumption is that we, by virtue of our age, have proprietary information about church revitalization we learned in seminary.
Pastors younger than 40 often serve churches with split expectations. Congregations and parishioners, denominations and institutions have charged young clergy with a dual task: stay the course and fix the church.
Young pastors are expected to preserve the past. Many people want them to continue with the time-honored conventions of Christendom. There is a well-defined image many people have for how a pastor is supposed to look and act. In most cases, this image of a pastor is derived far more from tradition than Scripture. Young pastors are expected to maintain the paradigms and practices of the past; just look, act, and think like the pastors before you and nobody will get hurt.But Change Everything
In addition to preserving the past, young pastors are expected to revitalize the church. People often heap all kinds of hopeful words onto young pastors: “We love the energy you bring!” Or: “It’s so nice having a young family around. . . . You can help us engage the millennial generation.” These compliments, while certainly genuine, reveal a subtle restlessness within the pews. Many congregations long for energy, vibrancy, and youthfulness because they are utterly lacking in energy, vibrancy, and youthfulness.
Congregations want new leaders with new perspectives. And they want old leaders maintaining old routines. Sifting through these split expectations is challenging. As young pastors, we often end up overemphasizing one of these at the expense of the other.
Many young pastors have an impossible task: stay the course and fix the church.
We sometimes follow the age-old conventions and patterns set by previous pastors so closely that we never consider new perspectives or paradigms: This is how it was done before me, so this is how I am going to do it now. This is the safer pole to move toward. If the previous pastors led the congregation reasonably well and didn’t blow everything up, then most people will be quietly content if you just keep everything the same.
We sometimes accept the invitation to repair the church and utterly neglect anything that came before us: Everything that has been done before is broken and needs to be completely reinvented. This is clearly the more exhilarating pole to move toward. It allows young pastors to embark on new adventures, try new things, and see what new fruit comes from it all. And it often results in a mess of new mistakes, new enemies, new problems, and needing to find a new job.
I’m in the no-man’s land between being a young and a not-so-young pastor. I graduated from seminary seven years ago and have been serving the same congregation ever since. I still get jokes about being a peach-fuzzed pastor; they’re far less frequent, though, than when I first began.
As I reflect on my time as a young pastor, here are three lines of encouragement I’d give young pastors.1. Seek Wisdom
You don’t know it all. You will never know it all. Accurately assessing your own limited knowledge and gifts is essential to survival. Seek wisdom from God’s Word. Learn from the truths of Scripture. And seek wisdom from godly people who are older than you. This includes wise pastors and wise laypeople. These individuals have wrestled wisdom out of life. Rely on them. Listen to them: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).2. Have Courage
Recognizing your limited experience and need for wisdom is important. But it’s also important to have courage. Despite your lack of liver spots, have the courage to lead God’s people. If they have called you to be pastor, then be their pastor regardless of your age or inexperience. Be bold and brave in your pastoral leadership. Your age doesn’t disqualify you from leading the saints of God. “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).3. Guard the Gospel
Timothy, a young pastor serving the early church in Ephesus, was charged with a clear task and purpose for ministry: “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20–21).
Preach Christ crucified. Proclaim the gospel. Set an example in faith and love. Trust in God’s power. It’s true for old pastors; it’s true for young pastors; it’s true for all pastors.Difficult, but Doable
Being a pastor is hard work. It can be even harder when you can’t grow a beard and people constantly confuse you with a student in the youth group.
Yet these struggles need not boondoggle your ministry. It’s possible to minister with maturity and wisdom—even as a young pastor.
The following quotes caught my attention as I (Ivan Mesa) read Tony Reinke’s fantastic new book, Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in a Media Age (Crossway, 2019).
Visual images awaken the motives in our hearts. Images tug the strings of our actions. Images want our celebration, our awe, our affection, our time, and our outrage. Images invoke our consensus, our approval, our buy-in, our respreading power, and our wallets. . . . Why do we seek spectacles? Because we’re human—hardwired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory. (17–18)
We are creatures shaped by what grabs our attention—and what we give our attention to becomes our objective and subjective reality. . . . We attend to what interests us. We become like what we watch. (19)
As we watch others watching us, we get caught up in the energy of becoming the star. We become spectators of our digital selves. . . . We become actors before our own phones and the phones of our friends. We modify our self and filter our appearance. And then we become spectators of ourselves, because “each selfie is a performance of a person as they hope to be seen by others.” As blobs, we seek an identity projection that others will celebrate. Our camera-ready culture has changed us. . . . Image is everything, and social media is where we craft the spectacle of ourselves. . . . Our digital self is now editable by endless filters and lenses and bitmojis—a unique plasticity for self- sculpting offered to no other generation in human history. (23–24)
In the tele-visual age, our eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth in godlike omniscience, with endless options offered to us in our handheld phones. (32)
Whenever video technology advances, the pornographer’s profits spike. . . . With an endless buffet of digital pornography for the spectacle-seeking eyes, sexual lust today becomes chains of addiction that cannot be broken, apart from resolute resistance and supernatural power. The proverbial king on his rooftop, with unchecked lure of lustful eyes, has become every man and woman with a moment of leisure and the unchecked curiosity for new pornography. The web offers ten thousand bodies, ready to digitally perform, a harem of Solomonic proportion (times ten!). . . . The smutty pornographer, the risqué ad man, and the naive woman each wield wattage of lust-awakening power with charged fallout that none of them fully understand—grabbing eyes and attention, yes, while also hardening hearts, eroding marriages, objectifying the female body, and impeding the private sanctuary of sexuality necessary for marriages in any culture to endure and thrive. (60, 61–62)
Into the spectacle-loving world, with all of its spectacle makers and spectacle-making industries, came the grandest Spectacle ever devised in the mind of God and brought about in world history—the cross of Christ. It is the hinge of history, the point of contact between BC and AD, where all time collides, where all human spectacles meet one unsurpassed, cosmic, divine spectacle. . . . The supreme spectacle of the cross brings a cosmic collision with the spectacles of this world. And we’re in the middle. I have now been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to me. Our response to the ultimate spectacle of the cross of Christ defines us. (77, 79–80)
Christ risen up at Calvary marked the pinnacle spectacle for which all other spectacles in world history will never reach, the preeminent spectacle of divine life and divine love, freely offered to the gawking world. . . . [The] wrath-bearing burden of Christ, invisible to the naked eye, is the truest Spectacle within the Spectacle, a climactic moment in triune history when the full cup of God’s wrath was handed to the precious Son to drink down to the dregs. (80–81)
[T]he cross is the pedagogy of faith, not of sight. At Calvary, “Satan triumphed visibly, but Christ triumphed invisibly.” This is why Bible movies and cinematic recreations of the cross add nothing to the spectacle of the cross and too often take away from it, leaving us with graphic imagery of a man’s defeat and physical torture but deflating the spectacle of its most striking glories—unable to depict for the screen Christ’s divinity or his unique work as atoning priest, wrath-bearing Savior, Passover lamb, crushed servant, Serpent smasher, cosmic warrior, forerunner of the second exodus, and alpha of the new creation. (84–85)
The crucifixion may have looked like a horrific spectacle of a defrocked king, mocked as a powerless and kingdomless fraud. But the true spectacle of the cross and resurrection was a three-day conquest march of Satan and all his powers, a triumphal procession far beyond the scope of anything Rome had ever seen. The cross was not Christ’s defeat but his triumph, his march of victory. (87)
The Christian’s great problem is not Hollywood or Bollywood; it’s the unchecked earthly desires that operate within our fallen selves. The earthly spectacles of lust and material greed feed the earthly desires inside us. The spectacle of the cross is an earthquake that reverberates through our lives and breaks the chains of our earthly spectacle addictions. (89)
The world watches the slandered church as something of a vain curiosity, but in reality the church is a spectacle of her own—a large cast collectively playing the starring role as bride in the human drama for which all of creation was made as a theater to display. (102)
We should watch with awe, but we must never watch naively. The Creator has carved out in every human soul a vast interior room for Christ’s ravishing glory, and we fill this storehouse with worthless trinkets like a hoarder. Every spectacle of human glory attracts glory seekers who are God rejecters, who find in entertainment a spectacle that drives their self-crafting and their self-ambition. The world’s spectacle industry is potent with allurements that can mesmerize the eyes and lead the heart toward a toxic and soul-destroying grasp for fame and wealth. (111)
Idols are forbidden because idols always demand something from us. . . . The expanse of our soul’s cavernous appetite is opened and entered by new images and spectacles that grab our hearts. The human heart bends toward what the eye sees. Today’s image makers fling into the world digital spectacles of sex, wealth, power, and popularity. Those images get inside us, shape us, and form our lives in ways that compete with God’s design for our focus and worship. (118)
Feeding on sinful media will annul your holy affections. Yes. But pampering yourself with a glut of morally neutral media also pillages your affectional zeal. Each of us must learn to preserve higher pleasures by revolting against lesser indulgences. (122)
Overconsuming on amusement drains our soul’s vigor. Just as my time is a zero-sum game, so is my “spiritual energy”—my affections and my bandwidth for awe. (123)
With so much media in our lives, we are perpetually moved by one spectacle, then another, then another. What was maybe once too shockingly immodest, or too intense for the eyes, is now made tolerable in the age of hyper-expiring spectacles. Images come and go in a sensation shower that washes over us. What’s the problem, we might ask? It’s all so cheap. So fleeting. Nothing shocks us. A new module of lust or gore hits and then disappears. We don’t need spectacles to last beyond the shocking thrill. We don’t ask them to linger. New spectacles are surely headed our way already. . . . [W]hen we ignore a spectacle, we unplug its power. Digital spectacles share this trait with ancient handheld figurines of wood and silver. In themselves, they are powerless objects, void of meaning—until their worshipers invest them with redemptive hope, at which point they animate into an idol with demonic potency behind them and divine condemnation against them. (125–26)
[I]n a culture where relevance is measured by timely spectacle consumption, the spectacle of Christ’s death has severed forever our bondage to the world’s spectacle industry, this premier bondage of Satan. . . . While Christ is the supreme Spectacle, and we find a lifetime of his glory to be discovered in Scripture, he’s not the only divine spectacle. The local church is where we go to find the Lord’s Table and baptism and the preaching of the Word, where those repeated spectacles call us again and again for a response of worship and repentance and joy. And we should put ourselves often before God’s spectacles in creation. Creation spectacles also demand a response, for our worship and awe and gratitude to the Creator in the face of his awesome power and majesty. (133, 137)
We are called to recognize what is worthless and develop personal disciplines to resist the impulse to fill our lives with vain spectacles. In sum, all my concerns are dwarfed by this one: boredom with Christ. In the digital age, monotony with Christ is the chief warning signal to alert us that the spectacles of this world are suffocating our hearts from the supreme Spectacle of the universe. . . . [S]pectacles taken in unwisely will make our hearts cold, sluggish, and dull to unseen eternal delights. (143)
The Christian’s high calling is to guard the heart and its loves and desires. The worst trade in the universe is playing in the shallow pools of the world’s spectacles instead of diving deep for the treasure of eternal worth. . . . The Christian’s battle in this media age can be won only by the expulsive power of a superior Spectacle. Christ is our safety and our guide in the age of competing spectacles, the age of social media. He is our only hope in life and death, in the age to come, and in this media age. (145)
When we turn our attention to Christ—our ultimate Spectacle—all the flickering pixels of our culture’s worthless things and beloved idols grow strangely dim. Looking past the scintillating sights that consume this ocularcentric world, we hope for the Spectacle that we now can only see in glances and glimmers but one day will see in the splendor of his fully transfigured form, in full sight before our eyes. (154)
If a person went to church every Sunday from the age of 25 to age 65, they would spend around 3,000 hours gathered with the body of Christ. If the same person worked full-time during that span, they would put in around 80,000 work hours. My point? It is the workplace, not the sanctuary, where most Christians live out their faith. If God’s reign shapes all of life, then it must shape one’s view of work.
How does faith in Christ inform our work? Many people immediately think of sharing the gospel in the office or making loads of money to give to ministry and missions. While neither of those is wrong—in fact, they’re vital—a kingdom vision of God’s reign over all of life instills our work with even greater meaning and motivation.God at Work in Our Work
Many people think of God’s work in the world solely in terms of spiritual salvation. And while spiritual salvation is paramount, the biblical vision of the kingdom of God is not just about plucking souls from a fallen creation; it is about God saving people in his renewal of creation. God is constantly at work in sustaining and serving the world, and he does much of his work through us, often working through our work.
The Bible says the Lord “gives food to every creature” (Ps. 136:25, NIV). But how does he feed them? God doesn’t snap his fingers and make food appear on a plate. Rather, he feeds people through the farmer, the truck driver, the grocer, the cook, and the server. As Martin Luther said, “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting, but he does not want to do so.” God provides through the vocations of people. He is milking the cow through the vocation of the milkmaid, as Luther argued.God Cares about All Work
This means that all types of work matter in the kingdom of God. Jesus is working through the vocations of his people, who are salt and light in the industries where the Lord has placed them, witnessing in the way they do their work to a better kingdom. That’s why in Scripture many of God’s people have vocations that would be considered “secular” today. Joseph was in politics, Daniel was a student, Boaz was a businessman, Nehemiah was a city planner, Lydia was a designer, and Jesus was a carpenter.
According to Amy Sherman, God is at work in the world in a variety of ways, and the myriad of human vocations give expression to the different aspects of God’s work. How do we discover our individual callings within this holistic vision of work? A good place to start is by pondering the words of Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (There is more to a biblical call, of course, but that’s a start.) Whatever you do, whether as a pastor or a painter, do it for the glory and pleasure of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23).Excellence in Character and Craft
One way to avoid the sacred/secular divide is to remember that “Christian” works better as a noun than as an adjective. For example, there is no such thing as “Christian coffee,” even if it’s served in a café called Grounded in Christ or Bean Redeemed. There are Christians, and some of them make good coffee and some make terrible coffee. The same is true for filmmakers, musicians, nurses, dentists, and almost any vocation you can consider. If you have put your faith in Christ, you are a Christian, and you are called to steward whatever the Lord has entrusted to you vocationally, whether a scalpel or an electric guitar. Pursue excellence in your character and your craft.
There is no such thing as ‘Christian coffee,’ even if it’s served in a café called Grounded in Christ or Bean Redeemed. There are Christians, and some of them make good coffee and some make terrible coffee.
When our work is understood within the story of the kingdom, people will want to be lawyers because they care about justice and not social status, doctors because they care about health and not wealth, businesspersons because they care about people and not profit, and artists because they value beauty and not celebrity.
For many people today, work is a way of building our own kingdom and making a name for ourselves. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from looking to our work as a way of justifying ourselves, and allows us to see work for what it was meant to be: a calling from God to use our gifts and abilities to serve others for his name’s sake.
Speaking, preaching, and writing for publication can be a spiritual tightrope. On the one hand we’re told as Christians not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and on the other we’re told that as writers and speakers we should talk about ourselves so that audiences can identify with us. By being vulnerable we can draw in readers and listeners, and so help them benefit from our life and work.
John Stott—well-known London pastor, writer, and speaker who died in 2011—was famously reluctant to say anything about himself. Though his books sold millions and he spoke to thousands all over the world, he almost never said anything about his own life. Stott navigated the tightrope by simply getting off it. He remained staunchly Bible-focused.
That is clearly one valid way to resolve the issue. Yet we can benefit greatly from writing and speaking directly about ourselves, telling stories about ourselves. Doing so can be an exercise in remembering. And when we remember, we have an opportunity for confession and for thanksgiving to God.
If we do decide to write or speak directly about ourselves, how can we be sure we don’t fall into self-absorption? Perhaps we can gain some clues from one of the most famous instances of a Christian writing about himself. In fact, his book essentially created the whole genre of spiritual memoir more than 1,500 years ago. I’m talking, of course, about Augustine and his Confessions.
Augustine, the great African theologian and churchman, lived from AD 354 to 430. He migrated to Italy, where he converted to Christianity. He then returned to Africa and became bishop of Hippo (present-day Algeria). He was a prolific writer. Other than the Confessions, his book The City of God is probably his best-known volume.
Confessions chronicles his life from his earliest days (even offering reflections on what was possibly going on in him while still in his mother’s womb!) into early adulthood. He does not systematically tell us everything about himself but instead focuses on his moral and intellectual development as they relate to and culminate in his conversion to Christianity at age 31. For me, several aspects stand out about how Augustine exercised the spiritual discipline of gaining perspective, even while focusing on himself.1. Confesses His Sins and His Faith
The book is called Confessions for good reason. Augustine confesses to God in two ways. One, obviously, is by confessing his sin. He notes his propensity for stealing, gluttony, and cheating as a child and a teen along with his strong sexual urges. He confesses disobeying parents and teachers, as well as his thirst for the praise of others.
He also admits his narrow, inadequate intellectual efforts. He evaluated some of his previous thinking this way: “I didn’t yet see that the pivot of such an important matter is in your artistry, All-Powerful One, since on your own you make wonders” (97–98). He couldn’t really understand the fullness of beauty or reality if God was not in the picture—especially if he didn’t see that God was the artist who painted the picture.
In addition he doesn’t just mention sins he’s already conquered but is honest enough to discuss those he still struggles with. “Actual drunkenness is a far cry from my life; you will be merciful and keep it from coming anywhere near me,” he tells his Master. “But sometimes too much drinking creeps up on your slave; you’ll be merciful in putting that, too, at a great distance from me” (318).
Yes, this is Saint Augustine. He doesn’t claim drinking any alcohol is wrong, but he knows what too much is (as do the rest of us) and acknowledges his dependence on God for the fruit of the Spirit of self-control when it comes to the fruit of the vine. Augustine’s honesty calls me to ask, Am I being honest about myself as I write?
Augustine doesn’t just confess his faults, however. He makes a confession of faith. He confesses God’s mercy, grace, generosity, wisdom, and more. Thus he balances his weaknesses with God’s greatness. He is asking himself, Where do I see God’s hand in this episode, this story? What do I learn about God and his world as a result? What can I praise him for? The answers to these questions may or may not work their way into our writing. But asking and answering them should work their way into our lives.2. Uses Self-Deprecating Humor
Augustine puts himself in perspective by using self-deprecating humor. Famously he says that before his conversion he had prayed to God, “Give me chastity and self-restraint, but don’t do it just yet” (318). Learning to laugh at ourselves is one of the healthiest spiritual exercises we can engage in. When we take ourselves too seriously, we’re more prone to be offended by others, to let ourselves get in the way of what God is up to.
Learning to laugh at ourselves is one of the healthiest spiritual exercises we can engage in.
Making myself the butt of my own jokes is good for my spiritual and psychological health. It also has the advantage of reducing the distance between me and my audience. I’m not an authority seated high above them but one of them, on a journey like them, trying to make some sense out of life. We are alike.3. Honors Other People
Augustine makes sure he isn’t always the hero of his own story. His mother, Monica, stands out. She is tenacious in prayer and even follows him from Africa to Milan after he left town on a ship, keeping his plans hidden from her. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, is another major influence who helped him begin to see there was some sense in Christianity after all.
We don’t have to be the one with the new insight, the new strategy, the initiative that helped people. When we learn something from others or see their good deeds, we should be quick to give credit.4. Submits to Scripture
Augustine puts himself in perspective by putting himself under the authority of Scripture. Though Augustine occasionally references passages explicitly, he regularly alludes to the Bible without directly quoting, usually once, twice, or three times a paragraph. Footnotes in modern translations show this clearly. His mind was saturated with the language, the stories, and the teaching of the Bible.
He also overtly submits himself to Scripture. When talking about the authority God has given humans to judge, he offers this exception:
It doesn’t apply to your book [the Bible] itself. . . . Thus, a person, though he’s already of the Spirit and renewed by the recognition of God according to the image of the one who created him, ought to be a doer of the law, and not a judge of it. (462)
To achieve perspective in this way, we need to read the Bible regularly and widely. But we also need to study it in a way that shows respect for it. Too often we atomize the text, pulling out isolated verses here and there and smashing them together as seems right to us. The Bible, however, is not a book of timeless truths or the “Sayings of Chairman God.” Instead of putting ourselves in charge of how Scripture is organized, we let the Bible itself guide our study. We do this by emphasizing the study of whole books of the Bible, trying to discern what the author was aiming to get across in the entire book, not just in pieces.
When we learn something from others or see their good deeds, we should be quick to give credit.
In a dramatic shift, Augustine spends the last three of his 13 chapters not by talking about himself but by offering a thorough and deep reflection on an extended passage—the first chapter of Genesis. He analyzes it as a whole. Yes, he is a man of his times and often resorts to an allegorical reading that I wouldn’t generally encourage. Nonetheless, he shows his intent to have his mind and heart fully shaped by God’s Word taken as a whole.5. Sees the Grander Story
This shift from his own story to Genesis can seem odd. Why, after spending 300 pages on himself, does he switch in the last 100 pages to the beginning of Genesis? It seems like he has started an entirely different book.
In doing this, however, Augustine puts himself in perspective—by setting his story in the context of a larger story. His story is not the main event. It is one piece of a majestic cosmic narrative of God and his works. This gives Augustine’s story and mine a sense both of proportion and of significance. My story is only part of a larger whole, so I do not take too much credit. But, oh, how magnificent is that story—from creation to consummation, from promise to fulfillment, from death to life—and I am a part of it!6. Writes to God
The final way Augustine helps us is by his example of addressing the entire book to God. He writes to an audience of One.
Doing this makes sure he continually redirects his focus away from himself to God. It gives him perspective on his life, reminding him that he is not the primary character in the story of his life. Rather, God is. He credits God, for example, with giving him the ideas that expose the errors of the Manichaeans, saying, “It’s you, truthful God, who repudiate these people, proving them wrong, and find them at fault” (230). Augustine then proceeds to lay out an argument on why they are wrong. Obviously, these are Augustine’s arguments, but he acknowledges God as their source.
The spiritual discipline of perspective. That is the gift Augustine offers those of us who talk about ourselves.
All the while, Augustine is clearly aware other people will be reading the book. He asks:
To whom am I telling the story? It isn’t of course to you, my God, but in your presence I’m telling it to my race, the human race, however minute a snippet of that might stumble on my writing, such as it is. And what’s the story’s purpose? Obviously, it’s so that I and whoever reads this can contemplate from what depths we must cry out to you. (37–38)
Augustine wrote the Confessions about a dozen years after becoming a Christian and just a few years after becoming a bishop. As a result, a significant part of his purpose seems to be pastoral. He wants to offer a model, one way in which someone might become a Christian, whether the struggle was moral, intellectual, or both. He wants to show a way that seekers in Hippo and elsewhere might come to know and love the Lord he has come to know and love. What God has given him, he offers back to God.
We don’t have to write a whole book addressed to God to practice the spiritual discipline of perspective. But we can still ask, Where did my ideas come from? Who gave me this facility with words? Who was the main actor in my life as I experienced success or failure? What am I learning about God even as I tell my own story? Such a focus takes the pressure off me. I can worry less about how many listeners I get or if they will be pleased with my message. I can instead concentrate on whether it pleases God.
The spiritual discipline of perspective. That is the gift Augustine offers those of us who talk about ourselves. It’s a gift we can give thanks for.
Officer to cadet: “I didn’t see you at camouflage training today.”
Cadet to officer: “Thank you, sir.”
It’s an old joke, but it’s relevant to anyone thinking of becoming a Christian. True faith in Jesus makes it impossible to blend into the background. Believers can’t avoid standing out, especially if they come from a culture that typically rejects Christianity, such as my own Jewish culture.
My encounter with Jesus began when two boys at my high school made an announcement at morning assembly. They said a visiting speaker was coming to the school’s Christian group, and they encouraged anyone who wanted to learn more about Jesus to come along. Their announcement caught my attention because for two years I’d been asking myself whether life had any meaning or point to it.Lifted Up
At the start of that search for meaning, when I was 13, I’d had my Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Outwardly, everything had gone smoothly. I’d recited a portion of the Hebrew Bible to a synagogue full of supportive people. But the preparation process hadn’t answered my big questions about life: Why am I here? Is there a God, and, if so, how can I be sure he exists? What’s the point of life if we all end up buried and forgotten?
That last question particularly gnawed at me. Life seemed like writing a book using a special ink that will one day fade into nothingness. Why write the book if the ink will disappear? Why throw yourself into life, with its hopes and sweat and tears of sadness or joy, when death will make it all meaningless? I was hunting for answers, and so when the boys advertised their Christian group, I thought it was worth a try.
The guest speaker gave a talk on one sentence from the Bible: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
It was extremely reassuring to hear that I could still be Jewish and believe in Jesus.
The speaker, a pastor named Jonathan Fletcher, said this teaching meant that when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he made it possible for people to live forever. Jonathan explained that when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they were plagued by venomous snakes (Num. 21:6–8). Moses fixed a bronze snake to a pole, and he told the Israelites that if they were bitten, they could look at the snake on the pole, and they would live (Num. 21:9). Jonathan said our wrongdoing is more serious in God’s eyes than a lethal snakebite. But Jesus was willingly nailed to the cross to solve that problem by receiving the punishment for other people’s sin. All we need do is look and live.
I knew immediately that eternal life would transform everything for me. But one matter still had to be addressed. I went to Jonathan after the talk and said, “I’m Jewish, so I suppose this isn’t for me.” He replied, “Jesus himself is Jewish! He’s the Jewish Messiah, the one the Jews were waiting for. If you follow him, you’ll be following your own Messiah.” It was extremely reassuring to hear that I could still be Jewish and believe in Jesus. I began following Jesus that evening and gratefully received the gift of eternal life.Sticking Out
Although I was persuaded that I could hold on to my Jewishness while following Jesus, other Jewish people weren’t so sure. This is where that joke about camouflage training comes in. When a Jewish person starts following Jesus, it’s no longer possible to blend in with the Jewish community. There have always been Jewish followers of Jesus—in fact, right at the start, all his followers were Jewish—but most Jewish people don’t accept Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah. So I knew that by becoming a Jewish believer in Jesus I’d inevitably stick out. The same is true in other cultures. In most parts of the world, people who become Christians know that following Jesus will separate them in various ways from the crowd.
Joining the Christian community means gaining a new family, a family with an eternal bond.
This challenge became real for me in college when I helped arrange an outreach event titled “Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?” As the title suggests, it was primarily aimed at my fellow Jewish students. I wanted them to hear the same good news about eternal life that I’d been so thrilled to encounter at high school. But a local rabbi named Shmuley Boteach (who, strangely enough, later became a spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson) found out about the event and strenuously objected to it.
Rabbi Boteach went on record with a statement about our event: “I thought we were in the age of mutual understanding and respect, not the age of spiritual Nazism whereby one faith is promoted as being superior to another or where an ancient people are targeted for conversion by small-minded bigots.” The statement was so fiercely worded that it made it into the student newspaper and then into one or two national papers as well. A radio breakfast show invited the rabbi and me to debate each other in its studio. Everyone advised me not to accept (due to my lack of experience), and my pastor kindly agreed to take my side of the debate.Counting the Cost
While the storm was raging, I had plenty of adrenaline to see me through. But afterward I found out that the news had reached my grandmother, among other members of my family. I’d been waiting for the right time to tell her about my faith in Jesus, but the controversial outreach event made that decision for me. For many years she didn’t even want to see me or talk to me, and things between us only ever got slightly better in the last few years of her life.
My parents were much more understanding, although they did ask me to postpone my baptism. So instead of joining in as planned at a river baptism with several others from my church, I was baptized later that year at a Christian summer camp.
In the eyes of the Jewish community, baptism is often seen as a renunciation of Jewishness. But I viewed it as a way to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Jewish Messiah, who was himself baptized at the start of his ministry by his (Jewish) cousin John. Baptism makes a person’s membership of the Christian community public and official. Although it can have the effect of separating Jewish believers in Jesus from their family and friends, it has a wonderful upside. Joining the Christian community means gaining a new family, a family with an eternal bond.
When I first began to drive, finding destinations required a map. As in a fold-out map.
It wasn’t uncommon, when using one that hadn’t been updated to include new roads, to take a wrong turn and have to pull over, look at the map again, and adjust the route. There was none of this Google-Maps-automatically-adjusting-directions-to-help-me-find-the-best-way-out. It was a slow processs, and compared to today it all seems so archaic.
And this reaction—it all seems so archaic—is the response I sometimes have to the term “gospel-centered youth ministry.” When I analyze what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, I can wonder whether this really is the way God has called his people to minister to others.
It just seems so slow.
What other work spends its time proclaiming a divine man born through a virgin girl who grows up to be executed on a Roman cross? What other work involves you in teaching from thousands-of-years-old writings? What other work encourages people to speak this message to others and serve them without expecting anything in return? What other work provides solid hope, deep assurance, and new identity for those who believe?
When I think about gospel-centered youth ministry this way, I resonate with Paul: The message of the cross is foolishness. For those of us who believe it’s also the power of God to save (1 Cor. 1:18; Rom. 1:16), however, we press on in the work.
The gospel ought to be at the heart of youth ministry for at least five reasons.1. It drives students to Jesus.
The heart of the Christian faith is the gospel—the gracious message of what God has done for us in Jesus. As Ephesians 2:8 reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God.” He’s displayed his love for us through the gift of his Son, and through Christ’s death and resurrection we now live in light of that grace.
The heart of gospel-centered youth ministry is seeking to display this grace to students. In everything we do, despite our imperfections, we’re driving our students toward Jesus. We seek to point to him, show him, reveal him, trust him, and obey him so that our students will be “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).2. It provides eternal perspective.
In our rapidly changing world, and with growing pressure on students, we’re often focused solely on the now. As we tell the story of Jesus, though, we place ourselves in a story that is thousands of years old. The grace we proclaim is carrying on what began long ago. In doing so, it helps our students gain an eternal perspective, a long-term view—one that helps them understand their place in the world and in God’s story.
Just think of this famous Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Here we find a gospel nugget that gives an eternal perspective. There is the truth of God’s love, the gift of his Son, the call to believe, and the insistence that life is everlasting. The momentary life that we and our students inhabit is part of God’s larger story, leading us to understand there is something and someone greater than us.3. It teaches God’s Word.
Second Timothy 3:16 reminds us, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is useful for all things in life and faith. Of course, we need to grow in our understanding of it, but God has ordained his Word as the way he speaks to us.
Therefore, a faithful youth ministry must take the Bible seriously. Through teaching and applying the Scriptures, we acknowledge that truth comes from God and not from us. Our worldview and our understanding of who we are, where we fit, and what our purpose is comes from outside ourselves. It comes through the revelation of God.4. It encourages mission and service.
We are often inspired (and moved to action) by something we read, watch, or hear—whether it’s about our health and fitness, our ministry, or our spending habits. The gospel inspires us to help others understand the things of God. We are inspired to share the good news, and we seek to love others by serving them, and we look for opportunities to help and care for them.
We do this because it reflects the good news. Gospel-centered youth ministry is part of God’s mission in the world.5. It provides hope, assurance, and an understanding of identity.
Our ultimate goal of youth ministry is to see students come to know God through Christ and to grow in likeness to him. This is God’s call for all of us. And for students and the world they live in, there is a constant need for hope, assurance, and a sense of belonging and purpose.
When bullying starts at school, when online overexposure occurs, when the pressure of friends to comply becomes too much, when the addictive nature of devices affects health, when the view of the body is distorted—students tend to lose hope. But when there’s assurance of who we are in Christ, those circumstances can change profoundly. The gospel is a gift to us and a gift to pass on to our students.Privilege of Playing a Part
I can’t help but reflect on the hundreds of teenagers I’ve been privileged to teach and shepherd through the years. Some have stuck with faith and the church. Others dropped off, never to be seen of again.
Without the gospel and an understanding of God’s guiding sovereign hand in this work, I wouldn’t have survived this long. Thankfully, the growing is God’s and the sustaining is God’s—and yet we have the privilege of being a small part of this work through a gospel-centered youth ministry.
The Event: The Jane Collective was a group of illegal abortionists—many of whom were amateurs—that began operating in the Chicago area in 1969.
Why It Matters: The Jane Collective was a model for how illegal abortions were carried out before Roe—and shows how the atrocity will be carried out after that decision is overturned.
What Happened: Throughout the 1960s abortion was outlawed in almost every state (Colorado became the first state to decriminalize abortion in 1967, allowing abortion in cases of permanent mental or physical disability of either the child or mother or in cases of rape or incest). In Illinois, where abortion was still classified as felony homicide, a group formed in 1969 known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation (ACS) and became part of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. The group was informally known as “Jane” or the “Jane Collective.”
The Jane Collective would post signs around the city and advertisements in underground newspapers that read, “Pregnant? Don’t Want to Be? Call Jane.” The ads gave a number for women to call where they would leave a message on an answering machine. As Claire Lampen says, “Women called the number, a ‘Jane’ collected their information and set them up with a counselor—also called ‘Jane’—and gave them the address where a doctor or, eventually, another ‘Jane’ performed the procedure.”
Initially, though, the abortionist was not a “Jane” but a “Jack.” The male abortionists were often guaranteed 10 cases a week to bring the price down to $500. Three years into their illegal operations, the Jane Collective worked almost exclusively with “Nick.” He was performing up to 20 abortions a day before they found he was not actually a doctor.
This revelation caused a split within the group, and many of the members left in disgust. But one member spoke up and said, “Well if he can do it, and he’s not a doctor, then we can do it too.” The Collective not only retained Nick as an abortionist but had him train members on how they could do it themselves. These amateur abortionists of the Jane Collective began performing even more illegal procedures on women (because they did not keep records or provide adequate follow-up, no one knows how many women died or were injured because of their work).
For almost three years the Chicago police appear to have turned a blind eye to the illegal and dangerous operation of the Collective. But in 1972, the police raided an apartment where Jane operated. Three patients waiting for abortions were taken to a hospital, and seven Jane members were arrested. The “Abortion Seven” were indicted and released on bail. But before their case went to trial, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Because of the decision the charges were dropped. Soon after the Jane Collective disbanded.
What It Means Today: During their four years in operation, the group is estimated to have carried out 11,000 abortions. This makes the Jane Collective responsible for one of the largest number of serial homicides in modern American history. And yet if you’ve heard of them at all, it’s likely because they are praised as models of “women’s liberation.” (Amazon Studios is making a movie called This Is Jane)
This fawning admiration for Jane show that changing the laws on abortion—as necessary as that is—will not be enough to stamp out the moral horror of abortion. Already, Jane is being used as a model for how abortions will be performed in a post-Roe era. In a 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, Kate Manning wrote that, “some activists are preparing for a modern-day service like Jane.” Manning quotes Elizabeth Ziff, a singer in a rock band and member of an “underground feminist group,” as saying, “They—this [Trump] administration—are coming for all of it, the morning-after pill, birth control, abortion, all of it. Women will suffer if we aren’t willing to take radical steps. And that includes learning how to perform abortions.”
Manning also quotes Dr. Paul Blumenthal, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine, who says, “You can train anybody to do just about anything. Would I figure out a way to have a safe house somewhere? Would I teach? I might.”
For now, the pro-life movement must remain focused on overturning Roe and abolishing the state laws that allow the killing on the most vulnerable humans. But we must also prepare for the struggle that comes next. We must always remember that the ultimate goal for Christian pro-lifers is not merely to make abortion illegal but to make it unthinkable. As the fans of the Jane Collective show, though, it will take much more work—and even more prayer—before that day comes.
Other articles in this series:
Good Omens, a new series on Amazon Prime Video, is probably the most interesting and directly theological television show since The Good Place. This is not to say these shows are theologically accurate; just that they are asking theological questions in interesting, often entertaining ways.
Some Christians might interact with shows like Good Omens only on the level of condemnation, calling it blasphemy and demanding its cancellation, as one Christian group recently did. But as Glen Scrivener pointed out in a recent video commentary on Good Omens, this is not the most helpful approach. We can and should acknowledge that the show is irreverent and rife with theological errors, but as Scrivener points out, the show’s makers have faulty theology in part “because [Christians] have preached faulty theology, we have lived faulty theology.”
There is certainly space and time to engage shows like Good Omens in the name of theological accuracy, calling foul on its errors and pointing out its own inconsistencies. But we ought first to engage it with humility, recognizing that if the world has misunderstood Christianity, then perhaps we’ve been communicating it poorly.Breath of Fresh Satire
Good Omens, the shared handiwork of Neil Gaiman and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, hit unsuspecting bookshelves in 1990. I first stumbled across this cheeky little tome midway through a ravenous binge of Pratchett’s work—Good Omens was dedicated “to the memory of G. K. Chesterton, a man who knew what was going on,” and I was accordingly hooked.
Which might seem strange, given that the book’s raison d’être is arguably to satirize my faith tradition. Moreover, as noted above, the story is admittedly riddled with astounding theological errors. But then again, so are all-time classics Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. And after all, this is a comedic take on the end times written by two non-Christians, so if we approach it in search of exegetical rectitude, a headache will be our only reward.
This is a comedic take on the end times written by two non-Christians, so if we approach it in search of exegetical rectitude, a headache will be our only reward.
But most importantly, I love this story because, like all good satire (which is the only kind Pratchett wrote), it tells the truth. God, I grant, is infallible. But his people are not, and if Gaiman and Pratchett have some laughs at our expense, then it’s because we are, on occasion, quite laughable.For the Love of the World
The story follows Aziraphale (angel) and Crowley (demon), who have been on earth since The Start. By the time our tale begins, they’ve gone quite native. Oh, they do their jobs, of course—minor miracles, perfunctory temptations, memos sent dutifully up the line (or down, as it were)—but mostly they keep their heads down and enjoy life.
Imagine their consternation, then, when word comes down the line (or up, as it were) that the time has come for life to end. All of it. Forever. Faced with the prospect of losing the world they’ve called home for the last six millennia, the unlikely duo hatches a plan to forestall Armageddon. Hijinks (and low ones) ensue.
Crowley (David Tennant) and Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) love the world of man and the works of man—whales and dolphins, fast cars and good wine, Albert Hall and sushi. They love it all and declare it good.
Aziraphale’s dismay upon hearing his bookshop has burned down is enough to break any bibliophile’s heart, and the sight of Crowley on his knees before the smoking wreckage of his vintage Bentley feels more like the end of the world than anything in Left Behind. Yet even when their prized possessions lie smoldering, they keep fighting, for it’s the world they love, not just their place in it.
Their love for the world is not naïve. They remember the days of Noah. They watched the crucifixion. They lived through the Reign of Terror and the Spanish Inquisition. They’ve witnessed 6,000 years of genocide, racism, theft, arson, London traffic, and selfies. They know the world is broken. They love it anyway.
Far too often, professedly Christian eschatology sounds less like the apostle John and more like the Lord Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) in Good Omens: “It is written. There shall be a world, and it shall last for 6,000 years and end in fire and flame.”
God created a good world. He loves it. He died for it. John’s Apocalypse foretells he will renew it, not destroy it (Rev. 21:5). And a faith that brushes off creation as only so much dross to be burned away at The End is Gnosticism, not Christianity, and thoroughly deserving of every satirical jab Gaiman and Pratchett take at it.Simply Ineffable
Good Omens reaches its climax, not on the fields of Megiddo, but on the tarmac of an airbase in the English countryside. The Kraken has risen from the deep, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse have ridden as scheduled, signs and wonders are in plentiful supply, the armies of heaven and hell have assembled for the final showdown . . . and the young Antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck) refuses to start the war. He’s an otherwise normal 11-year-old boy, after all, and he can see the absurdity in burning down the world just to prove whose gang is better.
Flabbergasted, Gabriel (Jon Hamm) and Beelzebub both insist that Armageddon commence. This is the great plan, after all, the whole reason for the creation of earth, the point to which all of history has been sliding since “Let there be light,” and they’ll be damned/blessed if a snot-nosed kid is going to stand in the way of the Great Plan.
At which point, Aziraphale pipes up, “Is that the Ineffable Plan, as well?” Gabriel tries to brush him off, insisting the two are one and the same, but Crowley swaggers over as well, saying, “I mean, everyone knows the Great Plan, yeah? But the Ineffable Plan is ineffable, isn’t it? By definition, we can’t know it.” Perhaps it’s not actually the end of the world the Almighty’s after—who can say?
Later, as he’s sharing a bottle of wine with Aziraphale on the field (well, park bench) of victory, Crowley muses, “Angel . . . what if the Almighty planned it like this all along? From the very beginning?” His heavenly friend simply shrugs, “Could have,” and takes a swig.
Is the God of Good Omens distant and detached, or so intimately involved in every movement of creation that the divine will is indistinguishable from reality itself? Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t too proud to say they don’t know.
Now, Christians are not at a total loss when it comes to knowing the mind of God, given the considerable pains he’s gone to in order to reveal himself in his Word. Yet one of the things he’s taken particular care that we know is the fact that we do not know everything:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8–9)
Let us never, brothers and sisters, confuse the fact of God’s sovereign plan with the myth of our perfect understanding of that plan. For when The End truly does come, we have the assurance that many will say, “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And these poor souls will hear, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22–23).
Let us never confuse the fact of God’s sovereign plan with the myth of our perfect understanding of that plan.
Such passages should inspire deep humility in our theological disputes. Such verses should lend profound gentleness to our ethical debates. And such knowledge should leave us terrified of placing the success of our tribe above the commands of God.
If the church is to have a more effective witness in today’s world, it will not be because we lash out any time we are faced with critique. Rather than boycotting any TV show with bad theology, perhaps we should let it prompt in us reflection: where has our theological witness been so off, so confusing, so off-putting, that it would lead to the sort of satire we find in Good Omens?
As Christians, we can be confident in our faith without being arrogant. We can be humble without being wishy-washy. We can contend for our interpretations even as we are open to being proven wrong.
After all, in the words of Crowley, “It’d be a pity if you’d thought you were doing what the Great Plan said, but you were actually going directly against God’s Ineffable Plan.”
That wouldn’t be funny at all, in The End.
“Good exegesis is what gives me confidence that I understand the passage and can convey it faithfully to people. I mean that’s one reason I read commentaries; I don’t want to be coming up with some novel interpretation of a passage on my own. I want to be confident that responsible exegetes have come to the same conclusions I’ve come to so that I can be confident I’m actually telling people what the Bible says. I also want to start asking, ‘Okay, now that I know what the passage says, what’s the best way to explain that to people?’ And so, good exposition ought to be really closely tied to and flow out of exegesis.” — Ligon Duncan
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Why Do the Hard Work of Exposition?
- Should I Always Preach through Books of the Bible?
- Carson: Can We Be Sure of Our Interpretation?
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
In October 2018, Christianity Today published a cover story exposing a gap in the conversation about faith and work: the working class. According to its author, Jeff Haanen—founder of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work—Christian discussions about vocation often preach the cultural mantra of “do what you love” and ignore the reality that most people work out of necessity. This oversight implies the church, even God, values manual or service labor less than white-collar or creative work.
Additionally, leaders at the 2018 Faith at Work Summit in Chicago stressed the importance for pastors to understand how technological advancements will transform the landscape of American labor in the coming decade. Artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t just replacing truck drivers; it’s coming for the medical and legal fields too. Moreover, the disruption and lack of job security will only increase “gig economy” jobs, which will compose nearly 40 percent of the U.S. labor force by next year. The increase of these jobs, with nonstandard work schedules and inconsistent wages, is hardly reflected in the literature on a theology of work.
When I learned Dan Doriani was releasing Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation as the culmination of 20 years of reflection and research, I wondered how he could account for these rapid changes in the economy. Yet Doriani—professor of biblical and systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri—confronts many of these new challenges while offering 12 foundational principles about good work (17–20). He accounts for the reality of changing jobs and ascribes dignity to specific examples of blue-collar work and unpaid labor, like construction, retail, transportation, and raising children.Calling Begins with Faithfulness
Doriani challenges the secular ideas of self-fulfillment behind choosing one’s calling and emphasizes instead God’s sovereign call in each person’s life. Calling begins with faithfulness where God has placed you, Doriani writes. While God gives individuals certain core abilities and interests, one’s spiritual growth, unforeseen circumstances (like unemployment), and the world’s shifting needs may all change a person’s specific calling (97–101). Doriani offers a helpful matrix for assessing calling that reflects the tension between one’s gifting and God’s calling.
Additionally, when believers are working a job out of necessity rather than choice, Doriani says responding in faithfulness by serving their neighbors may help them realize their calling in unexpected ways. I found Doriani’s focus on faithfulness at work particularly insightful, especially as it addresses Haanen’s concern about our blindness to the realities of blue-collar workers. Doriani’s interviews play a crucial role in this regard, as he shares the struggles of workers in retail and transportation and describes how pastors often fail to relate the truths of Christian vocation to most paid jobs (106–114).
Rather than aspiring for more, believers should commit to serving God and others in their current position before seeking other opportunities.
Doriani insists churches must broaden how they communicate the dignity of work in order to help believers understand that God values any contribution that meets the needs of their neighbors. Rather than aspiring for more, believers should commit to serving God and others in their current position before seeking other opportunities. Further, Doriani applies these principles of faithfulness at work for those whose employment may contradict their beliefs and offers counsel and testimonies for how to lead reform in the workplace.God Works and Rests
Doriani’s first principle of honest work follows the template of most Christian books on work, basing human creativity on being made in the image of a God who works. As Doriani writes, “Ideally, we work as God works. He governs, plans, and splashes color on his cosmic canvas. . . . That encourages our world-shaping labor” (27). But his second principle is equally important. Just as we’re made in the image of a God who works, Doriani writes, so also are we made in the image of a God who rests, a divine pattern of restraint that “corrects both workaholics and sluggards” (17).
Popular books like Gene Veith’s God at Work and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor conclude with powerful reflections on Sabbath rest that put human work in its proper place. What I appreciate about Doriani’s work, however, is how he includes Sabbath in his primary definition of work and devotes an entire chapter to the rhythm of work and rest. According to Doriani: “The God-given rhythm of life both corrects laziness and offers relief to those who feel pressure to be industrious at all times. The Lord teaches us to work, then pause to sleep, eat, pray, and rest each week” (131).
Doriani’s approach is effective because he orients the reader to the dignity of rest from the outset. The prominent inclusion of rest identifies a cultural touchpoint of exhaustion and distraction in our 24/7 society, one that can be seen also in recent books like A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath, Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule, and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.
I’m convinced more than ever we need to recover the doctrine of Sabbath in light of the American tendency to overvalue work and the challenges of technology making it more difficult to attain true rest.
I’m convinced more than ever we need to recover the doctrine of Sabbath in light of the American tendency to overvalue work and the challenges of technology making it more difficult to attain true rest. Thankfully, Doriani shares these concerns. He approaches the issues from his experience of working too much and relearning to play with his grandchildren.
It’s helpful to set Doriani’s emphasis in light of the Protestant spirit of “always reforming.” At the start of the Reformation, nearly a third of some European populations were in religious orders, as the contemplative life received more honor in the medieval Catholic Church. The reformers highlighted the dignity of all honest labor—farmers, bakers, blacksmiths—to counteract the prevailing spirit of their time that dismissed the active life. But today, increasing rates of American workers report burnout due to overwork, and recent studies show long working hours and a lack of rest contribute to worse physical health than secondhand smoke. While the Reformation recovered the dignity of ordinary work by connecting it to God’s creation, Doriani shows how today’s church may need to point exhausted workers to God’s Sabbath example, which dignifies work with the necessary balance of rest and celebration.
Doriani’s years of research and reflection on this important topic set this text apart from other recent books on the theology of work. His smooth exposition of complex economic and theological themes blended with stories from experience and interviews combine for an eminently readable product. I’d recommend this book to pastors so they can learn about connecting faith and work for their congregations, and the discussion questions in each chapter make this a great resource for small-group studies as well.
Former Senator Rick Santorum once said that the Constitution is the ‘how’ of America, it’s the operator’s manual, but the ‘why’ of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Many Americans would disagree that the Declaration’s most famous sentence still represents who we are as a people. Indeed, a primary dividing line in our country today is between those who think that sentence is literally true and those who do not. I believe it is literally true. And I think when we examine it, clause by clause, we find that it’s a claim that all Christians in America should defend.We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .
Within the first eight words we already find two claims that today are considered radically divisive—that there is such as thing as truth, and that truth can be self-evident.
For a claim to be self-evident, as the Cambridge Dictionary explains it must be “clear or obvious without needing any proof or explanation.” In 1776 it could be taken for granted that most people believed there were self-evident truths. However, by the twentieth-century, the situation had reversed. As Alan Bloom wrote in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987):
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That any one should regard [relativism] as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.
For Christians, the truth about truth should be self-evident: truth cannot be relative because it is rooted in the absolute nature of God. As Isaiah 65:16 tells us, God is the “God of truth.” And Jesus tells us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We can know some truths as self-evident when they are rooted in the revealed word given to us by the one who is the Truth.. . . that all men are created equal . . .
Critics of the Declaration often contend that this claim about men being created equal is referring only to white men, or more particularly white men with property. While that is a reasonable interpretation, the man who drafted the document—Thomas Jefferson—seemed to have intended a broader meaning. In an earlier draft of the Declaration Jefferson wrote, “the Christian King of Great Britain [i.e., King George]: determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold…”
“In other words, [Jefferson] is calling the slaves ‘men’,” Danielle Allen writes in her book, Our Declaration, “And when he does this, he can’t mean males only, because those markets were for men, women, and children. So when, in the second sentence, he writes that all men are created equal, he must mean all people—whatever their color, sex, age, or status.” This is not an anachronistic, modern interpretation, for as Christopher Kaczor notes, Southern confederates during the Civil War era rejected the Declaration precisely on account of its inclusivity of all human beings.
We can’t fully know how Jefferson resolved the tension between his abhorrence of slavery and his owning of slaves. But his personal failing does not mean that we cannot embrace the truth embedded in his claim. As Daniel Darling says in The Dignity Revolution:
Imagine, for a moment, if God’s people began to lead a new, quiet revolution whose foundation was a simple premise: every human being—no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what they have done or have had done to them—possesses dignity, because every human is made in the image of God. By God’s grace, our churches would change, and our communities would change.
All men—all people—are created equal in dignity because all are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).. . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .
Whether the Founders were Christians or Deists, they agreed that God was responsible for the creation of mankind. Today, though, nearly in one-in-five Americans (19 percent) believe that man developed without any role for God in the process. It’s not surprising then that so many are also skeptical about the concept of unalienable rights, rights that cannot be bartered away, or given away, or taken away except in punishment of crime.
For example, last month the Department of State announced its intention to create a Commission on Unalienable Rights. The stated purpose of the Commission will be to “provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” After the announcement Politico pointed out that, “some activists fear [the Commission] is aimed at narrowing protections for women and members of the LGBT community.” Writing in the Washington Post, political scientist Clifford Bob says, “The Trump Commission on Unalienable Rights is likely to champion the “natural family” and “traditional values.” Like too many of our fellow citizens, Bob does not see championing of traditional values or natural family as a laudable objective.
As Christians we should recognize the reality of unalienable rights. Because we are not our own, but belong to God, there are certain rights given to us as gifts by God that we cannot give away and that cannot be taken from us (1 Cor. 6:19–20).. . . that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
During his life Jefferson never explained what he meant by this phrase. But scholars believe he was obviously influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (adopted June 12, 1776), which referred to “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
In our era we believe that happiness is a subjective state that is defined solely by the person. But in prior, less individualistic periods, happiness had a more robust meaning. As James R. Rogers explains, it meant well-being in the broader sense, and while it included the right to meet physical needs, it also included a significant moral and religious dimension. “’[H]appiness’ in the Declaration,” add Rogers, “should be understood centrally as a sort of virtuous felicity, perhaps in the sense of Greek eudaimonia, although one refined by Christian sensibilities.”
We also misunderstand Jefferson’s use of the term “pursuit.” The historian Arthur Schlesinger claifies that at the time of the Declaration “the pursuit of happiness” did not mean chasing or seeking it, but referred to actually practicing happiness. “So “the pursuit of happiness” means something like occupying one’s life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing,” says Rogers. “This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.”
To put this in a biblical frame, the Declaration is stating that we have an unalienable right to occupy our lives seeking “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8).Better Than Jefferson Knew
It’s often claimed that in establishing the American republic, the Founding Fathers built “better than they knew.” The same could be said about Jefferson’s writings, for he often wrote better than he knew.
While Jefferson was not a Christian, he embedded in his well-crafted sentence some of the most essential political truths for Christians: that all people have equal dignity; that rights are given by a personal God; that the right to “Life”—from conception to natural death—is an irrevocable gift to all humanity; that the right to “Liberty” comes with corresponding duties; and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is the means to seek human flourishing, a teleological end to liberty that is ordained, ordered, and constrained in purpose by God.
These are ideas still worth defending.
Emma Lou Akin was my mother and one of the kindest, godliest people I have ever known. She showed me the beauty of Jesus her whole life. Our family regularly noted that the phrase “I want” seemed to be completely absent from her vocabulary. Every time a special occasion rolled around, like her birthday, anniversary, or Mother’s Day, we would always ask, “Momma, what do you want to do?” “Where would you like to go out and eat?” Much to our frustration, her answer was always the same: “Whatever you all want is fine with me.”
My mother was the quintessential Philippians 2:3–5 woman:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.
She always put others ahead of herself. It was just the natural thing for her to do, because she was so much like the Lord Jesus whom she loved and adored.
There are many times I can recall when my mother showed me the beauty of Jesus. Here are three.1. The Beauty of Jesus in the Bible
I have the most wonderful memories as a little boy of sitting in my mother’s lap and listening to her read Bible stories to me. Knowing that small children love pictures, she made a significant financial sacrifice and purchased The Bible Story, a 10-volume set with more than 400 stories. I still have seven of the volumes in my library today!
I’m sure my mother grew weary of her young son coming to her again and again with one of the volumes of The Bible Story in his hand, wanting her to read it to him. But I have no memory of my mother telling me, “I’m too busy.” She stopped whatever she was doing, let me crawl up into her lap, and read to me the wonderful stories of the Bible. I still remember her telling me how wonderful Jesus was, how much he loved me, and how he wanted to come into my heart and save me from my sins and make me his child. I put my trust in Christ at the age of 10. No one played a bigger role in bringing me to Jesus than my momma did.2. The Beauty of Jesus in Sacrifice
In 1977 God was doing a special work in my life. That summer, our youth group was going to Sells, Arizona, to minister on an Indian reservation. We would hold a revival, run a vacation Bible school, and conduct backyard Bible clubs in towns and villages outside the main city.
I wanted badly to go, but there was a problem. I had a part-time job at J. H. Filbert’s, where my mother worked full-time. I worked from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., five days a week, entering purchase orders for margarine and mayonnaise. Because I was part-time, I had no benefits, including the two weeks of vacation I would need for the short-term mission trip.
I am in the ministry today because my mother showed me in a tangible way the beauty of being like Jesus.
I approached my mother about the problem, and to my surprise she was remarkably calm and unbothered. “Oh, I am sure everything will work out,” she said. While her words were reassuring, the fact that she didn’t offer a solution left me less than satisfied. Over the next several months, I repeatedly approached her about this roadblock, and each time her response was the same: “Oh, I am sure everything will work out.”
Finally, two weeks before the trip, I went to her, resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to go since I hadn’t found someone to cover for me. To my utter amazement, she smiled and said, “Don’t worry; it is covered. You go and have a great time.” She walked away and said nothing more. Later, I would discover that things were indeed covered—by her! For those two weeks she worked her regular 8 to 5 office job. Afterward she would come home, fix dinner for my dad and tend to the house, and return to J. H. Filbert’s to work my 10 to 2 shift. Then she’d return home, sleep for three or four hours, and go right back to work.
I didn’t find out about this until I returned home from the mission trip, a trip during which the Lord called me into the ministry at an old-fashioned revival service on a Monday night. The first person I called after the service that night was my mother, still unaware of the incredible Christlike sacrifice she had made for her son. I am in the ministry today because my mother showed me in a tangible way the beauty of being like Jesus.3. The Beauty of Jesus When He’s the Only Thing Left
My mother died in her early 70s from Alzheimer’s disease. At the end of her life, her gifted mind was gone. She couldn’t take care of herself, nor could she converse with a family she no longer recognized. There were occasional moments she’d become agitated and upset—and we didn’t know why. However, in these moments we’d often hear her cry out, “Help me, Jesus!”
Her mind was virtually gone, but her love for her Savior was still there. From the beginning of my life to the end of hers, my mother showed me the beauty of our Lord Jesus. When I see her again in heaven, I will tell her what I should have told her when she was still alive on this earth: Words are inadequate to capture how you affected my life and showed me Jesus.
You can read previous installments in this series.
Every parents I’ve met has felt frustrated by repeatedly stumbling into difficult conversations with their teenage children. Those conversations seem to come out of nowhere, pack lots of energy, and leave everyone bruised and tiptoeing around each other . . . until the next one.
I suspect hard conversations would take place even if we removed sin from the equation. By definition, teenagers are transitioning out of childhood. They’re figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and how to handle greater independence and responsibility, all while still living in your home. You’re both trying to redefine a relationship that should (rightly) no longer be what it was when they were younger. There’s simply no way you both can navigate this process without at least some bumps and mutual learning along the way.
While there’s no surefire way to guarantee easier, better conversations with your child, there are some things you can do to help them see you as more of an ally than a threat during these defining years.1. Not everything that goes through your mind should come out of your mouth.
Think before you speak. Proverbs has a lot to say about the words we choose, but it comes down to the wise person being careful with what they say, whereas the fool blurts out whatever comes to mind (Prov. 12:23). If what you’re thinking really does need to be said, you can always bring it up later. If it’s foolish, though, you can’t get it back after it’s left your mouth.2. Don’t interrupt or talk over your child.
Don’t talk over them any more than you want them to interrupt and talk over you. It’s the law of love: Do to them conversationally as you would have them do to you (Matt. 7:12). Somehow, it’s easy to overlook Christ’s command when speaking to our children—to interact with them in ways we wouldn’t dream of with someone we just met. Imagine your child as someone you respect; then talk to them accordingly.3. Call yourself out when you’ve disrespected them.
Your children already know when you are disrespectful, so let them know that you’re also aware—and that you’re not okay with what you’ve done. It’s normal Christian life to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16), so I’ve found it helpful to say out loud to my kids, “I’m yelling,” or “I’m interrupting,” or “I’m being condescending.”
How will they know what a good apology sounds like if they haven’t heard many from you?
You then need to apologize to them like you’d want them to apologize to you. When you do, you’re not only living faithfully before Christ, you’re also helping them learn what to do when they say something wrong. How else will they know what a good apology sounds like if they haven’t heard many from you?4. Don’t tolerate nastiness from them.
Don’t disallow nastiness simply because it’s unpleasant for you, but because it’s not good for them to treat an image-bearer of God that way. This is hard to do well. You must identify their attitude and insist it’s not okay to talk to you like that—all the while not reacting out of hurt or anger.
How do you do all of that at the same time? Keep your focus on the danger they’ve put themselves in with God by dishonoring their parent, and on how they’ll benefit by hearing what you have to say. Making yourself think about what’s best for your child will help you speak into these situations without supercharging them emotionally.5. Let them know they can disagree with you without jeopardizing your relationship.
You don’t agree 100 percent of the time with any of your friends, so why would you expect to always agree with your kids? I’m challenged by the words of Paul in Philippians 3:15: “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”
You don’t agree 100 percent of the time with any of your friends, so why would you expect to always agree with your kids?
Paul isn’t arguing that issues of morality are up for grabs; he’s acknowledging that not every disagreement is a hill on which to die. True believers may have honest differences that God works out over time. If that’s true in God’s family, affirm to your children that it can happen in yours as well.6. Use your words to build a positive relational context.
Hard conversations create hurt and distrust, and cause people to walk away brooding over the ugliness of what just occurred. And these sour meditations inform what your child will say later, breeding additional hurtful interactions.
Part of breaking this cycle involves creating a different environment, which starts with a different kind of meditation. That’s why Paul urges us to think actively about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Difficult as it may be, that’s what must dominate our minds as we think about and talk with our children.
So look for opportunities to say positive things to your child—tell them something you like about them, ways you see them maturing, what they’ve done well. Tell them you love them, again and again. Resolve to be more interested in them than you are irritated by them.You Are Responsible for You
You’re not responsible for your child’s heart or for how their mouth expresses it to you. You are responsible, however, for your own heart and its expressions.
Thankfully, Jesus, the very Word of God, died to give you a new heart (Jer. 31:31–34), one that longs to speak to your child in ways that reflect how your heavenly Father speaks to you.
It was an innocent request—”Megan, would you teach my Sunday school class for me next week?”—and an equally naïve acceptance. Little did I anticipate the biblical scholarship necessary for an hour on Sunday morning with the 5- and 6-year-olds.
When I opened the teacher’s manual on Saturday evening, I discovered the problem. I hadn’t agreed to a nice little Bible lesson on “Adam names the animals” or “Jesus welcomes the children.” Nope. Of all the stories in the curriculum, the lot fell to me to teach about David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11).
It was bound to happen. If we take seriously our obligation to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we’re going to come across some difficult passages. A family or church who talks with their children about the Scripture as they sit and walk and rise up and lie down (Duet. 6:6–8) will have to address David and Bathsheba—as well as Rahab, Tamar, Dinah, and Delilah—sometime.
Although they make parents and Sunday school teachers squirm, those passages are “breathed out by God” and are “profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). It’s good for our children to learn them because they are God’s good Word to us, teaching us about his holiness and our need for a Savior. Also, as Jen Wilkin recently pointed out, these uncomfortable texts help us learn to love the hurt and hurting in our midst.Pretending to Be Married?
Right from the beginning, I knew I wasn’t going to parse some of this stories’ details. I wasn’t going to describe intercourse to children barely out of diapers, nor would I tackle the question of whether David’s act was rape or adultery. But I still couldn’t avoid the essential problem of explaining sexual sin to little kids.
It seemed to me I had two options. The first option was to use the script provided by the curriculum and say that David and Bathsheba were pretending to be married: “David acted like Bathsheba was his wife, but she wasn’t. This was wicked.”
My policy with my own three children is to always tell the truth. The Bible is complete truth, and I want to maintain that intrinsic truthfulness as I paraphrase and retell and explain it to my kids. This doesn’t mean I tell them every gory detail, but I also don’t say anything untrue. As they grow, I want them to build on the foundation of truth I’ve given them, not to question everything they’ve been told.
My policy with my own children is to always tell the truth. . . . As they grow, I want them to build on the foundation of truth I’ve given them, not to question everything they’ve been told.
And I wasn’t convinced that “David acted like Bathsheba was his wife” was true. In a godly marriage, a husband doesn’t force or manipulate his wife to have sex with him. David wasn’t simply acting like a husband does. Further, Nathan’s subsequent parable (2 Sam. 12:1–9) makes this point. The poor man had a sheep he loved and cared for and treated as a pet. The rich man stole this sheep. Does the rich man then make it his pet? No, he does not. He kills it and eats it. David wasn’t pretending Bathsheba was his wife while playing house with her. He was killing and eating her.
Tell that to a kindergartner.Why Is Sexual Sin Bad?
My second option was to explain sexual sin in terms of another sin. VeggieTales takes this approach in the episode that characterizes Bathsheba as a stolen rubber-duckie toy. Every kid can understand stealing, so the screenwriters framed adultery in terms of theft. Don’t take people who don’t belong to you.
Yes, sexual sin does frequently involve other sins. It often begins with coveting and ends with lying and has plenty of self-hurting and neighbor-hurting in the middle. But if we teach children that adultery and fornication and rape are just forms of other sins, we aren’t telling the truth. In the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17), a summary of God’s law for his people, sexual sin gets a prohibition of its own in the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 14).
So what makes sexual sin distinct from other sins?
In our day, even professing Christians justify sexual sin on the grounds that—under the right conditions—it doesn’t break any other commandments. Common defenses include: “It’s not hurting anyone” (sixth commandment) or “No one is taking anything from anyone; it’s consensual” (eighth commandment) or “It’s happening anyway; at least we’re finally being honest about it” (ninth commandment).
But even if it were possible to perfectly keep all the other commandments, we still aren’t excused in breaking the seventh. The primary problem with sexual sin isn’t that it breaks other laws. The primary problem with sexual sin is that it breaks God’s law—which is to say, God’s requirement for holiness—about sex. Telling kids anything else is untrue and won’t serve them well as they grow up in a sexually licentious world.Breaking God’s Rules for Marriage
So, what did David do wrong? (Which brought me back to where I started: trying not to explain sex to someone else’s 5-year-old.) I think the original Sunday school script got at least one thing right; the seventh commandment is about the sanctity of marriage. And to explain David’s sin to our kids, we have to be clear that his sin was breaking God’s law for marriage.
When we encounter difficult passages about adultery, rape, incest, prostitution, and fornication, we should tread carefully, but we do not have to tread timidly. The same holy God who declared his law to “all the people” of Israel (Ex. 24:3) declares his law to both children and adults today. Speaking plainly about the seventh commandment—in a Sunday school classroom or around the family dinner table—is both true and helpful. God’s good word for marriage gives even little children a category for the sexual chaos around them and points them to Christ, the only Savior of sinners.
On that particular Sunday morning, I collected the crayons and gathered the little ones. I read the Bible passage, and then I said: David didn’t care about what God said about husbands and wives. And he didn’t care that Uriah and Bathsheba promised to be married to each other. David only cared about what he wanted. David made up his own rules about being married. This was disobeying God, and it wasn’t good for him or for Bathsheba. David needed to be forgiven by God, just like you and I do.
Now, I think I need some animal crackers and apple juice.
Neighborhoods around the world are changing. Rising immigration, financial instability, and social mobility are bringing together new people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. Some Christians are tempted to respond to these shifts with fear and defensiveness. But God commands us to love and embrace the people he’s sovereignly put around us.
In short, he’s calling your church to look more like your neighborhood.Providential Move
That’s what our church realized when God moved us to a new area. We’d planted the church four years earlier in one of the whitest and richest parts of our city (Honolulu, Hawaii), and our church was primarily white and upper-middle class. But when we lost our meeting space, God sent us to a neighborhood that was primarily Asian and Pacific-Islander. Many of our new neighbors lived in low-income and government-assisted housing.
And even this neighborhood was changing. In Hawaii, 15 percent of the population changes homes every year; 18 percent were born outside the United States; and 25 percent speak a language other than English at home.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us, but to reflect the unity in diversity of our triune God, in whose image we were created. As a result of the lost meeting space, we quickly realized we were going to have to pray and work hard to see our church look more like our new neighborhood. While in this process, we were preaching through Mark’s Gospel. In God’s sovereign timing, he taught us many lessons through Mark, who deliberately wrote his Gospel as a bridge between the Jewish people in his church and the Roman people in his neighborhood.
With that in mind, here are four things we’ve done that I’d highly recommend for every church-planting team.1. Study
Mark’s writing style suggests he’d studied the people in his neighborhood, as he crafted an action-packed Gospel for the arena-loving Romans.
As we got to know our neighbors, we quickly realized that one of the major differences between our members and the people in our neighborhood was education level.
We had many highly educated people in our church. Most of our sermons resembled seminary lectures. But in our new neighborhood, we were meeting recent immigrants who didn’t speak much English, along with folks in government housing who never graduated high school.
We knew they weren’t going to come listen to seminary-lecture style sermons, so we began to manuscript each sermon and run it through an online grade-level analyzer. I discovered that my sermons were averaging a 10th-grade level, so I started using simpler phrases and words to get them down around a 5th-grade level. My aim hasn’t been to patronize, but to communicate God’s Word effectively to our hearers.
We’ve also chosen simpler songs. God was saving folks coming out of serious drug addiction, and some of them would say: “When we sing these hymns, my brain just can’t keep up with all the words.” We loved our hymns, but we decided to sing fewer in favor of simpler sung worship.2. Challenge
Mark challenged the Jewish people in the church to welcome the Romans; this is evident in the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1–9). At first glance, it seems there’s little difference from the feeding of the 5,000 just two chapters earlier (Mark 6:30–44). Both stories feature hungry crowds and a miraculous feast. Why do we need two nearly identical stories?
Well, there’s one detail that makes them radically different: the location. The first story took place in Galilee—with thousands of hungry Jews. On that occasion, it was the disciples who were worried about the people.
The second story took place in the Decapolis: a Roman colony. Now they were dealing with thousands of starving Romans, and the disciples didn’t seem to care. It was Jesus who took the initiative: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have nothing to eat.” Mark was challenging the Jews in Rome to be just as welcoming to the Romans as Jesus was.
We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Our church had to do the same thing. We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Because food is a big cultural signpost, we told our members, “We’re going to start having food at church that might not be to your liking. You won’t even recognize some of it. But food is one of the best ways to make people feel welcome, and we want to go out of our way to be hospitable to our neighbors.”3. Celebrate
An easily missed high point in Mark’s Gospel concerns the Roman centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus. While everyone else simply saw a dying man, the centurion saw the humility, strength, and compassion of the dying Son of God. Hence his exclamation, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
He was the only man in Mark’s Gospel to declare that truth. Mark was deliberately celebrating the work of God among Roman people.
In our neighborhood, we wanted to do the same thing. As folks from different cultures have come to faith in Christ, we’ve intentionally highlighted their testimonies. In our sermons, we’ve sought to tell more stories about Christians in Japan, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
We’ve also translated some of our songs into the native languages of people in our neighborhood. As God has given us musically gifted people from different cultures, we’ve done choruses in Mandarin, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Tagalog, all with the aim of celebrating God’s work around the world.4. Explain
In his Gospel, Mark wanted to bridge the Jewishness of Jesus to the Romanness of his neighbors. So he took the time to translate Aramaic for the Romans, like when Jesus raised the little girl: “Taking her by the hand Jesus said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).
When Jesus walked on water, Mark said it happened at the “fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is how Romans—not Jews—divided time. Mark knew the importance of explaining things.
We came to realize the same. Before our move, most of the people we were reaching had some kind of Christian background. But this wasn’t the case for the majority of people in our new neighborhood.
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that wasn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors.
In our church services, we’ve sought to communicate both the what and also the why behind each component: “We love to sing praises to God, so join us if you’d like.” “We take time every week to study a portion of God’s Word, and we work through it section by section.” “Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who took away our sins and gave us new life. We do that by taking communion, which is for people who’ve put their trust in Jesus.”
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that isn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors. We’ve encouraged our small-group leaders to discuss the same biblical texts covered on Sunday. That way, people of varying levels of spiritual maturity would have the same basic understanding of the passage, allowing them to focus more on how the passage applied to their everyday lives.Unity
As a result of these kinds of initiatives, God began to bring many people to our church who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like we did. We now have a beautifully chaotic community full of people who’d never choose to hang out together if they weren’t brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are still plenty of misunderstandings, unintentional offenses, and ignorant mistakes. But our diverse family is learning and pressing on together in Christ.
“I can’t do it! It’s so hard for me,” a staff member recently said to me.
“Why do you keep saying that?” I asked.
“I’m not gifted like you. I’m not the evangelist that you are.”
The irony underneath this conversation was that God was using this young lady in the lives of many people in multiple ways. Many students moving toward Christ would reference things she had said or done. Despite this, somewhere deep in the recesses of her heart, she was convinced she was not good at evangelism. She told herself (and others) that she didn’t have the gifts, the talent, the boldness, or the personality to evangelize.
The lie beneath other lies she was believing had nothing to do with her; rather, it was a common lie about evangelism—that evangelism is an individual sport. As opposed to sports that promote teamwork and collective contribution, individual sports highlight the individual’s gifts, talents, contribution, and effectiveness.
Many of us see evangelism as an individual sport; this mindset affects the way we approach it. In contrast, the Bible describes and prescribes a team approach to proclaiming the good news.Plural ‘You’
If you live in the South or have ever spent time there, you’ve most likely heard the contraction y’all. If you live in Western Pennsylvania, however, you’re probably more familiar with yens. But regardless of where you’re from, these colloquial expressions are helpful in providing us with the second-person plural.
Acts 1:8, a verse often quoted with regard to witnessing, shares the you-plural concept:
But [y’all] will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on [y’all]; and [y’all] will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The Great Commission is addressed to the implied “you,” which is clearly plural from the context: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). The Great Commission isn’t just for you the individual; it’s for all the y’alls in your life: your marriage, your family, your small group, and your church.
The Great Commission is for all the y’alls in your life.
Not only does Scripture prescribe a team approach, it also describes team action. The ministries of both Jesus and Paul model this command in the context of community. From Jesus sending out his disciples in groups (Matt. 10) to most of Paul’s epistles beginning and ending with the band of saints ministering together, we see the communal nature of evangelism in the early church.Partnership, Not Personality
When we think of great evangelists, the people who typically come to mind have bold and winsome personalities. Yet Scripture doesn’t just instruct certain personality profiles to share his good news. Paul doesn’t tell Timothy to live out the gift of evangelism, but rather to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).
In a culture that’s increasingly isolated and disconnected, communal evangelism has unprecedented potential to draw in the individual. Partnerships, not personality, produce effectiveness in the long run.
Communal witness involves authentic and intentional friendships. While apologetics has its proper place, winning an argument rarely if ever wins people to Christ. Our best apologetic is that we love one another (John 13:35). Yet how does the unbelieving world know unless they are close enough to witness it?
Team ministry involves initiation, cultivation, and proclamation lived out in community.1. Initiation
To engage those who don’t know Jesus, we must initiate relationally. While most of us think about this individually, the world thinks about this communally. Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn use a networking concept where friends are invited to meet other friends in a group. The church shouldn’t be afraid to do the same.2. Cultivation
Cultivation is about continuing to build and deepen genuine relationships. In 1 Corinthians 3, when Paul addresses the division in the church, he models a team approach—he planted, Apollos watered. Both were co-laborers, fellow workers. Cultivation needs those who water the gospel seeds.3. Proclamation
Proclamation involves sharing the gospel truth and dialoguing with unbelievers. More often than not, evangelism goes beyond a gospel monologue or soliloquy and entails ongoing dialogue. While some evangelists are more naturally gregarious, all have a part to play.Better Together
Many are more naturally bent toward one of these three actions, but may struggle to live out another. The key is working together as a team to see these activities happen as you seek to labor in evangelism together.
I’ve seen couples learn to play off one another’s strengths to become natural evangelistic teams. I’ve been part of small groups that deliberately engaged lost friends as a team at neighborhood parties. I’ve seen church members live out initiation, cultivation, and proclamation as they’ve rallied together to do the work of evangelism. And I’ve seen youth groups welcome friends of students who eventually heard the gospel and became a part of the community of faith.
What my friend failed to see was that even though she wasn’t the one leading people to Jesus, she was hugely instrumental in initiating and cultivating. Despite not having the boldness of others, she was vital in building relationships and connecting them to our community. Team evangelism is both timely and timeless. Let’s step out in faith as we do the work together.
It might be my greatest fear. What if I’m so busy in evangelical activity that I forget Jesus Christ and the purpose behind it all? What if I’m just spinning up religious projects covered in religious language, but there’s no Spirit behind these works?
Mark Galli thinks we have an evangelical crisis. And if Mark Galli says so, we’d be wise to listen. Galli serves as editor in chief of Christianity Today (CT) magazine. I was blessed to work for him in my stint as associate editor for CT. Galli has been documenting his view of this crisis in his CT column The Elusive Presence.
Galli wisely points out that evangelicals are experts in self-criticism, so you need to take this diagnosis of crisis with a grain of salt. But I think he’s spot on when he writes, “I’ve believed that American Christianity has been less and less interested in God as such, and more and more at doing good things for God.”
If desiring God is the sum and substance of life, as Galli points out, then this crisis couldn’t be cured with a thousand sermons on how to have a better marriage or job or bigger bank account. We’ve lost our way because we’ve shifted from the vertical axis with God toward to the horizontal axis of this world.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
It’s an accusation that’s been around a long time. Even in ancient times, critics of Christianity noticed some parallels between Christian beliefs and pre-Christian myths. In the late second century, a pagan philosopher named Celsus charged, “The Christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, of the Auge and Antiope in fabricating this story of virgin birth!” In more recent times, skeptical scholars such as Marvin Meyer and Robert Price have claimed close connections between the resurrection of Jesus and the myths of dying and rising deities that marked many pagan myths.
In the simplest possible terms, here’s what these critics contend: The most marvelous claims in the Gospels—a miraculous birth, for example, as well as the idea of a deity who dies and rises again—are paralleled in pagan religions that predate Christianity; therefore, early Christians must have fabricated these miracles based on their knowledge of pre-Christian religions.
To be sure, there are some surface-level similarities between ancient myths and certain events in the Gospels. Long before the first century AD, the myths of Egyptians deities such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Horus included tales of death and rebirth. The Persians venerated Mithras, a deity who (according to some claims) was born of a virgin and who died and then rose from the dead. Sacramental bread and the fruit of the vine make appearances in a few mystery cults as well.
So why should anyone see Jesus as being distinct from the pagan gods? Could it be that the New Testament stories of Jesus represent the fictive myth of an ancient mystery cult that’s survived for 2,000 years? Or is there something different about the accounts of Jesus’s time on earth?
When these claims are compared carefully with the New Testament Gospels, the distinction between Jesus and the supposed pagan parallels becomes quite distinct, for at least two reasons: first, the pagan parallels aren’t as parallel as the proponents claims; and second, many of the supposed parallels confuse later Christian practices with the actual affirmations in the New Testament Gospels1. The Parallels Aren’t So Parallel
First, it’s important to be aware that most of these supposed pagan parallels aren’t nearly so parallel as the skeptics suppose. When the actual sources behind the myths are closely examined, the supposed parallels have little in common with New Testament narratives.
For example, there are dying and rising gods in some pagan myths—but these deities died and arose each year, certainly not the same pattern as Jesus’s substitutionary once-for-all sacrifice. And the pagan myths of miraculous births are closer to divine impregnation—a mortal woman conceives a child as a result of sexual relations with a god—than to the virgin conception described in Matthew and Luke.Example: Jesus vs. Mithras
To exemplify how these supposed parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the critics claim, let’s look at the myth of Mithras, which is often presented as a predecessor to the New Testament.
So what about Mithras’s miraculous birth?
According to some reconstructions of the ancient sources describing the Mithras’s birth, Mithras was born from solid stone, and he got stuck on the way out. Some nearby persons in a field pulled him from the stone, which left a cave behind him. Some skeptics connect this birth to the birth of Jesus in a stable with shepherds arriving soon afterward. A few even refer to Mithras’s birth as a “virgin birth.”
But referring to the rescue of Mithras from stone as a “virgin birth” seems to me a stretch.
I mean, I guess that birth from a rock is sort of a virgin birth. But how can you tell if a rock is a virgin, anyway? And how do rocks lose their virginity? Parallels of this sort are too vague and too dissimilar to support the claim that Christians borrowed their beliefs from pagans of previous generations.
James Tabor, a professor at University of North Carolina, doesn’t believe in the virgin conception of Jesus, and he denies that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet even he is able to see how radically Jesus’s birth in the Gospels differs from any supposed pagan parallels:
When you read the accounts of Mary’s unsuspected pregnancy, what is particularly notable . . . is an underlying tone of realism that runs through the narratives. These seem to be real people, living in real times and places. In contrast the birth stories in Greco-Roman literature have a decidedly legendary flavor to them. For example, in Plutarch’s account of the birth of Alexander the Great, mother Olympias got pregnant from a snake; it was announced by a bolt of lightning that sealed her womb so that her husband Philip could not have sex with her. Granted, both Matthew and Luke include dreams and visions of angels but the core story itself—that of a man who discovers that his bride-to-be is pregnant and knows he is not the father—has a realistic and thoroughly human quality to it. The narrative, despite its miraculous elements, rings true.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of the supposed parallels between Jesus and Mithras:
Supposed parallel: Mithras had 12 followers.
Significant problem: One piece of ancient artwork depicts Mithras surrounded by 12 faces, but there is no evidence these were his “disciples.” In fact, Mithras had only two companions, Aldebaran and Antares.
Supposed parallel: Mithras was identified as a lion and a lamb.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence for connecting Mithras to a lamb. Yes, Mithras was identified as a lion. However, that imagery for a royal ruler existed among the Israelites (Gen. 49:9) several centuries prior to the emergence of any Mithraic myth; the New Testament writers were using familiar Jewish imagery when they depicted Jesus as a lion.
Supposed parallel: Mithras initiated a meal in which the terminology of “body and blood” were used.
Significant problem: The earliest evidence of such terminology in the context of Mithraism is from the mid-second century—nearly 100 years after the Gospels were written. In this instance, it is far more likely that Mithraism borrowed from Christian practice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras sacrificed himself for the sake of others.
Significant problem: Mithras is frequently depicted in the act of sacrificing a bull—but Mithras himself never becomes the sacrifice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras rose from the dead on the third day; his followers celebrated his resurrection each year.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a resurrection of Mithras on the third day. Because of his association with the sun, it’s possible that his followers celebrated a renewal or rebirth each year.
Supposed parallel: The resurrection of Mithras was celebrated on Sunday.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a celebration of a resurrection on the first day of the week, though the followers of Mithras—and of other sun-related deities—did worship their gods on Sunday. The reason for the emphasis on the first day of the week in the New Testament Gospels was, however, more closely tied to the fact that, in Genesis 1, God’s work of creation began on the first day. The implication was that, through the resurrection of Jesus, God was initiating a new beginning, a re-creation of his world.2. Claims of Parallels Confuse the NT’s Historical Claims with Later Christian Practices
What’s more, proponents of these parallels consistently conflate later Christian traditions with what’s found in the Gospels. It’s true, for example, that pagan festivals occurred around the time when Christians later celebrated Christmas—but the New Testament documents never suggest a date for Jesus’s birth.
Identifying a date to celebrate Christmas occurred centuries after the time of Jesus; Christians probably arrived at a date near the winter solstice because of an early tradition that Jesus was conceived on the same date that he died, and nine months after Passover landed the birthdate in late December. In any case, since the New Testament makes no claims regarding the date of Jesus’s birth, the celebration of Christmas is irrelevant when it comes to discussing whether the New Testament description of Jesus’s birth is rooted in real historical events.
The same holds true when it comes to connections between pagan fertility festivals and later Easter celebrations. The term “Easter” comes from “Ishtar,” a Sumerian goddess who died, rose, and ascended, and several familiar Easter motifs originated in pagan fertility cults. Yet, except for a King James Version mistranslation in Acts 12:4, no New Testament text even mentions Easter. The pagan roots of later Easter imagery have nothing to do with the historicity of the Gospels.
Likewise, later Christian art incorporated both Egyptian and Mithraic motifs, especially when depicting Jesus and his mother. Yet later depictions of pagan myths in Christian art has nothing to do with whether New Testament events actually occurred. It simply means that Christian artists could be a bit more creative when choosing sources for their inspiration.What If Pagan Parallels Do Exist?
Let’s suppose for a moment, though, that some patterns present in the life of Jesus could be pinpointed in some previous religion. Would this weaken the historical foundations of the Christian faith?
The real question isn’t, Are there similarities between the New Testament’s descriptions of Jesus and some previous pagan myths? Perhaps there are—although I must admit that every ancient parallel I’ve examined has turned out to be vague and weak when seen in its original context.
Every ancient parallel I’ve examined has turned out to be vague and weak when seen in its original context.
The crucial question is, Did the events described in the New Testament actually occur? The answer doesn’t depend on parallels in pagan practices.
Parallels in other ancient religions neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the New Testament documents. They simply demonstrate the common expectations of people in the first century AD. Even if some clear parallel did exist between the story of Jesus and previous religious expectations, this wouldn’t warrant the belief that the apostle Paul or the Gospel authors “borrowed” the tenets from other faiths.
It would mean that, when God dropped in on the human race, he chose to reveal himself in ways the people in that particular culture could comprehend. If that’s indeed the case, it would merely mean that the myths of dying gods and miraculous births are rooted in longings that run deeper than human imagination; although the pagan religions twisted and distorted these motifs, they’re rooted in a God-given yearning for redemption through sacrifice that makes the world right and new. C. S. Lewis addressed this possibility:
In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. . . . The old myth of the Dying God . . . comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about “parallels” [in other religions] . . . They ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.Not a Borrowed Religion
When it comes to parallels between the New Testament story of Jesus and the myths of pagan gods, the supposed connections aren’t sufficiently parallel to claim that Christian faith is borrowed. Even if some parallels were indisputable, that would merely mean God worked out his plan in a manner that matched the context within which “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:18).
So what should you do the next time someone pulls out a pagan parallel?1. Locate the primary source.
With the rarest of exceptions, the primary sources—that is to say, the actual ancient texts that describe the pagan practices—don’t include any real parallels to the New Testament.2. Determine whether the supposed parallel precedes or succeeds the New Testament.
Every text in the New Testament was in circulation no later than the late first century AD. If the pagan parallel is from a text written later than the first century AD, the New Testament writers obviously couldn’t have borrowed from it.3. Determine whether the supposed parallel connects to the New Testament—or to later Christian traditions.
Connections between pagan practices and later patterns in Christian worship or holiday celebrations may be interesting—but these links have nothing to do with whether New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus are historically accurate.