“God is declaring to everyone that he has won. That the rulers and the authorities do not have the last word. . . . The existence of the church is proof that God has won.” — Trevor Johnston
Text: Revelation 7:9–17
Preached: May 6, 2018
Location: All Saints’ Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
Why are there so many ghosts in our stories? Why aren’t they resting in peace?
In this year’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost love story—historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment in a D.C. cemetery and Lincoln’s after-hours visit to hold his son’s dead body—which may or may not have actually happened.
The cemetery contains a wide cast of ghosts. They linger, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. Their denial keeps them in this in-between state (the bardo of the title is a Buddhist term for the state between death and reincarnation) where the ghosts wait for life to finish. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick; soon he will recover and consummate his marriage. Roger Bevins III regrets injuring his wrists so violently, but he’s sure someone will find him and revive him soon. These ghosts hope for better things, but the open secret of their death haunts them.
For me, this haunting raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: “You were dead in your trespasses.” God diagnoses our state as dead, but before we know him, we’re in denial. Yet sometimes our hearts whisper the secret, and it haunts us.Awaiting Love
In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures. Some who have lingered finally give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. New ghosts join the throng. But one night Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.
He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a turning point in the story. As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come to the cemetery—they come, but they are disconnected from the dead. If they do touch a corpse, it is roughly—to mock or steal a body. But mostly, they never seek to touch. The ghosts respond:
“But this—this was different.” — Roger Bevins III
“The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!” — The Reverend Everly Thomas
“Healthy.” — Hans Vollman
“As if one were still worthy of affection and respect? It was cheering. It gave us hope.” — The Reverend Everly Thomas
“We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.” — Roger Bevins III
Lincoln’s broken-father love doesn’t shrink away from embracing death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up the ghosts’ deepest hopes.
I recognized this broken father-love immediately. It’s akin to the love that saved me:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Eph. 2:4–5)Rescue for Ghosts—and for Us
At its core, this novel holds out a vision of salvation for the ghosts when Willie himself receives broken-father love. It tells him the truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. In the end, though, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go—surely a blessing in the context of the book.
The gospel story heals the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny—that we deny.
But God’s compassion is so much greater. He is the Father of broken love, the Christ who weeps over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death but to embrace him, and live.
This novel gave me renewed hope. The gospel story heals the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny—that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love.
Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most beautiful and influential metropolitan areas in the world. As home to tech titans like Facebook, Google, and Apple, the Bay Area is also an economic powerhouse. If it were a country, it would have the 19th-largest economy in the world. The Bay Area boasts three of the top 10 richest communities in America and also has one of the best-educated populations in the country.
But with a notoriously expensive cost of living and some of the largest homeless populations in America, the Bay Area is not without its challenges. Spiritually, the Bay Area is one of the nation’s most post-Christian metropolitan areas. It tops lists of the most unchurched and dechurched American cities.
What does enduring Christian faithfulness and effective discipleship look like in a setting like this? What are the unique challenges and opportunities facing pastors in the Bay Area?
In anticipation of this October’s first TGC West Coast Conference, we asked four Bay Area pastors—Joey Chen of Sunset Church (San Francisco), Paul Ortlinghaus of SOMA Church (Santa Rosa), Justin Buzzard of Garden City Church (San Jose), and Kent Dresdow of North Creek Church (Walnut Creek)—to describe their experiences of preaching the gospel and making disciples in the Bay Area context. Here’s an edited transcript of what they said.What are some things about Christianity in the Bay Area that would surprise people?
Chen: It can feel like there are not many churches in San Francisco, but research shows that there are 282 evangelical churches here. This doesn’t note the size or health of these churches, but that number of churches might surprise some. It may also surprise people that some of the largest churches in San Francisco are theologically conservative and hold to historic tenets of faith, even on sexuality. Many of these larger and influential churches are fairly new to San Francisco, which shows there is growth among faithful gospel-centered churches.
Ortlinghaus: When I meet other Christians from other parts of the United States and tell them I pastor in the San Francisco North Bay, often I hear something like what Nathaniel said to Philip concerning Nazareth: “Can anything good (Christian) come out of the Bay Area?” I think there is an assumption that the entire Bay Area is godless and there is no love for Christ and his church. In fact, the North Bay (and the entire Bay Area) has a number of Christ-exalting churches seeking to help others begin and mature in their relationship with Jesus. We are not in the majority, but we are here. God has not abandoned his people here in the Bay Area.
Buzzard: Though Silicon Valley is a very unchurched region and a challenging place to be a Christian, it’s also a place where God is steadily advancing his kingdom through church planting, church partnerships, and Christians who’ve caught a vision for putting roots down in this expensive region, to seek the welfare of our city. I moved to the Bay Area in 2002, and I saw little church planting at the time. Almost seven years ago I planted the first Acts 29 church in the entire 8 million-person Bay Area. Now there are many Acts 29 church plants here, and more than that, a true church-planting movement is underway that involves many denominations. I think of my friends at Echo Church. We differ on some things, but we’re Team Jesus, and I love seeing God use them to advance the gospel and plant churches. And I think of organizations like City to City Bay Area—this kind of local, diverse, trans-denominational training for church planters didn’t exist when I planted.Describe your churches.
Chen: Sunset Church was a church plant from the San Francisco Chinatown to the Outer Sunset. The Outer Sunset is what I consider quasi-suburbia, since it is primarily residential. It’s probably one of the few places in the world where the real estate and rent gets cheaper when you get closer to the water. That’s because we are constantly enveloped by fog (our fog even has its own Twitter account, @KarlTheFog).
Since it was started by Chinese Americans and because we have a Cantonese-speaking ministry, our church’s primary reach has been Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants. Part of that also reflects the Sunset District, which is almost 50 percent Asian. While we celebrate our Chinese heritage, we want to be a church that reaches all of our city with the gospel. We’ve worked hard to emphasize our gospel-centrality and identity in Christ above all other identities. We’ve seen more and more people from our neighborhood connect to Christ and to our church, regardless of national and ethnic backgrounds. Given that Sunset is an older established church, we have the blessing of stability. One way this is a blessing is that it comes in the form of a building, which is rare for a church in San Francisco. We also face many of the challenges that churches more than 40 years old face as we engage in the generational and cultural changes around us.
Ortlinghaus: SOMA Church Community is a 10-year-old church that meets in the West End Neighborhood of Santa Rosa, one of the oldest downtown neighborhoods of the city. We meet on Sundays at Kid Street Charter Cchool, an amazing old school that is full of lots of history within our city. We are a small church (fewer than 100) with a diverse range of ages (we even have someone 101 years old!). We are committed to a missional model of ministry where we encourage our members to think of themselves as missionaries in their neighborhoods, schools, and jobs, in the spirit of John 20:21. We seek to love our city by being a community for the community. We declare the truth of the gospel and demonstrate the fruit of the gospel. As another pastor and I were recently discussing, this means ministry here in the North Bay is “slow.” We are committed to a faithful ministry of making disciples, which means we trust in our sovereign God and his timing and work in the lives of the people and city and region that we know he loves.
Buzzard: Garden City Church is a 7-year-old church in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley. We moved here and planted the church in 2011, meeting initially with a core group of about 30 people. Since then the church has grown through the compelling power of the gospel, through people who were converted and discipled, through people who joined the church family as members and began contributing to the mission, through people who developed into leaders, and through much prayer. Why did we name our church Garden City? In part because this is what the early settlers of San Jose called their new home, because everything they planted grew and flourished in the city’s good soil and temperate climate. But we also like the name because the Bible starts in a Garden (Eden) and ends in a Garden City (the New Jerusalem). It’s the story of God rescuing and redeeming broken people and renewing broken cities. We believe God has called us to plant something new in the Garden City—to plant a church that will affect a city that’s affecting the rest of the world.
Dresdow: NorthCreek Church is a 60-year-old church in Walnut Creek. We are a congregation of around 1,300, with a stated mission to equip believers to worship God, walk in love, and witness to the world. We are committed to making disciples through the preaching of the Word and proclamation of the gospel, so that Christ might be adored and exalted in our city, region, and world. We’ve recently agreed as a leadership team that we want to think more purposefully about how we might “flip our ministries to be more outward-facing.” It’s been sweet to see us begin to adopt that purpose. Pray for that purpose to progress, so that Jesus might be made known among and around us, to the praise of his glory.The Bay Area is a tech hub and a center for digital innovation. Are there unique discipleship challenges or opportunities that come with ministering in this context?
Buzzard: Silicon Valley is home to major global corporations like Google, Apple, eBay, Cisco, and Adobe. The region plays a pivotal economic and cultural role in our global world. What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happens in Silicon Valley affects the world.
What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happens in Silicon Valley affects the world.
Silicon Valley is a beautiful place to live and work, but it is also a broken place, teeming with overworked and under-loved people seeking meaning, hope, and glory in everything except the God who created them. Forbes has called San Jose both “the most innovative city in America” and “the most sinful city in America.” Silicon Valley needs not just one new church; it needs hundreds of new churches. Our church’s vision is to help turn Silicon Valley—a place known for its technological influence—into a region also known for its worship of Jesus and its gospel influence. Instead of Apple, Google, or Facebook, we want to see God’s name become the biggest name in Silicon Valley.
Dresdow: The vast wealth and influence of this region outstrips its footprint. Many of the richest cities in America are within a one-hour drive of our church. Much of that is because of tech and innovation. Into this matrix, Jesus’s statement explodes with significance: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matt 6:24). The discipleship challenge is immediately apparent: How can you live here without money becoming your idol? I can’t tell you how many derivations of that question we’ve had in our context from good, godly singles, couples, and families—especially among those who imported into the Bay Area. So we walk with our people through that, because there are no cookie-cutter answers—just a lot of seeking God for wisdom.
The discipleship opportunity is that we have tremendous resources here, and some are leveraging their abundance along strategic and creative lines for the gospel. There are many Christians employed in the tech industry (and other industries) who have to keep a low profile in their culture and our broader climate. We talk a lot about making incremental progress for the gospel here, and we ask them what that could mean in their environment. We may not be powerful in these sectors, but we are persistent to reach them. In that, Paul’s paradigm for gospel ministry is carried forward (1 Cor. 1:26–31).The Bay Area has a reputation for being a bastion of cultural liberalism, especially on sexuality. What challenges and opportunities does this pose for gospel-centered churches here?
Dresdow: The Bay Area’s reputation for cultural and moral liberalism is well-grounded; gospel ministry here is not for the faint of heart. Personally, however, I find the social diversity and spiritual divergence to be invigorating, because we are a million miles away from cultural Christianity, where people proclaim and practice a veneer faith that is not gospel-born or -fueled. There isn’t much of that here, nor has there ever been. The lines of demarcation among those who are in Christ and those who need Christ seem clearer here than in vast swaths of the rest of the country. I love the Bay Area for that! The fog of cultural Christianity has never descended here; I hope it never does.
The fog of cultural Christianity has never descended here; I hope it never does.
Chen: We need wisdom, given the political nature of sex and homosexuality. When Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008, there was a strong emphasis among churches that held to the historic view of marriage to champion this proposition. While in agreement with the biblical position on marriage, we wrestled with this greatly. We wondered if public political participation would close the door on gospel opportunities. How can the church maintain the truth while compassionately engaging those who disagree? This is an ongoing struggle. The opportunity for evangelism and discipleship is great, however, since any identity apart from Christ will not provide what someone is chasing. The question is whether we will be ready when the opportunities arise.
Ortlinghaus: I think the primary opportunity is for gospel-centered churches to show that Jesus and his followers are not “haters.” When the national media portray Bible-following Christians as hateful and bigoted, we have an opportunity and mandate to love in the same way we see Jesus loving the woman at the well in the John 4—full of grace and truth. People want to see that our love is genuine (Rom. 12:9).
Buzzard: What God is using here is robustly orthodox, warmly loving Christians who enjoy close relationships with people wrestling through issues of sexuality—boldly, kindly pointing them to the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures over a long period of time.Where do you see the gospel taking root in the Bay Area? Where do you see momentum and fertile soil? Where do you see the hardest soil?
Chen: I can’t speak to the larger Bay Area, since I live in the city and think that crossing either bridge is like going to another country. However, in San Francisco I see fertile soil among many millennials moving to the city. There is a heightened receptivity to the gospel and willingness to discuss spiritual matters when there are many life changes. We also see momentum among different immigrant groups and international students.
Dresdow: Over the past few years, we’ve noticed an interesting trend in our context. While numerical growth overall has been slow but steady, our church has grown younger fast. We’ve seen in influx of younger singles and young, large families as well. And while the one demographic is indicative of our area—with the rapid rise of an urban or semi-urban, professional singles demographic—the other is not. We’re encouraged in both areas and believe that this hunger could be indicative of larger gospel opportunities among the younger generations in our region.
Buzzard: The hardest soil is with wealthy Bay Area people who think they have it all, who think they don’t need God. That lie doesn’t last long. That last dot-com crash here broke that illusion. God will use something else to soon break up the hard soil here.When you assess the current spiritual landscape of the Bay Area, what are the big things that come to mind?
Chen: I see both opportunity and danger. Since the gold rush, the Bay Area has drawn people from all over the country and the world. The Bay Area is home to one of the largest Afghan populations in the West. Close to our church, a Uyghur restaurant opened. The opportunity to reach unreached peoples has come to our neighborhood. The “new gold rush” of technology also presents real spiritual dangers. People speak about high rents with pride and treat it almost as a badge of honor. I joke with others that I see more Teslas in our neighborhood than I see children. Greed and consumerism saturate the spiritual landscape, and Christians are not exempt from its influence.
Ortlinghaus: The Bay Area is very spiritual—there is just not much Holy Spirit in most of the spirituality. It is about as pluralistic and relativistic as a city can be. The same challenges and objections to biblical Christianity that Tim Keller interacts with in The Reason for God out of his urban East Coast context are present here.
The Bay Area is very spiritual—there is just not much Holy Spirit in most of the spirituality.
Buzzard: (1) We need Christians to stay here. It is so expensive, so high-pressured, that people are always moving away. We need growth in the percentage of Christians who answer a call to stay for decades. I desire God to bring revival to the Bay Area, but I don’t think this will happen overnight. (2) We need more prayer for this region. I’m preaching Ephesians right now, so I’d say we need more Ephesians 6 prayer—recognizing that our “battle” here is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of darkness. Satan has deceived many of us successful Bay Area people/pastors into thinking that if we can just do church better, we’ll make a great gospel impact here. Wrong. We need a humble movement of praying big prayers. We need to put on the armor of God and recognize where the real battle lies. (3) We need more church planting, more solid preaching, more training, more gospel!
Dresdow: The Bay Area, as far as anyone can tell, has never experienced any major revival or awakening. By anyone’s estimate, the spiritual ground is exceptionally hard, and always has been. The region exploded originally because of wealth and pleasure-seeking (think gold rush and its attendant pleasures), and it has continued on that trajectory ever since. This has caused some gospel-minded pastors and churches to ask God for a significant spiritual awakening—something that would truly disrupt the historical narrative of our region. We are prayerful to that end. On the other hand, by some assessments there have never been more churches planted in San Francisco than there have been recently. As far as this is true, we take encouragement in that, and trust that good gospel work will grow and continue.
Also in this series:
A professional mathematician by training, John Lennox has become known in the evangelical world for his often-insightful critiques of evolutionary theory. Both his lecturing and his writing are engaging, and that’s true of his book Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility, too. It will bring great comfort to many in the Arminian tradition; it’s hard to imagine how it could convince many well-informed readers in the Reformed tradition, which he commonly labels “theological determinism.” Lennox opposes two kinds of determinism—the physical determinism adopted by many atheists who have bought into philosophical naturalism, and theological determinism that, he fears, is on the rise, and that attracts most of his focused refutation in this work.
Lennox divides his book into five parts scattered across 20 chapters and an epilogue. In the first, “The Problem Defined,” Lennox argues that “true freedom” is part of the gospel’s “core message.” The freedom he espouses, with little defense, is libertarian freedom. Lennox acknowledges different kinds of determinism (but comes nowhere near what a Reformed theologian would say), insists that the issue isn’t whether God is truly sovereign, but what divine sovereignty means.
The “moral problem” of determinism fastens, for Lennox, on Auschwitz: he avers that he couldn’t believe in a God who in any real sense ordains such suffering. As further historical background, Lennox lightly covers the debates that led to the Synod of Dort and TULIP. Lennox rounds up this section with his fourth chapter, “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” Here he excoriates the use of labels to identify various theological positions, instead of paying attention to what the Bible actually says. He has a point, though it’s more than a little troubling that all the bad examples he identifies are on one side.Domesticated Divine Sovereignty
The second part of the book treats “The Theology of Determinism,” with chapter 5 devoted to “God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility,” and chapter 6 to “The Biblical Vocabulary” (foreknowledge, predestination, election). In chapter 5, Lennox’s goal is to show that the Bible teaches both God’s sovereignty and also human responsibility. In some general sense, that’s exactly right—yet the devil is in the details. It’s hard not to see that although Lennox formally espouses both, in his actual handling of texts he consistently trims the former by appeal to the latter. What he defends isn’t a solid commitment to divine sovereignty and to human responsibility, but a solid commitment to domesticated divine sovereignty and a form of human responsibility that presupposes a libertarian view of freedom.
For example, on page 93 Lennox quotes the words of Peter about Jesus: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:33). Lennox comments, “The crucifixion was therefore foreknown by God and occurred according to his set purpose; and yet the men who put him to death were wicked and therefore morally responsible” (93). So far, so good. Perhaps the more telling passage in Acts is a pair of verses in chapter 4: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (4:27), followed by: “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (4:28).
So there, in the strongest form, you have the tension between human responsibility (4:27) and God’s sovereignty (4:28). It’s important to see that we need the truth expressed in both verses if the Christian gospel is to be preserved. Suppose we uphold v. 27 but deny v. 28: what follows? If we ask the question, “Why did Jesus die?” the answer, on the assumption that v. 27 is true and that v. 28 doesn’t exist, is that Jesus died as a result of a cheap political conspiracy among various parties in Jerusalem, Jews and Gentiles alike. He did not die as a result of God’s plan and purpose—a conclusion that would be devastating for the gospel, and in any case would make nonsense of the many biblical trajectories that run through the Scriptures and climax in the cross (e.g., Passover, the Day of Atonement, various sin offerings, the suffering servant).
Conversely, suppose we uphold v. 28 but deny v. 27: what follows? We would need to say that Jesus died as a result of God’s power and will; it was the result of his decision, taken in advance. Jesus did not die as a result of evil human machinations. But if there’s no human evil in the events that take Jesus to the cross, where is there evil? If there’s no evil, why on earth do we need an atonement in the first place?
In Acts 4:27–28 we find a superb example of simultaneous commitment to the reality of human responsibility and the reality of divine sovereignty.
So in Acts 4:27–28 we find a superb example of simultaneous commitment to the reality of human responsibility and the reality of divine sovereignty. To believe that both of these realities are taught and exemplified in Scripture is to believe that, however challenging the concept, they’re mutually compatible, and the person who accepts Scripture’s witness on the matter is a compatibilist.Sidestepping Exegesis, Against Compatibilism
But Lennox will have none of it. He adopts four strategies against such a conclusion.
First, he never addresses this pair of verses, and a number of other passages (as we shall see), that seem to offer the clearest case for a strong belief in both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
Second, when he comments on Acts 4:28, it’s not in his fifth chapter, where his topic is divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but in his sixth, where he considers “the biblical vocabulary”: such words as foreknowledge, predestination, election, and so forth. Foreknowledge, in Lennox’s view, is never causative; indeed, he adopts, without discussion, the “middle knowledge” view propounded by the Spanish Jesuit Molina. In the same chapter, Lennox lists Acts 4:28 as one of the passages that uses the verb “to predestinate”—or, as the NIV renders it in this text, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” But the total range of topics constrained by this verb in the New Testament is small, he says, so it can’t be made to apply to everything that happens.
So by focusing on his brief word studies, he sidesteps the exegesis of the passages at issue. In the context, what God predestines in Acts 4:28 (what he decides beforehand should happen) is everything that the conspirators of 4:27 stipulate. Word studies, especially poorly executed word studies, can’t substitute for detailed exegesis of entire texts. Still, Lennox almost gets it right: “the Bible itself [he says] does not regard God’s foreknowledge or predestination as diminishing human responsibility” (108, emphasis his), which is exactly right: it sounds as if Lennox is on the cusp of espousing compatibilism after all.
But then, precisely because Lennox ties human responsibility to a libertarian notion of will, he must say that human responsibility diminishes God’s foreknowledge and predestination. Again, he observes that the betrayal of Jesus was “predestined” (Luke 22:22), that Jesus pronounces his “woe” upon the betrayer. “This is clearly implying that the betrayer was morally culpable and therefore accountable. Once again the implication of this is that, however we understand the terms, we may not interpret them in such a way that they negate human moral responsibility” (109).
Well said; indeed, I do not know a single person in the Reformed tradition who would disagree, so I’m not certain who Lennox’s target is in this passage. But nowhere does he articulate and espouse the reciprocal truth that, however we understand the Bible’s many articulations of human moral responsibility, we may not interpret them in such a way that they negate God’s sovereign predestination. Once again, Lennox defends not a solid commitment to divine sovereignty and to human responsibility, but a solid commitment to domesticated divine sovereignty and a form of human responsibility that presupposes a libertarian view of freedom.
There’s no exegetically responsible way of avoiding the simultaneous realities of God’s robust sovereignty and human moral responsibility.
Third, otherwise put, Lennox distances himself from compatibilism. More precisely, he aligns himself with the discussion of Tom McCall on compatibilism (see his An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology [Downers Grove: IVP, 2015]), whose treatment of compatibilism is in line with that of much contemporary philosophy, and is essentially a mechanistic analysis.
But it has often been shown how a theistic analysis of the subject finds many, many theologians confessing themselves to be compatibilists, not because they succumb to theological “-isms” but because they are convinced by passages such as Acts 4:27–28, and countless scores of others like them. (I have tried to respond to my friend Tom McCall in “Biblical-Theological Pillars Needed to Support Faithful Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” TrinJ 38 : 58–77.)
And fourth, Lennox devotes no space to the numerous passages where a robust compatibilism is exegetically unavoidable (e.g., Gen. 50:19–20; Isa. 10:5ff.). I contend there’s no exegetically responsible way of avoiding the simultaneous realities of God’s robust sovereignty and human moral responsibility.Final Thoughts
In the third part of his book Lennox devotes five chapters to the gospel and determinism. A good deal of space is devoted to refuting much of the so-called “five points” of Dort—except, of course, for what is often called eternal security. Much of these chapters reflects the proof-texting of much of popular conservative evangelicalism. Part 4 is devoted to “Israel and Determinism” (chs. 12–16); part 5 to “Assurance and determinism” (chs. 17–20). Much of the fourth part aims to expound substantial parts of Romans 9–11. Despite many good points, the handling of these chapters seems frequently to be rather forced.
To respond even briefly to these three final parts of Lennox’s book, I would have to double or triple the length of a review already too lengthy. Perhaps I might restrict myself to two final observations.
First, this book is simply written and therefore easy to follow. Part of this simplicity is tied to the reductionistic handling of not a few arguments, but part of it is the author’s attractive style, doubtless the fruit of years of popular speaking in highly diverse contexts.
Second, Lennox has overlooked one of the most important axioms of serious polemical theology. If you aim to win over as many opponents as possible, you must prove yourself capable of understanding and articulating that opponent’s position at least as knowledgeably and convincingly as he or she—and only then refute it. If instead few of your opponents recognize their position in your description (caricature?) of it, you’re unlikely to gain a respectful hearing from those who, on your assumptions, must need it. On this front, I fear, the book is a bit of a disappointment.
The result is that the book will bring solace to those already onside with the author, and may win some who have never wrestled deeply with the arguments. But I suspect it will be unable to win over many from the camp Lennox seeks to refute. Perhaps that was not his aim anyway.
Ninety-five percent of teens either own a smartphone or have access to one, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents may give their kids phones for the sake of safety, but at they same time they open up a constant flow of peer communication and critique.
In this discussion, TGC Council member and ERLC president Russell Moore, pastor Scott Sauls, and author Trevin Wax talk about how they’ve made their own parenting decisions about technology. Wax points out that while parents are right to be concerned about the kind of content kids may access on their phones, they also need to consider the formative influence the phone itself will have on a person. In fact, we need to consider what kind of shaping effect smartphones might be having not just on kids, but on us as adults as well.
- Don’t Be Dumb with Your Smartphone (Tony Reinke)
- 7 Ways Smartphones Can Enhance Your Spiritual Life (Joe Carter)
- Why Our Son Doesn’t Have a Smartphone (Trevin Wax)
Scripture demands that we love our neighbors, including those who are inconvenient to us. But most people’s daily work takes place in an aggressive marketplace. Companies are under enormous pressure to beat their competitors. Can Christians love their neighbors while striving to outdo them?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is “yes.” But it will only happen if Christians are serious about seeing their work and the economy through the lens of God’s Word. And that means pastors and churches play an essential role in helping people think about work.All Work Is Competitive
Our culture teaches us that competition means a dog-eat-dog scramble to get as much as we can for ourselves at the expense of everyone else. This is why there is so much evil and destruction in the competitive marketplace. We’ve been told that in our daily work, all day every day, we’re essentially playing a giant game of Monopoly where the goal is to seize all the money for ourselves and leave everyone else destitute. (If you want a model of bad economics, the game of Monopoly is about as ungodly as it gets.)
But it is possible to compete without being selfish and destructive. We just need a better understanding of what competition is.
As simple as this sounds, it all begins with the fact that we are not God. We are finite. God has created us with many limitations—of space, time, strength, information. These limitations force us to spend almost every waking moment choosing between competing options. Do I spend the next hour reading or praying? Do I buy a new car, or do I keep spending money on repairs to maintain the old one?
Competition occurs wherever people face a choice between different options, and there is no “both/and” approach. This would be true even in a sinless world.
That is the real reason we compete. All work occurs in an economy, where people do jobs for each other. And all economies, regardless of the system, involve competition. Buyers and sellers offer one another opportunities for transactions. People select the transactions they find the most attractive while declining the alternatives.
The car dealer who will sell you a new car and the mechanic who will sell you maintenance services for your old car are, unavoidably, in competition with each other. If you buy a new car, the mechanic loses your business. If you don’t, the car dealer doesn’t gain your business.
This social web of competitive work was inherent in God’s decision to create more than one person.
This social web of competitive work was inherent in God’s decision to create more than one person (“It is not good that the man should be alone,” Gen. 2:18). This is why God is intensely interested in applying justice and mercy in economic transactions everywhere from the Old Testament law and prophets to the New Testament household codes and workplace parables. He’s keeping our competition graceful and honest.
Unpleasant as we may find it, competition is inherent in our finite nature. To have an economy without competition, we would need the infinite powers and radical autonomy of God himself.Competition as Cooperation
With God’s Word as our foundation, we can see our daily work as service to God, obeying the creation mandate (“subdue it, and have dominion,” Gen. 1:28) and pointing forward to Christ’s return by the light of our good works. For the majority of people who work in the competitive marketplace, doing this means a new way of competing.
People who compete in a godly way aren’t trying to outdo and destroy their competitors. Instead, they’re trying to serve customers as well as they can. The godly car dealer doesn’t want to destroy the mechanic; he wants to sell his customers the right cars for them at the best price he can sustainably offer. The godly mechanic doesn’t want to destroy the car dealer; he wants to do a good job of putting broken cars back on the road at the best price he can sustainably offer.
To have an economy without competition, we would need the infinite powers and radical autonomy of God himself.
The dealer and the mechanic will still be competing for business. But now they can think of each other as necessary parts of a good whole. The dealer thinks, The mechanic is helping me to pursue excellence—because if I don’t do a good job, people can go to him instead. And I help him to do his best in the same way. The mechanic thinks the same in reverse.
They are, in effect, cooperating with each other. They are helping each other produce an overall economy where customers are well served. And they are holding each other to high standards of excellence.Hard Task of Loving Competitors
Of course, we know it’s a fallen world. Even among God’s people, the power of sin remains substantial. It would be naïve to think that engaging in competition as cooperation is easy.
On the contrary, keeping ourselves from falling into the dog-eat-dog mode of competition is costly.
It involves diligent investment of our time and treasure in spiritual disciplines. People who lose their intimacy with God generally are not going to show up at work with a spirit of cooperative love toward their economic competitors. So the time we spend in the Word and in prayer, along with other disciplines, is essential to being able to live this way of life. If you want a really tough spiritual challenge that will bear fruit in your life, trying praying for your competitors!
If you want a really tough spiritual challenge that will bear fruit in your life, trying praying for your competitors!
Godly competition also involves honest business dealings—even when your competitors don’t play fair. The economic cost of good ethics can sometimes be overstated. Businesses that behave themselves will earn a good reputation and repeat business, and save money on the costs of conflict. Nevertheless, being ethical involves real sacrifices. It sometimes costs the whole business. In a fallen world, the good guys don’t always come out on top—at least, not visibly and in the present age.
Finally, competing in a godly way involves cultivating a corporate culture of neighborly love. Do people in your workplace talk and act as if the purpose of the business is making money, rather than serving customers? If so, it’s time for a change of direction. Do they speak in degrading and destructive ways about competitors? If so, a taming of the tongue is required. This is especially incumbent upon business leaders, whose power to shape corporate culture is disproportionate; but ultimately it’s everyone’s responsibility to be part of the solution.
In the long run, living a God-honoring life requires us to see the marketplace as an opportunity to compete in a godly way. Our cooperation as we serve one another reflects the image of God that Christ is restoring us to. And our future is one in which all the world’s nations will bring their diverse cultural products into the New Jerusalem and dedicate them to God.
What are you contributing today that points toward that amazing future?
“If you build it, they will come.”
I like the movie Field of Dreams, but it’s a terrible evangelism strategy for church planters.
Most unbelievers have no interest in joining you this Sunday. Simply offering a “good product” isn’t enough in this post-Christian world. It doesn’t matter how cool your venue is, how good your music and coffee are, or how hip your pastor looks.
The unbelievers who do show up are there because someone has befriended and invited them outside the walls of a church building. Most outsiders aren’t waking up saying, “I wonder if they have good coffee. I’m going to check it out.” Or “I bet the music is great there. I should go visit.”
As church-planting pastors, we have to overemphasize evangelism. It’s a challenge for us to be both missional and also pastoral—a tension that exists from the founding of your church. One planter recently told me, “I just got started, and I already have shepherding issues.”
But if a church is to flourish, evangelism must be central to the life of the body.Models of Evangelism
In years past, two forms of evangelism have been most common: event evangelism and cold-call evangelism. Indeed, when people hear “evangelism” today, they often think of either big events/crusades or door-to-door outreach.
The Lord has used both of these approaches, and in some contexts, they continue to be effective. However, in other places—particularly in many post-Christian contexts—these approaches are often less fruitful.
I don’t want to insinuate we should reject these approaches. We shouldn’t. But I want to highlight another approach that has historic precedent—one that is both culturally appropriate and personally achievable: network evangelism.
Network evangelism isn’t an event; it’s not a program; it’s not something you only do on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. It’s a lifestyle.
Network evangelism isn’t an event; it’s not a program; it’s not something you only do on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. It’s a lifestyle. It’s about living with gospel intentionality in the everyday rhythms of life. It’s done among the people who fall into your current web of relationships.
When planting a church, network evangelism becomes a practical way to emphasize how every member can live as a missionary.
In order to cultivate and sustain an evangelistic culture in our young church, I’ve preached a number of sermons on this topic. The first series came after the elders had a long discussion about why we weren’t seeing more people converted. As I was praying and thinking about how to lead our people, I came across this statement in Tim Keller’s Church Planter Manual:
There must be an atmosphere of expectation that every member will always have two to four people in the incubator, a force-field in which people are being prayed for, given literature, brought to church or other events.
We’ve sought to expand and build on this idea.Why Network Evangelism?
Network evangelism first recognizes the sovereignty of God. It develops a mindset that every person in our sphere of life matters, and it helps us remember that God has us living in this time and place in history, surrounded by particular image-bearers he has sovereignly put in our path (Acts 17:26).
Additionally, network evangelism has historic precedent. In his book Cities of God, sociologist Rodney Stark describes how Christianity became an urban movement that transformed the Roman world:
Social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place. . . . Most conversions are not produced by professional missionaries conveying a new message, but by rank-and-file members who share their faith with their friends and relatives. . . . The principle that conversions spread through social networks is quite consistent with the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus shared many family ties and long-standing associations. . . . Although the very first Christian converts in the West may have been by full-time missionaries, the conversion process soon became self-sustaining as new converts accepted the obligation to spread their faith and did so by missionizing their immediate circle of intimates.
Did you see that? The movement advanced because new converts accepted the obligation to spread the gospel within their own circles of everyday influence.
Further, network evangelism promotes faithfulness and patience. Evangelistic methods often involve only “on the spot” presentations. They can be impersonal as well. They can be about generating numbers, not valuing people. They can allow us to simply “check a box” to appease our guilt, and then move on.
In planting a church, network evangelism becomes a practical way to emphasize how every member can live as a missionary.
But when you’re reaching out to people you see regularly, it demands faithfulness and perseverance. You can do the necessary pre-evangelism, answer questions, slowly and gradually watch defenses go down, and hopefully—by God’s grace—see your friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor declare, “Jesus is Lord.”Who’s in Your Networks?
We could organize our web of relationships in a variety of ways, but it has been helpful for our church to think within five categories:
- Familial Network—people in your family.
- Geographical Network—people in your neighborhood.
- Vocational Network—people at your workplace.
- Recreational Network—people you hang out with.
- Commercial Network—people you see at shops.
We encouraged our church members to identify at least five people in each of these networks—or if they’re low in one area, to increase the number of people in the other networks. And we’ve encouraged them to do one of five tasks:
- Pray for them—You’ll be surprised what happens when you begin to pray for the people in your path. You may experience the joy C. S. Lewis expressed: “I have two lists of names in my prayers, those for whose conversions I pray and those for whose conversions I give thanks. The little trickle of transferences from List A to List B is a great comfort.”
- Invite them—Invite them over to eat dinner, to play sports, to go to a movie, to come with you to a church event.
- Serve them—Identify a way that you can bless those in your networks. Babysit for them, pick up groceries for them, cut their grass, and so on.
- Give resources to them—Ask them to read a book or article with you, or to listen to a sermon or podcast. Discuss these resources with them.
- Share the gospel with them—Look for various places where you can talk about your faith. Let your friend know you are part of a church, and see if they ask questions. Listen to their problems with real concern, and then seize the opportunity to address the problems with gospel hope. Share some of your own struggles, and talk about how you deal with them in light of your faith. Simply ask them what they believe, and just let them talk.
From this plan—five people in each of the five categories, doing one of the five tasks—we developed this evangelism card for individuals and small groups:
May God use ordinary saints like us, who overflow with love for the Savior, to lead outsiders to faith as we live with gospel intentionality in our everyday networks.
By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines:
- “Surgeon General Says There’s a Loneliness Epidemic” (The Washington Post)
- “Young People Report More Loneliness Than the Elderly” (USA Today)
- “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness” (The Boston Globe)
- “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health” (The New York Times)
- “Loneliness Begets More Loneliness” (The Atlantic)
- “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us” (The New York Times)
- “Social Isolation Kills More People Than Obesity” (Slate)
Americans are lonelier than ever—even though opportunities for social connection have exponentially increased. Even with affordable phone calls and free email, we’re talking to each other less. Despite the prevalence of car ownership and the low cost of cross-country air travel, we’re spending less time with our families.
After decades of bowling leagues, Americans began bowling alone. Today, in the age of social media, we’re not even bowling.
We’re scrolling alone.
How did social isolation become such a disturbing trend? And how can the church respond to the loneliness epidemic?
My thesis is simple. Western community is in sharp decline, and radical individualism has become the functional status for even the most devoted churchgoers. This radical individualism has engendered unprecedented social isolation and yielded a depth of loneliness unique to 21st-century American culture.
This is troubling because we’re relational beings—a reality long affirmed by Christian theology but now also supported by neuroscience. By understanding ourselves as social beings, we can regain social connectedness, friendship, and community in the church and the world.Epidemic for the 21st Century
Earlier this year, a 20,000-person Cigna study, based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, revealed that those aged 18 to 22 identified with loneliness at a significantly higher rate than those 72 and older. But this study only confirmed what researchers had already discovered: we’re a lonely nation.
The former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, was the first to call loneliness an epidemic. Murthy has shown that loneliness causes “an insidious type of stress” that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It could be easily argued that loneliness is the epidemic of contemporary Western culture. And most of our other epidemics—from heart disease to pornography use—can trace their roots back to a lonely heart.
Mother Teresa was right in stating that life without other people is “the worst disease any human being can ever experience.”
How did we get here?Me before We
Loneliness is the unsurprising symptom of an individualistic society. Historians and philosophers have both traced the rise in individualism over the last 70 years.
From the perspective of philosophy, James K. A. Smith suggests that the shift in the Western mind from primarily religious to primarily secular has coincided with the rise of individualism (over communalism) as the primary view of self and meaning:
Not only were things invested with significance in the [past], but the social bond itself was enchanted, sacred. [Quoting Charles Taylor] “Living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially.” . . . Once individuals become the locus of meaning, the social atomism that results means that disbelief no longer has social consequences. “We” are not a seamless cloth, a tight-knit social body; instead, “we” are just a collection of individuals—like individual molecules in a social “gas.”
As disenchanted individuals searching for our true selves in all the wrong places, we must remember we aren’t merely individuals in need of autonomy and self-esteem. We are persons-in-community wired for deep relational connection.Vanishing Relationships
Healthy community requires a frequency of local interactions that’s becoming increasingly rare.
Recently my wife was telling me about her day. She ran into our friend Lindsey and our new friends Brad and Chesney at the grocery store. That same day, I ran into my friend Ross at the bakery and stopped by my bicycle shop to chat with Angela about some new tires I’m considering. We were pleasantly surprised by these “chance encounters,” but many days go by where we don’t run into anyone and think nothing of it.
True community requires a frequency of local interactions that’s becoming increasingly rare.
Marc Dunkelman has made the case that these chance encounters are key to a sense of belonging and community. In public spaces like grocery stores, coffee shops, and playgrounds, neighbors connect through healthy interaction face-to-face.
These days, however, such localized conversations have been replaced by furious tapping on glowing screens separated by hundreds of miles. These changes reflect the larger problem of vanishing American community, Dunkelman suggests:
Adults today tend to prize different kinds of connections than their grandparents: more of our time and attention today is spent on more intimate contacts and the most casual acquaintances. We’ve abandoned the relationships in between—”middle-ring” ties. (xiii)
Without middle-ring ties, much falls apart in our social fabric. These sociological findings resonate with our experiences; no wonder they’re being backed up by neuroscience.When Neuroscience Supports Theology
A researcher at UCLA has been among the first to apply functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to questions of relationship and community. Not surprisingly, his research has profoundly affirmed the need for social connection:
Using tools like functional MRI (fMRI), we have made startling discoveries of how the human brain responds to the social world—discoveries that were not possible before. These findings repeatedly reinforce the conclusion that our brains are wired to connect with other people. . . . These are design features, not flaws. (9)
In other words, our brains are social. These discoveries also reveal the power of social isolation to adversely affect our brains. The region of the brain that’s activated when we experience rejection or loneliness is the same region that registers the pain of stepping on a Lego (Cacioppo and Patrick, 8).
Loneliness hurts, and the pain compounds into physical sickness, which isn’t cured with medication, but friendship.
In other words, both the soft and hard sciences agree: We’re relational beings, designed to connect with one another—not mere individuals but interdependent persons-in-community.Relational Beings
Jesus models perfect being-in-relationship for us. He was never not in relationship. He entered this world not by splitting the heavens but by gently growing in his mother’s womb. He entered a normal family, spent his childhood and early adulthood in obscurity, and then launched his ministry by inviting others to follow him. Even on the eve of his crucifixion, he gathered for a meal with his disciples, then led them to pray with him at Gethsemane. With his final breaths, he instructed his disciples to care for his mother.
If relationships were essential to Jesus, shouldn’t they be for you, too?
On occasion, Jesus left his disciples to pray in solitude, but in general, he did everything with this ragtag bunch. His life and mission remind us that even he refused to live life in isolation. If relationships were essential to Jesus, shouldn’t they be for us, too?
Like Jesus, we exist for relationships. Created in the image of a triune—and therefore eternally relational—God, to be fully alive means to live in relationships. If Jesus was history’s most “fully alive” human, it shouldn’t surprise us that a person can’t become fully human without a community.
Simply put, we were created for community.Lonely at Heart
Even though loneliness abounds, few people consider themselves lonely. Researchers use the UCLA Loneliness Scale since most of us rate ourselves as “not lonely” until we answer tough questions and take stock of our actual relationships and daily habits. Am I lonely?
For me, I’m in my mid-30s, married, have three kids, and meet with people for a living. How could I be lonely? My wife recently joked that my ideal vacation would be getting sent to a minimum-security jail for two weeks. Three square meals, time outside in the yard, and no crying children? She might be on to something.
But I don’t have as many close friends as I did in my 20s, and I certainly lack the free time and late-night energy to hang out that I had in college. And this confirms most studies: Even though we’re surrounded by people in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, these tend to be the loneliest decades of our lives.
We’re busy, but disconnected. Our relationships are several, but superficial (frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effet on loneliness). Our brains and hearts claim to be overwhelmed, but at bottom we’re painfully lonely.
So how do we fight off isolation in a lonely world? How does God come to us in our loneliness? And where does the local church factor in?He Sets the Lonely in Families
Our first need is to turn to God. In Psalm 68, David praises our fatherly Lord:
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Ps. 68:5–6)
What a beautiful phrase: He sets the lonely in families. Loneliness isn’t new, and God’s redemption includes salvation from its deepest form—isolation from God and his people.
Loneliness isn’t new, and God’s redemption includes salvation from its deepest form—isolation from God and his people.
In this psalm, God is praised for being our Father, our defender, and our liberator. He liberates us from the prison of loneliness, into the freedom of family life. But of course, the family life pictured here isn’t a biological husband-wife-child system, but the family of God.Social Gospel
Our good news is irreducibly relational. It’s a social gospel.
From beginning to end, the gospel has relational dimensions. The curse of Genesis 3 is relational: Conflict between husband and wife; pain between wife and child; enmity between the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the enemy. Thus, God’s reversal of the curse is relational: Israel is a new family; the church is formed through witness, fellowship, hospitality, and ethnic reconciliation; and eternity is described as a people and a place.
We Americans tend to read Scripture from an exclusively individualistic framework. We’re surprised to find that the Lord’s Prayer contains only plural pronouns (“Our Father . . . Give us . . . Forgive us”) and that Paul writes “our Lord” 53 times but “my Lord” only once. Our salvation isn’t less than personal; it’s more than personal. As Peter wrote:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. (1 Pet. 2:9–10)Responding to Loneliness in the Church
The loneliness epidemic creates an ideal opportunity for churches to prioritize fostering authentic community. Here are five ways we can push back loneliness with the power of the gospel.1. Establish Belonging through Membership
When I was part of a team rethinking the membership process at Sojourn Church in Louisville, we decided to reframe church membership from merely a commitment to a place of belonging. I think the shift is important. Although calling for commitment is important, we found that appealing to our sporadic attendees’ shared hunger for belonging to be a far more compelling invitation. Research has shown that belonging—not personal freedom or self-esteem or meaningful work or marriage and kids—is the most fundamental human need beyond food and shelter.
Belonging—not personal freedom or self-esteem or meaningful work or marriage and kids—is the most fundamental human need beyond food and shelter.
In church membership, we don’t simply say “I commit,” but also “I belong.” If new members are making public statements of commitment to the church, the church should likewise be making public statements of commitment to them. Early Christianity scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:
Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain contented with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.
Call people to commit, but also invite them to belong.2. Prioritize Life-Giving Community
I’m an advocate of life-giving community groups. My heart isn’t simply for small groups that gather two or four times a month at someone’s house—as great as that step is. My hope is that adults, teens, and children find rhythms of true community together. A small group is a people, not a time on the calendar. Healthy groups encourage, challenge, and support one another.
But while I’m all-in on community groups, I deeply believe there’s no one right way to cultivate community in a church. If your church currently provides community through Sunday school classes, midweek services, or community service ministries, cultivate community where it exists—and when necessary, start new ministries to promote deeper relationships.3. Commit to Shared Leadership
When we ponder the influence of loneliness on the Western church, we can make sense of several other pressing challenges—the lack of truly diverse congregations and ministries, the moral and relational failures of many leaders, and so on. Many failures of leadership are first failures of relationship, accountability, and shared authority.
For the church to take loneliness seriously, we must question the “leaders are lonely” logic. While primary leadership of a congregation or organization is indeed a heavy burden, loneliness can be significantly mitigated by shared leadership. A healthy group of elders, staff, or team of volunteer leaders—and an engaged church membership—decreases the burden on any one pastor or leader, protecting everyone involved.4. Teach on Friendship and Community
Although many churches rightly teach on marriage, parenting, and family issues, it seems rare for a church to do a deep sermon series on friendships and community. But the Old Testament highlights Israel’s calling as a family, the friendship of David and Jonathan, and wisdom regarding friendship and loyalty. The New Testament provides a vision of Jesus’s intensely relational discipleship, the witness of the early church community in Acts, the “one another” commands in the epistles, and the hope of eternal fellowship at the end of the age.
Churches promote what they preach. The church that values friendship and community will leverage the pulpit to combat the loneliness epidemic.5. Be Devoted to One Another
Western individualism has sparked unprecedented social isolation, so we need to work tirelessly to recover the biblical vision of human nature and community in our local churches.
Of course, this is hard work. That’s why Paul’s letters emphasize establishing healthy community in the local church through sacrificial relationships. By God’s grace, may we increasingly embody the call of Romans 12:10–13:
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Francis Grimké (1850–1937), the son of a slave owner and a slave, faithfully pastored 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., until 1928. The following 20 quotes caught my attention as I read Meditations on Preaching, a recently released collection of preaching advice drawn from his various writings.
My constant prayer to God is that he would help me to preach, not great sermons, but helpful sermons—sermons that will appeal, not mainly to the intellect, but to the heart, sermons that will tend to strengthen and develop the good within us, to inspire us with right desires and fortify the will. (4)
In our troubles, anxieties, perplexities, the longer I live the more am I impressed with the wisdom of speaking more to God and less to man. He can do more in the way of helping through all our difficulties than all others put together. Talk more with God, less with man. (10)
The greatest source of power for good in a church is the pulpit, if it is properly filled—if it is occupied by a God-fearing man, a man who is qualified to teach the people, and who makes it his business, mainly, to feed the flock on the sincere milk of the word instead of on the husks of current happenings in newspapers and magazines. A pulpit well manned is always a source of power—is always an uplifting and ennobling influence. The more ministers themselves realize this, the more earnestly will they endeavor to qualify themselves to meet its great responsibilities and opportunities. (17)
No man’s ministry is a failure, however meager the results, if he has been faithfully and earnestly preaching the gospel of the grace of God, holding up to dying, sinful men God’s message of redeeming love. Such a ministry is not, could not be, a failure. (18)
[A church’s] value to the community does not depend upon the size of its membership but upon the quality of the men and women that make up its membership. . . . I have very little sympathy with the craze that is now taking hold of so many churches: merely to increase in numbers. Numbers count for nothing unless the constituent elements are of the right character. It is quality not quantity that tells in the work of the Lord. (25)
If a man doesn’t intend, as far as he is able by hard study and dint of perseverance, to feed his people on the best of the wheat, he has no business in the ministry and the people should be so educated as to make him feel it and as to shut him out of every pulpit. (29)
The business of the preacher is to state the truth of God, clearly, fully, simply; the rest the Spirit will take care of. We need not trouble ourselves about the survival of Christianity. God will take care of that. (33)
A man who is always thinking of himself in his pulpit ministrations is a failure before he begins. How little, how contemptible it is to be thinking about ourselves in the presence of the great and all-important issues that make up the themes of the pulpit! . . . The pulpit, the sacred desk, is no place for the man who wants to boom himself, to center attention upon himself instead of the Lord Jesus Christ and the truth of God. (38)
I believe that the most important part of public worship is the preaching of the Word, and that everything should be made subservient to it, that nothing should be allowed to enter that would lessen in any way the effect of it. (47)
The minister must be a man of prayer, and he must be a close student of the Word of God. Without these two things, he may be able to preach interesting and eloquent sermons, but they will carry no saving weight with them. It is only as he lives in close, vital touch with God that he can hope to speak with convicting and converting power. (58)
There are no difficulties in this modern, scientific age which cannot be met, and fully met, in this way. The plain, simple, faithful preaching of the gospel with power from on high is adequate to the needs of this age and of every age. It is foolish for us to be concerning and worrying ourselves about a matter which has already been settled by God. (65)
As preachers we are so apt to neglect our own souls, to allow the well of water within us to dry up or to become clogged up by too many cares of the world. We have got to disentangle ourselves from such things and give ourselves more to the things of the Spirit if we are to increase our effectiveness as ministers of the gospel. (67)
It is God’s Word that the people need to hear, whether they wish to hear it or not, and it is the special mission of the minister to see that they hear it. It is not what he thinks but what God has to say that is important. And the man who doesn’t realize that has no right in the ministry. (70)
It is a mistake to crowd too many things into a sermon and to have too many heads and sub-heads. Let it be simple in its structure and development. The thing particularly that you wish to have the hearers remember, stress. Let everything else go. To overburden the memory is to defeat the purpose which you have in mind. Little or nothing will be remembered, and what is remembered, if anything, will be the least important. (73–74)
One of the things we should be on our guard against, is the desire for praise, the wish to be complimented for our pulpit ministrations. After we have preached what we regard as a good sermon, how we like to be complimented, to be praised for it. So much so, that if we preach a sermon and no one speaks of it, we are apt to feel that the effort was a failure. In other words, we come to measure the worth of a sermon by the compliments it elicits. And so, we soon find ourselves preaching with a view of getting compliments, and so debasing the ministry, prostituting it to the unworthy purpose of self-laudation. If people praise our efforts, all right, but let us beware of making that the end of our preaching and looking for it as the test or evidence of our efficiency and worth as ministers. The man who puts himself in the forefront instead of Jesus Christ, thereby discredits himself, proves his unworthiness of the sacred office. (77–78)
In the preparation of our sermons, let us buckle down to hard work and not be seeking the easiest way of meeting a grave responsibility. (81)
Unless we are trying to be what we preach, we had better not preach at all. (90)
When we speak, we should remember that the message which we bring is a message of life and death, and that those who are listening to us may be listening for the last time, and that we who bring the message may be speaking for the last time. Before we speak again, we may be in eternity; before they hear again the message, they may be in eternity. Into every effort, therefore, we should put our best, we should enter with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. (94)
No cowardly minister who is afraid to declare the whole Word of God lest he give offense, or interfere with his popularity, has any right in any Christian pulpit. He is simply a disgrace to it and a stench in the nostrils of Jehovah. The seeking of popularity in the pulpit is a fatal defect and the surest way of not achieving true success. (99)
In preaching, I am not speaking for God, but God is speaking through me. (102)
Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:
- Sam Alberry, Why Bother with Church? (Good Book, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, In His Image (Crossway, 2018)
- Trevor Laurence, The Story of the Word (Wipf and Stock, 2017)
- Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018)
- Andy Johnson, Missions (Crossway, 2017)
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think (Currency, 2017)
- Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Crossway, 2017)
- Erik Raymond, Chasing Contentment (Crossway, 2017)
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas (Viking, 2016)
- Scott Sauls, Befriend (Tyndale House, 2016)
- Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Crossway, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, None Like Him (Crossway, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016)
- Mark Dever, Understanding the Great Commission (B&H, 2016)
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016)
- Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent (Thomas Nelson, 2015)
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community (Crossway, 2015)
- Russell Moore, Onward (B&H, 2015)
- Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Crown & Covenant, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Preaching (Viking, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Prayer (Dutton, 2014)
- Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word (Crossway, 2014)
It was Lord Acton (1834–1902) who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What’s often forgotten, however, is that Acton was describing the danger of papal absolutism, a danger David Kertzer chronicles in his outstanding new volume, The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe.
Known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Pope Pius XI, The Pope and Mussolini, Kertzer has now captured the tension of the long 19th century, a critical time in European history when dynasties were falling like leaves. At the center of this tension was Pius IX (Pio Nono in Italian), the longest occupant of Peter’s Chair (1846–1878). A study in contradictions, Pius IX was initially hailed as a friend of constitutional government, but eventually proved to be an icon of dictatorial rigidity. He started his promising pontificate by liberating Jews from the indignity and squalor of the ghetto, where the church had consigned them since the 16th century, only to later reassert Rome’s anti-Semitic policies. He decreed the doctrine of papal infallibility while building a legacy of famously fallible decisions.
A master storyteller, Kertzer combines academic rigor with lively prose, transporting readers to a time and place when life was both predictable and yet ripe for dramatic change.Times, They’re a Changin’
For more than a thousand years, popes ruled as princes over the Papal States, leading armies and expansive territories that they governed as semi-secular sovereigns. Although Rome was its capital, the church’s temporal domain reached as far north as Bologna, Ferrara, and Ravenna. Within the Papal States, priests were free to enter any home in their parish to search for illicit behavior. If a family ignored church precepts, police would be ordered to make arrests and send offenders to jail to await sentencing. Courts were ruled by priests, and a priest’s testimony and verdict were the final word.
Giovanni Mastai Ferretti was born into this world in 1792 in a family of minor nobility in Senigallia, a town in the center of the Papal States. Despite his epileptic seizures during childhood, which threatened his mother’s ambitions for her son’s priestly vocation, Mastai was granted a special dispensation to be ordained. In 1827, at age 35, he was named archbishop of Spoleto, the town in which Peter Martyr Vermigli had effectively brought church reform three centuries earlier. Such reform was once again needed, not only in Spoleto but throughout the peninsula. Unfortunately, it didn’t come. Instead, revolts against papal government erupted in 1831, sending Mastai to find refuge in the kingdom of Naples. It was a harbinger of what lay ahead.
This book is for anyone seeking to understand how the Roman Catholic Church’s struggle with modernity shaped the theology and place of the church in the liberal democratic West—a process that continues today.
When Mastai was elected to the papacy and took the name Pope Pius IX in 1846, many of his 3 million restive subjects lauded his ascent, hopeful that the obliging archbishop of Spoleto would move the Papal States toward more democratic ideals. But, as Kertzer points out, “He was a man with benevolent instincts and deep faith but woefully limited ability to understand the larger forces that were transforming the world,” and, following from these limitations, “he would be the last of the pope-kings, a dual role central to church doctrine and a pillar of Europe’s political order for a thousand years” (3).
Only two years after Pius IX ascended to the Peter’s Throne, the political ground began to shift throughout Europe. In 1848, these reformist tremors also shook the Italian peninsula, as nationalists coalesced in the so-called Risorgimento. Men such as Giuseppe Mazzini, Carlo Armellini, and Aurelio Saffi—not to mention the steely-eyed military commander, Giuseppe Garibaldi (who was so highly esteemed that Abraham Lincoln sought to recruit him to lead Union forces in the U.S. Civil War)—were initially encouraged by the possibility of democratic reform under the pontificate of Pius IX. And they had good reason to be. Pius IX’s first official act was to release political prisoners, followed by provisional plans to revise the constitution and introduce new technology such as railroads and telegraph lines.
But the reformers’ hope of progress rapidly translated into demands for revolution. “After centuries of oppression,” Kertzer writes, “the people were at last rising up to assert their rights” (112). The Roman theocracy that had existed since the eighth century—in which the pope reigned, cardinals occupied the highest positions, prelates lived in extravagant palaces, and priests exercised temporal authority through an intricate network of spies and informants—was about to end. A new representative government would usurp the old political order.Reviled and Feared
On November 15, 1848, the conservative minister of Pius IX’s government, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated. It was a shock that knocked Pius IX off his feet and set in motion a series of events that would lead to his exile from Rome. In short order, he would flee his Quirinal Palace, removing his red papal berretto and Moroccan silk slippers with embroidered crosses in exchange for the black cassock and broad-brimmed hat of a simple priest. His trembling legs descended his private stairway into a courtyard, where a two-horse carriage and a Bavarian count armed with a pistol awaited. After arriving in the fishing village of Mola di Gaeta, some 50 miles from Naples, his mood “lurched between stubborn intransigence born of a feeling of betrayal and an eagerness to regain the affection of his subjects” (138).
Chastened and skeptical of democracy, Pius IX turned to his arch-conservative secretary of state, Giacomo Antonelli, the true decision-maker during the 17 months of exile from Rome. “If Pius had no taste of the game of politics, with its strategizing, posturing, and undercutting of rivals,” Kertzer comments, “Antonelli was its master” (126). In the extended narrative that follows, Kertzer brings to life a wide cast of characters who tell the incredible story of 19th-century Europe. It’s regrettable that Kertzer’s description of Pius IX is less detailed in this section, but that’s probably inevitable given the vast scope and complexity of the terrain he covers. Kertzer proves once again that he deserves to be identified among the finest authors of Catholic history, along with the likes of Thomas Cahill, Eamon Duffy, and Dermot Fenlon.
When the dust finally settled after Pius IX’s return to Rome in 1850, he was a different man. No longer the “simple, sweet, timid, fearful” country priest, as Victor Hugo once described him, Pius became the pope who would be king. Repression returned at once. The press was censored according to the dictates of the Inquisition, while the clergy’s old immunities and privileges resumed. Dissidents who opposed papal authority were placed with five or six prisoners “in a dark cell intended for one, with no blanket to keep them warm at night, breathing air rancid with the stench that wafted from their lidless latrines. Living on a diet of stale bread and beans, they quickly fell prey to disease” (328–29).
His humor now gone, Pius continued as head of the church, promulgating his infamous Syllabus of Errors and calling the First Vatican Council. Through a series of eventful (and ironic) turns, Rome found security in the protection of French troops, but the respite was short lived. When the Franco-Prussian War drew the French military home from Italy, Rome was left unprotected. A new Italian army led by nationalists immediately attacked the Papal States, and Pope Pius IX surrendered. Following a referendum, Rome was declared Italy’s capital city. When it was formally annexed on October 20, 1870, a millennium of Papal State sovereignty came to an end, and Pius IX retreated into a self-imposed Vatican captivity.Legacy of Pius IX
But even as a new republican capital was proclaimed on the ruins of his temporal power, Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of papal infallibility—that a pope is preserved from error when solemnly pronouncing teaching on faith and morals as contained in divine revelation. Even as Pius IX was stripped of his political role, he was buttressing his spiritual jurisdiction, beyond the reach of kings, princes, and revolutions. Within this territory, there was one earthly throne and one pontiff with the authority to speak from it.
When Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a united Italy, chose Rome as his residence in 1871, the pope was furious. He prohibited Italy’s Catholics from participating in the new political establishment, including elections. This moratorium not only muted the Catholic voice in political and social affairs, it also engendered a strident anti-clerical reaction. It wasn’t until Benito Mussolini concluded the Lateran Treaty in 1929 that the church’s claim on Rome was resolved. Pius IX died in 1878, the longest-reigning pope in history, still defending a European order that was slipping away.
This book is for more than Italophiles, students of European history, or those wrestling with the origins of European Kulturkampf. It’s also for anyone seeking to understand how the Roman Catholic Church’s struggle with modernity shaped the theology and place of the church in the liberal democratic West—a process that continues today.
What is the goal of your small-group ministry?
Is it fellowship? Friendship? Bible literacy? Missional engagement? Neighborhood service? How many different answers would you get if you asked your group leaders?
After more than a decade of leading and overseeing small groups in various contexts, I’m more convinced than ever that discipleship must be the single, unifying goal of our community ministries. Many of the above options are means to this end, but I think the clarification is worthwhile.
If Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), our highest goal for community groups can’t merely be fellowship or knowledge or visitor retention. Our goal must be mature disciples—men and women full of the life of Christ.How Do We Make Disciples?
When discussing discipleship, many things may come to mind—a class, a program, a Bible study, family worship, one-on-one mentoring, a set of doctrines, or an early developmental stage.
I’ve been in a group that emphasized accountability and pressed its members weekly (in gender specific groups) to confess sins and recite Scriptures. I’ve been in a group that was more than three hours long—and we wondered why families with young children weren’t sticking around. And I’ve even led a group that assumed discipleship would just happen if we all hung out enough.
Discipleship is not as difficult as the church has made it to be. Neither are there any magic bullets. Discipleship is neither a duty to perform nor a puzzle to solve. It is the life-giving, grace-filled process of being with Christ and becoming like him together. How can we make sure our small groups are making disciples?1. Discipleship Centers on Christ
It will be life-giving if it’s focused on Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Our groups should primarily be marked by life, not stagnation; joy, not defeat; encouragement, not gossip. In other words, discipleship must be gospel-centered—rooted in Jesus and his good news.2. Discipleship Is Grace-Filled
True discipleship recognizes that spiritual transformation comes through God’s grace, not simply our effort. God’s grace enables us to want to be with Christ and become like him (Titus 2:11–13). We will fail frequently, but his grace sustains us along the way.3. Discipleship Is a Process
It’s not just a theory, a class, a program, or a time of the week. Similar to a worldview, a process—a new way of living, with new habits and routines—must be produced if we are to live like Christ as his salt and light in the world.4. Discipleship Is Being with Christ
It’s not a primarily way of doing more for him or the church. The first invitation of discipleship is not to growth or change or even obedience; it is to come to Jesus. The words of Matthew 11:28–30 demonstrate our Lord’s heart for his followers:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.5. Discipleship Is a Way of Becoming Like Him
Once we have spent time in the presence of the King, we will gradually become more like him. Our growth in Christlikeness produces real change, and our obedience becomes an internal desire rather than an external compulsion. We become what we behold:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)6. Discipleship Happens Together
Our being and becoming like Christ is deeply personal, but it is not private. It doesn’t happen primarily in a “Jesus and me” context. Instead, the best possible place of spiritual transformation is the local church—including a small, regular, committed group of believers pursuing the same goal.Jesus Is the Paradigm
If we want to find a blueprint for discipleship, we must begin where all true discipleship begins: with the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. We can learn several key themes from his work in and through his disciples. What were his habits of fellowship?
Jesus intentionally identified his key people. He had 12 disciples—not 13, not 11. And once he was in relationship with these folks, he didn’t kick some out or upgrade to better ones. The 12 weren’t chosen for their potential or their past behavior. Jesus knew these men, and they devoted their lives to him. These were his people, for better or worse. (Ahem, Judas.)
Jesus invited his people into every area of his life. Jesus is rarely found without his friends in the Gospels. They accompany him on ministry trips, and he brings them along to family gatherings, religious events, and holiday parties. He wasn’t always teaching, but he was always training. His whole life was a lesson in truth and grace.
Jesus is rarely found without his friends in the Gospels.
Jesus ate with his people. As Matthew 11:19 reminds us, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” This was his favorite means of fellowship. He ate with everyone—Pharisees, tax collectors, strangers, crowds—but he always seemed to include his closest followers in these meals. For Jesus, meals were about the acceptance and celebration of the other—which is why the religious leaders were so enraged by them.
Jesus lived on mission with his people. Jesus began his public ministry, almost immediately after his baptism, with the calling of the 12. His mission was to them and through them, forming a mission-in-relationship. Even while teaching and healing, he was in community and training others.
Community is not optional in the work of discipleship.
In our community groups, we would do well to pattern our fellowship rhythms after the life and ministry of Christ. Churches and ministries that prioritize discipleship in their small groups—following Jesus’s patterns of ministry—position themselves well to experience the life-giving, life-changing power of God.
In 2016, the International Justice Mission (IJM) was thrilled with their progress in slowing child sex trafficking on the streets in the Philippines.
Over 13 years, they’d helped rescue more than 1,450 victims and put more than 175 traffickers behind bars. They’d lowered the number of minors being trafficked in three major metro areas by an average of almost 80 percent.
“In all instances, we see a reduction in the prevalence of child trafficking compared to five to six years ago,” one Manila government employee told IJM in 2016. “The reduction is very steep. The prevalence in commercial sex establishment was reduced so [much] that we could barely see children in trafficking.”
The organization achieved its success by focusing on training local law enforcement to catch and prosecute perpetrators (a strategy laid out in The Locust Effect by IJM founder Gary Haugen and Human Trafficking Institute cofounder Victor Boutros). But just before IJM could check “stop almost all child sex trafficking in the Philippines” off its list, they noticed a new problem.IJM has helped rescue more than 350 children from online sex trafficking in the Philippines / Courtesy of IJM
It started as a smattering of cases in 2011. Philippine law enforcement began to get referrals from Western governments, alerting them to photos or videos of sexually abused Filipino children found on confiscated computers.
“The numbers started going up,” said Brianna Gehring, IJM’s senior program manager for Southeast Asia. “In about 2014 or 2015, we realized it was a major issue.” In 2015, the Philippine government was receiving more than 2,000 alerts of online child sexual exploitation a month.
The online version of sexual exploitation was worse in several ways. First, the children were younger—where the average age of commercial sex trafficking victims was 16 or 17, 86 percent of cybersex trafficking victims are younger than 18, and 52 percent are younger than 12. (The youngest child IJM helped rescue from online sexual exploitation was two months old.)
Eighty-six percent of cybersex trafficking victims are younger than 18, and 52 percent are younger than 12.
The youngest child IJM helped rescue from online sexual exploitation was two months old.
There were also more boys involved in online abuse (about 20 percent), said IJM public relations manager Maggie Cutrell. “In our prior commercial sex trafficking project, we rarely encountered male victims.”
And more often than not, the rescues involved siblings (about 60 percent).
All of those trends made sense when IJM looked at the change in perpetrators. Instead of area pimps or bar owners, more than 80 percent of offenders in IJM-supported online sexual abuse cases were relatives or close family friends. Almost half were parents.
Eager to lift themselves out of poverty, and often believing abuse done by family isn’t really abuse, mothers and fathers and aunts and neighbors started selling explicit photos and videos of their children to customers online.
For IJM staff who thought they were nearly home free, this new and darker form of slavery was heartbreaking.
“IJM believes that we can see the end of slavery in our lifetime, which seems overwhelming to think about right now,” Cutrell said.
“There’s no question that when you look at the scale of evil and violence, particularly in the developing world, it can leave one hopeless and exhausted,” Haugen said. “‘How can I possibly create a divine pivot point in the massive sea of pain and injustice that exists?’ But then we’re reminded that we serve a God who doesn’t ask us to do the miracle. He simply asks us to give him what we already have in our hand.”
And this time around, IJM’s hands are holding quite a lot.‘It’s Possible’
Human rights attorney Haugen founded IJM in 1997 after investigating the Rwandan genocide for the United Nations. What he saw convinced him that lawlessness is both evil and preventable.
“The first 10 years of IJM’s existence, we were focused on rescuing individual people and families from slavery,” Cutrell said. IJM lawyers walked with victims through one slow, broken court system after another, figuring out what worked and what needed to be fixed.
“The second 10 years we’ve worked on parallel tracks—rescuing but also working to transform the justice system,” she said. IJM lawyers have convicted hundreds of rapists, traffickers, and slave-owners; trained Guatemalan judges and prosecutors in three major districts; and leveraged American concern to pressure Cambodian authorities into addressing child sex trafficking.A perpetrator is fingerprinted / Courtesy of IJM
“IJM comes in and says, ‘It’s possible,’” IJM vice president of South Asia programs Saju Mathew said. “It’s possible to make changes in the lives of victims. It’s possible to change the courts to function better. If you create a new normal—honestly, it catches fire.”
“We’ve seen big reductions everywhere,” Gehring said.In 2009, eight out of every 100 commercial sex workers in metro Manila was a minor. By 2014, it had dropped to five; by 2016, it was down to less than two. (In fact, “during the 2016 study, data collectors had significant trouble finding identifiable minors trafficked for sex,” the report said.)
In Cambodia, child sex trafficking was “almost entirely eliminated.” The success was so great that IJM moved its focus there to labor trafficking. The same thing started to happen in the Philippines—by 2012, IJM’s annual report noted the opening of a third office there, not to build rescue operations but to “protect and restore sex trafficking survivors.”
By 2013, the annual report was jubilant: IJM’s strategy was working. “[W]e witnessed progress that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago,” Haugen wrote. “[J]ustice for the poor is possible. This was a year of dramatic progress in that urgent work.”
But among stories of stronger anti-trafficking laws, nearly 23,000 people trained around the globe, and survivors going to school and starting small businesses, there’s this: “In the Philippines, we rescued three sisters—the youngest only two years old—who were being sexually abused in videos uploaded to the internet.”‘Heartbreaking’
It makes sense that once you crack down on brothels and pimps in a physical location, they’ll move online. But that’s not what’s happening.
Out of more than 100 rescue operations IJM has worked, “we have not seen a single case where we had a perpetrator who was previously involved in street or physical trafficking who switched to online,” Gehring said.
They’re also not seeing this in other countries.
“The Philippines is unique in that it has a lot of English speakers, a lot of poverty, and a high capacity for broadband internet,” Cutrell said. (About 56 percent of the population was using the internet in 2016.) “Typically there is a request from someone in a Western country—the United States, the UK, Australia—and they pay for the online screening of live sexual abuse.”Three minors were rescued from online sexual abuse in Iligan City / Courtesy of IJM
It’s a lot of money—from $20 to $150 for a “show,” IJM says. In a country where the average family income is about $5,000, and where 22 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, that’s a lot of money.
To some adults, this seems like a great deal.
“There is an underlying belief that it’s not harmful to the children if the pedophile is not physically touching them,” Gehring said. “Or, if there is physical sexual abuse happening, people don’t think it’s affecting the children because they’re not letting a stranger touch them.”
Poverty is “the main connection point . . . but we haven’t found they’re doing this to get food to survive,” she said. “They’re often in deplorable conditions, but they’re not necessarily living in the streets. They’re often in a home with four walls, electricity, and multiple electronic devices.
“We’ve found that one woman in a community will start doing it, and she’ll tell others about this way that you can make great money. A hot spot will pop up, where five or six people are doing it in the same area.”
While the victims are different (younger, more boys than before, mostly sibling groups), and the traffickers are different (mostly family), so are the customers.
“In traditional, street-based trafficking, customers aren’t necessarily seeking out a young child,” Gehring said. “They may be looking for a young woman, and if she happens to be below 18, then okay. Online they’re seeking out minors.”
The customers also aren’t local, which means the Philippine authorities may not find out about the abuse until alerted by Western law enforcement agencies or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The photos are sent to Philippine authorities, who trace them back to the sending computer. (Many transactions happen over social media private messaging or Skype, Gehring said.)A suspect’s home / Courtesy of IJM
With more than 2,000 referrals a month, authorities “can’t triage it,” Gehring said. “We don’t know how many are duplicate images. . . . We’re working with NCMEC and other enforcement agencies to figure out how to measure the crime so we can get a good baseline of what’s actually going on.”
Until they do, there’s no way to say whether the online market is smaller or bigger than the street market had been.
“This work is hard,” Cutrell said. “We encounter heartbreaking survivor stories, especially since the perpetrators are typically a relative or close family friend.”
In one case, IJM helped rescue three children—ages 3, 9, and 11—whose parents were live-streaming their sexual abuse. In another, six young children—most younger than 7—were rescued after thousands of abusive photos and videos were sent to pedophiles in 19 countries. Two Filipino women were arrested after forcing their children, nieces, and nephews to pose for inappropriate photos and perform sex acts on each another. Another mother was caught after offering to perform sex acts on her 8-year-old daughter and live-stream them.
It’s enough to devastate and discourage the stoutest rescue worker. But the dire conditions also press meaning and urgency into the work, and deep joy into any success.
“Since IJM is also involved in the aftercare process, we witness survivors who have been rescued and are in a better place now,” Cutrell said. “From a programmatic standpoint, because of IJM’s work in the Philippines, thousands more children won’t be abused in the first place. Seeing that transformation both personally with survivors and our casework gives me hope.”Hope
“The most hopeful thing as we’re starting this battle is the level of collaboration” with international and local law enforcement, Gehring said. “The first program [rescuing children trafficked on the street] started in the early 2000s and took 15 years to get to a point where we could say, ‘We know thousands of children are never being exploited because the system works.’
“We’re going to reach that a lot faster with this crime type.”
The nature of cybersex trafficking is darker than street trafficking, and its victims are harder to find. But IJM has strengths it didn’t have before. One is resources—in 2017, the U.S. State Department awarded IJM $2.7 million to combat the crime by training law enforcement (especially on maintaining digital evidence and using it in court) and building out social services (such as trauma-informed counseling and foster care).
Another is functioning law enforcement. “The Philippine government agencies are already being proactive and taking ownership and engaging with us on the issue,” Gehring said.
And a third is mobilized churches.Churches
“We have a good church mobilization program that has made a huge difference, both in the old program and the new program,” Gehring said.
In 2013, the three largest church councils in the country—the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and the Roman Catholic Church—together launched an anti-human trafficking movement at an IJM event.
“That opened many doors,” said Gigi Tupas, IJM’s church mobilization manager in the Philippines. “It was easier to go around and ask church leaders to become involved with our work. . . . And now we have a louder voice on a national level.”
Two hundred churches have committed to praying for IJM’s work, and dozens of their members have donated resources such as furniture or clothing, volunteered to work in shelters, and taught classes on parenting or job skills for survivors reintegrating into society.A sexual abuse survivor from Manila / Courtesy of IJM
One Catholic church rehabbed a three-story building into a processing center where victims can shower, do interviews, and sleep. (“Before we would bring the rescued to the police station, and they would think they were being arrested,” Tupas said.) More than 200 women have passed through.
Another church helped to set up an assessment shelter, which offers special care and intervention for survivors during the first three months after rescue. And a Nazarene church is building a shelter that meets a new need—keeping sibling groups together. (Government shelters for children are male- or female-only. Children are placed there if social services decides it would be unsafe to return them to their homes.)
“IJM is working with the Philippine government and other NGOs to increase the capacity of foster care as a viable option for rescued survivors who are unable to return home,” Cutrell said. If the child does go home, “IJM works with the social welfare department to educate non-offending parents and relatives on how to best care for survivors of cybersex trafficking and keep children safe from further exploitation.”
Foster care and adoption are new needs, since the average cybersex survivor is just 12 years old. Tupas is working with churches to encourage their families to step into that role.
“I feel like crying, because I can see how the Lord is working even before we ask for something,” Tupas said. “In the early years, we’d be the ones approaching churches. Now it goes both ways—often they approach us.”
I can see how the Lord is working even before we ask for something.
Her biggest hope is that the church would proactively move into underresourced communities to teach about Jesus, build support systems for the poor, and find the children being abused.
“My dream is for every church to have a ministry that will protect children, for every disciple to be more aware of how children are vulnerable,” Tupas said. She points them to Isaiah 1:17 (“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”) and Matthew 19:14 (“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”).
“I am really hoping for churches to be the first protectors of the poor and the marginalized,” she said.Multiplied Efforts
On September 23, IJM will host Freedom Sunday, alerting thousands of churches across the world to the estimated 40 million people still held in captivity. About 300 of those churches will be in the Philippines, Tupas estimates.
IJM will be drawing attention to both the problems and also the strategies they’ve found to work.
“I really believe changes will come,” Tupas said. “There may be new problems with cybersex trafficking, but we’re replicating the same successful steps we did before.”
It’s already working. Since 2011, IJM has helped to arrest 146 online child sex traffickers and rescue more than 350 victims.
“When we give to [God] our effort and our prayer, he multiplies our five loaves and two fish to meet the needs of the thousands,” Haugen said. “I take refuge, release, and rest in the promise of the Savior who says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
“I grew up and was nurtured in the Reformed tradition, where theological sparring is a spectator sport,” says Brian Mattson. “I participated in the games, honed my wicked tongue (which was all-too-often genuinely wicked), and vanquished many foes.”
Mattson no longer engages in the “heated theological debates of the day” because, he says, “I burned out.” But he recently stepped back into the fray for another fight:
“Why, then, did I just publish a polemical essay in The Calvinist International responding to David Bentley Hart’s doctrine of the (non)resurrection of the flesh?”
It was just over week ago. I had read Hart’s fascinating and dizzying article (regardless of his content, he is supremely talented), and thought that maybe somebody should write a response. It was one of those fleeting thoughts that quickly dissolves into “somebody else will do it.” I’m busy. I’m traveling this week.
On Tuesday I attended a funeral.
As I sat there with tears in my eyes looking at the handsome wooden box wherein the remains of my friend lay—after a rapid and sudden decline—a Christian brother so universally beloved the church building was bursting its capacity, the fire was rekindled. And it burned white hot.
This is not self-indulgent intellectual tiddlywinks. This is not a “hill to die on that isn’t really.” There is a man dead. And a very smug theologian of world renown has just proclaimed that the flesh and bones in that box will remain there forever.I Was Nice When I Should Have Been Harsh
Mattson’s courage and passion convicts me of my own cowardice and insouciance. Seven years ago I was engaged in my own debate with David Bentley Hart. In a discussion on the death penalty Hart told me he believes Noah never existed, and that Jesus was mistaken for believing the ark-builder was a historical figure. Although I considered Hart to a teacher of unsound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3-4), I was cowed by his credentials into a conciliatory silence. He was a world-renowned theologian, and I was not. He was a regular columnist for First Things magazine, where I was an editor, and I feared the repercussions of calling him out as a “false teacher” (2 Peter 2:1).
I was able to convince myself that the most important thing was to remain collegial, and that harsh polemical theology was probably sinful. I now believe I was wrong.
Polemical theology, as D.A. Carson has explained, is “nothing other than contending for a particular theological understanding (usually one that the contender holds to be the truth) and disputing those that contradict it or minimize it.”
Polemics are therefore necessary, as Carson adds, for it is “impossible to indulge in serious critical thought without becoming enmeshed, to some degree, in polemics.”
So Christians should engage in polemics. But must Christian polemics always be collegial?When Collegiality and Dispassion Are Not a Virtue
In academia, collegiality is the premier virtue associated with rhetoric, followed closely by dispassion. There is an unspoken rule in academic debates that disagreement should be congenial and that the first to raise their voice, even figuratively, loses the debate.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. A professor can be harshly polemical against those the academy deems unworthy (such as creationists), but when they take such a stance against a respected peer it’s considered gauche and unprofessional. An excess of passion, expressed rhetorically, about one’s subject is symptomatic of cranks and pundits, not scholars and intellectuals.
Within a university setting, such collegiality is generally necessary for the advancement of knowledge. Because many evangelical pastors go to seminary or adopt the methods of academia, they naturally adopt a rhetorical stance that appears to be consistent with what they’ve seen modeled in the theologians they aspire to be. But very few pastor-theologians question whether collegiality and dispassion are generally effective outside of the university, much less examine whether it’s always an appropriately biblical model for polemics.When Paul Wasn’t Collegial
We often assume that since collegiality appears to be loving it therefore must also be the most biblical method of polemics. Yet when we look at the rhetors of Bible—especially Jesus and Paul—we find they take a very different approach to rhetoric. We sometimes even squirm when we see our Lord and his apostles being harshly polemical—harsh, at least, by the standards of modern academia.
A friend recently expressed to me his concern about Paul publicly chastising Peter for what seemed to him to be a minor transgression (Gal. 2:11-13). Not only did Paul criticize Peter in front of his peers and the rest of the congregation, he wrote about it in a letter to be disseminated to other churches. Is that really, my friend wondered, the way Christians should engage with others?
Yes, sometimes it is. Sometimes the only way to love others is to be harshly polemical for that is the only way to defend truth.
“We have an obligation to the truth, and that has priority over agreement with any particular person,” said the great Reformed-Baptist theologian Roger Nicole. “If someone is not in the truth, we have no right to agree.”
While I whole-heartedly agree that truth is prior to—and necessary for—love, Nicole adds an additional condition, “The truth that I believe I have grasped must be presented in a spirit of love and winsomeness.”
A spirit of love? Absolutely and always. A spirit of winsomeness? Not necessarily, at least not in the way that term is usually meant today.
As Carson notes, “regardless of its audience and of the particular stance that is being challenged, polemical theology ought to develop a wide range of ‘tones.’” My friend believes that because Paul’s tone was not suitably winsome when he corrected Peter, the apostle was being unloving and un-Christian. He presumes the only “tone” for polemics is “winsome.”
But there are times when the most loving thing we can do to protect sound doctrine is to take a tone that is harsh and uncompromising. As Paul says, when we see people “teaching things they ought not to teach” we should “rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:11-12). While Paul’s tone may not always have been winsome, he was effective in guarding the flock (Acts 20:29-32).Being As Harsh as Athanasius
Paul’s example should also serve as a reminder that strong polemics are not necessarily used to change the mind of our theological heterodox opponents but to protect those inside one’s own orthodox circle. Too often we become so concerned with our opponents that that we forget the effect the debates are having on those who are listening from the sidelines.
If Arianism were to rear it’s head today, it’d likely gain acceptance rather quickly because there would be few pastor-theologians who would be willing to speak against it as forcefully, passionately—and yes, harshly—as Athanasius. We’d thoughtfully debate the issue with our “peers” while the heresy infected our flocks.
Unlike the bishop of Alexandria, we wouldn’t risk being exiled five times by four world leaders. But we fear we’d be shunned from symposia and conferences for having a pugilistic spirit, so we’d debate the heresy collegially and dispassionately. The result would be that many church members would assume, based on our respectful treatment, that Arianism was a legitimate and viable perspective that could be adopted by respectable Christians.
In forming their beliefs, many Christians follow the core constitutional principle of English law: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” That is why we need to make clear—forcefully and unequivocally—that some things are forbidden. At such times it is necessary to remind our fellow believers that as slaves of Christ (Eph. 6:6) we are not free to follow our theological whims. And in expressing our point, strong polemical theology is often the most effective approach.
Along with being truthful, rhetoric needs to be effective—and strong polemics are effective. That is, after all, why politicians resort to harsh polemics (often sans truth) more often than they do academic discourse. They are out to sway people to their side and know that forcefulness and clear line-drawing are necessary for that task.
This is not to say, of course, that academic-type collegial rhetoric should be abandoned. In fact, I think for most topics it is an effective way to change hearts and minds over the long run (and by long run I mean 10-15 years). But in the short term there are often times when we need to throw up a fence to keep the sheep from wandering astray. In those cases, harsh polemics often provide the best fencing material.
Related: Tim Keller on “Three Rules for Polemics“
I saw Disney’s Christopher Robin in mid-August, late summer here in the U.S.—the transitional season when the adventurous days of summer, sun, sand, and play give way to the structured rhythms of the start of school. Combined with the fact that Christopher Robin (not to be confused with last year’s Goodbye, Christopher Robin) is largely a nostalgic reverie for the lost innocence of carefree play, it was easy for me to read the film through the lens of summer’s end.
Though the pacing of Christopher Robin drags in places, and the plot beats are somewhat predictable, the film is by and large a sweet, refreshingly sincere family movie. It connected with me not only because I loved A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories as a kid, and not only because I’m expecting the birth of my firstborn child in a few weeks, but because it captures something beautiful and true about the bittersweet losses that come with life’s changing seasons.Childhood’s Passing
There is a little-known poem by C. S. Lewis called “Late Summer.” It’s a sad poem, full of regret and longing, but it captures poignantly the “summer’s end” feeling of decay, shorter days, and the winding down of possibility:
I, dusty and bedraggled as I am,
Pestered with wasps and weed and making jam,
Blowzy and stale, my welcome long outstayed,
Proved false in every promise that I made,
At my beginning I believed, like you,
Something would come of all my green and blue.
Mortals remember, looking on the thing
I am, that I, even I, was once a spring.
The first 15 minutes of Christopher Robin capture something of this feeling. The film opens on what feels like a midsummer’s garden party in the Hundred Acre Wood. Young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) enjoys a rollicking tea party with the whole gang: Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, all of them live-action talking stuffed animals that uncannily resemble their previous iterations on page and screen. There is laughter, cake, and (of course) plenty of honey. But it is also sunset, and the celebration marks Christopher Robin’s departure from his magical fraternity of woodland creatures. He is growing up.
In a montage sequence set to music that appropriately evokes a ticking clock, we see Christopher Robin’s childhood gradually disappear. He goes off to boarding school, where a teacher reprimands him for drawing pictures of Pooh. Soon he is an adult (Ewan McGregor), meeting and marrying his wife (Hayley Atwell), becoming a father to a girl (Bronte Carmichael), going off to war, and working a demanding job as an “efficiency expert” at a London luggage company.
Here the film most effectively utilizes the means of cinema (the art of “sculpting in time,” according to Andrei Tarkovsky) to capture the passage of time and the joyful longing that comes with aging, forgetting, and watching the brightness of summer fade before your eyes. But rather than lament the end of a carefree summer and the onset of the proverbial autumn, Robin takes stock of life’s passage joyfully and—as the film goes on—ponders whether what is lost is always forever lost.Value of Unproductive Spaces
Directed by Marc Forster, Christopher Robin feels like a thematic cousin to Forster’s acclaimed Finding Neverland (2004), a film about Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie that explored similar emotional terrain. Both films highlight the tensions between the protected innocence of childhood and the unavoidable pain of life. Both challenge viewers to value the fanciful, the imaginary, and the spaces of play free from the “efficiencies” of adult life.
Grown-up Christopher Robin is sort of like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins (a comparison underscored by the mid-century London setting of both stories). He is a career man whose focus on work, order, and efficiency—a word Pooh hears as “a fish in the sea”—lead to a neglected home life and a self-seriousness that devalues play. It takes an unexpected re-connection with his forest friends to show Robin his priorities are confused. What’s the point of working if one can never enjoy the weekend? Is efficiency helpful if it sucks the joy out of family life?
As ever, Pooh is a source of softly, slowly spoken nuggets that speak truth not only to Robin but to all of us who suffer under the tyranny of efficiency in our fast-paced, technological age.
“Doing nothing often leads to the very best something,” Pooh says at one point early in the film. It’s a truism we desperately need to recover in our boredom-averse age, where every spare moment triggers us to grab our phones and scroll away into distracted oblivion. It’s a truism that evangelicals especially need to hear, prone toward pragmatism and relevance-obsessed as we are. Not only is Sabbath rest a biblical value, but it’s also a source of great beauty and nourishment for innovation. As an artist or creator will attest, along with Pooh, it is often the “unproductive” spaces and “irrelevant” explorations that lead to the best things.
Not only is Sabbath rest a biblical value, but it’s also a source of great beauty and nourishment for innovation.Don’t Outgrow the Hundred Acre Wood
Another poem I thought of as I watched Christopher Robin, and one which always reminds me of late summer, is Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” A lyrical ode to his youth, Thomas writes of the “lamb white days” when he was “young and easy under the apple boughs,” romping around English hills and forests and farms, “happy as the grass was green.” Here’s one of my favorite stanzas:
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
“The sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams.” That line captures so beautifully the way nature, God’s wonderland of beauty, can remind us to slow down, to rest “in the mercy of his means,” and to drop the facade of self-sufficiency and urgent productivity that so often dulls our senses and compounds our pride.
For Robin, the Hundred Acre Wood is not an escape from real life. It’s a nourishing, re-calibrating space, a reframing of life through the lens of received grace. Sometimes these are physical spaces, retreats where one can rest and enjoy and simply be. For C. S. Lewis, perhaps it was Shotover Hill or Addison’s Walk in Oxford. Sometimes it is a place that exists mostly in memory. For Dylan Thomas, it was Fernhill in the Welsh countryside.
What are your reminders that efficiency isn’t everything and that unstructured, unhurried time is time well spent? What keeps you sensitized, and longing for, the heavenly home where we finally and perfectly rest?
What is your Hundred Acre Wood? Where do you go to feel “golden in the mercy of his means”? What are your reminders that efficiency isn’t everything and that unstructured, unhurried time is time well spent? What keeps you sensitized, and longing for, the heavenly home where we finally and perfectly rest?
Near the end of Christopher Robin, adult Robin challenges Pooh’s carefree, lackadaisical, smell-the-roses approach to life. Pooh responds with a question that should chasten all of us who are prone to overestimate our own importance and devalue the seemingly superfluous gifts, whether they be red balloons or pots of honey.
“There’s more to life than just balloons and honey!” Robin exclaims.
And Pooh quietly responds: “Are you sure?”
“I like the category of moral law, not as a presupposition for establishing lines of continuity and discontinuity, but as an inference to be drawn as you see how the New Testament quotes the Old and uses the Old and applies the Old, so that the authority comes not from a presupposition of definition, but from a plain reading of the text.” — Don Carson
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 Women’s Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- Making Sense of Scripture’s ‘Inconsistency’ (Tim Keller)
- Keep the Ten Commandments? Yes and No (Don Carson)
- An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Don Carson)
Find more audio and video from the 2018 Women’s Conference on the conference media page.
On July 12, 2017, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) hosted a panel discussion titled “Responding to the Benedict Option.” On this occasion the panelists evaluated the book of the same name written by Rod Dreher, who is a senior editor at The American Conservative. In The Benedict Option Dreher calls for the “strategic withdrawal” of traditional Christians, who he says need to root themselves more deeply in the historic faith (2). The impetus for this recommendation is the onslaught of cultural hostility and internal decay—both in doctrine and practice—he believes the Western church faces today (9–11). According to Dreher, strategic withdrawal will require Christians to “leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity,” and in some sense to separate themselves from the larger culture: “If believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death” (2; 18).
Dreher’s call for withdrawal was poorly received by many of the panelists. Joseph Capizzi—professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America—accused him of promoting an “ecclesial introversion” unbefitting of Christians, who “know we are called to engage the world”; Cherie Harder—president of the Trinity Forum—advised Christians to “show the love of Christ to our lost neighbors” rather than “heading for the hills whether metaphorically or literally”; and Alison Howard—director of Alliance relations at Alliance Defending Freedom—asserted that withdrawing is “not an option for believers . . . . If we retreat, the world will miss us. We need to be there.”
The panelists’ characterization of the Benedict Option as a retreat from cultural engagement typifies much of the book’s critical reception. David Fitch writes in Christianity Today, “We cannot . . . make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture,” because we cannot “extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.” Rather, the church must be “both a faithful internal community and a faithful external presence in the world.” Also in Christianity Today, K. A. Ellis rejects what she takes to be the Benedict Option’s solely “inward focus” in favor of communities that are “creatively focused both inward and outward,” and Hannah Anderson cautions, “Retreat could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our systematic: the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor’s soul.” She exhorts Christians to instead build community “as a form of advance, not retreat.”
In a BreakPoint feature where Christian thinkers were asked about the Benedict Option, Joshua Chatraw—executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University—criticized it for having “an overly inward focus” at odds with “God’s mandate given in Genesis 2 [and] Jesus’ commission to go to the nations [as well as] the missionary pattern described in Acts.” Greg Forster—director of the Oikonomia Network at Trinity International University—commented, “Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform.”
[. . .]
As a response to this pattern of critique, I intend to argue that the Benedict Option does not conflict with the Kuyperian tradition, and moreover has some affinities with it—even if unintentionally—for the Benedict Option does not call for a retreat from conventional politics or cultural engagement more broadly, but affirms both of these things.
When our friends’ long hours of work finally rewarded them with a pile of paid-off college loans, they perched on the edge of the American Dream. A nicer neighborhood beckoned, one with better schools. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously observed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To everyone’s amazement, our friends sold their house and headed to Africa. They count the cost in frequent flyer miles.
As it turns out, “convenient” isn’t Jesus’s specialty:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 17:26–27)
Following him may cost our relationships, our finances, our proximity to family, or our health. And, whatever else we sacrifice, part of the cost of discipleship is geographic.Should I Stay or Go?
The story of God-followers has always been a story of tents and sandals. We steep in it—the record of sojourners striking out, a homesick people, a homeless King.
We read to our little ones of Abram: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1). We laugh at Peter, leaping pell-mell out of the boat. We read of Paul the apostle—envoy of the gospel.
And then we read of Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth, who never traveled beyond his country, who knelt in the dirt and told stories about patient farmers, slow harvest, long seasons. We who would follow him live in the inherent tension between the biblical value of faithful rootedness and the equally biblical mandate to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19).
Am I called to be nimble, leaping Peter-like for the sake of the gospel, or am I called to be rooted, attentive to place, patient? Flinging ourselves into the unknown to follow Christ certainly strengthens faith, but the endurance required to stay put produces sanctification (James 1:5).
God is always moving us closer to Christ—from fear to faith, from stuck to steadfast. Sometimes it’s the going that’s difficult; but sometimes, counterintuitively, it’s the staying put.Going
When I was young and impetuous, I leapt to my feet during a missions conference and pledged my life to go for the sake of the gospel. Adventure sparkled somewhere on the horizon, and I was eager to hoist anchor. The church applauded missionaries; the missions field bloomed, ripe for harvest.
As I reflect on those days, I realize how little it cost me. All was anticipation and joy. I met my husband in the early days of inner-city ministry. We sat on sagging porch steps and drank sodas with the neighbor kids, and we shared Jesus with everyone who would listen. When, time to time, we experienced near-misses and scrapes with danger, we notched our belts and laughed.
But what if God messed with me now? What if he spun the globe and pointed to Mongolia or Timbuktu? Would I still be willing to go? As Nik Ripken explains in his memoir of ministry in the Middle East, “It is a simple matter of obedience. If he is our Lord, then we will obey him. If we do not obey him, then he is not our Lord.”
Matthew and Zacchaeus flung away desk jobs; the fishermen flung aside their nets. What tethers me? Like Lot’s wife, I crave comfort, security, and habit. But if Christ is all—my hope, my joy, my life—then nothing can hinder me from following him to the ends of the earth if he calls my name.Staying
But sometimes it’s the waiting that’s difficult. Those of us who are goers by nature wiggle like children, antsy to leave when boredom and difficulty drag on. “Staying put,” Jen Pollock Michel writes, “is a fast from our appetite for constant change.” We desire to depart, but God asks us to remain—and not always in the places we’d expect.
Rural churches know the reluctance to stay all too well—few shiny seminary grads are willing to stay long in the little places of the world. As Matt Smethurst sarcastically quipped, “Laboring away in their little non-strategic locales, rural Christians reach few influencers and probably do not impress Jesus. Bless their heart.”
But even city churches feel it. In Denver, hipster church plants sprinkle the booming neighborhoods downtown. In the “doughnut,” however—that no-man’s land between the trendy urban core and affluent suburbs—it can be hard to find a gospel-centered church. Here, our buildings sag, our congregations struggle. We desperately need mature, immovable believers who will wait on this hard, foolish soil while the roots sink deep.
Paul may be the patron saint of goers, but his ministry wouldn’t have had the same effect without Timothy and Titus, the steadfast elders he left behind. “Are all apostles?” he asks (1 Cor. 12:28), and it’s a good question. Missionary work is honorable, but we hurt Christ’s bride if we don’t plan to stay beyond the honeymoon.
Committing to follow Christ necessarily requires his input in our destination. We go when he says “go”; we wait when he says “stay.” Wherever we land, we love messy people in less-than-perfect conditions. We count the cost with equal parts patience and anticipation. We desire a better country, and it is just around the corner.
Lucas and Mia were a natural fit for the small but growing church in Tribeca. Everyone knew them for their vibrant personalities. Lucas demonstrated leadership finesse. Mia had an exceptional ability to winsomely engage cynics and intellectuals. The couple nurtured a growing network among New York City’s business elite.
Within 24 months of their arrival the church was thriving. But Lucas and Mia were not. Eight months later Lucas announced they were leaving. They vacated their apartment in five days.
Why do couples like this leave the ministry? Of the many rumors that swirl around a pastor’s resignation, we don’t often consider the hardship that ministry places on the pastor’s wife and on their marriage. We easily acknowledge that the happiness of both marriage partners affects marital health. Yet we’ve been slow to correlate how the well-being of a pastor’s spouse affects the long-term vitality of the church.
Women married to pastors face unique challenges. Keeping the following in mind (along with a commitment to regularly pray for her and her marriage) could affect your church more than you realize.1. She’s Her Own Person
She’s not an appendage of the pastor. She may even have differing political, social, and biblical views than her spouse. But she’s in a position where sharing those views could negatively affect her husband’s job.
Allow her to be who she is. You might be surprised and delighted to discover how different she may be from what you assumed.2. She Has a Calling
It might not be what you expect, and she may still be figuring it out. Many women consider their husband’s call to a specific pastoral position as a joint calling for both of them. Others do not. And some women married to pastors are hoping someone, anyone, will tell them what their ministry should be, in hopes of not disappointing others.
Confused? So are we. After years of serving in pastoral ministry, some women confess a sense of loss, of not even knowing themselves. They were too busy serving where needed. On the other hand, others may be minimally involved in church ministry with a calling focused outside the church.3. She May Struggle Financially
In one of our local Parakaleo groups, we were discussing financial hardships and laughing over the ingenious ways we’ve stretched a dollar. I asked how many had ever been on food stamps because of ministry salaries. Half the women raised their hands. I was reminded of how delicate the financial situation is for many women in ministry.4. She Shares Her Husband with the Whole Church
Depending on the size of the church and whether there are other competent staff members, pastors can be on call 24/7. Family dinners, holidays, and vacations are often interrupted by crisis situations. While some of this disruption can result from unhealthy boundaries in the pastoral home, ministry constantly involves crises.
When you meet a pastor’s wife who seems unusually wise, is her own person, and can speak truth in kindness, you are in the presence of a woman who has come through fire.
Especially in high-risk areas, the pastor is often the first person called during suicide attempts, when someone is jailed, when a church member is in an abusive relationship, when a marriage is breaking up, and so forth. Even celebratory events such as weddings, sporting events, and baptisms still take time away from the pastor’s family. Pastoral couples are honored to be involved in their congregants’ lives in this way. Just be aware that their time is limited for good reason.5. She Is Harmed by Gossip
Gossip is idle talk or rumors, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. Gossip doesn’t have to be malicious. A simple rule of thumb is to not tell other people’s stories. Let them be the purveyor of their own information. If you hear information from someone about another person, consider a kind way to stop the gossip chain: “You know, I bet Marjorie would want to tell that story herself.”
If it’s malicious gossip, take a hard stand: “Regardless of how bad this situation has become, I don’t want to participate in gossip. Will you go with me back to the person speaking about this and help me stop it?” While I can laugh about it now, at times I discovered through gossip at church things about myself that even I didn’t know.6. She’s Living with Unrealistic Expectations from Others (and Herself)
Well, who isn’t? Whether it’s our moms, kids, boss, or difficult neighbors, we all experience the pressure of expectations. But consider if you were also living with the expectation of being at church every time the doors opened. What about being told how you should dress? How your children should act? What is appropriate to say or not to say? How you should spend your money? How many people you should invite to your home for dinner? You would be surprised how often women married to pastors are criticized for these things.
Many women married to pastors also work full-time, participate in several church ministries, meet with couples for premarital or pastoral counseling, and attend community functions. It’s already a full life. Your pastor’s wife often needs to be reminded that the only audience that finally matters is the audience of one—her heavenly Father.7. She Probably Finds Friendships in the Church Tricky to Navigate
It’s virtually impossible for her to know if her church friendships exist because someone is drawn to her or because of her husband’s role. Many women discover, when their husband leaves a pastoral position, that people they thought were friends really weren’t. They assumed the Christmas cards, social invites, long conversations over coffee, or trips to the beach were due to friendships. It’s devastating to discover that, without his role, the friendship was never really there.
The same happens in the reverse. Congregants may think they were closer friends with the pastoral couple and discover a similar scenario when the pastor and family leave. It’s painful for all involved. Rich friendships can still be enjoyed, but it requires maturity and an understanding that some topics are off limits.8. She’s Harmed by Criticism of Her Husband
Pastors have been told they don’t work hard enough, disciple enough, preach well enough, visit congregants enough, and so on. Everyone has his or her own job description of what a pastor should do. Almost no one realizes the impossibility of meeting these expectations. How many hours should a pastor work? Fifty? Eighty? There’s plenty to be done and usually no one stopping him except his wife. When he’s criticized for not doing enough, she can feel guilty for trying to help him maintain healthy boundaries.
Pastors often share with their wives a disgruntled leader’s comments or what was said in a contentious meeting. But she isn’t part of the conversation when a situation is solved, often doesn’t even know if it’s resolved, and is left without a safe space to process the situation.
And unlike spouses in many other professions, these are the same people with whom she worships. When you meet a pastor’s wife who seems unusually wise, is her own person, and can speak truth in kindness, you are in the presence of a woman who has come through fire. Learn all you can from her, even if it’s just through observation.9. She Lives with Stress and Ambiguity
Ambiguity is endemic to ministry. For the pastoral family, the system is not clear. All members of the family participate either directly or indirectly in the church. There is some role expectation from the congregation, which must be fulfilled by the pastor, the wife, and even the children. This level of ambiguity causes high levels of stress for pastors’ wives. Consider showing her the same compassion you would extend to someone who has recently received hard news. Why? Because this has likely been her experience on any given day.
Unlike others experiencing sorrow, however, she probably is unable to share the event and its effect, or process it with others in the church. Hearing that a trusted staff member plans on resigning, that a key church leader is having an affair, that the church can’t pay its bills, that her husband’s job is in jeopardy, that her closest friend decided to no longer attend church, are the kinds of revelations women in ministry face on a regular basis.
Not all women married to pastors experience all of the above. Many enjoy a wonderful, caring church community. And most of the pastors’ wives I know enjoy working in tandem with their husbands to see God’s kingdom advance in their city.
Regardless of the differences, the item all women married to pastors has in common is number 10.10. Her Righteousness Comes from Christ She, like you and me, doesn’t get her righteousness from measuring up to the standards of others, from her church attendance, from knowing Scripture, or from how much money she does or doesn’t spend on her wardrobe. If she has trusted Christ for her salvation, in God’s courtroom the verdict has been given. Her flaws, mistakes, shame, and sin were placed on Jesus Christ. He took on himself what she deserved. And what’s more, God gave her Christ’s righteousness. Pastors’ wives have been given the verdict of righteous, beloved daughters.
It takes some courage to teach the Song of Solomon. It also requires interpretative decisions and, according to Phil Ryken, a willingness to slow down and enter into the poetic imagery of the book, which he describes as “the liner notes to an album of love songs.” Ryken, president of Wheaton College, preached through Song of Solomon in chapel at the college from 2015–2016 and is working on a book that will be released in February 2019, The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs.
In our conversation, Ryken discusses some of the interpretative challenges to the book, the narrative flow, how to handle the erotic imagery, and how to apply the book not only to married people but also to those who are single or same-sex attracted.
You can listen to the episode here.
Resources recommended by Phil Ryken
Pastor Andy Stanley in Atlanta recently preached that the New Testament apostles “elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures. And my friends, we must as well.” Why? Because we must not “make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). The faith of the next generation, Stanley said, may depend on our willingness and ability to be liberated from “the whole worldview” of the Old Testament. I disagree. Jesus taught that the Old Testament bears witness about him (John 5:39). Moreover, Christian history has already shown us where churches go, once they diminish the Bible in order to make it less difficult for people to turn to our Lord.
But my purpose in starting this review with a reference to Stanley’s sermon is to highlight the relevance, urgency, and timeliness of this excellent book by Christopher Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth. No one who understands and appropriates the wisdom here in Wright’s book could make the assertion that Pastor Stanley made. Instead, any pastor who does receive instruction from this wonderful book will, far from making it more difficult for people to turn to God, make that step of faith more obvious, persuasive and satisfying.
The reasoning throughout this book is consistent with the broader trend we all have been benefiting from in recent decades. Wright, Edmund Clowney, Graeme Goldsworthy, Sidney Greidanus, and others have been helping pastors, especially, read the Old Testament in a more Christ-aware and gospel-sensitive way. A properly biblical-theological perception of the Old Testament has finally been established in its authentic and rightful place between the minute scrutinies of exegesis, on the one hand, and the atemporal mega-categories of systematic theology, on the other. What sets this book apart for our special attention is the wisdom Wright shows in making gospel-centered hermeneutics directly usable to anyone who might be new to this way of reading the Bible.