More Sexual Assault in Churches Comes to Light

Although I find my theological and confessional home in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have long been partial to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I admire its commitment to the primacy of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the need for evangelism.  This is why it disturbed me deeply when, last Sunday, the Houston Chronicle, in conjunction with the San Antonio Express-News, published a bombshell report chronicling decades of sexual abuse by hundreds of leaders inside the SBC.  The report opens with the heart-shuddering story of Debbie Vasquez:

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas.  It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

How did her church’s leadership respond when they learned she was pregnant by their pastor?

When Vasquez became pregnant, she said, leaders of her church forced her to stand in front of the congregation and ask for forgiveness without saying who had fathered the child.

She said church members were generally supportive but were never told the child was their pastor’s.  Church leadership shunned her, asked her to get an abortion and, when she said no, threatened her and her child, she said.  She moved abroad soon after. 

The reporters who worked on this story uncovered 700 victims of sexual abuse in SBC churches over a 20-year time period.  But, as the president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, noted in a blog post:  “700 is not the total number.”  He knows that for every case that has been uncovered, there is likely a case that remains under-cover.

Sexual abuse scandals in churches seem to be everywhere these days, and victims are left with lives that are shattered and, in some cases, lives that are ended.  The report goes on to tell of Heather Schneider, a 14-year old girl who:

…was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records.  Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest.  In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.

Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said.  She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.

“I never got her back,” Casados said.

This abuse is evil and it must stop.

The question, of course, is: How does it stop?  Here are three thoughts that, though by no means exhaustive, may provide a starting place to address and curb sexual abuse.

Care for victims.

A common denominator in so many of today’s sexual abuse stories is that victims, rather than being supported and cared for, are dismissed, or worse, blamed.  A congregation grappling with a sexual abuse scandal becomes so focused on protecting itself as an institution that it forgets about its people.

Jesus’ care for sexually broken situations can serve as our model when we are confronted with cases of sexual assault.  In John 8, a group of religious leaders drag a woman before Jesus who has been “caught in adultery” (John 8:3).  Even if her encounter with this man was consensual, as it seems to be, the fact that the religious leaders do not bring the man to stand trial with her speaks volumes.  In a patriarchal culture such as this one, men could engage in sexual exploits and conquests, often, without repercussion.  It was, in fact, a boys’ club.  This case is no exception.  The “boy” is nowhere to be found while the religious leaders are howling for this lady to be stoned.  Jesus, however, sees through the religious leaders’ hypocrisy and cares for this accused woman by protecting her and ultimately rescuing her from her would-be executioners (John 8:7-11).

If this is how Jesus addresses a situation where a woman seems to have had some willful role in a sexual encounter, how much more should we seek to protect and rescue those who have had no willful role, as in cases of sexual abuse?

Bring darkness to light.

Sexual abuse continues because it is allowed to remain under the cover of darkness – many times for decades on end.  Bringing it to light may be the single greatest strategy to stop sexual abuse before it starts.  It sends a clear and present warning to any abuser that they will be brought to justice.  President Greear’s invitation to victims to “get help” is supremely important.  His list of crisis hotlines is worth reposting here:

  • The National Hotline for Domestic Violence number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
  • The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-422-4453.
  • The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network number is 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Again, Jesus can serve as our model for what bringing dark hurt into the light looks like.  In Mark 5, when a woman who suffers from a form of hemophilia seeks to secretly steal a healing from Jesus by touching the edge of His cloak, Jesus will not let her remain in the shadows.  He wants to speak to her in her pain.  He wants her to come into the light.  So, He seeks her out and, after she reveals herself, He tenderly calls her, “Daughter” (Mark 5:34).  May the victims among us be met with the same tenderness as they bring their darkest secret hurts into the light of open truth.

Recommit ourselves to a biblical sexual ethic.

There is no way around it:  the hypocrisy between what we who attend church say about sexuality and what we live out in our own sexualities is sometimes stunning.  The Christian sexual ethic is good.  It exalts commitment.  It encourages tenderness.  It dignifies humanity.  Sadly, many in our churches have spent so much time criticizing what happens sexually “out there” in the world that we overlook the sexual assault happening “in here” among our congregations.  Let’s remove the redwood-sized sin from our own eyes before trying to help others with the sawdust-sized sin in theirs (Matthew 7:3-5).  Each one of us in the church should be asking ourselves:  How am I falling short sexually?  How am I tempted sexually?  How can I get help?

The apostle Paul says that Jesus treats His Church like His bride (Ephesians 5:25).  What does this mean?  It means He loves her.  It means He is faithful to her.  It means He honors her.  It means He exalts her.  It means He seeks her purity.  It means He is willing even to die for her.

To address and defeat sexual abuse, go and do likewise.

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February 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Moral Lessons from Virginia

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for the political leadership in the state of Virginia.  The state’s lieutenant governor seems to be in the most peril after he was accused by two women of sexual assault.  His colleagues are now considering whether or not to impeach him.  The state’s attorney general is embroiled in a scandal of his own after he admitted to dressing up in blackface at a party in 1980.  But all the trouble began with the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.  His name first hit national news after he ran interference on a local radio show for Virginia House Bill 2491, introduced by Virginia delegate Kathy Tran, which, according to the delegate herself, might theoretically allow for a baby to be aborted while a woman was in the process of giving birth.  This sparked national outrage, with many arguing that the governor was defending nothing less than infanticide.  But more trouble was on the way for the governor.  Two Fridays ago, a website published a personal yearbook page of his from 1984, which featured one man in blackface alongside another man in Ku Klux Klan garb.  When the photo came to light, the governor first apologized for the photo and then denied he was in the photo.

Many progressives remain supportive of the governor’s position on abortion, but stand aghast at the picture in which he, ostensibly at least, appeared.   I have also read some conservatives who are outraged at his stance on abortion while remaining more agnostic about how offensive the explicitly racist photo on his yearbook page is.

The issue, morally, in both of these scandals surrounding Ralph Northam is, at root, the same:  a person, either because they are in the womb or because of the color of their skin, is not worthy of the same status and security as they otherwise would be.  A pregnancy can be terminated right up to the point of birth because the will of a person who is pregnant outweighs and outranks the life of the baby she is carrying.  A portrayal of black person that uses explicit symbols of hatred, lynching, and murder can be chalked up to an awkward joke at a college party.

We must be clear.  These things are wrong.  These things are inexcusable.  These things rob people of their dignity and have robbed people of their very lives.

I do not doubt that many people sincerely believe that abortion is a moral good because it is presented as empowering to women.  I also do not doubt that students in their twenties in the eighties may have not fully understood how what they perceived as a bit of tomfoolery was really a deeply entrenched cruelty.  This is why it is so important that we continue to describe and define the barbarous realities behind abortion and racism.  More people must know.  More people must understand.

Thankfully, there is a reflexive revulsion on the part of many to the idea of abortion in general and late-term abortion in specific as well as to the dismissive and diminishing attitudes involved in racism.  We should heed what our reflexes are trying to tell us.  In an article on the ethical entailments of human cloning, Leon R. Kass describes the importance of the human “gag reflex” in determining what is moral and what is not:

Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it … It revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous and rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Theologically, we would say that our gut-level moral disgust at certain things is triggered by the requirements of God’s law, which Scripture says are written on every human heart (Romans 2:14-15).  In this way, our guts can give us valuable insights into transcendent moral realities.  But, as Leon Kass so critically notes:

Repugnance need not stand naked before the bar of reason.

Moral feelings are often astute, but they can also sometimes mislead us.  We must check our moral feelings against the bar of moral reasoning.  We can study the development of a baby in utero and we can draw reasoned conclusions about the life of a child.  We can watch anyone of any race erupt in laughter, burst into tears, tremble in fear, or sacrifice for love, and we can draw reasoned conclusions about their humanity.

The hard question that stands before us, then, is this:  have we really so clouded our hearts and minds by political ravings and selfish cravings that we have become blinded to what ails us?  Are we overlooking what should be morally obvious?

Perhaps Ralph Northam’s blunders can remind us of what we should already know:  that life is precious – be it the life of a baby in the womb, or the life of a person of any race.  And perhaps, if we reflected on that moral reality for a while, we’d see more pictures of ultrasounds and fewer pictures in yearbooks.

That certainly sounds like a better world to me.

 

February 11, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Old, the New, and Andy Stanley

It’s not easy leading in a church.  And when a church has an average of almost 40,000 people a weekend in attendance, the challenges of leadership become utterly unique.  Yet, these are the challenges that Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia, is faced with on a day-to-day basis.  In this church are not only people who are firm in their faith, but people who are questioning faith or even people who have no faith at all – at least in Jesus.

Reaching people who are on the outskirts of faith is Andy Stanley’s passion and a big motivating factor behind why he wrote his latest book, Irresistible.  In it, he explains:

The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of the New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the nones underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now.  Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed.  These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. (17)

Stanley’s desire is to make Christianity defensible and, as the title of his book declares, even irresistible to a modern’s ears.  It is a noble desire and one which he and I share.  Indeed, I have learned a lot from Stanley and have a great deal of respect for him and for all he has given the church-at-large.  I do, however, have some concerns with – and have received some questions about – his book.  His central claim, in his own words, is that:

…our current versions of the Christian faith need to be stripped of a variety of old covenant leftovers … We are dragging along a litany of old covenant concepts and assumptions that slow us down, divide us up, and confuse those standing on the outside peering in. (92)

In other words, out with the Old (Testament), and in with the New (Testament).

Stanley does not lack boldness in his proposal.  He claims:

The church fathers…immediately went to work harmonizing the old covenant with the new to make it play nice with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  The reinterpreted, allegorized, and rebranded them to make them line up with developing Christian thought and theology. (155)

The church fathers are certainly not infallible.  Some of their interpretative moves are questionable.  But to dismiss their collective wisdom on how the Old and New Testaments work together in favor of some long-lost insight you have just recently discovered strikes me as awfully dangerous.  Stanley goes on:

The church fathers’ primary interest in the Jewish Scriptures was neither historical nor cultural.  Their primary interest was Christological.  They were convinced the Jews did not recognize and thus accept Jesus as Messiah because they didn’t know how to interpret their own prophets.  No surprise, the church fathers had little interest in the interpretation of Jewish Scriptures.  So they went looking for Jesus.

And they found Him.

Everywhere.  (155)

This is true.  The church fathers did have a habit of finding Jesus under every rock.  Kind of like the apostle Paul:

The Israelites all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Wait.  What?  Christ was with the Israelites in the desert as they wandered on their way to the Promised Land?  If you believe Paul, He was.  The church fathers were simply doing what Paul had already done.

It is also true that the church fathers thought the Jews did not know how to interpret their own Scriptures.  Kind of like Jesus:  “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).  Maybe the church fathers were on to something.

Stanley makes other questionable claims about why we should unhitch our faith from the old covenant.  For instance, he argues that the Old Testament has no real concept of life after death:

If you asked an ancient Jew how one could know for sure they were going to heaven, they may have responded by asking you what made you think anybody went to heaven.  Most ancient Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Why?  Their Scriptures didn’t assume one.  In the Old Testament, when people died, it was assumed they went to Sheol.  But Sheol wasn’t an actual place.  It was the term used to describe the realm of the dead. (165)

It seems as though Stanley may have conflated “going to heaven when you die” with any kind of an afterlife.  Just because ancient Jews didn’t necessarily believe in “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Many of them – indeed, most of them – believed in a resurrection from death after death, à la the prophet Daniel:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Daniel 12:2)

In fact, the resurrection was a major bone of contention between two religious groups in Jesus’ day:  the Pharisees, who did believe in a resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not (cf. Acts 23:8).  So, I’m not sure how my promise of a resurrection from Jesus is better than the promise of a resurrection in Daniel.  They’re the same promise.  Probably because they were made by the same God.

Stanley spends a great deal of time arguing that Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and others argued that it was time for the old covenant to go.  But is this really what they argued?

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  (Matthew 5:17-18)

Stanley comments:

What did He mean by everything?  And what happens to the law after “everything is accomplished”?  The implication is that the law might “disappear” once everything is accomplished.  And clearly Jesus was planning to be involved in the accomplishing. (108)

This is true.  But notice the timer that Jesus sets for His final accomplishment.  Everything will be accomplished when “heaven and earth disappear,” that is, on the Last Day.  When Jesus returns, we will no longer need the law’s guidelines against sin because we will be perfected from sin.  But until that time, the law still matters.  This is why Jesus continues:

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:19)

Jesus then works through selected passages from the Old Testament and not only upholds them, but strengthens them.  He not only teaches against murder, He gets at the root of murder:  anger (Matthew 5:21-22).  He not only teaches against adultery, He attacks the foundation of adultery:  lust (Matthew 5:27-28).  He not only upholds the principle of not escalating violence, taking only “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” He encourages the de-escalation of violence, calling His disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39).

It is true that just because the Old Testament says it doesn’t mean we do it.  For example, I – and, I would guess, you – are not slaughtering and sacrificing animals in our backyards.  But this is not because the sacrificial system didn’t or doesn’t matter.  It mattered and matters supremely because of what it points to:  “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Stanley is correct that, over the years, Christians have misinterpreted and misapplied many passages from the Old Testament.  In an interview with Outreach Magazine, he rattles off a catalogue of popular misuses of Old Testament passages and principles:

Some fundamentalist preachers rail about God’s judgment against America, preaching from the Hebrew prophets. Others view tsunamis as God’s punishment of Muslims, quoting texts about His judgment of “the nations.” Teenagers graduating high school end up thinking Jeremiah 29:11’s “plans to prosper you” is a promise from God straight to them, never mind the context. They’re just being quietly set up to lose their faith when that doesn’t feel like it pans out.

God’s promises to Israel are not God’s promises to Americans.  Cherry-picking our way through the Old Testament just sets us up for problems.

This is most certainly true.  But the misapplication of the Old Testament does not equate to the non-application the Old Testament.

To use Stanley’s own metaphor, what is truly needed in our application of the Old Testament is a professional cherry-picker – someone who knows what in the law continues, what in the law has been abrogated, and what in the law was never meant for us.  Thankfully, we have a professional cherry-picker.  His name is Jesus.  Ben Witherington, in his book The Indelible Image, explains it well:

Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching.  (32)

As I have already noted, Stanley’s concern with our use of and appeal to the Old Testament is in large part an evangelical one.  The stories in the Old Testament are just so weird.  They raise so many questions and are attacked by so many scientists, philosophers, and secularists.  This is true.  But, the story of a man who rises from death is pretty weird, too.  This is why “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Eventually, we’re going to have to contend with some weird stuff and believe some weird claims.

Stanley is right when he notes that, for most people, even the objections of science, philosophy, and secularism aren’t their real objections against Christianity:

For post-Christians, science, philosophy, and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision making.  Post Christians, especially post-Christian millennials, have low to no tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions.  At the same time, like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either.  They’re on a happiness quest.  Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy.  That’s never a presenting reason.  Nobody wants to appear that shallow.  But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role.  When faith becomes an impediment to happiness, good-bye faith.  (269)

Amen and amen.  So what’s the answer?  How do we call people who are on a happiness quest to Jesus?  By unhitching our faith from the Old Testament?  I believe the answer is in calling people to faith in Jesus like Jesus:

Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Wow.  How many people today would ever take Jesus up on an invitation like this?  By last count, about 2.3 billion.

Perhaps Jesus’ invitation has a power beyond our desire for happiness.

 

 

February 4, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Measure of a Man

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When the American Psychological Association published its “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” a maelstrom ensued.  Some decried the guidelines as an attack on men generally.  Others defended the report as long overdue so a new kind of masculinity can rise from an older masculinity’s ashes.  Throw in an ad by razor legend Gillette that exhorts men to do better, and you have all the makings of a cultural explosion that feels like, ironically enough, a testosterone-laden WWE wrestling match.

The APA is right about this much:  many men are struggling.  In its summary, it explains:

Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims.  They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime.  They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.  Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school – especially boys of color.

The challenges are real and broadly agreed upon.  The disagreement comes in what we should do about all this.  On the one hand, I struggle with statements like these in the APA report:

Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms … Psychologists aspire to help boys and men over their lifetimes navigate restrictive definitions of masculinity and create their own concepts of what it means to be male, although it should be emphasized that expression of masculine gender norms may not be seen as essential for those who hold a male gender identity.

It is true that certain masculine norms are culturally conditioned.  At the same time, it is difficult to deny that some of men’s drives and desires seem to be innate.  It wasn’t that long ago when we were claiming that the innate differences between men and women ran so deep that it was like men were from Mars and women were from Venus.

There is a drive in many men toward things like physical strength, risk taking, and stoicism.  To lump traditionally masculine traits like these into a category of “nurture” while denying components of “nature” is a relatively recent philosophical and psychological development, and, I would add, probably wrong.

On the other hand, I am also adamantly opposed to any attitude that revels in masculinity’s baser manifestations. Even if men do have certain innate desires and drives, this doesn’t make all their desires and drives moral.  Many men, for instance, couple their desire for risk with a desire for sex – with disastrous results.  Drives and desires, like everything else, have been degraded by sin.  Indeed, Scripture has story after story on what happens when men succumb to their twisted innate desires.  LamechSamsonDavid.  All of these men may have looked manly, but they were also fools.  Just because you feel something internally doesn’t mean you should act on it externally.

Christianity takes a unique approach to masculinity.  While not denying that men have certain innate drives and desires, Christianity teaches that these are not determinative of what it means to be a man.  Instead, Christian men are called upon to harness these drives and desires to fulfill a higher calling.  True masculinity is about vocation.  This is why, in the Bible, the word for “man” can be either a noun or a verb.  On the one hand, the Bible refers to a man, in Greek, by the noun aner, which denotes someone who is of the male sex (e.g., Matthew 14:21).  On the other hand, the apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian men with the verb andrizomai, which can be translated, “be manly” (1 Corinthians 16:13).  Men are called not just to act out of who they are and what they want, but out of who God has called them to be.

My favorite description of manhood in the Bible comes when Paul is talking to men about marriage:  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  On the one hand, Paul encourages a traditionally masculine virtue of sacrifice, even to the point of death, on behalf of a man for his wife.  This takes true toughness.  On the other hand, Paul also calls husbands to love their wives, which takes plenty of intentional tenderness.  In other words, the biblical calling of masculinity is not mindlessly macho, but it is not particularly woke, either.  Instead, the biblical calling of masculinity looks like Jesus.  And if there’s anyone who knows what masculinity should look like, it’s Him.  After all, He was not only born a man, He willingly became a man.  And He not only willingly became a man, He created men.  That means He has the blueprints.  Perhaps, then, as men, we should follow them – and Him.

January 28, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Expectant Mothers and Workplace Pressures

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Last month, The New York Times published a disturbing exposé on the treatment of pregnant employees by Planned Parenthood.  The article chronicled the journey of one employee, Ta’Lisa Hairston, whose experiences were particularly harrowing:

As a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood, Ta’Lisa Hairston urged pregnant women to take rest breaks at work, stay hydrated and, please, eat regular meals.

Then she got pregnant and couldn’t follow her own advice.

Last winter, Ms. Hairston told the human-resources department for Planned Parenthood’s clinic in White Plains, N.Y., that her high blood pressure was threatening her pregnancy.  She sent the department multiple notes from her nurse recommending that she take frequent breaks.

Managers ignored the notes.  They rarely gave her time to rest or to take a lunch break … Ms. Hairston’s hands and feet swelled; the clinic’s plastic gloves no longer fit. Her blood pressure got so high that her doctor put her on bed rest when she was seven months pregnant.

She returned to work on strict orders to not work more than six hours a day and to take regular breaks.  One day in March, she worked a much longer shift.  She soon became so sick that her doctor told her to go back on bed rest.  A few days later, on March 23, she went to the hospital.  Doctors performed an emergency C-section.  She was 34 weeks pregnant.

When she had been on maternity leave for eight of the 12 weeks guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, Planned Parenthood’s human resources department called her multiple times and urged her to return to work early, Ms. Hairston said.  She emailed the department and said she felt “discriminated against.”  She resigned in June.

“I didn’t get into the medical field to be treated like this,” she said.

The last she heard from Planned Parenthood was a letter asking her to donate money. She threw it in the trash.

Sadly, it is not just Planned Parenthood that struggles with treating pregnant employees appropriately.  The article cites examples of employees at both Avon and Wal-Mart who have had similarly disturbing experiences.

The very first command God gives to humans is, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28).  According to Scripture, pregnancy is not a corporate liability, but a great blessing that fulfills one of the callings God has given to humanity.

Part of the problem with Planned Parenthood in particular is that, at the core of their mission, is a very different view of pregnancy than that of the Bible.  For Planned Parenthood, pregnancy is not a gift to be stewarded, but a choice to be made.  And, in certain cases at least, it seems as though some in Planned Parenthood wish their workers would make a choice of “no.”

I have written many times about the tragedies involved in abortion.  Abortion hurts the women who choose themAbortion destroys the babies who are lost because of them.  But this story presents yet another tragedy.  Abortion can hurt even those who carry little lives in them and bear little lives from them because they cannot work as long and as hard as their supervisors might want.  How inconvenient for the supervisors.

But, then again, perhaps there are things more important than convenience.  Perhaps life is more important than convenience.  And perhaps, if all this is true, how Planned Parenthood treats its pregnant workers is only the beginning of its problems.

January 21, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why Pray, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation”?

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It seems as though the wording of the Lord’s Prayer will soon be changing in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church.  Charlotte Allen reports for First Things:

On November 15 the Italian Bishops’ Conference announced that it plans to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass liturgy. The bishops want the current Italian equivalent of “lead us not into temptation” to become “do not abandon us to temptation.”

The bishops have now petitioned the pope to approve this proposed alteration – a petition he is almost certain to grant. In a 2017 interview with an Italian Catholic television channel, the pontiff expressed his distress with the current Italian wording – non c’indurre in tentazione, a literal translation of the Latin ne nos inducas in tentationem that is part of the Lord’s Prayer in the Vulgate versions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

I would hasten to add that the traditional translation of “lead us not into temptation” comports not only nicely with the old Latin Vulgate, but with the Greek of Matthew and Luke.  So, why is Pope Francis so concerned with this translation?  Ms. Allen continues:

Francis opined that “lead us not” might confuse the Catholic faithful, because “it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell.”

On the one hand, the pope is right in claiming that God does not lead us into temptation.  No less than Jesus’ brother declares:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. (James 1:13-14)

James is clear that it is not God who tempts us to do evil; it is we who tempt us to do evil.  We, as the saying goes, are our own worst enemies.  God, on the other hand, does not and will not tempt us.

So, this begs the question:  why would Jesus teach us to pray to God that He would not lead us into temptation if the Bible says that God doesn’t tempt anyone?

Martin Luther, in his explanation to this line in the Lord’s Prayer, writes:

God, indeed, tempts no one; but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and gain the victory.

Notice that Luther begins his explanation of Jesus’ words with the promise of James 1:13.  This is the crux of Luther’s explanation of this line in the Lord’s Prayer because when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are praying a promise of God.  In other words, we are simply praying back to God what God has already sworn to do for us.

One of the wonderful things about the Lord’s Prayer is that the whole prayer is composed of God’s promises.  When we pray, for instance, “Thy kingdom come,” we know that God’s kingdom has certainly come in Christ, even without our prayer.  As Jesus Himself says, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9).  This is why Luther writes, in his explanation of this phrase, “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself.”  Or, when we pray, “Thy will be done,” we know that God’s will is always done, even without our prayer.  As Job says to God, “I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).  This is why Luther writes, in his explanation of this phrase, “The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer.”  God always says “yes” to the Lord’s Prayer because before the prayer was a prayer, it was a series of promises made by God.  And God always keeps His promises.

What is true of God’s kingdom and sovereign will is also true when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  God most certainly will not lead us into temptation because of His promise.  Praying this petition, then, can remind us of God’s promise.

What the pope suggests we pray about temptation – that God would not abandon us to temptation – is certainly a fine and needed prayer, but it is not the Lord’s Prayer.  It is good to pray Francis’ line, then, in addition to what Jesus says.  We should be careful, however, praying Francis’ line in place of what Jesus says.

For centuries now, Christians have prayed the Lord’s Prayer as they have received the Lord’s Prayer.  Perhaps, instead of trying to revise it, we should be content with just receiving it as well.

January 14, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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