“To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” said the parents of John T. Earnest. “Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold.”
Earnest is the 19-year-old man charged with opening fire at a San Diego-area synagogue on Saturday, the last day of Passover, killing one woman and injuring three others. According to news reports, a person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an anti-Semitic open letter suggesting he had planned Saturday’s shooting and referenced the murderous attacks on mosques in New Zealand last month and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October.
Earnest attended services at the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where his father is an elder. On Sunday the pastor called the crime “unspeakable in so many ways” and said, “We are surprised and we are shocked.”
From reading the young man’s “manifesto” it’s clear that neither his church nor his parents are to blame. In the FAQ portion of his letter he asks, “Did your family cause you to think this way?” and answers, “Unfortunately, no. I had to learn what they should have taught me from the beginning.” Earnest seems to have been largely shaped by the same online culture as the terrorist-troll that targeted the mosques in New Zealand. Yet he also quotes Scripture and lists his influences as “Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Adolf Hitler, [two white nationalist terrorists . . .”
What distinguishes Earnest from the other white nationalist murderers is that he seems to have been influenced by the racialist heresy known as kinism.Kinism Comes to a Pew Near You
Several years ago a friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, asked me to speak to his congregation about cultural issues. During the discussion, an older couple asked me a question about separation of ethnic groups, specifically white Americans from blacks and Jews. I told them I must have misunderstood their question, because what they were talking about could be mistaken for promoting a view called kinism. The wife replied, “And what’s wrong with kinism?”*
To explain what’s wrong with kinism we first need to understand what the term means. Defining the term is difficult, because it is applied to a broad range of ideas centered on a white separatist interpretation of Christianity. The anti-kinist theonomist John Reasnor says:
At its core, kinism is the belief that God specially ordained “races” and that he intends for us to preserve that division to one degree or another. Kinism believes that God ethically and specially ordained the nations and “races.” In short, kinism is a doctrinal conviction of anti-miscegenation. All positions commonly held by kinists flow from this key kinist doctrine.
The term “kinism,” as a self-applied label, appears to have arisen around 2004 to be a “third way” for Christians between racism and anti-racism. Several kinist websites sprung up in the mid-2000s, and their ideas spread quite rapidly as they engaged and fought with Reformed bloggers.
The term—which comes from the word “kin,” such as “kith and kin”—may be of relatively recent vintage, but the beliefs and principles of kinism are ancient. As one kinist website claims, “The same continuum of concept has alternately been called familism, tribal theocracy, theonomic nationalism, or simply, traditional Christianity.” Kinists are obsessed with preserving the “European race” and their twisted form of Calvinism against those who would threaten it—usually African Americans or Jews.
Ten years ago kinism was espoused by pseudonymous bloggers and relegated to the dark corners of the Internet. Today, some who claim to be Bible-believing Christians openly express kinist views in churches. Few of them would murder those of other races or even go so far as Earnest does in claiming,
The Jew has forced our hand, and our response is completely justified. My God does not take kindly to the destruction of His creation. Especially one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and innovative races that He has created. Least of all at the hands of one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt. My God understands why I did what I did.
Kinism in some form has been a problem within Reformed circles, particularly in Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist churches, since the Civil War. Even as our movement has denounced racism we’ve always seemed to attract racialists—from neo-Confederates to Reconstructionists**—who want to apply an intellectual veneer to their heretical views. But we’re seeing a resurgence in kinist ideology, and it’s far more prevalent than many of us want to admit.Jargon of the Racists
Over the past decade online culture and political tribalism have combined to bring ideas once relegated to the margins into the mainstream. We can add the tendency of politicized terms to be used in ways that have one or more connotations for a non-tribalized audience and quite another for those committed to tribalism.
A prime example is the term “cultural Marxism,” which is included in Earnest’s grievances for which “every Jew is responsible.” The term originally referred to the idea that since the Marxist concept of “class consciousness” was not merely an economic phenomenon but was also expressed in cultural forms (books, traditions, institutions, and so on), the production of culture as it relates to power must also be analyzed. However, that is rarely, if ever, how the term is used today by those on the political right. (The term was rarely if ever used before 1977).
In the 1980s, the term was adapted and redefined by William S. Lind to mean “multiculturalism or, less formally, Political Correctness.” Lind developed a conspiracy theory that claims Marxist intellectuals (almost all Jews) at the Frankfurt School developed a “deliberate agenda” to “steal our culture and leave a new and very different one in its place.” Lind also wrote a novel in 2014, Victoria, in which the main character explains cultural Marxism to a professor who supposedly promotes the theory:
“Like economic Marxism, your cultural Marxism said that all history was determined by a single factor. Classical Marxism argued that factor was ownership of the means of production. You said that it was which groups—defined by sex, race, and sexual normality or abnormality—had power over which other groups.”
“Classical Marxism defined the working class as virtuous and the bourgeoisie as evil—without regard to what members of either class did. You defined blacks, Hispanics, feminist women, and homosexuals as good, and white men as evil—all, again, with no attention to anyone’s behavior.”
“Classical Marxists, where they obtained power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and gave their property to the state, as the ‘representative of the workers and peasants.’ Where you obtained power, you expropriated the rights of white men and gave special privileges to feminists, blacks, gays, and the like—Marcuse’s revolutionary class.”
Lind may not consider himself a kinist, but the idea is embedded in his use of cultural Marxism. Like many others that have used the term over the years, Lind is just as obsessed with identity politics as the people he’s criticizing. The only difference is he’s worried it’s his own ethnicity that might lose power.
When those on the political right use terms like “Frankfurt School” or equate cultural Marxism with multiculturalism, they are—whether the recognize it or not—using the redefinition and racialized meaning given by Lind.*** Of course most Christians who uses terms like cultural Marxism are not kinist. Many of them are merely repeating a term they heard used by fellow Christians and are unaware of the anti-Semitic and racialist origin. Yet it’s disconcerting when conservative Christians use language that originated from a racist worldview perpetuated by anti-Semites.****
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about ideas, such as intersectionality, that may undermine our country’s moral order. But we need to warn about such dangers in a way that does not make us sound like we subscribe to an alt-right ethno-nationalist worldview. When pastors and other Christian leaders repeat the jargon coined by racists, we shouldn’t be surprised that kinists think their heresy will be welcome in our churches.
* On hearing about this exchange, the pastor confronted the couple and told them they’d be subject to church discipline if they did not renounce their racist views. Not surprisingly, they left congregation. I wish more pastors had the courage of my Presbyterian friend.
** To understand the connection between kinism and theonomy, see Rushdoony on “Hybridization”: From Genetic Separation to Racial Separation.
*** The men from the Frankfurt School are responsible for a range of destructive ideas, such as Critical Theory. And while they were influenced by Marx, they were just as influenced by other thinkers such as Freud (of course cultural Freudianism just doesn’t have the same scare value as cultural Marxism). There is no evidence they conspired for the purpose of “negating” Western culture, as Lind claims. Lind’s theory attracted the attention of antisemites because it fits their preconceptions that Jews conspired to ruin white culture.
**** Ironically, the same people who would decry the implied guilt-by-association are the ones that use guilt-by-association in claiming anyone who uses the term “social justice” is a cultural Marxist. They also tend to be the type of people who say we should look to the Koine Greek to understand Christian terms, and yet discount the problematic etymology of political and cultural terms that have racist origins.
Christians believe in transformation. After all, we are transformed people.
Individually, when one is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, Paul says that “the old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s a radical transformation if there ever was one. But we’re also transformed corporately: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
And as the “earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14), the effect of these transformed lives on our local communities will have the salt-like effect Jesus expects them to have (cf. Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:9–12). So it’s every church planter’s dream that they move into an area and grow a church that has a transformative effect on both the lives and also the culture in a given area.
It’s every church planter’s dream to move into an area and grow a church that has a transformative effect on both the lives and also the culture in a given area.
But what does achieving that goal actually entail? Plenty of churches put “transforming the city/culture” in their vision. But I fear there’s a lack of clarity both in terms of what that involves and also how it should be achieved, and such confusion can easily lead a new church plant off-course.
To provide some clarity, I think we need to start with the age-old question of the mission of the church. Should the church see “transforming the culture” as her mission? At the risk of sounding like the class pedant, it depends what we mean by “church” and what we mean by “transform.”What Do You Mean by ‘Church’?
When it comes to the church and her calling in the world, there’s an important distinction to draw between what Jonathan Leeman calls the church’s “narrow mission” and its “broad mission.” He argues that God “authorizes a church-as-organized-collective one way and a church-as-its-members another way” (40).
The church’s “narrow” mission is to make disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom, while her “broad” mission is to be disciples and citizens of his kingdom. This means the church functions in different ways depending on the context. When she is gathered under her leaders and Christ is especially present with his bride (Matt. 18:20), the church’s mission is to preach God’s Word, administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and bind and loose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven (i.e., meaningful membership and discipline).
As Leeman notes, the church’s ‘narrow’ mission is to make disciples, while her ‘broad’ mission is to be disciples.
When scattered in the world, the church’s mission is to live out her distinctive calling as individual disciples, in whichever sphere of life the Lord has ordained. This distinction helps us know our role, because as Leeman points out: “When someone asks me, ‘What is the mission of the church?’ or ‘Is caring for creation church work?’ or ‘Does the church’s work center on words or both words and deeds? . . . [or, I would add, ‘Is the church’s mission to transform the community?’], I need to know whether the questioner means the church as corporate actor or the church as individual members.” (42)
The “church as individual members” must seek to love their neighbor through the service of others, according to their responsibilities. But the “church as corporate actor” is not bound in the same way. She might choose to allocate budget or hire staff to that end, but she isn’t required to do so.
The life of William Wilberforce illustrates well how this distinction works in practice. The transformative cultural effect of Wilberforce’s life and ministry was significant, but his work to abolish the slave trade wasn’t the work of the “church as corporate actor.” It was the work of a Christian in public life who—through his love for God and neighbor—pursued his ministry all the while being dependent on and formed by the local church’s narrower mission.
It’s famously said that when Wilberforce asked John Newton whether he should become a minister, Newton encouraged him to pursue politics instead. This point could be illustrated in millions of examples throughout history, and it highlights the kind of transformation we should hope and pray for in our different spheres of responsibility or influence.Stay in Your Lane
God has established three basic governments in the world. The first is the family, with responsibility for health, education, and welfare (Eph. 5–6). The second is the civil magistrate, with responsibility for justice (1 Pet. 2:14). The third is the church (as “corporate actor”) with responsibility to minister God’s grace and peace (Matt. 28:18–20). Each has an assigned role, and therefore each should “stay in their lane.”
What I mean is, the family does not administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper. The state does not opine on church discipline. And the church does not declare war. So we want churches to be present at the heart of our communities, but they don’t take responsibility for every aspect of community life. The church teaches how our individual work should be done—honestly, diligently, before the Lord—but it doesn’t do that work itself.
When it comes to the church’s role in ‘transforming’ community or culture, we should see that this happens in the weekly rhythms of the gathering and scattering of church members.
When it comes to the church’s role in “transforming” community or culture, we should see that this happens in the weekly rhythms of the gathering and scattering of church members—coming together each Lord’s Day to be transformed by participating in Word and sacrament, then scattering to labor faithfully and prayerfully in whatever sphere God has deployed them. As in the case of Wilberforce and others like him, the “church as corporate actor” is the engine of personal transformation that drives any culture-transforming efforts of the “church as scattered individuals.”Only God Transforms
This is the simple, sovereignly ordained rhythm of the Christian life. Thus the posture of the local church should be one of faithful patience.
This posture is incredibly hard in a culture of instant-everything—especially for the activist personalities you usually find in church planters. But God is the one who brings transformation, and we are the ones receiving—in his time, on his terms—a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28).
We should be willing to learn principles of redemptive interpretation that the New Testament writers employed and exemplified. From these principles we learn that the more common approach to understanding the redemptive nature of all biblical texts is to identify how God’s Word predicts, prepares for, reflects, or results from the person and/or work of Christ.
These four categories of gospel explanation aren’t meant to be exhaustive or kept rigidly separate, but they do help us explain how all of Scripture bears witness to who Christ is and/or what he must do.1. Some passages—such as the prophecies and the messianic Psalms—clearly predict who Christ is and what he will do.
Isaiah wrote of the Messiah, that “his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:6–7). This is a clear prediction of Jesus’s person and work, and there are many more such predictions in the prophetic portions of Scripture.2. Other passages prepare God’s people to understand the grace God must provide to redeem them.
When David shows mercy to King Saul’s lame grandson (a royal descendant who would be David’s blood-rival for Israel’s throne), we understand something about God’s way of forgiving enemies and showing mercy toward the helpless.
Grace doesn’t spring up like a surprise jack-in-the-box in the New Testament. God’s people were prepared for millennia to understand and receive the grace of Christ.
Not only do many Old Testament passages prepare God’s people to understand the grace of his provision, they also prepare the people to understand their need. When Paul writes in Galatians 3:24 that the law was our schoolmaster or guardian helping lead us to Christ, we understand that the high and holy standards of the law ultimately prepare us to seek God’s provision of mercy rather than to depend on the quality of our performance to make us acceptable to him. The sacrifice system further prepares us to understand that without the shedding of blood there is no atonement for our failures to keep the law (Heb. 9:22). And because Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness, we’re prepared to understand that our standing before God depends on trusting the provision of another (Rom. 4:23–24).
Grace doesn’t spring up like a surprise jack-in-the-box in the New Testament. God’s people were prepared for millennia to understand and receive the grace of Christ.3. Because grace is the key to understanding God’s purposes, culminating in Christ, aspects of the gospel are reflected throughout Scripture.
When a text neither plainly predicts nor prepares for Christ’s person or work, the redemptive truths reflected can always be discerned by asking two questions that are fair to ask of any text:
- What does this text reflect about the nature of God who provides redemption?
- What does this text reflect about the nature of humanity that requires redemption?
These questions are the lenses through which we can look at any passage to see what’s being reflected about God’s nature and/or human nature. Inevitably these lenses enable us to see that God is holy and we are not, or that God is sovereign and we are vulnerable, or that God is merciful and we require his mercy. Such reading glasses always make us aware of our need of God’s grace to compensate for our sin and inability. Christ may not be specifically mentioned in the text, but the reflection of God’s nature and ours makes the necessity of his grace apparent.
Using these reading glasses throughout the Old and New Testament will enable us to see the gracious nature of God who provides redemption as he gives strength to the weak, rest to the weary, deliverance to the disobedient, faithfulness to the unfaithful, food to the hungry, and salvation to sinners. We also learn something about the human nature that requires redemption when heroes fail, patriarchs lie, kings fall, prophets cower, disciples doubt, and covenant people become idolaters. These lenses prevent us from setting up characters in the Bible only as moral heroes to emulate, rather than as flawed men and women who themselves needed God’s grace.
Every text, seen in its redemptive context, is reflecting an aspect of humanity’s fallen condition that requires the grace of God. Focusing on this fallen condition will cause readers to consider the divine solution that’s characteristic of the grace which culminates in the provision of the Savior.4. We understand how God’s redemptive message appears in Scripture through texts that result from Christ’s work on our behalf.
We’re justified and sanctified as a result of Christ’s atoning work and spiritual indwelling. Our prayers are heard as a result of his priestly intercession for us. Our wills are transformed as a result of our union with him. We worship as a result of God’s gracious provision for every aspect of our salvation.
Ultimately, the reason to read Scripture with an eye to understanding how our actions and status are a result of grace is to keep straight the order of Scripture’s imperatives and indicatives. The imperatives (what we are to do) are always a consequence of the indicatives (who we are by God’s gracious provision); what we do is never a cause of who we are with respect to our eternal status in God’s kingdom and family. We obey as a result of being God’s beloved, not to cause God to love us. His grace toward us precedes, enables, and motivates our efforts toward holiness.
We obey as a result of being God’s beloved, not to cause God to love us. His grace toward us precedes, enables, and motivates our efforts toward holiness.
A key example of imperatives flowing from indicatives occurs when God gives the Ten Commandments to his people. He does not make their obedience a condition of his love. He first declares, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6)—and then he gives the commandments. He rescued his people before they obeyed. Their obedience was expected as a consequence of receiving God’s deliverance, not as a condition for obtaining it. By understanding this consistent redemptive pattern in Scripture, we not only have a tool for understanding the Bible’s structure, we have a way of seeing gospel grace even in passages dominated by divine commands.
And why is this indicative/imperative pattern so important? Because grace isn’t only what underlies God’s imperatives, but also the ultimate power that enables us to live these standards, as we are transformed from the inside out.
The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Elliot Clark‘s marvelous new book, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land (TGC, 2019) [foreword]. I cannot remember the last time I felt this convicted, and inspired, to hold forth the beauty of gospel grace.
Fear of the future isn’t necessarily the problem. We actually don’t seem fearful enough, not nearly as exasperated or concerned about the certain and dreadful end of our unbelieving neighbors as we should be. (21)
More and more I see Christians incensed when the world mocks us and our faith. But we seem to have no trouble disparaging others with whom we disagree, whether it’s for their position on the environment or economics, guns or gays. Meanwhile, we unnecessarily disenfranchise unbelievers by becoming ardent apologists for relatively unimportant opinions, such as our preferred diet or sports team. But, at the same time, we somehow lack an authoritative voice on far weightier matters. Few of us would ever risk offending someone by actually proclaiming the good news of Christ. Instead, we’ll only passively or reluctantly share the gospel provided someone else is inclined to listen. (21–22)
As you walk the lonely dirt road into a shameful exile, away from what you’ve known in a sheltered American past, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re not even excluded. Just the opposite. You’re being included into God’s global family. You’re joining Christ outside the camp. (25)
Christian, you know God loves you and has sent his Son to save you from your sin. You also likely know your great purpose in life is to glorify God for that salvation. But did you know God’s grand salvation plan is to glorify you? (32)
When we suffer, if our collective Christian tone is complaint, if we constantly lament our loss of cultural influence or social standing, if we weep and mourn as if Jerusalem has fallen when our chosen political agenda is overlooked, then we expose our true values. Those troubling circumstances have a way of unmasking our highest hopes. Sadly, far too often they reveal our hopes have actually been in this present age and not in the one to come. (37)
Hope for the Christian isn’t just confidence in a certain, glorious future. It’s hope in a present providence. It’s hope that God’s plans can’t be thwarted by local authorities or irate mobs, by unfriendly bosses or unbelieving husbands, by Supreme Court rulings or the next election. The Christian hope is that God’s purposes are so unassailable that a great thunderstorm of events can’t drive them off course. Even when we’re wave-tossed and lost at sea, Jesus remains the captain of the ship and the commander of the storm. (42)
I believe one of the greatest hindrances to evangelism is fear. Or, more accurately, a lack of fear. As feelings of anxiety and dread well up within us and drown out our evangelistic zeal, the solution isn’t to eliminate all fears. Our absence of appropriate fear is actually part of the problem. The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear—to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man. (50)
I doubt many of us are guilty of browbeating anyone with the gospel. But if we’re honest, we’re often culpable for not respecting our opponents. For not showing due honor. For using our words to shame our enemies or attack their agendas. For casually slandering those with whom we disagree, even rejoicing when our sarcasm gets laughs or our meme gets likes. It should be noteworthy to us, then, that from the outset of his letter Peter was concerned that his readers who faced regular insult for their faith be quick to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (2:1). Those are strong and comprehensive words. But Peter knew that Christian exiles easily slip into an unending volley of tit for tat. Of hurting those who hurt them. Of showing spite to their accusers. Of harboring malice toward those who put them down. Of mentally standing on their toes, like a tennis player, ready to return serve. (71–72)
The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won’t listen to our gospel simply because they respect us. However, they might listen if we respect them. (81)
If we continue the pattern of waiting for perfect opportunities, they may never come. And our fate will be that of the wary farmer who observes the wind and doesn’t sow, who considers the clouds and never reaps (Eccles. 11:4). Such farmers have empty barns in winter. (91)
Praise is the most natural thing in the world for us, and we do it all the time. We brag about our favorite sports team. We rave about restaurants. We shamelessly tell others about the deals we find online. We can’t stop talking about the latest Netflix series or our last vacation. . . . While we (I include myself here) demonstrate an incredible ability to proclaim the glories of endless earthly trivialities, we somehow stutter and stammer at the opportunity to speak with others about our heavenly hope. So it’s obvious our gospel silence isn’t because our mouths are broken; it’s because our hearts are. Because if we worshiped God as we should, our neighbors, coworkers, and friends would be the first to hear about it. (103)
You must come to a point of being willing to offend, or else you’ll never say much of anything. (105)
One common rebuttal [from Muslims] I would receive was, “We believe in Jesus too. He’s one of our prophets.” In response, I’d suggest that Jesus made for a miserable prophet. Prophets of Allah should show the way and teach the truth. But Jesus said, “I am the way; I am the truth.” Then I’d add, “Sounds like blasphemy, don’t you think?” (106)
The apologetic force of our preaching isn’t always that our message is more believable than another, but that it’s more desirable. In evangelism, we don’t simply make a logical case, but a doxological one. We aren’t just talking to brains. We’re speaking to hearts that have desires and eyes that look for beauty. We’re not merely trying to convince people that our gospel is true, but that our God is good. Over the years I’ve tried to move away from cold, structured arguments into exultations of praise. . . . From merely explaining why Jesus is needed to showing why he should be wanted. From defending the Bible’s truthfulness to rejoicing in its sweetness. (107)
In America, Christians have adopted a kind of false modesty in our evangelism. We never presume to suggest that we’re actually holier than someone else. Furthermore, we think our gospel is more credible to others when they see us as mostly like them. We’ve come to believe that God is most glorified and people are most evangelized when the church is either hip and trendy or when it’s struggling and broken and weak. So the last thing we’d want to do is portray ourselves as either holy or healthy—and most certainly not better than anyone else. (119)
Our great danger isn’t being like the pious Jews in Jesus’s day, doing external acts of worship to receive the approval and admiration of others. Instead, the threat to the American church is the opposite, though equally sinister, form of hypocrisy. We want to be inwardly transformed without showing any outward change. We don’t want to stand out. It’s as if we’ve lit a candle but are trying our best to hide it under a basket. But the whole point of a lit lamp is that others will see it. (119–20)
Anthropologists have observed that immigrants and refugees sometimes have a greater love for their national identity and a greater commitment to cultural preservation than those who remain in the homeland. That’s because when you have everything stripped away, you cling to what makes you who you are. We too, as we experience increased isolation and shame in our country of origin, have an opportunity to embrace the foreignness that comes with being like God and a citizen of his kingdom. (122)
One way sinners enter the kingdom is by first entering our kitchen. Some will only come to the table of the Lord after first coming to our dinner table. (137)
Christian hospitality isn’t just what we do to show kindness to strangers or unbelievers. It’s certainly not what we do to entertain guests or show off our home. Christian hospitality can’t even be reduced to a sacrificial act of generosity and love, because in reality it’s far more. Christian hospitality is the reward of the gospel. It’s a foretaste in this life of a shared inheritance in the next. It’s a seat at the table now, the shadow of a future feast where we’ll recline at table in the kingdom. (147)
We who by nature long to be insiders, to be accepted and approved, can be freed from that burden and as outsiders take the scary step toward being culturally inappropriate—in positive and proactive ways—and do the otherwise unthinkable. . . . But the fringe isn’t always a bad place to be. The voice of outsiders has power because it confronts monotony. A musical note struck off key is the one most easily recognized. Now is not the time for us to try to cohere the Christian message to a shared sensibility, to make the church fit into the surrounding cultural mold. We should keep Christianity weird. And in so doing, we just might reach our neighbors. (155)
I’m the operations director at a church, and part of my job is negotiating contracts with vendors for good or services. As a Christian, how firmly should I negotiate? How much do I share (e.g., the price bids I’ve received from other vendors) and how much do I keep back? And when something goes wrong, should I overlook it in love or hold them accountable? What advice could you give about balancing the need to be a good steward of church finances with the need to be a good witness to every salesperson I interact with?
While the Bible doesn’t give much direct advice about negotiating, it does provide a number of positive and negative examples.
In the first negotiation in Scripture, the serpent used deceptive tactics to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Later, Jacob used his skill at negotiation to obtain Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. In more positive examples, both Abraham and Moses negotiate with God on behalf of others (the city of Sodom and the Israelites, respectively).
Unfortunately, none of these narratives provides concrete guidance on how to carry out our own negotiations. To learn to be effective as Christian negotiators, we must instead combine prudence with biblical principles.
Here are three such principles that can help us think it through.1. Our goal in a negotiation is to properly steward God’s resources.
The word stewardship comes from the Greek oikonomia, which refers to someone who manages a household and is the root of the English word economy. Stewardship is an important concept in the Bible, which tells us we are stewards in God’s world, his economy of all things. This is true even when we’re negotiating with non-Christians since, as the psalmist said, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).
God has entrusted us to be “rulers over the works” of his hands (Ps. 8:5–6). We’re given the resources of the earth not to exploit but to cultivate for the good of ourselves, our neighbors, and those who come after us. We must therefore take into account numerous stakeholders when deciding how best to negotiate.
That said, because resources were given to you for the benefit of a specific group (in this case, your local church), you have a special responsibility to use a minimal amount of resources (i.e., time and money) to close the deal in a way that benefits all parties. By preserving the resources entrusted to you whenever possible, you can expand the good that can be done with them.2. Prices are a God-given means of coordinating resources.
Because we have a limited amount of resources to steward, God expects us to make ethical decisions about how we can use them most effectively. One timesaving method he’s given us is the price system. As the economist Alex Tabarrok has said, “If it had been invented, the price system would be one of the most amazing creations of the human mind.” The price system is indeed an amazing creation—but of the divine mind. It’s one of God’s means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing.
We tend to be uncomfortable talking about cost, because we think of it solely in terms of money. But prices should be viewed as an information system. A dollar amount provides a simple way of conveying a vast array of information, such as the relative abundance or shortage of a product, which God uses to help us coordinate our use of his resources.
The price system is one of God’s means of coordinating human activity for the purposes of human flourishing.
When it comes to contract negotiation, don’t be ashamed to ask about price. If there’s a willingness to negotiate the bill, it’s likely because there is a degree of flexibility in the transaction. For example, a supplier might agree to give you a lower price if you’ll be flexible on the delivery date. Embedded in the original price was information—such as transportation cost—that you likely didn’t know.
Rather than thinking of all the possible ways you could find flexibility in the contract, simply ask for a lower price. This allows your negotiating partner to look for a solution using the information that went into the pricing. Similarly, by conveying—when appropriate—how much you can pay, you help your suppliers know if a mutually beneficial arrangement can be reached.
Keep in mind that prices resulting from negotiation may include information that is not generally available to the public. While sharing the publicly available price of competitors with other vendors is probably acceptable, be wary of betraying trust by revealing a specially negotiated price.3. We have obligations to unseen neighbors.
The foundation of a successful negotiation is mutual trust and mutual benefit. The best-laid plans, however, can go awry when it comes to implementation.
No one should walk away from a negotiation with a Christian and justifiably feel they were cheated. If someone has to suffer wrong, we should prefer it to be us (1 Pet. 2:19–20). But we also have a responsibility—not only to our stakeholders, but also to other neighbors—to hold our supplier accountable.
No one should walk away from a negotiation with a Christian and justifiably feel they were cheated.
If vendors fail to deliver because of incompetence or lack of ethics, they should be allowed a good-faith effort to rectify the situation. If they fail to do so, though, we have a moral obligation to prevent them from cheating others.
What this requires of us depends on the context. In some cases, it might require nothing more than leaving a negative online review; in others, it could require seeking a lien on business property. But if we allow them to continue to act immorally, then we are to some degree culpable.
Sometimes being a good witness requires us to think about people (such as other customers the salesperson will cheat in the future) we may never see.
You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.
I have a confession to make: I’ve been living in fear.
I’ve been a Christian for the past 13 years, and in that time I’ve seen people walk away from the Lord. These were people I looked up to and admired in the faith. I think often about how godly they were, how gifted they were, and how none of that mattered because in the end they all met the same fate. These experiences have left me with a deep-rooted fear that one day I will fall away from the faith.
In his new book, Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation, Greg Gilbert helps Christians who are doubting their own sense of assurance move to a place of assurance and peace, empowerment and confidence. Gilbert—pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of several books—shows how God’s radical love in the gospel, and his promises to keep and preserve his children’s faith, are the fountainhead where we drink deeply of his assurance.Forces of Assurance
Gilbert lays out what he calls the “architecture” of Christian assurance—how Scripture seeks to assure Christians of their salvation in Jesus. He identifies four main sources of assurance: the gospel of Christ, the promises of God, the witness of the Spirit, and the fruits of obedience.
Each source doesn’t function in our lives the same way, however, and we aren’t meant to engage them in the same way. If we lack assurance it’s so often because we’re looking in the wrong place and seeking to draw it from the wrong source.
The gospel of Christ and the promises of God are driving sources of assurance, while things like the fruits of obedience are confirming sources of assurance. Driving sources continue to strengthen our assurance the more we press into them with understanding and faith. By contrast, we shouldn’t put our faith in confirming sources—though they do help confirm that we are children of God or provide a warning that something is wrong.
Gilbert gives a great analogy of this dynamic:
Consider this: In the design of a car, there is a profound difference between the driver of speed and the confirmer of speed, between the accelerator and the speedometer. If we want the car to go faster, we push on the accelerator; we put weight on it, and the car goes. Now of course when we do that, one of the results is that the speedometer on the dashboard indicates, or shows, or confirms that the car is going. But the speedometer is a sign of speed, not the source of speed. If we want more speed, we can’t just raise our hand to the dashboard and use our fingers to push the needle up and expect the car to go faster.
Stronger assurance, in other words, doesn’t mainly come by staring at the speedometer but by stepping on the accelerator, not by piling up good works but by rehearsing the gospel of Christ and the promises of God.Determined God
I want to focus on the promises of God and the reason God is determined to keep those promises. Gilbert explains how God’s Word presents God’s promises as a “powerful source and driver of assurance,” encouraging us to “trust them, rely on them, and continually deepen our understanding of them.” He states:
Think about how Paul describes Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. Abraham became “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (v. 21), and as he did so, “he grew strong in his faith” (v. 20).
The more Abraham became fully convicted and convinced of God’s promise, the more he grew in faith and assurance. We see the same logic in Hebrews. “Holding fast to our confession without wavering” is possible only because “he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). The Promiser is faithful to keep his promises. Resting in his faithfulness enables us to hold fast to our faith without wavering in doubt, despair, or unbelief.
“What are these promises?” you may ask. Here are two Gilbert highlights:
- God has promised salvation to all who believe in him (John 3:16; 6:40; Rom. 10:9,13; Acts 10:43; 13:39; Rom. 10:11; 1 John 5:1).
- God has promised to preserve us until the end (John 6:37–40; 10:27–30; Rom. 8:29–30).
The Lord of the universe has promised that those who repent and put their faith in Jesus will not only be saved from destruction, but will be preserved by his omnipotent hand and bought safely into glory.Unbreakable Love
Gilbert anticipates a good question about the promises of God:
Why is God so determined to keep his promises, especially his promise to save and preserve all those who come to Christ in faith? In other words, why can’t he just simply say “Never mind” at some point? What grounds God’s determination to keep those promises?
Gilbert gives two reasons:1. God Cannot Lie
His promises are rooted in the nature of who he is. Gilbert writes, “Simply put, it would be flatly incompatible with his nature—indeed, with his identity—for God to break or revoke his promises.”
In Titus 1:2 Paul makes it clear that God doesn’t lie and connects this character to God’s promises. Numbers 23:19 shows the same logic—God can be trusted and will do all he’s said he would. Hebrews 6:18 also connects God’s truthfulness to our perseverance.2. God’s Unbreakable Devotion to His Son
God’s resolve to keep his promises is as strong as his resolve to exalt his Son. Gilbert writes:
If [God] failed somehow to keep his promise to believers to the end and raise them up on the last day he wouldn’t just be failing believers; he would be failing Jesus. And that will never happen! You see? If you are a believer in Christ—united to him by faith—then your salvation is not ultimately grounded in your waffling, wavering commitment to him. It’s grounded in God’s eternal, unbreakable determination to honor his son by saving you. That’s why not one of those the Father has given him will be lost.
Do we see how amazing that is? God’s honoring of his Son includes his promises to you and me. His will for Jesus includes our preservation (John 6:37–40). They’re inextricably linked, and we are inextricably connected. This is comforting news!Comforting and Timely Book
As I read this book, I thanked God for delivering me a message I didn’t know I needed. His promises aren’t a fluctuating speedometer but a steady accelerator we can press into to enjoy a more settled sense of assurance. And the more we press into his promises, the more the ominous fear of looming apostasy fades and the shining light of assurance—that the Lord of love will keep us to the end—shines through.
God always keeps his promises, friend, and he won’t break his streak with you.
Think of it as an extended commencement address on the meaning and purpose of life. That’s how I read The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, the latest New York Times #1 bestseller by David Brooks. We’re drowning in freedom, Brooks says, when we need direction. We’re looking inside ourselves to discover our inner passion, when we should be looking for a cause that serves others. We can’t tell right from wrong, when we should be drawing on the wisdom of the ages. We need to live on that second mountain, a life of commitment to others, Brooks argues. We need guidance in the good life. He writes:
Students are taught to engage in critical thinking, to doubt, to distance, to take things apart, but they are given almost no instruction on how to attach to things, how to admire, to swear loyalty to, to copy and serve. The universities, like the rest of society, are information rich and meaning poor.
The New York Times columnist guides readers in the quest for a moral and meaningful life through four commitments: vocation, marriage, community, and philosophy and faith. I especially appreciated what he said about the marriage decision.
You would think that the schools would have provided you with course after course on the marriage decision, on the psychology of marriage, the neuroscience of marriage, the literature of marriage. But no, society is a massive conspiracy to distract you from the important choices of life in order to help you fixate on the unimportant ones.
That’s really the benefit of The Second Mountain: wisdom for focusing on the important choices of life. Brooks joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about joy, community, faith, and much more, including his religious journey as a self-professed wandering Jew and confused Christian.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
We can all agree: America’s cultural atmosphere is highly charged. The air hanging around nearly every conversation—political, racial, sexual, religious, or otherwise—seems infused with kerosene, ready for the smallest spark to burn attempts at civility to the ground. This social climate has been labeled “outrage culture,” and aptly so.
Instead of complex people enjoying constructive dialogue, whether face-to-face or online, we’re increasingly more like brute animals defending our territory. It’s like we’re all Gaston—wild-eyed and seething, with a pitchfork in one hand and lighted torch in the other, awaiting the signal to “kill the beast” on the other side.
And all the while, we’re unaware that the beast in the mirror is us.Outrage Culture Reveals the Truth
But for all the fearsome aspects of the outrage culture, there is one surprisingly redemptive thing about it that Christians can use for good: It reveals biblical truth.1. Outrage Culture Reveals the Truth about Morality
A quick scroll through social media makes it painfully clear that people really do believe in absolutes, especially absolute right and wrong. When outrage erupts, it’s because people think something very wrong was done that really isn’t okay. Outrage—even overdone or misguided outrage—proves that even moral “relativists” sense moral order deep in their bones.
This is good news for Christians because we know where this sense of morality comes from. Humans care about right and wrong because we’re made in the likeness of a holy God.2. Outrage Culture Reveals the Truth about Humanity
In a society that desperately wants to believe humans are perfect just the way we are, the outrage culture pulls the curtain back, unveiling that “the way we are” isn’t only imperfect; it’s actually a horror show. The state of American discourse undeniably reveals that at some point, something must’ve gone terribly wrong with humanity. In fact, many are trying to figure out exactly what that “something” is.
Again, Christians can offer a helpful voice in the conversation here: The fall explains what’s going on. Though the imago Dei blessed all humans with inherent dignity, the fall brought universal human depravity, which explains why people can treat one another with such cruelty.3. Outrage Culture Reveals the Truth about Sin
If the outrage culture proves anything, it’s that humans—even those who deem themselves non-religious—actually agree with God about sin, for they know it requires payment.
Think about any recent debacle. Did you notice how the public response often paralleled Christianity’s explanation of sin’s consequences? The level of wrongdoing demands corresponding discipline from on high. That discipline can take the form of self-payment (going to prison), repentance (public apology), loss of position (getting fired), or loss of relationship (divorce, loss of parental rights, and so on). The public outcry doesn’t stop until the wrongdoers receive the proper consequences. While we must be careful not to allow outrage to turn into mob-like anarchy or vigilante violence, its existence actually suggests that God’s response to sin isn’t only intuitive, but right.
Indeed, God deals with sin along similar lines: Our wrongdoing invokes rightful wrath and requires payment through discipline from on high. The consequences for sin are also similar: Because of our offenses, we lose both our relationship and also position with God. The same goes for our options when it comes to satisfying the consequences for that sin: self-payment (trying to please God now and paying our debt in an imprisoned afterlife) or repentance (a sorrowful change of heart that trusts in Christ’s full payment for sin on our behalf).Use Outrage Culture to Share Gospel Grace
As hostile conversations swirl around us, Christians have an opportunity to share the hope of the gospel, using cultural outrage for good instead of evil.1. Because of the Truth about Morality, We Can Comfort the Rightly Outraged
Though the outrage culture is known for overreacting, there are some issues Christians really should decry. We’re the people who care about the things Christ cares about, after all, and when those he loves are being overtly harmed, we should speak up and fight for them.
We can tell the rightfully outraged about the God who sees, knows, and has a plan to undo the horrors taking place in his world and perhaps even in their own lives. We say:
Yes, that person should have to answer for what they did, and you rightly feel this way because God’s morality tells us it’s wrong. Beyond that, I want you to know God has a plan for setting all of it right again. Let me comfort you with the news of the One who has the authority to right every wrong.2. Because of the Truth about Humanity, We Can Disarm the Wrongly Outraged
In the age of everyone getting upset about everything, Christians have the unique opportunity to gently remind over-reactors that their wrathful, belittling, even animalistic treatment of others is out of touch with the reality that they’re just as broken as the person they’re railing against.
We tell them:
Yes, the person you’re snapping at should probably pay for what they’ve done, but so should you, and so should I. The fall is an equal-opportunity curse, which means you and I will have to answer for what we’ve done, same as the next person. God has a right to demand consequences for every wrong. But what’s more, God can also absorb those consequences. May I tell you about it?3. Because of the Truth about Sin, We Can Relate to Wrongdoers
As we meet people who have fallen from grace, or even as we have conversations about them, we can sympathize. We’ve been there, too. The person who had a huge public failing isn’t alone at rock bottom with the whole world against him. Our sins deserve wrath and consequences, too.
Sharing the gospel with the wrongdoer says:
Yes, I’ve been at rock bottom too, in my own way, and let me tell you: The gospel can pay for this horrible thing you did. That’s the scandal of God’s grace and power. He can take a monster and make him a giant of the faith. Do you know the story of Paul?
As the surrounding society rages on, raising pitchforks to kill the beast on the other side—whatever the side may be—we’re the people standing in the fray, telling the good news of the God who can slay the thing that makes the outrage culture so horrible in the first place: the beast in us.
Within the next few weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the radical and controversial “Equality Act.” The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to “prohibit discrimination” on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.What is the Equality Act?
The Equality Act would amend two landmark civil-rights laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act—to change the definition of “sex.” Instead of the term being solely in reference to biological men and women, it would also cover sexual orientation or gender identity for the purposes of employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, and federal programs.
According to the bill, the term “sexual orientation” means homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality, and “gender identity” means the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.
The bill also explicitly states, “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.” (See also: 9 Things You Should Know About the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)Who supports the Equality Act?
Support for the Equality Act is embedded in the language of the Democratic Party platform, which says, “Democrats will always fight to end discrimination on the basis of . . . sexual orientation, [and] gender identity . . . ”
In the House, the bill has 240 co-sponsors, including every Democrat and three Republicans (Brian K. Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York, and Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico). In the Senate, the bill has 46 co-sponsors, including 45 Democrats and one Republican (Susan Collins of Maine).
Several large corporations have also endorsed the bill, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Coca-Cola, eBay, Facebook, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, PepsiCo, UPS, Verizon, and Wells Fargo.Who opposes the Equality Act?
A coalition of 86 faith-based nonprofits, religious entities, and institutions of higher education sent a letter to Congress stating their opposition to the Equality Act.
Almost all Republicans in the U.S. Senate are also expected to vote against the bill.How is the vote connected to the upcoming Supreme Court cases on LGBT discrimination?
Earlier this week the Supreme Court announced it has accepted three cases involving homosexuals and transgender persons who claim they were discriminated against at work. The Court will rule on whether current federal anti-discrimination laws protect employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (See: The FAQs: Supreme Court to Decide Whether ‘Sex’ Includes Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.)
Drew Hammill, spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Court’s decision to hear those cases will have “no impact” on the legislative process for the Equality Act. “I would just make the point that House passage sends a strong message to SCOTUS,” Hammill said.What is the concern Christians have about the Equality Act?
As Andrew T. Walker wrote in an article for TGC, “The bill represents the most invasive threat to religious liberty ever proposed in America. Given that it touches areas of education, public accommodation, employment, and federal funding, were it to pass, its sweeping effects on religious liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience would be both historic and also chilling.”
“Virtually no area of American life would emerge unscathed from the Equality Act’s reach,” Walker adds. “No less significant would be the long-term effects of how the law would shape the moral imagination of future generations.”
Twenty-four states have similar laws and the consequences for residents of those states have been disastrous, says Monica Burke, research assistant in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. “These policies are not being used to promote equality,” Burke says. “Instead, they are being used as a blunt-force weapon to ban disagreement on marriage and sexuality by punishing dissenters.”
Some of the examples cited by Burke include a teacher in Virginia who was fired for failing to use a female student’s preferred masculine pronouns, and a professor in Ohio who was disciplined for doing the same. A homeless shelter for abused women in Alaska has been sued for refusing to admit a biological male, and in Illinois, California, and Vermont, foster parents are expected to provide children suffering from gender dysphoria with transition-affirming therapies over parents’ medical or moral objections.
“Every human being ought to be treated with dignity, but placing sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in this kind of legislation would have harmful consequences,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and TGC Council member.
“This legislation would make the situation worse in this country,” Moore adds, “both in terms of religious freedom and in terms of finding ways for Americans who disagree to work together for the common good.”
Both of them were nicknamed “Queen.” That’s how highly the talents of Aretha Franklin (“Queen of Soul”) and Beyoncé (“Queen Bey”) were esteemed in their respective eras. Two newly released concert documentaries show why.
Both films depict performances—a half-century apart—that have been called “transcendent.” But what do we mean by “transcendent” when it comes to musical performances and art generally? By comparing and contrasting these similar-yet-different films, we can see how society’s concept of transcendence has changed in a secular age.Two Iconic Performances
Amazing Grace is an acclaimed documentary that presents, for the first time, footage recorded in 1972 of Aretha Franklin performing at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles over two nights. The songs recorded were for a live album, Amazing Grace, that became the highest-selling Gospel music album of all time.
Both films depict iconic performances, in Southern California venues, from black female superstars at the height of their careers. Both celebrate African American culture and history, as channelled through music. Both capture the cross-pressures between immanence and transcendence that have defined pop music for much of its history.
And while one is overtly religious and takes place in a church (Grace)—the other is decidedly secular at one of the world’s most influential pop music festivals—both performances inspire intense religious fervor in their audiences. Both films show people in the crowds with tears streaming down their faces, their hands raised, their bodies shaking, their voices crying out—both in the church where Aretha performed in 1972, and also in the music festival where Beyonce performed 46 years later.‘Amazing Grace’: Aretha Franklin at Church
Courtesy of Neon
By the time she recorded Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin was already the “Queen of Soul,” having a string of chart-topping hits—“Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” among others—with Atlantic Records in the late 1960s. Having first learned to sing at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor, Franklin’s 1972 recording of Amazing Grace was touted as a return to her Gospel roots. But even her secular hits were infused with the Gospel music of her upbringing—hence the name “soul.”
“If you want to know the truth,” Franklin’s pastor-father says at one point in the concert that Grace documents, “she has never left the church.”
But even if this is true—that the sounds of Christian church music infused Franklin’s secular hits, as it did for many other pop icons, from Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston—it’s also true that Amazing Grace features specifically church music and overtly Christian music. The songs speak of Jesus and heaven. Franklin sings them from a deep well of spiritual longing, with the backing of the Southern California Community Choir.
Near the start of the film, Gospel music legend James Cleveland—who plays piano for Franklin and acts as a sort of emcee for the live audience—reminds the crowd (which includes Mick Jagger and Clara Ward) that “we are here for a religious service” and invites them to participate and engage as if this were Sunday morning. And the crowd does. As Franklin sings songs like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Never Grow Old,” audience members appear enraptured and spiritually moved, both believers and unbelievers alike.
The experience of watching the film is visceral and goosebump-inducing, something noted in most secular reviews of the film, which have called it “transcendent,” “a revelation,” and “the closest thing to witnessing a miracle.” “Even for those who do not believe that God’s grace is amazing,” writes Brad Wheeler (The Globe and Mail), “it is hard not to see Franklin in her prime as something near miraculous.” Richard Brody (The New Yorker) called the film’s very existence “a secular miracle.”‘Homecoming’: Beyoncé at Coachella
Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment
Similarly grandiose praise was heaped on Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance (documented in Homecoming), with critics calling it “world-shattering,” “transcendent,” “a landmark moment for black culture,” and (in the words of Chance the Rapper), “the greatest show to ever happen.” The New York Times declared of the performance: “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon.”
Indeed, the “Beychella” performance is something to behold. Backed by 100 dancers, a marching band, and a drumline performing on pyramid-shaped risers, Beyoncé sings and dances flawlessly for two hours. It’s a passionate performance packed with symbolism and homage to black history and culture, particularly that of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s worth celebrating when a performer’s God-given talents are deployed as powerfully and joyously as they are by Beyoncé here.
But as I watched Homecoming it struck me that Beyoncé’s performance has been widely regarded as a zeitgeist-capturing cultural landmark in part because it weaves together threads—art, entertainment, identity politics, autonomy, empowerment, justice—that have for many replaced organized religion as sources of meaning, purpose, and transcendence.
To be sure, Franklin’s performance in Amazing Grace also fuses religion with cultural identity and politics. Perhaps the film’s emotional center is when Franklin pauses to linger on the third verse of John Newton’s hymn: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come . . .” Franklin’s slow, emotional delivery of these words invokes centuries of black struggle and ring especially potent in their immediate context: a black church in Watts, on the heels of the civil-rights movement.
But while this cultural history and identity is there in Amazing Grace, the music is upward focused. God, not Aretha, is the primary object of praise. She is a vessel through which the audience, moved by the skill and force of her singing voice, can contemplate the holy. The concert creates “sacred space” not because it dismisses or downplays the concerns of this world, but because it also looks beyond it.
Franklin’s concert creates ‘sacred space’ not because it dismisses or downplays the concerns of this world, but because it also looks beyond it.
To the extent that Beyoncé’s performance also creates “sacred space”—and doubtless many who watch it wouldn’t dispute this term—it is a much more this-worldly “religious” display. The audience’s eyes are not drawn to God above, but to the “divine” spectacle on the stage before them. From start to finish, Beyoncé is the focus. The dramatic entrance of “Queen Bey” that kicks off the show positions her as a goddess; her Balmain outfit is crafted to evoke Egyptian queen Nefertiti, complete with a crest that makes visual nods to black power (a black panther and a black fist).
The songs she performs are liturgies of empowerment, confidence, and defiance: “I’m so crown, bow down b****es” (“Bow Down”); “I break chains all by myself” (“Freedom”); “Get what’s mine, take what’s mine, I’m a star, ‘Cause I slay” (“Formation”); “Middle fingers up, put them hands high” (“Sorry”). Performed with unapologetic swagger and sequins by a black female superstar, they are liberation anthems for the marginalized—but also calls to be fiercely true to yourself, no matter what anyone else says. They are the hymns of our secular age.Documenting History-Making Performances
As a concert documentary, Homecoming is carefully crafted to underscore the hallowed, historic status of #Beychella, which was the first time an African American woman had top billing at the festival. Co-directed by Beyoncé herself, the film contains stylistic elements meant to further enshrine the performance’s iconic status. Grainy, black-and-white footage of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes moments lends the film an “archival” quality. Interspersed quotes from black artists and intellectuals (e.g., Nina Simone, W. E. B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou) reinforce the performance’s cultural significance. Footage of Beyoncé mothering three children in between months of grueling rehearsals—while holding herself to a no-gluten, no-dairy, no-meat, no-alcohol diet—further frames the singer as a wonder woman.
The flawless perfectionism and precise architecture of Homecoming contrasts with the imperfect, improvisational spirit of Amazing Grace (haphazard camerawork, sound glitches, and production errors that kept the film shelved for decades). Both films depict praiseworthy and iconic performances, but the latter feels more organic and less self-referential.To See and Be Seen
Perhaps one way to distinguish the two films—and their respective approaches to transcendence—is to say Amazing Grace helps the audience see God, while Homecoming helps the audience feel seen. In Homecoming, Beyoncé says of her ambitions with the Coachella performance: “It was important to me that everyone that had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us.”
Certainly the Christian faith is about both seeing God and also being seen by him. God sees us and knows us. Unlike anyone else in history, Jesus saw the marginalized and valued them. He dignifies all humans, even when society demeans them (which is not to say he affirms them in their sin). Why does he dignify them? Because all humans bear the image of God. Because of that, celebrating the diversity of human culture is a good, worthwhile goal. Both Amazing Grace and Homecoming capture this goodness.
But it can be a fine line between celebrating culture and identity in a way that glorifies God, and doing it in way that only glorifies the self. The tendency of our secular age is to glory in self-expression without glorying in God; to fight for autonomy and freedom and representation at all costs, because what else is there? If God doesn’t exist, then humans are indeed the most sacred thing in existence. Being seen, being affirmed, being allowed to be whoever we want to be—these become the only sources of transcendence. That’s why fights over representation, and being affirmed in whatever identity we assert, are the “holy wars” of a secular age.
The tendency of our secular age is to glory in self expression without glorying in God; to fight for autonomy and freedom and representation at all costs, because what else is there?
Christianity offers a different view. It celebrates the diversity of image-bearing humans, but cautions against turning them into idols. It rejoices that God sees us and has mercy on us, but not because of anything we’ve done or earned. The remarkable potential of human creativity and culture-making is on display in both Amazing Grace and Homecoming, but the former couches it more in other-worldly grace (as its title suggests) while the latter chalks it up to this-worldly effort.
Our secular age may find transcendence in being seen. But seeing God and being seen by him, because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, is far greater. The most beautiful thing God sees when he looks at us is not us, but Christ in us. Christ alone makes it possible for sinners and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) to be brought into God’s family and presence (Eph. 2:13, John 1:12; Gal. 3:26). More important than expressing one’s self is accepting that only Christ makes us beautiful in the eyes of a holy God.
Amazing grace, indeed.
“Suffering is spiritual warfare. It exposes you to particular seductive and attractive—but devastating—temptations. You could argue that suffering will always either deepen your faith and affection for your Redeemer, or it will weaken the same. Suffering is a battleground. And so we want to arm ourselves for that battle with the beautiful theology of the Word of God.” — Paul Tripp
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident
- #Blessed May Not Mean What You Think
- You’re Killing Me, God
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
In fall 1517, a German monk offered theses for disputation which would shake the faith and practice of the world around him. They cut against the grain of ecclesiastical and theological practice and would set a course for ongoing reform and challenge according to God’s Word. We do well to consider afresh those principal concerns at the root of the Protestant Reformation. So we turn again to Wittenberg, to Luther, and to the 97 theses. That’s right. On September 4, 1517, Luther participated in a disputation regarding sin and the will, nature and the experience of Christian salvation. This academic disputation, (much) later dubbed the “Disputation against scholastic theology,” has not gained the level of acclaim garnered by the later “95 Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but they will capture our attention and prompt some thinking regarding what shape theological practice might take this side of Luther’s witness.
These theses actually cut right to the heart of so many of Luther’s abiding concerns. Far more than the focus on indulgences to come two months later, these theses turn directly to issues of human nature and divine salvation. They forecast in many ways that great text which would so mark Luther’s legacy, his 1525 response to Erasmus entitled The Bondage of the Will. They thread the needle of assaulting the latent tradition which he finds so marred by hubristic excess without shirking his abiding commitment to learn from Augustine, who had himself been a formative thread of that late medieval fabric. In many ways, these theses, like the Heidelberg Disputation of the following year, will do the hard work of beginning to connect the emerging Reformational vision of sin and grace with matters of intellectual authority and theological formation. Here we see the force and the tension of Luther’s theology.
In this essay I want to argue with Luther seemingly against Luther. That is, by tracing Luther’s anthropology and soteriology through, I will seek to show that today a scholastic theology with certain disciplined protocols in place prompts us to lean against our sinful proclivities and to linger longer before the life-giving Word of God. In so doing, however, I will seek to sketch an approach to scholastic theology which ties its task to the pursuit of theological discipleship and even intellectual asceticism. To do so means that the description offered here differs from some lingering assumptions about scholasticism and about the practice of systematic theology today and challenges the disciplinary status quo in some fundamental ways. As much as the argument seeks to argue for the ongoing need for the theological calling, then, it also aims to reorient the way in which that practice follows in much of its modern exercise by reorienting systematic theology as a form of intellectual asceticism. In so doing Luther is a genuine prompt, in as much as he not only reflected upon the stranglehold of sin (in the 97 theses) but also sought in multiple ways to orient theology around his account of sin and grace (in various texts). While arguing with Luther regarding our sinful proclivities and our dire need for God’s gracious intervention even in the life of the mind, then, we will also turn beyond and, to some extent, against Luther to espouse an argument for a distinctly scholastic practice of theology so as to further those spiritual ends. Four specific aspects regarding the shape of a sanctifying approach to scholastic theology will conclude the proposal.
Every church wants to grow and thrive. But attractional churches focus on making Christianity as attractive as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the gospel they are supposed to proclaim.
Jared Wilson—managing editor of Midwestern Seminary’s For the Church, and director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri—offers an insightful critique of the attractional church model in his new book, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace. He writes as an attractional church insider and outsider, having spent years in both spheres.From Attractional to Gospel-Driven
Wilson helps the reader envision what it looks like to transition from one to the other with a fictional account of LifePoint Church. This church serves as an archetype for all churches whose stated or unstated ministry philosophy is “a way of doing church ministry whose primary purpose is to make Christianity appealing.” He hastens to add that this isn’t a style or size of church; it’s a paradigm and motivation revolving around consumerism and pragmatism.
The goal of the book is “to convince you that your church and its slate of programs and ministries—no matter how successful they have been in attracting people—should be centered on the good news of the finished work of Jesus Christ.” Here Wilson leans on, and often quotes, Jonathan Edwards’s Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. If you like Edwards, you’ll like Wilson (and vice-versa).
Who is the audience for this book? I suspect it’ll be most helpful for attractional-weary church attenders who receive the book from friends and family of the gospel-driven variety. For them this book will be both bomb and balm. It also will strengthen the resolve of church leaders who want to either begin the process of change or be reassured that all the transitional drama is worth it.Triaging the Church
As the subtitle—Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace—indicates, Wilson wants local churches to measure the right things in the right way. This resonates with my church experience, as our leadership has a task force searching for answers to these questions. Are we healthy? How do we know? What is our measure? I suspect many of us pastors struggle to discern this health, since the key categories of spiritual growth are more subjective than objective. Wilson offers diagnostic questions I found helpful even as I wished there were more of them.
I personally resonate with Wilson’s concerns, yet is there anything to gain from the attractional church model? Like most pastors, I “steal” good ideas from anywhere I can. To this Wilson says, “Many who have spent decades inside the system can’t distinguish between attractive and attractional, practical and pragmatic.” While I don’t pastor an attractional church, we do labor to make it and the gospel attractive. An appendix or future article from Jared written for pastors on learning from what the attractional church does well—without drinking the Kool-Aid—would be great. My ministerial tribe would say thank you!Triaging the Pastor
While Wilson’s critique echoes his earlier book Prodigal Church, his maturing role as pastoral mentor and coach shines through the final portion of this one. Here he gets practical and, through the LifePoint Church story, lays out a plan for a church to move toward being more gospel-driven. This section is written for church leaders wanting to enact change. The sections on teaching and preaching are helpful for preachers and listeners alike, as both need to know a biblical, expositional sermon when they preach or hear one.
Wilson ends with a practical question-and-answer appendix. He answers questions about sermon length, dealing with angry members, and even a gospel-driven church budget. All this leaves the reader finishing the book with a firm grip on both the why and also the how of gospel-driven church ministry.One-Stop Critique and Guide
The Gospel-Driven Church is a one-stop critique of the attractional church and a guide out of the theological ideologies underpinning it. If you’re looking for an MRI of your congregation’s health, you may find more help elsewhere. But if you’re exhausted by the attractional church or sense something is missing within it, this book will hit all the key points and give you wise counsel for implementing change.
Jared Wilson’s heart for more and better churches and more and better disciples echoes both Edwards and also our Savior. He has produced another book on the church that should be applauded, read, and heeded.
I love easy friendships. The kind where you get along and rarely butt heads. The kind where conversations flow because of shared interests, and you both feel passionate about the same social issues and theological convictions. I love friendships where you just “get” each other.
Such friendships are certainly gifts to be cherished! But if Christian friendships are only the product of ease, they fail to display the supernatural work of the Spirit. The church is called to more than what comes naturally.
If we allow the gospel to radically infiltrate our friendships, our love for one another will amplify our witness to the world. Through our friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ—even those brothers and sisters who seem unlike us—we can demonstrate the unifying love of Christ, the rescuing love of Christ, and the reconciling love of Christ. This hard-won love spotlights the transforming work of our Savior.1. Demonstrate His Unifying Love
We tend to seek friendships with those most like us, building “tribes” around similar personalities, backgrounds, and interests. But unlikely friendships testify to the unifying love of Christ. When a teenage boy reaches out to a new kid at youth group he doesn’t “click” with, when a married couple presses into a friendship with a couple they clash with, and when people of various races and cultures commit to worshiping alongside one another, it demonstrates the supernatural love to which we’ve been called.
Jesus didn’t save us to hang out in exclusive tribes; he saved us from different tribes to be his people (1 Pet. 2:9–10). We aren’t united by education, political affiliations, personalities, or interests. We’re united because the blood of our Savior has purchased us to be his own (Gal. 3:28). And because we are his, we are called to love those who are his (1 John 4:7). Our friendships shouldn’t always make sense to the world; they should grab the world’s attention and make them wonder why in the world we love each other.2. Demonstrate His Rescuing Love
Friendships within the church are essential to our spiritual protection. We face many temptations and don’t always see our sin clearly, so God works through godly friends as a means of rescue. Biblical love calls us to help one another in the battle against sin and the fight for holiness. We can’t do it alone!
Practicing such rescuing love is hard, but “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). Over the years, many friends have wounded me. They’ve confronted my selfishness, rebuked my self-righteousness, corrected my critical and complaining heart. They’ve spoken into my life when it would’ve been easier not to, and they’ve been met with anger instead of humility more times than I’d care to admit.
But because of their faithful wounds, the Spirit has chipped away at my excuses and defenses to expose my hard heart and soften it with his sanctifying grace.
Sometimes we’re tempted to withhold speaking truth in love because we fear conflict. We’d rather rescue ourselves from discomfort than demonstrate Christ’s rescuing love to a friend struggling with sin. Recently, I did this. I feared (and judged) that a friend would resent me if I challenged her about her fading commitment and love for the local church. Sadly, I stayed silent for several months, actively putting my selfish interests above her spiritual well-being. Eventually, God overcame my resistance and helped me speak up. After confessing my sin toward her, I shared my concerns. In the Lord’s kindness, she was both humble and gracious, and we had a fruitful discussion.
Sin entangles us all. We need friends—and need to be friends—willing to speak the truth in love, and so display the rescuing love of Christ.3. Demonstrate His Reconciling Love
The more we build friendships with those different from us, the more likely we’ll encounter conflict. We may be insensitive to those who struggle in ways we don’t understand. We may go into hard conversations in a spirit of grace and leave them in a spirit of self-righteousness. And when conflicts arise, we’ll often be tempted to withdraw and feed bitterness rather than press on and pursue reconciliation.
Our Savior calls us—and the Holy Spirit empowers us—to be peacemakers. And the only way to make peace is to fight sin. We must fight against pride, which always inflates others’ sin, shrinks our own, and assumes we’re in the right. In situations where we are in the right, we must fight to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, just as Christ has been to us (Eph. 4:32).
Covering a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8) comes at a cost. When a friend forgives us for our harsh words or uncharitable judgments, it costs them. When we forgive a friend who gossiped about us, it costs us. But just as Christ died to reconcile us to God, he enables us to die to ourselves so that we can reconcile with our friends.They’ll Know Us by Our Love
Jesus is our unifier, our rescuer, and our reconciler. He knows—more than we ever will—the great cost of love. And because he loved us first, we can love one another. This love is essential to living as the family we are, and it’s essential to our mission in the world.
Jesus instructed his diverse band of followers: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another: (John 13:34–35).
He summons us to the same today.
Marriage is certainly not a prerequisite to being a church planter. After all, Jesus was single. And Paul—the greatest church planter ever—was single and wholeheartedly commended singleness (1 Cor. 7). But for aspiring church planters who are married, having a marriage that is both defined and also shaped by the gospel is crucial.
This is vital for our own health, certainly, but it’s also vital because of what marriage points to: the holy union between Christ and his church. In Ephesians 5, Paul calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved his bride (Eph. 5:22–33). So our marriages illustrate the gospel we preach.
So today I’m excited to have Orion Berridge with me to discuss how we can cultivate a healthy marriage in church planting.
Frequently my computer or “smart” phone autocorrects Themelios to Themeless. The latter would make a rather unfortunate name for an international journal of theology! In this editorial, I will reflect on the journal’s name, its history, and my hopes for its future contribution. We certainly wouldn’t want Themelios to become “theme-less.”1. The Journal’s Name
The journal’s name transliterates the Greek term θεμέλιος, which is typically rendered “foundation” in its fifteen NT occurrences. θεμέλιος refers to the foundation on which a building rests. Jesus highlights the utter folly of constructing a house with no foundation (Luke 6:49)—a warning to those who would hear his words and not heed them. Likewise, he urges would-be disciples to count the cost lest their lives resemble an abandoned construction project with a foundation but no tower on it (Luke 14:27–30). Paul stresses that the church is “God’s building” established on the secure foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:9–11). The apostle identifies Jewish and Gentile believers together as “members of the household of God, built on the foundation [ἐπὶ τῷ θεμελίῳ] of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:19–21).2. The Journal’s History
The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students first published the journal Themelios in October 1962. The initial volume featured articles by Howard Marshall, Donald Guthrie, Leon Morris, Francis Schaeffer, and others, as well as a fine exposition of Ephesians 2:20 by the Irish missionary theologian R. J. McKelvey. McKelvey reasons that Isaiah 28:16 lies behind the NT authors’ figurative references to Christ as the “cornerstone” and “foundation” laid in Zion. As the cornerstone (ἀκρογωνιαῖος), Christ not only supports the superstructure of God’s house but also serves to unify it as it is built (συναρμολογέω in Eph 2:21). McKelvey argues that the difficult phrase “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” refers to the twelve apostles and the OT prophets as the foundation on whom membership in the church rests for Gentile and Jewish believers alike.
In vitro fertilization (abbreviated IVF) is the process of joining a woman’s egg (ovum) and a husband’s sperm in a lab rather than inside a woman’s body. (The Latin phrase in vitro means “in glass.”) When the egg is fertilized by the sperm, the result is a living embryo, which is then implanted in the woman’s womb so that it can develop like any other baby.
Evangelical Christians differ on the moral acceptability of this procedure, and some respected evangelical writers argue that IVF is always morally unacceptable.
My own position is that, in principle, the teachings of Scripture present no moral objection to a married couple using IVF (as long as no human embryos are destroyed in the process), because it is simply enabling an infertile husband and wife to overcome their infertility and thereby experience the blessing of having children.
(I won’t address the morality of several related issues such as adoption, surrogate motherhood, embryo adoption, and the possibility of human cloning, but I’ve discussed them at length elsewhere.)1. Overcoming Infertility Is Pleasing to God
Infertility has been a source of deep sorrow for both men and women—but especially for women, for all of human history, as we see from some of the early chapters of the Bible. Sarah (Sarai) was unable to bear children to Abraham (Gen. 11:30; 16:1) for most of her life, until she miraculously bore Isaac in her old age (see Gen. 21:1–7). Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was unable to bear children for a long time after her marriage to Jacob (Gen. 29:31), as was Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah (Judg. 13:2). Hannah, the mother of Samuel, cried out to the Lord in deep sorrow because of her infertility (1 Sam. 1:2–18). In the New Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth “had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Luke 1:7), but, again through God’s miraculous intervention, Elizabeth eventually gave birth to John the Baptist (vv. 57–66). These narrative examples portray overcoming infertility as something that pleases God, and it is often a manifestation of his special blessing on a couple.
Other passages show God’s great blessing when “he gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 113:9; see also Ex. 23:26; Deut. 7:14; Isa. 54:1; Gal. 4:27). And God in his wisdom shows compassion for the deep grief of childlessness in several passages, such as the stories of Rachel (Gen. 30:1) and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:5–10). These passages are entirely consistent with the frequent theme in Scripture that children are a great blessing from God: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Ps. 127:3; see also Gen. 1:28; Ps. 128:3–4; Mal. 2:15; 1 Tim 5:14; see also Christian Ethics, 747).
My own position is that, in principle, the teachings of Scripture present no moral objection to a married couple using IVF, as long as no human embryos are destroyed in the process.
Given the force of these biblical passages, it is right to consider infertility as something that, in general, we should seek to overcome with the confidence that God is pleased with such efforts. Infertility shouldn’t be something about which we’re indifferent, such as the color of our hair or eyes, but rather something we see as yet another result of the fall, one of the disabilities and diseases that entered the human race after Adam and Eve sinned. Infertility was not part of God’s good creation as he originally made it or intended it to function.2. Modern Medicine in General Is a Divine Blessing That’s Morally Good
Modern medicine (and medicine in the ancient world, for that matter) can be used to overcome many diseases and disabilities today. We should view this as a good thing, and as something for which we can thank God.
God put resources in the earth for us to discover and develop, including resources useful for medicinal purposes, and he gave us the wisdom and the desire to do this. The warrant is found in God’s command to Adam and Eve to “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28), and it is reinforced by the fact that all of the medicines we have today are made from resources found in the earth, and “the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).
Jesus was not neutral regarding the blessings of restoring health to people. His ministry of healing indicated that God is pleased when we try to help people overcome diseases and disabilities:
Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. (Luke 4:40)
This was a common pattern in Jesus’s earthly ministry, and the inclusive nature of the expression “all those who had any who were sick with various diseases” allows us to suppose that Jesus also healed the infertility of many women (and men) who’d previously been unable to conceive and bear children.
Consistent with Jesus’s example, James encouraged Christians to pray for healing (see James 5:14–16). This New Testament pattern makes me think we should also view modern medical advances positively. It is generally morally right to support and welcome advances in medicine that can bring health to people with various diseases and disabilities, including infertility.3. We Should Treat an Unborn Child as a Human Person from the Moment of Conception
Various passages lead us to consider the unborn child as a human person from the moment of conception. Reflecting on the beginning of his existence, David mentioned his sinfulness even at the moment of his conception: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5; David is speaking about his own sin, not his mother’s). In addition, David said to God, “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (39:13). In the old covenant, if an unborn child died—even because of an accidental injury—the one who caused the unborn child’s death was subject to capital punishment (see Ex. 21:22–25: “You shall pay life for life”). Jacob and Esau were viewed as two unique children who would become two nations struggling within Rebekah’s womb (Gen. 25:22–23). And Elizabeth, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, said, “The baby in my womb leaped for joy”—surely a human action (Luke 1:44). (See Christian Ethics, 566–86, for further discussion of these passages.)
These passages are relevant for the question of IVF, because they mean we shouldn’t condone any medical procedure that will certainly lead to the death of even one unborn child who was conceived when the man’s sperm fertilized the woman’s egg, the cells began to divide, and the human embryo began to grow into a little baby.4. Children Should Only Be Conceived by and Born to a Married Man and Woman
I affirm this fourth point not because it is based on a direct command of Scripture, but because of a pattern of biblical narratives and probable implications from biblical moral commands about related topics.
Today, many ethical questions related to modern technology and reproduction have to do with the medical possibility of a woman becoming pregnant and bearing a child even when the child’s biological father is not that woman’s husband. But the entire scope of the biblical narratives and moral standards views this situation as contrary to God’s intended plan for the birth of a child.
At the beginning of creation God said to Adam and Eve (who were husband and wife), “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This verse by itself does not say that no other means of producing children would be pleasing to God, but it is the foundational pattern for marriage in the entire Bible, and it is the first instance of the command to be fruitful. (Scripture calls Adam and Eve “the man and his wife” in Gen. 2:25, and uses the relationship between Adam and Eve as the pattern for marriage generally in v. 24.)
God’s repeated commands against adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10; Deut. 5:18; Prov. 6:32; Matt. 15:19; Rom. 13:9; James 2:11; 2 Pet. 2:14) also support this idea. One reason sexual intercourse should occur only within the context of marriage is it guarantees that children will only be born to a man and a woman who are married to each other.
A child should only be conceived by and born to a man and a woman who are married to each other, and in no other situation or relationship.
Another piece of evidence supporting this conclusion is found in the detailed laws in Exodus:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. (Ex. 22:16; the rare exception is seen in v. 17, but the general principle is that marriage should occur; see also Deut. 22:28–29)
Here again, the specific provision of the law guaranteed that if a man and a woman had sexual intercourse, they would be married—again guaranteeing that a child would be born in the context of a married man and woman.
The prohibitions against “sexual immorality” (in older translations “fornication” [Greek porneia]) also seek to ensure that sexual intercourse occurs only within the context of marriage. This would guarantee that children would be conceived only within the context of marriage (see 1 Cor. 6:18; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3). Finally, there’s no indication anywhere in Scripture that God ever considered it morally right for a child to be conceived by a man and a woman who weren’t married to each other.
This broad pattern of scriptural teaching, then, leads me to conclude that a child should only be conceived by and born to a man and a woman who are married to each other, and in no other situation or relationship (Christian Ethics, 775–77).Therefore IVF Is a Morally Good Action in Some Circumstances
The previous four points lead me to conclude that, if IVF is used by a married couple, and if care is taken to prevent the intentional destruction of embryos, then it is a morally good action that pleases God because it violates no scriptural guidelines, achieves the moral good of overcoming infertility, and brings the blessing of children to yet another family. “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 113:9).
However, this does not mean that couples have an obligation to try IVF, only that it is a morally acceptable thing to do. Many couples may reason that the process is too expensive. On average, the cost of a basic IVF cycle in the United States ranges from about $12,000 to $15,000. (Another less-complicated process, called “Mini-IVF,” is approximately $5,000 to $7,000.)
Others may reason that the likelihood of success is so slim that they don’t want to embark on such a difficult process. Or a couple may decide the pregnancy would carry increased risks for the mother’s health that are too significant for them to think they should try IVF.
In such cases also, the medical possibility and the moral acceptability of trying IVF don’t mean there’s any obligation to use this procedure if they don’t want to.Objections
Several objections may be raised against this conclusion, but I do not find them persuasive. Here are some of the most common.1. “This is not a natural process.”
Someone may object that this isn’t the “natural” process of conception through sexual intercourse that God intended. But such an argument must assume a definition of “natural” that arbitrarily excludes modern medical means from what we consider part of nature. Is not the laboratory equipment used for IVF also made from resources God planted in the earth? Are not the medical researchers and medical technicians, with all their wisdom and skill, part of God’s creation also?
To cite another analogy, consider a woman who uses a modern thermometer to take her body temperature each day in order to determine the best time to have intercourse so that she’ll be able to conceive. Is this an “unnatural” process because she uses a modern medical thermometer in order to know when she’s ovulating? Surely not. The thermometer is made from part of the natural world that God created. Similarly, consider a husband who uses Viagra or a similar modern medicine to overcome erectile dysfunction so that he and his wife can have intercourse and conceive. Is that process to be rejected as “unnatural” because he’s using modern medicine to overcome his medical problem? Surely not. The Viagra is made from materials God placed in the natural world, and so it’s also part of nature considered in a broad sense.
When IVF is carried out in a way that destroys multiple human embryos, it is morally wrong, because it results in the wrongful destruction of human life.
Or consider the medical process known as “artificial insemination by husband” (or AIH). This process also uses some modern medical developments but does not violate any of the biblical principles named above. It simply enables a wife to become pregnant by her husband’s sperm when, for some reason, it is physically unlikely or impossible for this to happen through ordinary sexual intercourse. The husband’s sperm is first collected and then injected into the wife’s cervix or uterus using a needleless syringe or other medical device. The child is conceived by and born to a man and a woman who are married to each other. No unborn human person (or embryo) is destroyed in the process. And the wonderful result in many cases is that infertility is overcome for this couple.
Therefore, there seems to be no valid reason to reject IVF on the ground that it is not part of the natural process that God established for the conception of children. The essential considerations in this issue are all satisfied: (1) modern medicine is used to overcome a disability, (2) no unborn children’s lives are destroyed, and (3) the child is conceived by and born to a man and a woman who are married to each other.2. “This wrongly separates sex from the conception of a child.”
Another objection might be that God designed the conception of children to be connected with sexual intercourse between a husband and wife, but IVF separates sex from conception.
My response is that IVF did not separate sex from conception because, for this couple, there was no connection between sex and conception. They were unable to conceive. It was the infertility that separated sex from conception—and IVF is overcoming that infertility. For many infertile couples, they have perfectly normal and happy sex lives, but due to some medical reason, they’ve been unable to have children. There is no biblical command that says “conception must only be the result of sexual intercourse,” but there is abundant biblical testimony that clearly teaches the blessing of children, the blessing of overcoming infertility, and the blessing of using God-given wisdom and resources to develop medical solutions to disease and disability.
Yes, someone may argue against IVF by saying that “it wasn’t done that way in the Bible.” But in the absence of clear moral teachings on the topic, it is precarious to rule out modern inventions simply because they didn’t exist in biblical times—otherwise we wouldn’t use automobiles or cell phones or even eyeglasses or the printing press.3. “Many embryos are destroyed.”
To increase the probability of pregnancy, IVF is often done in such a way that many (or at least several) of the woman’s eggs are fertilized, many embryos are created, and only those that appear “healthiest” are saved and implanted in the woman’s womb—with the rest being either frozen or discarded (Georgia Reproductive Services; The Mayo Clinic).
I must be clear that when IVF is carried out in a way that destroys multiple human embryos, it is morally wrong because it results in the wrongful destruction of human life.
And yet this objection doesn’t rule out all IVF procedures, because the fertilization of multiple eggs is not necessary. Technological development of IVF has reached the point where, if the couple wishes to fertilize only one egg or two and then have both implanted in the mother’s womb, that can be done. In fact, one 2012 British study found that women should never have more than two eggs implanted. “Previous research—before more modern techniques for IVF—still showed that implanting three [embryos] increased the likelihood of successful live birth rate, compared with the transfer of two or one,” said the lead researcher, Debbie Lawlor of the University of Bristol. “Our research shows this is no longer the case.” In such cases, where no embryos are destroyed, I think IVF is morally acceptable.
In fact, a Swedish study found that a woman with just one embryo implanted in her womb had nearly as great a chance of getting pregnant as a woman who had two or more embryos implanted. Transferring only one embryo also reduced the chances of twins being born with low birth weight and accompanying complications.
For married couples struggling with infertility, IVF may be seen as a morally good choice, a choice that brings the blessing of children to their families.
John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg disagree with my position here and argue that IVF is morally unacceptable, even when only one egg is fertilized, because the success rate is so low in such cases. They write:
We believe the embryo is human and a person from conception onward. . . . Our views on the embryo’s status lead to our greatest moral objection to IVF, namely, its waste and loss of embryonic life. . . . If the success rate of IVF had risen to 95 percent or even 80 to 85 percent, we would be more sympathetic to it, but . . . IVF technology is currently nowhere near such success rates. We find the loss of so much human life morally unacceptable. . . . Success rates [are] at best only about 17 percent when one embryo is used. . . . Too many human lives are lost to think this is morally acceptable.
I have much respect for the Feinbergs’ book, which I used as my primary textbook for teaching Christian ethics for many years. I agree with their conclusions far more often than I disagree. I find their objection at this point to be significant, and I take it seriously, but in the end I’m not persuaded by it.
My response is that fertilizing only one egg or two at a time, and implanting these with the hope that they will survive, is far different from the common practice of IVF, where several eggs are fertilized and then most are intentionally destroyed. In that case, there is a willful, intentional destruction of human lives.
But with the fertilization of only one or two eggs at a time, the intent of the doctor and the husband and wife is that all the fertilized eggs will live and come to normal birth. Therefore, I still think IVF without the destruction of embryos is morally acceptable.
And the success rate for IVF continues to improve. According to the Society of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (SART) in 2014, the live birth rate per IVF cycle with their own eggs is 54.4 percent among women younger than 35; 42 percent for those aged 35 to 37; and 26.6 percent for those aged 38 to 40. The success rate drops to 13.3 percent in those older than 40, and success in women older than 44 is rare, approximately 3.9 percent.Conclusion
My conclusion is that, for married couples struggling with infertility, IVF may be seen as a morally good choice, a choice that brings the blessing of children to their families.
The quiet heartbreak and pain of infertility is well known to many evangelicals, whose aspirations to have a child have been frustrated for reasons they cannot understand or control. It is frequently a secret burden that couples carry, which only emerges into the open as they reveal their struggles to family, friends, and doctors.
The weight of infertility and the value of children has increasingly prompted infertile couples to pursue procreation by every means possible: artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and even surrogacy have all found their way into evangelical communities.
Yet while evangelicals have become increasingly aware of the emotional challenges infertility poses, we have not yet considered the hidden costs of our desperate pursuit of children through artificial reproductive technologies.
Few movies have brought those challenges into the open like Netflix’s Private Life. The film narrates the hope and heartbreak a couple experiences as they walk through various means of aiding conception, and the personal and relational distress that arises from their efforts. After receiving one final, disappointing report of failure, the husband callously asks his wife while lying in bed next to her, “Will we ever have sex again?” The wife, not surprisingly, denounces the question as self-interested and insensitive.
We have not yet considered the hidden costs of our desperate pursuit of children through artificial reproductive technologies.
The moment poignantly captures how fertility treatments reconfigure how infertile couples sometimes experience their sexual lives together. Ironically, the couple had consigned sex to marriage’s dustbin; the very act that might naturally generate children has been relegated to an inconvenient, cloying annoyance. What should be a source of joy and deep union has become a painful reminder of their frustrated desires.
For many evangelicals, though, the ethics of in vitro fertilization begins and ends at the question of how many embryos are created and what happens to them. Beyond this, many evangelicals do not even think in vitro fertilization is a “moral issue.” Why would it be, when it seems to be simply a medical technology that helps couples satisfy their deep desires for what God has deemed good—namely, the birth of a child made in God’s image? To say “no” to such technologies is, for many couples, equivalent to saying “no” to the satisfaction of their deepest, most heartfelt desires.
While not every couple experiences the direct marital hardship Private Life depicts, there are serious costs to and from accepting technologies that separate the “one flesh” union of husband and wife. We think those costs are high enough that evangelical couples and pastors should say no to in vitro fertilization. It’s past time to break evangelicalism’s silence about our complicity in the unethical circumstances that arise when sex and conception are divided.Understanding In Vitro Fertilization
In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is a process in which medical doctors create human life outside the boundaries of sexual intercourse. According to Pew, since 1996, more than 1 million babies in the United States—or 2 percent of children—have been born through some form of artificial reproductive technology.
IVF requires eggs and sperm to be harvested. For men, this often involves masturbation, but may also include surgical removal of sperm. The woman’s ovaries are hormonally stimulated to harvest multiple eggs at once. Clinicians then create an embryo by fertilizing the egg in the lab, before transferring the embryo to the woman’s uterus. (In intracytoplasmic sperm injections, which are increasingly common, doctors select a single sperm and inject it directly into the egg.) One cycle of IVF can produce multiple embryos, or only one. Even after transferrence, a woman’s body can still reject the embryo. Embryos not transferred are usually stored.
God bound sex and procreation together in creation, and what God has joined together, no evangelical should separate.
While this process seems like a safe medical treatment for infertility, moral questions abound. Questions about what happens to embryos, for instance, are paramount: The embryo is a person, and so deserves love and respect. If a couple opts to create many embryos, what happens to those who are not transferred? Is freezing them indefinitely, or giving them to research, just? Even if a couple intends to transfer every embryo they create, what happens if future events make that impossible? Some couples get pregnant naturally after undergoing IVF, or are otherwise prevented from following through on their intentions, leaving their embryos in frozen limbo.
Evangelical couples aware of such questions have increasingly opted to only create a single embryo at a time. Yet the separation of conception from sexual intercourse raises problems on its own, problems that outweigh any justification for using IVF to overcome infertility. To put our worry bluntly, God bound sex and procreation together in creation, and what God has joined together, no evangelical should separate.Bible and IVF
For many Christians, Scripture’s silence about IVF means that the only moral question is how we treat embryos created in the process. Such an argument, though, intrinsically undermines the normativity of Genesis 1 and 2 for both sexual ethics and also bioethics—a normativity that Jesus himself ratifies in Matthew 19:4. Genesis 1:26–28 clearly indicates human fertility has been folded by God into the structure of creation and into his providential plan for the earth’s cultivation. And while Genesis 2:22–25 does not mention procreation directly, the interdependence of sex and generation is explicitly presumed. The man and woman cleave to each other and become “one flesh.” But they do so only within a context already structured by kinship bonds established by procreation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Sexual intercourse is inherently and intrinsically ordained by God toward procreation: A union that is “one flesh” cannot escape this reality, even if the couple chooses to deny it. To view this interdependency as simply contingent, rather than normative, radically undermines the place of Genesis 1–2 in both theological anthropology and ethics.
Such a principle is not, in this way, only founded on biology or considerations from natural law; it stands beneath the whole of how Scripture speaks about marriage, children, and God’s action in bringing about both. The biological reality of procreation simply demonstrates how special and general revelation speak with one voice. Children are a heritage and gift from the Lord: we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God in the womb. Such divine action happens in and through the human act that is a union of unmediated love between the potential mother and father and no one else. In this way, exclusivity within human generation corresponds to the exclusivity of marriage.
We think Scripture is unambiguous about the inextricable normative union of procreation and sex.
The normative inter-relationship of marriage, sex, and procreation stands beneath Abraham’s wrongness in turning to Hagar in attempting to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promised gift of blessing (Gen. 16). It is not sexual intercourse per se that Abraham seeks, but an heir. Abraham’s decision moves the continuation of the covenant outside of his union with Sarah, and in that way is nearer to surrogacy than to IVF. Yet in dividing what God holds together for the sake of bringing about the blessing on his own terms, Abraham enacts the same problem that besets contemporary artificial reproductive practices.
We think Scripture is unambiguous about the inextricable normative union of procreation and sex. What God has established in creation should be respected. We will elaborate on that principle by specifying four different concerns.Four Concerns About IVF 1. IVF Severs the Unified Goods of Marriage
In the first place, the practice of separating conception from sex in order to bring about a child risks reconfiguring evangelicalism’s understanding of sex, marriage, and family. Dividing the natural and unified process of procreation into a variety of stages makes it more difficult to imagine why they were created together in the first place.
The bifurcation between sex and procreation already has deep roots in our moral imagination. Fundamentally, IVF offers and reaffirms the same divide between sex and conception that hormonal contraception made plausible, even if it does so in the reverse way: Where contraception offers sex without conception, IVF offers conception without sex. But while many evangelicals would affirm the legitimacy of contraception, the ethic that stands beneath the division between procreation and sex permits many practices they would rightfully protest. Gay marriage, fornication, contraception, and IVF all sever the natural and creational link between sexual acts and the generation of human life.
The erosion of this link helps explain why the Christian sexual ethic retains less purchase culturally with each passing generation. If sexual pleasure and conception are not held together within marriage, they will not be held together outside of it.2. IVF Reconfigures Our Understanding of Human Life
While those who pursue in vitro fertilization are often animated by love for each other, the specific acts that bring about human life are disconnected from the loving union that ordinary conception involves.
But this point introduces new factors into our understanding of where human life comes from. In ordinary acts of procreative love, there is no question who is conceiving the child: The process of generating life is begun and completed wholly by the couple. Third parties are only involved externally: They aid and support the process, and sometimes correct it, but they cannot in any material sense claim to be an originating agent in an infant’s life.
The presence of multiple parties in conceiving life, though, introduces peculiar uncertainties and risks for the children who are born. Can we say that the married couple conceived this child, or the doctors? In cases of ordinary procreation, children might have complaints against their parents or God for how their life goes. But in cases of extracorporeal conception, such complaints might reasonably include the lab technicians materially involved in their conception. The diffusion of agents in creating human life that IVF demands risks diminishing the child’s sense that they were “knit together in their mother’s womb.”
IVF is not a medical treatment for infertility, but a way of sidestepping the appropriate use of one’s own reproductive organs and the limits of one’s own bodily life.
Moreover, IVF reconfigures how we think about the body and its reproductive capacities. IVF is not a medical treatment for infertility, but a way of sidestepping the appropriate use of one’s own reproductive organs and the limits of one’s own bodily life. Medicine is a practice ordered toward therapeutically restoring capacities to an individual’s organic human life that have been lost due to illness, disability, disease, accident, or other disabling events. As reproductive systems are incomplete without a member of the other sex, their proper fulfillment happens in sexual intercourse.
But the “medical” interventions required for IVF are crucially distinct from those that would restore or repair the reproductive systems. For instance, women do not “use” their reproductive organs in having their eggs harvested. The interventions required for IVF don’t accord with their reproductive system’s design. To see this, consider a case where IVF is pursued because of male infertility; the woman’s reproductive system is functioning properly in only generating one (presumably healthy) ovum every month. IVF artificially stimulates the woman’s ovaries to produce multiple eggs concurrently, and then subjects her to an invasive procedure to harvest them. Neither of these acts can plausibly be described as “therapeutic” or remedial for her reproductive system. Even in cases where the woman’s reproductive system is disordered, IVF does not fix the fundamental problem so much as attempt to sidestep it.
In this way, circumventing sex for the sake of conception outside the womb threatens to undermine the intelligible purposes of our bodily life. This is the force of the scene in Private Life: Aiming for children without sex changes the character of the latter, and with it the rest of our bodily life as well. IVF enshrines in the Christian moral imagination an attitude that, if applied consistently, would radically reconfigure not only our sexual ethics, but medical ethics as well.3. IVF Tampers with Human Life and Human Dignity
The process of conceiving life in a lab establishes a principle of efficiency that intrinsically and inexorably inclines participants in the process toward weighing the value of persons based on the qualities of their lives.
In ordinary procreation, the human person emerges from a mysterious, invisible process of organic development. While we know from science what happens in the early days of conception, it is a work that remains hidden from the couple or any other human beings. Conception is an exceedingly fragile event, whether in the womb or the lab. But the doctor’s presence within the process of forming human life practically demands grading embryos for their viability, and opting to “use” those that seem to show the best “quality.” Such a tendency within the practice itself will make preimplantation genetic diagnosis almost an inevitable feature, especially as it becomes cheaper. As IVF is aimed at overcoming the inefficiencies of frustrated procreative efforts, the use of such screening measures will inevitably expand, as will the pressure on parents to employ them.
Those conceived in a lab are fully made in God’s image, but that doesn’t diminish the rupture to our theological anthropology that IVF requires.
In this way, IVF as a practice orders our imaginations toward determining what types of human beings are the most likely to or capable of living a good life. Oliver O’Donovan (among others) has spoken of the distinct logic of begetting versus making, and the importance of the former to forming human life. When humans become comfortable making other humans, we will doubtlessly begin to construct them in the image of our own preferences and desires. Those conceived in a lab are fully made in God’s image, but that doesn’t diminish the rupture to our theological anthropology that IVF requires.4. IVF Poses Risks to Women’s Health
Finally, procreating human life is not only an immensely fragile process, but an exceedingly risky one as well. And the children created are subject to those risks. In the short term, pregnancies from artificial reproductive technologies are more likely to be subject to complications than through ordinary conception. The long-term effects of such treatments on children conceived through them are still wholly unknown. But those risks are even more pressing for women.
As mentioned above, the process of harvesting eggs is exceedingly invasive, and requires the non-therapeutic use of hormones. The long-term effects of this procedure are, as with children, disputable. But that’s partially because fertility treatments are a lucrative industry, and there’s systemic pressure to avoid closely considering such questions. As medical anthropologist Diane Tober admitted to The Washington Post, there are “no known risks [to fertility treatments] because no one has looked.”
The double burden IVF places on women should be sufficient by itself for evangelicals to say no. Every woman risks her own health in generating human life. Yet the invasive, non-medical hormonal regime required for IVF doubles this risk. In this way, IVF extends the logic of hormonal contraception—which allows men to pursue their interests by disproportionately burdening women with the task of regulating their bodies—rather than requiring men to pursue the virtue of continence.
Other considerations could be brought forward against IVF and its acceptance within evangelical communities. Such a practice increases the economic costs of generating life, which inherently limits it to upper-class households (or requires insurance or the state to fund it for low-income couples). As a practice, IVF has generated millions of embryo deaths—which raises questions about complicity in systems founded upon moral wrongs, even if an individual’s couples intentions are “pure.” And there are others.
Fundamentally, though, accepting the division between sex and conception that IVF requires undermines evangelicalism’s witness to the integrity of God’s good creation even within and under the conditions of sin. This should be reason enough to say no to in vitro fertilization.Pastoral Considerations
We recognize that this is a hard word to those couples who long for children. Few desires run as deep as that one, and it can seem like a cruel burden to be denied what God seems to give so freely to other people—especially when there appear to be means available to satisfy those good desires. But as one of us has written elsewhere, our churches desperately need childless couples to help us recover the witness of lament for a tragic world, and of hope in Christ’s kingdom. The gospel is good news for childless couples, who hope in Christ—not in procreation.
Pastoral counsel from within the gospel, though, requires clearheaded thinking. Those whose hearts are broken with sorrow need direction about what they may and may not pursue. We have to consider and scrutinize the extent to which the Christian moral imagination is formed more by the world’s drive to overcome infertility than by a uniquely Christian response to the absence of children. As with all of God’s gifts, the good desire for children can become disordered. Especially if attaining children requires a process contrary to the form of generating life that Scripture lays down as normative.
The gospel is good news for childless couples, whose hope is in Christ—not in procreation.
What does this argument mean for couples who have successfully conceived through IVF? Such couples must treat and love that child in the same way as a child conceived through marital intercourse. This child bears God’s image: The wrongness of IVF is never imputed to the child. God loves the world so much that he gives good gifts even in and through our wrongdoing (Rom. 8:28). (This, however, is no justification for doing wrong—Rom. 6:1.)
What if a couple went through IVF and has a frozen embryo (or more) remaining? First, we’d urge them to see this embryo as a person awaiting future development: He or she is owed love, care, and respect. The embryo is also made in God’s image. Second, if they have no intention to transfer him or her, we’d encourage the couple to consider allowing the embryo to be given to a family through embryo adoption. Third, we’d implore them to never allow this embryo to be destroyed or used for research. Absent these options and considering the toll that would come with possible embryo degeneration, couples might consider allowing the person they created to go into the hand of God and engage in the penitent lament that marks grief at our complicity in human death.
And if a couple is infertile and considering IVF? We’d advise them to alert their pastor and community so they do not walk through infertility alone. We’d urge them to avoid IVF, but to pursue every therapeutic medical treatment that might make natural conception more probable. Most importantly, we’d exhort them to explore how their life together might bear witness to God’s kingdom by forging non-biological, parental bonds. In doing so they bear witness to a hope fundamentally fulfilled not through the birth of children, but through the advent of our Lord.
We believe, and have tried to argue, that the good news for infertile couples means saying “no” to means of generating life that are contrary to the integrity of God’s good creation. We tear apart what God has joined together only at grave peril to ourselves: By dividing sex from procreation, we reconfigure the form which God has laid down for us to understand the nature of his agency in bringing new life into the world. If a people who emphasize the gospel cannot say no to that division, we are a people unworthy of our name.
On Monday the Supreme Court announced it has accepted three cases involving homosexuals and transgender persons who claim they were discriminated against at work. The Court will rule on whether current federal anti-discrimination laws protect employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity.What are the cases about?
In two of these cases, the Court is asked to decide if the phrase “because of . . . sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was meant to protect employees from discrimination because of sexual orientation. In the third case, the Court will also determine whether the word “sex” meant “gender identity” and included “transgender status” when in 1964 Congress enacted Title VII.
The three cases to be considered by the Court are:Altitude Express v. Zarda
Donald Zarda worked as a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express. After a tandem skydive, Rosanna Orellana told Zarda’s boss she had been touched in a flirtatious manner and that her instructor disclosed he was homosexual and “ha[d]an ex-husband” in an effort to excuse his otherwise inappropriate behavior. Zarda was fired, claims his employers, because he had a history of similar complaints of inappropriate behavior.
Zarda filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming “[he was] not making this charge on the grounds that [he] was discriminated on the grounds [sic] of [his] sexual orientation. Rather . . . in addition to being discriminated against because of [his] sexual orientation, [he] was also discriminated against because of [his] gender.” Zarda claimed that “[a]ll of the men at [his workplace] made light of the intimate nature of being strapped to a member of the opposite sex,” but that he was fired because he “honestly referred to [his] sexual orientation and did not conform to the straight male macho stereotype.”Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia
Gerald Lynn Bostock is a homosexual man who was employed as the Child Welfare Services Coordinator for the Clayton County Juvenile Court System. He alleges his employer fired him after the County learned of his sexual orientation, of his participation in a gay recreational softball league, and of his promotion of volunteer opportunities with the County to league members. He also claims the County falsely accused him of mismanaging public funds as a pretext for terminating his employment because of his sexual orientation.
(Note: The Altitude and Bostock cases have been consolidated and will be considered together by the Court.)R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC
Harris Homes is a small, family-owned funeral business run by Thomas Rost. As a devout Christian, Rost says he “sincerely believes that his ‘purpose in life is to minister to the grieving, and his religious faith compels him to do that important work.’” Harris Homes’ mission statement, announced on its website, says that the company’s “highest priority is to honor God in all that we do.”
Rost hired Anthony Stephens as a funeral director in 2007. At the time, Stephens presented as a man. In a July 2013 letter, Stephens first told Rost that he identifies as female, that he “intend[ed] to have sex reassignment surgery,” and explained that “[t]he first step . . . is to live and work full-time as a woman for one year.” Stephens’s plan was to present as a woman and wear female attire at work. Rost told Stephens that the situation was “not going to work out,” but because he wanted to reach “a fair agreement,” he offered Stephens a severance package.
Stephens declined the offer and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in September 2013, alleging an unlawful discharge based on “sex and gender identity” in supposed violation of Title VII.
According to court documents, Rost believes the Bible’s teaching that sex is immutable and that he “would be violating God’s commands” if a male representative of Harris Homes presented himself as a woman while representing the company. Were he forced to violate his faith that way, Rost “would feel significant pressure to sell [the] business and give up [his] life’s calling of ministering to grieving people as a funeral home director and owner.” (The EEOC “does not contest [Rost’s] religious sincerity.”)What is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that states, “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Nowhere in the statute does it say that “sex” is intended to include sexual orientation or gender identity.Why is the term sex presumed to cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity?
Title VII is one of several statutes that prohibit discrimination “because of sex.” For example, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. In May 2016, the Obama administration reinterpreted Title IX to make “gender identity” synonymous with “sex.”
The administration sent a letter to all public schools in America notifying teachers and administrators of the regulations they must comply with in regards to their students’ “gender identity.” The letter stated that, to comply with federal law, policies concerning students must be based on their gender identity and not on their biological sex. That was the beginning of the attempt at the federal level to officially redefine the meaning of “sex.”
Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have also passed laws that extend the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to homosexual and transgender people.Why should Christians care about the outcome of these cases?
There are three main reasons Christians should be concerned about the Court ruling that the term “sex” covers gender identity and sexual orientation.
First, it would allow federal agencies to redefine reality. In 1984, the landmark Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. established the standard known as “Chevron deference.” Because of Chevron deference the executive branch, through the various regulatory agencies (such as the EEOC), provides most interpretation of statutes that are passed by Congress (such as Title VII). When Congress passes a new law it usually goes to a regulatory agency to determine how the law will be put in place. Because of the judiciary branch has established the Chevron deference, any interpretation that is deemed “reasonable” is likely to be the standard that is used. If the Court deems it reasonable to use “sex” as synonymous with transgenderism and homosexuality, federal agencies will be able to override the will of the American people on these issues.
Second, it would further undermine religious freedom. As the Harris Funeral Homes shows, Christian businesses would be required to hire and accommodate transgender persons even for roles in which it would violate their employer’s moral and religious beliefs (e.g., such as hiring a man who identifies as a women to work in areas where girls and women undress).
Third, as Alliance Defending Freedom notes, it would undermine equal treatment for women by, for example, allowing women’s scholarships to be given to men who believe themselves to be women. It would also jeopardize the dignity and privacy of women, forcing organizations to open women’s shelters, locker rooms, and restrooms to men who believe themselves to be women.
The issue of tongues is sometimes a matter of controversy and heat. As a result, let me state my intent at the beginning. I want to put forward an argument for the scope of speaking in tongues in the first-century church. But I do so in a tentative way. I hope not to stir up heat.1.1. Tongues in Acts
Let us start with Acts 2. There are several interpretive views. For simplicity, we follow the majority view. It says that Acts 2 involves distinct languages, mutually unintelligible, rather than merely distinct dialects. But even if they were just dialects, the main point is that the utterances in Acts 2 were in natural human languages. We know that because hearers competent in the various languages were able to identify them.1.2. Tongues at Corinth
Now we proceed to 1 Corinthians 12–14. For illustrative purposes, we may imagine ourselves sitting in the place of a member of the Corinthian church. What would we hear when other members spoke in tongues? Perhaps on occasion someone was present who recognized the utterance as belonging to a language that he already understood. Then he was able to interpret. That kind of case leads us back to the instances in Acts 2. The language in question was identifiable.
But the letter of 1 Corinthians seems to indicate that at Corinth such an identification of the language was the exception rather than the rule. Most interpretation of tongues seems to have taken place not because a listener confidently understood the language, but because of a special spiritual gift for interpreting tongues (12:10, 30; 14:13). The ordinary listener at Corinth heard utterances that sounded like a communication in language. But he did not know the meaning (14:2). Even the speaker did not know the meaning (14:13–14). For practical purposes, from the point of view of a naive listener, anything that sounded like speaking in tongues was speaking in tongues. “Speaking in tongues” is a loose category that easily covers every kind of language-like utterance in the church service that does not belong to any of the major languages spoken in the church.