Archive for May, 2015

True Confessions

Confesson 1I love to read all sorts of things. Theological tomes. Biographies.  Histories.  The Bible.  I love to read op-ed pieces in newspapers and long form journalism – an art form I am concerned is all too quickly disappearing – in newsmagazines.

I love to read. But I don’t always like what I read about.

Case in point. This past week, I was scrolling through my newsfeed when up popped a story about a pastor who had to resign from his church because of serious ongoing turpitude. I wish I could say I’m surprised. But I’m not. I’m not surprised because I’ve seen far too many of these kinds of stories for them to shock me.  I’m not surprised because I know the human heart can be a dark place, leading people to do dark things. I’m not surprised because I know my heart can be a dark place, leading me to do dark things.  I’m not surprised.  But I am heartbroken. I am heartbroken when I think about the pain, regret, and fear this brother in Christ must be experiencing. I am heartbroken by how his story is being talked about on social media.  An Internet mob has predictably descended on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and comment walls to attack and destroy this man in a sickening display of schadenfreude. This man is in my prayers and, if I can be so bold, he should be in yours.

It is out of my heartbreak that I want to sound a warning not only to my brother pastors, but also to all Christians: Satan hates you and is out to destroy you. This is why Revelation 9:11 calls Satan “the Destroyer.” Satan wants to destroy you along with all the people you love and all the people who love you. Indeed, the sin of this pastor has not only compromised his security and livelihood, it has also deeply wounded his congregation – exposing them to ridicule in the hot spotlight of a nationally trending news story – as well as, I’m sure, emotionally devastating his family.

A few years back, in The Asbury Journal, David Werner asked an important question: “How is your doing?” He asked this question in the spirit of John Wesley, who took great care always to connect “how one was doing internally (in one’s soul) … to what one did, or how one lived out the Christian life externally (in one’s actions).”[1] In other words, Wesley wanted Christians to seriously consider how well their actions comported with their words and worldview.

So, let me ask you: How is your doing? Are there any “doings” that you are hiding? Is there a sin that remains secret? Now is the time to confess it, repent of it, and receive forgiveness for it. Now is the time to share it with a pastor, a counselor, or a trusted friend in Christ so you can be held appropriately accountable for it and, ultimately, be absolved of it.

The apostle Peter exhorts us to two important “doings” when he writes, “Be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8). Both parts of Peter’s admonition are critical. If you cannot control yourself, your ability to help and lead others will be inevitably compromised and, in some instances, discredited and destroyed. And if you are not continually vigilant, watching out for Satan’s tricks and traps, he will use your slumber toward righteousness to take you down before you even know what hit you. Being self-controlled and alert is key.

But even more important than Peter’s admonition is Peter’s invitation in the verse prior: “Cast all your anxiety on God because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Sin tells a sinister, but enticing, lie. It promises you that if you fall to it, it will release you from your anxiety. “Imbibing too much alcohol can help you lighten up and have fun,” whispers sin. “Misusing God’s gift of sex can give you a much needed thrill in a hard knocks world,” says sin. But, in the end, sin never helps your anxiety. Instead, it only adds to your anxiety pain, hurt, brokenness, and guilt.

Peter reminds us that only God can take our anxiety because only God has taken care of our anxiety by taking care of our sin on the cross of His Son, Jesus Christ. So lay your anxiety – and your sin – on Him. In the words of the old hymn:

I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all, and frees us
From the accursed load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus,
To wash my crimson stains
White in His blood most precious,
Till not a spot remains.

There is a chance that this man who has had to resign from his church will not serve again as a pastor.  But even if his vocation as a pastor has passed, his vocations as a husband and as a father still stand.  My prayer is that, out of his pain, this man serves in these callings from God repentantly, patiently, and lovingly and that he finds his comfort in what God has called him:  His forgiven child.

My prayer is that you find your comfort there too.

_______________________________

[1] David Werner, “John Wesley’s Question: ‘How is Your Doing?’” The Asbury Journal 65, no. 2 (2010): 68.

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May 25, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

_______________________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Fairness Over Family

Family ValuesHow important is it to be fair?

This is the question that Adam Swift, professor of political theory at the University of Warwick, and Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, wrestle with in their book, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships.[1] For Brighouse and Swift, the answer to the question of fairness is evident, even if it is admittedly difficult. Being fair is of preeminent importance. Indeed, being fair is so important to these professors that they are willing to severely inhibit one of society’s most cherished institutions in order to achieve their vision of equality: the family.

In their introduction, the authors explain that the family “poses two challenges to any theory of social justice.” One is the liberal challenge, which questions whether it is best to have a child’s parents “determine what [a] child eats or drinks, where she sleeps, what television programs she watches, what school she attends.” Liberals see it as “one of the state’s tasks to protect its citizens, and its prospective citizens, from undue interference by others, including their parents.” Though not advocating for the abolition of the family altogether, these authors do look at the family with a fair amount of skepticism.

The other challenge the family poses to social justice is the egalitarian challenge, which:

… focuses on the distribution of goods and opportunities between children born into different families … Economists tend to focus on expected income over the life-course; sociologists investigate chances of social mobility; philosophers typically think in more abstract terms such as resources or opportunities for well-being. But however we frame or measure the inequality, it is clear that children born into different families face unequal prospects.

For Swift and Brighouse, these “unequal prospects” between families just won’t do. Indeed, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Swift offers an example of an unequal prospect that particularly troubles him:

The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t – the difference in their life chances – is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t.[2]

How does one deal with the challenge of unequal prospects between families who do and do not read to their children before they go to bed? Swift answers:

I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.

Swift and Brighouse stretch their apologetic for equality as far it can go. Even if a parent won’t stop reading bedtime stories to their children, the fact that there may be other children out there who don’t get read bedtime stories should at least make that parent feel occasionally guilty for “unfairly disadvantaging” those other children.

This line of reasoning is very strange to me. Although I would agree that equality is important in its appropriate context, I would not consider it to be of highest importance as Swift and Brighouse do. Here’s why.

As a Christian, I know – and can empirically verify – that sin has en inevitably entropic effect on society. Thus, to seek equality by trying not to “unfairly disadvantage” others rather than by pursuing what is advantageous for others will only create an equality of increasing pain, suffering, and wickedness, which, interestingly enough, is precisely what the Bible affirms as the only way in which, left to our own devices, we are all truly equal: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). It is hard for me to understand why Swift and Brighouse would advocate guilt over a good thing for the sake of equality with a bad thing.

As I think about Swift and Brighouse’s near deification of equality, I can’t help but think back to an era before 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education when “separate but equal” schools for black and white kids were commonplace in our educational system. Part of the offense of “separate but equal” schools was, of course, that they were not, in fact, equal! But for the sake of argument, let’s say we were able to create schools that were truly separate but equal. Let’s say they had equal funding, equal caliber teachers, and even equal outcomes. My guess – and my hope, quite frankly – is that we would still be indignant at such an arrangement. Why? Because even if such an arrangement could keep in tact the value of fairness, it would break the law of love. After all, it’s hard to love someone when you intentionally separate yourself from someone for no other reason than the color of his skin.

This is the danger in Swift and Brighouse’s proposal. In their efforts to orchestrate fairness between families, they undermine families themselves. They advocate limiting the ways in which parents can love their children, thereby breaking the law of love, for the sake of a disadvantageously normed equality. But families who struggle do not need families who are in better shape to be equal to them out of misplaced pity, they need families who are in better shape to serve them, mentor them, sacrifice for them, and, ultimately, love them. They need these families to be a family to them. Such an arrangement will not create perfect equality. But, then again, though Swift and Brighouse may be loath to admit it, perfect equality is not possible. Beautiful love, however, is. This is why we should strive for love – even over fairness. And where can love grow best? The family.

Maybe we should keep it around.

_________________________________

[1] Harry Brighouse & Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] Joe Gelonesi, “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” abc.net.au (5.1.2015).

May 11, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Hand, Meet Glove: Why We Need Both Justice and Morality

JusticeIt was George Washington who, in his farewell address, explained, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[1] It was John Adams who, in a letter to Zabdiel Adams, said, “It is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”[2] It was Benjamin Franklin who, in a letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud, wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”[3] The founding fathers of this country saw a rich and deep connection between morality and freedom. And rightly so. As Os Guinness points out:

Sustainable freedom depends on the character of the rulers and the ruled alike, and on the vital trust between them – both of which are far more than a matter of law. The Constitution, which is the foundational law of the land, should be supported and sustained by the faith, character and virtue of the entire citizenry, which comprises its moral constitution, or habits of the heart.[4]

A freedom that lacks morality is not a freedom that will last long. It will hemorrhage to death by the hand of its own hedonism. The founding fathers knew this.

Sadly, for all the concern that many of our founding fathers devoted to morality, ethics, and virtue, their concern did not always translate into active efforts toward justice. The failure to fight the institution of slavery and the racism behind it is just one of the many blights on this country’s history. In such instances, morality needed a push from democracy to blossom into justice, which is a sad twist of irony, considering this nation’s very charter has in its preamble its intention to “establish justice.”

The tragic reality is that our treatment of morality and justice has been and continues to be deeply schizophrenic. We persistently seek to separate one from the other. The philosophical and, for that matter, theological reality, however, is that morality and justice are inextricable concomitants of each other. This is why, in Scripture, we are treated both to warnings against those who “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4) and to warnings against those who “devise injustice, and … mete out violence on the earth” (Psalm 58:2). Morality and justice go together.

Currently, I am concerned that, just as in the earlier days of our nation many preached a morality without justice, we have now moved into a time where many are preach justice while eschewing any steadying moral tiller. For instance, the sexual revolution, culminating in the legalization of abortion in 1973, was hailed by proponents as part of an inexorable march of justice toward freedom. No longer could people be told what to do in their bedrooms or with their bodies! The dragon of old-fashioned, constrictive sexual morality and its connection to marriage had finally been slain and severed. What happened? Those in economically depressed areas of this country found themselves economically oppressed by a new set of sexual freedoms as they had lots of children born outside of old-fashioned, constrictive marriages and, it turns out, born outside of the economic stability these old-fashioned, constrictive marriages afforded. Not even legalized abortion could stem the tide of out-of-wedlock births. It seems as though sexual justice, when ripped from its moorings of sexual morality, only boomeranged back to further perpetuate another kind of injustice – that of economic injustice.

Before we clamor for justice, we should always ask, “Is this justice moral?” And before we pontificate on morality, we should always ask, “Am I willing to turn my moral words into just actions?” Both are needed. Both are Scriptural. But neither are easy. And in a socio-political system where we all too often look for easy, or at least broadly palatable, answers to our society’s most difficult challenges, I’m afraid the hard hurdle of both justice and morality is one few are willing to try to jump.

___________________________________

[1] George Washington, Farewell Address (1796).

[2] John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams (6.21.1776).

[3] Benjamin Franklin, Letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud (4.17.1787).

[4] Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 99.

May 4, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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