When you talk about church structure, my friend Ryan Townsend says that it’s kind of like talking about the plumbing at your house. No one comes over to see it, but everyone notices if it’s broken. And broken plumbing can lead to a big, embarrassing mess!
My 19-year-old Ukrainian-born son, James, may be the exception to this rule. He loves to fix things, and he enjoys pointing out problems in people’s homes—often unsolicited. We recently commissioned him to go help his aunt and uncle get their house ready to sell. Upon arrival, James texted us: “Lots of problems. Plumbing. Expensive.”Healthy Foundation
That’s a pretty good description of some church structures. Problems abound. Many of which come from a lack of healthy church eldership and membership. And when it comes to changing these foundational issues down the road, it can be costly, painful, and overwhelming.
In our pastoral intern program at our church, we spend significant time on “plumbing.” We want our guys to have deep convictions about eldership and membership, and even be ready to pay the price to implement these things.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important.
Building a healthy church structure is hard work—harder than crafting a clever vision statement or coming up with a cool church name. But it’s far more important. It’s hard work because it requires thorough assessments, long conversations, clear communication, a willingness to let go of control (especially if you’re viewed as the “senior leader”), a willingness to be challenged, and more. But it’s needed, and it’s worth it.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral. Your structure can either help or hinder (1) how the flock is cared for and (2) how the church lives on mission.From Pyramid to Plurality
We planted our church with a plurality of elders. I wanted to avoid the “pastor and his staff” model that has one guy atop the pyramid. We wanted a plurality of elders/pastors caring for and mobilizing the congregation, under the leadership of the true senior pastor, Jesus Christ, who alone sits atop the pyramid.
We don’t even want to plant a church unless we had more than one pastor. We often tell aspiring planters, who you plant with is more important than where you plant. In other words, team is more important than location. Under most circumstances, I believe one can endure and thrive in any location with the right team.
Further, we need to shift our thinking on this profile more generally. For several years, “the man” was overplayed in church planting. The idea was that, in order to be a church planter, you needed to be an alpha male, Ennegram 3 macho-man. Hopefully we can see the problems with such an idea.
I long for a revival of awareness that emphasizes the need for a team of people to plant a church well—composed of missional men and women, and shepherded by a plurality of humble, wise, godly pastors. I believe this will fuel the planting of healthy churches in every nook and cranny of the globe.Valuing Plurality
We find numerous examples of plural eldership in the New Testament. Elders are seen in the churches of Judea and the surrounding area (Acts 11:30; James 5:14–15); in Jerusalem (Acts 15; 21); in Derbe, Lystra, and Antioch (Acts 14:20–23); in Ephesus (Acts 20; 1 Tim. 5:17–25); and in Northwest Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:1).
(It’s interesting, by the way, that while many challenge the notion of a plurality of elders/pastors, no one seems to advocate for a single deacon model. We need a plurality of both.)
Acts 14 is crucial for church planters. Before Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, from their first so-called missionary journey, Paul returned to strengthen the souls of the disciples. What did he and Barnabas do on this return trip?
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21–23, emphasis added)
How can Paul feel good enough about a church to leave it to exist without him? What did he want to have in place? Notice the three foundations: (1) apostolic instruction—”the faith”; (2) pastoral oversight—this is the first appearance of elders in Gentile churches, and what occurs seems to set the trend for what becomes the norm; and (3) prayerful trust in God.Parity and Plurality
I’d like to offer one final consideration to those already bought into this model, and it pertains to the “first among equals” idea. For some who have plurality, their elders operate like a board. They’re not shepherds. I don’t recommend this approach. Others see their elders as pastors, but there’s a hierarchy in authority and/or importance. I’m not a fan of this either. I’m for a team of pastors who have equal authority and importance.
We recognize that not all elders are equal in gifting, biblical knowledge, and experience—1 Timothy 5:17 indicates this in regard to teaching. But there’s more to shepherding than teaching and preaching.
For many who advocate for the “first among equals” model, however, the inherent assumption is that one pastor is better at every shepherding issue or has more authority over every issue. To such thinking, I’d want to ask, “Why do you assume that the guy who’s more capable in teaching will also be more gifted at care-giving, counseling, administrating, or mobilizing?” These are vital aspects of shepherding, too.
We want our church planters to get excited about biblical leadership structure, not for the sake of structure itself, but so that the church can be both missional and pastoral.
But how does this actually work? Don’t you have to have a “first among equals”? At our church, we say this: We have a first among equals depending on the issue. Here are some essentials for making that happen:
- Humility and trust. If you’re a control freak, this won’t work.
- Patience and self-control. You may not like the pace at which things happen in plurality.
- Love. You have to bear with one another in love; you’ll know each other’s flaws as well as anyone else in the church.
- Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. You don’t have to voice a strong opinion about everything.
- Respect for one another. You have to value the perspectives of everyone.
- An awareness of each other’s strengths. This is essential in order to know when and how to defer to each other.
So in our efforts to plant churches, let’s not just seek to plant churches—let’s seek to plant healthy churches, led by a healthy team of pastors, for the good of the church and the advancement of the mission. This will require us to give due consideration to this less celebrated aspect of church planting.
So much modern evangelical biblical theology is a gift to the church. It has stemmed the tide of moralistic preaching in many churches and has provided useful theological resources to combat the most egregious theological dangers of our day, such as the prosperity gospel.
But I’ve also witnessed (and been guilty of) some bad biblical theology. In my first year of seminary, for example, I became so enamored with biblical theology and how the story “fits together” that I lost sight of the moral demands the story places on us all—an error that spilled over into the way I taught Scripture to others. Over time, bad biblical theology will undercut a congregation’s health—warping the message of Scripture and stunting a church’s growth in the knowledge of God.
All of us—not just preachers—should beware of bad biblical theology. But what exactly does bad biblical theology look like in sermons?1. Sermons that are ‘Christ-centered’ but never make moral demands.
The Bible is opposed to moralism, not morality. Regrettably, I’ve heard many sermons that confuse the two. I’ve even interacted with some preachers and seminary students who would wince a little if they heard a preacher rattle off commands to his congregation in the way Paul does in the epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 16:13–14).
I appreciate the desire on the part of many pastors to avoid “moralism” and to emphasize the gospel as the agent of transformation in the Christian life. Yet it’s also the case that some preachers—particularly younger ones—need to embrace that preaching must also include appropriate exhortations for the congregation to respond to Christ’s climactic fulfillment of the Old Testament. The law “used lawfully” in gospel preaching (1 Tim. 1:8) is both biblical and necessary.
Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided.
For example, preaching how Jesus fulfills the Davidic covenant and ascends the throne of Israel demands that we call people to bow their knee to Jesus the king. Preaching how Jesus fulfills the office of priest demands that we call people to trust in his sacrifice. Preaching Jesus as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15a) demands that we also tell people “to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15b). Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the temple demands that we also teach people that Christ has poured out the Spirit on his church and expects us to preserve the purity of God’s dwelling through faithful discipleship and discipline. Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the law demands that we also tell people “don’t worship idols, honor your father and mother, don’t look at porn, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet.”
Additionally, preaching how Jesus fulfills Old Testament types must include how the Messiah incorporates his people into that fulfillment. I’ve left many sermons, which masterfully demonstrated how Jesus fulfilled some Old Testament type, thinking, Wow, isn’t Jesus amazing! I sure wish he had something to do with me! It’s exhilarating to discover how every story in the Old Testament whispers Jesus’s name—how every promise, person, and pattern is ultimately fulfilled in him.
At the same time, we must remember that we are also a part of the story. Jesus is the true and better temple, but he gives his people that same identity (1 Cor. 3:16). Jesus is the true and better Israel, but he incorporates those who put faith in him into the new Israelite community (Gal. 6:16). Jesus rises from the dead, fulfilling types of resurrection in the OT (1 Cor. 15:1–3), but his resurrection is the firstfruits of what’s to come, guaranteeing our coming resurrection and offering a hope that should shape our everyday lives (1 Cor. 15:58). Christ-centered preaching is unavoidably ecclesiological—he is the head, we are the body.
I commend preachers who don’t want to sully their congregation’s estimation of God’s grace revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided. I’m confident the cripple in Mark 2 didn’t lose any sense of the wonder of grace or reliance on Christ when the Lord commanded him to pick up his mat and go home.2. Sermons that don’t present biblical characters as positive and negative moral examples.
Perhaps you’ve heard youth pastors challenge you to “dare to be a Daniel” or “flee sexual temptation like Joseph.” Perhaps you’ve sat under preaching that encouraged you to “be like” Abraham, David, Jonathan, Josiah, Paul, or even Jesus. In my first year of seminary, I scoffed at such “moralism.” After a few years, I stopped the scoffing. Yes, we must preach Jesus from every text authentically by reading each passage in light of the entire canon of Scripture and the climax of redemptive history in Christ. And yes, the characters of Scripture ultimately point beyond themselves to the grace of God in his Son. But the New Testament authors,—in the context of a robust, Christ-centered biblical theology—do not shy away from presenting Old Testament characters as moral exemplars.
Preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical.
Jesus and the apostles routinely call Christians to “be like” or “not be like” Old Testament figures (cf. Heb 12:16). Even Paul tells us that Israel’s sinful actions in the wilderness “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6; cf. 10:11). Likewise, James encourages believers to be like the prophets, Job, and Elijah (James 5:10–28). Paul even commends himself as someone the Corinthians ought to imitate (1 Cor. 11:1). Further, many of Jesus’s parables command listeners to imitate exemplary characters (Matt. 7:24–27). After teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus commanded the lawyer, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). In other words, “Go and be like the good Samaritan.”
Of course, preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical. We must show how each story finds its climax in God’s final Word in Christ, and we must draw out moral lessons from the lives of biblical characters.
To be sure, preaching should primarily aim at transforming the heart. But transformed hearts still need to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). Moral exemplars are one of the most powerful ways to inspire obedience among God’s people. Who can’t help but feel a little steel in their spine when reading about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing tall in the throng of kneeling idolaters in Daniel 3? As Bruce Wayne said in Batman Begins, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.”3. Sermons that sound the same every week.
Some redemptive-historical preaching can fall into the trap of saying the same thing week after week. Rather than allowing the contours of the text to shape the homiletical outline, some preachers allow their biblical-theological commitments to dictate the structure of their sermon, and so the point of each sermon always tends to be the same: “Look how Jesus fulfilled X from the Old Testament.”
As Derek Thomas has noted, a redemptive-historical sermon can be “breathtaking” the first time you encounter it, but if it’s the only tool in your tool belt, your sermons will soon become predictable.4. Sermons that so focus on the ‘big picture’ that they avoid the details of the text.
A final problem with some redemptive-historical preaching is the way it fails to unpack the actual text being preached. Rather than letting exegesis drive the sermon, I’ve heard preachers simply identify the big biblical-theological theme (temple, priest, king, law, sabbath, and so on) and then walk through Scripture’s metanarrative focusing on that theme. Unfortunately, this approach ignores the most basic preaching question: “What does the text say?” Ultimately, our biblical-theological route to Jesus must emerge from exegesis of the text.Best Adjective
Evangelical preaching has benefited from the lectures, articles, and books reinvigorating the notion that every sermon ultimately must lead its hearers to respond to God’s free grace in the gospel. But no adjective fits better with preaching than “expository.”
No adjective fits better with preaching than ‘expository.’
Why? Because faithful sermons exposit the text, and faithful exposition takes into account the text’s literary, historical, covenantal, and ultimately canonical context.
Have you ever prayed a dangerous prayer? The kind of prayer that—if answered—will shake up your life, change everything, and force you to lean on Jesus every hour? The kind that self-sufficiency will not answer?
Years ago when my husband was pastoring overseas, he encouraged members of our congregation to pray a dangerous prayer for themselves or their family. During his sermon he passed out notecards. He asked them to document something they suspected God might be calling them to do but that they hadn’t been willing to fully consider or pray for because it felt too scary. Too dangerous. Too out there. Too faith-stretching.
Many of our dear friends and fellow church members wrote down, “Adopt a child.” And now, many of them are raising those adopted children.
It’s common to hear young Christian couples say, “Of course, one day, we’d like to adopt.” It’s almost a cliché. But in our good desire to care for orphans, we shouldn’t enter thoughtlessly into adoption.Called to Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children
Scripture is clear that our God is a tender Father who desires to welcome and care for the needy. He is a “helper of the fatherless” (Ps. 10:14).
In the way that our heavenly Father has pursued us, loved us, and made us sons, he asks us to do the same in his name. James tells us that pure religion requires us to visit orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). Isaiah calls us to bring justice to the fatherless (Isa. 1:17). God’s desire is to set the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6).
This command is obeyed in hundreds of ways by followers of Christ. When we invite people to know and love Christ and then bring them into the family of the local church, we reflect God’s welcome to outsiders. When we care for the needy in our midst, we display the love that God first showed us.
Orphan care is one important aspect of our concern for the spiritually and materially needy.
The question is, How do you know if you’re called specifically to adoption or foster care?
As an adoptive mom and a friend to dozens of other adoptive families, my encouragement to you is to pray and to seek the Scriptures. In addition, here are some practical and tangible benchmarks that may help you determine if adoption or foster care are God’s will for you.1. Unity
The first consideration is unity in your marriage. Spouses must agree. Adopting a child will not fix anything you sense missing in your marriage or family. In fact, without strong unity, the stresses of orphan care can worsen your relational strength with each step forward.
A marriage need not be perfect (no one’s is!), but it must be able to weather the ups and downs of integrating a new—and likely traumatized—child into your home. If your spouse isn’t ready to adopt, then pray for God to move and change his or her heart. No amount of nagging is worth it—you want God-ordained unity.2. Knowledge
You and your spouse should have a thorough understanding of what adoption or foster care entails. Before determining that you’re called to adopt, it would be wise to attend local classes, read several books, and make intimate friendships with other adoptive families. It’s important that you understand adoptive children’s experiences of loss, grief, and trauma. You’ll also need to be aware of what will be required of you as you seek to help your child and stay emotionally healthy as a family.
The challenges of orphan care do not have intuitive solutions. As you research, you may find that you desire the idea of adoption and caring for vulnerable children more than you understand what it’s like in real life.3. Affirmation
Major life decisions like this one are best made in community. Do you have a strong and biblically grounded church? How does your leadership feel about you pursuing adoption? What does your small group think? What do your closest and most mature Christian friends think?
It’s also vital to consider some practical matters. Are you financially stable? Can you provide appropriate medical, educational, and developmental support to a child? Do you have a clean record of conduct toward children? Do you have space in your home? If you already have children, how would they be affected by an adoption? You and your spouse and your community must consider: Are there needs or pressures in your home that currently make adoption unwise?
Being an adoptive or foster family will be an arduous and unpredictable journey. It’s important that the godly people near you agree that God is calling you to this and that he has equipped you to move forward. Heed the warnings of loved ones who are both trustworthy and knowledgeable.4. Surrender
I don’t know of an adoption or foster journey that has gone as planned. It requires great faith before your child even comes home, not to mention the days and years of parenting ahead. Parents who do well are parents who are fully surrendered to the Lord—parents who realize that they can’t do this, but Christ in them can.
In adoption, only Jesus is the hero. No matter how prepared you are, how educated you are, how much love you have, you and your child will both need the supernatural healing power of Jesus in a way you can’t fathom before that day comes. A humble heart that clings to Christ is a must.
Asking God if he has adoption or foster care for you is indeed a dangerous prayer. If God calls you, you will need to lean on Jesus every hour. Self-sufficiency will not do. But it’s also a deeply joy-filled calling, an opportunity to abide in our Father who loves the fatherless, and a chance to live out gospel love in your own home.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Abigail Dodds—graduate student at Bethlehem College and Seminary and author of (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ (read TGC’s review)—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about gender, and more.
What books are on your nightstand?
I currently don’t have a nightstand, but if you want to know what books pile up at the end of my bed these days, it’s mostly all reading for the master’s program I’m in at Bethlehem College and Seminary. That means:
I’m really enjoying the New Testament theology book––the Greek, a little less so. Over the last few months some of the standouts have been:
- Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Augustine’s On the Trinity
- Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism
- Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis
- Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?
- Jason DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament
And of course the top of the list is the Bible. We read the Old Testament in eight weeks last semester and are now reading the New in nine weeks. It’s been a gigantic blessing to be assigned that pace of reading God’s Word.
What are your favorite fiction books?
Mostly children’s books:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
- The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Those get inside of me and stick around. I’ve listened to The Chronicles with my kids dozens of times.
Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is poignant and my favorite Russian novel. Adam Bede and Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) are incredible works that I’ve returned to often over the years. I’m a Jane Austen fan––Eleanor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility is my favorite character of Austen’s. The Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset is a lesser-known collection I read in college, and I’m glad I did. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift are all important books that sharpen and allow you to dig for truth. I’m sure I’m missing some important favorites, but that’s a smattering.
What books have most influenced your thinking about gender?
This is a tricky question. Some of the books that influenced my thinking did so in a negative sense. I won’t give you a list of them. But here is the most important positive one: Colossians. It’s not a book about gender per se; it’s about Christ’s supremacy. But it completely re-oriented my view of gender, because I started seeing gender as from and for Christ. It made me rethink the typical approach of starting in Genesis to understand male and female, with the emphasis on getting back to what should have been. Without Christ at the heart of our understanding of male and female, we’ll know what we ought to be, but we’ll be powerless to be what we ought. We need Christ and the renewed eyes he gives us before we can make right sense of Genesis and right sense of the telos of male and female. Colossians helped me move past trying to recreate “what should have been” for human flourishing to what is and what will be, which isn’t exactly the same as what was.
Without Christ at the heart of our understanding of male and female, we’ll know what we ought to be, but we’ll be powerless to be what we ought.
The fictional characters of Lucy, Susan, and Polly in The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as Leeli and especially Nia in The Wingfeather Saga, painted helpful portraits for me. Along those lines, biblical narratives about women remind me that women are put in very different circumstances in life. That means we apply the same Christlike principles to different circumstances, and we end up with women who are doing very different things (eg., Jael with the tent peg, Priscilla instructing Apollos alongside her husband, Abigail interceding to undo the foolishness of her wicked husband, Sarah obeying Abraham, the midwives disobeying Pharaoh).
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and The History of Mary Prince are both important historical works that I’ve returned to. They remind me, like the Scriptures, that we don’t chose our circumstances in life and that if our gospel doesn’t transcend circumstances––if it only applies to wealthy women in the West––it is no gospel at all.
Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman is incisive and characteristically straight-shooting, as are all her other books. She models what being a robust Christian woman looks like. Same with Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and many missionary biographies.
What’s the last great book you read?
That word “great” is tripping me up a bit, because I automatically think of time-tested classics. But the last great current book I read was Joe Rigney’s Lewis on the Christian Life. There’s a chapter in there on “the choice” that’s worth the price of admission. It made me want to read more Lewis and be more fully human like Christ.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
I wish every pastor would be forced to read one of the women’s bestsellers in the “Christian” book category (which may mean they’re purchasing a coloring book). I wish every pastor had a firsthand taste of what passes for women’s Christian books in the broader evangelical culture and realized how many women in their congregation are reading those books—the same women who are training up the next generation to trust and obey Christ. And I wish they’d understand what those of us laboring among women are really up against—it’s a nasty dragon of false teaching that tells women to follow their sickly hearts and chase their anemic worldly dreams rather than losing their lives and gaining Christ and, along with him, everything (Rom. 8:32).
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning that being Christ’s ambassador means making really sure I’m saying what he would have me say, and not what I would say in my flesh or merely giving my opinion. And I’m learning that I’m prone both to cowardice (refusing to speak the truth because I’m afraid people won’t like what I say) and also to ramming the truth down people’s throats (speaking without love compelling me). He’s teaching me that living for the approval of people is actually living to please self.
But when we live to please God, we walk in true freedom. In other words, he’s teaching me what he’s always been teaching me: to trust him more. Trust him with my children, my life, my trials, my hopes, my words, everything. Trust that his ways are always better than the pathetic and deadly inclinations of sin. Trust that he is working when I can’t see it. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”
Do your emotions define you?
If you answer “yes,” you have a bit of a biblical problem: Nothing about your identity in Christ, eternal life, forgiveness for sins, or purpose as a member of God’s family rests on your emotions. Your emotions can’t possibly define you more fundamentally than these things. Right?
However, if you answer “no,” you also have a problem with Scripture’s teaching: The Bible shows over and over again that our emotions flow from what we love and worship. This is why those who love the Lord, his people, and his kingdom can actually rejoice in the face of persecution (Matt. 5:11–12), ridicule (1 Pet. 4:12–14), and even physical assault for the sake of the gospel (Acts 5:40–42). It’s also why those who love comfort, reputation, wealth, or any other false hope, will rejoice in things that grieve God (1 Tim. 4:3–4) and hate what he loves (Jer. 2:20). In short, if our emotions flow from what we treasure, how can they not define us in a significant way? Right?
Our emotions don’t define us in the sense of undercutting God’s definition of us. But they do define us in that they reveal and express our heart’s ultimate loyalties. Because neither of these biblical realities can be minimized, our emotions are neither the most important thing about us, something to be worshiped, nor are they the least important, a problem to be avoided or ignored.
Unfortunately, this puts us in direct conflict with two prevailing, problematic ideas in the cultural air we breathe.“Spit It Up”—Emotions Are Everything
The loudest voice in the Western world tells us that our emotions are everything, the things that most define us. You live among a people whose cultural practice increasingly proclaims that what you feel is the most important thing about you. The highest good our culture seeks is having good feelings. Therefore, a problem with your feelings is your biggest problem.
Given this, the next step our culture takes is quite natural: you need to be and express yourself at pretty much all costs. This is why we value “getting it off your chest,” “letting off steam,” “just being honest,” and so on. We’re instructed to handle the fragile baggage of our emotions by expressing them to the fullest (no matter what others may think) and/or rearranging the furniture around us to make space for them (we applaud the courage of those who refuse to silently accept the world as it is).
Our emotions are neither the most important thing about us, something to be worshiped, nor are they the least important, a problem to be avoided or ignored.
None of this is peculiar to the secular world. The church has its versions of this emotional obsession. For example, we often elevate emotional experience to the peak of Sunday morning worship. The goal of the sermon is to feel deeply convicted or inspired; the goal of the music is to feel a rush of ecstasy or thanksgiving; the goal of coffee hour is to feel connected and included. This mentality often drives personal devotions as well: we evaluate it based on whether we feel Jesus’s beauty, or feel less anxious, or feel closer to God.
Please hear me. These feeling are wonderful in themselves! We ought to be moved by God’s Word and rejoice when sermons or songs touch our hearts. But it’s easy for a healthy appreciation of emotion to slide into an unhealthy emotionalism that makes emotion itself the point.“Suck It Up”—Emotions Are Nothing
There is a second, opposite instinct out there. It holds that we should treat emotions like you would a rabid dog that has wandered into your living room. Call this instinct keeping a stiff upper lip, stoicism, or being a tough guy. The second voice from our culture argues that emotions are not to be trusted. Action movies, corporate culture, sports heroes, and our adoration of brave activists all remind us that the stoic voice in our culture isn’t completely a thing of the past.
Given the moral and spiritual slide emotionalism facilitates in our broader culture, it’s not hard to understand why this stoic approach to emotions has been popular in Christian circles. Christian stoicism tends toward immediately repenting of any negative emotion in oneself and rebuking it in others. The driving theological emphasis here is that negative emotions (e.g., anger, sorrow, fear) are inappropriate, given God’s sovereignty. If God ordained this suffering and he works all things for good, then the only reason you feel bad is because you don’t have enough faith.
The experience of a woman I know captures this problem all too well. She lost three children in three years. While many in her church expressed sorrow and compassion, she still felt pressure to “be in church the next Sunday, with a smile, so everyone could see how good God is when life is hard.” Was she exaggerating the attitude others had? Perhaps. I hope so. But even if she heard an exaggerated version, the underlying mentality is all too common.
We must carve out room in our theology for godly sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, dismay, and the like.
Now I have personally experienced the blessing of being in church amid grief. But so much of the comfort I tasted was Romans 12:15 in action. People wept with me, implicitly affirming the badness of death, affirming grief was a right response to something grievous. It’s a tragedy when we twist God’s sovereign control over every atom in the universe, which truly is the bedrock of our hope in the face of suffering, and make it the reason why one isn’t allowed to feel bad.
Certainly we aren’t meant to be enslaved by our emotions. However, stoicism misses that emotions, even negative ones, are a God-given gift, designed as an aid in obedience. And it misses that the Bible (especially Psalms) is full of godly negative emotion. Most fundamentally, all our emotions are an occasion for connection with the Lord if we pour out our hearts to him as he intended (Ps. 62:8).The Way Forward
Ultimately, even the most problematic emotions are never the true problem. The true problem is the collection of warped loves in our hearts and the shattering of God’s good creation. Instead of fighting dark feelings because they feel bad, we must carve out room in our theology for godly sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, dismay, and the like. Without them our faith becomes lopsided, veering constantly off the road God’s Word would keep us on.
We need a third way, a way that takes our emotions seriously without handing them the keys to our lives.
Thus, while we can sympathize with elements of both hyper-emotionalism and stoicism, we must reject their oversimplifications. We need a third way, a way that takes our emotions seriously without handing them the keys to our lives. And that is exactly what we have in the Lord who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross’s shame, wept tears, felt furious, and even knew dismay (in the Garden of Gethsemane). Because he loved his Father and his precious people, he tasted deep joys and sorrows on our behalf. May our hearts grow more like his, that our feelings may follow!
In his new book, Addicted to Lust, Samuel Perry helps us face the painful hypocrisy of “pornography in the lives of conservative Protestants.” After the recent revelations of sexual abuse in some churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, this book adds to the urgency of reestablishing basic integrity in our midst.
The author is assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes as neither a theologian nor an ethicist but as a sociologist. His book provides “the first comprehensive, sociological examination of how conservative Protestants experience porn use, its consequences in their lives, and how they are trying to respond individually and collectively” (6). His sociological angle is both limited and valid. It’s limited to the empirical, but it’s also valid as the empirical.Evidence
The persuasive power of his study depends on his evidence. So let’s think it through.
Chapter one, “From Obscenity Outside to Addiction Within,” tracks the trend among conservative Protestants of perceiving pornography no longer as a distant threat but as a clear and present danger. That seems indisputable.
Chapter two, “Fifty Shades of Grey Area on Masturbation”—I don’t enjoy having to mention that—argues that conservative Protestants oppose this practice with less dogmatism than they oppose porn. That may well be so.
Chapter three, “Fleshly Lusts That War Against the Soul,” portrays conservative Protestants as tending toward “sexual exceptionalism.” That is, we obsess about failing to live up to our group’s sexual norms, because sexual sin is felt to be the worst kind of sin. If sexual exceptionalism is indeed the message people are hearing from us, we need to re-examine what we are saying.
Chapter four, “Every Man’s Battle?”, makes the case that a “women don’t struggle with porn” narrative has incorrectly dominated Christian circles, leaving women who view porn feeling more isolated than men are. He sees complementarianism as a stigmatizing power injuring these women. That strikes me more as a questionable assertion than an established conclusion.
Chapter five, “Till Porn Do Us Part?”, argues that conservative Protestant couples suffer more grievous consequences if one person uses porn because of more acute guilt. No surprise there; if a marriage becomes complicated with unconfessed sin, there will be guilt and anxiety.
Chapter six, “So Help Me God (or Whatever Works),” presents the “purity industrial complex” that conservative Protestants create to fight the use of porn. This chapter might be the most helpful in the book, because it wrestles explicitly with what some of us have said and published. Seeing our work through another’s eyes can help us identify weaknesses we can correct.
In the conclusion, Perry proposes that the collision of “sexual exceptionalism” (perceiving sexual sin as an ultimate crisis that other sins do not create) with “moral incongruence” (the split mentality of moral standards simultaneously venerated and violated) in the soul of conservative Protestantism is getting worse. This is due to (1) the perception of sexuality as the focal point of a person’s total spiritual condition, (2) the “complementarian sexual ideology” that shames women more than men, (3) relational patterns in marriage intensifying the harmful effect of porn, and (4) an inadequate theory of pastoral care—that is, biblical counseling is inadequate, while “evidence-based, secular strategies for helping people overcome problem behaviors” are adequate.
As our path forward, Perry suggests (1) relieving the negative intensity of sexual exceptionalism, (2) shedding the “completely counterproductive stereotypes” of complementarianism, and (3) nurturing more honest, patient, and understanding communities, where people can work through their problems together. Anyone at Immanuel Church in Nashville will know that we are huge believers in this third prescription. Total agreement there!Evaluation
As these chapters unfold, Perry paints a picture of conservative Protestantism that some will hesitate to identify with. Some readers will find themselves characterized in ways that leave them thinking, But that isn’t what I believe. Perhaps more interactions with the best representative leaders of the movement might have lowered the risk of creating this impression.
There is another consideration, one built into the sociological method. It isn’t a failing, but in the context of The Gospel Coalition it deserves to be pointed out. Any empirically based study of human sexuality, even one that contributes to our understandings, can’t discern the true glory of it all. I say this not with an ungrateful or disrespectful attitude toward sociology. I say this because of the grandeur of our sexuality claimed by Scripture. If the biblical reasoning I presented in Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel holds up, then our sexuality is an amazingly glorious reality entrusted to us by God himself. Paul said of marriage, “This mystery is profound” (Eph. 5:32). No sociological study, however insightful, can reveal the profundity of manhood, womanhood, and human sexuality as created by God.
Maybe we theologians are crazy. Maybe we’re making it up in our own heads. Maybe that line in A Beautiful Mind gets at the truth of our sexuality: “Essentially, we’re talking about fluid exchange, right?” But maybe this intense reality we call sexuality really is a profound mystery. Sociological observations can enhance our understanding of the dynamics we create. But biblical insights alone can unveil the purposes of God.
Sociological observations can enhance our understanding of the dynamics we create. But biblical insights alone can unveil the purposes of God.
The final significance of Addicted to Lust goes beyond sociology. The publication of this book is surely a prophetic jolt for us TGC-types. Even if this book might not satisfy us in some ways, still, it does document the hypocrisy widespread in our movement. For that, we owe Perry a debt of sincere gratitude. So I conclude this review with an appeal for our own self-examination.Self-Examination
There is a danger built into what we’re rightly attempting at TGC—to lift up a positive rallying point for the gospel in this generation and the next. But there is a danger, without our intending to, of slipping into the role of standard-bearers of all that is right and true and worthy. It’s one thing to assert that biblical standards matter. They do. But it’s another thing to be seen as living up to those standards. We do not.
True doctrine not only doesn’t save us from Pharisaism; true doctrine can expose us to it: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). That Pharisee was Reformed. He thanked God for the distinguishing grace in his life. But his hypocrisy lay in his sincere belief that he was “not like other men.” We also remember, with solemnity, how the apostle Paul confronted the morally serious person who looks at this amoral world with disapproving superiority: “You, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom. 2:1).
My friend Sam Allberry recently passed along this quote from Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Titus 3:10, where Aquinas locates sexual integrity in the category of orthodoxy, at the level of Trinitarian theology: “If a person were to maintain that God is not triune and one, or that fornication is not a sin, he would be a heretic.” But most searchingly of all, the prophet Nathan said to sexually hypocritical David: “You have utterly scorned the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:14).
We conservative Protestants believe that our sexuality exists for the glory of the Lord. Therefore, our sexual sins stab him in the back. We’re qualified to serve him not just by our doctrinal orthodoxy but also by our comprehensive integrity, “fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:10). But orthodox beliefs concealing secret sins stink to God. They stink to any honest person: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24).
These things being so, Addicted to Lust demands from us a response that goes beyond a book review. Here is my recommendation. In the near future, we should devote a national conference—whether The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel or some other high-visibility event—to this simple, blunt theme: Are we right with God? And here is a text that could guide us into the repentance and revival we so obviously need for this generation and the next:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Tim. 2:20–21)
Galatians 6:3 is often read as a stand-alone statement, but I think it should be read as one idea. Paul says, “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” That’s true on its own, of course; it’s true as a stand-alone proverb. If you think you’re better than you really are, you’re self-deceived. But Paul is connecting it here and saying you’re never going to live this kind of servant life—you’re never going to move out into relationships really trying to serve others rather than trying to use others to build up your self-image—unless there’s a deep humility in you.
I love how categorical the Bible is about this point. In effect, Paul says, “Now, as a Christian, remember what the gospel says: You’re nothing.” It’s like the drive-by teaching Jesus does in Luke 11:9–13. He’s talking to his disciples about prayer, essentially telling them, “My Father will give you things if you ask for them.” But then he says, “After all, if you who are evil give good gifts to your children when they ask you, how much more would your heavenly Father . . . ?” Wait. You who are evil? He’s talking to the apostles! “Oh, by the way . . . you’re evil. Yes, you, the apostles, you’re evil.”
And that’s half the gospel: You’re evil; you’re nothing. But you don’t overcome that by seeking relationships that make you feel good about yourself. It isn’t by moving out into every relationship figuring out how that person, that relationship, can build up your flagging, fragile sense of self-worth. That’s desperate; that’s sad.
And it isn’t going to work, because your fundamental problem isn’t with other people. Your sense of self-worth is flagging and fragile because you’re not related to God like you should be. No amount of acclamation, no amount of applause or accolades from everyone in the world, will fill that hole. Nothing will heal your heart except God himself looking at you and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”Each Has His Own Load
Verses 4 and 5 are almost a footnote: “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” Every commentator or preacher I’ve ever heard takes these two verses a little bit differently.
Paul is trying to say that if you really were healed in your heart—if you didn’t need to always compare yourself to other people as a way of bolstering your fragile ego—then you could still have a sense in which you make progress. Not because you’re better than him or better than her, but because you’ve progressed in bearing your own load.
The word “load” here is not the same as the word “burden” in verse 2. “Burden” gets across the idea of a crushing weight, while “load” is more like cargo or luggage, something you have to take on a trip.
Many years ago, an older pastor helped me see what this means. There was a family in my church who were professing Christians, but it was a very flawed family. I expressed a certain amount of irritation with one of them, and the pastor responded to me like this:
There’s special grace, and there’s common grace. Some of us, because of God’s common grace, have had great families. We received a lot of love growing up. And now we have a fair amount of self-control and are relatively well-adjusted. So, when we become Christians, we come in, say, at about a 3 on a character scale from 0 to 10. After five years of growing in Christ, we’ve improved to a 3.5. Now, here’s this family, and they’ve had a very rough go of it. Both the husband and the wife come from terrible families themselves. Then they give their lives to Christ, and they come into the Christian faith, at the common grace level, at about 0. They’re wrecks. And after five years in the faith, they’re now at 1.5. They have made some significant changes, even more so than us. But when you look at them and say, “I’m twice as loving as they are and have twice the self-control,” what you’re forgetting is that they have their load, and you have yours.
At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to Peter and hints that Peter is going to die for his faith. I don’t know whether Peter quite gets what Jesus is saying, but Jesus basically says to him, “There’s some bad stuff coming.” Peter looks at Jesus, sees John walking along, and says, “What about him?” And I just love how Jesus says, “What is that to you? Follow me.”
I’m almost sure that’s what C. S. Lewis had in mind when Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia constantly says to people, “I only tell you your own story.” Don’t ask me about that person’s story. That person has their own load. So what Paul’s saying here is, “Get your eyes on God. Stop looking at everybody else. Stop using everybody else.”
Some years ago, I read a meditation by Tom Howard, a Catholic writer and brother of the famous missionary Elisabeth Elliot, that really made a difference to me. I want to paraphrase it as best I remember it. Howard said to look at the temple. God planned every little architectural detail about the temple (or tabernacle), and everything is laid out precisely to his specs. But when you get to the center—which in a certain sense is the center of the universe, the very center of reality—what do you get? No image. There’s no image to bow down to. In fact, as Howard said, there’s really not a person at all; there’s an event. Because at the heart of reality is a gold slab—the mercy seat—on the top of the ark of the covenant, over the law, where the blood is sprinkled. God is saying to us that the very heart of reality, the very heart of creation and redemption, is “My life for yours.”My Life for Yours
Sin makes us operate on this principle: “Your life for me. I’m going to make you sacrifice for me, for my interests, for my self-image. You must sacrifice your needs to serve mine.” But Jesus Christ came into the world saying, “My life for you. My life to serve you. My life poured out for you. I sacrifice for you.” He says those are the two ways you can live your life, and every single day—every hour—you decide to operate on one of those principles.
All real love is a substitutionary sacrifice—my life for yours.
Parents, you’ve seen this. You have this wonderful plan for the day, and then something happens—your kid gets sick, has a need, melts down—and you really need to spend time with your child. Which is it going to be? You can die and say, “My life for you.” You can sacrifice yourself for that child, in a sense, and have that child grow up feeling loved. In other words, you can die so your child will live. Or you can never sacrifice; you can never die to yourself in your parenting life. You can constantly say, “Sorry, I have my needs, I have my schedule, I have my goals, and you can’t get in the way”—and your child will grow up broken.
All real love is a substitutionary sacrifice—my life for yours. And essentially that’s what Paul tells us: “You can live life that way, and you can go into relationships that way—my life for yours. Or you can go the old way, the vainglorious way—your life for mine.”
Earlier this week the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 20th annual report on the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. “In addition to insights on religious freedom conditions in these 28 countries, the Annual Report provides actionable policy recommendations for Congress and the Administration to help improve conditions abroad where people are being persecuted for their religion or belief,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said. “Our goal is not only to call out the offenders, but to provide concrete actions for the U.S. government to take in working with these countries to get off our lists.”
Here are nine things you should know about the persecution being faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. (Note: The title of this article includes 2019 to mark the year of the report, though the details are about events that occurred in 2018. Also, while we should be concerned about the persecution of other faiths documented in this 238-page report, for the sake of brevity this article will only include actions against Christians.)
1. North Korea: Because the North Korean government associates Christianity with the despised West, particularly the United States, they single out Christians as the greatest religious threat. According to the report, the regime utilizes a sophisticated surveillance apparatus to actively pursue and imprison Christians practicing their faith in secret. Their immediate and extended family members are often incarcerated as well, whether or not they are similarly religious. The State Department estimates there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners currently languishing in North Korea’s notoriously harsh labor camps, known as kwanliso, and up to 50,000 of these detainees are believed to be Christians. Inmates in these facilities are detained indefinitely and face hard labor—likely to advance the development of nuclear weapons and other military equipment—along with starvation, torture, and arbitrary execution. Defectors report that prison authorities often single out prisoners for more severe treatment if they are suspected of being Christian or having contact with Christians
2. China: The report notes that as a Christian in China, your Bible may have been rewritten by the Chinese government, your church shuttered or demolished, and your pastor imprisoned. The Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to “sinicize” religious belief, a campaign that attempts to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion. According to religious-freedom advocates, more than 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders were arrested in 2018 because of their faith or religious practices (most of these arrests, though, resulted in short-term detentions and did not lead to criminal charges). Authorities closed down or demolished thousands of churches or religious sites, including Zion Church in Beijing; the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province; and the Bible Reformed Church, House of David Church, and Rongguili Lane Church in Guang-dong Province.
3. Eritrea: Individuals, including children, are regularly arrested and detained for their religious beliefs and practices and not afforded due process under the law. Security forces continued to arrest evangelicals and Pentecostals for participating in prayer meetings and religious ceremonies. Christians who were released after having been detained for at least four years were forced to sign promises that they would no longer attend meetings or worship services of their churches. Many evangelicals and Pentecostals have been detained for more than 13 years, including several pastors: Pastor Kidane Weldou (since 2005) and Reverend Haile Naizghi (since 2004) of the Full Gospel Church, Pastor Kif lu Gebremeskel of the Southwest Full Gospel Church (since 2004), and Pastor Meron “Million” Gebreselasie of the Massawa Rhema Evangelical Church (since 2004). In June, Pastor Ogbamichael Teklehaimanot of the Kale Hiwot Church was released after being detained since 2005.
4. Iran: Iran has nearly 300,000 Christians, including traditional Armenian and Assyrian/Chaldean ethnic churches and newer Protestant and evangelical churches. The government monitors members of the historical churches and imposes legal restrictions on constructing and renovating houses of worship. Christians have been sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, and traveling abroad to attend Christian seminars. Evangelical Christian communities face repression because many conduct services in Persian and proselytize to those outside their community. Pastors of house churches are often charged with apostasy and national security-related crimes.
5. Nigeria: Christians in Nigeria reported ongoing fears that their communities were being targeted in ethnic-cleansing campaigns. Religious communities in many areas remain highly polarized. In some cities, people are afraid to go into neighborhoods of the other religion or refuse to sell land to individuals from the other faith.
6. Sudan: Authorities target members and evangelical church leaders of the Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC). During USCIRF’s meetings in 2018, evangelical leaders said that the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments has directly interfered in their church affairs since 2012. SCOC and SPEC interlocutors reported officials confiscating their papers documenting property rights. In 2018, security forces were still able to harass and arrest Christians and other minorities, sometimes arbitrarily, without consequence or respect for the rule of law. On October 10, NISS forces in Darfur arrested and allegedly tortured 13 Christians—some said to be recent converts from Islam—during a prayer meeting and charged the leader of the group with apostasy.
7. Vietnam: Ethnic minorities in Vietnam face particularly severe and persistent harassment because of their religion or belief. Throughout 2018, USCIRF received reports of local government officials and police interrupting house worship sessions in Hoa Thang Commune, Ea Drong Commune, and other Montagnard Christian communities. In April 2018, police in Tuong Duong District disrupted a Hmong worship group affiliated with the government-sponsored Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Northern Region), claiming it was not properly registered (an estimated 40 percent of Hmong are Christian). In numerous instances, local authorities attempted to coerce members of independent religious groups to renounce or recant their faith, sometimes employing threats of physical assault or banishment. Authorities in Krong Pac District publicly berated and humiliated Montagnards for their affiliation with the unrecognized Evangelical Church of Christ.
8. Burma: During the year, there were reports that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture issued orders restricting the instruction of Islam and Christianity to government-approved houses of worship and limiting such instruction to the Burmese language, which is not the first language of many religious and ethnic minorities. USCIRF received information that in recent years more than 30 churches were destroyed in Kachin State, most by heavy weapons attacks. By some estimates, there are more than 100 churches in Kachin State at which parishioners can no longer worship.
9. Pakistan: At least 40 individuals are currently sentenced to death or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan. This includes two Christians, Qaiser and Amoon Ayub, who were sentenced to death by a district judge in December 2018 based on allegations that they insulted the Prophet Muhammad in articles and images posted online. Pakistan’s best-known case of blasphemy is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman whom the Supreme Court acquitted of blasphemy charges in October 2018 after a lower court sentenced her to death in 2010. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision criticized the lower court judges and prosecutors for pursuing falsely accused blasphemy cases that did not meet the requirements of Pakistan’s evidentiary rules.
The history of painting is in many ways a theological history. For centuries, artists have depicted, wrestled with, riffed on, and deconstructed religious imagery and themes. The history of painting is thus a treasure trove for theological engagement, overflowing with visual lessons and insights that can complement or complicate one’s faith (or lack thereof).
But where do you start? The sheer volume of theologically charged painting can be overwhelming. Going to just one museum with an eye to engage art theologically can be daunting, let alone approaching two millennia of artistic output.
Perhaps you could start with the paintings featured here. I reached out to a number of Christian artists, art appreciators, art professors, and art curators, and asked them simply to choose one or two paintings of theological interest—perhaps works that moved them personally or have enhanced their own faith journey. Their selections run the gamut both stylistically (from medieval-decorated manuscripts to abstract minimalism) and chronologically (spanning almost 1,000 years of art history), and yet each has something to say to the Christian.
Each title is hyperlinked to an image of the painting, and the contributor is listed below each description.Psalm 137 from the Saint Alban’s Psalter, artist unknown (ca. 1120–1145)
One of the most important survivors among early English Romanesque decorated manuscripts, the 12th-century Saint Alban’s Psalter has virtually no equal in the lavishness of its decoration, of which this letter “S” is a prime example. Inside the “S,” appearing at the top of Psalm 137, a body of water spills down the page in serpentine fashion. Filled with fish, the river-like shape symbolizes the rivers of Babylon. At the top of the image, one man hangs his harp on a tree; at the bottom, two men engage in discussion, perhaps planning retribution for the sufferings inflicted on them in their exile. As these figures sit on the edge of the river, we may imagine them on the edge of despair. But they do not sit alone—they sit together alongside a river that teems with life. Seeing this image, the monks might have been reminded of the liberating power that comes from singing one’s laments to God and that their own journey was one that intensified their longing for a heavenly home. For us today, a psalm like Psalm 137, beautifully illustrated on this page, helpfully reminds us that faithful worship does not exclude the harsh realities of life. (A longer version of this commentary appears in the Visual Commentary on Scripture.)
— W. David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological SeminaryAnnunciation, Fra Angelico (ca. 1432)
The annunciation has been a frequent topic for painters, with artists such as Giotto, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Rossetti giving us interpretive windows on the moment when the angel announces what God intends to do through the humble virgin, Mary. If one considers the annunciations painted down through art history, one cannot help but be intrigued by what they reveal about the shifting perspectives about her place in the story of salvation. Fra Angelico painted several versions, but my favorite highlights the humble submission of golden-haloed Mary, whose hands are folded across her chest as she listens intently to the words of the angel, which hang in the air between them as a readable text. The significance of this moment is made clear on the upper left side of the painting, where we see Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise. The promise the angel brings is that the Son of the virgin will remedy what the sin of the first parents has wrought. It’s all staged as a beautiful dramatic tableau, and Mary’s submission seems formal and rather unsurprising.The Baptism of Christ, Piero della Francesca (ca. 1448–50)
If there is one painting I wish I could take home, it is Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Jesus in the National Gallery in London. In 2000, the gallery created a Life of Christ walk with map and audio guide. I took it five or six times. The Baptism stopped me every time. In the painting the air, even after 500 years, still glistens. John the Baptist pours water over Christ’s head. The Jordan is clear, shimmering like the air. In the background Christ is removing his shirt, a story within a story. Behind him the Jordan flows into a desert landscape. Serene. Three angels bear witness. Tuscan angels. Wings furled. Looks of wonder on their faces. Unlike the Nativity angels singing “Glory!” these angels are solemn. Their presence marks a turning point. Christ isn’t just another Galilean carpenter’s son; he is the Son of God. Piero caught the moment. Nothing would be the same. From here on, Christ is headed to Jerusalem, to Calvary. The course is set. At the time I had just turned 50, a personal turning point. The audio narrator described this juncture, captured in Piero’s timeless calm, as a kind of transubstantiation, reality lifted out of its moment into eternity, the point from which there is no return. Halfway through my life, I, too, would never be the same. Piero had taken me out of time with the strokes of his brush and the evocation of that penetrating Tuscan sun.
— Roberta Green Ahmanson, art collector, writer, and patronIsenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1516)
A gaunt, torqued figure hangs on a cross in the center of a large, multi-panel altarpiece. Christ’s skin is a sickly green, pricked with thorns and welts. His head lolls to the side, but his arms and fingers are rigid and tensed in pain. Blood drips from a brilliant red gash in his side, pooling on his twisted feet. This viscerally unsettling altarpiece was made for the hospital at the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, France, which was known specifically for their care of those suffering from skin diseases. Blistered, pock-marked patients could come to the chapel and see a Christ who, indeed, understood their suffering and bore their weakness on his own body. But several times in the liturgical year, including Easter, the altarpiece would be transformed. The hinged panels would be opened, and patients would be greeted by Christ resurrected, light streaming from the wounds in his hands and feet. Patients could be assured that the Jesus who had empathized with their brokenness was powerful enough to restore their diseased bodies too. Together, the altarpiece’s configurations acknowledge with brutal honesty the ravages of the fall, and the utter glory of the coming consummation.
—Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, assistant professor of art and art history, Covenant CollegeThe Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (ca. 1600)
The Baroque master Caravaggio is known for his gritty realism, which bucked the traditional pieties of religious art. His biblical figures, including Jesus, do not have otherworldly auras or idealized forms; they have weathered faces, lived-in clothes, and dirt under their fingernails. (He used working-class Italians as models.) This physicality has theological import, not least in his painting of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ, located in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery in Potsdam, Germany. Caravaggio emphasizes the physical and emotional immediacy of the moment—not only through the dramatic play of light and dark (chiaroscuro, a technique for which he’s particularly celebrated) but also by tightly cropping the composition, zooming us in to where the action is. I love how Jesus pulls back his garment—an unveiling—and gently guides Thomas’s index finger into the open lip of flesh. Rather than reproaching Thomas for his skepticism, he invites him to investigate, an experience that enables Thomas’s confident confession, “My Lord and my God!” Two other apostles look on with intense curiosity, but it is Thomas’s face, with wide eyes and creased brow, that registers surprise and dawning wonder.
— Victoria Emily Jones, blogger, ArtandTheology.orgThe Holy Family by Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)
Rembrandt’s 1633 painting of the Holy Family effectively undermines “toxic masculinity,” but without trying to sell you shaving cream in the process. First off, we see a naked breast, but not for male titillation. This breast is sustenance for a hungry, infant God—an antidote to pornography. Second, Joseph, with the tools of his trade hanging neatly, has (in our terms) closed his laptop to be with his family. The paternal tenderness in his face is something far rarer in the history of art than we might expect. But the painting also tells us something about ministry. Because our culture is so confused about gender, we might be tempted to politely ignore passages where Paul uses a maternal metaphor to describe his work (Gal. 4:19). But Rembrandt has managed to convey the mystery of Pauline masculinity with singular brilliance. The empty, womb-like basket is not placed where it is by accident! In this painting, it is not only Mary who is called to bear Christ—but Joseph is called to bear the Christ child in faith as well (Mark 3:35; 1 John 4:12). The great Orthodox mystic Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) dared to write that “[e]ach conceives in like manner to [Mary] within himself the God of all, as she bore him in herself.” But the greatest of Protestant painters made precisely the same point here with his brush.
— Matthew J. Milliner, associate professor of art history, Wheaton CollegeReturn of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn (ca. 1663–1665)
Created just a few years before his death in 1669, Rembrandt’s treatment of the titular event renders Christian ideas of grace, mercy, and love with profound solemnity (and in my opinion, given the facts of his tumultuous late years, it also implies a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself as the lost son.) The silent scene evokes awe and demands absolute attention (Luke 15:24). The father and son stand out in light against a dark environment: the ragged torn garments of the son are particularly vivid. In a kneeling position he faces his father, only to reveal his bald head, back and feet (one barefoot) in a gesture of shame and with the appearance of an outcast. The welcoming father (faces us, the audience) clothed in ochre sleeves and a red scarlet cloak, exhibits a breathtaking color harmony and atmosphere. The secondary characters are the brother and three assistants, all looking at the reunion, except one barely noticeable figure in the middle of the composition looking directly at us. Rembrandt’s dramatic interpretation seems to suggest a unique opportunity for us (the audience) to become “the prodigal son” ourselves.Late Self-Portraits, Rembrandt van Rijn (17th century)
In this series of candid self-portraits, done late in life in the wake of the artist’s catastrophic losses (his wife and son dying, his popularity waning, his income plummeting) Rembrandt investigated the brokenness of the human condition in the most vulnerable and transparent way possible: by revealing himself utterly—without self-glorification or polished public persona. The majority of art historians and critics agree that these paintings are unique in the history of portraiture—for their obvious artistic mastery combined with complete candor and penetrating insight into the realities of aging. The portraits reveal beauty in the least likely place—in weakness and loss. This is a profoundly biblical vision and an embodiment of the Philippians 2 passage known as the Christ hymn. Rembrandt had spent many years as a famous “Dutch Master” and received many private and public commissions—among them profound biblical subject matter demanded by private clients and by churches. But the artist couldn’t help himself: He “spoke” the truth in his art, revealing unflattering aspects of his patrons in their portraits. But he reserved his most penetrating and honest gaze for his own face and form—making landmark images of the human soul in all its melancholy and dignity.
— Bruce Herman, Lothlórien distinguished chair in fine arts, Gordon CollegeThe Sower, Vincent van Gogh (1888)
Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower was intended, in the words of Judy Sund, as “a subtle rebuttal” of The Vision of the Sermon (1888) by his friend Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh borrows Gauguin’s compositional structure, diagonally dividing the image with a curved tree growing from the right—a compositional quotation that frames a significant visual-theological debate. Whereas Gauguin places his biblical subject matter of Jacob wrestling the angel in a visionary “elsewhere” beyond the tree—over against the tangible “here” of the congregants to the left of the tree—van Gogh reverses this, placing his biblical figure of the messianic Sower in the foreground on the left, concretely on our side of the tree. And the sower strides toward us, casting seeds into the field on which we viewers presumably stand. Like Gauguin, van Gogh gives us an image of “wrestling” with God, but here it happens in the immediate foreground rather than the distance, and in the guise of a peasant sower rather than an angel—a sower looking for soil in which his words might flourish. If van Gogh retains an “elsewhere” beyond the tree, the distance seems to be eschatological rather than metaphysical, in which we see the house of the Farmer to whom the harvest finally belongs.
— Jonathan A. Anderson, associate professor of art, Biola UniversityMont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne (1897)
Unlike Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) did not paint series. The exception is the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted some 40 times with oil, and as many again in watercolors. Curiously, he almost never discussed this subject, though it clearly moved him deeply. Occasionally he admitted how hard it was to grasp the theme. There is a historical reference. The Cimbri and the Teutones had attempted an occupation of southern France, but a Roman hero, Marius, defeated them in 1021. This became a “saint” victory, because the Roman presence insured the eventual triumph of Christian civilization. Cézanne was aware of this, and yet it would be a grave mistake to reduce his series to historical events. Gradually, he moved away from depictions of nature to painting reality. His use of colors, his lines, the composition, are all elements of a certain presence. According to art historian Denis Coutagne, we have in this series an expression of hope, an almost sacramental ascension from the earth to the heavens. Though abstract, since there is no photographic element here, it is a theological abstraction, using the genius of his painterly art to draw us from the world below to the world above. “Je vous dois la vérité en peinture,” Cézanne once declared to Emil Bernard (“I owe you the truth in painting”). Did he ever achieve it? Closer than any modern artist, I believe.
— William Edgar, professor of apologetics, Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia)The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)
In the late-19th century, the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner offered his take on the events of Luke 1:26–38. Drawing on what he’d learned from travels in the Holy Land, he created an entirely convincing and realistic depiction of this moment. Mary is sitting amid crumbled bedclothes, dressed in the clothing of a poor peasant woman. She has no halo, and her surroundings are ordinary and unremarkable. The angel who appears before her is not the traditional winged messenger of religious art, but appears as a bright, golden burst of light, indistinct in form, yet radiating a warm and glowing presence. Mary seems a bit frightened and uncertain, as one might expect, though Tanner has captured the moment when fear begins to give way to contemplation and acceptance. Her head, bowed but tilted upward, indicates her receptivity and openness to God’s call upon her life. The sheer ordinariness of this depiction of the intersection between the divine and the human is a reminder that God’s message is for perfectly ordinary people in perfectly ordinary circumstances.Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, Gustav Klimt (ca. 1917–1918)
This is the third in a series of three posthumous portraits of Maria (“Ria”) Munk, a young Austrian woman who committed suicide after her lover, the German poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers, called off their engagement. Klimt was commissioned by the family to paint her portrait, but the first two paintings did not meet their approval. While working on this third portrait of Ria, Klimt died, leaving the work unfinished. Typical of Klimt’s style, this painting is colorful, vibrant, and highly decorative; but its unfinished nature reveals the artist’s process and allows us to see his eye at work. We see the painting’s direction in its incompleteness: the preliminary charcoal sketches of the woman’s figure and the flowers, the quick swatches of colors in the background. Even unfinished the painting is beautiful; we can only imagine its glory had Klimt been able to complete it. So it is with our lives and this world we know: We are works in progress, catching glimpses of beauty here and there even as we await completion. There is evidence of the Creator’s hand at work, yet we also wait in the tension of the now and not yet. In this unfinished portrait, we can resonate with the words of 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
— Eva Ting, director of W83 Ministry Center, Redeemer Presbyterian ChurchChrist Crowned with Thorns, Horace Pippin (1938)
I recently encountered the paintings of Horace Pippin at a LACMA exhibition featuring the works of outlier and self-taught American painters. The work of Pippin, an African American painter active in the 1930s–’40s, stood out to me. His paintings often depicted racial injustice and prejudice, as well as biblical scenes and eschatological longing, such as the Holy Mountain series. Pippin had no formal training and his folk-art style has been called primitive, naive, and innocent; but there is a maturity to his work that reflects an intuitive eye. Pippin’s rendering of Christ is especially moving. Presented in muted grays and sepia tones, slightly off center, this is a humble image of Christ at odds with the “regal” implications of its title. Christ dons a crown and a robe, perhaps sitting for a portrait session like the great kings of history often did. Yet his countenance rejects the pomp and circumstance of royal portraiture; his gaze is the opposite of superiority or aloofness. Rather, his presence—especially the eyes—communicates a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). It’s a look of empathy and solidarity with the marginalized, the scorned, and the demeaned. What do we see in the painting? A Savior who sees us.
— Brett McCracken, senior editor, The Gospel CoalitionBroadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian (1942–43)
World War II had just begun when Piet Mondrian settled in New York City. Mondrian was a Dutch artist whose ideas on aesthetics and design had a significant influence on architecture, art, typography, and interior design in the 20th century (and to this day). Mondrian believed in the need for abstraction and simplification, and even though his focus was to distill nature to the “essential,” he would always highlight that he was driven by “the spiritual.” One can explain Mondrian’s art (both figuratively and literally) as the intersection between the vertical and the horizontal. In this vibrant piece, Mondrian sees New York City through his aesthetic lenses. We can almost look at the people walking, feel the busyness of the city, hear the traffic and feel the rhythm of jazz. Mondrian neglects reality to focus on the unseen spiritual qualities of our natural world. Although we cannot “see” New York City, we can feel it. Recognizing the unseen realities of existence is a spiritual practice (2 Cor. 4:18, Heb. 11:1–3, Col.1:15) which takes observation, meditation, and imagination.Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon (1944)
Bacon’s surreal triptych remains one of the most recognizable works of modern art and arguably what he is best known for as a leader of the post-war British period. Three Studies is the first work to deal directly with the artist’s experience as a civilian volunteer during the bombing of London. Instead of the traditional figures depicted around Christ’s cross, Bacon has chosen instead to paint the Furies from Aeschylus’s Oresteia. As indicated by the surrealist details of the composition, these creatures are half-human and half-monster. Though little in the composition connects with the title, Bacon often references the crucifixion in his titles as a way of underscoring the historic nature of the tragedies he pictured, but without serving a devotional aim. The combination of these features—a Messiah tortured and executed by the state; alongside a cast of betrayers who sacrificed their humanity in the process—serves to heighten the sense of betrayal many in Bacon’s generation must have felt. Neither church nor tradition could prevent the worst atrocities in recorded history. Such despair marks much of modern art, but these works also give us vehicles to lament a past that is not yet in the past.
— Taylor Worley, associate professor of faith and culture, Trinity International UniversityStarry Night and the Astronauts, Alma Thomas (1972)
In the final decade of her remarkable but still largely unheralded career, D.C. painter Alma Thomas ushered abstract expressionism into the space age. In Starry Night and the Astronauts, painted when Thomas was 80 years old, the muted tranquility of a blue-black sky is interrupted by the reddish specter of a rocket ship. Although the painting invokes Van Gogh’s Starry Night by its title, it’s that other Van Gogh marvel, Wheatfield with Crows, that the picture calls most readily to mind. In Wheatfield, a painting completed just weeks before the Dutch firebrand committed suicide, a murder of crows—rendered in sloppy black brushstrokes—unsettles an otherwise swirling Van Gogh landscape. A lyricist, if not a revolutionary, on the order of Van Gogh, Thomas developed a late style of syncopated brush strokes that converted canvases into patch-work quilts of pulsating colors. The effect is startling in its buoyancy. Where Van Gogh’s birds cast a chilly shadow, Thomas’s spaceship irradiates an odd and jagged wonder. Starry Night and the Astronauts is what Psalm 8 might look like (“when I look at your heavens . . . what is man that you are mindful of him?”) were the psalmist an abstract painter awaiting the latest dispatch from the moon.
— Drew Bratcher, assistant professor of English, Wheaton CollegeLast Supper (Dove), Andy Warhol (1986)
Central to Warhol’s work is an extended exploration of the fragility of meaning in the age of mass media. In the last years of his life, Warhol—a lifelong Catholic—turned this exploration toward the fragility of religious meaning, critically reflecting on the problematic visuality of his own faith and its vulnerability to reduction and cliché. In the mid-1980s he made dozens of (often huge) paintings derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–98), endlessly reiterating Leonardo’s imagery, often overlaying it with commercial logos and slogans. In Last Supper (Dove), the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a Dove soap logo, a General Electric symbol irreverently stands in for the “light of the world,” and even the Last Supper appears as a diagrammatic “Leonardo” more than a comment on its biblical source. And the 59¢ label from the Dove packaging seemingly frames the whole concoction as yet another consumer product. To borrow Michael Fried’s phrase (about Warhol’s Marilyns), these Last Suppers are “beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons” of the gospel transposed into the language of commercial advertising and run through the machinery of mass media. It’s a painful diagnosis—one that retains powerful lessons for contemporary Christians—but, as in much of Warhol’s work, it also asks whether shadows of something deeply sacred are decipherable even here: the face of our neighbor in every Marilyn, the Word made flesh in every knock-off Leonardo.
— Jonathan A. Anderson, associate professor of art, Biola UniversityWhat’s Different About Alice Is That She Has the Most Incisive Way of Telling the Truth, Amy Sherald (2017)
Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald creates closely observed, life-size portraits of African Americans. In one painting, a woman in a coral sweater and teal, patterned skirt stands against a light green background, gazing contemplatively at the viewer. The woman is dark-skinned, but her flesh is rendered in shades of black and gray, as if lifted from a vintage photograph. The clear, bright colors locate her in our world, but her grayscale skin suggests she also stakes her claim to history. She holds a camera in front of her chest, and one hand twists the lens, as if focusing it. Though visually quiet, this painting does the radical work of restoring black female dignity. The black and white skin may recall pseudo-scientific photographs of bare-chested African women intended to categorize and degrade. But now, the woman is beautifully clothed and self-possessed. Instead of existing as an object, she silently asserts her agency as she points her camera at us. She has the power to look and to create. Though not a Christian herself, Sherald taps into the fundamental truth of the imago Dei, gently reminding us of how our culture has historically dehumanized black women and offering a generative alternative for the present.
— Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, assistant professor of art and art history, Covenant College
“Doctrine is absolutely essential to Christianity. We live in a day where story is preferred to doctrine. But doctrine and story in the Bible are not competitors or enemies; they are complements and friends. It’s not doctrine or story, it’s doctrine and story. And, very often in the Bible, the doctrine is conveyed through story, and the story enfleshes the doctrine.” — Ligon Duncan
Date: April 1, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Recommended in this podcast:
- The New City Catechism
- Great Commission Publications’ Children’s Catechism
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism
- Big Book of Questions & Answers
- Big Book of Questions &Answers About Jesus
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
When I was a kid, we used to camp for two weeks every summer on Beausoleil Island. On days when the lake was calm, we would sail to Giant’s Tomb where the water was clear and you could see bottom at a depth of four yards or more. But when the wind was up and the water was whitecapped we knew to stay by the fire, tucked away in the little cove where we’d pitched our tent, ‘til the morrow.
If books were boats and seafaring was reading, then Paula Fredriksen’s latest offering, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, would be a classic swashbuckling adventure, filled with bountiful scenery and gold-promising maps.
Despite its lack of engagement with opposing scholarship, Fredriksen’s book is skillfully written, tremendously persuasive, and honest in its objectives. Thus, much caution is required. This book has the potential to shipwreck those who are weak in faith.
The tragedy of this book is that strays so far from the safety of orthodoxy. Fredriksen’s basic premise is a good one: Christianity is, at its root, a Jewish movement. Unfortunately, though, she is not a trustworthy authority in our quest to rediscover this truth.Reconstructing First-Generation Christianity
Fredriksen, a scholar of religious studies at Boston University, has convincingly reconstructed a social world that might have stood behind Paul’s letters, the Gospels, and the book of Acts.
In brief, her thesis is that the original “Jesus community” was a Jewish sect anticipating an immediate apocalypse to usher in the eschatological Davidic kingdom, with Jesus of Nazareth as its reigning monarch. When the kingdom continually failed to materialize, however, the movement dexterously adapted. In a fourfold series of expansions, it transitioned from a Jewish, Jerusalemite, Jesus community into a Gentile, global, Jesus institution―known today as “Christianity.”
According to Fredriksen, the eschaton was first “unrealized” when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified rather than coronated (circa AD 30). The second disillusionment occurred when the resurrection appearances of Jesus ceased without the general resurrection of all people (AD 30–32). The third blow struck when Caligula’s desecration of the temple, interpreted as the “abomination of desolation,” didn’t initiate Daniel’s apocalyptic vision (AD 39–40). The final disappointment, which was to inaugurate Gentile Christianity, was the failure of the eternal kingdom to come to Jerusalem in the wake of the temple’s destruction (AD 70).
Fredriksen has composed a neat, compelling, and well-packaged theory. Nevertheless, there are several problems with it. Here are five.1. It Requires Dismissing Biblical Inerrancy
According to Fredriksen, the letters of Peter and James were written pseudonymously. Paul’s expectation that Jesus would return in his lifetime was proved false. The Gospels were merely revisionist histories, each written after the destruction of the temple to explain why the kingdom hadn’t yet come. Luke-Acts was written last of all to downplay the eschatological emphasis of the original Jesus movement and to legitimate the ongoing mission to the Gentiles.
While Fredriksen takes Scripture seriously, she doesn’t treat it faithfully. Her skepticism toward the Bible as God’s wholly truthful Word gives us good reason to be skeptical of her conclusions. Rather than submitting to the Bible, Fredriksen looks through it to reimagine a world that might have existed behind it and thereby rejects the essence of sola scriptura.2. It Pits the Jesus-of-Scripture against the Jesus-of-History
Fredriksen has no problem envisioning Paul or the Gospel writers attributing unhistorical words and actions to Jesus to serve their own theological and sociological purposes.
Confidence that the Jesus-of-Scripture is the Jesus-of-history is the bedrock of orthodox faith.
The ground beneath our feet erodes quickly when we give ourselves permission to decide what parts of the Bible are historical and what parts aren’t. Confidence that the Jesus-of-Scripture is the Jesus-of-history is the bedrock of orthodox faith.3. It Doesn’t Reckon with the Force of the Resurrection
When referring to the resurrection of Jesus, Fredriksen describes these appearances as subjectively conjured encounters. In so doing, she ignores the resurrection’s objective authority over the Jesus movement.
The veracity of Christ’s bodily resurrection sinks Fredriksen’s thesis.
If Jesus was raised from the dead, then the claims of his followers about a coming kingdom are weighty. On the other hand, if his followers experienced a months-long corporate hallucination, then the Jesus movement is nothing more than a sociological phenomenon. The veracity of Christ’s bodily resurrection sinks Fredriksen’s thesis.4. It Requires the Davidization of Jesus after His Own Lifetime
By identifying seeming inconsistencies between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, Fredriksen argues that the genealogical backstory of Jesus of Nazareth was invented to give him Davidic credentials after his death. This Davidic transformation was needed, according to Fredriksen, to invest Jesus with a David-like military persona in keeping with the conquering-king motif the Jesus community promoted, even though such a portrait contradicted the historical person and mission of Jesus himself.
Fredriksen is right to identify the Old Testament expectation of a Davidic king who would conquer with a rod of iron (Ps. 2). However, the Old Testament also expects the coming of a suffering servant (Isa. 53). Contrary to Fredriksen’s thesis, it’s plausible that the Jesus community rightly joined these two portraits in a way that was faithful to Jesus’s self-understanding (Mark 14:60–62).5. It Proposes a Fourth-Century, Gentile-Driven, Divinization of Jesus
By leveraging Old Testament language about sonship and by appealing to the ancient Roman practice of emperor worship, Fredriksen argues that all Pauline assertions of Jesus’s divine sonship are references to his Davidic pedigree—not to any kind of co-divinity with the Father. For Fredriksen, Jesus only became “God” much later, in the fourth-century councils of the Gentile co-opted church.
By leaping to the fourth century, however, Fredriksen hasn’t adequately defended her claim that Paul didn’t consider Jesus to be fully God. Nor has she addressed the co-eternal and co-divine presentation of Jesus in many other New Testament texts. Although she rightly identifies certain aspects of sonship to be part of an Old Testament royal motif, she fails to interact with the full breadth of biblical texts that attribute full divinity to Jesus from the outset.Watch Out Ahead
Fredriksen has rightly identified a need to rediscover the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, all who read her book risk getting stranded on the rocks of disbelief with a faith that’s been shipwrecked by her socio-historical reconstruction.
Before you read When Christians Were Jews, assess your intellectual and confessional stability and invite a studious, faith-filled mentor to help you navigate the squalls sure to come your way.
I love to use music to tell the stories of Scripture: each song parachuting into a different biblical scene, using all the tools in a songwriter’s belt to tell God’s story as creatively and faithfully as I can. But as I release a handful of singles and a new EP over the next few months, I’m parachuting into a more personal space. This time, I’m dropping into my living room and kitchen, exploring the way God’s story has spoken into my relationship with my kids, my husband, even my phone.
“The Wonder” is the first release in this collection of personal songs. It chronicles my journey as a mom: the joys, the struggles, and the way this season has caused me to savor and run to the gospel. You can listen to the song below.
Being a mom of three young kids has felt a bit like being thrown into a pressure-cooker. The heat and stress of my everyday caused sin patterns that had probably always been there to bubble up to the surface again and again. I struggled with losing my temper, with my words coming out in anger. And then I struggled with the subsequent shame, frustrated with myself that I’d fallen short yet again and failed my kids, who I loved. Next, I would pull myself up by my bootstraps, determined to try harder, to do better. But inevitably, in a high-stress moment, my sin would spill out again.
In this season of failing and falling, God in his kindness helped me rediscover the beauty of the gospel. I had believed it all along, but I was functioning in motherhood as if it were not true. As I came to the end of myself and to the place of acknowledging my utter spiritual poverty, I found that God was carrying me to the foot of the cross. He pointed me back to the good news I could never achieve or deserve. It was as if he took my face tenderly in his hands, looked me in the eye with love and said, “Don’t you see? This is why I sent my Son.”
As a mom, I still fail every day, and more often than I’d like to admit. But like the snakebitten Israelites in Numbers 21, God invites me not to stare at my own “snake bites” and sin, but to behold the brazen serpent lifted high on my behalf. In the gospel, he invites me to run to the wonder of the cross. Rather than wallowing in my shame or striving to make the grade as a mom, I can ask my kids for forgiveness and then point them not to a perfect mom, but to a perfect Savior. And I do it again and again, because we never outgrow the gospel.
Rather than wallowing in my shame or striving to make the grade as a mom, I can ask my kids for forgiveness and then point them not to a perfect mom, but to a perfect Savior.
So, as Mother’s Day approaches, let’s cast aside both self-condemnation and self-reliance and live instead in the reality of the good news. Let’s run more quickly to the cross when we fail our kids and get things wrong. Let’s boast more often in Jesus and the power of the Spirit when we get things right. And may our love for our kids point them to the deeper, wider, longer love bestowed on those who belong to the family of God.
Oh, what a wonder!‘The Wonder’ Lyrics
Little fingers they run / Through my hair / A tiny head on my shoulder / When you reach for my hand / Just to know I’m there / The things I’ll miss when you’re older
But in the rush of the day / How I turn away / How I forget the wonder / I forget the grace / And the giving of thanks / For the weight of the love that I’m under
Oh the wonder. . .
When my temper is short / And the day is long / And my words come out in anger / And I tell you I’m sorry / But the moment’s gone / I’m so heavy with my failure / But let me tell you darlin’ / Where your mama she is running / To the cross (oh what a wonder!) / All my love, just a shadow / Pointing on to the hallowed / To what’s deeper, wider, longer
Oh, oh, oh the wonder. . .
When my hair is gray, and my words get slow / And my days are almost over / And I whisper to you, “how I love you so” / I hope you never had to wonder / And you know, my child / You’ve never been only mine / Though I wish I could hold you longer / Though I leave you, He is near / He will wipe away your tears / You’re so loved by God the Father
Oh, oh the wonder. . .
Many unmarried people in the church struggle to accept the label “single,” since churches can treat singles as second-class citizens. This treatment rests on wrong teaching about singleness. Simply put, the church can idolize marriage and make it the ultimate goal for maturity in Christ, relegating singles—no matter how old—to perpetual immaturity until they find someone to marry.
Confusing marriage with maturity has always been wrong, but it was easy when marriage was a cultural norm for the American church. At the turn of the century a large majority of the general population was married; in the 1970s the marriage rate had dropped to 70 percent; and by 2014 it had dropped to 50 percent. The inescapable reality is that countless congregations include singles of all ages. The church needs to learn how to love singles better—and the first step is repairing broken theology.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, here are four major lies that contribute to an unbalanced theology of singleness. By correcting these misguided interpretations of Scripture, we’ll be better equipped to love and serve the unmarried people in our congregations.Lie 1: Single = Alone
“Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen. 2:18).
Outside the companionship of animals and God, Adam was functionally alone. By default, he was also single. God declared that being on mission alone is problematic, and so he gave Adam a wife to help him.
We tend to approach Genesis 2:18 as a prescriptive text, concluding that God’s solution for lack of companionship is marriage. Yet if this is true, what does it imply about being single? It would mean God doesn’t think singleness is good. But if that were true, why were some of the major characters in Scripture single, including John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul?
To understand this text we need to widen our lens. I believe Genesis 2:18 is a descriptive text from which we can extract the prescriptive truth that living outside of community isn’t good. God created us to live in the context of relationships, and those relationships look different for different people.
For some of us, community will take the form of a spouse and kids. For others, it will look like a good network of friends and extended family members. For all of us, it will mean belonging to a local church.Lie 2: Your Value Is in a Role
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Prov. 31:10).
I’m particularly sensitive about the messages we send single women regarding their value and significance in God’s kingdom. One phrase I’ve heard consistently is that a woman’s greatest fulfillment comes from being a wife and a mother. And for many of us, Proverbs 31 is the passage that springs to mind when we ponder what it means to be the epitome of a godly woman.
Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman is an example of spiritual maturity, but not simply because she was managing her home and providing for her family. It was because she embodied godly character.
Temporary life roles—like wife or mother—aren’t the ultimate markers of godliness. We should most strongly accent the godly character that will help a believer glorify God in any season of life. There is nothing special you need to be successful in marriage that you don’t need in singleness. No matter our marital status, we still need to confess and forgive, communicate well, and die to self every day. Let’s encourage singles to place their value not in what is temporary, but in what is ultimate: godliness.Lie 3: Marriage Is Guaranteed
“Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4).
Context is crucial here. When we don’t read Scripture in context, we can make God responsible for promises he never made. David wrote Psalm 37 to remind God’s discouraged people that God would bring justice and bless their faithfulness. David wasn’t giving a blanket guarantee that whatever they desired God would grant, simply because the desire was good.
Sometimes people conscript this verse to teach about marriage, leaving many singles angry and bitter toward a God who never promised them marriage in the first place.
Not all godly people get married.
The truth is, not all godly people get married. We need to embrace this, preach this, and celebrate this! God’s best for many will include a life without a spouse and biological children. These people will know him more deeply, serve him more powerfully, and experience greater joy than they could as a married person. Not because singleness is better, but because marriage wasn’t part of God’s perfect will for their life.
No matter how deeply we desire it, Scripture never guarantees marriage. But it does teach us to “not be anxious for anything, but with prayer, supplication, and with thanksgiving make [our] requests known to God and the peace of God will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–7).
Scripture also teaches that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:9). We can ask God for whatever we desire—but he reserves the right to decide what’s best for us. And his “best” is never a consolation prize.Lie 4: Marriage = Happiness
One common perception of marriage is that it’s near-perfect bliss. Social media, movies, TV shows, and books communicate that all our “single problems” will be solved when Prince Charming swoops in on his white horse and rescues us. In reality, marriage is two deeply broken people joining their deeply broken lives to become one.
Wherever we’ve believed one of these lies, our theology of singleness needs to be revised. We need to dethrone our idol of marriage and learn to define our identity the way God does. He views singleness and marriage as equally blessed gifts to be stewarded for his glory (1 Cor. 7:7). Do we share his vision?
I once heard one of my professors tell a story about Paul Tillich, a German theologian who was prominent in academic circles. When my professor was a young faculty member at a seminary in the United States, he was given the task of moderating the discussion after a public lecture by Tillich. Students began asking questions, but each time, the guest lecturer completely reformulated and “corrected” the question before answering it.
Finally my professor summoned some courage and said, “Professor Tillich, that wasn’t really the student’s question. Could you answer the question the student actually asked?” The response was quick and withering: “No, because they aren’t asking the right questions.”
Maybe that was partly true, my professor concluded, but the result of this tactic was that the students completely tuned out and dismissed Tillich.Jesus Is the Answer, but What Are the Questions?
In Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith with What You Watch, Read, and Play, Dan Strange knows that contemporary Christians are a lot like that ineffective lecturer. We believe “Jesus is the answer,” but we are so deaf to the cultural forces around us that we often present him as answering questions that people are not asking. Of course, because of sin, human beings do fail to ask the most fundamental question of all: How can I, a sinner, be made right with a holy and just God? And yet, as Dan shows in this book, the image of God in all people and common grace mean that people also ask some right questions: Who am I? What is meaning in life? How can I find true joy and fulfillment?
Dan Strange shows us, in the most accessible way I’ve ever seen, how to do Christian cultural analysis.
Every culture produces “texts”—things to watch, read, and play—that are based on answers to those big questions. Dan Strange shows us, in the most accessible way I’ve ever seen, how to do Christian cultural analysis. That is, he shows us how to identify the culture’s particular answers to those big questions in any text. Then he demonstrates how to both critique those answers and yet affirm the basic aspirations, and finally how to redirect people toward Christ as the true fulfillment of their quests and the true answer to their questions.Subversive Fulfillment
The basic method used here is one formulated by some 20th-century missiologists. The name “subversive fulfillment” perfectly describes the approach. Christians are to show members of other religions and worldviews that the gospel fulfills basic human longings and aspirations, but at the same time they are to critique the false idols in every culture that people think will satisfy those longings. Subversive fulfillment avoids the twin errors of syncretism and irrelevance. Sin must not just be denounced in general, but in the particular idolatrous forms found in the culture. Salvation must not just be declared in general, but as fulfilling the specific hopes the culture wrongly puts in its idols.
Subversive fulfillment avoids the twin errors of syncretism and irrelevance.
In Plugged In, Dan Strange takes this method, brings it into the 21st century, and makes it wonderfully useable for any reader. Dan convincingly shows that this is the way Paul preached. But the approach isn’t merely a strategy for evangelistic conversations (though it certainly is that). Dan shows it’s also a way for Christians to understand the world they live in and the cultural texts coming at them every day, so that they can live faithfully “in the world but not of it.”
Even more, Dan is calling for subversive fulfillment to pervade our approach to all our communicating—in public preaching and teaching, personal shepherding, instructing, and conversing. It means never simply beating on people from the outside, saying, “I am right and you are completely wrong.” Nor is it merely a way to show how up-to-date and relevant Christianity is. It involves both respecting and contradicting. It means challenging people, but showing them that their efforts fail on their own terms. And it means offering them, on gospel terms, what all human hearts need—a meaning that suffering can’t take away; a satisfaction not based on circumstances; a freedom that doesn’t destroy love and community; an identity that doesn’t elude you, crush you, or lead you to exclude others; a basis for justice that doesn’t turn you into a new oppressor; a relief from shame and guilt without resorting to relativism; and a hope that can enable you to face anything with poise, even death.
There really is nothing else like this book.
There are now plenty of books calling us to find new ways of connecting our gospel presentation to the needs and questions of people in a secular, pluralistic society. And there are plenty of other books calling for us to live faithfully in a post-Christian Western culture, neither simply withdrawing nor assimilating into it. But Plugged In actually tells and shows us how to do it. There really is nothing else like this book.
When you walk into a church or work your way through its website, you can usually find evidence of whether or not that church has a passion for reaching beyond their own neighborhood, their own city—even their own country—to make disciples among the nations. Surely this passion has to be ignited in a church by the teaching and preaching. And surely it can’t happen if an emphasis on missions is relegated to just a few people in the church or to a certain week of the year.
In this recording of Help Me Teach the Bible in front of a live audience at The Gospel Coalition 2019 National Conference, I asked David Platt—senior pastor-teacher at McLean Bible Church in Washington, D.C., and founder and president of Radical—to work his way from Genesis to Revelation and demonstrate how a teacher can ignite a passion for world mission from whatever part of the Bible they are teaching.Essentially, David presented a biblical theology of mission, so I used the opportunity to announce the Biblical Theology Workshops for Women that will be held in 15 cities around the country in fall 2019 and spring 2020. At these workshops, I’ll be training women to do essentially what David does in our conversation—work through every part of the Bible to trace a particular theme. Why is this skill important to biblical literacy? It helps us to connect various parts of the Bible so that we have a firmer grasp on its intended message. As we grow in our understanding of the major themes that run from Genesis to Revelation, and one of those themes arises in the text we are reading, we are better able to interpret it rightly in light of the larger theme. For Biblical Theology Workshop for Women cities and dates, go to NancyGuthrie.com.
- Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper
- God’s Love Compels Us: Taking the Gospel to the World edited by D. A. Carson and Kathleen Nielson
- Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged edited by John Piper and David Mathis
- A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance by Tim Keesee
After three decades in pastoral ministry, I can think of several reasons not to study the Bible its original languages.
First, I am not a language whiz. My skills in Hebrew and Greek are average at best.
Second, a good exegetical commentary will explain the grammatical and linguistic nuances of the passage I plan to preach this Sunday.
Third, I need more time to read theology. Reading Hannah Anderson, James K. A. Smith, and Rosaria Butterfield—as well as Augustine, Chrysostom, and Calvin—will help me cast a biblical-theological vision for living as exiles in our secular age.
Fourth, the biblical languages do not make my pursuit of holiness any easier. Sadly, I can disobey God’s Word in Hebrew and Greek as easily as in English.
All that said, though, I still read my Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament every day. And I think more pastors should do the same.Why Bother?
Why would I want to do this? Simply put, it’s an act of love. As Eugene Peterson observed, “Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what he says.” Of course, you can love God deeply and shepherd Christ’s flock effectively without knowing a lick of Hebrew or Greek. But if you give your life to preaching and teaching Scripture, why not make an effort to study it in its original languages?
John Piper exhorts pastors to ponder the thesis of Heinrich Bitzer:
The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.
By the way, I’ve still carved out time in recent weeks to read all of the authors I cited above. How, then, can you stay hitched to your Hebrew and Greek? Is it really possible if you are not a language nerd? Yes. Here are three recommendations.1. Spend 20 Minutes a Day
Here is the most important advice I can offer: Spend 10 minutes a day in your Hebrew Bible and 10 minutes a day in your Greek Testament. What J. Gresham Machen said about reading the Greek Testament applies to the Hebrew Bible as well: “Ten minutes a day is of vastly more value than 70 minutes once a week.”
Thankfully, this is easier than it sounds. Simply build one of the 10-minute slots into your sermon preparation and the other into your devotional time.
For sermon prep, apply your inductive Bible study skills to your reading of the text in Hebrew or Greek. If your language skills are weak, then choose a key verse or two rather than the entire passage. Study and re-read the text daily.
For your devotional time, select a book or section of Scripture, and read for 10 minutes. Use a reader’s edition or a Bible software program to help you with vocabulary and parsing. Give yourself a few seconds to identify a word or parse a form before you look at the answer. It’s fine if you only get through one verse a day—especially if it’s in Job or Hebrews!
And don’t let vacation stop you. Even when I’m fly fishing a remote stretch of river in Yellowstone National Park, I’ll take a break to sit by the river and read Hebrew and Greek on the Logos app in my phone.2. Beef Up Those Language Skills
Whatever your skill level, invest in a good intermediate grammar to review basic concepts and learn what’s changed in our understanding of the languages since you learned them in seminary.
For Hebrew, start with Gary Long’s Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew (Baker Academic, 2013). Then consider investing in A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar by Christo H. J. van der Merwe, Jacobus A. Naude, and Jan H. Kroeze (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). Both grammars pay attention to developments in linguistics.
For Greek, I recommend Intermediate Greek Grammar by David L. Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig (Baker Academic, 2016). The explanations are concise and linguistically sensible. This grammar also provides a helpful entry into verbal aspect theory—an approach that’s replacing what you learned about Greek verbs a couple decades ago.
If you’ve never learned Hebrew or Greek, it’s never too late to start. Find a good elementary grammar with video lectures. Ask an area pastor or Bible student to help you find the right one. Better yet, ask them to teach you.3. Find a Reading Partner
Two (or three) is better than one for staying consistent in reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Years ago, when I pastored a church in Montana, I met biweekly with a pastor-friend to read the Hebrew Bible. In five years, we read quite a few psalms and most of the book of Judges. Our times together provided structure, accountability, and stimulating discussion.Treasures Await
Recently I noticed a wordplay in Philippians 3 that even the best English translations don’t convey. When Paul says “I press on” to the goal of knowing God (3:12, 14), he uses the same Greek verb (diōkō) he used in 3:6 to speak of “persecuting” the church. What a stunning contrast! Paul says, in effect, that he now pursues the knowledge of God with the same intensity he once pursued the church to destroy it.
More treasures are waiting. So go find your Hebrew Bible. Dust off your Greek Testament. Take up and read! It is nothing less than an act of love for God and his Word.
Dominique McKay graduated from Liberty University as a journalism major in 2009. Her timing couldn’t have been worse. Newsroom jobs were disappearing; in nine years, they’d decline by 45 percent.
“When I left college, there were no jobs in journalism,” she said. “I ended up going back to school for a master’s in communication, mostly to wait out the job market and see what would be available when I got out later.”
Not much. After graduating with a master’s degree in communication from Liberty in 2012, McKay applied for 50 positions in and around Washington, D.C.—just a few hours from family. When nothing panned out, she thought about giving up.
“I planned to take a break and try again in the summer,” McKay said. “But then I thought, Oh, I’m just going to apply for one more. It was an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill.”
It wasn’t glamorous—the interns sort the mail, answer telephones, and process American flag requests from constituents. But McKay got the job.
Seven years later, she’s the press secretary to Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican senator in Washington, D.C. She also serves on the leadership board for the women of McLean Presbyterian Church. In both positions, she’s constantly giving the same reminder: You aren’t here for you. You’re here for Jesus.
TGC asked McKay about her work on the Hill, the pressures she feels as a Christian, and how her church ministers to ambitious women.How did you move from intern to press secretary for the senate majority whip?
I followed my first internship on the Hill with one at a D.C. newspaper called Roll Call, but my first week I got offered a job as a staff assistant for [Republican] Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Accepting the job was a difficult decision because I loved journalism, but I needed a full-time job and it was a great opportunity, so I took it.
While working there, I was promoted to doing more writing—mostly letters to constituents. I wrote about health care, education, and labor issues, and I met regularly with advocates for those issue areas. I became an expert on those topics for the senator. Because of that, when I left after three years to work for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, it was an easy transition.
Press secretary Dominique McKay / Photo by Adam Scheidler
I was deputy press secretary for the House Committee and enjoyed the work I did there. One of my career highlights was working with the team that helped put together and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 (legislation that modified No Child Left Behind, moving more responsibility to the states). When giving career advice to other staffers on the Hill, I always recommend they try and get a job working for a committee, because committee work is the bulk of what Congress does, and it is so rewarding.
A couple of years later, I left to work for Senator Thune, my current boss. I started with his team working for what’s called the Senate Republican Conference—it’s essentially like a PR office for Republican communicators in the Senate. I served as Senator Thune’s press secretary, helping Republican senators and their staffers message on whatever the legislative agenda was at any point in time. It was a great opportunity and a great honor to work there.
Then recently Senator Thune moved into a new leadership position. In January, he became the Senate’s majority whip. I transitioned with him into the Capitol to continue serving as his national press secretary.What do you do all day?
Usually my day starts with sending out alerts to the press about what will happen on the Senate floor that day. I also respond to press inquiries, assist the senator with various events and meetings, pitch television appearances, and prepare memos and other messaging materials for him.
Our communications team also still advises other Republican communicators. They’ll ask, “What is your boss saying about this?” or “How should we talk about that?” and we give them guidance.
We do a lot of media monitoring. We’re always watching the news and always reading Twitter. The great thing about Twitter is you can get a lot of information quickly, and you can get your messages out quickly. We also track what’s going on among members, so we always have a window into where Republicans stand on different issues and what the media is saying about them.
It’s interesting—there’s never a dull day. It can be stressful, but I think how you handle the stress all depends on your perspective.So what’s your perspective?
When you grow up in a Christian home and come out of a Christian college, you have to decide at some point whether or not you’re going to be public with your faith as an adult. As I went along pursuing my career path, I chose to be a Christian publicly.
It’s a little easier to talk about faith when you’re in more politically conservative circles, because while they may not be Christians, they are familiar with many of the aspects of the Christian faith. But even then, it becomes more challenging as you get older, because people start to distance themselves from their childhood faith or the faith of their parents. That’s when—regardless of their backgrounds—people often grow more hostile to the faith.
You have to decide at some point whether or not you’re going to be public with your faith as an adult.
For me, if anything, I’m more of a devoted Christian than I was when I was younger. In a sense, God prepared me as I went along to be able to remain in the faith and remain at the same level of intensity in talking about the faith. God’s faithfulness to me in that regard continues to shape my day-to-day life and helps sustain me in my current career.How does your faith affect your work?
There are a lot of challenges working on the Hill. We experience conflict and the national spotlight pretty much every day. But my primary focus is the relationships I have with coworkers, reporters, and other communicators.
McKay / Photo by Arlyne VanHook
Most people who work in this field are here because of their ambition. Across the board, whether Democrats or Republicans—they’re ambitious.
A large number of people come to D.C. to make a positive difference, but they get here because of that ambitious spirit. That kind of ambition can lead people to do things they shouldn’t be doing. A lot of people aren’t able to see right from wrong when their sole mission is to succeed. One of the things I bring to the environment is the fact that, as a Christian, it is not my mission to succeed or advance. It’s my mission to be faithful. That’s pretty rare.
Obviously, no one is saying, “Well, I’m here just for myself.” But when you start to ask people probing questions, I think a lot of them start to realize that underneath it all, they are here pursuing a bit of selfish ambition. And when you start to challenge them about that, they start to think, I could have a life that’s not just about me. You can begin to change their perspectives.
The truth is, to be driven is not a bad thing. Many cities attract people who are this way. The fact that people would step out of their communities and do something—such as come to the city on their own—is actually a great thing. They’re thinking differently, thinking outside the box—those are natural leaders.
It is not my mission to succeed or advance. It’s my mission to be faithful.
But you have to have Christ in that. A major way Christians can be influential on the Hill is really taking down some of those smokescreens—revealing things in people that they didn’t know were there.
To be able to influence natural-born leaders and shift their goals, their perspectives, their ultimate mission, is really a good thing. People in D.C. are different, but I don’t see it as a negative. Their ambition is something that can be channeled for good.How does God care about politics?
We’re here on earth to make things better—as best we can. That includes all realms of industries and vocations. Politics isn’t excluded. Some Christians don’t feel the need to get involved in politics, and I think it’s because here in America there are a lot of Christians who have comfortable lives and don’t experience any type of systemic suffering. They don’t see why there is a need for Christians to be active in changing society or making it better. They’re the type of Christians who have fallen in love with this world and their lives here. There is a need to provoke those kinds of Christians into seeing, “Oh, we’re here on mission, not just to live a comfortable life and build homes and families.”
It’s because of the retreat of people of faith from the political realm that we lack moral leadership. Your government is a result and a reflection of the people in your society. If you want it to be different, you have to be involved.
Other Christians don’t want to get involved in politics because they don’t see a moral party or a group that is really doing the right thing. They say, “Everyone is corrupt. I don’t want to get involved.” But it’s because of the retreat of people of faith from the political realm that we lack moral leadership. Your government is a result and a reflection of the people in your society. If you want it to be different, you have to be involved.Is it hard to keep a moral center?
That is a challenge. As with any field, it becomes more of a challenge the higher up you move. As the stakes get higher, you feel an intense amount of pressure to do the wrong thing to stay in power or keep advancing.
McKay and and a bipartisan group of Capitol Hill staffers volunteered as escorts for President Obama’s 2013 inauguration. / Photo by Arlyne VanHook
When I first started on the Hill, I was not aware of that kind of intensity and that type of experience. I didn’t understand when people would talk about this. But as you advance there is a lot of pressure to just go along with whatever is happening or to look the other way. For some people it’s internal pressure, and for others it’s external. Sometimes it’s both.
For me, one of the things that helps is that my whole life I was a military kid and a minority, so I was always slightly on the outside. As you’re growing up, that’s not fun or cool. That’s uncomfortable. But now that I’m in leadership roles, the pressure is on and intense and real. I realize that being slightly on the outside is where I always belonged. God prepared me to not need to be on the inside or have everyone like me. I don’t have to go along so I can remain on the inside. Realizing that gives me more confidence to be faithful, even if that means remaining slightly on the outside.
I realize as time goes on how intricately God uses every aspect of your life to prepare you for the exact thing you’re going to be doing.Tell me about your church.
One of our main focuses at McLean Presbyterian Church is Bible education—educating ourselves about faith so we’re prepared to use it in our communities and in the workplace.
I work with the women’s ministry at the church. Our women here are from all walks of life and very educated—many of them either have or had high-profile, intense-pressure jobs. Even for those who have retired or are staying at home with kids, many still experience that same restlessness and ambitious energy to always be moving forward. It’s a unique community.
We’re doing a couple of things to minister to those needs. One, we talk a lot about how your work ethic can be used in your faith life. Two, we’re beginning to focus more on mission ministries to people in our communities, specifically women who maybe are single moms or struggling financially. Not only is it a ministry to people in our community but also to our church, because it helps demonstrate to our women the importance of being others-focused.
I try to press upon the community that we are here on mission for Christ. So regardless of what stage of life you’re in, that is still the focus. A lot of it is helping them to find contentment in where they are: Look at your stage of life and put your whole heart into ministering to your community in that stage. People can always be looking to future—“What else is out there? What’s next?” Well, actually, this is where you’re supposed to be. Put 100 percent into the life you have now.
Today’s Western culture has unique temptations created by the abundance of consumer goods available to nearly everyone. We’re bombarded by temptation to pursue material wealth and career success as an end in itself, or at least as a means to get the stuff that makes people in the ads seem so happy. The consistent message of the world is that happiness is found in more, better, and newer experiences and goods that are just around the corner if we work a little harder.
Many Christians need to extricate themselves from this kind of thinking.
But they also need an alternative vision to the one offered by the world. What we run to when we flee temptation is just as important as what we’re fleeing from. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:22: “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” In other words, get away from temptation, but chase after biblical virtue. The faithful Christian life is a call to move away from materialism and greed toward a life of joyous contentment in Christ.
In two new books we see contrasting approaches to finding contentment.Power of Christian Contentment
In Andrew Davis’s book The Power of Christian Contentment: Finding Deeper, Richer Christ-Centered Joy [read an excerpt], he offers a positive vision of pursuing joy in Christ. The Power of Christian Contentment offers a biblical theology of contentment. It uses Puritan sources, discussed in contemporary terms, to argue for pursuing Christ-centered joy in this life. Davis builds on the classic book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs, to help today’s Christians find the satisfaction Burroughs preached four centuries ago.
For Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church Durham and TGC Council member, contentment isn’t found mainly in rejecting lesser goods, but in becoming disciplined to pursue the greater good found in the gospel. What’s left behind is forgotten in pursuit of a far more valuable prize.
The Power of Christian Contentment explores the issue in four sections. First, Davis outlines the nature of contentment, relying on the teaching of Burroughs and the apostle Paul. It becomes clear why true contentment is so desirable. Second, Davis outlines practical steps to pursue contentment. Here we get a more precise definition, a discussion of God’s providence, a highly practical section on moving toward the habit of contentment, and an explanation of how Christ’s life and work point us toward contentment. Third, Davis deepens his explanation of the value of contentment. He expounds on finding satisfaction in Christ in various circumstances, as well as dealing with the problem of a complaining heart. Fourth, Davis outlines the importance of preserving contentment. There remains no question that complacency and Christian contentment are distinct and that practical steps are necessary to protect our joy in Christ.
Much like Davis’s earlier volume, An Infinite Journey [interview], this book provides both a theoretical framework and also practical techniques for pursuing Christlikeness. Davis explains why the pursuit of material comforts and worldly success will fail, but the bulk of his efforts point us toward a well-defined form for the Christian life.Less Is More
In his recent book, Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough, Chris Nye urges readers to avoid material temptations and recognize their emptiness. Nye—a pastor, writer, and teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area—critiques the perpetual striving of his neighbors in Silicon Valley, who are swamped in misery while they pursue goals that will not satisfy. Nye’s book is applicable beyond his local geography, but it will prove most striking to urban careerists who’ve begun to realize that their latest pay raise won’t deliver happiness.
Less of More is divided into three sections. In the first, Nye shows us why we should be dissatisfied with material affluence. The culturally accepted goals of health, wealth, and happiness, which are essential to capitalism, are causing widespread misery. In the second, he works through attributes of our culture that are unholy and unhealthy—like isolation, a lack of rest, concern for fame, and a lack of generosity. Nye’s analysis is overwhelmingly negative, and he sees few possibilities for gospel joy in our harried culture. The third section offers help for living in such a bleak reality. Nye’s message is largely ascetic, requiring self-denial as the main means to achieve his proposed virtues. There is call to gospel renunciation of worldly goals, but little clear guidance on alternative goals to adopt—other than to lay hold of abstract virtues like generosity, pace, connection, and obscurity.
The faithful Christian life is a call to move away from materialism and greed and toward a life of joyous contentment in Christ.
Nye rightly criticizes much of the materialism in our culture. However, Less of More offers little concrete guidance on how to achieve the abstract goods, how they better embody the gospel, and in what ways pursuing these alternatives advances the mission of God. In short, the book offers critique with little in the way of solutions.Pursue Contentment in Christ
Both volumes are well written and interesting reading. Nye’s book may shock a contented careerist out of his materialist focus or help diagnose the malaise of the miserable commuter. Davis’s book is spiritually profitable because it directs the reader toward Christian contentment.
Paul urged Timothy toward satisfaction in his material condition: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). In that particular context, Paul was urging Timothy not to pervert his doctrine to bring in more money. If bringing glory to Christ is our main goal, then there is no sacrifice too great for us to make and no comfort so tempting it can draw us away. We must pursue contentment in Christ, not in the metrics of this world.
Chris Nye. Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019. 192 pp. $14.99.
Andrew M. Davis. The Power of Christian Contentment: Finding Deeper, Richer Christ-Centered Joy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019. 224 pp. $15.99.
Alyssa and Hannah (not their real names) moved to a new city at the same time. Each was lonely and longed to build relationships with other women. Hannah, a single missionary, had just returned to the United States after five years overseas. When they met at church, both felt an immediate emotional connection. They got together over coffee a few days later, began talking on the phone a few times a week, and soon were texting daily. The friendship quickly became exclusive and intense.
Alyssa’s husband, Michael, felt threatened by Alyssa’s relationship with Hannah. She was quick to defend the time they spent together and described Hannah as the most nurturing person she’d ever met. “Why can’t you understand that I need female friends?” she’d say angrily.
Some of Hannah’s ministry colleagues became concerned with the amount of time she invested in Alyssa. When Hannah’s staff heard her express anger over not being able to see Alyssa one weekend, they confronted her. Michael did the same with his wife. Both women were defensive, refusing to reduce the amount of time they spent together.Co-Dependency Is Idolatry
Christ-centered friendships come in all shapes and sizes. No two friendships share the same level of closeness or walk through the mountains and valleys of life in exactly the same way. God generously gives us friends to share our unique lives through serving, bearing burdens, and knowing each other.
When selfish ambition hijacks the relationship, however, friendships can develop unhealthy emotional attachments. Sometimes these relationships even cross physical boundaries as the intoxication of emotional intimacy leads women to believe: This is just the way we express our deep love for each other as friends.
But when we look to a friend—rather than God—for our value, identity, and security, we commit idolatry.Diagnosing a Co-Dependent Relationship
As I’ve written before, there are a few indicators of an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship:
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres that mimic the life-sharing of marriage.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders.
- Regular clarification of each person’s role. Often, one woman has a needy, take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed, caregiver role. When one person steps out of her role, she triggers insecurity and jealousy for both parties.
- Constant connection. Texts, emails, calls, and time spent together grow and intensify to become life-dominating.
- Romanticized words and touch that can lead to sexual involvement.
When these co-dependent relational dynamics occur in Christian friendships and mentoring relationships, any good fruit adds confusion. Like Alyssa and Hannah, we may be tempted to counter people’s concerns with, “How can our relationship be wrong when we pray together and talk about the Bible? What’s idolatrous about serving God together?!” But as with any other sinful choice by Christians, idolatry can exist alongside positive, spiritual fruit.Steps of Repentance
If a person has subtly become a God-replacement to you and your relationship has become co-dependent, here are three steps of faith and repentance to take.1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus.
Fleeing to Jesus means you’ll need to create space between you and the other person—at least for a season. Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but it’s one that leads to true life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Even when co-dependency exists in a mother-daughter relationship, you may need to have difficult conversations establishing boundaries for time spent together and involvement in each other’s daily life.
First Corinthians 10:14 says to flee sin, not try to manage or heal it. Put it to death, run away, and make a relational 180. Stop social media stalking. Delete old texts and emails that tempt you to muse on this woman in unhelpful ways.
And if you’ve been sexually involved, you must end the relationship and entrust potential restoration to the Lord. This step may seem drastic and even unloving, but emotional bonds that form through sexual intimacy necessitate a Matthew 18:8 kind of faith-step. Trust Christ to bless your costly obedience, not only for your good but for the other woman’s too.
The good news is that Christ is faithful to forgive all who come to him (Heb. 4:16), and gospel obedience always leads to new life as we put to death anything that threatens to crowd out God in our hearts: “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the LORD” (Jer. 30:17).2. Expect a season of pain and grief.
Letting go will be excruciating, but the pain that comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to cut and heal the deeper issues of your heart such as unbelief, insecurity, and anger.3. Pursue biblical discipleship.
- Cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ. Jesus is able to meet you in this season of pain, loss, and confusion. He won’t leave you on your own to make it better. He longs for you to draw near to him (John 14:18). Pursue a daily habit of prayer and Bible-reading and a weekly habit of gathering with God’s people in worship.
- Address the underlying heart issues. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Consider: What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What’s off-kilter in your beliefs about what friendship should look like?
- Pursue God’s design for healthy relationships. What does it mean to embody the kind of love described in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 13? How can you grow in delighting in people, rather than clinging to them? How can you celebrate deep friendships without depending on them to feel good about life? Check out TGC’s Christian Living section for helpful resources to guide you.
Your Savior is also your faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom you eternally belong. He will love you, help you, and comfort you while you live during this short earthly time.
Run to him, and find in him the One who longs to fill your heart with his joy.
Dear Pastor Jeff,
I have now logged a little more than five years in pastoral ministry, yet a burning question has confronted my mind of late and has thrown a chill on my desire to persevere: Am I really called to serve in the office of pastor after all? Is this really the kind of service for which the Lord has suited me? Might it not be better for me to serve in another corner of the Lord’s vineyard? I have advanced degrees in theology. Perhaps the church would be better served by my leaving and pursuing a position in Christian academia.
Why would I ask such potentially life-altering questions? Because evidence seems to be mounting that perhaps I have misunderstood God’s will. Each Lord’s Day, the people seem disconnected from my preaching. Some fall asleep. All look bored. There’ve been no converts lately. I’ve heard comments such as “You sound more like a lecturer than a preacher.” That hurts. But is it telling? Am I called to serve as a professor instead of a pastor? Maybe. Am I called to some other form of ministry? A writer or editor? It’s possible to serve the local church well in that capacity. I just don’t know.
You may say, “Well, perhaps you simply need to grow as a preacher,” but they just don’t seem to be following me. A wise man once told me, “If you are trying to lead and nobody is following, then you are just going for a walk.” Maybe that’s the case for me. This just doesn’t feel like success.
Have I confused a passion for the Bible, theology, and the things of God with a call to pastoral ministry? Am I merely being tempted by my flesh or the devil to flee on the next sailing vessel for Tarshish? Maybe I’m just tired of the war here and want to find peacetime there? Have you ever questioned your own calling?
Dazed and Confused
Dear Dazed and Confused,
I know all about this. The first church I pastored left me bruised and battered. Some of the people and more than one elder—out of motives they hid from me in plain sight—tried to convince me that I was no pastor. I heard numerous explanations as to my identity: I was really a seminary professor. I might be a good staff member. Maybe I should try military chaplaincy. Alluding to my preministry vocation, one even suggested that, as pastors go, I was probably a pretty good journalist.
Despite all the flak, that gnawing in my gut to serve God’s people flew on. That fire shut up in my bones simply wouldn’t abate, and I think it was the Holy Spirit. The desire to do the work of a pastor haunted me, keeping me awake night after sleepless night. As Charles Spurgeon advised his students, that itself may be the first subjective sign of a genuine, irrevocable call to the pastorate.
Was I tempted toward bitterness? Yes, strongly. Despair? Time after time. But God kept me from that.
Today, I am privileged to pastor another church under more peaceful circumstances. The Lord has been merciful to me and my family. I’m grateful I didn’t follow through with my plans to return to the newspaper business—newspapers aren’t exactly flourishing these days anyway. When it comes to calling, there are objective aspects, as when the local church confirms your gifts and calling externally, and there are subjective aspects, as when you sense the call of God inwardly. Both are important.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned about calling from my years in ministry. Granted, these lean toward the subjective side and are by no means absolute, but they’ve helped me wrestle with the issue.1. If you suffer seasons of affliction and still want to pastor, you’re probably called.
Affliction will either confirm your ministry or destroy it. I once met with a young man who harbored uncertainty about his calling. It didn’t take me long to discover that his doubts were rooted in a minor methodological disagreement with the pastor with whom he served. This disagreement had plunged him into deep anxiety and doubt. He saw it as suffering. I saw it differently.
After talking to me and a couple of other ministry friends, we all agreed that if such a relatively trifling matter made him want to quit ministry, perhaps he should reconsider his calling. Today, he is happy working outside the church, leading his family well in the Lord, and serving as a deacon in his congregation. Every vocation comes with its difficulties. If it’s the difficulties that are scaring you away, then perhaps you’ve misunderstood the nature of gospel ministry.2. If the church has confirmed your gifts, and your ministry has borne at least some fruit, you’re probably called.
You’ve seen tangible fruit from your labors—souls have been saved, believers have grown, young men have been raised up for ministry. But you’ve been knocked off the horse, and you’re sore. Perhaps consider taking some time for healing, and then get back on the horse. After my painful foray into pastoral ministry, I took about 18 months before entering the pastorate again. My desires for preaching God’s Word and shepherding never waned, and I spent significant time in prayerful meditation pondering lessons I might learn from my previous pastorate that would benefit those I would lead in the future. This book is actually one of the fruits from that time.3. You might be called away from the pastorate for a season into another form of service, only to return in the future.
I had a friend recently step away from pastoral ministry and go to Africa to help plant a church over the next two years. Another brother took a teaching job at a seminary and fell back from the lead elder to a lay elder position in his church. Both hope to continue as a pastor in the future—either alongside their present calling or as a return to the local church as a full-time vocation.
David Platt left the Church at Brook Hills after many years as its pastor to lead the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board for a season and then returned to pastoral ministry. After a few years, he has returned as lead pastor of a church in Virginia. God may use your gifts in a wide variety of ways. I’ve been an editor and adjunct professor between and during pastoral gigs. God won’t waste any of the gifts he’s given you.4. Success in ministry—as defined by the world—is no certain sign of a call to ministry.
Remember, false teachers build churches that number in the thousands, while thousands of faithful pastors lead congregations with membership rolls in double digits—or less. The “super apostles” of 2 Corinthians had no small following, yet Paul rightly dismissed them as charlatans. Healthy gospel fruit is not the same thing as bloated attendance figures and multimillion-dollar budgets, though those things don’t always indicate compromise either.5. If you’re called, the calling likely remains unless you’re morally disqualified.
If you meet the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and seek the humility that Peter expects to typify church leaders in 1 Peter 5:1–6, then it may be the Lord’s will that you press on in ministry, even though the fruit you see may not be ripening fast. Moses did. Jeremiah did. Paul did.
Spurgeon is helpful here. The Prince of Preachers told students in his pastor’s school that the first sign of the “heavenly calling” is “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” Indeed. Paul seems to concur in his counsel to Timothy, a young pastor whom he was mentoring. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul famously exhorts Timothy to keep a close eye on his life and doctrine. But first, he tells Timothy not to neglect the gift that the council of elders set him apart to deploy, telling him to “practice these things” and “immerse [himself] in them” (1 Tim. 4:15).6. If you’re married, ask your wife.
I know, I hear your objection: this undermines complementarianism. No, this is complementarianism at its best. When things went sour in my first pastorate, my wife continued to encourage me to press on. She even exhorted me with strong words when I fell into the slough of self-pity. She reminded me that what had happened there had nothing to do with my calling and everything to do with God’s goodness and mercy in sanctifying me in his laboratory of affliction—a truth she had heard me preach dozens of times.
God broke me, but he made Lisa strong. She knows me best, knows my heart, knows my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m good at, what I’m not. If not for her steady encouragement, I probably would not be a pastor today. I’m glad God gave me a godly, wise wife who’s not afraid to tell me what I need to hear. I’m thankful he broke through my stubbornness and gave me ears to hear her loving (and sometimes firm) admonitions. Ask your wife if she thinks you’re called, and then listen to her.It’s Not about You
I’m not a big fan of “life verses.” Too often, they are based on a shallow reading of Scripture that fails to interpret said verse in light of its context. But shortly after I surrendered to the call to ministry in 1997, my study of Acts 20 riveted my gaze on a single verse. It’s about as close to a perfect pastoral mission statement as you’re ever going to read. Since it’s the Word of God, it doesn’t apply merely to me but is a summary of the calling of every servant of Jesus:
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)
Perhaps you’re reconsidering whether all that stress and strain is really worth it. Maybe they have unmasked you as a ministerial fraud. But when you surrendered to ministry (and really when you became a Christian), you signed over the title deed of your life to Jesus. Don’t give up easily, because it’s not about you. Your assignment is not to build yourself a respectable middle-class life but to finish the course and the ministry given you by divine providence. Count your afflictions as joy (James 1:2), and give your life to testifying to the glorious gospel of God.