As an estate-planning attorney, I sometimes face troubling dilemmas. For example, I have a client who wants to give a significant amount of money to Planned Parenthood. As a professional, I don’t feel like I can comment on this—even suggesting another organization feels like offering unasked-for and probably unwanted advice. But facilitating this donation is uncomfortable. How should I think about this?
Dear Uncomfortable Attorney,
I think you are right to feel uncomfortable assisting someone in giving a large donation to an organization like Planned Parenthood. As someone hired for the advice that you give, you should feel some moral responsibility for the actions you help set into motion.
And yet you are hired for legal and tax advice, not for your recommendations on charitable giving. Additionally, there are likely professional ethical and legal rules and expectations that would prevent you from offering the wisdom that this client would clearly benefit from.
In my own work, I spend a lot of time with financial advisers, many of whom end up in similar situations. They are responsible for managing a client’s money. So they choose the stocks, bonds, and mutual funds that allow a client to meet their financial goals while avoiding the pitfalls that make it difficult to meet those goals. Their job is to recommend what to buy and sell and how much to invest or withdraw.
Like you, financial advisers can find themselves in similar moral dilemmas. As many as half of the large companies in the United States have some exposure to things like abortion, tobacco, gambling, adult entertainment, weapons manufacturing, or other goods and services that many Christians would like to avoid. Many advisers feel uncomfortable profiting from these activities, even tangentially. But, like you, they have professional obligations to serve their clients without commenting on possible moral concerns.
Here’s how I’ve seen Christian advisers navigate these thorns and thistles: They seek to understand the values that all of their clients hold, and they do this by asking questions. Advice is unwanted—especially about deeply held beliefs—anytime it is given without deep care and respect. Excellent advisors demonstrate profound concern simply by asking questions. How did you become involved with this charity? What other charities do work that you value? Perhaps in your client’s responses you’ll find an opportunity to connect personally, and maybe you can divert some giving to a better cause.
Christian advisers seek to understand the values that all of their clients hold, and they do this by asking questions.
To do this well might require asking good questions with all of your clients, and this can be an opportunity to avoid starting relationships with people who may put you in a difficult position. As an estate attorney, you are in a great place to want to understand a person’s deeply held values, because you are the expert they trust to ensure those values are put into practice at the end of life.
If this approach seems to be working for you, a next step might be to position your practice in such a way as to attract the sort of client whose values would fit well with your own. In my experience, I’ve seen that when you connect with a client on a deeper level, beyond that of a standard transaction, your clients are more likely to trust you and enjoy working with you. Their referrals—especially if asking for them becomes one of your questions—can be the source of a good deal of new business.
In the end, this isn’t your money or your wish, and therefore not your responsibility. However, it is better to avoid, if you can, the discomfort you rightly feel. I hope your unease prompts you toward deeper and more meaningful service to people whose end-of-life planning may open them to your valuable advice.
I was standing in front of the mirror, examining a new bathing suit I’d purchased online when tiny feet pattered into the bathroom. Instinctively, I grabbed my towel to cover my body. I wish I could say it was out of modesty, but truth be told, my urge to cover up was birthed from shame. My body, the one that has taken me on so many adventures, still brings me deep shame.
Ever since my twin girls were little, I was determined that they’d never hear me complain about my body. While I spent nights rocking my babies, whispering promises about creating a safe space for them to honor the bodies God gave them, I never knew how many times I, their own mother, would break that promise.
And yet, as I’ve studied a theology of embodiment, I’ve come to realize that our bodies are gifts. As Gregg Allison writes, “Being made in the image of God entails the embodiment of the image bearers. Human embodiment, then, is according to divine design.” In other words, being an image bearer requires having a body.
This means that some of the very things I hate are a part of God’s good design.
Bodies are created by a good God for his good purposes. And although they, like the rest of the world, are affected by the fall, God uses them for his glory and our good. While we await Christ’s return, here are three ways to affirm God’s good design for our bodies and pass on a healthy body image to our children.1. Use Scripture as the Foundation
It’s tempting to measure our bodies against the images our culture places before us, but the grand narrative of Scripture tells us a true and better story. Here are some truths that should reshape our thoughts:
- God created men and women in his own image, and he called us very good (Gen. 1:26–27, 31).
- We are called to present our bodies are living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. This is a form of worship (Rom. 12:1–2).
- We measure beauty not by earthly physical standards, but by inward character (1 Pet. 3:3–4).
- Christ will make things new—including our bodies. Although our current bodies are affected by the fall, God himself will give us eternal bodies one day (2 Cor. 5:1–5).
In light of the passages above, we should actively teach our children about our bodies and beauty.
For example, when defining beauty for our children, we begin with the “inner self” (1 Pet. 3:3–4). When our kids are kind, generous, gracious, or forgiving, we communicate how beautiful they are. When our children are having fun, we point out how brightly their joy shines. When we see our friends bringing glory to God through generosity, forgiveness, and faithfulness, we proclaim that they’re bringing beauty to a broken world.
At the same time, we don’t run away from aesthetics. When a friend shows up to our house and looks nice, we compliment them. When our family or friends are laughing, we comment on how beautiful their smiles are. When our kids are playing soccer, we tell them God made their legs strong, beautiful, and fast. When they get ready for a special event, we point out how gorgeous they look. In ordinary moments when we are struck by how beautiful God made them, we tell them with the hopes that our words will ring true when the world tells a different story. (This is especially important for fathers to model.)
While the world around us is staking claims on beauty, the Christian family has the opportunity to redeem it. We can gift our children with eyes to see beauty in others by recognizing the ways other people reflect God’s goodness.3. Demonstrate Respect and Care for Our Bodies
We recognize that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and so we care for them as gifts from our Creator. We don’t bemoan our hair, eyes, or size. Rather, we speak words of gratitude to our Creator God for the ways he’s uniquely made each of us. And when our bodies fail us, we anticipate our resurrected bodies to come (1 Cor. 15).
We model this for our children by taking care of our bodies. This means we fight against becoming obsessed with food or exercise; rather, we tend to our bodies in ways our unique body needs. It means we choose rest over hyper-productivity. We choose balance over obsession. We choose self-discipline and sanctification instead of lust, gluttony, and laziness. And we depend on God’s help for all of these things, acknowledging that we’re finite creatures.
We measure our bodies’ worth not by their capacity or function. Instead, we see our bodies and other bodies as beautiful, because we were made in the image of God, and they were designed for our good and his glory.
My body brought children into this world. It survived trauma. It sat next to friends so they wouldn’t be alone. It wrote countless words on pages and even ran marathons. And, although my body carries visible signs of the fall and is daily fading, it’s still beautiful because it reflects the goodness of God in this world.
So instead of covering in shame when my children glance curiously at what the world would call “problem areas,” it’s my hope to point them to an amazing Creator God who will make all things new, including my body.
When I glimpse the well-worn spine of The Hiding Place on my bookshelf, I always think first of the fleas and the horror of human beings forced to sleep in flea-infested straw bedding in a concentration camp. And then I remember with amazement and deep conviction the prayer whispered on that straw by Betsie ten Boom and recalled by her sister Corrie: “Thank you, God, for the fleas.”
The first time I read The Hiding Place, I was in my mid-20s and, after a lifetime of assigned reading, was rediscovering the joy of reading for pleasure. Drawn to biographies of faithful Christians, I couldn’t devour them fast enough. I went to these books in search of worlds and experiences outside my own from which to mine wisdom. I gobbled up books such as Peace Child, Evidence Not Seen, A Chance to Die, Shadow of the Almighty, Surprised by Joy, Living Sacrifice, and Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God. But I returned over and over again to Corrie ten Boom and the Beje in Holland, her jail cell, and the flea-ridden bunk she shared with her sister in Ravensbruck, deep in the cold, darkened heart of Nazi Germany.God’s Goodness During Humanity’s Worst
Corrie’s memoir begins happily enough as she recalls her home, work, and family life in Holland. A cloud hangs over her telling, however, because as all students of history know, war looms on the horizon. When Nazi Germany invades and occupies Holland, Corrie notes small and confounding changes around her: stars of David appearing on passersby, windows of Jewish businesses broken by rocks, ugly words appearing on synagogue walls. Eventually Corrie and her family notice Jewish neighbors disappearing—to where, they aren’t sure—so they begin hiding Jews in their home and working with an underground network to spirit them to safety.
If Scripture sustained these women in the darkest of places, surely it’s our sustenance as we wait for our own darkness to end.
Corrie, her father (Casper), and her sister (Betsie) are eventually betrayed by a fellow Dutchman, arrested, and imprisoned. The two women are ultimately transferred to Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp. While in the camp, bedded down with the fleas, sickly Betsie shares a post-war vision with Corrie: She must tell what she’s seen—not merely the brutality but also how the love and forgiveness found in Christ surpasses the evil and hate of the world. Corrie must tell, Betsie implores, how God was there among them in their deepest suffering.
Betsie doesn’t live to see the reality of her vision, but Corrie does. She’s released from the concentration camp based, she’d later discover, on a clerical error. This divinely appointed clerical error set her on a trek all over the world to proclaim what she’d seen and experienced—a story of God’s faithfulness during some of the worst suffering humanity could invent.Honest Faith Put into Practice
As a young woman, I was a grateful recipient of Corrie’s story. I needed her honesty as she attempted to reconcile faith with suffering. When Betsie thanked God for the fleas, I was almost repulsed. I resonated more with Corrie than Betsie when Corrie said, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” When Betsie expressed compassion for the Nazi guards, earnestly praying for souls hardened by hate, I stood with Corrie on the opposite side, uncertain if forgiveness could ever come. But through certain circumstances that revealed God’s goodness, God did make Corrie grateful for the fleas. And when, after the war, a former guard in her barracks extended a hand, asking for forgiveness, Corrie chose to offer it despite her feelings.
As I grew older, I returned to these examples as I myself faced “fleas” and situations where I knew to obey God meant forgiving those who had hurt me, albeit in situations much less severe than what Corrie and millions of others endured in concentration camps during World War II. Because Corrie’s faith was accompanied by obedience, it was as if she came alongside me as one of the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 11 and said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” She showed me that the light of God could always be found, no matter the darkness.
The truth of the gospel stretches far beyond our current generation (and today’s Twitter squabbles), far into the depths of our human darkness and need, and far into the practice of how we live among our neighbors.
I keep returning to the pages of The Hiding Place, each time amid different circumstances, and yet I find it as relevant for today as it was when it was published almost 50 years ago. In fact, this is a book for our time, because it reminds us that the truth of the gospel stretches far beyond our current generation (and today’s Twitter squabbles), far into the depths of our human darkness and need, and far into the practice of how we live among our neighbors.
We need Corrie and Betsie’s examples of actually living what we say we believe, remembering that faith without works is dead. And it seems what we most need now is courageous love―seeking to do for our neighbors what Christ has done for us: initiating, forgiving, and sacrificing. Corrie warns of what impedes us from what she herself experienced:
I saw that stony indifference to others was the most fatal disease of the concentration camp. I felt it spread to myself: how could one survive if one kept on feeling? . . . It was better to narrow the mind to one’s own need, not to see, not to think. (234)
We too must fight apathy by choosing to see our neighbors and think and look beyond ourselves.Power of the Word
We also need to hear from a woman starved of freedom, food, and family that what kept her alive was a contraband Bible she miraculously kept hidden throughout her ordeal. Corrie describes “gulping” the entire Gospels in one sitting and “living” in the truths of the Word as if they were written for her exact situation. In a flea-ridden bunkhouse, so filthy that no guard would enter, she and Betsie would open the Bible and read it aloud, waiting as different voices translated the life-giving words into German, Polish, and French:
Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God. . . . I would look about us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face. More than conquerors. . . . It was not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it, we experienced it minute by minute—poor, hated, hungry. We are more than conquerors. Not “we shall be.” We are! (206)
If Scripture sustained these women in the darkest of places, surely it’s our sustenance as we wait for our own darkness to end. In our world full of ideas, may we cherish and “gulp” the life-giving words just as Corrie and Betsie did.
I certainly will keep returning to The Hiding Place again and again, learning from Corrie and Betsie, and remembering why I can thank God in any situation, even if it involves fleas.
Planning a retreat is a lot of work. One of the most difficult parts of the planning process is finding a speaker and knowing how to care for her well. As the women’s ministry coordinator for my church and as someone who travels and speaks at other churches on a regular basis, I’ve been on both sides of the planning process.
Speaking at a variety of other churches has helped me grow in my ability to care for women who come as guests to speak at my church. I’ve realized just how exhausting it can be to speak multiple times and lovingly connect with new people, all within a couple of days. As much as I enjoy getting to do it, there is no mistaking the reality—it’s hard work.
Thankfully, I’ve learned from the example other churches have set for me. When it’s my turn to invite a guest speaker, I want to thank them for the work they’ve done and serve them well while they’re among us. And, while I typically interact with female retreat speakers, the things I’ve learned could apply to male speakers as well.
Churches that thoughtfully serve their speakers typically do three things.1. Have a Reasonable Speaker Budget
I’m going to tackle the toughest, most awkward topic first—money. As you budget to invite a speaker, make sure to include travel costs, lodging, and an honorarium.Travel costs
Your speaker may be close enough to drive. If so, prepare ahead of time to reimburse her for those costs. Or, if she is flying, make those arrangements with her (some speakers prefer to purchase their own tickets and be reiumbursed, while others would gladly accept your help) and reimburse her when she sends you the receipt.
In addition, some churches have asked me to send them all my travel receipts: food in the airport, parking fees, and Ubers. (By the way, don’t include reimbursement checks as part of her honorarium, since it registers as income on her taxes.)
We try to pay our speakers in three installments:
1. Before the conference: reimburse her flight expenses.
2. At the conference: provide an honorarium.
3. After the conference: reimburse additional travel expenses.Lodging
Offer to provide your speaker with a private room. While she’ll want to connect with other women, she’ll need down time to pray and prepare for her talks. It’s difficult to do that if she has roommates.
If a private room isn’t possible, make sure to tell her that she’ll be bunking up with other ladies—or staying with a family—in your initial invitation. This will allow her to decline if sharing a room is uncomfortable for her.
It’s also important to let your speaker know if the venue is a distance from the airport. It can make for a long travel day to spend hours on a plane and then more hours in the car. For a number of reasons, she may not be able to spend that much time away from home. Many speakers also want to leave on Saturday in order to be back in their home church on Sunday morning.Honorarium
The woman you invite to speak will put in a lot of work. She’ll communicate with your team, spend hours in preparation, and leave her family and friends for a weekend to be with your church. If she works full-time, she may have to take time off from her job. If she’s responsible for young children or aging adults, she may have to pay a sitter or nurse. It’s an honor to be asked, but it’s a costly endeavor for the speaker. Pay her fairly.
In your invitation to speak, communicate the exact amount you’re able to provide so she’s spared of having to bring up the topic of money. Generally, honorariums vary according to the speaker’s level of expertise. For a weekend retreat or conference, a fair honorarium will be between $500 and $3,000. (This is in addition to covering travel expenses, which is not payment.) If you’re asking a relatively new teacher, it’s fair to consider a range of $500 to $800. If the person you’re inviting works for a church or speaks regularly, consider somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500. If the person speaks regularly and has multiple books or a specific degree that makes them an expert, a range of $1,500–$3,000 is probably more on target.
If you can’t afford an honorarium, know that many speakers do a certain number of events each year at no cost. Don’t be afraid to ask if a speaker is willing to come without an honorarium. Just communicate your request on the front end, so the speaker can decide on the best use of her time. (One of my friends has a heart for church plants, so each year she speaks at one or two retreats for new churches with no expectation of an honorarium. Personally, I consider all the speaking I do in my home city as part of service to my community. I’ll gladly speak to a local MOPS group or small-group Bible study, since it doesn’t require me to leave my family for an extended period of time.)2. Communicate Requests Clearly
In your initial email invitation, it’s helpful to communicate well in order to avoid multiple back-and-forths. Here are some details to include from the beginning:
- Date of the retreat
- Location (as well as additional travel time)
- Number of talks (three talks is typical for a weekend)
- Honorarium amount
- Topic (or ask the speaker for her preferred topic)
- Expected size and if this event is just for your church or open to all
- Church name or ministry website
As you follow up with a speaker, continue to reintroduce yourself (and your church) in your communication. While you’re planning one retreat, your speaker may be communicating with multiple groups, and it’s easy to get confused.
Throughout the planning process, it’s helpful to share with the speaker about your church.
- On the practical side: Give her a sense of the dress code for the event, the type of microphone you plan to use (this actually affects female speakers quite a bit because if the mic has a battery pack, dresses are really difficult), and ask if she’ll need any equipment (a podium, a Powerpoint projector, copies of handouts, and so on).
- On the content side: Explain the general age range and demographics, as well as the spiritual maturity of the women. If there have been painful struggles or losses recently within the church body, it’s wise to let the speaker know. Communicating these details can help the speaker as she prepares her message and prays for the women in your church.
When I travel, the loving hospitality I receive always amazes me. Two specific ways to care for speakers while they are in town are gifts and hosts.Gifts
Many churches provide lovely gifts! But I’ve talked to a variety of speakers, and they share the same struggle: Most travel with carry-on luggage, so they can’t take much with them. The best gifts are usually items that can be consumed while the speaker is there: water bottles, snacks, fruit, and mints. Items like lotions, candles, books, pottery, and mugs are often difficult to take home (and some can’t get past TSA).
If you really want to give her a specific gift, one option is to mail her something after the conference. Or, if she’s married, a gift card for a dinner out as a “thank you” to her spouse would be a thoughtful way to care for her. One of the kindest gifts is simply to follow up with a speaker and let her know how her teaching specifically encouraged and blessed your church.Host
I’ve noticed that many churches assign one woman to care for the speaker throughout the weekend. Usually the host picks up the speaker from the airport, makes sure she has something to eat, and gets her to her hotel or retreat center. She helps the speaker throughout the weekend by keeping her on schedule, sitting with her at meals (or making sure someone is sitting with her!), and helping the speaker get away for ample time between sessions so she can review her notes. Having someone whose primary role is to care for and be hospitable to the speaker is a wonderful way to help the speaker feel loved and at ease among a new group of women.
The churches I’ve visited have taught me so much—they’ve cared for me well, communicated clearly, and offered gracious hospitality. In sharing what I’ve learned from other churches, my hope is to help others in the planning process—I know it’s hard work! I also know that retreats offer a special opportunity for fellowship, encouragement, worship, and spiritual growth.
Whatever your event, the most important planning practice is time on your knees in prayer, asking the Spirit to be among you, sharpening minds and enlivening spiritual affections. The best of speakers is powerless without the Spirit’s work. May he be the guest of honor as he comforts the hurting, convicts the wandering, and softens the hardest of hearts.
The Event: The Stonewall riots in New York City on June 28 and 29, 1969.
Why It Matters: The Stonewall riots helped launch the social and political movement known as “gay liberation.”
What Happened: In 1967, three members of the Genovese crime family opened a bar at the Stonewall Inn located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Within two years it would become the largest gay establishment in the United States, catering to drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and homeless male teens.
The bar violated many city laws, such as operating without a liquor license and lacking fire exits. Bartenders did not have access to running water behind the bar, and served drinks in dirty, used glasses (patrons blamed an outbreak of hepatitis on the bar’s unhygienic conditions). The bar was only able to stay open because the mafia-connected owners reportedly bribed police with around $1,200 a month to turn a blind eye to the goings on at the establishment.
Raids on such illegal taverns by the police were common at the time, and gay bars could be expected to be raided about once a month. Despite the alleged payoffs, though, the bartenders at the Stonewall Inn were unaware of the raid on June 28. When six police officers attempted to close the bar at 1:20 a.m., the 200 patrons resisted. When he crowd outside grew to 500 and escalated to violence, the police officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. The rioters threw rocks and bricks and attempted to burn down the building with the police inside.
The Tactical Patrol Force of the New York City Police Department arrived an hour later and by 4 a.m. had managed to quell the riot. Two nights later, though, rioting broke out again with protestors becoming even more violent. Hundreds of police clashed with a thousand rioters until the early hours of Sunday morning.
What It Means Today: A mafia-owned bar where homeless teens were plied with drinks and taken advantage of by predatory men and made famous for violent attacks and attempted murder of police may seem to be an unlikely location for a U.S. National Monument. But in 2016 President Obama added the illegal bar alongside the Statue of Liberty and Booker T. Washington’s birthplace on the short list of national monuments.
Three years earlier, in his second inaugural address, President Obama had mentioned “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”—equating the starting point for the so-called gay liberation movement with women’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans.
“Out of the Stonewall riots of 1969—a violent anti-police action that in its memorialization has been largely defanged—the Gay Liberation Movement formed,” Harvard professor Michael Bronski wrote in Boston Review. “Gay Liberation saw itself as a vanguard of the New Left. Central to its politics was the battle against gender and sexual oppression as well as racism, capitalism, and imperialism.”
While the gay liberation movement adopted many of the radical ideas of the 1970s, these activists were particularly enamored with eliminating the institutions related to the traditional family, such as a marriage and child rearing. In 1972 members of Boston’s Gay Men’s Liberation handed out a ten-point list of demands at the Democratic National Convention. Item number six on their list was:
Rearing children should be the common responsibility of the whole community. Any legal rights parents have over “their” children should be dissolved and each child should be free to choose its own destiny. Free twenty-four hour childcare centers should be established where fa*****s and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing.
In another article for Boston Review, Bronski points out that gay liberationists theorized that “sexual repressions and lack of sexual knowledge were far more dangerous than same-sex activity for youth.” In “The Gay Manifesto,” published a month before the Stonewall riots, Carl Wittman wrote:
A note on the exploitation of children: kids can take care of themselves, and are sexual beings way earlier than we’d like to admit. Those of us who began cruising in early adolescence know this, and we were doing the cruising, not being debauched by dirty old men. . . . And as for child molesting, the overwhelming amount is done by straight guys to little girls: it is not particularly a gay problem, and is caused by the frustrations resulting from anti-sex puritanism.
As Bronski adds,
Testaments from gay adults that they had had queer sexual desires as kids was a new development in the public conversation about homosexuality and a bold political strategy. Indeed, the naming of the existence of gay teens and children—in the context of an emerging children’s liberation movement—had an immediate effect on political organizing. Soon after the Stonewall riots, as Gay Liberation groups spread across the country, queer youth began to organize. In The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: ‘An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail’ (2008), Stephan L. Cohen documents at least thirty U.S.-based groups formed, and run, by LGBT youth during the decade.
More radical theorists felt that once one accepted the idea that the bourgeois family suppresses children’s sexuality, the logical next step was to demand both an end to the nuclear family and the involvement of gay men and lesbians in the raising of children.
While the gay liberation movement may have gone too far in some places, Bronksi admits, their vision is coming to fruition today:
Amazing numbers of young people are coming out earlier and earlier. Discussions of queer youth sexuality—and gender roles—are increasingly sophisticated and vibrant. In ways that Gay Liberation began to imagine in 1972, the kids are all right; they are taking care of themselves.
At Stonewall, teens were allowed to mix with drag queens. Today, teens—and pre-teens—are allowed to become drag queens. The trend has become so mainstream that NBC News wrote a story last October titled, “’Drag kids’ are slaying the runway—one ‘fierce’ look at a time.” The subhead on the story read, “Drag has historically been part of a nightlife subculture, but its move into the mainstream has cultivated a nontraditional crop of performers.” ABC’s Good Morning America also had a story on an “11-year-old trailblazing drag kid.” In libraries across the country, gay men in drag read to young children. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, “Drag Queen Story Hour Continues Its Reign at Libraries, Despite Backlash.”
Not surprisingly in such a culture, transgenderism has become more popular with children and teens. A study published last year in the medical journal Pediatrics found that many more teens than previously thought say they are transgender or identify themselves using other nontraditional gender terms. The study estimates that nearly 3 percent of teens are transgender or gender nonconforming, meaning they don’t always self-identify as the sex they were assigned at birth. That includes kids who refer to themselves using neutral pronouns like “them” instead of “he” or “she.” As I wrote last year, if these new estimates are correct, it means that young people are 329 percent more likely than adults to identify as transgender, and that there are almost as many transgender teens as there are adult men and women who identify as gay and lesbian.
The effects of Stonewall are still being felt today—and our children are paying the highest price. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can attempt to reach young people with the truth.
“Because our biological sex doesn’t lie, and because our minds are susceptible to confusion, repentance and sanctification for the dysphoric individual involves the long work of bringing their perceived gender identity back into conformity with their biological sex,” Andrew Walker says. “A person may never fully arrive at peace, but putting on the new self, remade in Jesus Christ, means embracing and trusting God’s authority over every facet of our existence (Col. 3:1–11).”
How does a church come to terms with revelations of abuse by a leader, especially when the accusations have been established as fact?
In 1 Timothy 5:19, Paul writes, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Referring back to an Old Testament law, the expression “two or three witnesses” is a biblical idiom for careful and independent attestation of the truth of the accusations. This acknowledges that false accusations are sometimes leveled at church leaders.
But how should we respond when the accused is found guilty? Of course, it’s of first importance to comfort, love, and help the victims of abuse. And it’s critical to ask what lessons the particular church or institution can learn from the tragic revelation. Are there unrecognized elements within the church or other ministry that have allowed abuse to take place? What can be done to keep this from happening again?
Such vital questions are beyond the scope of this article, but I want to consider three broader ways we should respond when an influential leader whom many respect is exposed for abusing those in his care.1. We Must Guard Our Own Hearts
Revelations of abuse arouse in us disbelief, then dismay, shock, and horror. We rightly distance ourselves from abusive behaviors and see how terribly wrong they are. And yet the moment we do this, we are in great danger and must guard ourselves:
- Against self-righteousness. There is no place for self-righteousness (Luke 18:9–14). The danger with expressing our horror and revulsion at abusive behaviors is that we slip into a pharisaic smug complacency, thanking God that we are not guilty of serious sin. We must not do this. We have not been guilty of, or complicit in, the abuse that has been uncovered—praise God. But there are many sins of which we’ve been guilty.
- Against an unhealthy interest. In the context of a Christian being “caught in transgression,” Paul exhorts his readers: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). We may not be tempted by the ugly features of any particular instance of abuse. But it’s easy to gossip, and there is a danger of indulging a prurient interest and craving to know more. Sinful behavior of any kind sticks to us like dirt; indeed, knowing about ugly actions is a little like pornography—it lurks in our memories and drags us down in our thoughts and emotions. We may need to re-hear the exhortation: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
- Against a twisted gladness. When Judah came under the judgment of God during the Babylonian exile, the prophets had a special word of condemnation for the Edomites, who cheered on the Babylonians and rejoiced at the disaster that befell Judah. “But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin” (Obad. 12; cf. Prov. 24:17–18). This is a danger for us, perhaps especially when a Christian leader falls.
The shock of all abuse revelations is peculiarly acute when the one whom they concern has been a blessing to many. How can something so good be intimately associated with something so evil? It’s deeply disorienting to find that a man we thought we knew—perhaps a man some viewed as a father figure—is not the man we thought he was. It feels like the foundations are being pulled from beneath us. There is a painful sense of loss, akin to bereavement. How are we to make sense of this apparently senseless confluence of good and evil in one person?
We must remind ourselves of the depth and extent of our own depravity. The heroes of Scripture were flawed people. The great King David committed adultery (if not rape) and was complicit in murder (2 Sam. 11). Solomon had great wisdom yet failed terribly. And we remain deeply sinful even as regenerate people (Rom. 7). Any one of us is capable of committing terrible sins. If we think we’re not, we must take heed lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
All this is true, but it still doesn’t entirely explain the particular tragedy of abuse by a church leader. Sin is incredibly deceitful, and we must grapple with that fact.
To do this, we should begin with a wholesome model of pastoral care. A pastor who’s a more mature Christian takes younger believers under his care. He prays for them. He instructs and encourages them. He keeps in touch with them. He meets with them and exhorts them to keep following Jesus faithfully.
But if we’re not careful, even this kind of relationship can go wrong. Perhaps the loving care is so intense that the friendship becomes a little exclusive. The older believer begins to think of this younger believer as “his”—not only his pastoral responsibility, but even his prerogative, so that no one else is really allowed to encourage this younger person.
It’s not difficult to see how wholesome pastoral care might morph into something much darker, and the younger disciple end up being used for the purposes of the older pastor rather than the older pastor sacrificially serving him. Who knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart in this process? The leader is not likely fully aware himself—such is the deceitfulness of the human heart.
In Christ we see the polar opposite of every kind of abuse.
So what are the warning signs of this dark exchange? Exclusivity might be one. Favoritism might be another. When there is any perception that some are “the favored ones” and others are not, danger lurks.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis explains how the human experiences that most closely imitate the character of God sometimes lead us to confuse those experiences with God. Imagine being almost home at the end of a long journey, Lewis says, only to become stuck at the top of a cliff overlooking your home. We are close to home, but we still have a lot of walking to do.
Lewis applies this point to both erotic love and also patriotic love for one’s country, both of which are like God’s love—yet far from it. Similarly, the kind of close, affectionate pastoral care that approximates the care of Jesus may begin to claim the prerogatives of authority and influence that belong to Jesus alone. And so, by a diabolical alchemy, something wholesome and nourishing transforms into something abusive.
But even if we slowly begin to grasp something of how the abuse might have happened—and such a grasp will be tentative, for we cannot see another’s heart—we must face the frightening reality that the blessings we thought we’d experienced through this leader might not be true blessings at all. Might they not be in some way invalidated by these revelations, tainted beyond recovery by the sin with which we now know they were associated? These are truly sobering questions, for these blessings relate to salvation and eternal destiny.
Paul encouraged Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14), presumably meaning Timothy’s godly mother and grandmother, and the apostle himself. As Timothy remembered the godliness and integrity of those from whom he learned faith in Christ, he was encouraged to continue on the path of faith. But what if we discover that one from whom we learned the things of Christ didn’t have the integrity and godliness we thought he had? Is that not deeply disturbing? It is.
And yet, we must come back to the fundamental truth that all our blessings come through Christ alone, the Savior in whom there is no sin, in whose life we see pure goodness, sacrificial service of others, and the polar opposite of every kind of abuse.
Scripture repeatedly warn us not to put our trust in people other than God and his Christ. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” the king warns in Psalm 118:9. “Put not your trust in princes,” the psalmist warns, for blessing comes only to the one “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Ps. 146:3–5).
Writing from prison to the church in Philippi, Paul is sad that some “preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” And yet he takes comfort that, whatever their motives, “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:15–18). The channels through whom we hear the good news of Jesus will never be perfect; sometimes they will prove deeply flawed, whether through bad motives or even through the horror of abuse. But the blessing comes from Jesus Christ, and no flaws in the channel can remove from us the sheer goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in Jesus.
No flaws in the channel can remove the goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in the Source.
Suppose someone came to faith in Christ through the ministry of this now-fallen leader, or someone else looks back to a signal time of growth in grace through his preaching, or another is in ministry because of his encouragement. How are these now to view their conversion, their growth in grace, their being in ministry?
The answer, I think, is this: They may be grateful to God for his overwhelming kindness to them, that he appointed a channel through whom they heard the gospel, through whom they grew in grace, through whom they entered ministry. Nothing about any of those blessings is invalidated by the sad discovery of the leader’s flawed behavior. All these blessings rest on Christ; not one rests on the character of this or any other leader.
For some, there may need to be a period of painful readjustment. We may need to hear afresh the admonition not to put our trust in “princes” (including dynamic Christian leaders). We may need to repent if our trust has become mixed between this leader and the Savior. But in the end, we should take fresh comfort from all we have in Christ.3. We Must Lament, Repent, and Be Humbled—Together
When the Old Testament people of God came under judgment in the Babylonian exile, those who were true and even blameless were caught up in judgment with those who were arrogant idolaters. We hear the voices of these true believers in a number of places. In Psalm 79, for example, provoked by the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem, the Spirit-inspired psalmist grieves when the surrounding nations taunt them with the mocking question, “Where is their God?” (v. 10). It’s spoken to the idolaters and to the psalmist.
In his prayer in Daniel 9:1–19, the godly Daniel laments the “open shame” that has come “to us” (vv. 7–8), for we have all “become a byword among all who are around us” (v. 16). The godly Nehemiah laments that, because of the people’s ungodliness, “we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). In other words, all of us fall under the shadow of God’s discipline, whether or not we have personally been guilty of covenant-breaking and idolatry.Mockers Will Mock
When a church leader’s abuse is exposed, the whole church of Jesus will be reviled by the world. We’ll be taunted as hypocrites. We’ll be laughed at when we speak of biblical virtue and the law of God.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
Some who are lifelong enemies of the gospel will use these sad events as a vehicle to make life miserable for Christians. Others—and this is more tragic—who might have had a genuine interest in the Christian faith will be driven away from a message whose messengers now appear to them as hypocrites or worse.
All this is desperately painful, but we must expect it. As God’s people did after the exile, we too must learn to lament together for the sad state of the church. We grieve for the victims and seek to love and care for them as best we can. We grieve for the honor of Christ.
And yet, even as we lament and repent afresh of our own sins, we cling to the invincible promises of God. For Jesus promised he will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt.16:18). That promise stands even on our darkest day. So let us encourage one another to hold firmly to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is our only hope.
My friend Matthew Lee Anderson recently wrote a reflection in his newsletter with the headline “Quit Netflix.” Matt describes his decision, five years ago, to quit Netflix as “one of the single best, and hardest, choices I have made as an adult.”
But he doesn’t regret it:
I don’t know if I am any closer toward becoming a more interesting, sanctified human being than I was in my Days of Netflix. But I know the shows that captivated everyone then the way Game of Thrones has now have largely passed from the realm of discourse, such that I am none the better for having seen them. And that gives me hope that foregoing as much of the Entertainment Complex as I can bring myself to will allow me to cultivate a life that in 20 years has enough depth to supply its own stories at a dinner party.
Though Matt’s article contains some overstated claims I would quibble with (films necessarily “breed passivity”; television “actively undermines the very skills necessary to be an interesting human being”), I appreciate and respect his conclusions.
I also believe people should at least consider quitting streaming services like Netflix. I’ve written before about problems I see with that platform (“4 Ways Netflix Perpetuates Modern Anxieties”), so I won’t rehash those here. But I do have some additional thoughts.Are You Free to Not Netflix?
Most Christians would probably agree that subscriptions to streaming-video sites like Netflix falls within the category of “Christian liberty.” Scripture obviously doesn’t speak to whether, and how much, one should watch Netflix.
But like anything we are free as Christians to do, a crucial question must always be: “Am I free to abstain from this thing?” Enjoyment of any good (or neutral) thing can easily become idolatrous, after all, if we find that we can’t live without it.
I wrote about this point a few years ago in terms of alcohol, describing my worry that post-legalism liberty to drink can morph into a new legalism: “Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a ‘liberty’ and more a shackling legalism—something we can’t, or won’t, go without?”
The same logic applies to Netflix (among many other things): In moderation it can be a good thing, but be wary if it becomes a thing you can’t quit. A good litmus test of whether something is idolatrous is whether you are willing (or able) to abstain from it.
A good litmus test of whether something is idolatrous is whether you are willing (or able) to abstain from it.Too Much of a Good Thing
Matt suggests one of the problems of Netflix is the sheer glut of content that leads us to continually fill our time with what we’ve been told are “must-sees”:
We have been told the past few years that we are living in the golden age of serialized television. What started with The Sopranos has most recently given us Game of Thrones. The number of series in between that one ostensibly must have viewed to participate in Intelligent Conversations About Culture is mind-boggling: Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, The Office . . . and those are just the shows I can think of in my sleep-deprived state. I suspect that one could learn to speak passable French in the amount of time those series require.
I agree. It’s impossible to “keep up” with the endless array of quality Netflix content (and Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and HBO, and so on). The time it would take to watch every commendable show would indeed not be worth it. I’d rather learn French.
But here’s the thing: We really are living in the golden age of serialized television. My problem with Netflix is not that there is nothing quality to be found; it’s that there is too much quality to be found. It’s overwhelming and can be desensitizing.
My problem with Netflix is not that there is nothing quality to be found; it’s that there is too much quality to be found. It’s overwhelming and can be desensitizing.
Sure, there is a ton of bad content too: brain-dulling drivel that supports the long-held thesis that TV is mostly just a “vast wasteland.” But there are also a lot of insightful, beautifully rendered shows (and not just Friday Night Lights, though I agree with Matt that it is the best). There are countless quality documentaries worth learning from. If you want your Netflix diet to be healthy and nourishing, it’s possible. There is a broccoli to be found alongside the candy.
But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Overchoice is a real problem today, whether we’re talking about Netflix shows or digital music or even churches. The more options we have, the more paralyzed we can be by the weight of consumerist freedom and FOMO (fear of missing out). Will we make the wrong choice? Of the 15 shows your friends have talked about on social media, which one should you watch? This can be so debilitating that we end up surrendering, dangerously, to the algorithms that are more than happy to choose for us.Algorithm-Fueled Addiction
In Proverbs, the opposite of wisdom is often personified in a character known as “the forbidden woman.” She is a woman of “smooth words” (2:16–17) whose lips “drip honey” (5:3). She is loud, seductive, and sits at the door of her house, calling to those who pass by (9:13–15). A. W. Tozer describes her as “moral folly personified,” who “works by the power of suggestion.” And as Tozer puts it, many of us “are brainwashed from nine o’clock in the morning or earlier until the last eyelid flutters shut at night because of the power of suggestion.”
In today’s world, I think the “forbidden woman” is especially active in the “watch this next!” suggestion algorithms that are carefully designed to keep us hooked and unable to resist their siren songs. Always ready with new content tailored to our interests, the seductive algorithms lure us into rabbit holes of constant distraction. If we aren’t careful, we will become passive and constant consumers, just as Silicon Valley wants. When we suggest to our spouse or friends that we should turn on Netflix to just watch something (unspecified), we are just cogs in the machinery of algorithms ever more sophisticated at filling our spare moments with visual content. We are digital flâneurs, and this is a dangerous thing to be.
Responsible, healthy usage of platforms like Netflix is intentional use. It is not turning it on unless there is a specific film or series you want to watch—one that comes recommended by trustworthy humans rather than untrustworthy algorithms. Don’t open Netflix to just watch something. Open it sparingly, for a specific purpose. When we aren’t going somewhere, we’ll go anywhere—and the “anywheres” of the internet are rarely good for us.
When we aren’t going somewhere, we’ll go anywhere—and the ‘anywheres’ of the internet are rarely good for us.
If you find this sort of moderation and intentionality impossible in your use of Netflix, it might be best to cancel your subscription. There’s no shame in quitting Netflix, and you are no philistine to do so. But the misuse of something is not an argument against its proper use (abusus non tollit usum).
It’s difficult to use Netflix as a Christian in ways that are edifying and enriching. But is it impossible? No.
“I understand that every church cannot hire a woman on staff, but I think every church should have a budget for how we will help train our women. And so it might be by sending them to conferences or doing things like that so that they can be supported and trained up. Because often we will kind of cringe at some of the curriculum that can be out there and we say, ‘Oh, why are the women studying this?’ But if we haven’t been trained, we can’t discern. And so one of the best things we can do for our women is help them get training in whatever way we can.” — Melissa Kruger
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Tony Merida on the Vital Importance of Women in the Church’s Mission
- Jen Wilkin on How to Organize and Orchestrate a Bible Study
- How to Train and Mobilize Women in Your Church
- 3 Reasons to Hire Women to Do Ministry in the Local Church
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
Are you #blessed? Or maybe you’re #TooBlessedToBeStressed. Perhaps your coffee mug or new workout T-shirt proclaims this status to those you meet.
Blessed is everywhere. Our kids are God’s blessings. Our new job, pay raise, and bigger house happen because God has blessed us. Our vacation, new car, and girls’ night out all have us feeling so blessed.
When American Tina Boesch moved to Turkey, she quickly recognized that they had a different way of thinking about blessing. People actually spoke blessings to one another. Rather than simply “How are you?” or “Have a good day,” she was hearing, “Health to your hands,” “May the way be open,” and even, “Peace be with you” (6).
Struck by these phrases and their contrast to blessings back home, Boesch set out to better understand the origin and purpose of true blessing. Given: The Forgotten Meaning and Practice of Blessing is a journey through the Scriptures to see how God blesses and how his blessings call us to bless others.
Boesch isn’t only a writer; she’s also an artist and a designer. These creative gifts come through in Given. Rich in both imagery and also biblical substance, the message of Given is a feast. Below I share just three courses among many.Blessing Is a Shine from God and for God
May the Lord make his face to shine on you.
These familiar words of benediction were originally an Old Testament priestly blessing for God’s chosen people (Num. 6:24–26). But it’s for us today too—we who are set apart, we who belong to the Lord. May he make his face to shine on us as well.
Boesch dwells here, and it’s beautiful. We see God’s shine in his creation—the streaming sunlight, eyes lifted to heaven, love extending from one to another. We see it in Scripture—when Moses met God on Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, and the coming shine when the Lord will be our everlasting light (Isa. 60:19).
We see it in our own lives. When we say, “May God make his face shine on you,” Boesch explains that “it has immediate application: May God’s face illuminate you today; may you walk in the light of his presence right now; may you experience his bright shine in this culture tinged with gray, may you reflect the glory and goodness of God to those you meet” (86). In this way, we’re mirrors of God’s shine, his glory. He shines on us, transforming us and shining through us, that others may see him and his goodness.Blessing Is an Orientation of Self
Throughout Given, we see how blessing comes from God, first directly through his own hands, then through mediators, and ultimately through us to others. God first blesses in Eden. Then he blesses Abram, promising to make him a great nation, to make his name great, to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:2–3). Following Abram, blessing comes through the patriarchs, priests, kings, prophets, and Christ himself. And now, Christ in us brings blessing—we’re the mediators.
Jesus is our model as he continuously blesses in the New Testament: children, meals, on arriving and departing (156–57). But then he disrupts tradition and says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–44). Jesus shocks as he calls his followers to love everyone, even our enemies.
Boesch explains, “Jesus is saying that the entire orientation of the self—in thought, word, deed, and prayer—should be focused on the good of others, even our enemies” (159). He isn’t only our model; he’s also our helper, our enabler. We can’t love like this on our own. We need the power of God’s Spirit to help us, empower us, to orient our whole selves to love and bless others, even our enemies.Blessing Is a Call
The call of Given is that we’re to be a river, not a reservoir, of God’s blessing (7). We receive blessing to be a blessing. Blessing “is most fully expressed in the sacrificial giving of self for the sake of others” (189).
Christ became the curse that he might bless us (Gal. 3:13). And now we’re a priesthood of believers called to go and bless the whole world. “Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross freed us from the curse to find peace with God so that we can live in—and as—blessing” (207).
Christian, we must not store up our blessings where moth and rust destroy. Rather, we must receive and disperse the blessing of peace—eternal peace—that we’ve been given. Precisely because we have peace, we must not hoard it. Instead we’re called to live given.
In a time when we reduce blessings to material gain or personal progress, Boesch calls us back to God’s Word, to the origin of blessing—God himself—and to the purpose of blessing: that we might bless others. Rich in beauty and biblical substance, Given reminds us that as we have been given life, so too, we must give life.
May we live given.
At Watermark Community Church in Dallas, where I’m privileged to serve as pastor, there’s a sign in a back room that I made when teaching through 2 Peter:
Divine Physician’s General Warning:
Ingesting false teaching will complicate your life, possibly eternally. Examine the Scriptures to see if the things you hear are true.
Here’s the obvious message: Evaluate everything against God’s Word, which includes both the teaching we hear and also the lyrics we sing in corporate worship.
This discipline is especially relevant today, given the popularity of songs from Bethel Music and the increasing concerns over Bethel’s theology, practices, leadership, teachings, and school of “supernatural ministry.” Given that we should “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), it’s worth asking whether churches concerned with orthodoxy should sing songs associated with individuals or organizations with a history of errant beliefs or practices.Not a New Issue
For generations Christians have embraced truth-filled hymns composed by authors who have held to unsupportable beliefs or who have fallen away from the faith. Here are just three examples.
- “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” penned by reformer Martin Luther, who wrote the 95 Theses that rightly protested corruption in the Roman Catholic Church and set off the Protestant Reformation, but who also wrote The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name, which were rooted in hostility and horrific views toward Jews. (See Bernard Howard’s article, “Luther’s Jewish Problem.”)
- “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written in 1757 by Methodist preacher Robert Robinson, who later fulfilled the “prone to wander” line by drifting away from the faith.
- “It Is Well with My Soul,” written by Horatio Gates Spafford after he lost his four children in the sinking of the SS Ville du Havre in November 1873. While his most famous work is this anthem to the truth of God’s sovereignty, his teachings on eternal punishment and the Holy Spirit were at best ill-informed, and at worst heretical.
So, should songs that strongly proclaim the truth of God’s Word no longer be used in corporate worship given other errant beliefs or practices by the authors or associated churches?
Here are four questions that might help when assessing whether a song, book, or any form of communication should be used.1. Are you examining everything you consume (sermons, books, music, movies) through the lens of God’s Word?
It’s important that all believers are equipped with Scripture so they may accurately discern (1 John 4:1–3) whether a sermon, song, book, website, or other media aligns with Scripture and the Spirit. Every believer should be equipped to discern truth from error and live in fellowship with mature believers who hold them accountable in their discerning (Prov. 15:22).
Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it stands the test of God’s Word.
Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it stands the test of God’s Word.2. Does the song stand on its own, proclaiming the truth of God’s Word without explanation?
Every song a church sings should be grounded in Scripture and sound doctrine and should edify the body of Christ (Eph. 4:29). Right worship is a form of equipping, and if the song is communicating unbiblical ideas, then it shouldn’t be welcomed in the church. Every song is the responsibility of the shepherds, and shepherds are to be on guard so that savage wolves (Acts 20:28) with snappy melodies don’t come into the flock.
Shepherds are to be on guard so that savage wolves with snappy melodies don’t come into the flock.
Over the years at Watermark we have examined countless songs for clarity, from “Away in a Manger” to “Reckless Love.” We constantly ask ourselves questions like, “Is it accurate to describe God’s love as ‘overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless?”—as the chorus of “Reckless Love” says? It’s the responsibility of the spiritual leaders in every church to make these calls. It’s not an overstatement to say that their protection of their people (Acts 20:28–30) and their own future judgment (Heb. 13:17) depend on it.3. Is it possible to separate the truth being sung from the error of its associations?
A church is never in more danger than when a false teacher communicates under the guise of proclaiming truth (2 Cor. 11:14; Acts 16:16–18). In addition to false teachers, we must be aware of directing others toward ministries of well-meaning individuals consistently associated with false or errant theology and practices.
The leadership of Bethel and the teachings and practices embraced by its members, students, and ministry partners would, at a minimum, fall into this category. Promoting their songs—even though the songs themselves are theologically accurate—could open others to additional messages and ideas that are errant in practice and theology.
Historically, there is at least one significant example of music and lyrics being a means through which heresy was propagated. Arius (AD 250–336) was a capable songwriter and a theologian who denied Christ’s deity. He wrongly asserted that Jesus was a finite, created being with some divine attributes—not the eternal God. The popularity of his melodies and songs led to the rapid spread of his heretical ideas.
We must acknowledge that a well-written song can quickly lead others to a truth-forsaken place. While it’s unlikely that many today will dig up Horatio Spafford sermons if they sing “It Is Well,” many people will want to know more about Bethel’s “supernatural school of ministry” because of their excellent music.4. Would using the song cause us to actively support an errant ministry?
Perhaps the most unavoidable implication is that using songs from these ministries and artists supports them financially. Even if you protect your flock from future influence, you unavoidably will be strengthening the ministries. The cost-benefit of the truths should be weighed in your ultimate decision.Examine Everything
Our team examines the content and implications of every song we sing—whether they come from our own artists at Watermark, Bethel Music, Hillsong, Passion, or any other collective community or individual artist. We’ve often chosen not to sing certain songs because we didn’t believe the content to be theologically accurate or glorifying to God. At the same time, we sometimes sing lyrics and music written or produced by churches we wouldn’t want to disciple the saints.
We don’t need to be paranoid, but we do need to be vigilant. May everything we put before Jesus’s church ensure that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14).
Catchy tunes can cause a lot of trouble, so listen with care and lead with godly conviction. Don’t sing a song just because people love it; sing it because it’s true and leads you to places where you can find more of God’s truth.
We can learn much about the deep longings of our communities from the buzzwords that we use and overuse.
Savor. Vulnerability. Presence. Influencer. Belong.
It’s the final word—belong—that has caught my attention and sparked immense reflection. Why has belonging become such a popular idea across secular and church cultures?
It makes sense: Many have lost, or never had, a true sense of belonging.
For all our great advances in technology, modern Americans are more distracted than ever before. Despite constant, always-on connectivity, we’re lonelier than any other human group in history. All is not well with us.
Our society has been described as a “swipe-right culture”—a reference to approving a potential date on a popular dating app. When we like something at first glance, swipe right. The moment something—whether a person, relationship, job, or community—loses its appeal, swipe left. Swipe-right culture promises freedom and autonomy: The moment you’re not satisfied, find something new. Probably by using your phone.
And it’s not just those outside the faith and the church; the search for true belonging exists within our own congregations. To whom to do we belong? Is it true we must “belong to ourselves”? And the great question that haunts so many in our day: Who are my people?We Long to Belong
Belonging isn’t an abstract psychological state, nor is it unimportant for those of us doing “serious” church work.
Belonging is our primary human need. Beyond food and shelter, nothing promotes human flourishing like having a people and place of belonging. Research confirms that income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging in promoting sustained happiness. We long to belong.
The church is God’s creation to “set the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6), to give us a place to belong. Churches and Christian organizations can promote belonging by reorienting their ministries and strategies around thriving community—by inviting people to belong, not just challenging them to commit.Version of Belonging
In 2017, Brené Brown published Braving the Wilderness, applying her unique insights to belonging and loneliness. Brown is a social worker, professor, and popular author. Her TED talk on vulnerability has been viewed more than 40 million times, and she has become a fixture in pop culture. Yet within the evangelical church, she is a controversial figure. She often mentions her Christian faith, but her work on shame, vulnerability, and belonging come from her research in social psychology, and many believers have found her books to be a slippery slope toward self-centeredness.
While I certainly don’t agree with everything Brown says and writes, she has done the world a profound favor by reminding us of the importance of vulnerability in relationships, the need for belonging, and the significance of empathy in interpersonal support. In Braving the Wilderness, though, she makes some claims that relate to our topic, and indeed stretch the classic understanding of belonging.
Brown defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it” (31–32).
Brown’s desire to establish true belonging as something far deeper than “fitting in” is noble. She continues: “True belonging . . . [is] not something we achieve or accomplish with others; it’s something we carry in our heart. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours” (32). So, her theory goes, we must be secure in ourselves, and then we’ll belong wherever we are. It follows, then, that there will be many times when we don’t fit in, and when we’ll be alone—in the wilderness—and yet still belong there.
I understand that her thesis is grounded in recent data from psychological surveys. I don’t doubt that’s what the data says. But I do doubt that it’s entirely true.Belonging—Our Greatest Need
I was out to lunch with a new church member a few years ago, and he mentioned his previous graduate research (in education theory) was focused on belonging. I admitted I had no idea what he meant.
He explained: In the late 20th century, the “self-esteem” movement was in full swing until, well, it wasn’t. The reigning hypothesis stated that individuals were most fully satisfied when they had a high sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem went from a minor therapeutic theory to a dominant factor in wider culture, and thousands of parents began to instill large doses of self-esteem into their kids.
In Christ, we can find true belonging: True belonging is being fully known and being fully loved.
The rise of the self-esteem movement, however, was based more in hypothesis than in evidence. The end of the 20th century brought about a few long-term studies aimed at proving its importance. Children were indoctrinated with self-esteem (among other factors) from early childhood into young adulthood. But the research came to a startling conclusion: Self-esteem had little to no positive effect on individuals’ lives. For many, it had a significantly negative effect.
So, what single quality was most identified with satisfaction and well-being? In 1995, Roy Baumeister at Florida State published a substantial article demonstrating that the healthiest, most satisfied individuals in life are those who have a place to belong.
In other words, our deepest satisfaction comes not from achieving personal autonomy but through acceptance into unconditional love and in unbreakable belonging to a people. I feel like I’ve read that somewhere.Belonging in the Scriptures
Belonging has deep roots in the biblical story and Christian theology. Belonging takes several forms in Scripture, but it’s not a complicated theme. There are three levels.
First, most of the references to belonging refer to one’s ownership of possessions. Second, people are often said to belong to a fixed social group—priests to the Levite division (Luke 1:5), Joseph to the house and lineage of David (Luke 2:4), and the early Christians to the church (Acts 9:2; 12:1). But there is a third and most profound sense of belonging described in the Scriptures. We belong to God and his family—a truth that itself gets expressed three ways in the New Testament.1. We belong to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Little children belong to Jesus and his kingdom (Matt. 19:14). Those who serve the poor and marginalized in Jesus’s name belong to him (Mark 9:41). The church is the bride that belongs to Jesus, the bridegroom (John 3:29). Whoever belongs to God hears and obeys his voice (John 8:47). All those who belong to the Son belong also to the Father (John 16:15). Both Jewish and Gentile Christians belong to Christ (Rom. 1:6). Christ died so that we might no longer belong to ourselves but belong to Christ and bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4). Without the Holy Spirit, no one belongs to God (Rom. 8:9). Whether we live or die, we belong to God (Rom. 14:8). When Christ returns, all who belong to him will be resurrected (1 Cor. 15:23).2. We no longer belong to ourselves or to the world.
On the other hand, those who reject Jesus belong to the Devil and the kingdom of the world (John 8:44). Jesus’s own disciples belong to him, not to the world (John 15:19). We no longer submit to the rules of the world because we no longer belong to it (Col. 2:20). We no longer belong to the darkness; we belong to the light (1 Thess. 5:5, 8).3. We belong to one another in the church.
Belonging to God is our deepest need, and yet God himself calls creation and life without human companionship and community “not good” (Gen. 2:18). To belong to God is to belong to others.
To belong to God is to belong to others.
The children of God belong to his family forever (John 8:35). In Christ, we form one body and every member belongs to all the others (Rom. 12:5). We can’t stop belonging to the body (1 Cor. 12:15–16). We do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers (Gal. 6:10). At the end of days, we’ll find ourselves among the diverse multitude, the ultimate and eternal place of belonging—the Holy City (Rev. 21–22).
We belong to God, not to ourselves or to the world. Belonging to him means belonging to his people, his family. It means belonging to the church.Good News of Belonging
This biblical insight into how and where we belong brings us full circle. From the perspective of Scripture, we can make a slight but essential change to Brené Brown’s thesis: When we belong to God, not ourselves, we can then and only then fully belong to others.
Brown’s stated desire is to find that “belonging is in our heart and not a reward for ‘perfecting, pleasing, proving, and pretending’ or something that others can hold hostage or take away” (35). Indeed, only belonging to God—and through him, to one another in the church—can offer this secure position.
When we’re secure in Christ, we’ll be established and rooted in how he has made us, and we will belong to him and, in a sense, to ourselves. We can become who we were meant to be—fully adopted and secure children of God.
When we’re secure in Christ, we’ll be established and rooted in how he has made us, and we will belong to him and—in a sense—to ourselves. We can become who we were meant to be—fully adopted and secure children of God. We “come home” to ourselves in this significant sense. The layers of protection that have surrounded us like shells can begin to fall away, and true spiritual transformation can begin.
In Christ, we can find true belonging, for true belonging is being simultaneously fully known and fully loved.
If I might borrow the 2 x 2 chart from Andy Crouch, belonging results from being both known and loved. Being known without being loved is rejection. Being loved without being known is merely fitting in. Being neither loved nor known is being ignored and rejected entirely.
For those of us struggling to feel a strong sense of belonging, then, the question becomes: How do I belong?How to Belong
In view of the biblical vision for belonging and with the support of ongoing research, four steps toward a more complete spiritual belonging emerge.1. Believe
In one sense, those who believe already belong to God. As Jesus told the Pharisees, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:26–27, NRSV). As Jesus’s followers, we believed in him ultimately because we belonged to him. The two are held together, and it follows that to grow in belonging to God and his people, an increasing faith and trust in Jesus is essential.
In our churches, “belonging before believing” is true insofar as belonging roughly means feeling loved and welcome, which is absolutely vital and a frequent forerunner to saving faith. With regard to formal belonging, however, we summon people to believe in order to belong. The deep, universal longing to belong leads us here—to abiding faith in Christ and membership in his fold.2. Stay
There are many causes for the lack of belonging in American culture; chief among them is our transience.
When my wife and I first married, we were living in the college town of Columbia, Missouri. We were excited to move out and get on with our lives in a big city. To have an “impact” for Christ—or so we’d been trained to believe—we needed to go somewhere bigger, faster, and better than our current place. A decade and three kids later, we longed to return home—where we were known and loved and could create a place of belonging for others.
How does our belonging to God and others suffer by frequent transition?
In the name of upward mobility, young people often move off for college, take a job in another city, move for another promotion, and so on. By their 30s, they’ve probably held more jobs and lived in more homes than their parents ever did. There’s nothing inherently wrong with transience and upward mobility, but we have to ask: What does this do to our souls? How does our belonging to God and others suffer by frequent transition?3. Move In
But just believing in Christ, joining a church, and remaining in one place doesn’t guarantee true belonging. We must consistently move in. We must move toward others, embracing a life of interdependent relationship over a life of autonomy and independence.
My default response to new people and hard situations is withdrawal, but withdrawal doesn’t create belonging and sustain intimacy. When conflict arises within the community, move toward it and seek resolution. When a need arises, step in and offer your support or resources. When others lack a place to belong, invite them into yours.4. Make Space
To gain a sense of belonging, make space for others to belong. Take the focus off yourself. Too often, I can wait for others to check in on me, invite me over, or put together a social gathering. But when I take initiative, whether it’s inviting church friends to our home or offering to get coffee with someone outside the church, I usually find others quick to accept. My experience is that the more I take initiative to cultivate community for others, the more I feel that I belong with those people.
When we take the focus off our own need for belonging, and create space for others to belong, we find ourselves surrounded by those who are happy to have us in their lives.
This final step fits within the great paradoxes of Christianity. If you want real life, you have to give yours away. If you want to find yourself, you must lose yourself.
When we take the focus off our own need for belonging, and create space for others to belong, we find ourselves surrounded by those happy to have us in their lives.True Belonging
To end our search for true belonging requires an awareness of self and others. Even amid a transient, unrooted, “swipe right” culture, our ultimate belonging is secure. It always has been. As the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) reads:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . .
We belong not to ourselves but to God, and through him, to his people. At long last, our search for true belonging can have a happy ending. In Christ and among his people, we’re fully known and fully loved.
The new Broadway musical Hadestown, a folk-opera retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, recently won eight Tony Awards, including the overall award for “Best Musical.”
Acclaimed by critics and based on a 2010 concept album by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown is an insightful reflection of today’s culture and can be a powerful discussion starter about humanity’s sin and God’s grace.Accurate View of Human Nature
Hadestown is billed as the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice set in an apocalyptic, Great Depression-era setting and told in the style of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The music is a combination of jazz, blues, and folk Americana with tight harmony and soulful timbre. The plot is a retelling of the Greek myth. Orpheus, the greatest singer in the world, descends to the underworld to rescue his love from the clutches of Hades, but ultimately fails in his quest when doubts overcome his faith. Though the musical’s plot points won’t surprise anyone familiar with classic mythology, it’s the creative adaptation of this story—its little details and tone—that have made the musical a success.
The original myth of Orpheus and Eurydice emphasized fate and the inability of humanity to thwart the will of the gods. The tone in this new version has shifted somewhat: It now recognizes humanity’s “fatal flaw” as our natural succumbing to fleshly desires under situations of pressure. Both Eurydice and Orpheus fail when given the choice between doing what’s right or giving into the flesh. It’s a sad story, as the narrator of the play sings, but it’s one that resonates. Principles don’t hold “when the chips are down,” the Fates sing to Eurydice. People try their hardest to be good, and often succeed when things are easy. But when times are hard, they can’t help themselves. “Wouldn’t you have done the same?” the Fates ask the audience, forcing us to consider our own weakness and fallibility.
This is a close to a Christian view of humanity’s fallen state. We are created in the image of God with a sense of right and wrong, with a desire to be virtuous. And yet, it is literally outside of our power to do what we desire all the time. Paul puts it this way:
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Rom. 7:18–19)
We are broken. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t get ourselves out of our own mess.
The next theological step, of course, is to say, “BUT GOD.” We were dead . . . but God, who is rich in mercy, saved us while we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:4-5). We can’t be righteous . . . but God gives us hope and a future. He brings us out of the underworld, out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). God turns what would be a tragedy into a beautiful, hopeful story of joy. Because he entered the story himself.
God turns what would be a tragedy into a beautiful, hopeful story of joy. Because God entered the story himself.
In Christianity, hope comes from outside ourselves. But where does hope come from when one has a depressingly realistic view of humanity’s inability to withstand temptation—yet without hope of divine redemption?Self-Deception and False Hope
Hope in Hadestown comes from persuading ourselves that things might change, even while we know this is likely self-deception. The story is for everyone who tries, the narrator (Hermes) proclaims at the outset and end of the production.
At the close of the musical, Hermes launches back into the beginning of the tale. Euridice and Orpheus have tried, failed, and yearn for another chance—that, for them, won’t come again. Even knowing how the story ends, however, Hermes declares that he will sing it again:
It’s an old song And we’re going to sing it again and again . . .
Cause, here’s the thing: To know how it ends And still begin to sing it again As if it might turn out this time, I learned that from a friend of mine [Orpheus].
See, Orpheus was a poor boy But he had a gift to give: He could make you see how the world could be In spite of the way that it is.
Can you see it?
Even having sung it a million times already, Hermes sings the tale again, hoping afresh it might turn out differently this time. We have to try to create the world we want, he asserts, even knowing that when we’ve tried a million times before, we’ve failed. We must have hope that our efforts might be enough this time, even though they’ve never been before.
In the story, Hades and Persephone (king and queen of the Underworld) embody this ideal. Though their relationship is broken, their final interaction reveals that it may be healed . . . later.
“How ‘bout you and I?” Persephone asks Hades after he’d agreed to let Orpheus and Euridice try to leave. “Are we going to try again?”
“It’s almost spring,” Hades replies, indicating Persephone must leave his realm and return to the surface of Earth. “We’ll try again next fall.”
“Wait for me?”
The musical doesn’t reveal what happens after Persephone returns next fall. Will trying be successful? Perhaps, but that’s not the point of the show. The point, as we hear so often in today’s world, is not the destination; it’s the journey. It’s about the drama of struggle more than the drama of resolution.Just Do Better
The story of Hadestown is about trying. Failing, yes, but trying nonetheless. And that is what resonates with today’s secular American society. When we really stop to consider ourselves, our lives, our fallibility, life seems bleak. No person without God will ever be the person they truly want to be. But functionally, we can’t live that way. It would be too hopeless. God created us to have hope, to seek and delight in goodness. Humanity has always looked for that hope, trying to manufacture a way out of the mess we’re in. So what is the modern answer to this conundrum?
According to Hadestown, it is to lie to ourselves. To say that, yes, the story has always ended in tragedy when we’ve told it before, but maybe this time it won’t. Maybe this time, if we just try even harder, we can resist temptation. Pick ourselves up, move on from our mistakes, do better. And if not this time, then surely the next will be different. Why? Because it has to be. Otherwise, life is too bleak. We need something to believe in. Modern secular society tells us to believe in ourselves, even when we recognize that all the evidence indicates we shouldn’t.
Modern secular society tells us to believe in ourselves, even when we recognize that all the evidence indicates that we shouldn’t.
This paradoxical note is where the musical ends, celebrating Orpheus for trying, even though he failed. But it’s also where our conversations with the world can begin.
We can recognize the deep, resonating truth of Hadestown: that we are unable to rescue ourselves. And as Christians, we can also recognize the musical’s lie: that our only hope is to convince ourselves, despite the evidence, that the story might turn out differently next time if we just keep trying. As Christians, we can rejoice in our knowledge that the story will turn out better in the end. And this is not because our valiant efforts finally paid off, or that we saved ourselves. Rather, it’s because we embraced the Savior—and his efforts were, are, and will be enough, each time the story is told.
I don’t remember his last name, because we simply called him “Brother Jim.” I grew up in a small-town, middle-of-nowhere place, and he was the children’s pastor at my small-town, middle-of-nowhere Baptist church.
Brother Jim was a good and a kind man, and I loved him. I’m sure he gave us dozens of “talks” throughout my childhood, but there was one in particular that would change my life forever.Wondrous Illustration
It was the last day of our annual “Camp Sonshine” summer camp, and he stood in front of about 100 or so of us kids in the church’s fellowship hall. As he began to speak, he picked up a big vase of clear liquid. He told us this was the condition of our hearts before sin entered the picture—pure and clear. Then he explained that in the beginning of the world, Adam and Eve rebelled and disobeyed God. As he spoke, Brother Jim squeezed a couple of drops into the water that instantly turned the clear liquid to a deep black. He explained that this blackness represented the condition of our hearts because of our sin—black and darkened to the things of God.
Then he began to talk about Jesus. He spoke of how sin kept us from a relationship with God, but how Jesus lived a sinless life and shed his blood on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin so we could be reconciled to God. After he spoke of Jesus’s death, Brother Jim put another couple of drops into the vase. The color of the liquid instantly turned from black to red. He taught us that God changes our darkened hearts by covering them with the blood of Jesus, taking away the blackness of our sin forever.
In the final part of his presentation, Jim put a few final drops into the vase, instantly turning the red liquid clear again—just like it had been in the beginning! Loud gasps filled the room as every kid in the place was mesmerized by this trick, changing water from clear, to black, to red, then to clear again.
Several kids starting shouting out, “How did you do that?” (It’s a good question. I’m sure it was a chemistry trick that I need to figure out before I teach a group of children again.) He held the clear liquid up for us to see and explained that this is what happens to our hearts when the blood of Jesus covers us. We’re made clear and pure in the sight of God, just like we were created to be. Every child in the room sat there, jaws open, in awe of what they’d seen.Wondrous Savior
But something beyond the creativity of the illustration had captured my attention and my heart. More than the “magic” of the changing colors of liquid, the story of Jesus blew me away. I had heard the gospel for the first time, and the beauty of Christ’s person and work was messing me up. Even as a middle-aged man, I can still remember what I felt in that moment. My heart was beating fast and tears welled up in my eyes, because I couldn’t believe that God loved me enough to send his own Son to die in my place and make me clean.
Brother Jim asked us to bow our heads and raise our hands if we wanted to ask Jesus to be our Lord and Savior. I instantly raised my hand. Even as an 8-year-old boy, everything within me believed what I had been told, and in that moment I wanted Jesus more than anything else in the world. That day began my lifelong relationship with Jesus. From that moment, he has been my Lord, my best friend, and the love of my life.
Even as an 8-year-old boy, everything within me believed what I had been told, and in that moment I wanted Jesus more than anything in the world.
I recently had a person respond to me on Twitter, bemoaning the evils of the church with all its hypocrisy and failings. They spoke of greedy megachurch pastors and their $2,000 sneakers. While those failings are real, I wish this person could have met Brother Jim or one of the many people whose names we will never know, but who quietly and faithfully reveal Christ’s beauty to little kids in small towns all across this country. They are a force for untold good, not evil.
A year after my conversion, Brother Jim left my small town to serve at another church in another city. I haven’t spoken to him since, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know that one little kid he shared the gospel with all those years ago would turn out to be a pastor. I’m also pretty sure he has no idea the difference he made on countless others like me throughout his ministry. But I’m looking forward to finding him one day in heaven and thanking him for being the first to show me the beauty of the gospel.
You can read previous installments in this series.
Jesus launched his public ministry by proclaiming that he fulfilled ancient prophecies. Isaiah had promised an age when God’s Suffering Servant would bring comfort to God’s exiled people: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to . . . comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:1–2; cf. 40:1). Jesus told his listeners, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Against this backdrop, he later delivers the precious words of his second beatitude—“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In Jesus, Isaiah’s 700-year-old promise crystallized into reality.
In the first beatitude, Jesus blesses “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3)—those who acknowledge their moral bankruptcy. He then elaborates further, since it’s possible to acknowledge moral bankruptcy (v. 3) without mourning it (v. 4).Counterintuitive and Countercultural
Given the human condition, Jesus’s promise to comfort those who mourn sin could scarcely be more counterintuitive. Given the spirit of our age, it could scarcely be more countercultural.
Sin in the late-modern West is not grieved. It’s not deplored. It’s not even merely tolerated. It is celebrated. Our society doesn’t mourn sin; it mourns those who mourn sin.
Yet we can succumb to similar tendencies, can’t we? No doubt one reason we fail to mourn sin is because we underestimate it. We assume it’s little more than a cosmic parking ticket. But sin is not trivial; it is treason, an insurrection against heaven’s throne. We have never committed a small sin, because we have never offended a small God.
We have never committed a small sin, because we have never offended a small God.
To the degree that we mourn our sin—both individually (Ps. 51:1–4; Luke 18:13; 1 John 1:9) and collectively (Ezra 9:4; Ps. 119:136; James 5:16)—we avail ourselves of heaven’s comfort. To the degree that we don’t, we rob ourselves of it.Deep Dive
Imagine waking on the Fourth of July to a text from a friend: “Meet me for fireworks at 11 a.m.” You’d think it was a typo. Why? Because fireworks aren’t impressive in the noonday sky. The darker the sky, in fact, the more stunning the display. In the same way, the brilliance of grace must be set against the blackness of sin. As the Puritan Thomas Watson said, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
For the world, grieving sin is regressive and constricting; for the Christian, it is the pathway to joy. Imagine the implications. If Matthew 5:4 is true—if Jesus really meets repentance with comfort, not condemnation—then no longer do you need to fear being exposed. No longer do you have to present an airbrushed version of yourself to fellow redeemed sinners. No longer do you need to fear studying your heart and plumbing the depths of your disease. If exploring sin brings you to the deep end of the pool, exploring mercy will take you to the Mariana Trench. And awaiting you at the bottom of the dive is not a black hole but a solid rock.Scarred Savior
In the final analysis, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be separated from its speaker. Jesus prayed many prayers during his incarnation, but never once did he pray a prayer of confession. He didn’t have to. He mourned over many sins, but never once did he mourn over his own. He didn’t have any.
Ultimately, our comfort is anchored in the reality that Jesus doesn’t just mourn sin; he conquers it. He invites us into this radical moral vision—this upside-down kingdom—and then dies in our place so we can enter it.
May God soften our hearts to mourn our moral bankruptcy so that we can better marvel at his comforting grace.
Normal teenagers don’t read leadership books. They play baseball, chase girls, and wait on their budding mustache to bloom into all its glory. But as my wife continually reminds me, other than my sweet mustache, I wasn’t normal.
In my defense, I came by it naturally. Our home was filled with leadership books. They were left on bedside tables, stuffed in briefcases, and alphabetized near the theology section of our home library. As a young businessman and civic leader, Dad devoured anything that helped him wrap his mind around his growing responsibilities. As his only son and namesake, I followed suit. By the time I graduated high school, I could quote John Maxwell and Peter Drucker like a seasoned executive.
But it was all theory. As I soon found out, leadership in the real world is complicated, contextual, and hard. To grow beyond my theories, I had to immerse them into real organizations with real people and real problems.
Here are several leadership lessons I’ve learned the hard way.1. Believe the Best
A mentor once told me he works to “believe the best about someone until they make it impossible to do so.” Get in the habit of assuming the best when things go wrong. When that frustrating email lands in your inbox, assume you misunderstood it. When a staffer fails to complete a task, assume he was busy doing something else.
Almost without exception, when I’ve been tempted to scold a staffer or sulk in frustration, I’ve later learned I misunderstood the situation. For the most part, people are trying hard and want to please you. Assume the best and give lots of grace.2. Prioritize People Over Process
It is so easy for me to get this wrong. I’m naturally wired to prioritize results over relationships and processes over people. That’s not to say I don’t value people—quite the opposite. But if I’m not careful, I can appear to care more about the finish line than the people who helped get us there.
Ask God to help you avoid even the appearance of this mistake. Good leaders love their people. Good leaders work to encourage their people. Good leaders develop their people. Good leaders prioritize their people.3. Build a Team of Truth-Tellers
Leaders naturally drift toward isolation and echo chambers. As they do, they increasingly risk making poor decisions, and often they lack self-awareness and end up harming themselves and others.
Avoid this by cultivating a team who will tell you the truth and hold you accountable. Continually invite your team to say hard things and challenge your opinions. Not only will your organization be stronger for it, it might just save your soul.4. Listen to Your Team
Confident and decisive leaders often have a bad habit of not listening. Sadly, few things dampen creativity and collaboration like a leader with all the answers.
Cultivate the assumption that someone else probably has the best idea.
Cultivate the assumption that someone else probably has the best idea. Learn to ask probing questions and actively listen to the answers. Doing so not only exposes you to great ideas; it also makes your team more likely to support your final decision.5. Listen to Your Critics
Learning to see criticism as a means of grace is crucial to a leader’s long-term effectiveness and health. God often uses our critics to correct us, strengthen us, humble us, and ultimately to sustain us.
Before you delete that angry email or disregard that recent complaint, assume it may contain some element of truth. What might God be showing you? Ask friends and trusted colleagues to evaluate the criticism with you. Then rejoice that God graciously brought this to your attention.6. Be Patient
Nothing happens as fast as you’d like. People quit. Strategies change. Vendors go out of business. All of these disruptions are part of life, and a failure to anticipate them can leave you and your team feeling like they’re always behind the proverbial 8 ball.
A patient leader sets realistic timeframes and sticks to them.7. Know Your Environment
Leadership never happens in a vacuum, but in a particular context with particular needs. The leader’s role, then, is to understand and assess that context so he or she can discern what needs to happen next.
So get to know your environment by asking questions, reading old reports and meeting minutes, and developing a general curiosity about the organization. It takes time, but the tortoise usually wins.8. Manage Expectations
One vital things a leader does is set and manage expectations. People are pretty flexible with things they knew upfront. It’s the surprises that get us in trouble.
Give yourself more time than you need. Assume the final bid will come in a little higher than you hoped. Work to consistently underpromise and overdeliver. If you do, organizational stress will decline, and your credibility will rise.9. Execution Is King
“Execution is everything,” actor Jeff Bridges famously quipped. Execution may not be everything, but it’s certainly where the men are separated from the boys.
Ideas, vision, and strategy are equally important, of course, but they remain abstract concepts until someone does the hard work of execution. Build a team culture that rewards faithful execution.10. Define Your Values and Protect Your Culture
Develop key values, and reward and reinforce them often. I do my best to underscore our values at most staff meetings and to give recent examples of how folks in the room are living those out.
This small thing can go a long way toward establishing and maintaining a healthy culture.11. Simon Sinek Was Right
In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that great leaders inspire action by starting with why it’s needed.
Learn to incorporate context and “the why” in daily conversations with staff. It will both anchor tasks in the vision and also inspire deeper commitment and effort.12. Overcommunicate
I’m convinced it’s impossible to overcommunicate within an organizational context. Develop a clear vision, mission, and strategy—and convey it until you are blue in the face. Talk about it in meetings; integrate it into discussions and whiteboard sessions.
I’m convinced it’s impossible to overcommunicate within an organizational context.
Relentlessly remind your team why your organization exists. It’s the rudder of your ship.13. Know and Protect Your Priorities
Limitations force leaders to make choices. Whether you lead a team of two or 2,000, you cannot, and should not, do everything. Refer to your vision, values, and strategy. What is central to the mission? Memorize and protect those things.
Don’t let the good eat the great. Rehearse and guard your priorities.14. To Lead Is to Be Misunderstood
Despite your best efforts to communicate clearly, some will be confused. Despite having sought advice and moved slowly, some will call you a reckless maverick. Despite your pure intentions, some will question your motivation.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to lead without sometimes being misunderstood. Listen for legitimate concerns, make necessary adjustments and clarifications, and trust Jesus with the rest.15. Keep Calm and Carry On
For good or bad, leaders set the emotional tone within an organization. The good news is that your optimism will soon become their optimism. The bad news is that your cynicism will also become their cynicism.
For good or bad, leaders set the emotional tone within an organization. . . . Hope is the most powerful tool in your arsenal.
Do your best to keep your cool, laugh at honest mistakes, and keep the team moving forward. Hope is the most powerful tool in your arsenal.16. Anchor Your Worth and Identity in Christ
As important as leadership is, basing your identity on how people respond not only robs Christ of glory, it also renders you incapable of authentic leadership. In the end, we simply cannot lead what we worship.
Pray for a deep and growing sense of who you are in Christ. Ask God to continually remind you that you are far more than the sum of your gifts and contributions; you are a son or daughter of the eternal Father. Leading from that reality, not for it, is the name of the game.
The month of June hadn’t even begun yet when Donald Trump become the first Republican president to express his support for LGBT Pride Month. On May 31, President Trump tweeted about celebrating LGBT Pride Month and how we should “recognize the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made to our great Nation . . .”
The rest of America soon followed his lead, as people across the country posted rainbow flag banners on their Facebook pages and almost every company in the nation rushed, as Newsweek wrote, to be “among the companies celebrating inclusion, equality and love for LGBT Pride Month.”
How did we get to the point where celebrating homosexuality and transgenderism became a month-long event that rivals Christmas?Commemoration of Pride
The roots of LGBT Pride Month extend back to the Gay Pride Marches that began in New York City in 1970 as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in Manhattan the previous year. The original march was more of a protest than a celebration, says German Lopez. “There were thousands of people, but there were no floats, music, or scantily dressed men,” Lopez adds. “Marchers instead carried signs, chanted, and waved to reportedly surprised onlookers.”
Within four years the parades had spread to a dozen of cities across the United States. Pride marches, pride events, and pride festivals became a common occurrence from the mid-1970 through the 1990s. In 1999 President Clinton officially designated June as “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.” From 2009 to 2016, President Obama also declared June to be LGBT Pride Month. A new secular holiday was born.
LGBT Pride Month is often mistakenly compared to Black History Month or National Hispanic Heritage Month, as a celebration of citizens of the same background. But there is already an LGBT History Month (in October). It was created in 1994 by a coalition of education-based organizations, and in 1995 was included within a list of commemorative months by the largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association (NEA).
LGBT Pride Month is not a just a secular commemoration of a people but a religious celebration of a belief—the belief that “Gay Is Good” and that moral opposition to homosexual behavior or transgender ideology is inherently bigoted.Pride Month as Advent and Passover
In America gay, lesbian and bisexual adults are substantially less likely than straight adults to affiliate with a religious group. Four-in-ten (41 percent) identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” compared with just 22 percent of straight adults who say the same. People are religious by nature, though. If they abandon one faith they’ll eventually adopt another. For some in the LGBT community, that has meant embracing the Satanic Temple. But for most LGBT “nones” it has meant imbuing a faith they already held with religious symbolism. That is why LGBT Pride Month has become the secular equivalent to Advent.
The word advent is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming.” For Christians, Advent is a nearly month-long celebration of the anticipation of Christ’s birth. As Justin Holcomb explains, Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Heb. 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom
For the LGBT community, though, their secular Advent has a different focus. Rather than the coming of Christ they are looking forward to the day when behavior that God has called sinful (1 Cor. 6:9-10, et al.) will not only be tolerated but also celebrated as “good” by all people. It’s a vision outlined in President Obama’s 2014 Pride Month proclamation: “[O]ur Nation has made great strides in recognizing what these brave individuals long knew to be true in their hearts—that love is love and that no person should be judged by anything but the content of their character. . . . I call upon the people of the United States to eliminate prejudice everywhere it exists.”
Because the LGBT agenda of normalizing homosexuality and transgenderism conflicts with Christianity (at least in its non-apostate forms), to “eliminate prejudice” requires anathematizing the beliefs of Bible-believing Christians. In the future the celebration of LGBT views will likely be compelled. But for now, every American is simply required to choose a side.
This is why LGBT Pride Month is also, as my colleague Betsy Howard says, a form of Passover. In the original Passover, the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts so that God would “pass over” their house and not bring judgment upon the people within (Ex, 12:7-13). Today, the American people fly a rainbow flag, wear an “ally” pin, or change their social media avatars to show they observe LGBT Pride Month. In doing so, they show they’ve bent the knee to the LGBT cause and will not incur their wrath that will be poured out those who are not “affirming.”
We should expect such submissive behavior from corporations, who have uncritically adopted “woke capitalism.” We can also expect it from government agencies, such as U.S. embassies, since they are often overseen by LGBT-affirming presidents, like Clinton, Obama, and Trump. Corporations and governments can be absolved for showing their support for anti-Christian causes. But what excuse do Christians have?When Christian ‘Allies’ Become Idolaters
Why do so many professed believers adopt a symbol that shows the world they are opposed to God’s Word? And why do we overlook such displays of idolatry by those who claim to be both LGBT “allies” and our brothers and sisters in Christ?
As I wrote a half-dozen years ago, for too long those of us in the church have grumbled to ourselves or remained silent about this open idolatry. We fear that if we point out too clearly or forcefully that you can’t both serve God and endorse sin, people may leave our congregations. We seem more concerned with losing the volunteer for the Sunday-morning nursery or the regular tithe in the offering plate than we do with the souls of those in open and unrepentant rebellion against God.
We also seem more worried about the judgment of the kids in the youth ministry than we do with the judgment of a wrathful and holy God. We are so troubled by the thought that LGBT-friendly advocates will fall away from the faith that we fail to see that they’ve already rejected the faith of historic, orthodox Christianity and replaced it with an idolatrous heresy—one that is as destructive and hateful as any that has come before.
We do not love our neighbor when we tell they can continue to engage in unrepentant rebellion against God. We cannot continue with the “go along to get along” mentality that is leading those we claim to love to destruction. If we truly love our LGBT neighbors, we must speak the Word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31). We may have to accept the fact that those who have fallen away may not ever return, but we shouldn’t lead them to hell because we are too craven to tell them the gospel requires repentance.
We must choose who we will serve. Will we love our neighbors and stand with the only wise God, or will we hate our LGBT friends by allying with the foolish idol-makers of LGBT Pride Month?
Discoveries of never-before-seen manuscripts written by historic figures are rare outside the pages of conspiratorial fantasy fiction. With the obvious exception of something like the Dead Sea Scrolls, such discoveries tend to be more noteworthy for the sheer curiosity of how the lost treasure was found than for its actual substance. After all, there’s probably a reason an author left a certain manuscript unpublished, and sometimes the reason is simple: The material isn’t very good.
The publication of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity is a striking exception to this rule. The actual contents are equal to the excitement of its discovery.Background
First, a brief summary. In 2008, while working in the Bavinck archives at the Free University of Amsterdam, Dirk Van Keulen stumbled on what amounted to a 1,100-page handwritten manuscript by Bavinck (circa 1884/5) titled Reformed Ethics. Bavinck at one time had clearly intended this to be a companion to his monumental four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, yet he mysteriously never published it.
In the 10 years that followed this discovery, John Bolt, along with Van Keulen and a team of other scholars, carefully transcribed, translated, edited, and have now published volume one of a projected three. Consider the herculean task of deciphering handwritten citations, outlines, cryptic notes, and phrases in five languages in addition to Dutch; tracking down sources; and sometimes even reconstructing and amplifying difficult portions of Bavinck’s text.
The final product reveals 10 years of labor well spent. One expects a fragmentary text full of unfinished ideas, but it’s anything but fragmentary. Bolt assures readers that despite a sometimes significant editorial hand, “[Y]ou are hearing the genuine voice of Herman Bavinck, including prejudices we might not share and claims with which we might disagree” (xiv).
This is a monumental achievement, and congratulations and gratitude are owed to all involved.‘Genuine Voice’
And there is no doubt about that voice. All of Bavinck’s signature hallmarks are on display. Here are a select few.
First, truly astounding scholarship: The depth and breadth of his historical theology (particularly in this volume, the theology of the Reformed scholastics) is amazing; his biblical-theological surveys of Scripture, thorough; his exegesis of original languages, sophisticated; his insight into modernity, penetrating. Occasionally he seems old-fashioned, such as references to the “four humors,” “physiognomy,” or the somewhat amusing belief that Germans are somehow more prone to gluttony and alcoholism! Yet far more often Bavinck seems eerily contemporary:
Inconstancy is also the great disease of our age—agitation, restlessness. This is manifested in many forms . . . in the perpetual reconstruction of history that tears people from their own history, from tradition, from the inheritance of previous generations. The result is a loss of piety and a severing of the bonds of the past (revolution) in exchange for the subjective, self-pleasing egocentricity and individualism. . . . [I]t occurs in the intentional doubting of everything, the banning of faith, with each person standing naked and alone. Doubt has been made the beginning and condition of knowledge. (126)
Is this directed to a 19th-century audience or to 21st-century postmoderns? In God’s providence, clearly both.
Second, Bavinck has written an unapologetically Reformed ethics. He eschews both “philosophical” ethics and also natural theology (23–27)—which, true as they may sometimes be, nevertheless seek to ground moral norms on foundations other than Holy Scripture. Moreover, Reformed dogmatics shapes his ethics, as well; the Augustinian (and Calvinist) doctrine of God isn’t incidental to ethics, but its very source. Here is a characteristically challenging passage:
All Pelagianism must be rooted out; it is simply anti-ethical. It is precisely because God is everything that humans are truly great. There is no division of labor here where God does his part and we do ours. Not at all! We establish our calling precisely because God works all in all. This is a mystery: just because God is everything, we can be great. A mystery, yes, but far better this mystery than a Pelagian, Remonstrant slice of the Gordian knot that divides God and humanity so that God cannot be God and human beings cannot be genuinely human. (22–23)
The Augustinian (and Calvinist) doctrine of God isn’t incidental to ethics, but its very source.
Third, Bavinck continues his lifelong scholarly pursuit toward an “organic” understanding of created reality and, more particularly, human nature. Always in view is human beings “as a whole” corrupted by sin. He finds the root of sin in idolatry:
Sin consists concretely in placing a substitute on the throne. That substitute is not another creature in general, not even the neighbor, but the human self, the “ego” or “I.” The organizing principle of sin is self-glorification, self-divination; stated more broadly: self-love or egocentricity. (105)
So relentlessly does he then trace sin’s pathways to every destructive fruit of ungodliness that readers will yearn for the next section, on “converted” humanity. Knowledge of the law drives one to Christ! If anyone doubts the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, chapters 2 through 6 should forever alter that. This holistic fall into sin requires a redemption and transformation equally holistic: Bavinck gives no priority to mind, emotions, or will. All human faculties are fallen, and Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, must transform the whole person. The final section of chapter 9 (“How the Spirit Works”) is a master class of biblical interpretation.
Bavinck’s emphasis on the “organic” is always a reaction to fragmented, “mechanical,” or dualistic views of reality and human nature. So many errors flow from what he calls “one-sidedness,” such as an undue emphasis on the intellect (rationalism), the emotions (mysticism), or the will (moralism). In that regard, perhaps most powerful and challenging is chapter 11, “The Pathologies of the Christian Life.” It feels as though Bavinck has been caught on a “hot mic” speaking his private thoughts. The usually polite and irenic theologian denounces the besetting sins of various Christian traditions. No one is spared, and readers of all stripes will find something that ought to chasten them: for the Reformed, their sins of “orthodoxism”; for the Pietist or charismatic, the sins of mysticism; for various kinds of activists (he takes aims at the Methodists of his day), the sins of moralism and fanaticism. It’s an eye-opening, bracing, and stinging rebuke every bit as relevant today as it was in 1885.Scholarly Value
It’s difficult to predict the scholarly “career” of a book just launched, but it makes an immediate contribution to an ongoing simmering debate over Bavinck’s appropriation (or lack thereof) of Thomas Aquinas, scholasticism (medieval and Reformed), and the Aristotelian method. In fact, there appears some slight puzzlement (perhaps even discomfort?) among the editors on this score. In his introduction, Van Keulen quotes a few favorable lines about Thomas, but not from the present book; rather, they are taken from contemporaneous student notes (xxxviii). Bolt likewise includes a footnote suggesting that Bavinck may have misunderstood Thomas and that there may be, in fact, “an affinity” between the two (36n12).
This is worth noting because in the actual text of Reformed Ethics, one finds Bavinck’s most robust criticisms to date of Thomas, scholasticism, and the Aristotelian method (424–26)! And the root of his criticism is that they failed to regard Scripture as the “methodological norm for reflecting on dogmas” (425). This is a repeated theme:
Since we are talking of theological ethics, there can be only one source of knowledge that discloses to us God’s viewpoint. And then, having abandoned natural theology, we have only Holy Scripture as the source. Scripture is the rule for teaching/doctrine and life.” (26)
The publication of Reformed Ethics is certain to fuel continued significant debate among neo-Calvinist and Thomist scholars over these matters.Devotional Value
This is a large and weighty book, and many readers will have difficulty proceeding from cover to cover. There are lengthy passages parsing, for instance, the difference between “morality” and “religion,” or the nature of self-consciousness and the soul. But that shouldn’t deter the pastor or layperson. This isn’t a dry compendium of moral casuistry; there is deep spiritual profit to be found throughout. For example, Bavinck’s chapter on the perseverance and assurance of faith (ch. 10) is a balm for every anxious soul, and his frequent and thorough litanies of Scripture passages are like waterfalls of priceless jewels.
“Priceless” is an apt word for the whole: Van Keulen unearthed a treasure trove, not simply because they’re the long-lost words of a revered theologian—treasure enough, to be sure. Rather, because they’re Bavinck’s profound and mature reflections of how the true “pearl of great price,” the gospel of Jesus Christ, is also a leaven that transforms our own minds, hearts, and hands and brings them to the destiny our triune God has always intended: to be his image and likeness. By keeping this work from public view, Herman Bavinck allowed God to decide the timing for his Reformed Ethics. After more than a century, the time is now.
When they woke up on April 19, 1989, five teenage boys in Harlem had no idea their lives were about to be forever changed. Yusef Salaam, 15, was a skateboarder who enjoyed hanging out with his 16-year-old friend Korey Wise; 14-year-old Raymond Santana loved listening to hip hop; 15-year-old Antron McCray was a talented baseball player; 14-year-old Kevin Richardson played the trumpet and dreamed of attending Syracuse University.
That fateful night, these boys—the “Central Park Five,” as they came to be known—were in Central Park around the time 28-year-old banker Trisha Meili was raped and nearly beaten to death while jogging. The “Central Park jogger” case became national news, and the trial and conviction of “the five” become another disturbing episode in America’s long history of racial strife and injustice. Salaam, Santana, McCray, Richardson, and Wise spent between five and 12 years in prison before their convictions were vacated after Matias Reyes confessed to raping Meili and a conclusive DNA match proved he was the sole rapist.
Each of the four episodes in the series—which has been the most-watched series on Netflix every day since it premiered on May 31—covers a specific aspect of the story. Episode one focuses on the events of April 19, 1989, the harrowing interrogations of the boys, and the attempts by prosecutors Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) to build a case on scant evidence. Episode two is essentially a courtroom drama, depicting the highly publicized trials that led to the five boys’ convictions. Episode three follows the four youngest boys as they go to prison and then, five to six years later, return and struggle to adjust to civilian life as young men (now played by older actors). Episode four focuses on the especially tragic story of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), who spent the most time in prison (12 years), where he suffered horrific abuse and long stretches in solitary confinement.
The show is bleak, with four-plus hours of tragedy and injustice finding a measure of reprieve only in the final 20 minutes of the final episode, which depicts Reyes’s confession and the subsequent exoneration of Salaam, Santana, McCray, Richardson, and Wise. By the time we reach the film’s epilogue, in which we see the real faces of the exonerated five and find out what they are doing today, as Frank Ocean’s version of “Moon River” plays, it’s hard not to be emotionally moved.
There are many layers to the pain in When They See Us. There is the pain of these five particular lives: their childhoods abruptly ended by an egregious miscarriage of justice; their lives forever marked by the traumas of prison at such a young age. Then there is the pain of knowing this is just one of many horror stories of the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s the pain of acknowledging our justice system has not been neutral or evenly balanced, but rather more prone to make mistakes when the accused look like the boys in the film. It’s the pain of knowing that perfect justice is elusive in this life but imperfect justice, and outright injustice, is easy to find.
Indeed, easier than ever before. The speed of information today feeds us constant headlines of injustice, from places we’ve never been and about issues we didn’t know were issues. The access to a surplus of narratives about suffering, injustice, racism, and hate on one hand awakens our conscience in helpful ways. On the other hand it can numb us and provide an imbalanced picture of the world that renders us constantly angry about a glut of problems but impotent to do much about them apart from becoming more aware and “woke.”
Access to a surplus of narratives about suffering, injustice, racism, and hate on one hand awakens our conscience in helpful ways. On the other hand it can numb us and provide an imbalanced picture of the world.
When They See Us strives to cut through the clutter of today’s anger overload, putting an intimate spotlight on five image-of-God-bearing young men whose lives have been abstracted and dehumanized under the “Central Park Five” moniker. The title hints at this human focus: dignifying specific individuals undergoing specific traumas at a specific point in time. But their story is also situated within a broader history and context that is emotionally charged and layered for black Americans, in ways white audiences can’t fully understand. The “see us” of the title is an invitation to better understand—an invitation I hope white evangelical audiences, among others, will accept.Political Proxy War
In Ken Burns’s documentary The Central Park Five (2012), an essential companion piece to DuVernay’s series, The New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer comments on the Central Park Five case: “This was a proxy war being fought, and these young men were proxies for all kinds of other agendas. And the truth and reality and justice were not part of it.”
As much as that was true at the time—and Burns’s film does a great job describing the historical context of crime-ridden, fear-struck, racially divided 1980s New York City—it remains true 30 years later, and doubtless some will see When They See Us as another volley in the proxy war. In part this is simply because of the state of our discourse today, where everything—professional sports, fast-food chicken, wedding cakes, and so forth—is turned into proxies for larger cultural and political battles. But it’s also because in this particular narrative, the face and flashpoint of our current political divisions, Donald Trump, figures prominently.
The series could not have avoided Trump and should not be blamed for including footage of him. In 1989, Trump was outspoken in print and television media regarding the Central Park jogger case (in comments that have not aged well). Still, one fears that the important truth-telling in the series—as with so much truth-telling these days—will get dismissed on account of a perceived political framing. As we know all too well today, facts are quickly ignored (on all sides) when even a whiff of political leaning can be detected.Dehumanized Victims. Dehumanized Villains.
One aspect of the series that might diminish its potency with some viewers is its exaggerated portrait of Linda Fairstein as corrupt arch-villain and other prosecutors and detectives as one-dimensionally merciless and malicious.
These villainous depictions make for a better drama, but a less trustworthy narrative. Any time a bad guy is portrayed without any shred of empathy, we should be skeptical. Were Fairstein and the police really this racist, manipulative, and truth-suppressing in their approach to this case? Perhaps. But the extremity of the depiction leaves When They See Us open to this critique. In some ways it would have been more unsettling and convicting to white viewers if they could see themselves in Linda Fairstein; but as it is they might claim a distance from her because of how extreme and evil she is portrayed. It’s important for us to remember that one doesn’t have to be a villain to do wrong things, nor a saint to do good things.
Any time a bad guy is portrayed without any shred of empathy, we should be skeptical.
Further, as much as the series makes a point—a tragic and important point—about the dehumanizing rhetoric that often fuels injustice (words like “animals,” “wolf pack,” and “wilding” are repeatedly used to describe the boys), its over-the-top depiction of Fairstein might be guilty of dehumanization as well.
To be sure, the scope and scale here are vastly different. The injustice inflicted on the boys by Fairstein is far greater than the “injustice” inflicted by the filmmakers in how they portrayed her. For decades, cries for criminal justice reform have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps a louder, more forceful approach like this (even if less nuanced) is necessary to effect change. Certainly When They See Us has brought attention to the Central Park Five case—and the broader web of injustice in which it is a part—like nothing has before, to the point that prosecutors Lederer and Fairstein have been forced to resign from boards and professorships after all these years.
Fairstein recently published an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal in which she calls DuVernay’s series “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication,” and then deconstructs what she claims are the series’ “most egregious falsehoods.” To read Fairstein’s defense—even while taking it with more than a grain of salt—and to watch When They See Us is to be left in the disorienting epistemological place that is increasingly our new normal in the post-truth era (see also: HBO’s Chernobyl).
Whose take on the facts is most accurate? What actually happened in Central Park on April 19, 1989? Can we ever know for sure? Is justice uninfected by bias a pipe dream?Justice for All
Questions like these leave us aching for true, transcendent justice: the rule of a righteous, divine judge who sees all and judges all according to the only perfect standard (himself).
Why are we so broken by series like When They See Us, or Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America (2016), which show the tension of justice not being served? Because we are created by a God who loves justice (Isa. 61:8) and calls us to practice it (Micah 6:8). We feel indignation at injustice because we are created in the image of a God “who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).
It’s right to feel indignation. It’s right to watch things like When They See Us and feel our blood boil as we behold injustice. But we must also be careful to not trivialize injustice by instrumentalizing it as ammo in a partisan “proxy war.” That two of the four words in the series’ title are us and they says something about how much our discourse about justice is defined along entrenched polemical lines.
That two of the four words in the series’ title are ‘us’ and ‘they’ says something about how much our discourse about justice is defined along entrenched polemical lines.
As Christians we must fight for truth and justice across the board—not only as part of an “us vs. them” battle where the “them” (whoever it may be) is always the source of injustice and the “us” is always the source of truth. To pursue justice rightly is to recognize that the problem is never only “out there.” It’s also in our own communities, our own hearts, our own sins. To admit that internal dynamic is not to diminish the urgency of fighting external and systemic injustices. It is to elevate the importance of confronting both.
When Evgeny Bakhmutsky’s grandfather baptized him, the older man cried—but not just happy tears.
“He was crying because he knew I might be arrested the next day,” Bakhmutsky said. “And he was crying because he knew Christianity is a road to suffering and pain and likely death.”
Peter Bakhmutsky wasn’t being overly dramatic. In 1945, the pastor had been exiled to the labor camps in Siberia, shoved from one mine to another. Peter’s son—Yevgeny’s father—had married a girl whose father was also an exiled pastor and whose grandfather had been killed for his faith.
“In our family, at age 5, you started to memorize Scripture completely, with all your heart,” Bakhmutsky said. “Because you’ll probably be in prison one day, and it’s better to have the Bible with you.”
The 20th century was hard on Christians in Russia. Under Vladimir Lenin, and then Joseph Stalin, and then Nikita Khrushchev, and then Leonid Brezhnev, Christians were beaten, imprisoned, and killed in an attempt to eliminate all organized religion. And it almost worked. Under the Soviets, the number of Russian evangelicals dropped to 25 percent of its pre-1917 size, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC).
And then, in a late-’90s tumble of countries declaring independence and the Berlin Wall hitting the pavement, the Soviet Union was gone. As the Russian Federation sorted itself out, religious repression eased. From 1991 to 2008, the number of religiously unaffiliated plummeted from 61 percent to 18 percent, while those willing to say they were Russian Orthodox shot up from 31 percent to 72 percent (and has stayed there.)
The “other religion” part—which included Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—rose from 1 percent to 6 percent and kept climbing. By 2016, almost 10 percent of the country was Muslim, nearly 1 percent was Catholic, and about 4 percent was “other,” which included Protestants.
As percentages go, that’s really small. Even smaller is the number of evangelicals—today about 1.2 million, or less than 1 percent, according to CSGC.
But it isn’t zero. With the pressure off, Russian ministries began to grow. And with the doors open to missionaries, thousands poured in to help. One was John MacArthur, who helped to open both a pastors’ training center and also a seminary. Over the past 30 years, a small but steady stream of biblically trained pastors began leading churches, publishers began to translate Reformed authors, and a TGC-type website started posting gospel-centered content daily.
The church Bakhmutsky planted nine years ago has doubled in size over and over, growing from 17 attendees to 500. (Last year, they planted a church of their own.) In 2015, the church started a network of pastors dedicated to revitalizing churches and planting new ones; since then, it has grown from 32 pastors to 100. Last October, its initial conference drew 500 to hear Capitol Hill Baptist Church pastor and 9Marks president Mark Dever.
“When people think about evangelical Christianity in Russia, they think, Wow, it’s so small and seems to have no future,” said Bakhmutsky—and he’s right. Recent crackdowns on evangelistic activities have been severe enough to get Russia listed as one of 16 countries of particular concern by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom in 2017. This year, Russia showed up for the first time since 2011 on Open Doors’ 50 worst countries for Christians.
“But I’m saying we’re just beginning,” Bakhmutsky said. “I see how the church of Christ is flourishing.”Baptists in the Motherland
Baptists—the largest non-Pentecostal evangelical denomination in Russia—came into Russia through Germany. Catherine the Great, herself a German, opened Russia to “all foreigners” in 1763. Thousands of Germans, tired from a 250-year-long string of wars, moved in.
They were supposed to keep their religion to themselves, but that’s hard for a Baptist to do. (“Every Baptist is a missionary,” taught preacher Johann Gerhardt Oncken, who sent European Baptists to Russia in the mid-1800s to spread the faith.) By 1867, German Baptists were baptizing the first Russian convert in a river after dark. Two years later, the first Russian Baptist church was founded.
The Baptists, along with other non-Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) denominations—grew fast enough to worry the establishment church. The ROC had begun even before Russia itself, when Prince Vladimir made Eastern Orthodoxy the region’s official religion in 988. Though it moved out from under Constantinople’s authority in 1448, the ROC kept the Byzantine tradition of a close relationship with the state.
That’s how, in the late-1800s, its leaders were able to forbid Baptists from assembling, try them in Orthodox courts, and make it hard for them to find housing.
The tables turned briefly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Vladimir Lenin’s atheist government halted all subsidies for ROC church maintenance, stopped recognizing church marriages, and took control of all church-run schools. The “Decree on Separation of Church and State” declared that “every citizen has the right to adopt any religion or not to adopt any at all.”
It sounded good on paper, but the atheist state killed 28 ROC bishops and many more priests in the first two years, stripping the rest of their civil rights. The Baptists were ignored only because the Soviets thought their growth would weaken the ROC.
Being left alone suited the Baptists, whose numbers were boosted by Russian evangelist Wilhelm Fetler (who graduated with honors from Spurgeon’s College). They were also helped by Russian prisoners of war returning from Germany, where 2,000 had been converted through the aid work of German Baptists. As the number of Baptists grew, the faithful got to work caring for the poor and orphans made destitute by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and a severe famine in the early 1920s.
“The Soviet plan: to foster Baptist activities and thus enfeeble orthodoxy,” Time magazine reported in 1929. “Last week the shrewd Soviets had to admit they had blundered.”
Indeed, the Baptists had gained so much influence through their social work that in April 1929, the Soviets limited church activities to religious services conducted in religious buildings. No one younger than 18 could participate. All churches had to register. And non-state communes were dissolved.
For the next decade, Stalin’s persecution of all Christians—and anyone else who opposed him—grew bad enough to be dubbed the “Great Purge.”Soviet Persecution
Between 1921 and 1980, the Soviets killed 20 million Christians, according to CSGC estimates. “The persecution was gory,” Bakhmutsky said.
In 1986, the “known number of religious prisoners” in the Soviet Union was 397; of those, 315 were Christians; of those, 170 were Baptists. One was pastor Nikolai Baturin, who hadn’t finished his prison term when he was given another because of his continued Christian witness. A second was Vladimir Khailo, whose children were forcibly removed before he was arrested himself. Another was Anna Chertkova, who was injected with drugs to treat her “severe mental disorder” of Christianity. (It didn’t work. One of her letters begins, “I greet you all in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Eternal glory to God for everything!”)
The pressure stayed high until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 independent countries.
“As late as July 1989 I had Bibles and other Christian literature confiscated by Soviet customs officials,” wrote Mark Elliott, then director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies at Wheaton College. “[J]ust one year later, in August 1990, as part of an exchange program with Moscow State University, my students cleared customs with quantities of Christian literature, no questions asked.”
As soon as they could, thousands of Christians fled the country. “Out-migration was huge and really hurt all evangelical denominations,” Elliott told TGC.
But not everyone left. And the door that was open to migration worked both ways, letting in thousands of missionaries.
“After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, religion replaced the philosophy of scientific atheism and Marxism-Leninism,” Vitaly Proshak wrote for the International Mission Board. “[I]t marked the beginning of a spiritual revival in Russia.”Schools and Books
The Christians who remained quickly split themselves from the one official Protestant denomination into at least 35 more, and then got to work. Elliott called it “an explosion of independent grassroots mission enterprises”—with 10 years, Russians started ministries in hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and soup kitchens; founded Christian publishing houses; and formed professional networks for Christian lawyers, doctors, artists, and entrepreneurs.
At the same time, missionaries poured across the border. The “admittedly conservative estimate” of 1,100 foreign missionaries in the former Soviet Union in 1993 jumped to an estimated 4,400 in 1995 and 5,000 in 1997. At the same time, the 150 missionary organizations working in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1982 swelled to 311 in 1989, to 691 in 1993, then to almost 1,000 in 1997.
One of those organizations was the Slavic Gospel Association. President Robert Provost helped to found seminaries, start pastoral training centers, and send Russian pastors to John MacArthur’s Shepherds Conference—because a church that has been locked up, beaten, starved, and worked to death is not exactly well-educated.
Novosibirsk Theological Biblical Seminary graduates this year / Courtesy of Evgeny Bakhmutsky
Seeing the need and the opportunity, MacArthur “did a number of pastoral conferences,” Bakhmutsky said. The Slavic Gospel Association and MacArthur’s The Master’s Academy International helped launch several Bible schools and seminaries—including Novosibirsk Theological Biblical Seminary (2000) and the Samara Center for Biblical Training in Russia (2000)—which began steadily turning out pastors trained in biblically sound doctrine.
By 2019, the Novosibirsk seminary had turned out more than 200 graduates, and the Samara training center had 475 graduates in expository preaching and around 100 in more intense graduate-level classes. (This year, the center anticipated about 30 people signing up for its part-time preaching program; they had 65.)
Meanwhile, a missionary to Ukraine noticed “there weren’t a lot of good books available.” (Bakhmutsky can remember when the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress were the only theological books in Russian.) Danny Foote and a missionary friend grabbed John Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ and a translator, then a typesetter, then a proofreader. Then they did it again with another book. (Along the way, TGC hopped in with some financing and support.)
“When we started, there wasn’t that much interest in stuff that was Reformed—Piper and Keller and such,” said Foote, who published in Russian to reach more readers. “But now there’s a big enough market that we compete with different publishers trying to get titles.” (He’s published Keller’s Generous Justice and Center Church, but the bestseller that’s “hard to keep in print” is The Jesus Storybook Bible.)
Theology books available in Russian / Courtesy of Igor Gerdov
The Samara training center was translating too, assisting publishers with commentaries. One of its graduates began managing translations of the Puritans. And at its annual pastors’ conferences—which have featured speakers like MacArthur, Piper, and Paul Washer—it started giving away titles like J. C. Ryle’s Old Paths or Holiness.
“I am so thankful to the Lord,” Russian theology instructor Igor Gerdov said. He feels book-rich when compared to some of his friends in Western Europe. “There are very few [Reformed] books in Italian, for example. But when I teach theology, I have Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology, and Berkhof’s systematic theology, and Millard Erickson’s systematic theology. I also have James Montgomery Boice, and Charles Ryrie, and Calvin’s Institutes—all of these are in Russian.”
“It’s the first time in Russian history that we have the largest Russian publishing house publishing Protestant authors,” Bakhmutsky said. “It’s amazing. The books are going to be in all major Russian bookstores across the country. So we’re praying for great fruit off of that.”
It’s good news in a country that’s begun cracking down on religious freedom again.Back to Restrictions
Starting with a 1997 law that required all religious groups to re-register with the government, the Kremlin has been regularly pushing against non-Orthodoxy. In 2016, it outlawed non-Orthodox Russians from evangelizing outside their church buildings. In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses were labeled an extremist group and banned. In 2019, a 71-year-old Baptist pastor was charged with illegal missionary activity, and two Baptists were fined for offering religious literature at a bus stop.
The all-Russian staff at the Samara training center / Courtesy of Igor Gerdov
Foreign missionaries have especially been viewed with suspicion. By 2014, all non-Russian missionaries staffing the Samara training center had their visas denied. (“Thankfully, it was not the end of the world,” Gerdov said. Enough Russian theologians had been trained to take their place.)
USCIRF reported that “Russian legislation targets ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent, nonpolitical religious activity.” While the actions, particularly against Jehovah’s Witnesses, worry religious freedom experts, many Russian Christians on the ground are shrugging.
“When you hear that people in Nigeria are dying for their faith, it’s hard to say this administrative fine is persecution,” Gerdov said. “If you call it persecution, then the word lacks its significance. . . . Overall, in the history of Russia, we have an unprecedented amount of good resources available.”
So Christians are taking full advantage.Russian Bible Church
Bakhmutsky is from Siberia, but he didn’t plant his church there.
Instead, he headed southwest to Moscow, the most influential city in Russia—think New York City and Washington, D.C., rolled up together, with more people than both combined. Bakhmutsky planted the Russian Bible Church (RBC) there in 2009.
Evgeny Bakhmutsky leads the Russian Bible Church / Courtesy of RBC
The church is part of the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Russia denomination, which Bakhmutsky says is “generally conservative evangelicals. You can find some Reformed churches, but Russia didn’t directly experience the Reformation, so it’s not really our term.” (And like Baptists in the United States, the Arminian wing and Calvinist wing have serious disagreements.)
Bakhmutsky’s RBC has gathered more than 500 weekly attendees over the past 10 years, many of them new converts to Christianity.
“In our three-hour Sunday service we have a moment where people can come forward—we now limit it to 10 people only—and they can share who they’re going to preach the gospel to this week,” he said. “The whole congregation prays. And can you imagine, after a few months or years, you have a person come who says, ‘You’ve been praying for me.’ It’s the best personal evangelism seminar, happening every Sunday.”
RBC’s new members class—even with some repeat attendees and some sitting in from other churches—draws about 150 a year. It’s one of the ways Bakhmutsky is working on ecclesiology—one of the most significant problems he sees in the Russian church.
In the past, “we got many missions, and they were thinking more about projects than ecclesiology,” Bakhmutsky said. Russian churches “started to redefine ecclesiology through missiology. [The result was] less gospel, more pragmatism.”
Russian churches started to redefine ecclesiology through missiology. [The result was] less gospel, more pragmatism.
In some churches, the pastor decides what to preach—and sometimes, who will do the preaching—on Sunday when he gets to church, said Arman Aubakirov, who spent more than a year visiting Russian churches and ministries for 9Marks. “And those sermons are just talks. None of them is even close to expositional.” Not only that, but many churches no longer require membership.
In 2017, Bakhmutsky and Aubakirov met through their involvement with 9Marks. It didn’t take long for them—and the 9Marks staff—to see a hole that could be filled.9Marks in the Former USSR
For 18 months, Aubakirov showed up at Christian conferences all over Russia and Ukraine. He connected with the MacArthur circle in Samara. He met with as many smaller publishers and churches and ministries as he could find. And he joined Bakhmutsky’s Russian Bible Church, which was by then hosting interns, weekend workshops, and a pastors’ conference, along with a pastoral network called Ekklesia.
The plan was for 9Marks to help Ekklesia tie together as many gospel-centered ministries as possible—and to throw a little gasoline on the conversations about biblical theology that were sparking around the country.
Bakhmutsky and Dever in Moscow / Courtesy of Rick Denham
“In the beginning we had to give money to publishers to print books because nobody knew who Jonathan Leeman or David Helm was,” Aubakirov said. He joined Foote’s In Lumine Media and 9Marks in handing out Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today for free all over the region.
In his down time, he translated “about 150 core articles” into Russian and subtitled about 15 Ligonier/9Marks videos. He posted them on 9Marks Russian language site, but other gospel-centered sites were also growing—such as Ekklesia, the Samara training center, and Evangelical Christianity, which was started last year by two members of RBC. Since October 2011, the YouTube channel of Alexey Kolomiytsev, who preaches expositionally in Russian to a church of mostly immigrants in Washington state, has nearly 11.5 million views.
“By God’s grace, in that year and a half, 9Marks has become well-known among the pastors in Russia and Ukraine,” Aubakirov said. In 18 months, publishers had printed about 12 new 9Marks books in Russian; they plan to print another 10 this year, along with a couple in Ukrainian and Kazakh. Dever’s What Is a Healthy Church? Leeman’s Church Membership, Mack Stiles’s Evangelism, and Helm’s Expositional Preaching sold out within a year.
“I think if you ask an average pastor, they’ve heard of the brand and maybe read an article or book from 9Marks,” Aubakirov said. Through the International Mission Board, he ships three to five gospel-centered books every two months to 50 pastors in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus—and he’s limited only by funding. When he announced the program in March, he received 200 applications from “pastors in villages where they can’t afford the books.”
After about a year, Ekklesia and 9Marks were able to send about a dozen key leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s training event. A few months later, an Ekklesia conference featuring Mark Dever drew 500 attendees.
In December 2018, Aubakirov wrapped up, moving back to Kazakhstan to pastor a small church there. “My mission was over,” he said. “This movement became a beast of itself.”Double-Edged Growth
The quiet bubbling of gospel-centered theology over the last few years has been “a work of God,” Foote said.
9Marks books for sale at the Ekklesia conference / Courtesy of Rick Denham
“You can see a divine hand moving things around in order to get resources to people,” he said. “I wouldn’t say you could pinpoint one thing that triggered it, because you have all these organizations and people working separately to the same goal and finding each other eventually.”
9Marks international director Rick Denham, who has seen this pattern in the growth of Reformed theology in Brazil, expects “the Evangelical Christianity site to grow and be a broad voice. I also expect Ekklesia to continue to grow.”
That could bring trouble.
“The Russian government is initially tackling things that might be a political challenge,” Denham said. “The evangelical noise is so low right now that it’s not.” Get too much bigger, though, and it could be a target.
“As Reformed people who trust the sovereignty of God, we know he has a plan,” Foote said. “We can trust that when somebody gets elected who can take away our church freedoms, we can still trust God during that, and we should. Whatever God is allowing to happen, that’s what he thinks is good for the church at this time and place.”
Texting. Entitlement. Lack of commitment. Avocado toast.
These are just a few things stereotypically associated with the generation that reached young adulthood in the 21st century, more commonly known as millennials.
In this conversation, Jon Nielson, Cameron Cole, and Kori Porter draw from their experience in campus and youth ministry to counteract some negative stereotypes and emphasize the positives about millennials. For example, millennials value authenticity. Churches can be threatened by the questions millennials ask—or they can view the questions as a welcome opportunity to clarify the church’s teaching. Churches can welcome millennials’ desire to make a difference in the world and to care for the poor and the oppressed.
Christians from older generations may perceive that millennials don’t want to learn from them, but Porter says that’s just not true. Christian young adults are hungry for mentoring and discipleship, but they need older men and women to deliberately step into this role.
Cole appreciates that millennials typically place a high value on community: “The churches in my community that are doing well with millennials are churches that do community really, really well. And so, in that sense, that’s a positive aspect of their ecclesiology. They, a lot of times, see the church as a place where they find community. And that’s something we can really embrace and learn from.”