When Jessi Vos was a junior in high school, she told her mom and dad she wanted to go to a college that was more international and more urban than the Iowa town where she grew up.
She also wanted a place that wasn’t too big—her state university felt huge—and Christian professors and a Christian campus. (“I’ve learned that a Christ-centered education is the most important thing to me in pursing my college career,” she wrote on one application.)
Her parents wanted all of that for her, too.
“I remember spending time in prayer, saying, ‘Please don’t put my kid or us into a situation where they find the perfect college and we simply can’t afford it,’” her mother, Teri, said. “I talk to parents who say they will figure out a way to make the financial piece work, because you can’t put a price tag on helping your kid be in the best environment possible at this stage of life. But even so, there is going to be a point at which that doesn’t work.”
She’s not wrong. The average cost of one year of college—including tuition, fees, room, and board—at an American university doubled between 1988 and 2016, from $11,509 (adjusted for inflation) to $23,091. The price growth was eight times faster than the rate of wage growth during that period.
Among members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the cost is significantly higher—$35,488 a year (though significantly less than the average four-year, private, nonprofit colleges’ price tag of $44,551).
You’d think Christian colleges would be hiring new staff, raising salaries, and starting new programs. In fact, you’d think administrators would be buying yachts and professors would be purchasing vacation homes in the Virgin Islands.
The average cost of one year of college at an American university doubled between 1988 and 2016, from $11,509 (adjusted for inflation) to $23,091.
But that’s not what’s happening.
“The financial health of many Christian institutions of higher education is more precarious than ever before,” Trinity International University president David Dockery wrote in the Christian Education Journal this year. “The rise of costs, the challenge of financial aid, changing tax laws, and unpredictability of funding streams point toward questions regarding long-term viability.”
“There is a real looming crisis, that’s for sure,” said New Saint Andrews College president Ben Merkle. He remembers being at CCCU meeting where the impending financial future was likened to “driving off a cliff.”
In fact, the situation is worse than Dan Nelson, who has spent the last 20 years surveying financial data for CCCU schools, has ever seen it before.
So what gives? If Christian colleges are charging more than they ever have, why are their bank account balances so low?Enrollment?
It could be that Christian colleges cost more but are attracting fewer students, so they’re making less money.
While some schools—especially those in areas of the country that are losing population, such as Illinois—are struggling to maintain enrollment, others are growing. And they’re gaining more than the declining colleges are losing.
Overall, CCCU schools’ total headcount rose from about 425,000 in 2012 to nearly 448,000 in 2017. (Full-time student enrollment rose less, from about 302,000 to about 309,000.)
That trend is reflected in both the larger private nonprofit sector and also in public universities. Over the past 20 years, only the for-profit category has lost students, dropping sharply since 2010 after running into multiple lawsuits, negative publicity, and tighter federal regulations.
Numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics
In fact, it seems like attracting students to Christian colleges should be pretty easy. While fertility rates are dropping, Christians still have babies at a higher level than replacement rate—faster than any other religious group except Muslims, according to Pew Research Center.
In addition, the rate of children graduating from public high schools is at an all-time high—85 percent in the 2016–2017 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Most of them—about 70 percent—enrolled in college in 2016. That number didn’t set a record but came close. That meant 19.8 million students were in college in fall 2016—definitely down from the high of 20.6 million in 2012—when the for-profit schools were booming—but still higher than the 15.3 million in 2000 or even the 17.5 million in 2005.
So Christians are having babies, and high schools are graduating students, and those students are going to college more often than ever before. Everything should be great, right?Recession?
Everything was great, for a while.
“The heyday of Christian higher education was probably from the early 1990s to about 2007,” said Dockery, who was president of Union University in Tennessee for much of that time. At Union, enrollment grew for 16 straight years. The number of donors tripled. The school added more than seven undergraduate majors, six graduate programs, and five doctoral programs.
“I don’t think we realized how privileged we were during those days,” he said. “Enrollments were growing, budgets were increasing, and the Department of Education was friendly toward our efforts.”
That seemed to be true for most Christian colleges. Membership in the CCCU—a network of Christian schools founded in the 1970s—doubled from 88 in 1994 to 176 (including affiliate members) in 2006.
“As an association, it was a great run,” said Bob Andringa, who led the CCCU during those years. The budget almost tripled, from $3.8 million to $10.5 million, the staff jumped from 30 to 65, and the number of programs and projects expanded to 90.
And then, in 2008, the housing bubble popped, the government had to bail out the banks, and the economy deflated. The unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent.
On the face of it, this was more good news for colleges. People who couldn’t find a job headed to the classroom; the number of incoming students rose 12 percent in 2008. At CCCU schools, on average, both enrollment and tuition continued to climb.
But under the surface, the financial foundation of many Christian colleges started to wobble.Trojan Horse
In 1965, out of a desire to make college more affordable to everyone, Congress passed the Higher Education Act. This law allowed the government to guarantee student loans—basically shifting the default risk from banks to taxpayers, which made banks more willing to lend to students. In 1972, Congress followed up with the creation of Sallie Mae, which bought student loans from banks and eventually passed out student loans itself.
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Student Loans Owned and Securitized, Outstanding [SLOAS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. LouisThe loans were virtually unrestricted, because the idea was to help anybody who wanted to go to college. As the number of students going to college went up, tuition—which is based on what students can pay—went up even faster, and the government loaned out even more dollars.
During the Great Recession, unemployment, flattening wages, and plummeting home values made tuition payments uncomfortable and sometimes impossible. The default rate ballooned, and the Obama administration introduced the “Pay As You Earn” repayment plan, which capped loan repayment and incentivized even more borrowing.
But it didn’t incentivize everyone.
CCCU students take their loans seriously. Their default rate is half the national average (6 percent versus about 12 percent) and their repayment rate is noticeably higher (78 percent compared to 65 percent).
During the Recession, the average amount of money borrowed by CCCU students began to slow down. In some cases, it dropped.
Correspondingly, the average educational debt of a CCCU graduate slowed as well.
“Starting with the recession, there was a shift in the attitudes of families in willingness to sacrifice to send their kid to their first-choice school,” said Nelson, who is the chief institutional data and research officer at Bethel University in Minnesota. “When Mom or Dad went out of work and they went from two incomes to one, they rethought how important it was to go to a higher-cost school.”
Christian parents started looking at less expensive options. By 2018, nearly half of responding CCCU schools (46 percent) told a Bethel University survey that a public university was their No. 1 competition.
“We know people who don’t want their child to look at out-of-state schools because they’re more expensive,” parent Teri Vos said. “They say the same thing about private education vs. public universities.”
That means Christian college recruiters have to work harder.
“My stars, the enrollment operation of liberal arts colleges 40 years ago was to have a couple young graduates who would go out and get your next class,” said Paul Corts, former president of Wingate College, Palm Beach Atlantic University, and the CCCU. Now “the cost of attracting a student is very high.”
Part of that cost is the campus.
“It’s an arms race,” Dockery said. “We all had to do what we needed to compete.” Colleges upgraded their technology and built new dorms, classrooms, and gyms.
At Union, student apartments offer private bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a washer and a dryer. (“They’re spectacular,” Dockery said. “That helped us recruit students.”) At Lee University, a “gorgeous new state-of-the art building with all the robotic equipment” was built for nursing majors, president Paul Conn said. The program, which didn’t exist five years ago, now has 400 majors.
Some of the upgrades were done pre-recession, when budgets were deep in the black, and it seemed like enrollment would ever only grow. Some were done later, in an often-successful bid to attract high-school seniors.
But “all that drove up the price,” Dockery said. Not so much for the construction itself—that was often paid for with capital campaigns—but for ongoing upkeep. “Now we hit a price point, and a lot of parents won’t pay.”
“We’ve overbuilt,” Nelson said.
But that’s not even the biggest problem.Student Aid
During the Great Recession, the percent of “needy” CCCU applicants rose dramatically, from a median of 67 percent in 2007–2008 to 77 percent in 2012–2013. While the number later dipped, it remains substantially higher than pre-recession levels.
Part of that was their parents’ ability to write tuition checks, which took a sharp dip in 2008 and then leveled off for a few years before beginning to climb again in 2014. But by then, tuition rate increases had left wage increases in the dust.
So schools kept sweetening the deal. The average CCCU discount rate—or the amount given to students as grants and scholarships—rose steadily from around 32 percent in 2006–2007 to 47 percent in 2018–2019. (Other private colleges have taken this same route—the average discount rate for incoming freshmen at private, not-for-profit American universities for the 2017–2018 school year was 50 percent.)
It’s not that Christian high schoolers are pitting CCCU schools against each other, though of course the financial packages they get do weigh into their decisions. More than that, “there is increased aggressiveness from public higher education,” Conn said. “When I was first president [in 1986], the state schools were almost like public utilities that provided a service to the public. They didn’t have the entrepreneurial model. But they do now.”
The average CCCU discount rate has risen to 47 percent.
Conn tells his recruiters, “Right now, our prospects are getting calls from other schools—Kennesaw State University, University of North Carolina, Middle Tennessee State University. Parents are thinking, You can go there with a combination of state grants and a little extra money. That’s probably what we ought to do.”
It’s the Christian parents who have been through the process who are a little savvier when thinking about college costs.
“We’ve learned that the initial price tag you see online and on the paperwork is not necessarily where you’ll land,” Vos said. The range of scholarships—from athletic to academic to leadership to music to theater to just “the average student”—is so wide that “whatever the price tag, no matter your student, [the final cost] can change so much.”
Maybe too much. All that aid means that many schools are giving away scholarships and grants faster than they raise their prices.
“This is the cause of our schools’ discontent,” Nelson said. “Prior to the recession, the amount of money they netted in a given year was going up by about 5 percent a year.”
That was about perfect. Nelson’s rule of thumb is that a college needs inflation plus 1.5 percent—that extra percent is because colleges spend most of their money paying faculty and staff, who need raises—in revenue in order to thrive. From 2000 to 2008, inflation bounced around 3 percent. Add the 1.5 and you’re right around 4.5 percent to 5 percent.
But now, “even with the increase of the family ability to pay in recent years, fully half of our schools are not even netting as much revenue as they did the year before,” Nelson said.
That’s the crux of the crisis—in order to attract students, schools are bringing in less money due to discounted tuition while at the same time spending more on upgrades.
And they haven’t even reached the cliff.Birth Rate Cliff
After World War II, American GIs came home, married their sweethearts, and started having babies.
What followed was a bust, then smaller population bumps as the populous Boomers had children and then grandchildren.
When the Great Recession hit, the population of 18-year-olds had just peaked and was entering a seven-year decline—though enrollment was propped up by larger percentages of those 18-year-olds going to college.
That decline lasted only a few years before catching and moving back up. For the past four years, the pool of potential college freshmen has increased.
But it’s easy to see why that increase won’t last. During the Great Recession, like nearly all other times of financial stress, Americans had fewer babies. That rate hasn’t picked back up; in May, the Centers for Disease Control announced that 2018 saw the lowest number of births in 32 years.
“What we see in California is that in 2026–2028 there will be a significant drop off in high-school graduates,” Biola University president Barry Corey said. “If we mirror that, which we have for 60 years, that will affect us—unless we decide now that we’re going to do something different.”Something Different
In May, Gordon College announced it was working on a 7 percent budget cut, which will include eliminating 36 faculty and staff positions, consolidating philosophy/history/political science into one department, and cutting seven majors—including chemistry, Spanish, and social work.
“The short story is that higher education is changing, and Gordon must adapt accordingly,” Gordon announced. “Gordon is taking strategic steps to meet new market realities out of financial prudence and not out of financial distress. (In other words, we’re choosing to be proactive now rather than waiting to be creative later, when financial pressure would be stronger.)”
Other Christian schools are also choosing to consolidate or eliminate shrinking liberal arts departments and lean into STEM fields, where the students are. Still others are adding graduate programs, jumping into technology fields, or moving more courses online.
We have to think outside the box and be innovative. We have to think about, What is the new frontier that is relevant to our institution, that fits who we are?
“Some of us are thinking, Well, we’ve turned up the dials as much as we can on traditional models,” Corey said. “We can’t keep increasing our discount rate or eliminate any more fat or excess. We have to think outside the box and be innovative. We have to think about, What is the new frontier that is relevant to our institution, that fits who we are?”
He recommends schools plan now, before financial pressure means “you have no recourse but to do whatever the new thing is.”
“We’re all so tuition-driven that we have to respond to the market,” Dockery said. “And that’s where the real tensions come, because where do you lose the mission in all of this? It’s not just a matter of surviving. It’s surviving faithfully.”
CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra calls it a “disrupted” time.
“We’re going from something familiar and predictable to something less predictable but on the edge of exciting,” she said. She’s optimistic because in the instability of the higher-education market, Christian colleges have advantages: “Generally, they’re run with financially sound principles. And they have an extraordinary, distinct mission.
“Today’s problems are very complex, which is why I think Christian higher education is needed today more than ever,” she said. “You can’t take out the spiritual components of society and life and expect to get the answers we need for the challenges we have.”
The Story: Fertility clinics across America are struggling with a growing number of abandoned embryos—many that are being left behind by Christian parents.
The Background: NBC News recently ran a feature story highlighting the problems of children being created and then cryogenically frozen and abandoned in the embryonic stage of development. While this may seem like a story from a dystopian science-fiction novel, it’s an all-too-common reality in the age of in-vitro fertilization.
As Mary Pflum notes in her article, in the 1990s, many fertility clinics considered it necessary to inseminate as many of a patient’s eggs as possible, because many embryos didn’t make it through the freezing and thawing process. Although IVF techniques have improved and made the creation of “excess embryos” unnecessary, the practice is still common. As embryologist Christine Allen says,
“[But] you still see many physicians with the mentality of, ‘the more, the merrier.’ So you see [some women] having 40, 50, or 60 eggs retrieved in a cycle and the embryologist gets the orders from her doctor to inseminate all of them—and the question isn’t asked if the patient even wants that many inseminated.
“Nobody’s going to have 30 kids,” she said.
Embryos that aren’t implanted in the womb are cryogenically frozen and put into storage. No one knows for sure how many frozen embryos are currently being stored in America, but the credible estimates range from 90,000 to several million. The cost of storage usually runs from $500 to $1,000 a year per IVF patient, leading many parents to abandon their created but unimplanted children.
Pflum points out that while clinics have different definitions of what constitutes an “abandoned embryo” the term generally refers to a situation in which a patient has not paid storage fees related to a frozen embryo for five or more years (sometimes as little as one year), and fails to respond to letters and calls from the clinic.
The clinics can’t simply give the children to other parents and are hesitant to destroy them:
“What if one day someone shows up and says, ‘Where’s my embryo?’ And you wind up on the front page of the newspaper for destroying someone’s embryo? The damage would be done,” he said.
For that reason, Patrizio said, his clinic doesn’t destroy abandoned embryos.
Richard Vaughn, a founding partner of the International Fertility Law Group, a national law firm that specializes in fertility matters, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, said he knows of no fertility clinics willing to dispose of abandoned embryos.
“They don’t want to be responsible for a wrongful death,” he said.
The result is that more children are being abandoned each year with no solution in sight. “I think many of us realize that we have a bit of a mess and I’m not sure doctors know how to fix it,” Craig Sweet says. “But we need to try.”
Why It Matters: The abandonment and death of embryos outside the womb is one of the most scandalous and oft-ignored issues with the Christian pro-life movement.
Over the last few decades the pro-life community has begun to show more concern for embryo destruction that occurs outside the womb. Yet while we have taken tentative steps to oppose efforts to destroy embryos for speculative scientific research (i.e., embryonic stem-cell research) we have turned a blind eye to how, out of the desire to have a child, our fellow citizens—including many Christians—have created “extra” or “spare” embryos that are abandoned to die.
Whether in the womb of a woman or in a storage locker in a fertility clinic, all human embryos have the same moral status and deserve the same level of protection from harm. The pain of infertility does not provide an exemption from this obligation.
Every year the suffering caused by infertility leads many Christian families to turn to IVF. These procedures are inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment, and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best technique offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in order to increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child by creating more embryos than will be implanted.
Whether IVF itself is completely acceptable for Christians is a question worthy of debate. In the absence of clear scriptural guidelines, there are bound to be disagreements (I would almost always advise against IVF, though I respect those who do not share my qualms). However, there are some methods and approaches that are indisputably unethical and temptations to act immorally abound. The result is that almost every fertility clinic in America has become a dystopian orphanage in which children are created and then put into suspended animation until they die.
The extra expense required to avoid moral wrongdoing may be substantial or even prohibitive. But the cost of destroying the embryo is even higher. It is never God’s will that we abandon or kill one child in order to give life to another. As parents and followers of Jesus our obligation is clear: we should never create a child that we know will be abandoned and left to die. If IVF cannot be done morally, then it must not be done at all.
Perhaps nothing is more encouraging to Christians than a conversion story. Like our Savior, we rejoice to hear of even one sinner who repents, which makes the latest offering from Randy Newman, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us about Evangelism, a particularly heartening read. He tells the stories of many who have come to faith in Christ, some in rather unexpected ways.
This is familiar ground for Newman. His well-known work Questioning Evangelism reflects on the evangelistic method of Jesus, helping us engage others with the gospel by asking questions. But this newest book follows a different path. Here Newman—senior teaching fellow with The C. S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C.—speaks with multiple unlikely converts, researching their testimonies, then gleaning observations both practical and also biblical for all would-be evangelists.Evangelism Is a Process
Coming to Christ takes time. If there’s one lesson that permeates Newman’s research, it’s this: people generally accept the gospel gradually. This isn’t to argue against conversion as a work of the Spirit at a point in time. But it’s a recognition that the Spirit often opens blinded eyes through a series of events. He tends to do so through the witness of believers over a period of weeks, months, even years.
Some do experience sudden conversion, of course; there’s no prerequisite to faith. But when we see dramatic transformation in a moment, we sometimes overlook all that led to that point. For example, instantaneous conversion stories from the Bible are themselves often the result of what some might call “pre-evangelism.” Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius (Acts 10), or the Philippian jailer (Acts 16), each had prior exposure to Scripture and the believing community.
Given this point, Newman suggests a number of applications. He reinforces the benefits of pre-evangelism, the work we do to prepare others to receive the gospel. But he also advocates for the work we do to prepare ourselves with the gospel, what he calls evangelistic brainstorming. To this end, each chapter concludes with questions to help us think ahead of time, before we try to speak the good news with others.
People generally accept the gospel gradually.
Understanding the process of conversion helps our evangelistic approach in other ways. Christians tend to withhold the gospel based on our assumptions of others’ interest in the gospel. But as Newman shows in the numerous stories, unbelievers rarely verbalize what they’re internally processing. In fact, sometimes their thoughts are in direct conflict with their demeanor and actions. Just because a person leads a promiscuous lifestyle doesn’t mean they’re convinced it’s either right or good. Only when someone takes the initiative to ask a personal question, give them a Bible, invite them to church, or speak the gospel is their internal processing on spiritual matters engaged.
Recognizing that conversion takes time also frees us from feeling like we must seal the deal in any given conversation. We haven’t failed if someone doesn’t respond immediately. We also don’t have to have all the answers on the spot. Simply starting the conversation is important. We can leave people with nuggets of truth. Or we can challenge them with a provocative question, then give them space to process their thoughts and return. As Newman puts it, “We want to engage more than amaze.”
There is a potential pitfall here. When we observe that people tend to believe gradually, does that mean we should always take a gradual approach? I don’t think so. Also, is it possible that these testimonies reflect more on the way we tend to approach evangelism (tentatively) than on the way God saves? These are significant questions. And however we might answer, I think Newman would agree that being patient in our evangelism doesn’t imply that we should avoid difficult truths (such as hell or judgment) or ignore calls for repentance.Evangelism Is a Community Project
Reading the stories of how various people come to faith in Christ, you soon realize that effective evangelism happens in various ways, and it includes a variety of people. One plants; another waters; but God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6–9). Evangelism, like gardening, is a process, and it often involves many participants. New converts typically need to hear the gospel more than once, and they need to hear it—sometimes in a different way—from more than one person. This book helps us see the part each of us can play with our variety of gifts. No one person or personality makes for the perfect evangelist.
This realization also plays into the importance of the local church for evangelism. As Newman asserts, “The concept of body evangelism can’t be overstressed. If people need to hear multiple presentations from numerous voices and see the gospel lived out in a variety of ways, what better place for that to occur than in a local church?”
Evangelism, like gardening, is a process, and it often involves many participants.
Over and over these stories show how people are attracted to Christ through his people. This, to me, makes total sense, because Christian conversion is more than just picking a belief system. It’s even more than “choosing Christ.” It’s like finding a family. We’ve all heard that Christian hypocrisy is one of the primary reasons why people reject the gospel. That assertion, if true, is truly disheartening. But it can also be very encouraging. Because, if the inverse is true, it would mean that a healthy church and gracious Christians will be a profound reason for unbelievers to receive the good news about Jesus.
Of course, this shows that, no matter how extraordinary someone’s conversion may be—and all Christian conversion is miraculous—evangelism tends to be ordinary. Many of these stories are of people who were, so to speak, surprising converts. But their conversion tended to be the result of the ordinary means of kindness, prayer, service, patience, and faithful witness.Unlikely Converts, Unlikely Evangelists
Newman’s book about unlikely converts is perhaps most helpful as it expands our categories. He wants us to see the capaciousness of the gospel, and of the act of evangelism itself. The gospel is for everyone. And the task of evangelism includes every Christian—even those you’d least expect. In all of this, the underlying theme Newman emphasizes is God’s powerful work in salvation from beginning to end. Nothing will be impossible with God. As such, Christian conversion is never truly “unlikely.”
The gospel is for everyone. And the task of evangelism includes every Christian—even those you’d least expect.
With the book drawing to a close, after introducing us to so many others, Newman takes time to remember his personal journey to faith in Christ. It’s almost as if he can’t help but tell his own story. It’s the story of a disaffected Jewish kid, disconnected from God, but who listened in on his friends’ prayers. It’s the story of a teenager who was invited to youth group and perhaps went for the wrong reasons. It’s the story of an intellectual college student who drank too much but still felt empty. It’s the story of a young man who kept encountering Christians, kept hearing the gospel, and who eventually became an unlikely evangelist.
When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way. (Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”)
Well Stevie, you may sing that, but I want to tell you about a mystery I’ve been trying to unravel that leads me to conclude that, for many, superstition really is the way. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin . . .
It all started one drab overcast London afternoon, a few months back. I was in my study preparing to do some teaching based on the theological anthropology of my hero, the Reformed missiologist J. H. Bavinck. Drawing from a life’s observations on the mission field together with a profound theological insight, Bavinck developed what he called the “magnetic points.” This refers to “a sort of framework within which the religious thought of humankind must move . . . . There appear to be certain intersections around which all sorts of ideas crystallize . . . [or] magnetic points to which the religious thinking of mankind is irresistibly attracted.”
In short, although grounded in creation, these points are our perennial human idolatrous responses (our suppression of truth and replacement of created things) to God’s manifestation of his “eternal power” and “divine nature” (Rom. 1:20) which, for Bavinck, pertain to our creaturely dependence and accountability to our Creator. The magnetic points provide a morphology to the messy mix in which sinful image bearers who know God and don’t know him and who are running to and running away from him, at the same time. These points make up the religious consciousness of humankind throughout history. I’ve renamed these points as “Totality,” “Norm,” “Deliverance,” “Destiny,” and “Higher Power.”
I am of the opinion that these “points” are a tremendous analytical and heuristic tool for out times, and my task was to describe these points, give contemporary cultural examples of where we see them, and to show how in terms of our apologetics and discipleship (surprise, surprise!) Jesus Christ both subverts and fulfills them. I decided to reach out to some current Oak Hill students and alumni to source me examples of the “points” they had come across in their lives and ministry. Examples began to come in, but one in particular piqued my interest. The “magnetic point” in question was “Destiny,” which deals with the riddle human beings wrestle with concerning the interplay of fate and freedom.
Throughout the history of philosophy and the great world religions this tension has been evidenced in the most sublime and sophisticated ways. I could easily reference a Greek tragedy, discuss the concepts of qadar in Islam, or karma in Hinduism. Maybe I could impress you with a memorized quotation from Spinoza or Schiller. However, let’s get real. Let’s talk your average Brit in 2019.
I did a double-take when I read the sign in front of a small white church beside a two-lane blacktop that snaked through the hills of western North Carolina. I stopped and backed up my SUV to get a second look. The weathered 12-by-18 sign read: “Welcome to Trinity Baptist Church. We are an Independent, Bible-believing, Trinitarian, KJV-only, amillennial, evangelistic congregation.”
Two things on the sign captured my attention: “KJV-only” and “amillennial.” The Bible translation didn’t surprise me much, but I’m more accustomed to churches affirming the KJV alongside some form of premillennialism, so the amil affirmation took me back a little.
But that church’s sign does raise an important question for confessional Christians: which doctrines should be included in a church’s or evangelical organization’s confession of faith?Theological Triage
In Albert Mohler’s helpful scheme of theological triage, issues such as eschatology or church music are third-level doctrines on which good Christians may disagree and (typically) still be considered not only orthodox, but part of the same denomination or church in good standing. Mohler, a TGC Council member and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, led the school back to its confessional roots in the 1990s after it had fallen into theological liberalism in the mid-20th century.
While Christians should never approach any doctrine with anything less than full seriousness, Mohler establishes three orders of doctrines that are helpful in establishing confessional non-negotiables:
First-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself. . . . The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. . . . Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most debates over eschatology, for example, in this category.EFCA and Premillennialism
Last month, 79 percent of delegates to biennial meeting of the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA) voted in favor of a motion to amend Article 9 of the denomination’s Statement of Faith. Previously, Article 9 affirmed premillennialism as the exclusive view on the timing of Christ’s return. Formerly the article read, “We believe in the personal, bodily, and premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Members voted to replace “premillennial” with “glorious,” thus avoiding narrow subscription to a millennial view.
How should confessional Christians stay out of the opposite ditches of making either everything or nothing a first-order issue?
The EFCA first proposed the change during its 2017 meeting. The Board of Directors, composed of leaders who affirm the Statement of Faith, including premillennialism, presented the motion to the assembly. EFCA leaders believed requiring members to subscribe to premillennialism conflicted with a higher core value of Christians uniting around the truths of the gospel. The length of the millennium and the timing of Christ’s return simply were not theological lines EFCA leaders thought should be drawn. For this, they should be strongly applauded. I say this as a confessional Baptist, committed to the Second London Confession of 1689.Two Extremes
Two extremes ought to be avoided when discussing theological triage and confessional statements. Fundamentalism tends to operate as if every theological issue is of first importance and, therefore, no second- and third-order issues exist. Theological liberalism, meanwhile, tends to operate as if no first-order issues exist. So how should confessional Christians stay out of the opposite ditches of making either everything or nothing a first-order issue?
Here are three questions we might ask to determine whether or not to include non-fundamental issues in a confession of faith.1. Have the major historical confessions addressed it?
The best of the historical statements of faith, particularly in the Reformed tradition, have not typically included third-level doctrines such as the millennium and the timing of Christ’s return. Architects of both the Second London Confession of 1689 and its Presbyterian cousin, the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), included articles on the reality of final judgment and the truthfulness of Christ’s return, but not the timing or the millennium.
Chapter 32 (“The Last Judgment”) in the Second London Confession begins: “God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness, by Jesus Christ.” The second paragraph reads: “The end of God’s appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient.” Chapter 33 of the WCF words it the same way.
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional statement, deals with “Last Things” in chapter 20: “According to his promise, Jesus will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth.” Others such as the Belgic Confession deal with the last things similarly.
The major confessions among Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (as well as the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles) have included mainly first- and second-order issues: all doctrines germane to orthodox Christianity and the gospel such as justification by faith, the person and work of Christ, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the resurrection of Christ, along with denominational distinctives such as church government, baptism, and the sacraments (or ordinances).
Congregationalists in England published the Savoy Declaration in 1658, and British Calvinistic Baptists drew up the Second London Confession three decades later with the specific intent of demonstrating that neither was a dangerous, heretical sect; both affirmed the same orthodox, evangelical theology as the Westminster divines. Baptists and Congregationalists, among others, were being persecuted as heretics and seditionists by the state-run church.
Churches and organizations have penned many other excellent confessions in the centuries following the Reformation; almost none of them has demanded specific views on third-level issues such as the millennium or the timing of Jesus’s return—for good reason.2. Does demanding subscription to this doctrine needlessly divide Christians?
If nothing else, the EFCA’s move is commendable because it aimed to avoid dividing good Christians needlessly. The board made clear that the EFCA is not pressing for relational unity at the cost of doctrinal purity. Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, assured members the revision did not represent a drift toward theological minimalism:
There are three issues in the question. First, it is never one over against another. Doctrinal truth and purity is always foundational to relational unity. Any true experienced unity is grounded in doctrinal truth. Second, this is not a matter of doctrinal minimalism. If it were, many biblical truths would not be included and necessary to affirm in our Statement of Faith. The better way to understand our Statement of Faith is that it is an essentialist statement, not a minimalist statement. This is also why it is necessary for all those credentialed to affirm the Statement of Faith “without mental reservation.” That means we are strict subscriptionists. It is required to affirm the complete Statement of Faith “without mental reservation.” There is no good-faith subscription allowed, which would grant certain exceptions or caveats in belief as long as they are approved. Finally, in the EFCA we take seriously the one new community God creates through his Son by the Spirit. This is experiencing and living out the truth and reality of the work of Christ. . . . It is a unity centered on the truth of the gospel, even if and when there are differences on secondary and tertiary matters.
I once spent several months as a candidate for the office of senior pastor in a church in the Deep South. I went through three rounds of interviews, including one for which I traveled for a face-to-face session. I wrote answers to theological and practical questions that totaled nearly 40 pages. The committee also interviewed my wife extensively. Numerous phone calls went back and forth between the chairman and me. I probably invested well more than 100 hours in the process, and it became clear that I was the leading candidate.
So the search committee scheduled a weekend on which my family would meet the congregation, participate in a battery of meetings, and then I’d preach on Sunday. Unfortunately, my candidacy ended abruptly when the committee learned that I didn’t subscribe to Scofieldian Dispensationalism, which was included in an appendix (which I hadn’t seen) to the church’s confession.
I wasn’t bothered so much by the fact that they didn’t call me as pastor; obviously, it wasn’t God’s will. I did, however, believe this confessional item was unwise and divided brothers needlessly. An evangelical confession should avoid that mistake. My current elder board includes men with a variety of views on issues such as the end times, church-music styles, and Bible translations—and we’ve never experienced division over it. Consciously reject the Trinity and you’re not a Christian. Reject believer’s baptism and you’ll need to join another denomination. Reject my view of the millennium, and we can serve on the elder board together.
Reject the Trinity and you’re not a Christian. Reject believer’s baptism and you’ll need to join another denomination. Reject my view of the millennium, and we can serve on the elder board together.
A church or denomination’s confession should affirm all the cardinal doctrines that define orthodox Christianity and important second-order issues that make up denominational or church distinctives such as baptism, the sacraments (or ordinances), issues related to complementarianism/egalitarianism, and church polity.3. Is it related to an issue that demands the church speak prophetically?
There are legitimate occasions that call Christians to speak prophetically by narrowing—often by adding to or clarifying—their confession of faith.
For example, in the late 1990s, rising feminism and the broader culture’s attack on marriage prompted the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt articles on male headship and the sanctity of biblical marriage and to add them to the Baptist Faith and Message.
In 2008, the EFCA revised its article on the doctrine of God to reaffirm God’s exhaustive knowledge and the reality of God’s wrath—old orthodox truths that were being challenged by open theism.
The Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 spoke to such issues as “Of the Mass,” “Of the Marriage of Priests,” “Of Confession,” and “Of the Distinction of Meats.” Similarly, Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles rejects the doctrine of purgatory. Centuries later, these may seem like tertiary issues, but they were of massive consequence and strident debate amid the early decades of the Reformation. Churches need to declare their colors on those matters.
Christian organizations often adopt confessions of faith to directly address burning issues in the culture, as was the case with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when it published the Danvers Statement on gender roles in 1987 and, more recently, the Nashville Statement affirming biblical sexuality.
Historically, the tendency to include premillennialism in mid-20th-century evangelical confessions came in response to the modernist–fundamentalist controversy. Premillennialism served as a badge of membership for conservative evangelicals over against amillennialism, which was perceived at the time as a view that signaled theological liberalism. Since then this perception, and thus the level of urgency, has changed.
If a church, denomination, or Christian organization needs to offer clarity or speak prophetically, then adding or revising articles is valid, even necessary. There are times when a non-first-order issue, such as egalitarianism/complementarianism, rises to a level of importance that it must be dealt with confessionally. In other words, our triage chart on second- and third-level issues may change as circumstances such as cultural pressure and theological debates demand.Guardrails
I’m thankful to have been a part of confessional Reformed Christianity for many years now, and I want to do everything I can to nurture it. But I don’t want to define membership by millennial views or Bible-translation preferences.
Confessions of faith should function as guardrails, not a straightjacket.
- Brian J. Tabb | Editorial: Fulfill Your Ministry. Tabb explains that Paul’s exhortation to “fulfill your ministry” means that the servant of Christ must fully carry out the assignment he has received from the Lord in a way that is biblically faithful and spiritually fruitful.
- Daniel Strange | Strange Times: Never Say ‘the Phones Are Quiet’. Strange examines the superstitious avoidance of “Quiet” and argues that Christian witness must be loud as we live with a bold freedom and not in fear.
- Jason S. DeRouchie | The Mystery Revealed: A Biblical Case for Christ-Centered Old Testament Interpretation. DeRouchie provides a biblical-theological foundation for a Christ-centered hermeneutic, arguing that Jesus himself provides both the light for enabling us to see and savor what is in the OT and the necessary lens that influences and guides our reading by filling out the meaning.
- Peter R. Schemm and Andreas J. Köstenberger | The Gospel as Interpretive Key to 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16: On Christian Worship, Head Coverings, and the Trinity. Schemm and Köstenberger interpret Paul’s challenging statements about head coverings as an apostolic application of the gospel—especially the idea of giving glory and honor to God—to dishonoring worship practices in the Corinthian church.
- Mark L. Strauss | A Review of the Christian Standard Bible. Strauss explains that the CSB translation follows a mediating approach between formal and functional equivalence and is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the HCSB, in terms of both accuracy and style.
- Coleman M. Ford | ‘Striving for Glory with God’: Humility as the Good Life in Basil of Caesarea’s Homily 20. According to Ford, Basil of Caesarea presents humility as the essence of the good life and as the chief virtue based on Christ’s own humility.
- C. J. Moore | Can We Hasten the Parousia? An Examination of Matthew 24:14 and Its Implications for Missional Practice. Moore critically examines appeals to an eschatological motivation for missions and offers a modified view that frees the missionary to simply proclaim the gospel of Christ with a proper recognition of God’s sovereignty over both salvation and the Parousia.
- Jackson Wu | The Doctrine of Scripture and Biblical Contextualization: Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy, and the Canon. Wu explores the relationship between contextualization and an evangelical doctrine of the Bible; he not only affirms the importance of contextualization but also identifies its biblical boundaries.
- Zachary Breitenbach | The Insights and Shortcomings of Kantian Ethics: Signposts Signaling the Truthfulness of Christian Ethics. Breitenbach compares three insightful objectives of Kant’s ethical system grounded in pure reason to three crucial ethical principles that are taught in the Bible, and he argues that shortcomings of Kantian ethics serve as a signpost to the truth of Christian ethics.
- Drew Hunter | Hebrews and the Typology of Jonathan Edwards. Hunter considers Jonathan Edwards’s typological interpretive practices and principles and shows the unique contribution that Edwards’s principled typological method makes to current discussions about typology and the use of the Old Testament in the New.
The question of whether or not we should take fitness seriously is a modern question. For much of human history, the manual labor required by life kept people naturally fit without the need for additional exercise. But humans in the 21st century can be incredibly sedentary.
In this discussion, Biola professor Erik Thoennes and TGC Council member and pastor Jeremy Treat discuss the dualism that sometimes leads Christians to believe their bodies don’t matter. We are both body and soul, and when we steward our bodies well, we can often extend the years we will be physically able to serve God and others. On the other hand, a preoccupation with fitness can become an idol. We need to ask ourselves hard questions, such as “Is my identity in my appearance or in Christ?” and “Am I focusing more on the outer man than the inner?”
“We need to realize that there’s a holistic view biblically of human beings as body and soul,” Thoennes says. “And so we need to care for our bodies and our souls and also realize that those two work together. That often the health of your body has an effect on your soul.”
As an avid baseball fan, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that successful major league teams invest heavily in their “farm” systems—that’s what you call the development pipeline (or the minor leagues) of teams in the majors. This is where young players are trained and hope for a shot at the pros.
In a sense, this is what church-planting internships and residencies can be—the “minor leagues” of pastoral ministry. And yet, as someone who has worked with lots of church planters over the years, my observation is that many neglect these opportunities. Some question the value and cost of building up interns and residents. In reality, they should be considering the cost of not doing so.
Most healthy church plants spend significant time and energy up front on their interns and residents.
In my experience, most healthy church plants—like successful major league ball clubs—spend significant time and energy up front on their interns and residents. Therefore, church-planting pastors should invest in building a good internship program. This has numerous benefits for the pastor, the intern, and the church as a whole.For the Church Planter 1. Maintain clarity in gospel leadership, mission, and communication.
Even the simplest questions from an intern can keep church planters honest about things like doctrine, values, and practice. And during the early, pivotal years of a church plant’s life, staying sharp on such things is crucial. Providing a channel for clarifying questions and honest feedback from interns will inevitably challenge one’s leadership, which can help pastors to shepherd God’s people better.2. Love in a costly way.
Think about what it takes to raise funds, develop relationships, and provide channels to learn, take ownership, and lead. All of these require time away from sermon prep and daily church needs. In this sense, interns are costly. And fruit from these investments may not even be realized in our own church plants, but we can trust that they are worthy investments in God’s economy.
I’ve seen churches in some of the most difficult-to-reach places—such as Camden, New Jersey—invest in interns who eventually became church leaders who went on to plant other healthy churches. This is a costly endeavor no matter where it’s done. But as church planters, we do this in service to our Savior, who came to us in humility, taking on the very nature of a servant for our sake (Phil. 2:6–8).For the Intern 1. Provide a practical model of ministry with opportunities to mature.
Good internships enable future church planters to mature into biblical elders. As they engage in ministry alongside experienced pastors, they learn “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household . . . the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Good internships enable future church planters to mature into biblical elders.
One way our church seeks to do this is by running monthly “sermon labs” with our residents. In these labs, they get an inside look at what goes into sermon prep, and in time, they get to use this opportunity as they prepare to preach God’s Word themselves.2. Provide opportunities to experience gospel renewal, exercise teachability, and demonstrate faithfulness in service.
In both formal and informal gatherings, our pastors share their experiences and failures, and celebrate the gospel that underlies both. As interns witness this, they develop both the humility and also the confidence that stem from one’s identity in Christ. When interns can see elders modeling faithful, others-centered service to Christ, it helps them grow to do the same.For the Church Member 1. Provide a vibrant, visible model of discipleship.
Discipleship is usually more organic than structured. So rather than going through a standard interview procedure, most of our interns engage in a three- to six-month candidacy process. During this time, our staff develops a relationship with each candidate, and we seek to share and demonstrate how our core values shape our culture.
Church members witness this relationship develop from the start—through means such as Sunday worship, leadership training, community groups, staff meetings, and one-on-ones. But they also see discipleship happen in the regular rhythms of life. For example, I rarely run errands, exercise, or have meals on my own. And when I’m in the office, someone is usually working alongside me.
As church members see this kind of discipleship modeled, they learn to practice it in their own lives.
While these are all “normal” life activities, they are precious opportunities for discipleship, for in these times I get to listen, pray with, and challenge younger brothers as I engage in their personal lives (and they in mine). As church members see this kind of discipleship modeled, they learn to practice it in their own lives.2. Teach the church what’s really important in Christian leadership.
No matter how often I say I value gospel character, it’s easy to gravitate toward those with competence—sometimes even mistaking competence for character. Much like the prophet Samuel, we are drawn to “Eliabs” of the local church, and are tempted to quickly crown our more gifted prospects (1 Sam. 16:6).
But the book of Proverbs should caution us here, since it consistently refers to spiritual maturity as more of a walk than a sprint. Therefore, embedded in biblical discipleship is the need for step-by-step processing and practice in faith. As a result, the future of healthy church leadership is rooted in the daily spiritual journey of young leaders—assessing how they carry themselves, speak to others, and care for the flock—as opposed to the “big jump” moments of preaching, presentations, and programs.
Church-planter friends, how will we advance the gospel among skeptics and the “dechurched” without proactively training the very people called to lead the charge? Sure, it’s risky—not all internships end well. Some even result in difficult separations. That’s why it’s important to carefully evolve your model to enable the development of gifts and character in interns and residents.
Church plants effective in leadership development will successfully transfer their ethos and practice in a way that breeds mature future pastors, which will lead to more healthy churches planted for the glory of God.
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim 4:5)
There’s a big difference between starting and finishing, but one word carries both meanings. The word commencement is used in two common ways: the ceremony where degrees are conferred on graduates, and the beginning of a process. Each year in May, schools hold commencement or graduation services. Commencement is the finish line for which students labor and toil—some for many years—in hopes of donning an awkward robe and funny hat and walking across the stage to shake hands with the president or dean, pose for a photo, and receive their coveted diploma. However, graduation is not—or at least should not be—the ultimate goal of students’ studies. It is rather the conclusion of their academic preparation for something else. Those who enroll in seminary typically do so in order to be equipped for ministry. At Christian institutions, a commencement service celebrates the faithfulness of God, recognizes the achievement of those students who have “fulfilled” all of the requirements for their degrees, and then commissions them to carry out the good works to which God has called them. While commencement looks back and marks the close of one chapter, it also marks the beginning of a new one. Thus, I frequently charge seminarians who have fulfilled the requirements of their degree programs to “fulfill your ministry.”
Not everyone who begins seminary fulfills the requirements of their degree. Financial difficulties, health crises, family pressures, academic challenges, personal burnout, changes in calling, moral failings, or other factors may lead seminarians to withdraw before completing their program. Similarly, not all seminary graduates continue in faithful ministry. One study, Pastors in Transition, surveys seven motivating factors for why pastors leave their local churches:
- they preferred another kind of ministry;
- they need to care for children or family;
- they had conflict in the congregation;
- they had conflict with denominational leaders;
- they were burned out or discouraged;
- they left due to sexual sin;
- they left due to divorce or marriage problems.
A recent LifeWay study cites change in calling (37 percent) and conflict in the church (26 percent) as the top reasons for pastoral attrition, followed by family issues (17 percent), moral or ethical issues (13 percent), poor fit (13 percent), burnout (10 percent), personal finances (8 percent), and illness (5 percent).
Paul David Tripp cautions that “what we often call ‘ministry burnout’ . . . is often the result of pastors’ seeking in their own ministry what cannot be found there”—namely, one’s true security, identity, and heart rest. Ironically, multiple prominent Christian leaders who endorsed Tripp’s excellent book on the dangers confronting pastors have resigned or been removed from their pastorates in the past several years, illustrating the need for all of us to examine ourselves and take heed, lest we fall.
I can’t think of a time or place in my life where the ravages of sin attacked more fiercely, training in the faith was so costly, or where my love for God was tested so deeply as my years in seminary.
“Let me tell you why you’re wrong,” was often on my lips during seminary. I couldn’t understand why my family grew tired of my “lessons” in following Christ. Regrettably, I burned too many bridges to count by attacking my family with my newfound knowledge. Then I realized what a profound blessing it was to have an extended family thoroughly unimpressed with me.
I’d placed a priority on sets of facts, systems of thought, and propositions, yet hadn’t been aware of how I’d been arrogantly misusing that knowledge in my relationships. The pride in possessing that knowledge built a wall that strained familial relationships and created a barrier that proved more difficult to deconstruct than to build. Though my growing knowledge was a gift from God, I used it to build myself up instead of urging others to Christ.2. Ministry Flows from Relationships
Ministry flows from relationships, not accolades. My spiritual mentor had been telling me that for years, but I couldn’t hear it; I was too busy trying to become the “theology answer man.” It took me far too long to learn that the the first strategy for deconstructing non-Christian worldviews is listening, showing compassion, and remembering the names of other people’s children. Dropping transcendental “truth bombs” is not the place to start.
Evangelistically, the greatest tool for preaching the gospel isn’t “drive-by blasting” truth at people, but extending an invitation to people—an invitation to come and see God’s truth at work in my life. Perhaps this isn’t surprising to most, but it was refreshing and deeply emboldening for me. Ministry shouldn’t primarily center around turning every venue into a classroom, but in humble conversations that take place in homes, coffee shops, and at work.3. You Can Get an ‘A’ Sinfully
Can you be a good student and get a “C” in homiletics? In seminary, there’s simply not enough time to do all the assignments, read all the papers, hold down a job, get internship hours, spend time with family, and sleep. One of my professors stressed this point early for me, and it removed the performance pressure to achieve a stellar GPA. The tension of juggling all these duties and obligations simultaneously forces us to make choices at particular intersections: “Will my grade suffer, or will my family suffer?”
If a married man with children is willing to sacrifice his relationship with the kids or his wife to achieve an “A,” he’s sinning. Accomplishing that grade could be a gloss for his failure as a father or a husband. Similarly, students without a family may have all the time necessary to gain high marks in all their classes. The “B” that a married student with kids receives might be a mark of faithfulness, whereas the “B” the unmarried student without kids receives could indicate sinful complacency.4. Learning the Languages Can Be Perilous
Learning Greek and Hebrew can give a false sense of knowing the Bible’s “true” or “hidden” meaning. This attitude can function as a type of language gnosticism in which we can now comprehend what the verse really means or what some usage really denotes. This attitude can unintentionally detach the layperson from his or her own reading of Scripture.
Studying the languages is truly a joy and does yield insight, nuance, and echoes in the text we were unable to recognize before. But learning Greek and Hebrew doesn’t make us more capable of listening to God’s voice; it is the Spirit who illumines, whether or not we have studied the biblical languages. The possibility of pride taking root within our study of the biblical languages shouldn’t be treated lightly. The Bible is God’s Word for all the saints, not just for the seminarians.5. Your Supreme Calling Is Not to Ministry
We must never forget that our most important calling is not to be a lead pastor, associate pastor, professor, or parachurch ministry director. It’s not to get an MDiv, MA, or any variation of degree or title. Our most vital calling is to a person. It’s to know and love God ever more deeply through Jesus Christ.
All other observations and insights are inferior to the call we have to follow him. No calling is higher, because no sacrifice was greater than his.
“You know this would be a lot easier if you just left her. You have every biblical right to do so.”
These well-intentioned words came from a friend and confidant. My wife, Angel, and I were trying to repair a marriage in complete shambles. After several years of my neglect, my wife had rejected God and me emphatically and entered into a series of affairs.
But she had repented and we were trying to, alongside counselors and mentors, walk through a process of healing and restoration. Problem was, what had started with the confession of one affair had turned into another and another and another. I was crushed, broken, and numb. My friend was exasperated. Neither he nor I could get our minds around when this tumble down Alice’s rabbit hole might end.
Hope was slipping through our fingers and, along with it, any chance at God’s restorative work.Heaven to the Rescue
There was no reason for hope, humanly speaking—not for our marriage and certainly not for our vocational calling. There is no reason Angel and I should still be married. There is no reason Angel should be a counselor today. There is no reason I should be a pastor. And yet God rescued us. He brought hope where there was no hope, life where there was no life, trust where there was no trust.
The process was long and messy, but it was profoundly good. And God’s hope propelled it. His grace accomplished it.
Yet even when we know the power of God’s hope, we can be tempted to hopelessness. “I don’t even know why we’re here. Nothing is going to change.” I’ve heard those words many times in counseling sessions. I’ve felt those words from the posture, from the hollow eyes, from the sighs of those I’ve counseled.
Who is it you don’t believe can change? Your boss? Your employee? Your friend? Your son or daughter? Your spouse? You?Have You Given Up?
Who have you given up on? Be honest. You’ve probably given up on someone somewhere. Do you know the theological term for not having hope for someone, for giving up on them? To damn. That’s right. When you lose hope in someone you’re damning them.
The latter half of Romans 1 details the hopeless situation of those who have turned against God. In chilling language, Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). He explains that those in rebellion “are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20), and then he goes on three times in the next five verses to explain how God damns them: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts” (Rom. 1:24), and “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:26), and finally, “God gave them up to a debased mind” (Rom. 1:28).
On those four words—“God gave them up”—hang the icy chill of damnation.
Only God can damn. We should never give up on anyone, never lose hope for anyone. Jesus tells us that we are not only to love our neighbor, but also our enemy. And Paul explains that this love has the shape of hope. As Paul insists elsewhere, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).
Don’t lose hope. Not because your child, your boss, your employee, or your spouse is capable on their own of changing, but because you believe in the Spirit of God, who can transform any heart, who can resurrect the dead, and who can restore relationships beyond repair.Enemy of Hope
Ours is a culture of cynicism—untrusting, snarky cynicism. And cynicism chokes out hope. Cynicism is a helpful tool: It protects us from the disappointment of transformation that never happens, from the disappointment of broken promises. But the kingdom of God is not built on cynicism, and you will build a wall between you and the Spirit’s power when you cash out your hope for cynicism. There may be appropriate times to remove yourself from emotional and relational entanglement from another person, but we are to never lose hope.
One of the most remarkable things my wife and I have the privilege of witnessing as a counselor and a pastor is transformation invading the bleakest of situations. We’ve sat across from dozens of individuals and couples who’ve said, verbally or nonverbally: “I have no hope. Things can’t change.” In those moments, we often tell the individual or couple that we will carry the torch of hope for them until they can pick it up themselves. They may not believe change can come. But we do. Not because of who we are or who they are, but because of who God is.
We’ve seen it happen time after time. Change comes. Couples reunite after affairs, porn addictions are broken, the chains of anger are destroyed, cycles of despair are transformed.Path of Hope
How can you walk the path of hope? Romans contains more references to hope than does any other New Testament book. Paul begins with a bleak picture, but it doesn’t end that way. Here’s how he encourages us to promote hope when we see despair:
- Look to the cross and rejoice in the hope of your salvation (Rom. 5:2).
- Consider how God is building in you endurance, character, and hope amid trials (Rom. 5:4).
- Ponder how hope releases you from shame (Rom. 5:5).
- Reflect on how hope builds patience (Rom. 8:25).
- Let your hope spark rejoicing (Rom. 12:12).
- Consider how God’s redemptive story gives you hope (Rom. 15:4).
- Ruminate on how God’s character is marked by hope (Rom. 15:13).
- Remember that the Spirit residing in you results in hope (Rom. 15:13).
Do you long for transformation in some area of your life? A relationship? An addiction? Start with hope. God can do it! Let the seeds of hope germinate in your heart as you trust in the Holy Spirit, who can do far more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
Once upon a time I worked as a youth pastor in my local church. As I surveyed the collective wisdom shaping youth ministry, I began to worry that we were teaching kids modernist apologetics in a postmodernist context: prooftexting faith through superficial arguments that fell short with outsiders. Some of our kids—too many of them—found their faith shattered in college by an overconfident graduate student or an atheist professor. These intellectual challenges fueled an already popular narrative that the “secular academy” was hostile to Christian faith. But what if the problem was more about us than the places we sent our kids? What if faith is more about formation than testing?
Lesslie Newbigin’s little book Proper Confidence (which shortens and simplifies his earlier book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) hints at these possibilities and suggests what we might do about them. Drawing from the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, Newbigin distinguishes confidence from post-Cartesian understandings of certainty. Evangelical culture too often conflates these terms in unhelpful and unhealthy ways. Faith depends on confidence, not certainty. “You have believed because you have seen me,” Jesus says to Thomas after the resurrection. But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Distinguishing certainty from confidence foregrounds the connection between faith and doubt. “I believe,” cries the man with the demon-possessed son when he encounters Jesus. But the next bit matters, too: “Help my unbelief!” (Matt. 9:24). Faith, as Newbigin observes, is ultimately “the courage to confidently affirm beliefs which can be doubted.”Committing to Faith in the Face of Doubt
Because faith admits the possibility of doubt, it requires an ongoing personal commitment: “We are continually required to act on beliefs that are not demonstrably certain and to commit our lives to propositions that can be doubted.” Newbigin notes that faith isn’t limited to our beliefs: Our relationships with others also require a kind of “personal knowledge” that is “impossible without risk.” These relationships “cannot begin without an act of trust, and trust can be betrayed.”
We commit and recommit our lives and our relationships amid faith and doubt. More than the propositions we utter, these commitments bear witness to the gospel. And Newbigin recognizes that everything is on the line: “there are no insurance policies.” As the apostle Paul asserted, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
The distinguishing mark of Christian faith isn’t the absence of doubt but the object of trust.
Of course, we aren’t alone in risking everything: “So long as we continue to live we continually act on the assumption that certain things are true and others not.” The question, then, isn’t whether we wager but where we place our bet. The distinguishing mark of Christian faith isn’t the absence of doubt but the object of trust. Our confidence comes “not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known.” And this is precisely why Paul insists the risk is worth it: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” Our youth ministries would be better off modeling Paul’s confidence in Jesus than masking doubt with untenable appeals to certainty.
Newbigin captures this contrast in the final paragraph of Proper Confidence:
The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of demonstrable and indubitable knowledge. It is the confidence of one who had heard and answered the call that comes from the God through whom and for whom all things were made: “Follow me.”Liberals and Fundamentalists
Newbigin knew this claim ran headfirst into one of the major theological divides of our day: the tension between an open-ended liberalism and a close-minded fundamentalism. These labels are used “not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy.” One becomes a proxy for an absence of any confidence in commitments, the other synonymous with unfounded certainty. Newbigin sought to recover a more charitable gloss: “Liberalism at its best is marked by an open mind which is humble and ready to learn. Fundamentalism at its best is marked by a moral courage which holds fast to the truth even when it is assailed by counterclaims from without.”
Lesslie Newbigin played both pastor and educator to me through his little book, and it changed my life.
Such arguments sometimes cast Newbigin into a theological wilderness: too conservative for theological liberals and too liberal for theological conservatives. But his conviction and clarity strike the right balance: Our “understanding of the truth must be constantly open to revision and correction, but only and always within the irreversible commitment to Jesus Christ.” Christian faith is rooted not in the absence of doubt but in an abundance of hope.
Newbigin also emphasizes that confident faith isn’t at odds with reason. To the contrary, one of the most unreasonable claims we can make is that our certainty eliminates the possibility of doubt. Yet, too often this kind of claim unwittingly—and sometimes deliberately—anchors the catechesis of our kids.Newbigin Changed My Life
The tenuous link between faith and certainty was the context in which I first encountered Proper Confidence as a law student in the late-1990s. Raised in evangelical youth culture, I was confronting difficult texts of philosophical theology as part of a seminar on law and theology. Newbigin helped situate much of what I read. More importantly, he helped situate my own faith within that landscape, simultaneously strengthening the hope that I have in Jesus and chastening my prideful intellect. Newbigin played both pastor and educator to me through his little book, and it changed my life. If you don’t believe me, ask the groomsmen in my wedding six years later. It’s customary for the groom to give a small gift like a pocketknife or a wallet to the men who stand with him. My friends got copies of Proper Confidence.
Christian faith is rooted not in the absence of doubt but in an abundance of hope.
Newbigin has remained an important influence on my thinking. My most recent book, Confident Pluralism, sets out the civic and legal practices necessary for finding common ground across deep differences. The arguments in that book aren’t distinctly Christian—they are grounded in history, theory, and law. But they’re entirely compatible with Christian existence in a pluralistic society, and Newbigin helps explain why.
Proper confidence gives Christians the resources for confident pluralism, steering clear of the twin pitfalls of unwarranted certainty and functional relativism. This kind of confidence is better practiced than simply preached: Our witness to the truth of the gospel is “something that must be continually renewed, reknown, and reenacted throughout life.” And that is why for Christians, proper confidence and confident pluralism aren’t certain ends but faithful commitments, made in the hope of the resurrection.
“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.”
This quip is attributed to 17th-century author John Wilmot, but most any parent could echo it. Parenting is complex. But what if you could distill the Bible’s teaching about parenting into one sentence? Here’s my attempt:
As parents, we want to help our children live in sync with reality.
For my wife and me, this concept has become a guiding principle, a lighthouse in the fog. Yet as any parent can testify, the sentence itself may be simple, but the task is certainly not.Demands of Parenting
First, there’s the challenge of children. Every child is made in God’s image, unique and multi-faceted. That means parenting is never a one-size-fits-all scenario.
Then the complexity grows as each additional child enters the family. Not only are there more people, but the relationships between each of these people multiply, and each connection also requires attention. No wonder parenting is one of the most demanding pursuits on the planet.
There’s also a tangle of topics to unravel. How do I talk to my children about all the intricate issues we face today? Parents are supposed to be functional experts on everything from smartphones and social media to same-sex attraction and transgenderism.
Complicating matters further is the glut of available information on parenting, family, and children. There’s the free advice given by well-meaning family and friends. You may also have a shelf full of books on parenting. Then there are countless websites, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts funneling a torrent of parenting life-hacks straight to your phone. This abundance can quickly become overload.Clarity for Parenting
Despite parenting’s undeniable difficulties, God’s Word guides us through the thicket of complexity. Surprisingly, there are less than a dozen passages in Scripture directly addressing how a parent should rear a child. One is Deuteronomy 6:20–25:
When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.”
Did you notice anything unexpected in the parent’s reply to the son’s question? The child asks about the meaning of God’s many commands. In response, the parent recounts a story. If one of my kids were to ask me why he couldn’t do something in our house, I might give several kinds of in-depth answers. I might provide pros and cons of a particular course of action, or explain how it’s unloving or unbiblical, or just drop back and punt: “Because I said so.”
As parents, we want to help our children live in sync with the realities of a good yet broken world that Christ is redeeming.
Yet in this passage God reminds us that what lights our daily path is a story, the Story—where God rescues a people for himself. And this is nothing less than the “true story of the whole world.” The parental wisdom of Deuteronomy 6:20–25 means that explanation is helpful, but not enough. Clarity in decision-making, and clarity in parenting, rises from clarity about what is actually real about the story of life in God’s world.
As parents, we want to help our children live in sync with the realities of a good yet broken world that Christ is redeeming.Three Lenses
To get an accurate picture of life in this world, we must view everything through three lenses. The first lens provides the view that God made everything originally very good (Gen. 1:31). The next lens reveals that this good world is now also bad, broken and tainted by sin (Gen. 3). The third clarifies Jesus came to make new everything broken by sin (Rom. 8).
‘Good. Bad. New.’ Looking through these lenses brings clarity to complexity.
If you want to see God’s reality about anything, you must look at it using all three lenses at the same time. For example, food is part of God’s good design for mankind to enjoy, but there’s more to the story. If the blessing of food is abused, it’s also harmful (bad). Yet Jesus came to redeem even food, putting it in its proper place—not worshiped but enjoyed. One day all difficulties of health and diet will be removed forever, replaced with joyous feasting and the worship of God supremely (new) (Rev. 19:9). If you leave out any of these lenses, you will neglect some aspect of reality that God intends for us and our children to embrace.
Good. Bad. New.
Or take your child’s view of you as parent. Kids need to remember that even on your worst day as mom or dad, you’re still a source of God’s goodness for their lives (good). Neglect this lens and kids could grow cynical. But keeping it real, your children also need to remember no parent is perfect (bad). This lens helps keep bitterness and disillusionment at bay. And ultimately, Jesus has placed them in his family (new). For your children this means both a whole new level of security and love, as well as a new order of priorities. Together, these three lenses help a child see his or her parents with biblical clarity.
Good. Bad. New.
As parents, the arc of this gospel storyline is so helpful. It guides our interpretation of Scripture. But these three lenses won’t only enlighten your understanding God’s Word; they’ll also illuminate your navigation of God’s world. They’ll help you, as well as your children, learn to live in sync with reality.
Looking through these lenses brings clarity to complexity. These three truths may not straighten the twists and turns we all encounter on the path of parenting, but they will provide a north star to guide our steps along the way.
Our family moved to Florida in 1973 after my father concluded we were no longer safe in Puerto Rico. We attended the local Roman Catholic Church, and I became a devout Catholic. The first time I remember hearing the gospel preached was at age 15. Our family was on vacation in Colorado Springs, and we attended my aunt’s Nazarene church. I don’t remember much about the sermon other than the preacher exalted Jesus. I was angry. Why, I thought to myself, would the preacher talk so much about Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, when the Father is the main one?
Looking back, I thank God for that faithful Nazarene pastor who exalted Christ in all his beauty—even though, in my distorted trinitarianism, I was unable to see it. I will never know his name, but the Lord used him to begin drawing me to himself and, eventually, to show me the beauty of Christ. It took a team effort to show me Christ in all his beauty: a high-school youth group, a Baptist Sunday school teacher, and a faithful church member.Welcoming Love
At 17, high-school friends invited me to play softball on their church team. To be eligible, though, I had to attend church at least once a month. Since it was a youth league, I began attending the church’s midweek youth meetings. Since my arrival in the Unites States, I had longed to be accepted by my peers in the majority culture. But it was at this point that I finally felt welcomed. Even though I was different, the youth group and their leaders welcomed me, not just as a peer but as a friend. In that setting, I was able to hear the gospel regularly. Though there was much I didn’t understand, they were patient with me.
But what affected me was the personal nature of their relationship with Christ. Unlike me, who knew a lot about God in a theoretical and theological way, they knew God intimately. As I heard them share the gospel and tell their testimonies week in and week out, I came to realize that I did not know God like they knew God. But it wasn’t just a personal knowledge of God that was unique. Their knowledge of God, which was evident in their love for Christ, flowed out into a love for me—a Roman Catholic Puerto Rican. This high-school youth group and its leaders showed me the welcoming love and beauty of Christ.
But I still had questions.Self-Inconveniencing Love
There to help answer my questions was Kenny Kopta, a church member who worked as an engineer for the phone company and served as our Sunday school teacher. Ironically, I don’t remember anything we talked about in Sunday school. What I do remember is all the late nights at Kenny’s house throughout the week. I’d just graduated high school and was only a few weeks out from going to San Diego for Navy boot camp.
I only had a limited time to ask questions. I can’t even say how many times a week I sat at Kenny’s dinner table. From there we would go into the family room, where I would continue peppering him with questions about Jesus, the Bible, Baptists, you name it. He lovingly and patiently answered my questions for hours. Kenny and his wife, Andrea, sacrificed their own family time and personal space to answer my questions, not out of duty but out of love for Christ and for me. Thus, I saw the beauty of Christ’s self-inconveniencing love in Kenny.
That love led me to approach Kenny one Wednesday night to confess that I did not know God like he knew God. Once again, he shared the gospel with me, telling me of the beauty of Jesus. I confessed my sins to the Lord that evening and asked him to forgive me and to grant me the grace to know Christ personally.
But there was one more person who would show me the beauty of Christ that summer.Familial Love
Knowing that I would be in boot camp in a few short weeks, Mrs. Hall—my best friend’s mom—invited me to come to her home and work through a couple of foundational studies for new Christians. Like a spiritual mother, Mrs. Hall discipled me in the basics of Christianity. And like a good Baptist, she taught me the Baptist Faith and Message. Again, I don’t remember much about our conversations, but I remember her love. The love of Christ flowed through Mrs. Hall to show me the beauty of the Christ, who provided a spiritual mother to a spiritual orphan. And like a good mother, Mrs. Hall phoned the First Southern Baptist Church of San Diego to let them know about a young man (and new Christian) who would need a ride to church once he got out of boot camp. Sure enough, a retired Navy SEAL and his wife came every Sunday to the Naval Training Center in San Diego and picked me up for church.
Who first showed me the beauty of Christ? It’s hard to say, since it was a team effort. But I thank God that he used a Nazarene pastor, a high-school youth group, a Sunday school teacher, a regular church member, and even a Navy SEAL to show me the beauty of Jesus displayed in the church. Little did I know that, as I was longing for acceptance in this strange culture, what I really needed was to know the truth, beauty, and glory of the Savior who brings us into an eternal family.
You can read previous installments in this series.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the gruesome Tate-LaBianca Murders, which were carried out by a group that has become known as the Manson Family. The killings in the summer of 1969 had a transformative effect on America. As Joan Didion wrote in her essay “The White Album,” “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Here are nine things you should know about the murderous cult and their demonic leader:
1. The Manson Family was a messianic cult and commune located in California in the late-1960s. The group was formed and led by the notorious criminal and cult leader Charles Manson. The crimes committed by the Manson Family included multiple murders, torture, hostage-taking, and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford.
2. Charles Manson became a criminal and sadist at a young age. While a pre-teen and early teen he committed numerous thefts and burglaries. At age 17, while in reformatory school awaiting parole, he raped a young boy while holding a razor to the child’s throat. After he became an adult Manson was again imprisoned for a variety of crimes, including pimping the woman who would become his first wife.
3. After being released from prison in 1967 Manson moved to San Francisco where he lived for a time with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson established himself as a religious figure in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where he garnered the followers that would later be called the Family. After a falling out with Wilson, Manson moved the Family to the Spahn ranch, a former television and movie set for Western productions located in the San Fernando Valley. According to arrest records, there were 60 members of the Manson Family, 26 of whom were living on the Spahn ranch on August 16, 1969, when around 100 deputies raided the property.
4. Manson claimed the members of the Family were the original Christians who had been reincarnated. He also claimed the first-century Romans had been reincarnated as the 1960s-era American establishment. Manson began using the alias Charles Willis Manson, often saying it very slowly (“Charles’s Will Is Man’s Son”) so as to imply his will was the same as that of the Son of Man. Several members of the cult testified that they believed Manson was the second coming of Christ. “I was so convinced that he had all the answers and that he was Jesus Christ personified,” Catherine “Gyspy” Share said, “that I convincingly told many ‘Family’ members that he was.” (Before his conversion to Christianity, Dennis Rice noticed a difference between Manson the messiah and the true Christ. “My Jesus was in prison,” Rice said. “Their Jesus was changing their lives.”)
5. On the night of August 8, 1969, Manson told Charles “Tex” Watson to take Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to “that house where [musician Terry Melcher] used to live,” as Manson had instructed him, to “totally destroy everyone in [it], as gruesome as you can.” At the time, the house was being rented by film director Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”) and his eight-and-a half-months pregnant wife, actress and fashion model Sharon Tate. The Manson Family brutally murdered everyone in the home, shooting and stabbing them repeatedly. Tate pleaded to be allowed to live long enough to give birth, and offered herself as a hostage in an attempt to save the life of her baby. Instead, the Manson Family stabbed her 16 times.
6. The next night Manson himself joined Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Kasabian as well as Leslie van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan in a search for additional victims. After several hours, the group arrived at the house of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. The couple was brutally murdered by Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten. Using blood from the victims, the killers wrote “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” on the walls, and a misspelled “Healter Skelter” on the refrigerator door. Before leaving the crime scene the Manson Family members showered and petted the LaBianca’s dogs.
7. In November, Atkins was in jail on charges of another murder when told a fellow inmate he had killed Tate, “Because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice.” By the end of that month the other Manson Family members involved in the murders were also arrested and indicted. Most were tried and sentenced to death, though Kasabian, who was in the getaway car during the LaBianca murders, received immunity for being a lead witness. However, because the state of California reversed its decision on the death penalty all of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Manson and his followers would ultimately claim they had killed a total of 35 people and buried their bodies in the desert. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme wasn’t present at the Tate or LaBianca murders but attempted to kill President Gerald Ford in Sacramento in September 1975. In December 1987, Fromme escaped from a West Virginia prison in an attempt to meet up with Manson. She was later recaptured and released from prison in 2009.
8. During his trial Manson—a lifelong white supremacist—carved a swastika on his forehead. “The mark on my head simulates the dead head black stamp of rejection, anti-church, falling cross, devil sign, death, terror, fear,” he said. He was convicted in 1971 of seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In 1974 Manson claimed his religion was Scientology, stating that he has “never settled upon a religious formula for his beliefs and [was] presently seeking an answer to his question in the new mental health cult known as Scientology.” Manson died of a heart attack and complications from colon cancer in 2017 at age 83.
9. Several members of the Manson Family became Christians while in prison. After leaving prison Catherine “Gyspy” Share became a victims advocate to those affected by cults. Dennis Rice became a follower of Christ while at San Quentin prison and, until his death in 2013, headed a ministry to serve prisoners. Bruce Davis, often described as Manson’s “right-hand man,” is still imprisoned and has served as a preacher in the prison chapel. The lead murder, Charles “Tex” Watson, founded Abounding Love Ministries in 1980 and became an ordained minister in 1981, though he still remains incarcerated. “Today, my time is spent sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in prison and through the ministry website,” Watson says. “I have been solidly committed to full time ministry almost since my salvation in 1975. Through these prison walls, the Lord has made a way for his testimony to be shared with thousands of people worldwide.”
Toni Morrison didn’t write for me, but her work changed my life. She wrote books, as she explained on more than one occasion, for black folks in America and especially for black women. And yet anyone with the inclination to take up and read can learn from her labor.
She brought sophisticated, beautiful, flawed—that is to say, human—black characters into the star-spangled constellation of American literature, building on a rich tradition of black writing and breaking new ground as well. Her novels, criticism, and interviews raise theological and spiritual questions about human nature, divine revelation, the individual and communal effects of sin, and the tendency to remake God in our own image.
Her passing on August 5 has torn a hole in the literary firmament.Broadening Horizons of American Literature
Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her books command both critical attention and popular devotion, and many of the writers she shepherded have become as ubiquitous on Amazon wish lists as they are on syllabuses.
Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She attended Howard University as an undergraduate and went on to Cornell University for graduate study. Since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), she has been known as an author, but she was also a professor and an editor at Random House. Morrison broadened the horizon of American literature through her editorial work by discovering and publishing writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones and cultivating the literary voices of well-known African Americans, including Muhammed Ali, whose autobiography she edited.
Her writing offers a solution to what W. E. B. DuBois saw as the central struggle of African Americans. In his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois argued that the history of African Americans is a history of strife brought about by something he called “double-consciousness.” Double-consciousness, according to DuBois, is the sensation of always being measured against the standard of another. In the case of African Americans, “one ever feels his twoness,” he explained—“an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” DuBois longed for the day when he could inhabit both worlds without strife and conflict.
Morrison was profoundly conscious of this dilemma and its history, as she explained in her classic essay Playing in the Dark (1992):
Deep within the word “American” is its association with race. To identify someone as South African is to say very little; we need the adjective “white” or “black” or “colored” to make our meaning clear. In this country it is quite the reverse. American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.Dropping the Hyphen
What made Morrison’s fiction so revolutionary was that she didn’t write about black folks for a white audience. Instead, she insisted on writing about black folks for black folks. She refused to measure herself and others by the standards of white America. She obliterated the hyphen between “African” and “American” and wrote with a power that presumed no need of validation. Her characters are beautiful and smart and fierce, not for how readily they win the confidence of the majority culture, but for how potently they realize their freedom to live and act as humans.
Morrison’s characters are beautiful and smart and fierce, not for how readily they win the confidence of the majority culture, but for how potently they realize their freedom to live and act as humans.
Characters that seek the acceptance of white America are often doomed in Morrison’s fictional worlds. Pecola Breedlove, protagonist of The Bluest Eye, is liturgized by her culture to equate the physical traits of white people with beauty. She worships at the altar of pale skin and azure eyes. Turning to God in pain and self-loathing, she asks him to turn her brown eyes blue. Morrison reveals that for black women this longing for whiteness is a fatal barrier to seeing their own beauty, value, and complexity. Consequently, the book raises broader questions about how African Americans are represented and valued in the public sphere.
The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981). These novels resist simplistic narratives about black identity by casting main characters in opposition to one another. Sula and her childhood friend Nel are inseparable until they graduate high school. Nel longs to settle down with her boyfriend, while Sula wants more than what their tiny community can offer. Sula disappears for 10 years, and her return scandalizes their once-quiet neighborhood. Milkman and Guitar represent ideological struggles within the black community of Song of Solomon. In Tar Baby, Jadine and Son are in love: She a beautiful and well-educated woman of the world; he a tough-minded, life-hardened man of the street. Morrison’s characters are so multifaceted they can’t be typecast in the one-dimensional roles historically reserved for black people by Hollywood, the publishing industry, and the news media.Most Influential Novel
Beloved (1987) remains Morrison’s most influential novel. It tells the story of a young, pregnant slave woman named Sethe who escapes from a Kentucky plantation with her infant daughter, only to be tracked down by a slave catcher. In furious fear for the girl’s future, Sethe kills her own child before they can be recaptured. In what world is such a decision imaginable? The world of antebellum America, where black people are property.
This is America’s original trauma, a wound so deep it took a war to close it up. How long does it take to heal such trauma? Decades? Centuries? What if the wound never heals? What if it is reopened? If we want to understand the post-traumatic flashbacks of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, voter intimidation, mass incarceration, racial profiling, gerrymandering, segregated worship, and the current cultural battles over social justice, we would do well to start with the novels of Toni Morrison, and perhaps specifically with Beloved.
Beloved became the cornerstone of a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). Morrison then published four more novels: Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2014). These books explore the lives of Africans in America from the time before the United States existed (A Mercy) to the aftermath of the Korean War (Home).Literature as Neighbor Love
Morrison was as unflinching in front of a microphone or camera as she was in the pages of these wonderful, terrible books. Her work situates America in a history some may not even know—or which some choose to not recall—not to bind us by the past but to ensure a future freedom possible only for those who remember.
Toni Morrison wrote books that enliven American history and unearth what should not be buried. She wrote with zeal and purpose to tell black people stories about themselves, and in doing so she created art that can show everyone the depths of the human soul in its darkest depravity as well as in its most compassionate empathy.
When Jesus is asked who qualifies as a neighbor in Luke 10, he tells a story about Jews and Samaritans that requires his Jewish audience to face their complicated history. Christ’s radical command to love one’s neighbor makes it clear our neighbors are those whom history shows are not like us; we may even have seen each other as enemies. But to love our neighbors as ourselves we must first love God and know ourselves. Morrison’s novels hold a mirror up to their black readers, encouraging them to know and love themselves. For other audiences, they tell a neighbor’s story.
“Our highest stated value for many of us in our churches has been community—trying to address this epidemic of loneliness that we see in our society. Many churches have said, ‘Our number-one stated goal is for you to live life with one another.’ But where we can end up with that is with a pendulum swing that renders our churches well-connected communities of biblically and doctrinally illiterate believers.” — Jen Wilkin
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Sunday School and Small Group: Friends Who Need No Reconciliation
- 5 Reasons We Switched from Small Groups to Sunday School
- Cookie-Cutter Methods Make Half-Baked Disciples: Our Approach to Small Groups
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
Growing up in pietistic evangelical circles, I attended a “revival” service at least once a year. Every spring and fall, some nearby church was hosting a revival, and all the local youth groups would attend. The formulaic services were the same: the latest Hillsong music, a dynamic speaker, and an altar call. We would all leave in our church vans, feeling good about ourselves, only to find the feelings of elation wear off in a few weeks.
Not all revivals are so ineffective, however. After the Pyongyang Revival of 1907, surveys indicate the Korean Protestant population grew by roughly 2.5 million adherents and 1,300 churches from 1907 to 1977. In what is now the sole surviving foreign eyewitness account of that revival, this reprint of The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed by William Blair and Bruce Hunt not only serves as a retelling of an important piece Korean church history, it also serves as a handbook for revival.Context of Revival
In the early years of the Korean church, Christians all around the country would gather in their local churches for an uninterrupted Bible study during the first two weeks of January. In Pyongyang, representatives from each of the churches would also gather for a special Bible study with the foreign missionaries. This unique Bible study system was created and implemented by Korean Presbyterians to start every new year drenched in prayer, Bible study, and singing. Of these Bible studies, Blair writes, “Let America follow Korea’s example in this one thing and the revival problem will take care of itself” (78).
On the 12th night of the 1907 Bible study class in Pyongyang, those that gathered in the church described “a sense of God’s nearness, impossible of description” (83). After a short sermon, one of the Korean church leaders led everyone in attendance in prayer. According to Blair, this prayer “was indescribable—not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer . . . an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne” (83).
The gathering was even more intense the following night. Concerned about the intensity of the meeting, the missionaries gathered together as soon as they could to discuss the situation. In the end, the consensus was that they had pleaded with God for an outpouring of his Spirit, and he had answered, so they dared not interfere. Then the unthinkable happened:
Then began a meeting the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary. Every sin a human being can commit was publicly confessed that night . . . . We may have our theories of the desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine; but I know now that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it. (86–87)
The next day, the men in attendance returned to their churches where the revival spread throughout the entire Korean Peninsula. Similar incidences of confession of sin, weeping, and praying occurred spontaneously throughout the land. Even schools had to close down for days as children wept together over their sins.
At the same time, the revival had an evangelistic component. As Blair writes, “Repentance was by no means confined to confession and tears. Peace waited upon reparation, wherever reparation was possible” (88). Christians paid back stolen property, money obtained unjustly, and other injuries to both Christians and non-Christians. Indeed, restitution was among the most conspicuous fruits of the Pyongyang Revival.Disciplines of Revival
Three important distinctions of the Pyongyang Revival stand out from other modern claims of revival:
- The institutional Presbyterian church prominently led and sustained the revival and its ongoing blessings for almost a century,
- The leaders of the revival emphasized “prayer, Bible study, personal work, sacrificial giving and missionary activity” (5) over the Pentecostal practices of tongues-speaking, faith healing, and emotionalism, and
- Church officers didn’t expedite baptisms—new converts, or catechumens, were discipled by the use of catechisms for six to 24 months prior to ordained foreign missionaries or Korean church sessions receiving them for baptism.
The combination of these three practices had a profound effect on the growth and sustainability of the revival.
First, the leadership of ordained and seminary-trained foreign and native church leaders assured the doctrinal unity of the churches, at least during the early years.
Second, the use of catechisms maintained the health of the local church as new converts transitioned into church members. Catechisms assured that conversions were more than mere emotional experiences and that discipleship included training in the basics of theology, Christian ethics, and church polity by the time catechumens were baptized. In other words, emphasis was placed on the transformation of both the mind and heart.Impact of Revival
With the revival in full swing, Korean Christians were soon pulled into the public square in the wake of a political leadership vacuum. Most Christians engaged politics cautiously as they affirmed the separation of church and state. In one of Korea’s first corporate displays of resistance against Japanese occupation, a disproportionate number of Korean Christians made up the leadership and participants of what is now known as the March 1st Movement (1919).
This movement produced the Korean Declaration of Independence, which included 33 signers, 13 of whom were Christian in a nation where less than 5 percent of the population was Christian at the time. Consequently, Christian resistance against Imperial Japan and the Presbyterian rejection of Japanese emperor worship, in particular, resulted in the martyrdom of many foreign missionaries and Korean Christians. This was the first wave of persecution.
Not surprisingly, it was these Christians’ passionate love for their neighbors and the sacrifices they made for human rights, women’s rights, liberation, and the common good that added to the credibility of the Christian faith in the eyes of the intellectual and political elite of that time. A spirit of co-belligerency for a common good with non-Christians continued to strengthen the reputation of the church (and its numbers) such that the first president of South Korea was a professing believer. To put it another way, the Korean church advocated for the marginalized and oppressed on both individual and systemic levels.
As persecution of the Korean church exchanged hands from Imperial Japan to North Korean Communists after World War II, the Christian population in the northern provinces witnessed a steep decline. Stories of systematic kidnappings, disappearances, and executions of church leaders began leaking into the south. Seminaries and churches were reportedly razed to make room for the cult of Kim Il Sung. As a result, many Christians from the north fled south as refugees during the Korean War. This was the second wave of persecution.Revival in America Today
As the secular and non-Christian segments of America’s population continue to grow, the demographic context for revival in America continues to depart from the context of the Great Awakenings. Whereas in the past the primary groups influenced by revivals were de-churched and churched people, the next revival must expand its reaches to unchurched groups like secular agnostics, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists for it to truly be a third “Great” Awakening.
In this sense, we have much to glean from the Pyongyang Revival as the flames of revival quickly spread from Christians to unchurched agnostics, shamanists, and Buddhists. Indeed, their evangelistic fervor combined with a heartfelt pursuit for the common good proved effective for winning the hearts and minds of the broader population.
We are living in an age of deconstruction, and it’s affecting faith. Every ideal is picked apart. George Washington has his mural painted over because he owned slaves. The aspiration for e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”)—from the Great Seal of the United States—is being shredded by the chronic subdividing of increased tribalism. Even gender is up for grabs, as though chromosomes in place from conception are only a suggestion. Nothing escapes ruminating scrutiny, skepticism, and the determination to control outcomes.
In Christian circles, deconstruction takes a slightly different form. Doubt and disillusionment have become the new form of enlightenment. It somehow sounds more authentic to share our doubt than it is to share our faith with confidence. We watch thoughtful Christian leaders “break free” from the faith itself, as though shaking off invisible shackles. And it unnerves us.While Scripture nowhere valorizes doubt, it is an inescapable feature of our fallen experience, particularly in a secular age. “I believe; help my unbelief” is a classic acknowledgement of doubt—and because the man humbly confesses it to Jesus, he is commended rather than rebuked (Mark 9:24). Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the way doubt and disillusionment can deepen our faith rather than destroy it. Christians Have a Different Take
Doubt or disillusionment can come in various forms—toward God, toward his people, or just toward life in general. But none of it has to destroy faith. Christianity declares that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the transcendent revelation of the living God through all culture and time. It’s objectively true. And if the reality of revelation exists pristinely, no matter what mist currently clouds my vision, then doubt and disillusionment need not pose mortal threats.
As a counselor I’ve struggled myself with the same doubt and disillusionment I hear from many other ministry leaders. I know this to be true: no one really escapes this experience, if they’re honest. Doubt and disillusionment are rites of passage, occurring most poignantly in a person’s 30s and 40s. By then it’s become wildly obvious that marriage and ministry and keeping a body healthy are much harder than it looked when friends were throwing rose petals in the air.
The actual experience of doubt, though, can truly feel like you’ve lost your way. But that sense of lostness is not to be confused with the essence of your faith. As Paul warned, that is the time to guard against being “led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).What Will We Do with Doubt?
So what will we do with doubt and disillusionment when it comes our way? I know what my reflexive tendency is, and I see the same in so many others: just buckle down and pull away. I’d rather no one know there’s a struggle in my soul. Few things get better in isolation, though. “Sin demands to have a man by himself,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. Alone is where we are picked off. There, all by our little self, our mind gets scrambled. Our soul turns cold and hard.
We make our way through doubt and disillusionment, then, by weathering it with God and with his people. By this paradoxical path doubt can ultimately serve and deepen faith. You don’t have to go this alone. You get to experience this with the God who has brought you into an actual relationship and who doesn’t withhold himself until you get things figured out again.
One man in Scripture, Jeremiah, mirrors this reality in a profoundly personal way. We’re invited into his dialogue with God, at his lowest point. Lamentations 3 might contain the strongest words of doubt and disillusionment in the Bible. Jeremiah has been thrown into the pit, mistreated by other Jewish leaders, God’s people. He comes to doubt everything he knows, especially God. You’ve used me for target practice. You’re like a bear lying in wait to get me. You have filled me with bitterness. Jeremiah is working out his distortions of God—with God. Slowly the fog clears. The toxicity of doubt drains off a bit. You hear a giant exhale in this famous passage: “But this I recall to my mind and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases and his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22).
When we read on we discover that Jeremiah’s friend, an Ethiopian named Ebed-Melek, is in the background pleading with the king for his release. Like Jeremiah, we are not as alone as we often perceive ourselves to be. Other people are integral to our release from the pit of disillusionment. Sometimes we recognize that. Often we don’t.
Jeremiah’s life shows us the mysterious rhythm of how doubt and disillusionment become the steady bass note of a far more resonant faith, one with real substance and depth.Liberation of Doubt
There’s something profoundly liberating in the discovery that whether or not my dreams come true, whether I understand what God is doing in my life or not, he is there. Everything changes around me, but he does not. I am not alone.
In this way, doubt can be used by God to build faith. Many Christians have thought of doubt and disillusionment as oddly necessary, a means of soul-stretching growth. (To be sure, the Scriptures never treat doubt as a virtue. But they do assume it will be part of experience in a fallen world and will drive us either from God or to God.) To be disillusioned is no fun, but it does strip us of some illusions that we needed to let go. Old ideals get reshaped. A new humility creeps in as we realize we don’t know all we thought we knew. And if we let that process do its work, we’ll be anchored, simply and even more deeply, in this God who took on flesh and turned death on its heels.
Doubt and disillusionment are the last of all reasons to abandon your faith. If you weather them with God—and with others—you discover the unexpected gratitude Charles Spurgeon wrote about. “I thank God,” he reflected, “for every storm that wrecked me upon the Rock of Christ Jesus.”
It’s the time of year when women’s ministry teams select Bible-study curriculum for the coming year.
Choosing a study that is biblically rich, theologically sound, and works for a real-life group of women can be a challenge. To help narrow down the options, we asked 20 women’s ministry leaders for their recommendations for both Bible and book studies. Their recommendations certainly don’t highlight all the good Christian books available, but the format and content of these resources have worked well in their women’s small groups.
Maybe one of them will work for yours.Bible Studies
(alphabetical by author)
Hope A. Blanton and Christine B. Gordon
- A Woman of Healthy Relationships, A Woman of Contentment (Ecclesiastes), The Jesus Who Surprises (Bible overview), and so on
- Homework: 2–3 hours per week
- Video: No
- From Garden to Glory (Bible overview)
- Homework: 1–2 hours per week
- Video: Yes
- Son of God (Mark), Grace (Ephesians), Joy! (Philippians), and so on
- Homework: 2–4 hours per week
- Video: No
- Homework: 1–2 hours per week
- Video: No
- The Promised One (Genesis), The Wisdom of God (Psalms & wisdom books), Hoping for Something Better (Hebrews), and so on
- Homework: 2–4 hours per week
- Video: Yes
- Becoming a Woman of Grace, Loving Your Husband, Becoming a Woman of Simplicity, and so on
- Homework: less than 1 hour per week
- Video: No
- Ezra and Nehemiah, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, Revelation, and so on
- Homework: 4–5 hours per week
- Video: No
Melissa B. Kruger
- In All Things (Philippians)
- Homework: 2–4 hours per week
- Video: No
Kathleen B. Neilson
- If God Is for Us (Romans)
- Homework: 1–2 hours per week
- Video: No
George Robertson with Mary Beth McGreevy
- Homework: 1–2 hours per week
- Video: No
- God of Creation (Genesis 1–11), The Sermon on the Mount, 1 Peter, and so on
- Homework: 1–2 hours per week
- Video: Yes
Big Dream Ministries (multi-authored)
- The Pentateuch, The Poetical Books, The Post-Exilic Books, and so on
- Homework: 3–5 hours per week
- Video: Yes
(books with an * do not have discussion questions or an available study guide)
Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grows and Nourishes Your Soul
Lydia Brownback, A Woman’s Wisdom: How the Book of Proverbs Speaks to Everything
Keri Folmar, The Good Portion: Scripture
Betsy Childs Howard, Seasons of Waiting: Walking by Faith when Dreams Are Delayed
Melissa B. Kruger, The Envy of Eve: Finding Contentment in a Covetous World
Melissa B. Kruger (ed.), Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Our Identity in Christ
Tim Lane and Paul David Tripp, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making
Rondi Lauterbach, Hungry: Learning to Feed Your Soul with Christ
Carolyn McCully with Nora Shank, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home*
Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World*
Catherine Parks, Real: The Surprising Secret to Deeper Relationships
John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life*
Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, Lies Women Believe: And the Truth that Sets Them Free