New mothers often receive a lot of advice. If motherhood were a house, it would have many corners and nooks, ready to be filled with wisdom, suggestions, and life hacks. Moms do need plenty of practical strategies—often just to make it to lunch time.
But we also need to remember our supreme goal as mothers—otherwise, we’ll get sidetracked by the day-to-day minutiae. The apostle Paul reminded Timothy of the ultimate goal of all Christians: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). God’s Word exhorts us to aim for faithfulness in motherhood, in order to mirror God’s faithfulness to us in Christ.Sincere Faith
Faithfulness in motherhood begins with sincere faith in Jesus, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). In his Word, God gives us shining examples of such faith. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well” (2 Tim. 1:5).
These women taught young Timothy the Scriptures that bring wisdom, leading to salvation (2 Tim. 3:14–15). And what was the result of Eunice and Lois’s sincere faith? Timothy, a son in their home but more importantly a son in the faith. Every time we pray aloud at a little one’s bedside or explain God’s Word to our kids, we walk in the faith-led footsteps of Lois and Eunice.Faithful Motherhood
Once a mother has a sincere faith, how does that affect the practical aspects of mothering? Consider three truths.1. Faithfulness depends on God—not self.
A faithful mother recognizes that her strength to live faithfully flows from grace. We daily rely on God’s Word and pray for his power to help kill our own sin, and we ask him for wisdom to deal with our kids’ sins. The thousands of opportunities we have to depend on Christ in mothering are gifts to be treasured, not despised.
The thousands of opportunities we have to depend on Christ in mothering are gifts to be treasured, not despised.2. Faithfulness exhibits repentance—not self-righteousness.
A faithful mother sees pride as a barrier and ongoing repentance as a gift. When we take a moment to ask forgiveness from our children for yelling at them, or to confess our sin before them in times of family prayer, we model a life of faithful repentance.3. Faithfulness commits to the church—not isolation.
Faithful mothering doesn’t exclude the body of Christ, even for a season. At times I’ve been tempted to believe the lie that the church gets in the way of my mothering. Many Lord’s Days I worked up a sweat getting the kids and myself ready, driving them to the gathering, unloading, settling us into seats—only to get up five minutes later to take a child out of service or spend the whole time feeding, changing, or getting someone to sleep.
In trying times, our flesh is tempted to forsake what we need most.
Why did I even bother coming? I used to think. I should have stayed home. In trying times, our flesh is tempted to forsake what we need most—and the church is often at the top of that list. But it’s always vital to gather with God’s people for worship.Beware Pharisee ‘Faithfulness’
Sometimes we can think we are being faithful mothers. Maybe people compliment us on our kids or we throw fantastic birthday parties or we volunteer the most at our kids’ school. These can all be great things, but just because we look good that doesn’t mean we’re being faithful. Perhaps the greatest warning in Scripture about false faithfulness is the Pharisees. They seemed faithful, but Jesus said they were just whitewashed tombs (Matt. 6; 23:27).
I’m sure their lives would have been Insta-perfect, but they were ultimately empty. To them, godliness was only a means to worldly gain (1 Tim. 6:5–6). Moms, if not for the grace of God this would be us. We have been given a role of authority and influence, but we must let faith propel our work, contenting ourselves with sacrifice and obscurity, knowing that God sees our hidden righteousness.Hope for the Faithless
We are deeply flawed mothers who have a flawless Savior. But there is hope for the unfaithful! Aim for faithfulness, and you will have an unequaled joy in Christ when everything is going right and when the laundry is piling up, the kids are fighting, and dinner is burning.
Sincere faith nourishes and energizes even the most exhausted of moms, as we learn to depend on the strong arms of our heavenly Father. May we daily point others, not to ourselves, but to God’s faithfulness so that the next generation might treasure the gospel and love him faithfully too.
“There are some downsides to globalization. How do we prepare? What do we do for these things? I have a method. I have a solution for a globalized world. It’s called the healthy church. Biblical, healthy church is the means of God to advance his glory among the nations. Jesus thought it up. . . . The church is God’s method for evangelism, discipleship, and missions. We do not need the latest fad. We do not need the latest missiology thinking. What we desperately need on the field is missionaries who know and trust biblical principles for planting biblical churches. The church is God’s proven instrument of missions. ” — Mack Stiles
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- The 3 Great Missionary Confusions
- Don’t Go Until You’re Sent
- Planting Gospel-Centered Churches in Italy
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
I’m a New Zealand humanitarian photographer and storyteller living and working in Uganda. I’m also a mom to three incredible kids (ages 2, 3, and 5). My work has taken me to 35 countries over the last decade, where I’ve seen everything from mothers saying their first hello to their babies, to witnessing their last goodbyes. I’ve listened to moms tell stories of hope and joy, as they proudly describe reaching the point of being able to pay their children’s school fees. I’ve wept as they’ve shared harrowing stories of surviving war, rape, slavery, abuse, and the murder of loved ones.
Before I started doing humanitarian photography/storytelling, I was tempted to imagine that mothers in developing countries who endured horrific things “on the news” were fundamentally different from me. Maybe, somehow, they just don’t feel things like I do. They’re “used to it,” numbed by the ubiquitous presence of suffering. Maybe they expect less, care less, hope for less, want less, or need less. But as I’ve gotten to know moms all over the world, and captured them and their children with my camera, I’ve come to see that as different as our cultures and contexts might be, the universal gifts and challenges of motherhood unite us. There’s really no difference in what we want for our children; only in what we can give them.
I’ve met many mothers through my travel and my work, in some of our planet’s most difficult places. These moms are remarkable. Each has a story, and each bears the beautiful image of God in how they nurture, love, and sacrifice for their children.
As Christians, one of the ways we dignify people is simply by seeing them, bearing witness to who they are as precious image-bearers, even or especially in difficult places and situations. Photography helps us do this. As we approach Mother’s Day, we can celebrate the gift of mothers is by seeing them in their beauty and struggle.
Here are some photos that try to do that—dignifying and bearing witness to six remarkable moms I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph.Annet (Uganda)
Annet, 32, and her triplets: Patience, Grace, and Samuel
When Annet became pregnant she had no money for a scan, and she ended up going into labor at home. She gave birth to Samuel in her house, alone. But after the baby came out, “my tummy looked like I hadn’t even given birth to a baby,” she said. Sure enough, after her brother-in-law took her to a hospital on his motorbike, a midwife informed her she was going to have twins and needed to go to another hospital. When she arrived at the new hospital, the doctor called her husband to let him know Annet was having not just twins, but triplets. She would need a C-section. The triplets were safely delivered, but their father didn’t want anything to do with them. “In our culture, twins are a blessing, but triplets are a curse,” Annet said. “So my husband turned his phone off. He refused to pay the hospital bill or have anything further to do with us, so the doctor ended up calling the press.” When Annet’s story went public, Compassion came to help. They paid her hospital bill and constructed a home for her and her triplets, who are now sponsored. Annet is grateful. “These children are a blessing!” she said.Marwa (Lebanon)
Marwa and her son share a moment outside their rented home in Lebanon, after fleeing violence in Syria. His face was burnt in a house fire.
Marwa (name changed for security reasons), 27, has five children between the ages of 7 months and 11 years. They came to Lebanon as refugees because of the war in Syria four years ago. “I saw bombs, shelling, people dying and ruins all around us,” Marwa said. “Every day I heard stories of families losing their children, and I was really scared of losing one of mine.” Marwa and her kids left everything they owned in Syria, coming to Lebanon with nothing. When they arrived, some members of a local church (supported by Tearfund) came to their aid, providing things like food vouchers, milk, and diapers—which they provide Marwa to this day. The trauma of what they left in Syria still affects the family. When the kids hear an airplane fly by or fireworks at night, they think there is bombing and shelling. But in spite of the emotional scars, Marwa is hopeful. “My hope for the future,” she said, “is for my children to get an education and to have no more sadness.”Modena (Bangladesh)
Modena and daughter Mohaismin, 6, shelter together from the rain outside their fragile shelter in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Sometimes the most powerful thing a mother can do is wake up each morning and choose to keep breathing for her children’s sake. Modena personified that dedication for me. Modena and her eight daughters, ages 6 to 30, have been living in the Rohingya refugee camps for about a year, having fled genocide in Myanmar. “Both my brother and husband were kicked to death,” Modena said. “I don’t even know where their grave is.” The men who killed her husband also burned down their house and raped Modena’s sisters. She hid her daughters in the forest for eight days during this time, eventually taking a boat on a five-day journey to Bangladesh. Though there are difficulties for Modena and her daughters surviving in the refugee camp—no “head of family,” no way of making money, missing lost loved ones—Modena is grateful to be away from Myanmar. “In Myanmar we couldn’t sleep at night,” she said. “We just kept thinking, Someone’s coming, someone’s coming, someone’s coming to kill us. At least we don’t feel that way here.”Juliet (Uganda)
Juliet rests a moment while her husband, Edward, says his first hello to their firstborn child, Christine, in a public hospital in Uganda.
For the last 15 months I’ve been following the story of Juliet, from the final stages of her pregnancy to her daughter Christine’s first birthday. Having not had the opportunity to go to school, Juliet met her husband, Edward, at a young age. They fell pregnant soon after, with little to no money to their name. A member of a local church helped register them into the local Compassion program. Juliet gave birth, by herself, inside a local hospital after a nurse had unexpectedly gone off duty. It has been beautiful to watch Juliet’s love for her daughter grow. “I am so much in love with my daughter,” she told me. “Maybe it’s because she’s my first born? I love my husband too, but he annoys me whereas she cannot annoy me.” Baby Christine was recently given a sponsor, which means she’ll have a different life from her mother—starting with an education. Juliet made me laugh when she said, “I’ve heard that white women don’t feel pain when they give birth? That you have schedules for napping, and you get mad if the baby doesn’t follow it!? I have heard you have an entire room where the babies sleep all by themselves and only baby things are in there.”Golle (Iraq)
Golle inside her home in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, after escaping with her four children when ISIS invaded her village.
Mother’s Day isn’t always a celebration. Sometimes it can be a painful reminder—for women who have lost their mothers, women who are not yet mothers, and mothers who have lost children. Mothers like Golle (name changed for security reasons). Golle found her 4-year-old son hanged by her sister-in-law, for reasons she still does not know. Golle and her remaining four children had to flee, a few months later, after ISIS invaded their village. They hid in the mountains for seven days with little food or water, eventually walking through Syria to a safer place in Iraq. “During this time I realized I was not doing well psychologically,” Golle said. “I had to take many pills for my treatment, as I kept falling over and fainting” (many victims of severe trauma suffer from conversion disorder, where they will faint at random times). Golle’s husband divorced her because of this condition. He took the children. Today Golle is living with her mother and father and says she is “going crazy” because she cannot see her children. She has even been suicidal. But she is getting help from the Tutapona trauma rehabilitation program, which she says is teaching her about forgiveness and opening up her heart. “I still have things to be hopeful and thankful for,” she said.Charlotte (Tanzania)
Premature baby Robert was born in a refugee camp on March 2, 2019, in Tanzania. Here he takes a moment to rest in his mother’s arms.
I found baby Robert and his mother, Charlotte, inside a sweltering premature babies room in the middle of a refugee camp on the border of Congo and Burundi. Charlotte had fled in 2015 and come to Tanzania seeking safety. Robert is Charlotte’s fifth baby and was born prematurely. As I witnessed this woman holding this tiny new life, I admired her calm and remarkable resilience. Giving birth is an achievement, let alone doing it for the fifth time, in a refugee camp, to a premature baby. Medical Teams International is working in these refugee camps to provide medical services to vulnerable people like tiny Robert and his brave mama.
As an American Christian, it’s clear to me that I’m living in an increasingly secular nation. And by secular, I don’t mean most Americans are atheist or agnostic. Nor do I mean most Americans are hesitant to bring their religion into public discussions. Instead, following philosopher Charles Taylor, I mean Christianity has been displaced from the default position and is now positively contested by countless religions, ideologies, and “takes” and “spins” on the world.
As a result, there’s less consensus and more contention on social and political issues. Moreover, historic and biblical Christianity is increasingly viewed as implausible, unimaginable, even reprehensible. Christians who don’t abandon these beliefs are considered either ignorant or evil, or both. This radical restructuring of society, with Christianity expunged from the public square, has ancient roots, and few have helped me understand our present situation more than a 19th-century Dutch historian named Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876).Unbelief and Revolution
In particular, I focus on Groen van Prinsterer’s (hereafter, “Groen”) forgotten classic, Unbelief and Revolution, recently published in a new English edition (Lexham Press, 2018). Groen served as cabinet secretary for King William I in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands before proceeding to a career as an archivist, historian, political commentator, and newspaper owner and editor. This book is an edited and abridged version of lectures he delivered in his house on Saturday evenings to a crowd of friends and acquaintances.
Few have helped me understand our present situation more than this 19th-century Dutch historian.
Groen delivered these lectures in the 1840s during a period of political turmoil across Europe. He was especially concerned about revolutionary ideas seeping over from the French Revolution into Dutch society, but also about a theologically anemic Dutch church that employed rationalist or mystical hermeneutics and ignored or rejected the historic confessions.Danger of Secular Ideology and Secular Revolutions
Groen’s thesis is that the French Revolution shouldn’t be dismissed as a failed political project of a previous era. Instead, the Revolution lives on through its dangerous ideas that, Groen argued, would continue to subject the West to social, cultural, and political convulsions and recurrent revolutions. The Revolutionary spirit replaces God with man, divine revelation with autonomous human reason, and a transcendent morality with immanent, self-authorized morality.
Given the Revolution’s sidelining of God, revelation, and transcendent morality, it wished to base moral and social order on social consent and to base its conception of “justice” on the opinions of those in power. In response, Unbelief and Revolution argues for a retrieval: European societies should return to the understanding that moral order is framed in relation to creation order, political authority is ordained by God, law and justice are rooted in an objective moral order founded by God, and truth is objective and rooted in God’s revelation of himself.
If European societies don’t retrieve their Christian underpinnings, Groen argues, they’ll experience the consequences of their unbelief. Revolutionary principles are antithetical to Christianity, for they coalesce to form a rival conception of humanity, evil, salvation, and the eschaton. But they’re also antithetical to creation’s most basic ordering, which can’t be flouted forever with impunity.Place from Which to Stand
The first two chapters are introductory. Groen decided to write the lectures because his work as a historian made him “keenly aware” of the Netherlands’s “national humiliation and decline” (1). In his studies he came to the conclusion that Revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, popular sovereignty, social contract, and social reconstruction are antithetical to Christianity and to creation order. “A life-and-death struggle is raging between the gospel and this practical atheism. To contemplate a rapprochement between the two would be nonsense” (4). Thus, Christians have a duty to oppose Revolutionary ideas politically.
In opposing the Revolution, Groen made clear the place from which he stood—historical and biblical Christianity. “The Scriptures contain the foundation of justice and morality, of freedom and authority for private persons as well as for nations and governments. The Bible, searched sincerely and prayerfully, is the infallible touchstone” (11). While grateful for many wise historians, philosophers, and theologians, Groen looks “first of all to the Scriptures” (18).Factors That Didn’t Cause the Secular Revolution
In the second, third, and fourth chapters, Groen addresses factors that helped enable the Revolution but weren’t the primary cause. The Revolution, he argued, wasn’t sparked by the insufficiency of France’s prevailing principles, France’s established forms of government, or the real abuses of France’s standing regime. Instead, it was an intentional program introduced by France’s shameless philosophers seeking the devolution and disintegration of historic Christianity along with its social, cultural, and political implications. To this subject we now turn.Social-Contract Theory
Groen begins exploring the Revolution’s roots—and the injustice and violence left in its wake—by arguing that social-contract theory replaced Europe’s historic view that governments exist by divine right. He criticizes Locke and Rousseau, but Hobbes especially. Thomas Hobbes leveraged his hypothetical “state of nature” to argue for the absolute, near-god-like power of the sovereign to rescue humanity from its own brutality. Ironically, the animalistic bloodthirst of the Revolution revealed its identity not as the people’s savior, but as their executioner.Reformation
Next, Groen addresses the charge made by some commentators that the Reformation’s break with the Catholic Church fostered the Revolution. Groen disagrees, arguing that the Reformation’s emphasis on liberty was framed by other doctrines such as divine sovereignty and human depravity. The Reformation helped to slow down the degeneration and disintegration caused by Europe’s slouch toward unbelief.
The Reformation’s power wasn’t found in scientific theology or philosophical apologetics, but in the preaching of the gospel and the fundamental truths of Christianity:
The fundamental truths of the Christian religion are indelibly imprinted in the history of the church. I think of the infallibility of Holy Scripture, the deity of the Savior, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the total depravity of our nature, the satisfaction for our sins, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, the necessity of regeneration and sanctification—all those truths are summed up in the one thing needful: Peace through the blood of the cross. These are the truths that invariably appear in all the symbolic writings of the evangelical churches . . . . These truths are the same truths whose denial marked the cause and origin of the Revolution. (82)
Once these truths were rejected, the Revolution became inevitable. Indeed, the principle of unbelief, followed to its logical consequences, necessarily leads to ruin. Once Europe severed ties with the gospel, “none [could] stop the rush to the abyss” (82).Unbelief in Religious Sphere
In his eighth lecture, Groen addresses unbelief in the sphere of religion. As European society—including large swathes of the church—increasingly rejected biblical Christianity, unbelieving Revolutionary ideology rushed in to fill the void. It “clothed itself” in Christian ideas such as justice, liberty, toleration, humanity, and morality. These ideas
had not been cultivated on [the Revolution’s] own acre, but in Christian soil. Once orthodoxy failed to preserve this rich heritage, it fell into the hands of the philosophers. And what did they do with it? For all their boasting, these treasures came to ruin under their stewardship. And no wonder. They wanted to retain the conclusions while abandoning the premises, to have the water while plugging its springs, to enjoy the shade of the tree after cutting its roots. Plants that had flourished on the banks of the gospel stream could only wither when transplanted to a dry and thirsty land. (87)
For Groen, God is the source of both religion and society; when we err in our conception of God, we will necessarily also err in every other sphere of life. Unbelief has an inexorable drive toward tyranny. “Wherever the lie triumphs, it must hate every element of the truth that still remains” (93). The Revolution’s defining feature, then, is hatred of God and the gospel—and thus carries with it “the mark of hell” (94).Unbelief in Political Sphere
In the ninth lecture, Groen demonstrates that errors in religion cause errors in politics and political theory. Whereas historically, the West had recognized divine sovereignty as the basis for state and society, it now declared human autonomy the basis. Epistemologically, autonomous reason usurped the place of divine revelation, and truth became a matter of convention. Ethically, justice became increasingly equated with expediency.
At the heart of unbelieving political theory is a false anthropology that blames institutions, rather than persons, for the origin of evil. Revolutionary political theory posits that human nature is good but distorted by institutions—and thus we must alter the institutions so that man can once again be good. In particular, we must abolish any form of hierarchy, conceive of society as an aggregate of individuals, and get rid of all differences, distinctions, and inequalities.
Further, the state—rather than being seen as authorized by God—replaces God, demanding that citizens surrender their lives to it. And consequently, religion must surrender to the state:
What will be the policy of the revolutionary state with respect to religion? To tolerate all religions while having no religion itself. With one proviso, of course—that the state shall command reverence toward its own precepts for politics and morality and ban any religion that refuses to bow before the idol. (103)
Groen concludes by arguing that the principle of unbelief promises liberty, but in the end only offers radicalism or despotism, either in the rending of the social fabric or in government tyranny (107).Consequences of Flouting Creation Order
In the tenth lecture, Groen argues that neither individuals nor societies can flout creation order forever with impunity. History is replete with examples of how pagan ideology brushes up against the divine order. Revolutionary ideas are no exception; they are positively and repeatedly contested by creation order and divine law (109). As revolutionaries overthrow every aspect of Christianity and the moral order, they’ll pursue sensual pleasures and temporal interests alone.
Yet the idolatry of sensual pleasures and temporal interests will have negative consequences, and as those consequences become more profound and severe, the social fabric will be torn, and the state will be called in to ameliorate the consequences. In fact, Groen devotes Lectures XI–XIV to articulating a five-stage cycle in which revolutions experience the negative consequences of their unbelieving ideology.Faith Overcomes the World
In his conclusion, Groen encourages Christians to proclaim the gospel, urging them to consider that even though Revolutionary ideas are powerful, the gospel is more powerful. We must preach the gospel even when the response is nothing but opposition. Groen writes:
Faith overcomes the world. If we wish to overcome the world it is needful first of all to cast down in our minds all imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Let us always remember that the cry, “Help thou mine unbelief!” is preceded by the shout of joy, “Lord, I believe!” Let us never forget that all activity, also in history and politics, is of no value in the estimation of him who knows the heart if it is not sanctified by the twofold prayer that expresses the common need of philosopher and child alike: “Be merciful to me a sinner,” and “My soul cleaves to the dust; quicken thou me according to thy word.” (247–48)Unsustainable Ideologies
I’m grateful that I found Guillame Groen van Prinsterer’s Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution while browsing the shelves of a used bookstore in Raleigh almost a decade ago. Although the edition I found was nearly worthless in monetary terms—faded and tattered as it was—it is priceless in its ability to help us understand the West’s recurrent social, cultural, and political convulsions. Although I didn’t agree with everything he advocated—e.g., I don’t want to push for a monarchical republic—I recognized immediately that he was right about the unbelieving roots of modern political ideologies.
This volume is priceless in its ability to help us understand the West’s recurrent social, cultural, and political convulsions.
Under the pretense of neutrality, the West’s revolutionary ideologies function as immanent systems of salvation. For that reason, it’s unsurprising that the West continues to experience social and political convulsions. Creation order and the moral law can’t be contradicted forever with impunity. And, as Groen rightly predicted, the situation will only worsen unless God grants us spiritual renewal and cultural and political reform.
If you have young kids, I know one thing about you. You’re tired. Chances are you haven’t slept well in months, possibly years, and the thought of going to church can seem tiring, daunting, a bridge too far. And on those Sundays you do drag your exhausted family along, the kids don’t settle in, you don’t really hear the sermon, and it all seems so hard. So every Sunday morning, you wake with a knot in your stomach. Should we stay or go? And the danger is, you won’t go.
It makes me teary to think of struggling parents who stop going to church because it is all too hard. The need to push through exhaustion and prioritize church is vital, not only for you, but also for your children.
I understand. Believe me, I understand! I’ve been attending church in a sleep-deprived state for more than a decade. My youngest, who is now 4, has hardly slept through the night in his whole life. I have children who have separation anxiety and won’t be left in the children’s church program. I can’t remember the time I last heard a sermon from beginning to end. The struggle is real for me every week. The thought of staying home enters my head every Sunday morning because I am tired—oh, so tired—and that is easier. Yes, I’ve been a minister’s wife, and yes I’m now a missionary, but there are plenty of times I would’ve rather stayed in my pajamas and eaten pancakes! And yet, I know just how important it is for all of us to go.
Here are five reasons why.1. You’re Not Going Just for Yourself
As with many other things in life when you become a parent, you no longer go to church for yourself alone. You also go for your children. If I lack the energy to go, I go for them. What message am I giving them if I stay home? That church is not a priority. That being tired means that God’s people aren’t worth the effort.
Let me be clear: Going to church does not make me, or my child, a Christian. Going to church does, however, encourage us, encourage others, and bring us into the presence of God’s people. This is priceless. Weekly attendance helps develop a family culture that will, hopefully, continue for our children as they grow older.
Everything we do sends messages to our kids. Going to church weekly sends a simple one: God is a priority for this family.2. Church Is About More than a Sermon
“I don’t get to hear the sermon anyway, so what’s the point?” Perhaps you’ve heard (or voiced) that objection, too. But while hearing the sermon is a large part of going to church, it’s not the only part. In this stage of your life, you may not get to hear many full sermons. This is hard, but God’s Word is powerful. It can penetrate even our hazy, baby-fog brains.
And there are many other good reasons to go to church. Singing with a whole congregation of people can be hugely encouraging. It can be uplifting to your soul when your body is so tired. Church will also give you encouragement, through your friends and fellow believers, as you fellowship with them before or after the service.3. Your Presence Encourages Others
As a believer, sometimes you encourage other believers simply by being present. At the very least, you encourage your minister who has faithfully worked on a sermon throughout the week to bring God’s Word to you. You’re not just a recipient who gets stuff out of church; you contribute simply by showing up.
You encourage other believers simply by being present.
Seeing a young, exhausted parent continue to come to church week in and week out is a massive encouragement to the rest of the congregation.4. Those Who Stop Going Don’t Always Start Back
I often hear people say, “It’s too hard now. We’ll wait a few years and then return when the kids are a bit older. They’re too young to know the difference anyway.” However sincerely you mean this when you stop attending, the reality is that most people will not return for a long time, if ever. Habits change, priorities change, and it becomes effortless to not be at church. How easy it is to slowly drift from the Father who longs to holds you close. You may think this will never happen to you, but the world and the Devil will take any opportunity to pull you from the path of righteousness.
On the other hand, habits are powerful teaching tools for our kids. Even when they’re so young that they don’t know what’s happening, they’re learning. They learn either that church doesn’t matter or that church is a priority. Which do you want them to believe when they’re older?5. Some Church Is Better than No Church
I know firsthand the difficulty of having kids who will not separate from you. My eldest would start crying when we turned the corner onto the road going to church, and that’s when he was only 18 months old. Now my youngest doesn’t want me to leave him, doesn’t like other children anywhere near him, and doesn’t want other adults in his space! Leaving him, at this stage, is not really an option, so I miss many sermons. Currently, I stay in church for the singing and prayers as long as I can with him, then I sit with him in his kids’ program. I return after the service to fellowship with friends and fellow believers. This is not ideal, but I still get some time with God, encouragement from others, and a chance to encourage. And my son gets to hear a message in his kids’ program each week, which is also important.
This is a stage. He will not always be clinging to me, and I will, one day, hear a full sermon again and not be too tired to listen to most of it. But for now, this is what I do, and it is better than staying home. My children are seeing me make church and God a priority in my life, and I consider that a win.
Sisters, God holds you close. He longs for a relationship with you and has sent his Son to prove it to you. So hold on to him through the tiredness. Keep him and his people a priority. Draw strength from the church he’s given you. Let others know you’re tired. God will strengthen you, uplift you, and grow you as you press into his people. No matter how hard it is, keep going. Draw near to him, and he will draw near to you.
When I first heard about a new film about J.R.R. Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult (X-Men, Mad Max: Fury Road) as Tolkien, I immediately checked IMDB to see if the film’s cast included any actors portraying other Inklings: C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and so forth. As an undergraduate at Wheaton College I worked at the Wade Center, a research library focusing on several of the Oxford Inklings. After college I worked for the C.S. Lewis Foundation and spent time in Oxford, frequenting The Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings met regularly to discuss each other’s writing. I have long dreamed about a film about the Inklings.
Alas, Tolkien is not that film. Directed by Finland’s Dome Karukoski and written by Irish playwright David Gleeson, the film is set in Tolkien’s boyhood and young adulthood—years before he met Lewis, befriended him, and proved pivotal in his conversion to Christianity. But even if the Inklings are absent in Tolkien, their spirit is there.
Even if the Inklings are absent in ‘Tolkien,’ their spirit is there.
Though oddly not endorsed by the Tolkien family, Tolkien is a beautiful, refreshing ode to the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors. The film keenly observes the specific circumstantial alchemy that gave rise to the languages, landscapes, and longings of Middle Earth. But it also observes the general human need for kindred spirits, comrades-in-arms, cohorts to spur passion and purpose, friends to live and love and die alongside.
In short: it’s a film about fellowship.The Fellowship Before ‘The Fellowship’
Artistic genius doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. Behind every great creation is a web of relationships that helped form the person who formed the masterpiece. For J.R.R. Tolkien, that web included his mother, Mabel (Laura Donnelly), who died when he was only 12. Mabel homeschooled young J.R.R. and his brother, reading him stories like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book, provoking his young mind to begin cultivating imaginary worlds. Also prominent in Tolkien’s formational web is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), the muse he first met at 16 but, because of various obstacles, couldn’t marry for another eight years.
Tolkien renders Ronald and Edith’s romance beautifully, often in ways that foreshadow Tolkien’s future literary legacy (a key scene finds Tolkien taking Edith on a date to see the Birmingham Symphony perform Wagner’s Ring cycle, one of Edith’s favorites). It’s lovely to watch the pair develop chemistry while talking about untranslatable German words (Drachenfutter!) and phonaesthetics, namely the unparalleled beauty of the word “cellar door.”
But as much as these women proved crucial influences on the man who gave the world The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien focuses mostly on the formative influences of male fellowship; namely, a group of mates he met in adolescence who formed a proto-Inklings literary society: The T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). This group consisted of four friends who attended Birmingham’s King Edward’s School together: Tolkien/“Tollers” (aspiring philologist), Robert Gilson (aspiring painter and son the school’s strict headmaster), Christopher Wiseman (aspiring classical composer), and Geoffrey Smith (aspiring poet who was perhaps Tolkien’s dearest and most loyal friend—the “Samwise” to his Frodo).
This fellowship of four comrades (doubtless an inspiration for the “fellowship” of Rings) played rugby together and talked about Norse mythology while drinking tea. They encouraged and pushed each other in their creative pursuits—painting, music, literature, poetry—as well as their relational and romantic struggles. For young Ronald—having grown up fatherless (Arthur Tolkien died when J.R.R. was only 3) and orphaned by age 12—such a brotherhood was a godsend.
Meeting in the schools’ library and Birmingham’s Barrows Stores (hence the “Barrovian Society” name), the boys found solidarity in their shared desire to “change the world through the power of art.” Their concept of masculinity saw no paradox in getting muddy on the rugby field together one day and talking about Chaucer and Beowulf over tea the next. Theirs was a gentlemanly fellowship rooted in virtue and classics and poetic gallantry. It’s a refreshing vision for young men today, whose presentist world—defined by the ephemera of Snapchat and the cheap pleasures of pornography—does more to dull their senses and coddle them than awaken them to beauty and prepare them for bravery.
Not so for the T.C.B.S. Their group mantra was “Helheimr!”—a Norse word that came to be a “seize the moment, do hard things” call to arms for them. Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men. They went to Oxford together and then to battle together, fighting in the trenches of the Great War. All four faught. Only two (Tolkien and Wiseman) returned. Gilson and Smith died in the bloody Battle of the Somme.
Their faithful fellowship to one another helped the boys become men.Old Light in the World
The Great War marked the end of the T.C.B.S. brotherhood, even as it ignited Tolkien’s imagination and catalyzed him to carry on the fellowship’s mission to “change the world through the power of art.” As it does in Lord of the Rings, the pastoral joy of fellowship is broken by the destruction of war. But the mission continues. The memory and longing for healing, for everything sad to come untrue, for a reunion of the fellowship somewhere, someday, motivates Tolkien in his art-making. As it did for so many (Lewis included), Tolkien channeled his post-war pain in his literary creations—inventing other languages, other worlds, other endings to help process his own.
Though the T.C.B.S. was, in the end, a short-lived fellowship, its mission motivated Tolkien for the rest of his life. After receiving news of the death of Rob Gilson, Tolkien wrote a 1916 letter to Smith (who himself would soon fall on the battlefield). In the letter, Tolkien described the T.C.B.S. as something destined to “rekindle an old light in the world . . . to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.”
For Tolkien, a soldier’s sacrifice is noble, but the greater war—the one he and his comrades waged over tea at Barrows—was the fight to preserve the good, the forgotten ways, the “old light in the world.” Tolkien’s enduring contribution is precisely this wisdom—that in a world obsessed with the new, the industrial, and the pragmatic, preservation of the ancient ways, and the beauty that seems superfluous, takes on a radical importance. We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human. As Tolkien wrote in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
This is why, after the death of his dear friend Geoffrey Smith, Tolkien works to get Smith’s poems published. A scene in Tolkien shows him meeting with his late friend’s mother, who thinks it a silly and useless thing to publish her dead son’s poems. “What good can poetry do in times like these?” she ponders. Tolkien responds: “I cannot think of anything more necessary, especially at a time like this.”
We need stories of hobbits and wizards and magic rings precisely because we don’t need them. We need the creative arts in all their fantastical createdness because they bear witness to what it means to be human.Bearing Witness to a Creator
As much as Tolkien gets right about the vitality of friendship and fellowship for creativity and general human flourishing, the film largely neglects the spiritual fellowship Tolkien had with God, through Christ. Apart from the presence of a priest, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who serves as the legal guardian to the orphaned Tolkien brothers, and a brief scene of the boys singing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” at school, Christianity is absent in the film. Following the troubling trend of recent films, like Disney’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which erased any shred of Christian influence, Tolkien presents a story of enchantment devoid of the ultimate source of enchantment: God.
The film’s closest brush with faith comes in a scene where Father Francis describes his response to families grieving loved ones lost in WWI: “Words are useless; modern words anyway. I speak the liturgy. There’s a comfort, I think, in distance.” But even here, the “liturgy” is valued mostly for its enduring linguistic stability; not necessarily for the transcendent realities and spiritual truths it describes.
And yet even as the filmmakers noticeably omit God from Tolkien’s story, what remains—the existential necessity of fellowship, the power of art to both preserve the “old light” and pine for the perfect Light—bears witness to spiritual truth, even if accidentally. By showing the beauty Tolkien made out of brokenness—his lost West Midlands childhood becoming the eschatological Shire, the horrors of the Somme becoming the vanquished wastelands of Mordor, a lost quartet of schoolboys becoming a fellowship of hobbits—the film bears witness to the Creator God and the resurrected Christ, whose words reverberate in the hearts of every orphan, every widow, every shell-shocked-veteran-turned-fantasy-writer: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
It’s possible to plant a church and watch it grow without actually doing mission. But the church is called to “proclaim the excellencies of [God], who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
This is why we plant churches: to push back the darkness with the light of the gospel. And if church plants are to grow because of people actually coming to Christ, then church planters must be marked by missional living. That is, they must live with gospel intentionality in all of life.
If church planters don’t do this, we will see churches that remain largely insular. Not only is this unhealthy for the church, it’s also unbiblical. Faithful church planters will lead lives marked by gospel intentionality.
This is not an easy task, but gospel intentionality flows from our new gospel identity. So how do church planters live with such deliberateness for both the church and also the lost? I’m excited to have Shaun Cross with me today to discuss this question.
The Christian faith and the 500-year-old Reformation stand or fall with the truth of Paul’s teaching in Galatians. This letter deals with matters on which your eternal destiny hangs.
Therefore, the letter of Galatians, the Reformation, and Christian conviction on justification should echo in us with unparalleled seriousness on at least three levels:
- Unparalleled seriousness in joy at the grace and peace that is ours in verse 3, and the deliverance from evil and destruction that is ours in verse 4, and the soul-satisfying glory of God in verse 5.
- Unparalleled seriousness of astonishment (like we see in verse 6) that we, our children, or our friends would turn away from this grace to a gospel that is no gospel.
- Unparalleled seriousness of anger at anyone who, like those in verse 7, distorts the gospel and destroys human souls—let them be accursed.
Just think of it: accursed (Gal. 1:9). Whose curse? Paul’s? Paul’s curse is nothing compared to God’s curse. Paul says in 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
But now we have a group, purporting to come from James in Jerusalem (2:12), that is directing the Galatians away from the all-sufficient, curse-removing substitution of Christ. So Paul says, “Cursed!”—damned—be those who lead people away from the curse-removing gospel of Christ.
Damned be the damners.
This is happening to people in your church and your family. They are being exposed to kinds of “gospels”—which are no gospel—every day. They are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure and away from grace. And they need to hear a very serious word from you.
You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:4)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. . . . Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? (Gal. 3:1, 4)
Woe to the pastor or the worship leader who creates an entertainment atmosphere in their church where this kind of seriousness feels out of place.Authority and Justification
Two of the great, indispensable truths of the Christian faith that the Protestant Reformation recovered in Scripture—and from under the mountains of sacramentalism, ritual, and meritorious works in the Roman Catholic Church—were the supreme authority of Scripture over all human authority (including the pope and all councils), and the truth that sinful human beings stand justified before God, not on the basis of any righteousness of their own doing, but only on the basis of Christ crucified, risen, and righteous.
Those two recoveries are sometimes called the formal principle (the supreme authority of Scripture) and the material principle (justification by faith alone) of the Reformation.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was so crucial in the recovery of these truths because these two principles are the focus of the book. Chapters 1 and 2 deal mainly with the formal principle—Paul’s apostolic authority. Chapters 3 and 4 deal mainly with the material principle—justification by faith apart from works of the law. Chapters 5 and 6 deal mainly with what that looks like in life.Exegete Galatians 1 from the Bottom Up
In chapter 1, the focus falls heavily on the foundation of the gospel in its divine origin through Paul’s apostolic authority, not on the material content of the gospel of justification. Perhaps the best way to approach this is by focusing on Paul’s argument, not in the order that he gave it, but by rebuilding his argument from the deepest foundation he mentions to the final outcome, with each step in the argument building on the one that most immediately supports it.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you say to me, “I can’t talk now, I’m late; I have to hurry or I’ll miss my train.” If I want to tell someone what you said, I could just repeat it as you said it. Or I could analyze it and then rebuild it starting with the deepest foundation and ending with the final outcome. So, it would go like this: “He was late. Therefore, he was about to miss his train. Therefore, he was in a great hurry. Therefore, he couldn’t talk to you.” The order of the four statements in my exposition is totally different from the order you spoke them. But the logic is exactly the same.
Here’s the reason I find it so helpful to think like this. Where there are only four statements, you can see immediately and intuitively what the logical connections are—what’s the cause and what’s the effect. But when you are dealing with 24 verses, as we are in Galatians 1, you can easily lose track of how the pieces fit together.
That’s one of the things I think preaching is for: to make the structure of the argument plain. One way to do that is to rebuild it from the deepest foundation to the final outcome, with each step in the argument building on the one that most immediately supports it. Going at it that way helps Paul’s readers to see why he is so wrought up over those who would preach another gospel. Indeed, we should follow his example for, as Paul puts it, there is no gospel other than the one he preached.
How ought we respond when we hear that a Christian has fallen into scandalous sin? What effect should the fall of a Christian pastor have on us? We hear that someone, perhaps one we have known well, has fallen into financial sin (say, defrauding his church), or has been dishonest in his speaking or writing, or has committed great sexual sin, or has had an outburst of aggressive and blasphemous anger. Or he has in some other way dishonored the gospel of the Lord Jesus and damaged the church. In recent months, we’ve heard of several such tragedies.
After the first shock of discovery, what is a godly response? Here are 10 principles from Scripture I hope will guide us.1. Be Sad and Angry
It’s right to be both sad and angry in the face of sin. For it is through sin that death came into the world (Rom. 5:12); every ugliness, each misery, all suffering, is the result of sin. When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly. In his “anxiety for all the churches” when the apostle Paul hears of someone who has been caused to stumble, he burns with indignation (2 Cor. 11:28–29); it makes him angry at sin, angry at the Devil, angry at the one who has sinned.
When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly.
When the Lord Jesus was face to face with death at the grave of Lazarus, he burned with sadness and anger. The expression “deeply moved” (John 11:33, 38) signifies not just grief but also anger. Every sin, and most acutely a scandalous sin, reminds us that we lie in the shadow of death. A holy sad anger is a right response. Don’t be afraid to weep.2. Support Those Most Deeply Harmed
Every scandal causes casualties. When a man leaves his wife and children, the family will need much loving, sensitive support. They may need financial help or profound practical assistance, as well as sympathy and friendship.
When a pastor falls into sin, a whole church will be hurting. When someone with a wider ministry across different churches is snared in scandal, the shockwaves of pain and sadness may spread far and wide. We must do all we can to support those most deeply affected.3. Watch and Pray
Anger at the sin of others is dangerous; it can blind us to our own frailty. At the start of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul invites us to meditate on the terrible sin of Old Testament Israel. How should we respond? Paul tells us: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction. . . . Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11–12). “Keep watch on yourself, lest you be tempted,” Paul writes, when you’re seeking to restore one who has sinned (Gal. 6:1).
When I hear about a fallen minister, it frightens me to know I’m entirely capable of doing just what he’s done—or worse. I share a sinful nature.
So the sin of another ought to humble me afresh under the mighty hand of God, to move me to repentance for my own sin, to pray for a new realism about the darkness in my own heart, to watch myself closely lest I too be tempted and fall. “Lead me not into temptation” takes on a new urgency when I hear this news.
And humble watchfulness will guard me against the temptation to gossip about this sad failure, to spread the word around because it somehow makes me feel better about myself. This is always wrong.4. Lovingly Watch over One Another
Hebrews 4:12–13 tells us:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.
Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.
So I need brothers and sisters who will watch over me, warn me, encourage me, help me to be on guard against sin’s deceitfulness. When a brother or sister falls in some terrible way, it should stir us all to redouble our care for one another, whether through prayer partnerships, accountability groups, or just the healthy watchfulness that ought to characterize church life (cf. Heb. 10:24–25). Each of us has areas of weakness. A faithful prayer partner can be a friend who knows me well enough to warn me when he sees danger ahead. He may spot lurking sin to which I am blind.5. Be Gentle
We should approach the fallen Christian in “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). The guilty sinner will be bruised. There will be all sorts of conflicting thoughts and emotions raging within them. It will be a time of terrible turmoil. If you’ve been their friend, and you come to them with a stern rebuke or condemnation—however much they may deserve it—you may expect him or her to pull down relational shutters, to unfriend you on social media, to ignore your calls or texts, to hunker down and cut themselves off from Christian friends. So be gentle. Offer friendship.
They won’t expect you to condone what they’ve done, but they may be grateful that you continue to show them friendship. They may not. They may refuse you and turn you away. But with gentleness they may, even tentatively, agree to meet or stay in touch. Who knows? You may be God’s special instrument of grace to them.6. This Isn’t the End of the Story
You don’t know how the story will end. You don’t know that it will end with grace, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation—it may not. But nor do you know it won’t, so pray.
The apostle John writes:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16–17)
I’ve always been puzzled as to how John expects us to know, at the time, which sins lead to death and which do not. Given the context in 1 John, a definitive acceptance of wrong teaching about Jesus Christ may constitute the former, but I’m not sure. In the case of scandal, however, it seems to me that we usually don’t know.
We never know how a story will end.
Paul writes of a godly grief that produces a repentance that leads to salvation and a worldly grief that “produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). Pray that grief in your friend may prove to be godly sorrow that leads them to repentance. It probably will take time, but pray that will be the outcome.
Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter stand side by side so strikingly in the narrative of John 13 and John 18. Had you been talking about Judas in earlier days, you probably would’ve been pretty sure he was a genuine disciple; he was, after all, the apostolic band’s treasurer. No doubt he looked and sounded like a real follower of Jesus. But you would’ve been tragically wrong. But, then again, had you watched Simon Peter denying his Lord three times, you might’ve concluded he would be lost forever. And you would’ve been gloriously wrong. We never know how a story will end, so there is always hope in the gospel’s power to transform.7. Pray for All Christian Leaders
A professing Christian’s fall into scandal is always a shocking event. But it’s particularly shocking when the one who falls is either a senior and respected Christian leader or a young, gifted Christian leader. Pray for them. They are engaged in a noble task with high moral expectations and demands; there is a Devil who prowls around like a roaring lion, desiring to destroy (1 Tim. 3:1–7; 1 Pet. 5:8).
I try to pray regularly for those Christian leaders to whom God has entrusted a high public profile, especially in this age of social media and internet fame. I ask God to keep them humble, to guard their character, and to make them ever watchful over their life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).8. Don’t Let This Rock Your Faith (Put Not Your Trust in Princes)
I remember a terrible fall many years ago by a noted a Christian leader. Many churches felt the shockwaves. I’ll never forget an older Christian friend, who’d admired this leader, quote from Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes.” Sometimes people feel their faith has been rocked by a scandal. But if our faith has been shaken, it may suggest our faith has been misplaced. If we place our trust in human leaders, we are going to be shaken, for we ought not to have relied on them in the first place. Only God is trustworthy.
If our faith has been shaken, it may suggest our faith has been misplaced.
With characteristic wisdom, John Newton wrote:
Gifts may perhaps be compared to a weapon or sword which will enable a man to do much execution in the battle, but they are no evident proofs on which side he intends to fight.
Church history is littered with brilliant people who have proven to be enemies of the gospel, often within the visible church.
In our age of the Christian celebrity, this warning must be sounded with clarity and intensity. We must not trust ultimately in even the greatest Christian leader. As the psalm goes on to say, even if they don’t let us down in this life, they will eventually die. Even the Christian leader who remains faithful to the end cannot save us. That ought to be obvious, but somehow we keep forgetting it.9. Take Comfort in the Goodness and Sovereignty of God
A minister’s fall from grace is a moral earthquake. When a marriage breaks, we all feel our marriages are less secure; when scandal breaks, we feel ourselves somehow less safe. That’s only natural. But we mustn’t stop there. The great Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne wrote:
The falls of [professing Christians] into sin make me tremble. I have been driven away from prayer, and burdened in a fearful manner by hearing or seeing their sin. This is wrong. It is right to tremble, and to make every sin of every professor a lesson of my own helplessness, but it should lead me the more to Christ.
Christ has declared that he will build his church (Matt. 16:18), and he will. Scandal rocks the church; it brings the gospel into disrepute; it can close doors for gospel work. But it can never frustrate Christ’s sovereign power and unchanging purposes to build his church. One day there will be a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Rev. 7:9). Among that number there will be some who fell into scandalous sin, but were later brought to repentance and restored. Your friend may be among them.10. Stir Up Fresh Zeal for the Gospel
Remember that only the gospel abolishes death and brings life and immortality to light (2 Tim. 1:10). In a world where Paul knew sin, scandal, and betrayal, he rejoiced at being a “preacher and apostle and teacher” of this glad message (2 Tim. 1:11). Only the grace of God can train us for godliness (Titus 2:11–14); only the grace of God can keep us faithful to the end; only the grace of God can grant us fresh repentance (2 Tim. 2:25,26).
Devote your life afresh to the gospel. Don’t let this sad discouragement slow your steps, weaken your knees, or lower your spirit, but keep on proclaiming this good news of Jesus, our only Savior.
The Gospel Coalition is excited to welcome six newly elected members to our Council: Steve DeWitt, Irwyn Ince, Garrett Kell, Tony Merida, Bob Thune, and Jeremy Treat.
Each of these men represents the kind of work TGC passionately supports: robustly biblical, theologically driven, gospel-centered ministry in the Reformed tradition for God’s glory and his people’s good.
The Gospel Coalition Council is a collection of pastors and other qualified elders who provide direction and leadership to TGC. They meet annually for fellowship, discussion, planning, accountability, and prayer around the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Aiming to bring biblical conviction and pastoral sensitivity to bear on a range of pressing contemporary issues, the Council is committed to shepherding the next generation of church leaders in line with TGC’s foundation documents.
At TGC’s April 2019 Council meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, the following six men were presented to the Council, and subsequently elected to join the Council.
Steve DeWitt is senior pastor of Bethel Church in Northwest Indiana. He is a graduate of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and host of the media/radio ministry The Journey. He is the author of Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. Steve and his wife, Jennifer, have two girls and live in Crown Point, Indiana.
Irwyn Ince serves as a pastor at Grace DC Presbyterian Church and director of the newly formed Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. Ince is a graduate of City College of NY (BEEE, 1995), Reformed Theological Seminary (MAR, 2006), and Covenant Theological Seminary (DMin, 2016). He and his wife, Kim, have been married 27 years and have four children (Jelani, Nabil, Zakiya, and Jeremiah). He has contributed to the books Heal Us Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church and All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church.
Garrett Kell did his undergrad at Virginia Tech, where he came to know the Lord through the witness of a friend. Garrett served as the evangelism pastor at Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, while earning his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. He then served as a pastor of Graham Bible Church in Graham, Texas, for seven years. He later spent time on staff with Capitol Hill Baptist Church, who helped place him with Del Ray Baptist Church, where he has served as a pastor since 2012. Garrett is married to Carrie, and together they have five children.
Tony Merida is pastor for preaching and vision of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s also the content director for Acts 29, producing blogs, podcasts, and other resources on church planting at TGC. Tony has written several books, including The Christ-Centered Expositor and eight volumes in the Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series. He is happily married to Kimberly, and they have five children.
Bob Thune (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) founded Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2005, and has served as its lead pastor ever since. He is the author of Gospel Eldership and the co-author (with Will Walker) of the bestselling small-group studies The Gospel-Centered Life and The Gospel-Centered Community. Bob and his wife, Leigh, have been married since 1997 and have four children. Bob also serves on the board of a classical Christian school, speaks and teaches broadly, and helps to coach and train church planters for the Acts 29 Network.
Jeremy Treat (PhD, Wheaton College) is pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA in Los Angeles, California, and adjunct professor of theology at Biola University. He is the author of Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything and The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology. He and his wife, Tiffany, have four daughters and live in Los Angeles.
Delightful instruction for new and old Christians alike on how to read Scripture most profitably and rewardingly. This is “Bible Reading 101,” but it contains important reminders of Scripture’s uniqueness, importance, and value for us all. An ideal little book for church-wide distribution.
Baker Books, 2019
An excellent new book from Matthew Barrett on the greatness and perfection of God. It’s a must-have book on the subject. You’ll find your mind expanded and your heart stirred. A book of deeply informed theology, and some of the best devotional reading you’ve read in a long time. Really excellent.
Matthew Barrett, ed.
This is the new “go-to” resource—a superb collection of essays on the doctrine of justification and related matters. I can’t commend this highly enough. And again I have to say it: a must-have book.
Christian hymnody and hymnology have long been an interest of mine, but this book is a bit different. It’s not your “stories of great hymns” kind of book but a brief analysis of 40 great hymns—their poetry, content, musical setting, and so on. A guide to better-informed hymn singing and a great devotional read. I bought several copies to give away. Highly recommended.
Armand P. Tiffe
Focus Publishing, 2019
Romans 6 is a pivotal chapter for the Christian’s pursuit of practical godliness, and Tiffe provides a brief but helpful pastoral exposition and application of the chapter as it relates to the believer’s struggle against sin. Guided questions follow each chapter for closer personal application. Really good for discipleship and personal use and for small group study and discussion.
If we were to compile a catalog of practices that are essential to the Christian faith, what would be included? Among other essentials, baptism would certainly need to be high on the list. Baptism is one of the means by which Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). It’s also central to the preaching of the gospel at the inception of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:38). In short, the idea that Christians should be baptized—regardless of when or how—is central to the Christian faith. This should come as no surprise.
What may come as a surprise, however, is that Jesus himself was baptized. Baptism wasn’t just something Jesus commanded his followers to do, but an experience he also underwent. As familiar as we may be with the Gospel accounts, the fact that Jesus submitted himself to baptism may still strike us as odd.
The plot thickens even more when we consider that the baptism Jesus submitted himself to was John’s baptism, which is described as (1) accompanying “repentance” (Matt. 3:2); (2) in conjunction with people “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6); and (3) as the means by which to “flee from the coming wrath” (Matt. 3:7).
It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that this doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of what the New Testament says about Jesus—that he was God’s virgin-born (Matt. 1:19–25), sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), perfectly obedient Son (Heb. 5:8–9; John 17:4), fully pleasing to the Father (Matt. 3:17), who pre-existed as divine but laid aside his glory to take on flesh (Phil. 2:5–8). Nonetheless, Jesus says it is fitting and appropriate that he be baptized (Matt. 3:15).
All this leads to an important question: Why did Jesus need to be baptized?Why Was Jesus Baptized?
Both Mark and Luke record this story but don’t raise the question (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). John’s Gospel doesn’t give us the events of Jesus’s baptism but emphasizes the same effect as the other Gospels—that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus, anointing him as the Son of God (John 1:32–34). Only Matthew raises the issue by including a piece of the story that the other Gospel writers don’t—John himself was hesitant to baptize Jesus. John, aware that Jesus wasn’t just another person coming to repent and confess his sins, protests: “I need to be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
As familiar as we may be with the Gospel accounts, the fact that Jesus submitted himself to baptism may still strike us as odd.
Jesus’s answer to John’s reluctance is instructive, both in answering our question and also in revealing an important aspect of Matthew’s theology. Jesus said, “Let it be so, for it is fitting in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). This is a weighty answer, containing two words—“fulfill” and “righteousness”—that are central ideas in Matthew’s Gospel. Something important is going on here.
Nonetheless, Jesus’s response to John remains a bit esoteric for most readers today. So allow me to offer the following paraphrase: Jesus is fulfilling his role as the obedient Son of God by practicing the required righteousness of submitting to God’s will to repent (i.e., to live in the world wholeheartedly devoted to God).How Does a Sinless Man Repent?
To understand this, there are a couple of elements we need to unpack.
First, “righteousness” in Matthew refers to whole-person behavior that accords with God’s will, nature, and coming kingdom. Paul uses this word in some other ways, but Matthew’s usage is more typical of the Old Testament sense of heart-deep, faithful obedience to God. In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus is showing himself to be the good and obedient Son who does God’s will perfectly.
Second, we must understand what “repentance” means. Today this word often evokes the image of someone on the street corner with a sandwich board that reads, “The end is near!” Biblical repentance is broader and tuned differently. The call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17) is an urgent invitation to reorient our values, habits, loves, thinking, and behavior according to a different understanding, one rooted in the revelation of God’s nature and coming reign. In short, repentance means, “Become a disciple!” Jesus repents not in the sense of turning from sin (our repentance necessarily includes this where his does not), but in the sense of dedicating himself to follow God’s will fully on earth.
God has sent John as the final herald of the King’s return and now Jesus comes in line with this and fulfills it by submitting to John’s baptism.
Thus, the qualms we (and John) may have about why Jesus would undergo John’s baptism dissipate. Even as a virgin-born, divine-incarnate, unique person in the world, the Son desires to be wholeheartedly obedient to the Father (i.e., righteous). Thus, he must submit to the God-ordained message of life-dedication preached by John. To call this a “fulfillment” of all righteousness taps into what Matthew has been arguing repeatedly from the beginning of his book (Matt. 1:18–2:23), and what he will continue to do in the following stories (Matt. 4:14–16; 5:17)—Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s work in the world. He is the final goal and consummation of all God’s saving activity. God has sent John as the final herald of the King’s return, and now Jesus comes in line with this and fulfills it by submitting to John’s baptism.Jesus as the Last Adam
So why did Jesus need to be baptized? Because central to Jesus’s purpose in being the Savior of the world is his own faithful obedience to the Father. He was obedient even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:18), thereby securing our salvation.
As Brandon Crowe helpfully summarizes, “Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel as the last Adam whose obedience is necessary for God’s people to experience the blessings of salvation.” Jesus’s baptism signals the inauguration of his mission as the obedient Son and of his model of what it means to be faithful to God.
We don’t simply get baptized because he did. We’re baptized into him and he baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.
The church’s ongoing practice of baptism—like another essential practice, the Lord’s Supper—is simultaneously a repetition of and a post-Pentecost transformation of Jesus’s own act. Jesus was baptized as a sign of his dedication (wholehearted obedience), and so too we follow his example. At the same time, his own baptism is transformed in our experience because he is more than just a model. We don’t simply get baptized because he did. We’re baptized into him, and he baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.
Though like John the Baptist we may at first be perplexed as to why Jesus was baptized, we can see now that Jesus’s baptism is a crucial part of his saving work in the world, always to be remembered.
Dear Pastor Dave,
They’ve left, and I’m crushed. They were faithful members—good friends I counted on. They were generous givers, committed volunteers, true servants. But now they’re gone. These departures deliver blows that cut me deepest as a pastor. These wounds fester with pain.
I know leaving seemed right to them. And I know God is in control of these things. But emotionally, these experiences feel like “desertions” or “defections” or “treason.”
When they group up before hitting the exit, I hear incessant voices in my head reminding me of how I’ve failed. These voices trigger sharp pangs of grief. I know that my words are exaggerated and emotionally charged. But when a trusted friend or a long-standing member says goodbye, the news breaks over my soul like an unholy AWOL—a mission desertion. And with each parting, my heart grows more brittle.
Sure, I signed on for suffering. But I never imagined ministry would look like this. The person I poured so much time into has vanished. The relative I thought would always have my back is gone. The fellow pastor who preached about relationships abandoned our church for a better- paying ministry job. How should I interpret unexpected departures from our church? How do I handle the spontaneous separations from our congregation, the inexplicable goodbyes from people we love, or the leader who goes rogue and leaves a trail of confusion?
If I can be honest, people can be pretty unthinking when they leave. They can be entirely unaware of the knife that pierces a leader’s soul. They’re unaware of the fact that I lie awake at night, seeking grace just to rise and meet the next day. How do I find grace to keep going in ministry when the departures come like waves?
Dear Deserted Shepherd,
The local church gets the best of who we are as pastors and church leaders. We signed up knowing that. Our sense of calling carried an expectation of sacrifices. In Paul’s own words, we would “spend and be spent” (2 Cor. 12:15) for our people. This was never just a job. It was a sacred assignment.
But when folks leave casually, cruelly, or sinfully, leaders face a unique danger in the wake of their exit. We can lose perspective, take it personally, or even equate leaving our church with leaving God’s will. From there it’s only a hop, skip, and jump to defending ourselves and demonizing those who depart.
Sometimes they make it easy. People can sin grievously in their conduct toward the church or in the way they decide to leave. The flesh catches fire and burns with slander, quarreling, and divisiveness. There’s no hurt like “church hurt,” and there’s no ugly like “church ugly.” Folks can say goodbye with fiery words that torch the bridge, hoping the blaze reaches your reputation. “Alexander the coppersmith,” Paul lamented, “did me great harm” (2 Tim. 4:14).
Alexanders come to us all. When they punch, we want to counter. When they rant, we want to retort. When they accuse, we want vindication.
Paul could relate, but he chose another way: “The Lord will repay him (Alexander) according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). When it came to leadership, Paul played the long game. He didn’t hold God hostage to vindicating him or assume God had to prove his divine goodness by clearing Paul’s name. Instead, Paul followed the path of Jesus:
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)
Despite what he had walked through, Paul trusted his vindication to the Lord and let Alexander be a cross on which he consented to be impaled.
In more than three decades of pastoring, I’ve had some Alexanders. Each time they disappear, my heart response is unswervingly predictable. Being right can be way too important to me. I want to be seen as the righteous party. I want to fight for the correct narrative—to be vindicated from harmful slander. Justice, after all, should be served.
This self-righteous attitude can lead me to say really unhelpful things. There have been times I’ve forgotten that once someone decides to leave, the opportunity to convince them of my “take” has evaporated. I’ve burned a few bridges unnecessarily, bridges that if left intact might have helped the person cross more easily back into our church.They Haven’t Left the Gospel
I hope you’ll receive this piece of council from a grizzled veteran pastor. Don’t confuse leaving your church with leaving the gospel. And never let the fervor that rightfully belongs to the gospel be transferred over to your church or to your version of the narrative. I can fairly assume that my own rightness was the very thing that once separated me from God: “All [my] righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). When I’m clinging to self-vindication, I need to flee to the righteousness that comes from another (Rom. 3:26).
One important qualifying remark here. Paul wasn’t personally polluted by Alexander, but his sense of responsibility for Timothy and his readers obliged him to convey a warning: “Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Tim. 4:15). He gave a clear caution with a simple explanation. For Paul, leading faithfully meant, when necessary, tagging the wolf.
To follow Jesus is to accept the burden of suffering at the hands of people. Paul prepared Timothy for this inevitability when he wrote,
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:12–13).
When under personal attack, the gospel outlines a distinct path of response: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).
We’re able to do this because we are “sons of the Most High, [who] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). But there are times when the evil behavior of a defector like Alexander transcends the borders of personal assault and begins to obscure the gospel or divide the church. In those times, denying or accommodating evil behavior only perpetuates the problem and endangers the flock. Faithful leadership requires immediate first aid. Leaders must follow Paul’s example of clear caution and simple explanation to stop the bleeding and keep infection from spreading to others.Closure Is Overrated
No one cares to admit it, but in a broken world, closure is hard to achieve. Paul certainly didn’t die with it. It’s hard to read 2 Timothy and believe that all these relationships wrapped up neatly before his death. God did not tie a bow on the pain, the complexity, the ministry absurdities. Do you think faith guarantees delivery on closure? Well, Paul had faith. The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 had faith. But Hebrews 11:13 still says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised.” These faithful leaders died with unfulfilled promises, unsatisfied dreams, and unanswered questions. They didn’t die with resolution. They stood in faith without it.
Pastor, do you have complicated, unresolved, open-ended relationships in ministry? King David did:
For it is not an enemy who taunts me— then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng. (Ps. 55:12–14)
Paul did too. Ministry is messy. Sometimes your best efforts at peace don’t deliver the resolution you desire.
Real faith doesn’t need to trace everything out. Faith doesn’t demand the psychological satisfaction of resolution in our stories. Faith trusts in what God has revealed. And the most important thing God has revealed provides the answer for the closure we so desperately desire.
The gospel represents God’s closure on the most important open-ended matters of the universe. In Christ, we have resolution on the crisis of sin and hope in the great and coming day when all will be made right. When a lack of resolution pollutes the present, we go back to what Christ accomplished on Golgotha and look forward to the promises of a new heaven and new earth.
So when I’m trying to settle the turbulence that swells within as people leave, I must flee to the risen Savior. In Christ, I am reminded that because of his remarkable love, there is an end to my journey of pastoral desertion, a place awaiting me where “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Yes, closure will come. But not today.
God’s presence and power are yours, even when—and especially when—people have left and you’re crushed. It’s all you’re promised for the day of desertion. But it is enough.
Ten years ago a Stanford neuroscientist claimed that the languages we speak shape the way we think. Lera Boroditsky said that the consensus in the field of neuroscience is that “people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world.” At the time this was a new and empirical twist on an old and controversial idea.
In the late 1920 the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which popularized the idea that language is used not only to express our thoughts but help to shape them too. In linguistics, this explanation for the way that language relates to thought is known as a mould theory since it “represents language as a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast.”
Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, provides a striking example of this effect in his book Toward a More Natural Science:
Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as ‘begetting’ or ‘siring.’ The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning ‘to come into being.’ . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term ‘pro-creation.’ We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, ‘re-production.’
The language of the factory is as incompatible with human dignity as is the interchangeability of machine and life. Yet our acceptance of such language as “reproductive technology” paved the way for our acceptance, for better or worse, of the process the language represents.
Perhaps it’s because we intuitively understand the way language shape our culture that we fight so much over language. Another example from the realm of human dignity is how for decades both sides of the abortion debate have attempted to ensure that their preferred terms—pro-life, abortion rights, etc.—seep into the media’s vernacular. While the persuasive effect of such terms may be overstated, these words still retain their political usefulness as the struggle over their usages attest.Language in Conflict
When we enter in the public square, Christians are supposed to think and act in a manner that distinguishes us from the world. Yet too often when we engage in arguments about terminology we do so on the same grounds as unbelievers. How should we fight about language as Christians? And more specifically, if we are trying to recast the way the world thinks (or at least not be shaped by the world’s misguided thinking) how do we determine when we should keep certain words and when should we abandon them?
Unfortunately, there is no just war theory of language we can apply to the war over words. I don’t have a solution or a list of rules by which we can draw terminological boundaries. What I want to offer instead is a way of thinking about how we can approach the process by making distinctions between various categories. While I don’t expect everyone to agree with my approach or with the examples I give, I hope it can be a useful starting point for a long overdue discussion about how we should fight about words.
As Scripture itself attests, God’s Word can be “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8). The Apostle Peter says people stumble because they disobey the message. But in every age there are Christians who claim we stumble because the words God uses in his Word are themselves rocks of offense. Such people recommend we discard such terms as predestination, hell, or sin so that we don’t cause unnecessary offense.
Despite their best efforts to get us to lose those words, few Christians are foolish enough to agree to abandon biblical language. We trust God knows what he’s doing in choosing the terms he has. We also have repeatedly seen how those who abandon the full range of God’s terms almost always end up abandoning the full range of his truth. Of all the categories we could make, these are the words most worth fighting for.
A theological neologism is the coining or use of new word to describe biblical concepts. Perhaps the most important example is the term “Trinity” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tertullian was the first theologian to use the word trinitas, a compound formed from the Latin words for “three” and “one.” Since then the term has gained near universal usage within the church.
Neologisms created by theologians aren’t as sacrosanct as terms found in the Bible. They are similar to biblical terms, though, in that their usage is rarely challenged. And for good reason: The widespread acceptance of such words throughout church history should caution us against abandoning them unless we’re sure they can be replaced by more helpful terms.
Eight years ago a task force of the Southern Baptist Convention was appointed to study a possible name change. After considering 535 possible names, the committee recommend the convention keep its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: Great Commission Baptists.
As Jimmy Draper, chairman of the task force, explained, the name change is an “issue that just won’t die.” The first attempt to change the name was in 1903; since then, it has been presented to the Convention in one form or another 13 times. When the Convention was formed in 1845, the Baptist founders intended for the name to identify with the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War. “This signifies that the name has not only been a source of difficulty for church planters serving in areas outside the American South but also that the name has been a source of some difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity with the Confederacy,” says Ken Fentress, senior pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland.
For the largest Protestant denomination in America to consider abandoning its name shows how religious labels can get weighted down with negative connotations (i.e., an idea or feeling that a word invokes). Over the past hundred years there has been a shift to adopting religious labels that are broadly generic and have fewer clear connotations. A prime example is how many churches identify as non-denominational (which some people consider a mere synonym for independent Baptist) or add “Bible” to their church name in place of a denominational affiliation (e.g., Hometown Bible Church).
Whether we should abandon or even avoid such terms is complicated by our affection for the labels. For example, I love the word “evangelical” and won’t give it up without a fight. I will continue to do what I can to wrestle it away from those who, out of ignorance or animus, attempt to transform it into a political label. But I also recognize that’s a fight I may lose. A hundred years ago I would have called myself a “fundamentalist” since I adhere to the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. The original meaning of that word, though, has been lost and is beyond recovery. Calling myself a “fundamentalist” now would lead to nothing but confusion.
We should be hesitant to give up cherished religious labels too easily. Yet if our goal is to communicate clearly, we can’t ignore a label’s acquired connotations.
Cultural and Political Terms
The most contentious fights in American Christianity today are over cultural terms, whether old (social justice, racism) or relatively new (cultural Marxism, woke). In the other categories I’ve mentioned, the disagreements tend to be about the word’s connotation; for cultural and political terms the denotation (i.e., the literal or primary meaning of a word) is frequently also in dispute.
Take, for example, the term white supremacy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” This is how most people understand the term and it is often associated with explicit racism and white people who believe in racial separatism. But as Wikipedia points out, “In academic usage, particularly in usage which draws on critical race theory or intersectionality, the term ‘white supremacy’ can also refer to a political or socioeconomic system, in which white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level.”
Whichever meaning we intend, when we use a term like white supremacy while speaking to a general audience we immediately confuse a large portion of our hearers. And if we immediately explain our preferred meaning we are likely to be accused of using the word “in the wrong way,” that is, in a way that the hearer does not understand or agree with.
Unfortunately, provoking division is too often the intention for using those terms in the first place. While they can and have been used with a neutral and non-divisive intention, that type of usage is becoming increasingly rare. More often such coded language is used in a way similar to how the Hebrews used the term “shibboleth” (Jud. 12:5-6)—as a signal to our particular associational groups (e.g., political, ethnic, cultural) that we are in allegiance with them (or that they should be allied with us) in a way that sets up a part from the outgroup.
Getting Christians to set aside such weaponized language is almost as difficult as getting nations to give up nuclear weapons. We fear that unilateral disbarment will give our enemies in the culture and political wars a rhetorical advantage. We also worry that if we were to replace such words the new terms would soon become just as tainted.
This is no doubt true. And there may be times when giving up a particular term would simply make it more difficult to communicate clearly. We are not morally obligated to give up every tainted term and there are times when we should drive terms out of the public square. But we should be hesitant to assume our intentions are noble. We should constantly search our hearts to uncover our true motives about how we are using language.
For instance, are we using a word because it succinctly explains a complex idea or are we using it as a boo-word? Are we trying to change how others think using rhetorical and moral suasion or are we trying to make concepts off limits by restricting the use of certain words. Do we have an appropriate concern about using terms that have been adopted by extremists and radicals?
If we are to effectively love our neighbors we need to be more loving in the way we communicate.Language After Pentecost
The whole world once had “one language and a common speech,” as Genesis tells us, but then God confused the language of mankind to prevent us from fulfilling our self-serving desires. On the Day of Pentecost, though, the world encountered an initial reversal of Babel.
“Instead of language being a barrier to man’s mission of self-glorification,” says Trevin Wax, “languages are now redeemed in order for the Triune God’s mission of glorifying Himself to move forward!”
As Christians, we can continue the work begun at Pentecost by using language in a way that helps unite us. We also should, since we are going to be molded by words, ensure we are first shaped by the Word. And if we’re going to fight about terms, let’s ensure they are words that help us bring the most glory to God.
Repeating an accusation doesn’t make it true. Critics of Christianity have made the same false claims for years—for example, that the New Testament manuscripts were radically corrupted and that powerful people wrongly suppressed other valid Gospels. Yet despite these repeated claims, historical evidence doesn’t support the charges.
Scholars Don Carson and Mike Kruger have spent their careers studying the New Testament manuscripts. Responding to the claims of Bart Ehrman and others that early Gospels were suppressed in the name of orthodoxy, Carson says, “The actual evidence we have runs exactly in the opposite direction.” He explains that the first-century church had a strong confessional consensus and that proto-Gnostic gospels didn’t start to proliferate until the second century. Both Carson and Kruger believe we have many reasons to trust the New Testament manuscripts that have been passed down to us, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
When you talk about church structure, my friend Ryan Townsend says that it’s kind of like talking about the plumbing at your house. No one comes over to see it, but everyone notices if it’s broken. And broken plumbing can lead to a big, embarrassing mess!
My 19-year-old Ukrainian-born son, James, may be the exception to this rule. He loves to fix things, and he enjoys pointing out problems in people’s homes—often unsolicited. We recently commissioned him to go help his aunt and uncle get their house ready to sell. Upon arrival, James texted us: “Lots of problems. Plumbing. Expensive.”Healthy Foundation
That’s a pretty good description of some church structures. Problems abound. Many of which come from a lack of healthy church eldership and membership. And when it comes to changing these foundational issues down the road, it can be costly, painful, and overwhelming.
In our pastoral intern program at our church, we spend significant time on “plumbing.” We want our guys to have deep convictions about eldership and membership, and even be ready to pay the price to implement these things.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important. It’s hard work because it requires thorough assessments, long conversations, clear communication, a willingness to let go of control (especially if you’re viewed as the “senior leader”), a willingness to be challenged, and more. But it’s needed, and it’s worth it.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral. Your structure can either help or hinder (1) how the flock is cared for and (2) how the church lives on mission.From Pyramid to Plurality
We planted our church with a plurality of elders. I wanted to avoid the “pastor and his staff” model that has one guy atop the pyramid. We wanted a plurality of elders/pastors caring for and mobilizing the congregation, under the leadership of the true senior pastor, Jesus Christ, who alone sits atop the pyramid.
We don’t even want to plant a church unless we had more than one pastor. We often tell aspiring planters, who you plant with is more important than where you plant. In other words, team is more important than location. Under most circumstances, I believe one can endure and thrive in any location with the right team.
Further, we need to shift our thinking on this profile more generally. For several years, “the man” was overplayed in church planting. The idea was that, in order to be a church planter, you needed to be an alpha male, Ennegram 3 macho-man. Hopefully we can see the problems with such an idea.
I long for a revival of awareness that emphasizes the need for a team of people to plant a church well—composed of missional men and women, and shepherded by a plurality of humble, wise, godly pastors. I believe this will fuel the planting of healthy churches in every nook and cranny of the globe.Valuing Plurality
We find numerous examples of plural eldership in the New Testament. Elders are seen in the churches of Judea and the surrounding area (Acts 11:30; James 5:14–15); in Jerusalem (Acts 15; 21); in Derbe, Lystra, and Antioch (Acts 14:20–23); in Ephesus (Acts 20; 1 Tim. 5:17–25); and in Northwest Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:1).
(It’s interesting, by the way, that while many challenge the notion of a plurality of elders/pastors, no one seems to advocate for a single deacon model. We need a plurality of both.)
Acts 14 is crucial for church planters. Before Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, from their first so-called missionary journey, Paul returned to strengthen the souls of the disciples. What did he and Barnabas do on this return trip?
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21–23, emphasis added)
How can Paul feel good enough about a church to leave it to exist without him? What did he want to have in place? Notice the three foundations: (1) apostolic instruction—”the faith”; (2) pastoral oversight—this is the first appearance of elders in Gentile churches, and what occurs seems to set the trend for what becomes the norm; and (3) prayerful trust in God.Parity and Plurality
I’d like to offer one final consideration to those already bought into this model, and it pertains to the “first among equals” idea. For some who have plurality, their elders operate like a board. They’re not shepherds. I don’t recommend this approach. Others see their elders as pastors, but there’s a hierarchy in authority and/or importance. I’m not a fan of this either. I’m for a team of pastors who have equal authority and importance.
We recognize that not all elders are equal in gifting, biblical knowledge, and experience—1 Timothy 5:17 indicates this in regard to teaching. But there’s more to shepherding than teaching and preaching.
For many who advocate for the “first among equals” model, however, the inherent assumption is that one pastor is better at every shepherding issue or has more authority over every issue. To such thinking, I’d want to ask, “Why do you assume that the guy who’s more capable in teaching will also be more gifted at care-giving, counseling, administrating, or mobilizing?” These are vital aspects of shepherding, too.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral.
But how does this actually work? Don’t you have to have a “first among equals”? At our church, we say this: We have a first among equals depending on the issue. Here are some essentials for making that happen:
- Humility and trust. If you’re a control freak, this won’t work.
- Patience and self-control. You may not like the pace at which things happen in plurality.
- Love. You have to bear with one another in love; you’ll know each other’s flaws as well as anyone else in the church.
- Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. You don’t have to voice a strong opinion about everything.
- Respect for one another. You have to value the perspectives of everyone.
- An awareness of each other’s strengths. This is essential in order to know when and how to defer to each other.
So in our efforts to plant churches, let’s not just seek to plant churches—let’s seek to plant healthy churches, led by a healthy team of pastors, for the good of the church and the advancement of the mission. This will require us to give due consideration to this less celebrated aspect of church planting.
So much modern evangelical biblical theology is a gift to the church. It has stemmed the tide of moralistic preaching in many churches and has provided useful theological resources to combat the most egregious theological dangers of our day, such as the prosperity gospel.
But I’ve also witnessed (and been guilty of) some bad biblical theology. In my first year of seminary, for example, I became so enamored with biblical theology and how the story “fits together” that I lost sight of the moral demands the story places on us all—an error that spilled over into the way I taught Scripture to others. Over time, bad biblical theology will undercut a congregation’s health—warping the message of Scripture and stunting a church’s growth in the knowledge of God.
All of us—not just preachers—should beware of bad biblical theology. But what exactly does bad biblical theology look like in sermons?1. Sermons that are ‘Christ-centered’ but never make moral demands.
The Bible is opposed to moralism, not morality. Regrettably, I’ve heard many sermons that confuse the two. I’ve even interacted with some preachers and seminary students who would wince a little if they heard a preacher rattle off commands to his congregation in the way Paul does in the epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 16:13–14).
I appreciate the desire on the part of many pastors to avoid “moralism” and to emphasize the gospel as the agent of transformation in the Christian life. Yet it’s also the case that some preachers—particularly younger ones—need to embrace that preaching must also include appropriate exhortations for the congregation to respond to Christ’s climactic fulfillment of the Old Testament. The law “used lawfully” in gospel preaching (1 Tim. 1:8) is both biblical and necessary.
Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided.
For example, preaching how Jesus fulfills the Davidic covenant and ascends the throne of Israel demands that we call people to bow their knee to Jesus the king. Preaching how Jesus fulfills the office of priest demands that we call people to trust in his sacrifice. Preaching Jesus as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15a) demands that we also tell people “to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15b). Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the temple demands that we also teach people that Christ has poured out the Spirit on his church and expects us to preserve the purity of God’s dwelling through faithful discipleship and discipline. Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the law demands that we also tell people “don’t worship idols, honor your father and mother, don’t look at porn, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet.”
Additionally, preaching how Jesus fulfills Old Testament types must include how the Messiah incorporates his people into that fulfillment. I’ve left many sermons, which masterfully demonstrated how Jesus fulfilled some Old Testament type, thinking, Wow, isn’t Jesus amazing! I sure wish he had something to do with me! It’s exhilarating to discover how every story in the Old Testament whispers Jesus’s name—how every promise, person, and pattern is ultimately fulfilled in him.
At the same time, we must remember that we are also a part of the story. Jesus is the true and better temple, but he gives his people that same identity (1 Cor. 3:16). Jesus is the true and better Israel, but he incorporates those who put faith in him into the new Israelite community (Gal. 6:16). Jesus rises from the dead, fulfilling types of resurrection in the OT (1 Cor. 15:1–3), but his resurrection is the firstfruits of what’s to come, guaranteeing our coming resurrection and offering a hope that should shape our everyday lives (1 Cor. 15:58). Christ-centered preaching is unavoidably ecclesiological—he is the head, we are the body.
I commend preachers who don’t want to sully their congregation’s estimation of God’s grace revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided. I’m confident the cripple in Mark 2 didn’t lose any sense of the wonder of grace or reliance on Christ when the Lord commanded him to pick up his mat and go home.2. Sermons that don’t present biblical characters as positive and negative moral examples.
Perhaps you’ve heard youth pastors challenge you to “dare to be a Daniel” or “flee sexual temptation like Joseph.” Perhaps you’ve sat under preaching that encouraged you to “be like” Abraham, David, Jonathan, Josiah, Paul, or even Jesus. In my first year of seminary, I scoffed at such “moralism.” After a few years, I stopped the scoffing. Yes, we must preach Jesus from every text authentically by reading each passage in light of the entire canon of Scripture and the climax of redemptive history in Christ. And yes, the characters of Scripture ultimately point beyond themselves to the grace of God in his Son. But the New Testament authors,—in the context of a robust, Christ-centered biblical theology—do not shy away from presenting Old Testament characters as moral exemplars.
Preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical.
Jesus and the apostles routinely call Christians to “be like” or “not be like” Old Testament figures (cf. Heb 12:16). Even Paul tells us that Israel’s sinful actions in the wilderness “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6; cf. 10:11). Likewise, James encourages believers to be like the prophets, Job, and Elijah (James 5:10–28). Paul even commends himself as someone the Corinthians ought to imitate (1 Cor. 11:1). Further, many of Jesus’s parables command listeners to imitate exemplary characters (Matt. 7:24–27). After teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus commanded the lawyer, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). In other words, “Go and be like the good Samaritan.”
Of course, preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical. We must show how each story finds its climax in God’s final Word in Christ, and we must draw out moral lessons from the lives of biblical characters.
To be sure, preaching should primarily aim at transforming the heart. But transformed hearts still need to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). Moral exemplars are one of the most powerful ways to inspire obedience among God’s people. Who can’t help but feel a little steel in their spine when reading about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing tall in the throng of kneeling idolaters in Daniel 3? As Bruce Wayne said in Batman Begins, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.”3. Sermons that sound the same every week.
Some redemptive-historical preaching can fall into the trap of saying the same thing week after week. Rather than allowing the contours of the text to shape the homiletical outline, some preachers allow their biblical-theological commitments to dictate the structure of their sermon, and so the point of each sermon always tends to be the same: “Look how Jesus fulfilled X from the Old Testament.”
As Derek Thomas has noted, a redemptive-historical sermon can be “breathtaking” the first time you encounter it, but if it’s the only tool in your tool belt, your sermons will soon become predictable.4. Sermons that so focus on the ‘big picture’ that they avoid the details of the text.
A final problem with some redemptive-historical preaching is the way it fails to unpack the actual text being preached. Rather than letting exegesis drive the sermon, I’ve heard preachers simply identify the big biblical-theological theme (temple, priest, king, law, sabbath, and so on) and then walk through Scripture’s metanarrative focusing on that theme. Unfortunately, this approach ignores the most basic preaching question: “What does the text say?” Ultimately, our biblical-theological route to Jesus must emerge from exegesis of the text.Best Adjective
Evangelical preaching has benefited from the lectures, articles, and books reinvigorating the notion that every sermon ultimately must lead its hearers to respond to God’s free grace in the gospel. But no adjective fits better with preaching than “expository.”
No adjective fits better with preaching than ‘expository.’
Why? Because faithful sermons exposit the text, and faithful exposition takes into account the text’s literary, historical, covenantal, and ultimately canonical context.
Have you ever prayed a dangerous prayer? The kind of prayer that—if answered—will shake up your life, change everything, and force you to lean on Jesus every hour? The kind that self-sufficiency will not answer?
Years ago when my husband was pastoring overseas, he encouraged members of our congregation to pray a dangerous prayer for themselves or their family. During his sermon he passed out notecards. He asked them to document something they suspected God might be calling them to do but that they hadn’t been willing to fully consider or pray for because it felt too scary. Too dangerous. Too out there. Too faith-stretching.
Many of our dear friends and fellow church members wrote down, “Adopt a child.” And now, many of them are raising those adopted children.
It’s common to hear young Christian couples say, “Of course, one day, we’d like to adopt.” It’s almost a cliché. But in our good desire to care for orphans, we shouldn’t enter thoughtlessly into adoption.Called to Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children
Scripture is clear that our God is a tender Father who desires to welcome and care for the needy. He is a “helper of the fatherless” (Ps. 10:14).
In the way that our heavenly Father has pursued us, loved us, and made us sons, he asks us to do the same in his name. James tells us that pure religion requires us to visit orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). Isaiah calls us to bring justice to the fatherless (Isa. 1:17). God’s desire is to set the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6).
This command is obeyed in hundreds of ways by followers of Christ. When we invite people to know and love Christ and then bring them into the family of the local church, we reflect God’s welcome to outsiders. When we care for the needy in our midst, we display the love that God first showed us.
Orphan care is one important aspect of our concern for the spiritually and materially needy.
The question is, How do you know if you’re called specifically to adoption or foster care?
As an adoptive mom and a friend to dozens of other adoptive families, my encouragement to you is to pray and to seek the Scriptures. In addition, here are some practical and tangible benchmarks that may help you determine if adoption or foster care are God’s will for you.1. Unity
The first consideration is unity in your marriage. Spouses must agree. Adopting a child will not fix anything you sense missing in your marriage or family. In fact, without strong unity, the stresses of orphan care can worsen your relational strength with each step forward.
A marriage need not be perfect (no one’s is!), but it must be able to weather the ups and downs of integrating a new—and likely traumatized—child into your home. If your spouse isn’t ready to adopt, then pray for God to move and change his or her heart. No amount of nagging is worth it—you want God-ordained unity.2. Knowledge
You and your spouse should have a thorough understanding of what adoption or foster care entails. Before determining that you’re called to adopt, it would be wise to attend local classes, read several books, and make intimate friendships with other adoptive families. It’s important that you understand adoptive children’s experiences of loss, grief, and trauma. You’ll also need to be aware of what will be required of you as you seek to help your child and stay emotionally healthy as a family.
The challenges of orphan care do not have intuitive solutions. As you research, you may find that you desire the idea of adoption and caring for vulnerable children more than you understand what it’s like in real life.3. Affirmation
Major life decisions like this one are best made in community. Do you have a strong and biblically grounded church? How does your leadership feel about you pursuing adoption? What does your small group think? What do your closest and most mature Christian friends think?
It’s also vital to consider some practical matters. Are you financially stable? Can you provide appropriate medical, educational, and developmental support to a child? Do you have a clean record of conduct toward children? Do you have space in your home? If you already have children, how would they be affected by an adoption? You and your spouse and your community must consider: Are there needs or pressures in your home that currently make adoption unwise?
Being an adoptive or foster family will be an arduous and unpredictable journey. It’s important that the godly people near you agree that God is calling you to this and that he has equipped you to move forward. Heed the warnings of loved ones who are both trustworthy and knowledgeable.4. Surrender
I don’t know of an adoption or foster journey that has gone as planned. It requires great faith before your child even comes home, not to mention the days and years of parenting ahead. Parents who do well are parents who are fully surrendered to the Lord—parents who realize that they can’t do this, but Christ in them can.
In adoption, only Jesus is the hero. No matter how prepared you are, how educated you are, how much love you have, you and your child will both need the supernatural healing power of Jesus in a way you can’t fathom before that day comes. A humble heart that clings to Christ is a must.
Asking God if he has adoption or foster care for you is indeed a dangerous prayer. If God calls you, you will need to lean on Jesus every hour. Self-sufficiency will not do. But it’s also a deeply joy-filled calling, an opportunity to abide in our Father who loves the fatherless, and a chance to live out gospel love in your own home.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Abigail Dodds—graduate student at Bethlehem College and Seminary and author of (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ (read TGC’s review)—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about gender, and more.
What books are on your nightstand?
I currently don’t have a nightstand, but if you want to know what books pile up at the end of my bed these days, it’s mostly all reading for the master’s program I’m in at Bethlehem College and Seminary. That means:
I’m really enjoying the New Testament theology book––the Greek, a little less so. Over the last few months some of the standouts have been:
- Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Augustine’s On the Trinity
- Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism
- Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis
- Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?
- Jason DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament
And of course the top of the list is the Bible. We read the Old Testament in eight weeks last semester and are now reading the New in nine weeks. It’s been a gigantic blessing to be assigned that pace of reading God’s Word.
What are your favorite fiction books?
Mostly children’s books:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
- The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Those get inside of me and stick around. I’ve listened to The Chronicles with my kids dozens of times.
Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is poignant and my favorite Russian novel. Adam Bede and Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) are incredible works that I’ve returned to often over the years. I’m a Jane Austen fan––Eleanor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility is my favorite character of Austen’s. The Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset is a lesser-known collection I read in college, and I’m glad I did. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift are all important books that sharpen and allow you to dig for truth. I’m sure I’m missing some important favorites, but that’s a smattering.
What books have most influenced your thinking about gender?
This is a tricky question. Some of the books that influenced my thinking did so in a negative sense. I won’t give you a list of them. But here is the most important positive one: Colossians. It’s not a book about gender per se; it’s about Christ’s supremacy. But it completely re-oriented my view of gender, because I started seeing gender as from and for Christ. It made me rethink the typical approach of starting in Genesis to understand male and female, with the emphasis on getting back to what should have been. Without Christ at the heart of our understanding of male and female, we’ll know what we ought to be, but we’ll be powerless to be what we ought. We need Christ and the renewed eyes he gives us before we can make right sense of Genesis and right sense of the telos of male and female. Colossians helped me move past trying to recreate “what should have been” for human flourishing to what is and what will be, which isn’t exactly the same as what was.
Without Christ at the heart of our understanding of male and female, we’ll know what we ought to be, but we’ll be powerless to be what we ought.
The fictional characters of Lucy, Susan, and Polly in The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as Leeli and especially Nia in The Wingfeather Saga, painted helpful portraits for me. Along those lines, biblical narratives about women remind me that women are put in very different circumstances in life. That means we apply the same Christlike principles to different circumstances, and we end up with women who are doing very different things (eg., Jael with the tent peg, Priscilla instructing Apollos alongside her husband, Abigail interceding to undo the foolishness of her wicked husband, Sarah obeying Abraham, the midwives disobeying Pharaoh).
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and The History of Mary Prince are both important historical works that I’ve returned to. They remind me, like the Scriptures, that we don’t chose our circumstances in life and that if our gospel doesn’t transcend circumstances––if it only applies to wealthy women in the West––it is no gospel at all.
Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman is incisive and characteristically straight-shooting, as are all her other books. She models what being a robust Christian woman looks like. Same with Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and many missionary biographies.
What’s the last great book you read?
That word “great” is tripping me up a bit, because I automatically think of time-tested classics. But the last great current book I read was Joe Rigney’s Lewis on the Christian Life. There’s a chapter in there on “the choice” that’s worth the price of admission. It made me want to read more Lewis and be more fully human like Christ.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
I wish every pastor would be forced to read one of the women’s bestsellers in the “Christian” book category (which may mean they’re purchasing a coloring book). I wish every pastor had a firsthand taste of what passes for women’s Christian books in the broader evangelical culture and realized how many women in their congregation are reading those books—the same women who are training up the next generation to trust and obey Christ. And I wish they’d understand what those of us laboring among women are really up against—it’s a nasty dragon of false teaching that tells women to follow their sickly hearts and chase their anemic worldly dreams rather than losing their lives and gaining Christ and, along with him, everything (Rom. 8:32).
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning that being Christ’s ambassador means making really sure I’m saying what he would have me say, and not what I would say in my flesh or merely giving my opinion. And I’m learning that I’m prone both to cowardice (refusing to speak the truth because I’m afraid people won’t like what I say) and also to ramming the truth down people’s throats (speaking without love compelling me). He’s teaching me that living for the approval of people is actually living to please self.
But when we live to please God, we walk in true freedom. In other words, he’s teaching me what he’s always been teaching me: to trust him more. Trust him with my children, my life, my trials, my hopes, my words, everything. Trust that his ways are always better than the pathetic and deadly inclinations of sin. Trust that he is working when I can’t see it. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”
Do your emotions define you?
If you answer “yes,” you have a bit of a biblical problem: Nothing about your identity in Christ, eternal life, forgiveness for sins, or purpose as a member of God’s family rests on your emotions. Your emotions can’t possibly define you more fundamentally than these things. Right?
However, if you answer “no,” you also have a problem with Scripture’s teaching: The Bible shows over and over again that our emotions flow from what we love and worship. This is why those who love the Lord, his people, and his kingdom can actually rejoice in the face of persecution (Matt. 5:11–12), ridicule (1 Pet. 4:12–14), and even physical assault for the sake of the gospel (Acts 5:40–42). It’s also why those who love comfort, reputation, wealth, or any other false hope, will rejoice in things that grieve God (1 Tim. 4:3–4) and hate what he loves (Jer. 2:20). In short, if our emotions flow from what we treasure, how can they not define us in a significant way? Right?
Our emotions don’t define us in the sense of undercutting God’s definition of us. But they do define us in that they reveal and express our heart’s ultimate loyalties. Because neither of these biblical realities can be minimized, our emotions are neither the most important thing about us, something to be worshiped, nor are they the least important, a problem to be avoided or ignored.
Unfortunately, this puts us in direct conflict with two prevailing, problematic ideas in the cultural air we breathe.“Spit It Up”—Emotions Are Everything
The loudest voice in the Western world tells us that our emotions are everything, the things that most define us. You live among a people whose cultural practice increasingly proclaims that what you feel is the most important thing about you. The highest good our culture seeks is having good feelings. Therefore, a problem with your feelings is your biggest problem.
Given this, the next step our culture takes is quite natural: you need to be and express yourself at pretty much all costs. This is why we value “getting it off your chest,” “letting off steam,” “just being honest,” and so on. We’re instructed to handle the fragile baggage of our emotions by expressing them to the fullest (no matter what others may think) and/or rearranging the furniture around us to make space for them (we applaud the courage of those who refuse to silently accept the world as it is).
Our emotions are neither the most important thing about us, something to be worshiped, nor are they the least important, a problem to be avoided or ignored.
None of this is peculiar to the secular world. The church has its versions of this emotional obsession. For example, we often elevate emotional experience to the peak of Sunday morning worship. The goal of the sermon is to feel deeply convicted or inspired; the goal of the music is to feel a rush of ecstasy or thanksgiving; the goal of coffee hour is to feel connected and included. This mentality often drives personal devotions as well: we evaluate it based on whether we feel Jesus’s beauty, or feel less anxious, or feel closer to God.
Please hear me. These feeling are wonderful in themselves! We ought to be moved by God’s Word and rejoice when sermons or songs touch our hearts. But it’s easy for a healthy appreciation of emotion to slide into an unhealthy emotionalism that makes emotion itself the point.“Suck It Up”—Emotions Are Nothing
There is a second, opposite instinct out there. It holds that we should treat emotions like you would a rabid dog that has wandered into your living room. Call this instinct keeping a stiff upper lip, stoicism, or being a tough guy. The second voice from our culture argues that emotions are not to be trusted. Action movies, corporate culture, sports heroes, and our adoration of brave activists all remind us that the stoic voice in our culture isn’t completely a thing of the past.
Given the moral and spiritual slide emotionalism facilitates in our broader culture, it’s not hard to understand why this stoic approach to emotions has been popular in Christian circles. Christian stoicism tends toward immediately repenting of any negative emotion in oneself and rebuking it in others. The driving theological emphasis here is that negative emotions (e.g., anger, sorrow, fear) are inappropriate, given God’s sovereignty. If God ordained this suffering and he works all things for good, then the only reason you feel bad is because you don’t have enough faith.
The experience of a woman I know captures this problem all too well. She lost three children in three years. While many in her church expressed sorrow and compassion, she still felt pressure to “be in church the next Sunday, with a smile, so everyone could see how good God is when life is hard.” Was she exaggerating the attitude others had? Perhaps. I hope so. But even if she heard an exaggerated version, the underlying mentality is all too common.
We must carve out room in our theology for godly sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, dismay, and the like.
Now I have personally experienced the blessing of being in church amid grief. But so much of the comfort I tasted was Romans 12:15 in action. People wept with me, implicitly affirming the badness of death, affirming grief was a right response to something grievous. It’s a tragedy when we twist God’s sovereign control over every atom in the universe, which truly is the bedrock of our hope in the face of suffering, and make it the reason why one isn’t allowed to feel bad.
Certainly we aren’t meant to be enslaved by our emotions. However, stoicism misses that emotions, even negative ones, are a God-given gift, designed as an aid in obedience. And it misses that the Bible (especially Psalms) is full of godly negative emotion. Most fundamentally, all our emotions are an occasion for connection with the Lord if we pour out our hearts to him as he intended (Ps. 62:8).The Way Forward
Ultimately, even the most problematic emotions are never the true problem. The true problem is the collection of warped loves in our hearts and the shattering of God’s good creation. Instead of fighting dark feelings because they feel bad, we must carve out room in our theology for godly sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, dismay, and the like. Without them our faith becomes lopsided, veering constantly off the road God’s Word would keep us on.
We need a third way, a way that takes our emotions seriously without handing them the keys to our lives.
Thus, while we can sympathize with elements of both hyper-emotionalism and stoicism, we must reject their oversimplifications. We need a third way, a way that takes our emotions seriously without handing them the keys to our lives. And that is exactly what we have in the Lord who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross’s shame, wept tears, felt furious, and even knew dismay (in the Garden of Gethsemane). Because he loved his Father and his precious people, he tasted deep joys and sorrows on our behalf. May our hearts grow more like his, that our feelings may follow!