The pit of despair …

The pit of despair …

Homiletics and Hermeneutics, edited by Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim, is a great primer about, well … just what the title says! Its greatness lies not simply in its positive presentation. When I was on active-duty with the U.S. Naval Security Forces, I recall one E-6 Watch Commander who I really did not like. I learned a lot from him. I learned that if I asked myself, “What would MA1 Frank do?” and then did the exact opposite, I would probably be on the right track! So it is with this book.

The editors explain, “This book is about teasing out the theological presuppositions of approaches to preaching. That is, we want to explore the hermeneutic that lies behind one’s theology of preaching.”[1] The four views they present are:

  1. Redemptive-Historical. Bryan Chapell presents this view, and his work is familiar to many younger pastors who likely read him in seminary.
  2. Christiconic. Abraham Kuruvilla explains. Paradoxically, he has never been a pastor and it shows. His presentation is easily the most abstract of the bunch.[2] His description of sanctification is too neat, too antiseptic. One gets an impression of church members as clone droids who sit waiting for their “pericopal theology” upload of the week.
  3. Theocentric. Kenneth Langley explains.
  4. Law-Gospel. Paul Wilson spells it out.

This issue here is not about preaching methodology. It is about the presupposition behind the methodology. The authors disagree about the unifying theme behind scripture. Where is God going? What is He doing? What has He been doing?

  • Is the story of the bible about redemption and the Cross? Then Chapell is your man! He explains, “God’s revelation through biblical history is progressive, organic, and redemptive.”[3]
  • What about God? Is all scripture about Him and His glory? Then toss your hat into the ring for Kenneth Langley. “Theology proper is the preacher’s best lens for seeing and displaying the unity of the Bible. Other lenses, like covenant, law-gospel, or redemptive-historic, elucidate some texts but not all, or at least not all texts equally well.”[4]
  • Sanctification? Is that the great telos of God’s story? Then go with Kuruvilla. “Jesus Christ alone has comprehensively abided by the theology of every pericope of Scripture. Thus, each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ (a facet of Christ’s image), showing us what it means to perfectly fulfill, as he did, the particular call of that pericope. The Bible as a whole, the collection of all its pericopes, then, portrays what a perfect human looks like, exemplified by Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the perfect Man: the plenary image of Christ.”[5]
  • What about law and Gospel? Then, Wilson is the man for you. “Every text already implies both law and gospel, even if every preacher has not been taught to recognize them.”[6]

The authors agree on much, and occasionally talk past each other.[7] This book’s value is in letting the pastor see how a unifying theme may (or, may not!) act as a straitjacket on the text. I propose a simple test:

If the interpretive grid will not let Song of Solomon 4 and Genesis 38 say what the text so plainly says, then it is invalid and ought to be discarded.

I will apply this test to Song of Solomon 4. This text is the pit of despair for preaching models, because it’s difficult for any interpretive grid. What’s it about?

Well, to be blunt, the text shows us two people who are eager for their wedding night so they can ravish each other all night long.

Of course, there is something more going on here. Something for the congregation to learn. Which model handles this text responsibly? I do not have Kuruvilla (et al) on a Zoom call just now, so we will have to speculate—but here goes:

  1. Redemptive-Historical. Chapell would use his “gospel glasses”[8] to see how Song 4 reflected the Gospel message. Presumably, he would do something akin to “righteousness of marital love” + “fall” + “Jesus’ love for the Church” = redemption.
  2. Christiconic. Kuruvilla would seek the “world in front of the text”[9] to explain how this sexual marital bliss helps Christians become more Christlike.[10] I wish him luck with Song 4:16, but I must admit he has a shorter haul than poor Chapell.
  3. Law-Gospel. Wilson would look for both “trouble” and “grace,”[11] and if necessary engage in mirror reading to fill out his “four pages” scheme.[12] At the risk of sounding crass, I must insist that to the protagonists in Song 4, there is no “trouble” on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact …
  4. Theocentric. Langley would take this marital bliss and tie it to God’s design for men and women in marriage, and close with doxology to a God who cares about His people.[13]

The theocentric model does the most justice to the text as it stands, with the Christiconic framework a distant second. To be sure, each author has interesting and helpful contributions. But, the theocentric framework allows us to cast the hermeneutical straitjackets into the Goodwill donation bin and let the texts speak for themselves.[14] Langley warns us:[15]

Lay people learn hermeneutics from their pastors’ preaching. Whether we like it or not, they learn how to interpret Scripture from how we handle Scripture in the pulpit. So what do we teach listeners about hermeneutics when Jesus makes a surprise appearance in a sermon from Proverbs? When it turns out Song of Solomon is not really about God’s gift of married sex but about Christ’s love for his church? When redemption trumps creation as the theological underpinning of every sermon? When texts are not handled with integrity because every Sunday the preacher follows the counsel to “make a beeline to the cross.”

He continues:[16]

People have a right to expect that a sermon will say what the Bible says. But if we import Christology (or law-gospel, or kingdom, or any other theme) into texts, do we not unintentionally communicate that texts are pretexts for talking about something else?

Amen to this.


[1] Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.), xi-xii.

[2] For example, Kuruvilla privileges exegesis so much that I fear ordinary Christians would be intimidated by his approach. I submit that a man who could write “[r]ecent studies in the fields of language philosophy and cognitive science are deepening our understanding of communication and, particularly pertinent for interpreters of Scripture, how texts are to be read” (Ibid, p. 51) and then declare “[t]he semantics of an utterance (linguistically encoded meaning, sentence meaning) is a template that must be enriched to arrive at its pragmatics (inferentially discerned meaning, utterance meaning). Such inferential operations are integral to interpretation, particularly interpretation for application, which is every preacher’s burden (more on that later),” (Ibid, p. 52) and has no pastoral experience to boot, would perhaps struggle to teach ordinary Christians to know and love the scripture. It would all appear to be too much. It discourages the principle of perspicuity.

[3] Ibid, p. 6. 

[4] Ibid, p. 89. 

[5] Ibid, p. 59. 

[6] Ibid, p. 129. 

[7] For example, Kuruvilla scolds Langley in his response: “Sermon after sermon, week after week, one is left strumming, striking, and scraping the same few strings and chords of theological themes found in Scripture. Instead, I suggest that preachers expound the concrete specificities of the pericope in question and the particulars of life change it calls for,” (Ibid, p. 111). This is a low blow by Kuruvilla.

[8] “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Ibid, p. 16).

[9] “… the interpretation of Scripture cannot cease with the elucidation of its linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements: what the author is saying (semantics). It must proceed further to discern the world in front of the text: what the author is doing (pragmatics). And this projected world forms the intermediary between text and application, enabling one to respond validly to the text,” (Ibid, p. 54).

[10] “… each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ,” (Ibid, p. 59).

[11] “Sometimes I opt for alternate terms like ‘trouble’ and ‘grace,’ although the law is not appropriately reduced simply to trouble. Still, trouble and grace can provide a simpler route to the preaching of the good news,” (Ibid, p. 121).

[12] “This mirroring function of law and gospel is a principle of inversion,” (Ibid, p. 131).

[13] “Preachers may take up a variety of texts and topics, but they should take them up (and their hearers with them) all the way into the presence of God, so that listeners are instructed by the Word of God, convinced of the value of God, captivated by the holiness, grace, kingship, wisdom, and beauty of God. Preaching is all about and all for God,” (Ibid, pp. 81-82).

[14] Langley observed, “We may appreciate, for example, the kingdom lens, but find that it works better in the Synoptic Gospels than in large swaths of Scripture where the kingdom theme is not prominent. Or we may appreciate a traditional Lutheran lens, but discover that law and gospel are not present in every text,” (Ibid, p. 89).

[15] Ibid, pp. 96-97. 

[16] Ibid, p. 97. 

COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

COVID, the Church, the State and a more excellent way?

What to think about government public health edicts and the Church regarding COVID-19? In an outburst of representative frustration, a Southern Baptist theologian recently posted the following on Twitter in response to his Governor’s new lockdown restrictions which, among other things, forbade dancing:[1]

As the American philosopher Yosemite Sam has often remarked, “them’s fightin’ words!”

Basic principles

We begin with some principles to help us consider how to react to the latest public health directive from Governor Inslee.

  1. The Bible tells us we need community and relationship to be truly human, and the Church is God’s community.

God saves His people to join them to the brotherhood of faith so we can be in relationship with Him and with our new brothers and sisters in the faith.[2] This is why God gave us pictures of the Church as God’s bride (Hos 1-3; Ezek 16; Eph 5), His body (1 Cor 12), and His spiritual house (1 Pet 2). It means we are only complete in community and fellowship with each other. This cannot be done solely by Zoom or YouTube. Therefore, just as a marriage does not exist unless there is a spatial closeness and relationship, so the Church cannot long exist if it does not meet for corporate worship. There are reasons why long-term, long distance marriages often die!

For God’s people to not meet in community is to deliberately hinder the image of God that Father, Son and Spirit are refurbishing in our individual and corporate lives (2 Cor 3:18; cp. 1 Cor 15:49).

Therefore, the Church should close its doors only as a matter of extreme necessity, as a last resort.

  1. The Bible says God puts the government official in place.

We cannot forget this, no matter who is in office:

Daniel 2:21: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.”

John 19:11: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

  1. The Bible says we must obey the secular authorities.

This also cannot be wished away.

We do it because we would be disobeying God if we disobeyed the authorities. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid, God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience,” (Rom 13:5).

Paul told Titus to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities,” (Titus 3:1).

We do it for the sake of evangelism. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” (1 Pet 2:13-14).

  1. The Bible tells us we can disobey the authorities in certain circumstances.

The penultimate examples are Acts 4:1-22 and Acts 5:27-33. But, before we use these as the escape pod for which we have been searching, we must note three things:

  • The authorities singled the Christians out for discriminatory treatment. They treated the Church differently than other groups.
  • The State ordered the Church to not preach the Gospel. The State wanted to stop evangelism, not corporate worship.
  • The State did this maliciously and on purpose because it hated the Gospel.

We also think of Daniel and his friends who refused to compromise the way they practiced their faith—even after the State commanded them to do so (Dan 1:8). Would they have done so if there were a legitimate public health reason? Perhaps a famine, a crop failure, or something similar? We do not know. We do know the king’s order did not supersede God’s command, and Nebuchadnezzar provided no compelling reason for them to think it did. God blessed Daniel and his friends for their allegiance (Dan 1:17-21).

In non-canonical but very helpful Jewish literature from the period between Malachi and Matthew, the theme of staying loyal to God in foreign lands was also a tough issue. The Book of Tobit is set during the Assyrian exile, and it is about a man named … (you guessed it) … Tobit, who struggled to be a faithful Israelite in a strange land. He explained:

Now when I was carried away captive to Nineveh, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles; but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart (Tobit 1:10-12).

Like Daniel, Tobit loved God and so tried very, very hard to observe the dietary laws even in hard circumstances. As with Daniel, it was not about the dietary laws per se; it was about an honest desire to do what God ordered.[3]

What “certain circumstances,” then, allow us to disobey the State? Based on our survey, there are three triggers:

Considering COVID in Thurston County

This brings us to COVID, and Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 of 15 November 2020.[5] These are his new directives for congregations:

Governor Inslee explained during a press conference:[6]

This spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March … And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.

As of 15 November 2020, the Thurston County Health Department reports the following statistics:[7]

This data shows a 98.4% survival rate and indicates 6.4% of those infected have required hospitalization. The Thurston County Public Health Officer recently wrote the community[8] (p. 1, §7) that her recommendation to abandon in-person school instruction was “made based on our local patterns of transmission, rising transmission rates, hospital capacity, public health capacity, and our likely trajectory of disease going into winter.” It is reasonable to assume Governor Inslee’s proclamation is predicated on similar concerns.

As of 15 November 2020, the cumulative data for the State of Washington is as follows:[9]

This data shows a 98.1% survival rate and demonstrates 7.3% of those infected have required hospitalization. For comparison, here are the State of WA and Thurston County datasets side by side:

COVID and basic principles

We now turn to the triggers we previously discussed which allow the Church to disobey the government. We can eliminate one of these and further explore two others, as follows:

Discrimination?

The State has not engaged in intentional discrimination. Has it engaged in defacto discrimination? In this context, to discriminate means to “make an unjust or prejudicial distinction”[10] regarding the Church. To be unjust is to not behave “according to what is morally right or fair.”[11] Something is prejudicial if it is “harmful to someone or something; detrimental.”[12] Therefore, we can summarize and say Governor Inslee’s proclamation is defacto discriminatory against the Church if it draws morally wrong or unfair distinctions between it and other organizations in society, and these distinctions cause harm.

In his proclamation 20-25.8, Governor Inslee states (p. 3, §3):

These below modifications do not apply to education (including but not limited to K-12, higher education, trade and vocational schools), childcare, health care, and courts and judicial branch-related proceedings, all of which are exempt from the modifications and shall continue to follow current guidance.

Is this distinction morally wrong? Is it unfair to allocate the Church less societal value than a daycare? Is it morally wrong to say the Church is less valuable than an undergraduate institution which runs a course about the sociology of gender, in which students read texts that advocate transgender ideology?[13]

In this context every policy decision has, at its root, a moral calculus that weighs the organization’s value to society.[14] Governor Inslee has decided public schools, universities, trade schools, childcare, health care, the courts and their associated activities are more valuable than religious community. He has conducted a moral reckoning, and he sincerely believes his conclusions are correct.

But, the fact remains he has made a distinction. Is it an immoral or unfair distinction? According to Governor Inslee, both the organizations above are more precious than the Christian church. Thus, they may operate under current guidelines and are not subject to this new proclamation. According to the scriptures, gathering in community is not optional, it harms God’s people to prohibit it, and transgender ideology is a false construct of self-identity and humanity.

Therefore, we could say Governor Inslee’s proclamation 20-25.8 is defacto discriminatory against the Church. However, he has not prohibited churches from meeting. He has set limits on the manner of worship, and he has set similar (financially) harmful limits on how other organizations conduct their operations. The State economy has been crippled and is only now beginning to recover.[15] It is safe to say this latest proclamation will rip the new scab off this wound for all manner of organizations, across all sectors. If Governor Inslee is explicitly or implicitly injuring the Church, even his foes must admit he is making a very clumsy job of it.

Evidence suggests the allegation of defacto discrimination against the Church is ambiguous and unclear.

We turn to the next issue.   

Adequate cause to change the manner of worship?

The question is about predication. In SKRBCs context, the weightiest issue from WA’s new restrictions is whether Governor Inslee has adequate cause to prohibit congregational singing in a worship service. Does he? In his press conference, Governor Inslee declared:[16]

We have a pandemic raging across the state. It is a potentially fatal disease. Left unchecked, it will assuredly result in grossly overburdened hospitals. It will keep people from receiving routine but necessary medical treatment because of the stresses our hospitals will be under.

Left unchecked, the economic devastation, long term, will be continually prolonged. And, most importantly, left unchecked, we will see continued untold numbers of death.

We will not allow these things to happen.

This brings us back to the datasets about COVID:

Just from this admittedly simple review, COVID-19 does not seem to be a serious disease. The number of WA dead (2,519) seems only to be so high because so many have been infected (130,419). And yet, this data masks the true horror of the virus. Even this seemingly modest amount of hospitalizations may overwhelm the public health sector:[17]

… in the hardest-hit areas, there are simply not enough doctors, nurses, and other specialists to staff those beds. Some health-care workers told me that COVID-19 patients are the sickest people they’ve ever cared for: They require twice as much attention as a typical intensive-care-unit patient, for three times the normal length of stay.

The article goes on:[18]

The entire state of Iowa is now out of staffed beds, Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Iowa, told me. Worse is coming. Iowa is accumulating more than 3,600 confirmed cases every day; relative to its population, that’s more than twice the rate Arizona experienced during its summer peak, “when their system was near collapse,” Perencevich said. With only lax policies in place, those cases will continue to rise. Hospitalizations lag behind cases by about two weeks; by Thanksgiving, today’s soaring cases will be overwhelming hospitals that already cannot cope. “The wave hasn’t even crashed down on us yet,” Perencevich said. “It keeps rising and rising, and we’re all running on fear. The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question.”

In the imminent future, patients will start to die because there simply aren’t enough people to care for them. Doctors and nurses will burn out. The most precious resource the U.S. health-care system has in the struggle against COVID-19 isn’t some miracle drug. It’s the expertise of its health-care workers—and they are exhausted.

Just how difficult is it to care for a single COVID-19 patient?[19]

A typical patient with a severe case of COVID-19 will have a tube connecting their airways to a ventilator, which must be monitored by a respiratory therapist. If their kidneys shut down, they might be on 24-hour dialysis. Every day, they’ll need to be flipped onto their stomach, and then onto their back again—a process that requires six or seven people. They’ll have several tubes going into their heart and blood vessels, administering eight to 12 drugs—sedatives, pain medications, blood thinners, antibiotics, and more.

All of these must be carefully adjusted, sometimes minute to minute, by an ICU nurse. None of these drugs is for treating COVID-19 itself. “That’s just to keep them alive,” Neville, the Iowa nurse, said. An ICU nurse can typically care for two people at a time, but a single COVID-19 patient can consume their full attention. Those patients remain in the ICU for three times the length of the usual stay.

Are some Christians so insulated in their echo-chamber of favored news commentators that they do not realize how awful COVID is? One public health worker recently lamented:[20]

Health-care workers and public-health officials have received threats and abusive messages accusing them of fearmongering … They’ve pleaded with family members to wear masks and physically distance, lest they end up competing for ICU beds that no longer exist. “Nurses have been the most trusted profession for 18 years in a row, which is now bull**** because no one is listening to us,” Neville said.

Add to it that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now concludes COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air:[21]

Some infections can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.

This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread.

There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.

In light of this, does the Church have cause to question the State’s motives in a public health emergency? Can it responsibly ignore the recommendations of public health experts? It seems the following guidelines should apply when considering public health emergency orders:

In the State of Washington’s context, the answers to these questions are, in order, No, Yes and Yes.

Does Governor Inslee therefore lack adequate cause to restrict congregational singing? Only if the Church believes the proclamation (and others like it from other Governors) is part of a conspiracy against Christ and His Church. Such theories abound on the internet, that warm incubator for so much cold darkness.[22]

Of course, these questions do not consider that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14) and rarely works in an overt way. He seeks to destroy the Church (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 12:17). “For we are not ignorant of his designs,” (2 Cor 2:11). We also must consider whether the Church is the proverbial frog in the pan that slowly boils to death … and never notices. Is the burner dial turning to “MED-HIGH” even now? 

We must remember we live in two worlds: the City of God and the City of Man. This world does not like the Church, does not respect it, does not value it, and never will. We must only go along with public health decrees that re-shape our community and our worship as long as we are reasonably certain there is no explicit or implicit evil motivating them.

Is there, in this case? With Satan, we can never be sure. But the evidence suggests no.

A more excellent way?

We make a mistake when we consider COVID and the State from the perspective of Satan as the moving force in the universe. Yet, that is what we have done. It is what we have all done. We forget the most biblical way to think of COVID is as God’s judgment on the world. Examples from scripture are too numerous to list, but here is one (Jeremiah 14:11-12):

The LORD said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, sand though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God brings curses on a world that rejects Him. True, the world is not Israel. But the point remains—God brings judgment so people might repent. We do not know what His specific message is, but we can be certain it has to do with repentance and allegiance to His name.

While it is necessary to focus on the Church’s obligations to the State regarding public health orders, it is perhaps best for the Church to re-double its efforts to fulfill its mission. That mission is to preach the Gospel. To build bridges to the community in service of that Good News. To be innovative, creative, and winsomely aggressive in this outreach.

That is what God would have us do.

Notes

[1] See https://twitter.com/ostrachan/status/1328413157325410304. This was posted on 16 November 2020.              

[2] See the sermon “Made for Each Other? The Bible on Marriage” (preached 01 November 2020) for an exposition of Genesis 2:18-25. This sermon is essentially about the imago dei and how it is imaged in the covenant of marriage. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/BHZaV6YwXSg.

[3] See also 1 Maccabees 1:58-64 for a similar theme. 

[4] The case of defacto discrimination is well illustrated by Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan querying how he ought to handle Christians. This came about after Pliny issued a general edict outlawing political associations. Christians were then caught up in this administrative dragnet. This was not an explicit, but a defacto discrimination.

[5] Retrieved from https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/proclamations/proc_20-25.8.pdf

[6] TV Washington, “Governor Inslee Press Conference on COVID-19,” (15 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[7] Retrieved from Thurston County Public Health and Social Services on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/Pages/covid-19-data.aspx

[8] Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek, “Letter to the Community: 10 November 2020.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/phss/phssdocuments/11%2010%2020%20letter%20to%20community%20FINAL.pdf

[9] WA State Department of Health, “COVID-19 Dashboard.” Retrieved on 15 November 2020 from  https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/DataDashboard.

[10] New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2010), s.v. “discriminate,” verb, 2; p. 497. 

[11] Ibid, s.v. “unjust,” p. 1893. 

[12] Ibid, s.v. “prejudicial,” p. 1378. 

[13] For example, see SOC 235 “Sociology of Gender” from South Puget Sound Community College. The assigned textbook is Lisa Wade and Myra Ferre, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2018).

[14] “A man who acts, makes decisions, ranks things above or below, sets a high or low value on things, is acting according to definite principles—even though theoretically he may deny these principles—and he is acting with the consciousness—although in theory he would certainly deny it—that it is right to act in such a way,” (Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, trans. Olive Wyon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947], 18). 

[15] See State of Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, Economic & Revenue Update – October 15, 2020, pp. 3-5. Retrieved from https://erfc.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/publications/oct20.pdf

[16] TV Washington, “Press Conference,” 00:25 – 01:10. Retrieved from https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2020111099.

[17] Ed Yong, “‘No One Is Listening to Us,’” The Atlantic (13 November 2020). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/11/third-surge-breaking-healthcare-workers/617091/.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How COVID-19 Spreads,” updated 28 October 2020. Retrieved on 16 November 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html. Emphasis added.

[22] These theories usually include varying amalgamations of George Soros, the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, microchips, a belief COVID-19 is not real or is being exploited for nefarious purposes, and conviction that there exists a coordinated, multi-national cabal of political and civil service conspirators ready to execute sinister orders from on high across the globe. I believe the latest colloquial term for this conspiracy at the moment is “the Great Reset.” You can read a short, breezy article skeptical of this theory here.

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

Don’t be a turtle! Thoughts about Christians and the 2020 election

As I write this, on Friday morning 06 November 2020, it appears as if Joe Biden will win the Presidency. For many Christians, this is discouraging news. He is an older man, weaker in mind and body than he used to be, and at risk of being manipulated by the more radical people in his entourage. In order to secure his party’s nomination, he was forced to agree to policy agendas at odds with the scripture’s teaching on some of the most basic issues of life; abortion, marriage, what it means to be male and female, and more.

And yet, if the electoral college votes continue to go his way, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. This didn’t happen by accident. God is not in heaven above, biting his fingernails, pulling for Georgia and Pennsylvania to finish their vote counts. God knows the vote counts. He determined them. The 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith explains scripture well when it says (Article 13):

his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.

The confession goes on:

And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ.

If you’re demoralized and hopeless about the results of this election, know that God determined it. It’s His will. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but you do have to accept it. Even Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (Jn 19:11). There’s a whole lot in that sentence. Pilate is only there because God wanted him there. Jesus knew that.

It’s the same with Barack Obama, Donald Trump … and perhaps Joe Biden.

So, how to react? Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals in America have often framed their engagement with the world as “cultural resistance.” This framing casts the Church as the brave underdog, manning the ramparts with spears, crossbows and swords, protecting the Bride of Christ against “the world.” It was an attitude of isolationism; of defensiveness. This is why, about a generation ago, so many churches hurriedly passed bylaw addendums that explicitly identified homosexual “marriage” as illegitimate, and declared that no same-sex “marriages” could occur in its facilities.

Mission accomplished? Not really.

It wasn’t about the Gospel. It wasn’t about engagement. It wasn’t about taking the message outside. The ethos was about resistance, about building higher walls to keep it all “out there,” to protect ourselves from “the liberals.”

As we consider a Joe Biden presidency and all the freight it’ll bring with it, the Church’s role is not to build higher walls or buy more guns. Christ doesn’t expect His Bride to hunker down and dig. He expects us to advance, to sally forth into this world with a message of rescue, reconciliation and hope.

The Church is a forward operating base in enemy territory. Our job isn’t to build a bunker and wait for the cavalry. It’s to advance, to march onward, to get outside the walls and advocate for Christ in this community. Think about these statements:

“We’ve got to take back our country!”vs.“Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!”
“America has turned its back on God!”vs.“You’ll only find peace through Jesus Christ.”

The column on the left is framed from a perspective of cultural resistance, of defensiveness. It has no Gospel content. The column on the right is different. It’s the way the apostles preached. As we contemplate a Joe Biden presidency, the Church can’t retreat behind walls or use the same old tactics of cultural resistance. That isn’t evangelism; it’s isolationism.

Don’t give way to despair. Know God chose Joe Biden, and has a reason for doing it. Know He expects His Church to do its job and to advance onward with the Gospel. We can’t issue frightened cries from behind the castle walls. We can’t hide inside our shells like scared turtles. We have to go outside the fortress with the banner of the truth of the Gospel and tell people that old, old story. It isn’t about “taking back our country.” It’s about telling people about God’s country and God’s kingdom, so perhaps some of them might become citizens, too.

Singing the Ballot Blues

Singing the Ballot Blues

This Sunday, I preached a sermon about voting. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to telling Christians how to vote. I didn’t tell people “vote for Donald Trump or America is toast,” nor did I say “We must vote for Joe Biden!” I took a middle road, which is really the best road. It’s an uncomfortable road, because I believe a Christian ought to feel politically “homeless” in a world to which he doesn’t belong.

The Christian faith is about hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better us. Hope for justice. Hope that things are meant to be better than they are.

Hope that a God exists who is good, and that His Son Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again to fix this broken world, by the power of the Spirit.

The Christian faith is about hope that God will rescue some of us, so we can be with Him in the new community, as part of a new family, in the new and better world to come. Christians can live here in peace and joy because of this new relationship.

But, while we wait for all that good stuff to happen … we’re stuck here. We can’t withdraw from society and isolate in Tupperware containers. We can’t marry the Church to the culture. We’re in this uneasy middle ground, with the Church set apart from the culture but not isolated from it.

This produces questions about how the Church should interact with society[1]. The election is 03 November; what should you think about voting?

I tried to answer that, here. I provided three principles to follow when voting:

  1. God will fix everything … later.
  2. Vote to support all kingdom values, not just some.
  3. Realize God doesn’t care if you don’t like your leaders.

The uncomfortable bit is in the second principle. I’m essentially taking the approach Michael Svigel summarizes pretty well in his article The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism. He writes:

On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness. Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker. All of this is done in a manner that reflects the fruit of the Spirit and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Conscience Christians avoid any alliances or allegiances that would surrender their ability to speak prophetically to the “Herods” of their day. And they refuse to surrender the impartiality necessary to serve as the conscience of the kingdoms of their age.

This kind of approach almost always means withdrawing membership and loyalty to political parties and political action organizations, but it never means retreating from political, social, cultural, and moral engagement. It means boldly but lovingly speaking out against unrighteousness and injustice while promoting righteousness and justice—assuming, of course, that Christians are actually living out righteousness and justice themselves! In the Conscience of the Kingdom approach, the Church neither unites with nor retreats from the State; rather, she lives as the Church in the State and speaks as the Church to the State.

So, here’s the sermon. I think it’s pretty important:


[1] For an excellent discussion, see especially John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 697-736; esp. 711-714. 

Beyond sawdust theology

Beyond sawdust theology

I’m studying for the sermon tomorrow, which is titled “Singing the Ballot Blues: What Should a Christian Think About Voting?” I’m browsing through some systematic theologies to read what they have to say about hope in the context of eschatology.

Hope in a better time. Hope in a better king. Hope in a better place. Hope in a better future. Hope in a restoration of all things. Hope in judgment, mercy and holiness.

Hope that there’s something better than this place, and the 2020 election.

I’m disappointed at what I find.

I generally find sawdust.

I find sterile treatises trying to plot the timeline of events in the last days. I see dry, scholastic discussions about eschatology. I see lots of dogma, but no heart. No soul. No excitement. I see academia at its worst, and no joy in the age to come.

Ironically, I find the most joy, the most hope, the most irrepressible, starry-eyed vision of Jesus Christ’s return in European theologians commonly considered “liberal” or otherwise “neo-orthodox” by many conservative evangelicals.

So, I shall quote Jurgen Moltmann for a taste of this joy and hope. I think you’ll enjoy it (The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997; Kindle ed.], KL 67-97):

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional.

We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s `final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

Isn’t this right? Aren’t Revelation, and Isaiah’s visions, and Micah’s prophesies about so much more than “the end?” Aren’t they, in fact, about a new and better and oh so glorious new beginning?

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic `final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ – after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

This has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve read. Revelation 22 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. I don’t know if Moltmann was deliberately channeling Winston Churchill here, but it works. And, he’s right.

That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer took leave of his fellow prisoner, Payne Best, in Flossenburg concentration camp, as he went to his execution: `This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’ That is how John on Patmos saw the Last judgment of the world – not as annihilation, a universal conflagration, or death in a cosmic winter. He saw it as the first day of the new creation of all things: `See, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).

If we perceive it in remembrance of the hope of Christ, what is called the end of history is also simply the end of temporal history and the beginning of the eternal history of life. Christ can only be called `the end of history’ in the sense that he is the pioneer and leader of the life that lives eternally. Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end.

Amen and amen. What a vision. What a taste of the future that’s so much better than the sawdust scholasticism that characterizes too many Reformed systematic theologies. We need more of this.

I will close with Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, as he discusses hope:

When God in Christ says to man: ‘I love you,’ He says to him: ‘I have loved you from eternity and will love you to eternity.’ A love that does not long to be boundless is not love at all. Every laying down of limits is a denial of love, the proof of its lack of seriousness.

The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philidelphia: Westminster, 1960), 344.

Love is the object of our existence. It’s what God created us for – community based on love with Him and one another. This is why Brunner sees the Church as the brotherhood of faith. So, our hope is a total restoration of those relationships by perfect communion with God in eternity.

Brunner continues:

Hope is the certainty that this love lasts for ever and that it will not rest until is possesses us wholly. It does not possess us wholly so long as we are imprisoned in the ‘body of death’ and determined by the ‘form of this world.’ God’s glorifying of Himself which is identical with His self-communication in love only reaches its goal by dissolving this form of the world and transforming the world into the form of glory.

Ibid.

So, the Cross is the beginning of the end, just as Moltmann says. It’s where the Son accomplished the redemption of everything, even as we wait here for it to happen. “As an expectant mother carries within her the child that is to be born, and awaits with certainty the event of its birth, so faith carries the future within it. This future the believer expects wholly and solely from the coming of Jesus Christ,” (Ibid, p. 342).

So, Brunner writes, the Cross is where the world as God meant it to be becomes visible:

In the justification of the sinner the world that has become a stumbling-block to faith for the unbelieving man is also justified. In spite of all the cruelty and senselessness of the world, faith sees it as the creation transfigured in the fulfillment of the divine purpose, restored and approaching its consummation. the Cross as the eschatological turning point is the only theodicy possible and permitted for the Christian – the hope of the Consummation which the Creator and Redeemer God will Himself accomplish.

Ibid, p. 355.

This is the kind of hope we need. Not more end-times charts. Not more arguments about the minutiae, no matter how well-intentioned. We need some good, old-fashioned common ground to celebrate and rejoice about the hope all Christians have. This is theology with heart. With soul. With love.

Again, we could all do with some more of this.

Brotherly love and the church

Brotherly love and the church

I have been reading and writing on this topic for some time. I haven’t yet published any of it. But, I will share a few tidbits now.

Emil Brunner rightly notes the church catholic is not properly an external institution or organization at all, but “a brotherhood resulting from faith in Christ.”[1] The visible church is only the shell or instrument of this brotherhood.[2] So, when we think of “the church,” we shouldn’t think,

Well, in a church you have the pastors, the deacons, and Christians who join the church. And, the whole Church is the collection of these individual churches.

That’s a corporate view; you look at God’s community as one big organizational chart with branches and sub-boxes for different denominations. This isn’t necessarily incorrect if you squint a certain way, but it’s not good enough. The Church, as Brunner says, is a brotherhood of all who have faith in Christ. It’s a far-flung family knit together by a love for one another that reflects God’s love. The immediate family is the local church. The extended family is the larger Church. You know some relatives better than others, but you’re all related. This picture of a far-flung family is better than an organizational chart.

What’s the mark of a true church? Christians have written about this for a long time, including me. But, again, these reflections often assume an organizational structure for the church. So, you have answers like, “a true church has apostolic doctrine, is holy, is one, and is catholic (that is, universal).”

But, carrying on the image of the Church as a brotherhood or family knit together by shared faith in Jesus Christ, why don’t we think of brotherly love as a defining mark of the redeemed community (1 Jn 4:19-21)? When it is missing, God is most angry (Jer 9:4-9; 1 Jn 5:1). Our brotherly love should reflect the intra-trinitarian, perichoretic love of Father, Son and Spirit (1 Jn 4:8). It is that love that binds them as One.

So, in a true “church family,” this love pushes outward, impelling the congregation to reach out to the world in love to offer them reconciliation, love and peace. It’s this love that moves us to evangelize, and it’s this same love that shows us as genuine to the lost. As Brunner has written, “[a] man is laid hold of by the life of the fellowship, moved by the love he experiences there; he ‘grows into’ the brotherhood, and only gradually learns to know Jesus Christ as the Church’s one foundation.[3]

A church that fights is not attractive to outsiders, because it doesn’t reflect God’s love. Who wants to be a part of that? Nobody.

Brunner continues:

The one thing, the message of Christ, must have the other thing, love, as its commentary. Only then can it be understood and move people’s hearts. True, the decisive thing is the Word of witness to what God has done. But this Word of witness does not aim merely to teach, but also to move the heart.[4]

A family that hates is not a functioning family. Likewise, a congregation that does not love one another is a dead church. There are other good marks of a true church. But, brotherly love must certainly be one of them.


[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 128.

[2] Ibid, p. 129. 

[3] Ibid, p. 136. 

[4] Ibid.  

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is an invitation to pastors to examine their hearts, and it is excellent. It is what Richard Baxter wished he could he done, had he not been such a self-righteous bore. Tripp has a counseling ministry and travels regularly, seeing churches and leadership teams up close and personal nearly 40 weeks per year. Before he wrote this book, Tripp often taught these same themes at pre-conference events for pastors. He explains the genesis of this book:[1]

When I finished and came off the platform, a long line of concerned and broken pastors formed in front of me. About five pastors down the line stood a man who wept his way toward me. I think I could have set up a counseling office for two weeks, full-time, and still not have ministered to all the needs that stood before me. It was at this conference that I determined that I would speak to these issues and do all that I could to minister to my fellow pastors. This book is the result of that clear moment of calling.

Tripp’s book falls neatly into three sections; (1) pastoral culture generally, (2) forgetting who God is, and (3) forgetting who you are. He explains what he wants the book to achieve:[2]

This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart- and life-exposing mirror of the Word of God—to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Throughout, Tripp offers personal anecdotes of failure and doubt to emphasize that he is not standing above the fray, sniping at busy pastors. He has been there. He has seen it. He has experienced it. He has failed. This is why his message is effective. Tripp empathizes and encourages you to be better.

This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change. It is written to make you uncomfortable, to motivate you toward change.[3]

Indeed, Tripp’s work is essentially a modern-day The Reformed Pastor, only his work is actually helpful. Baxter, on the other hand, sneers at you, grinds your face into the mud with a polished jackboot, then screams at you about Christ (see my review of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor here).

This review will focus on two particularly great chapters from Tripp, and one problem that is perhaps not his fault, but still a bit jarring.

His third chapter, titled “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease,” is outstanding. Tripp discusses people he calls “theologeeks.” These are academic pastors who have little patience to deal with real people, and prefer to revel in scholasticism. “They love the academy and would unwittingly drag the academy into the local church and preach sermons that are more theological lectures than gospel meditations.”[4]

Tripp recounts what happened during one of his practical theology courses at Westminster Theological Seminary:[5]

I was recounting my own heart struggle, when I had been asked yet again to visit a man who had already eaten up much of my pastoral time and energy, when one of my students raised his hand and blurted out, “All right, Professor Tripp, we know that we will have these projects in our churches. Tell us what to do with them so we can get back to the work of the ministry!”

There are many things to pay attention to in his statement, but notice this: he didn’t even call the struggling people, to whom we are all called to bring the gospel, “people.” To him they were projects, that is, obstructions in the way of his definition of ministry. Now, if these people are not the focus and object of ministry, then what is ministry? There was no love for people in this student’s statement, and if there was no love for people in his vision of ministry, then it is safe to conclude that there was little operational love for Christ either. He was like many other idea, technology-of-theology guys who populated so many of my classes.

This is astonishing behavior. One wonders how a young man could ever ask such a question. One immediately wonders if this man is connected to local church ministry in any meaningful way. No person who is “in the trenches” could ever dismiss real people so flippantly as “projects” who detract from “real ministry.”

Tripp goes on to lament the “systemic”[6] problem he sees in seminary training, which is an icy intellectualism. “Have we accomplished our training task if we produce generations of graduates who have big theological brains but tragically diseased hearts? Must we not hold together theological training and personal transformation?”[7]

Seminary professors used to be experienced churchmen, Tripp writes, but increasingly they are now academic specialists who beget more people just like them. “So the energy in the classroom was not cloning a new generation of pastors but cloning experts in apologetics, ethics, systematics, church history, and biblical languages. It has been a subtle but seismic change in the culture of the seminary and the kind of results it produces.”[8]

I have seen this in myself. This is actually the thing I fear most about myself; an icy intellectualism that freezes out joy. I am naturally a nerdy person, and am currently reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics at bedtime for fun. I think of sermons I preached years ago, and shudder. I look at sermon notes from those days, and recoil in horror. They are running commentaries, not sermons.

I also fear I compensate too much by going in the opposite direction, by not going deep enough in my preaching. I had a recent conversation with another pastor. The man spoke with joy about the chiastic structure in a psalm he would preach for an upcoming mid-week service and how Hebrew wordplay reminded him of something from Exodus. I thought of the people in the congregation where I serve and thought, “People are in debt. People have bad marriages. People are tired. On Wednesday evenings, they don’t need to care about chiastic structure. They just need God’s word to help them get through the week.” Am I wrong? Have I become subtly anti-intellectual?  

In his 12th chapter, “Self-Glory,” Tripp asks us to think about whether we are subtly worshipping ourselves. He presents a hypothetical pastor and writes:[9]

He was convinced that most of the strategic things that needed to be done would be best done by him. Fewer and fewer people were commissioned to do ministry tasks. No, fellow leaders were more and more tasked with support duties because the larger ministry duties were all done by him.

This was particularly hard hitting, because I tend to be a perfectionist. Am I this way because I think I am better than anyone else? Tripp asks, “Where do you attempt to control things that you don’t need to control? Where do you find it hard to delegate ministry to others?”[10] This introspection of mine demonstrates just how well Tripp succeeded in penning a diagnostic book for pastors.

The one grouse I have with Tripp is that he ministers in larger and wealthier context than most pastors will ever see. He exists in the realm of the megachurch, or at least the very large church. This makes his attempts to “relate” strained and artificial at times. For example, Tripp rightly criticizes pastors for phoning in mediocre sermons, then writes:[11]

… I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks. This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.

This is a world the ordinary pastor will never experience. Tripp has apparently never had to preach or teach several times per week, help troubleshoot problems in the soundbooth, field questions about Zoom issues and work a day job … all at the same time. Tripp clearly has time on his hands, so his anecdote here is not helpful.

In another section, he introduces a hypothetical burned out pastor. Solemnly, Tripp writes “[t]he door to his office was shut more now than it had been, and he delegated more of his duties to his executive pastor.”[12]

An executive pastor? Any shepherd of a smaller, ordinary church will surely laugh out loud. Where can I find one of these “executive pastors” to whom I can delegate work!?

These quibbles aside, Tripp’s book is excellent. It fulfills its quest to be a diagnostic tool for busy pastors. It makes you think. It makes you examine your heart. It encourages. It is refreshing. Sadly, perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that James MacDonald, Joshua Harris, and Tullian Tchividjian are among the seven pastors who penned jacket endorsements. Each crashed, burned, and left his ministry since Tripp’s work was published.  


[1] Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 32. 

[2] Ibid, p. 11. 

[3] Ibid, pp. 11-12. 

[4] Ibid, p. 44. 

[5] Ibid.  

[6] Ibid, p. 46. 

[7] Ibid, p. 52. 

[8] Ibid, p. 53. 

[9] Ibid, p. 169. 

[10] Ibid, p. 170. 

[11] Ibid, p. 149. Emphasis mine.

[12] Ibid, p. 125. 

An example of cultic fundamentalism

An example of cultic fundamentalism

I want to share some very hurtful correspondence I received the other day from a man I thought was a friend. I have not seen he or his wife for some time. We used to be stationed together when I was on active-duty in the Navy. We were both members of an independent, fundamentalist Baptist (“IFB”) church that believed the Word of God was preserved in the 1611 King James Bible. I have moved far, far away from that. This man has not.

The IFB movement is only one flavor in the broader Christian fundamentalist camp. It’s likely the most cultic, most extreme, most legalistic flavor. Not all IFB churches are like this, but many are. I was a member of two fine IFB churches with loving pastors.

Today, Christian fundamentalism is a dying, insular movement that’s characterized by a quest for personal and church holiness. By a desire for separation from those who “compromise” in their doctrine or associations. This is its consuming passion. At the hands of its worst people, it can live up Edward Carnell’s description of “orthodoxy gone cultic.” Christian fundamentalism, in its original and proper form, is alive and well in conservative evangelicalism. I wrote about this here.

Now, back to my former friend. Here’s what happened. I posted this excerpt from a sermon on Facebook:

Here is the full sermon. Ironically, it’s about brotherly love, from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

My friend responded thus:

Tyler, I tried to listen to your preaching and it was painful, I’m telling you this because it hurts to see someone who was grounded in the word, be now so wrong, deviating from the teachings of the Bible, confusing an entire congregation with fables and lack of understanding.

I would highly recommend you to attend Bible institute at a truly fundamental Baptist Church. Do not allow your pride to get the best of you. One of the requirements for the office of the pastor is not to be a novice, and right now that is exactly what you are. I am not trying to offend you, but I would highly recommend you to consider what I have told you, not because of me, but because it may just be that God is trying to reach you through this text, pray about it and do what’s right.

In the end you will reap what you sow.

I am at a loss to understand what he found objectionable from the sermon excerpt, which is what incurred his wrath. Consider what he says:

  1. It is apparently a fable to explain and apply Paul’s admonition that love “does not envy.”
  2. My explanation was “painful.”
  3. I am “deviating from the teachings of the Bible.”
  4. I am “confusing an entire congregation.”
  5. I should get theological training at “a truly fundamental Baptist Church.” This is necessary because, you see, in cultic fundamentalism you may not be a Christian unless you are in their orbit.
  6. The man cautions me to “not allow your pride to get the best of you.”
  7. He calls me a “novice,” which is a citation from 1 Tim 3:6 (KJV, of course). This means he feels I am unqualified to be a pastor because I do not know enough.
  8. He assures me that he is not trying to offend me. I think he sincerely believes this. According to his cult, I am in grave danger of “falling away” from the truth of the IFB way, and must be rescued. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
  9. He suggests he is God’s agent, trying to reach me.
  10. He warns me “[i]n the end you will reap what you sow,” which means God will punish me if I do not heed his advice.

I did not respond to the man. I blocked him on Facebook. He was one of the last of my old IFB, King James Only friends from those old days. Now, he is gone.

My point is that here, in all its glory, is the combative spirit, the cultic mentality, the superior air. Here, in short, is everything Carnell warned about so long ago. Here is “orthodoxy gone cultic.” This is why I do not identify as a fundamentalist, and why I never will again. I have one graduate degree from a balanced fundamentalist seminary, and am a doctoral student at still another. Yet, I left behind all the baggage from the worst excesses of this movement long ago. But, one last time, it all reached out to give me one last slap.

It was a fitting coda to a closed chapter in my life!

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Richard Baxter’s work The Reformed Pastor was first published in 1656 and is commonly considered a classic. Many seminaries recommend the book, and most pastors with graduate training are aware of it. J.I. Packer penned the introduction for the Banner of Truth edition, and after studying the work one can appreciate why Packer was forced to acknowledge the following:[1]

… Baxter was a poor performer in public life. Though always respected for his godliness and pastoral prowess, and always seeking doctrinal and ecclesiastical peace, his combative, judgmental, pedagogic way of proceeding with his peers made failure a foregone conclusion every time … his lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot.

Packer called it like a fortune-teller. Some guys know how to encourage pastors. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he was there to help.

Baxter’s text was to be delivered at a pastor’s meeting in December 1655, but he was “disabled from going thither” and fashioned his remarks into what became The Reformed Pastor.[2]His aim was to encourage pastors to be more diligent by exposing “the sins of the ministry.” Baxter, anticipating angry howls from his peers, launched a defensive salvo by proclaiming “plain dealers will always be approved in the end; and the time is at hand when you will confess that they were your best friends.”[3] It is fair to assume Baxter did not have many Facebook friends.

Baxter’s burden was to demonstrate that pastors were generally lazy and undiligent and must become diligent. In short, he wished to consider how to stir pastors up to good works. He explained the book’s outline:[4]

I wish to propose the following method:

First, To consider what it is to take heed to ourselves. Secondly, To show why we must take heed to ourselves. Thirdly, To inquire what it is to take heed to all the flock. Fourthly, To illustrate the manner in which we must take heed to all the flock. Fifthly, To state some motives why we should take heed to all the flock. Lastly, To make some application of the whole.

This list is deceptive, however, because this “application of the whole” takes up approximately 50% of the text (pp. 133-256) and is quite tedious. Like a pastor who re-preaches his sermon during the conclusion, Baxter circles the airport like a wounded 747 and never quite “lands” his plane.

Baxter says much that is good. Unfortunately, he lacked a good editor. The book is perhaps 50% too long. Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They are very helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, one begins to really dislike Baxter.

He explains Pastors must guard their own hearts:[5]

If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God – if you will not make this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers …

Baxter shows prophetic powers when he rails against hypocrisy. “What a difference was there between their pulpit speeches and their familiar discourse? They that were most impatient of barbarisms, solecisms, and paralogisms in a sermon, could easily tolerate them in their life and conversation.”[6] He could be referring to social media!

Pastors must look after every member of the flock, even if means downsizing or securing assistance and taking a pay cut. “If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and child cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less?”[7]

He warns:

We must carry on our work with patience. We must bear from many abuses and injuries from those to whom we seek to do good. When we have studied for them, and prayed for them, and exhorted them, and beseeched them with all earnestness and condescension, and given them what we are able, and tended them as if they had been our children, we must look that many of them will requite is with scorn and hatred and contempt, and account us their enemies, because we ‘tell them the truth.’

In all, the first half of Baxter’s book is ponderous but helpful. It convicts. It exhorts. It helps. Here, in this paraphrase of Baxter’s outline for “motives to the oversight of the flock,” we see a representative sample of this qualified praise:[8]

  1. Pastors are overseers of the flock
    • You must therefore take heed to the flock
    • You agreed to be a pastor, so suck it up and do your job[9]
    • You have the great honor to be an ambassador for the gospel, so go do it
    • Do not take the blessings of your pastoral position for granted
    • Be found faithful
  2. The Holy Spirit made you a pastor, so “take heed to it”
  3. How could you be unfaithful to the Church of God?
  4. Christ purchased the Church with His blood, so “shall we despise the blood of Christ?”

This cycle of (1) assertion of sin, then (2) exhortation to be faithful repeats over and over. But, by the time Baxter turns to “make some application of the whole,” the book is only halfway over. What new information does Baxter impart?

His focus is on catechizing. “I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto.”[10] However, this emphasis is of little use to Baptist pastors who believe the New Covenant is only for regenerate believers.[11] At once, the object of his exhortations have been rendered moot for Baptist ministers, who are forced to make general application only.

Baxter begins the application section by spending 39 pages trying to convince pastors to repent of their sloth.[12] “What pains do we take to humble them, while we ourselves are unhumbled!”[13] In short, he beats a dying horse with gusto and drove this pastor to personal despair.

One is tempted to shout at the book, “Yes, I admit I’m not the best pastor ever! Leave me alone, Saint Baxter!” It is doubtful a sentient being has yet lived who would not melt under Baxter’s steely Puritan gaze. Again, a paraphrased outline makes the point:

  1. We have great pride (9 pages)
  2. We are lazy (4 pages):
    • “If we were duly devoted to our work, we should not be so negligent in our studies.”[14]
    • “If were heartily devoted to our work, it would be done more vigorously, and more seriously, than it is by most of us.”[15]
    • “If we are heartily devoted to the work of God, why do we not compassionate the poor unprovided congregations around us, and take care to help them find able ministers …?”[16]
  3. We are too worldly (6 pages):
    • We wed ourselves to whatever political party happens to be in power.
    • We do not speak the truth because it will harm our interests.
    • We hoard our money and are not charitable.
  4. We are sectarian (12 pages).
  5. We do not exercise church discipline (4 pages).

If this were not enough, after a brief discussion of how to catechize,[17] Baxter circles the airport once again in his 747 with 17 pages of “motives from the necessity of this work” and “applications” thereof, in which he largely repeats himself. These pages are filled with exhortations that have grown annoying (and worse) by their incessant repetition:

And if you pity them, will you not do this much for their salvation?[18]

Oh what a dreadful thing it is to answer for the neglect of such a charge! and what sin more heinous than the betraying of souls?[19]

What cause have we to bleed before the Lord this day, that we have neglected so great and good a work for so long …?[20]

And now, brethren, what have we to do for the time to come, but to deny our lazy flesh, and rouse up ourselves to the work before us.[21]

After continuing in this vein, Baxter summons a crescendo of 15 itemized “condemnation[s] that is like to befall negligent pastors.”[22] Baxter assures us that (among other things) our parents will condemn us, our training will condemn us, “all that Christ hath done and suffered for” will condemn us, all Scripture “will rise up and condemn us,” and all our sermons will condemn us.

Baxter is clearly a man with a burden. Unfortunately, his burden for catechizing is not applicable for Baptist ministers. Because he held to Presbyterian polity and came from a “State church” context, Baxter assumed the members of his “parish” were New Covenant members because they had been baptized. Baptists believe only believers are New Covenant members. Where Baxter wanted to catechize, Baptists would evangelize.

Also, his attempts at exhortation degenerate into guilt trips from overuse, and his entire work has a superior, snobby sort of air to it. It cannot be described. It must be experienced. To this bi-vocational pastor, it largely increased feelings of inadequacy that were already present. I will not read it again and would never recommend it. As the learned archeologist Dr. Henry Jones often remarked in a different context, “it belongs in a museum.”


[1] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2012), 10-11.  

[2] Ibid, 38.  

[3] Ibid, 39.  

[4] Ibid, 52.  

[5] Ibid, 62.  

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Ibid, 91-92.  

[8] Ibid, 124-132.  

[9] “Consider that it is by your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church. And doth not common honesty bind you to be true to your trust?” (Ibid, 127).  

[10] Ibid, 172.  

[11] Some dispensationalists believe the New Covenant has no application to the Church. I will not engage that position, here.

[12] Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 133-172.  

[13] Ibid, 133.  

[14] Ibid, 146.  

[15] Ibid, 147.  

[16] Ibid, 150.  

[17] Ibid, 172-194.  

[18] Ibid, 198.  

[19] Ibid, 199.  

[20] Ibid, 200.  

[21] Ibid, 202.  

[22] Ibid, 205-211.  

Pilgrims in an unholy land

Pilgrims in an unholy land

In its October 2020 issue, WORLD Magazine (a conservative Christian publication) has two interviews about the upcoming Presidential election. WORLD’s editor, Marvin Olasky, interviewed both Wayne Grudem and David French. They’re polar opposites, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.

Here, in those few pages of interviews, you have the ethical divide that splits conservative Christians. I suppose this is all really about the Church and the Christian’s responsibilities towards society. Basically, what you think about the Kingdom of God matters. I recommend the following resources for those who are interested in the Church, the Christian, and social engagement. Read in order, according to the amount of time you have available to invest:

  1. Michael Svigel’s wonderful article, “The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism.
  2. J.I. Packer’s article, “The Bible’s Guide for Christian Activism.”
  3. Charles Ryrie’s little book The Christian and Social Responsibility.
  4. Scott Aniol’s article, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship: Toward a Traditional Dispensational Philosophy of the Church and Cultural Engagement.

But, back to the point. The divide is real. So real that French and Grudem seem to inhabit different planets.

Wayne Grudem

To many evangelicals, Grudem needs little introduction. He’s the author of the best-selling text Systematic Theology. Here’s his bio the seminary where he teaches:

Dr. Grudem became Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in 2001 after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He was named Distinguished Research Professor in 2018. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008).

Grudem is a well-known supporter of President Trump. Several years ago, Christian historian John Fea coined the phrase “court evangelical” to describe conservative Christians who seem to desperately yearn for access to the President, like so many little children lusting after candies:

The politics of fear inevitably results in a quest for power. Political influence, many evangelicals believe, is the only way to restore the nation to the moral character of its founding. How much time and money has been spent seeking political power when such resources might have been invested more effectively in pursuing a course of faithful presence!

Clergymen and religious leaders have, at least since Billy Graham, regularly visited the White House to advise the president. Like the members of the kings’ courts during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who sought influence and worldly approval by flattering the monarch rather than prophetically speaking truth to power, Trump’s court evangelicals boast about their “unprecedented access” to the White House and exalt the president for his faith-friendly policies.

John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 12.

By some people’s reckoning (like Fea’s), Grudem is a court evangelical. In his interview, he sounds less like the respected Christian theologian he is, and more like a GOP policy wonk from Fox News. Here are some excerpts:

The political left certainly has a lot to answer for, but what about the responsibility of Christian leaders? When Barack Obama made untruthful claims, he received a lot of criticism; but have we seen similar criticism regarding President Trump? I’ve publicly criticized his previous marital infidelity and his vindictiveness at times, and his brash, confrontational behavior at times. I looked at The Washington Post’s list of what it calls 16,000-some “lies” Trump has spoken and examined 20 or 30 of them. They’re what I’d call conclusions drawn by a hostile interpreter of words that a sympathetic listener would understand in a positive way. President Trump is often not careful in some of the things he says. He is given to exaggeration. Sometimes he’s made a statement after being given inaccurate information. I’m not sure he’s ever intentionally affirmed something he knows to be false, which is how I define a lie. As you know, I have written an ethics textbook. I believe it’s never right to affirm X when you believe X is false. If someone wants to point out to me some actual Trump lies that fit that definition, I’d be happy to look at them. 

Will America in 2024 be in better or worse shape if Biden is elected, or if Trump is reelected? The Trump presidency has resulted in a stronger economy, stronger national defense, positive steps toward achieving border security, standing up to China and Russia, negotiating new trade agreements, advocating educational freedom, standing with Israel, strengthening our military, and reforming our judicial system. Those are all what seem to me to be evidence of God’s blessing on the nation with President Trump. If he wins again, I expect there will be more blessing on our nation. If Biden is elected, he’ll support abortion, cripple the economy, weaken our military, largely abandon Israel, select more judges who legislate from the bench, weaken religious freedom. We’ll have more crime, a complete federal takeover of our healthcare system, and much more that looks like the withdrawal of God’s blessing.

Perhaps the strangest thing Grudem suggested (underlined, above) was that President Trump has never lied in his life. That is … an odd thing to say!

David French

French is a well-known Christian commentator:

David French is senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative website, and a member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. He served in the Iraq War, was a senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and was a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019.

However, if Grudem seems to be speaking more like a GOP strategist than a Christian theologian, David French seems to have no goal other than to not vote for President Trump. His basic point is the Church has consistently failed to change public policy on critical issues by supporting GOP Presidents, and it will fail here, too:

Has he helped or hurt regarding our racial division? The extraordinary racial division in the United States is not just dealt with by policy. That is dealt with through character, personality, leadership, and charisma. The core of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ critique is that Trump by pattern and practice intentionally tries to divide the United States of America. I think that critique is right. A president of good character doesn’t try intentionally to divide the United States of America. All of this stuff is super basic. You ask Christians about this in 2015, and they say, “Of course.” But Christians have joined with Trump and look for a rationalization.

French continues in the same vein, but in response to a different question:

Does this president’s control over policy trump his own incompetence and poor character? The plight of the country now says that’s not just wrong, but laughably and tragically wrong. There is nothing MAGA about where we are now. There is an enormous amount of heartbreak, misery, death, division. That Donald Trump had a better platform than Hillary Clinton did not spare us from any of that. His character made it all worse.

Then this:

So you want a narrow Democratic win? No, I want a decisive loss for Trump, because if the loss is very narrow you’re going to have extraordinarily divisive forces in the U.S. calling into question the legitimacy of the election. A decisive win is the only way Americans are going to have confidence in the legitimacy of the election, sad to say. The margin will matter a lot. My hope is that a resounding rejection of Donald Trump doesn’t carry with it a resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That’s what I’m pessimistic about. I suspect the resounding rejection of Trump will also lead to resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That outcome is not best for the country.

Read both Wayne Grudem and David French’s interviews. It’s likely you have friends and family who exactly mirror both Grudem and French. The men inhabit different worlds. You can’t be more apart on issues. Yet, they’re both conservative Christians.

What to do in November?

I know that the Kingdom of God isn’t here, yet. It’s coming, though. The Church’s mission is to preach the Gospel, equip God’s people for faithful life and death in His service, and reach out so more people will join the family of God. The Kingdom won’t come until Christ rolls up this ruined world, throws it into the trash, and makes a new and better place for His chosen people. Then, we’ll have justice and righteousness.

Until then, Christians must speak and vote for policies that are closest to God’s. In other words, Christians must go in for kingdom values now, while we wait for that kingdom to come. Read Michael Svigel’s article.