Christ, Culture, and the Church

Christ, Culture, and the Church

This world is a mess. A few decades ago, Carl F.H. Henry wrote: “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.”[1] In the absence of a Biblical world-explanation, Henry argued, “[t]he search for an alternative model is beset with confusion, and Western society drifts indecisively toward chaos. Secular scholars seem unable to tell us where we are.”[2]

This is surely correct, even if (32 years hence) it prompts an eye roll and a muttered, “yeah, no kidding!” from the reader. My burden is to suggest what local churches ought to think about this situation—what we ought to do about it, what our posture towards this world ought to be.

First, I’ll define “culture” so we begin on the same page. Second, I’ll sketch[3] three helpful paradigms. The first is from the 1950s, the second from 1994, and the third from 2006. Each tries to answer this same question, in its own context. Each is inspired by the first. Finally, I’ll sketch out my own approach and confess with which paradigm my sympathies lie.

What is Culture?

The term “culture” means the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and way of life for a particular nation or people.[4] H. Richard Niebuhr suggests “culture” is a synonym for “civilization” or what biblical writers called “the world.”[5] In turn, the definition of “civilization” brings us back round to where we began: “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.”[6]

Niebuhr—Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book began life as a series of lectures in which he sought to consider the “double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis …”[7] Niebuhr’s writing sparkles with an academic vibe. He doesn’t write as a churchman confronting urgent problems, but as a scholar reclining in his armchair, puffing on his pipe, staring into an ethereal distance. There’s nothing wrong with academics, of course—I only mean that his discussion is dispassionate and abstract.

He lays out a five-fold taxonomy of how the church ought to relate to culture:

  1. Christ against culture. The church is always in opposition. There is a war footing. Christ is opposed to this world, its culture, and He calls us to come out from the world and be separate.[8]
  2. Christ of culture. He guides civilization to its utopian goal of brotherhood and value. Christ “confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal.”[9] There is no antagonism.
  3. Christ above culture. Only thru salvation will Christ lead us to utopia.[10]
  4. Christ andculture in paradox. We must obey both authorities in this life while we endure and wait for Jesus. There is duality and tension here that is admittedly a bit schizophrenic—many people are likely here.[11]
  5. Christ transforms culture. This is a conversionist position. Jesus is a leaven that works on society from inside out, spearheading the Gospel all about.[12] There is a positive view of culture—”a sort of Jesus will fix it now” feel.[13]  

Bloesch—Responding to Reality

Donald Bloesch was a longtime professor of systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa. In the inaugural tome of his seven-volume systematic, he described four possible responses to modernity.[14] His approach is practical, more “real,” and less theoretical than Niebuhr’s. He is less discussing a theory of Christ v. culture, and more describing how Christians choose to respond to the world as it is.

Here is Boesch’s typology, with some free paraphrasing from me. Not each response will contain all the traits, but the “feel” will be familiar:

  1. Restoration. There is a more insular focus on “rebuilding the walls” of the church. A “clear and hold” the line against the world ethos. A Christian counterculture mindset may produce a ghettoized outlook. There is impatience with dialogue with “the enemy.” Apologetics is largely defensive, to assure insiders they have “the truth.” There may be a scholastic fidelity to creeds, and a sectarian emphasis on the purity of a particular church. Empirical rationalism or fideism may be present.[15]
  2. Accommodation. We must update and revise the faith to reach people. We ought to forge a theology that can gain support from and connect with culture. This is essentially Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture.” Bloesch notes “the Christ it upholds is drawn from and shaped by the cultural ethos more than by the biblical revelation.”[16] This is traditional liberal theology. I would put Schleiermacher here, and perhaps some of Rauschenbusch and radical feminist theology like that of Rosemary Reuther, which locates authority in experience.[17]
  3. Correlation: This is a mediating, “Christ above culture” approach. Apologetics prepares the way for theology, and Christ will eventually reconcile culture with Himself. “[I]nstead of categorically repudiating worldly wisdom, they endeavor to assimilate it in a Christian world view or faith perspective.”[18]
  4. Confrontation. This is Bloesch’s position. It focuses on the antithesis between faith and culture. Its goal is conversion to the kingdom of God. The Gospel confronts and calls us to defect to God. It’s more about proclamation than apologetics—a “Christ transforming culture”-ish approach. The kingdom is leaven in the world, changing it from within. It is “not an apologetic that leaves the fortress of faith to engage in struggle with the world on its own terrain but an apologetic that finds its security precisely in the fortress of faith and calls the world to unconditional surrender by acknowledging the authority of the fortress of faith over its own domain.”[19]

Keller—All/And

Tim Keller re-shaped Neibuhr’s categories, helpfully critiqued each, and didn’t settle on either model.[20] Each of us, he suggested, is likely attracted to aspects of different models based on our gifts. We ought to treat these models and their attributes like a buffet—picking and choosing strategies based on our cultural moments and context.[21]

Here is Keller’s taxonomy:

  1. Transformationalist. We engage culture through an emphasis on pursuing our own vocations from a Christian worldview.[22]
  2. Relevance. “The animating idea behind the Relevance model is that God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his kingdom.”[23] This is Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” and “Christ above culture.”
  3. Countercultural. The church is a, well … countercultural alternative society opposed to the world.
  4. Two kingdoms. “God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which people operate by natural revelation and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation.[24]
Keller, Center Church, p. 231.

My approach—Bloesch-ish

There is a reason why I defined “culture” at the outset. I’m skeptical that the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviors, and ways of life for particular nations or peoples in Creation 1.0 will survive the jump to Creation 2.0. So, I don’t believe the church is called to “influence culture,” because this culture is scheduled to go up in flames. This doesn’t mean local churches must be isolationist. I don’t believe congregations exist to “influence culture,” but to push God’s counterculture into the public square as the ordained alternative. Supporting inner-city Gospel missions, crisis pregnancy centers, local schools (etc.) are not ends in and of themselves—they’re vehicles to show and tell God’s values and His Gospel to outsiders.

So, I’m largely unmoved by Keller’s framing (see his horizontal bar across the middle of the graphic), because “influencing culture” is not a goal. Getting people to defect from pagan culture and to God’s community is the goal. Churches must use innovative means to achieve that, motivated by love, compassion, and justice.

So, my framing is less “how do we influence culture” and more “how should we respond to culture.” Thus, I believe Bloesch’s discussion was more helpful. I have freely adapted and condensed his taxonomy and contextualized it for 2022. How should local churches respond to the disaster that is American culture? There are at least three different, contradictory ways Christians choose to answer that question:[25]

  1. The Alamo (defense). Fortify the walls, stock ammo, hunker down, and wait for Jesus. This is a defensive ethos—it’s about protecting the church. Even apologetics is less about engaging the enemy than about protecting Christians from being seduced by the Dark Side—like poor Kylo Ren. The mantra is to keep things pure and strong while we hold off “the enemy.” Despite protestations, it’s often less about evangelism and the Great Commission, and more about protecting church from danger. There is a pervasive “things ain’t like they used to be, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” vibe at work.
  • Play-Dough. Accommodation to cultural tastes, with rationalizations. God is not a gendered being, feminine pronouns for Her are fine, Jesus has no sexual ethics, do what makes you feel good, faith is about feeling, not doctrine, “you do you.”  
  • Confrontation (offense). This perspective is less about “protecting the church,” and more about winsomely confronting the world employing various innovative means, and calling people to defect from Satan to Jesus.

It might be helpful to picture these three ways in simple pictures:

  1. The Alamo. Fade in on a castle with its doors barred, its drawbridge raised, its moat filled with hungry crocodiles, snipers on the parapets,[26] people sheltering inside, archers deploying, knights with swords at the ready, anxious to charge if the door is breached. The villages round about are the enemy—and they want to destroy your kids.
  2. Play-Dough. Focus in on the same castle. The folks are burning it down. They sift through the rubble and donate the stones to local nationals to build a shrine to a Veggie Goddess—who is really just Jesus by another name, anyway.   
  3. Confrontation. The castle is the church’s stronghold in an unholy land—an embassy to represent Christ to folks who want to know more, and at the same time a forward operating base to push His message into the world aggressively, forcefully … and engagingly. It wants local nationals to join the castle community.

Your view of “church v. culture” will shape your posture towards the world:

  1. Alamo: Focus on holiness for defensive purposes, so you’re not seduced by the Dark Side (like Vader). Emphasis on bible reading, bible interpretation, defending the faith. A relentless, perhaps even unwitting “insider” focus—resources emphasize being educated about “dangers” facing the church, protecting your children, etc.
  2. Confrontation. Pushing the message and implications of the Gospel outside the church’s walls—spiritual combat with a winning smile.

I fear many of us are tempted to adopt the Alamo ethos. There is a time and place for defense. But, we mustn’t forget offense—and we certainly can’t confuse belligerent defensiveness with that winning offense. For example, June is Pride Month:

  1. Alamo. We preach defensive sermons from Leviticus 18 and tell our congregation that “homosexuality is bad,” and distribute free books to the congregation explaining why transgenderism isn’t Scriptural.
  2. Confrontation. We record several short videos telling a better story than the “sex as identity” message so many people believe, then spend several hundred dollars advertising these videos on social media platforms in our local community, and invite comment and discussion.

I believe churches ought to err on the side of Confrontation, which is really just evangelism. It’s easy to stick with the Alamo ethos. I think we must do more.


[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15.  

[2] Ibid, p. 16.  

[3] I cannot hope to do more than briefly sketch these approaches—consult the referenced works for more detail and do not assume my abbreviated discussion here captures all the nuance of each author’s position!

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “culture,” noun, 7a. March 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45746?rskey=Ztxhta&result=1&isAdvanced=false  

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), p. 32.  

[6] New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “civilization,” 3, p. 317.  

[7] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. xi.  

[8] Ibid, pp. 40-41. “That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter; it is characterized by the prevalence in it of lies, hatred, and murder; it is the heir of Cain. It is a secular society, dominated by the ‘lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,’ or, in Prof. Dodd’s translation of these phrases, it is ‘pagan society, with its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism.’ It is a culture that is concerned with temporal and passing values, whereas Christ has words of eternal life; it is a dying as well as a murderous order, for ‘the world passes away and the lust of it.’ It is dying, however, not only because it is concerned with temporal goods And contains the inner contradictions of hatred and lie, but also because Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil and because faith in him is the victory which overcomes the world. Hence the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord,” (Ibid, p. 48).

[9] Ibid, p. 41.  

[10] “… true culture is not possible unless beyond all human achievement, all human search for values, all human society, Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 42).

“These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress,” (Ibid, p. 83).

[11] “Hence man is seen as subject to two moralities, and as a citizen of two worlds that are not only discontinuous with each other but largely opposed. In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[12] “Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men from self and idols to God save in society,” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43).

[13] “Hence the conversionist is less concerned with conservation of what has been given in creation, less with preparation for what will be given in a final redemption, than with the divine possibility of a present renewal,” (Ibid, p. 195).

[14] Boesch, Theology of Word & Spirit, pp. 252-272. 

[15] “A sectarian theology will do battle for the sake of the church or the elect, the gathered fellowship of true believers, not for the sake of the world for whom Christ died,” (Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 268). 

[16] Ibid, p. 257.  

[17] “If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning,” (Rosemary Reuther, Sexism and God-talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 12-13).

[18] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 262.  

[19] Bloesch, Word & Spirit, p. 271.

[20] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 194-243.

[21] Ibid, p. 240.

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 202.  

[24] Ibid, p. 209.  

[25] This is adapted from Donald Bloesch’s discussion in A Theology of Word & Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), pp. 252-272. 

[26] I’m aware modern snipers didn’t exist in medieval times, but just go with it …

A kingdom without borders

A kingdom without borders

This Sunday, I preached on Epiphany, which is when the Church around the world celebrates the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, often in the person of the magi who came from the East to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem. This precious event shows us that God’s kingdom is one without borders, where anyone who thirsts for righteousness can enter in.

Here, I’ll provide the sermon, along with the introduction and concluding exhortation.

Same song, different day

Picture three scenes. They have very different contexts, but they each have something in common. Try to figure out what that is:

Scene 1: A.D. 57:[1] Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner courtyard (Acts 21:27-36)—this “crime” doesn’t exist in the Old Covenant!

Scene 2: A resolution from the Clarendon Baptist Church, in Alcolu, SC, in October 1957, in the wake of cultural backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision:[2]

We believe that integration is contrary to God’s purposes for the races, because: (1) God made men different races and ordained the basic differences between races; (2) Race has a purpose in the Divine plan, each race having a unique purpose and distinctive mission in God’s plan; (3) God meant for people of different races to maintain their race purity and racial indentity [sic] and seek the highest development of their racial group. God has determined “the bounds of their habitation

Scene 3: Post 9/11 America. Conservative evangelical Christians ramped up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.[3] You hear repeated statements about how Islam is bloodthirsty, a religion of hate. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile.” A church member gave me a book that argued that the antichrist will be a Muslim. There arose a cottage industry of evangelical charlatans who claimed they were former terrorists who knew “the truth” about Islam. I heard a missionary’s wife refer angrily to Muslims as “bastards of Islam.

What do these three scenes have in common?

The urge to exclude people “not like us” (whatever that “us” might be, it doesn’t matter what) from God’s kingdom—implicitly or explicitly:

  • Scene 1. There is no biblical warrant for a physical barrier between Court of Gentiles and the temple proper.
  • Scene 2. No biblical warrant for segregation in God’s family based on race.[4]
  • Scene 3. The implicit (and often explicit) message was, “Muslims are dangerous, Muslims will kill you, and President Obama is likely a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law.”

What does God say about this urge, this tendency of ours, that’s common to every culture? Who can join God’s kingdom?

Our passage today, from Matthew 2:1-12, tells us all about that. We’ll tackle it in two movements–(1) the foreigners arrive in Jerusalem, and (2) the foreigners arrive in Bethlehem.

Greek translation nerdiness

I translated two portions of the passage. I put that info here, just because I can’t think of another place they ought to go. If you know Koine Greek, and you’re interested in my translation and my syntax notes, then read on. Otherwise, skip this section.

Matthew 2:1-2 translation

Now, after[5] this Jesus[6] was born in Judean[7] Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King—listen to this, now![8]astrological scholars [9] from the East arrived in Jerusalem. They were asking everyone, [10] “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?[11] We[12] saw his star from[13] the East and we’ve come to worship him!”[14]

Matthew 2:9-11 translation

Now, after they heard from the king, they went out—and look![15]the star they’d seen in the East led them onward, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When[16] they saw the star, they rejoiced with an unspeakable joy.[17] They went[18] into the house and saw the child with Mary,  his mother, and they fell on their knees[19] and worshiped[20] the boy. Then, they opened up their strongboxes and presented the child with gifts[21]—gold, worship incense,[22] and fragrant ointment.

Exhortation

Why did God bring these Eastern scholars to Bethlehem, that night?[23] Because the angels made the same announcement to them, that they made to the shepherds up to two years before, at the same time—it just took them nearly two years to get there!

Contrast that with what passed for the “Jewish nation,” at the seat of power in Jerusalem:

  • a dying, homicidal king—with delusions of grandeur!—who hatches a plan to kill the Messiah
  • scribes who are the worst example of civil servants = they can tell the scholars how to find the Messiah, but can’t be bothered to worship Him themselves![24]

Why did nobody else follow that star that dark night outside Jerusalem, to see what it meant? It’s possible these scholars from the East will rise up in judgment with the Queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh (Mt 12:41-42)—because they believed when they had so little revelation. But the folks who ought to have known best … didn’t believe a word of it, or were too occupied with their lives to care

What is God teaching us?

  • That His kingdom has never had nationalist borders—it’s always been open to anyone who worships and obeys Christ. 
  • That sometimes the people who “know God” don’t Him at all.

What does God want us to do with what He’s saying—how can this make us more like Christ?

  • The church must accept anyone … if they come to worship and obey Christ. The shape of truth application depends on context. In Jesus’ cultural context, it meant non-Jews could actually be part of God’s family.
  • In a 2022 American context, it could mean many things. Think of a type of person (a cultural “other,” a true believer) with whom you’d be “uncomfortable” worshiping God on a Sunday morning, and then resolve to shove your discomfort aside.
  • Gentiles in Israel, black Christians in white churches, Muslims in American churches—who will be the next?

Epiphany teaches us that the only borders around God’s kingdom should be:

  • do I believe Christ is Lord and King?
  • have I bowed before Him in worship?   

And now, here is the sermon:


[1] My date here is from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 475.

[2] Quoted in J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Support White Supremacy (New York: Oxford, 2021), p. 45.

[3] See Laurie Goldstein, “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts,” in New York Times. 27 May 2003. https://nyti.ms/3HO1M0A. “Evangelicals have always believed that all other religions are wrong, but what is notable now is the vituperation.” See also FBFI Resolution 02.02 “Concerning Islam.”

[4] On the sociological role of this issue as early as the antebellum era, Mark Noll has written: “It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, anti-traditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, that proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources,” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 34).

[5] The participle γεννηθέντος is temporal.

[6] The article with Jesus in Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ anaphoric. John Broadus notes, “Literally, the Jesus, the one just mentioned; ‘this Jesus’ would be too strong a rendering, but it may help to show the close connection,” (Gospel of Matthew, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 15).

[7] A subjective genitive. There is more than one Bethlehem in the ancient world; e.g. Bethlehem of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). This “Judean Bethlehem” simply clarifies where Jesus was born.

[8] The particle ἰδοὺ is meant to draw attention to what follows. It’s a deliberate interjection to arrest the reader’s attention (BDAG, p. 468). Most EVV don’t translate it, which I think is a mistake. It might not make for smooth literature per se, but it’s what Matthew wrote, and we need to do something to catch the reader’s ear, in the same way.

[9] The terms “wise men” and “magi” communicate nothing. The term has its origins in the court magicians of the East (e.g. in the Babylon of Daniel’s era) who were experts in astrology, interpretations of dreams and visions, and other occult arts (BDAG, p. 608, 1). Later, into the NT era, the term broadened and referred to refer to a wide variety of men interested in dreams, magic, books, astrology, etc. (Carson, Matthew, p. 85).

It’s this last sense that fits best, here. “Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages,” (Mark Krause, “Wise Men, Magi,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016). The term could also refer to actual sorcerers or occultists, like the pre-conversion Simon (Acts 8) or the unfortunate Elymas (Acts 13). That is not likely, here.

So, I went with astrological scholars, because of the influence of the star. I could shorten it to “astrologers,” but that makes them sound a bit like New Age kooks.

[10] The participle λέγοντες is present-tense, and the context suggests they were asking repeatedly. Herod only “heard this,” they didn’t ask him directly. Herod sought them out. He could only have heard about their quest if they’d been asking many people, repeatedly. So, I translated this with an iterative flavor. It is attendant circumstance, contra. Quralles (EGGNT, Mt 2:1), whose preference for a purpose participle here would lead to an over-translated mess.

[11] A more literal rendering would be: “where is the one who was born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The participle is the subject (Christ), and “king” is a predicate nominative, denoting an attribute the infant had from birth.  

[12] I dropped the explanatory γὰρ completely. 

[13] The preposition is spatial. 

[14] On “worship,” see the discussion at v. 9. Why hadn’t Jerusalem and Bethlehem embraced the boy as the Messiah, in light of the shepherd’s testimonies (cf. Lk 2:17-18)? It’d been two years, after all! Probably for the same reason some Christians today are extremely skeptical at reports that God still performs miracles. For example, few people have heard about Ed Wilkenson and his son, Brad, whom God miraculously healed of an atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. The boy and his father prayed for deliverance, and even had special intercession from their church, but all seemed hopeless as the boy went in for surgery. They determined the holes had disappeared, which had not been the case on x-rays done just the day before. The doctors were flabbergasted, and had no explanation. Brad is still fine, is now an adult, and played baseball later that same week. There was no surgery. See the account, with footnotes from personal interviews and review of medical documentation, in Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 1:430-432.

What were these ramblings from these loser shepherds, anyway? Meh. Where’s the video evidence!? Away with them!

[15] Again, we have the particle of interjection, and it must be translated. “[L]ooking up to heaven as

they set out on their journey, they once more behold their heavenly guide,” (A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositors Greek Testament (6th ed.), ed. W. Robertson Nicole (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 73.

[16] ἰδόντες is an adverbial, temporal participle, contra. Charles Quarles, who believes it is causal (Matthew, in EGGNT, Mt 2:10).  

[17] A literal translation would read something like “they were filled with very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). The verb is passive, which is curious. It’s well-nigh impossible to replicate a passive sense of ἐχάρησαν, so in English we do an end-run around by changing the verb to something like “were filled,” or we drop the passive sense and do “they rejoiced.”

[18] ἐλθόντες is an attendant circumstance, following along after the exquisite joy they felt when they at last reached their destination, contra, Quarles (EGGNT, Mt 2:10), who thinks it’s temporal.  

[19] Πεσόντες is also attendant circumstance. 

[20] The word means “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure,” (BDAG, p. 882; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 386). It could refer to reverence and submission to a human authority figure with no implication of deity (cf. Mt 20:20). However, the context here is worship to the child as the Messianic King—this is their self-proclaimed mission (Mt 2:2), and Herod and his court know it (Mt 2:3-8). One could quibble whether worship to Christ as divine is in view, or merely as “the king.” Most EVV use “worship,” except for the NEB, REB (“paid homage”) and the CEB (“honored him”). Broadus preferred “do homage,” because the scholars appeared to only honor him as king, not as deity (Matthew, p. 18).

[21] The three gifts which follow are accusatives of apposition, explaining what these gifts are—hence the em-dash.

[22] Λίβανον is a balsamic gum from the Boswellia sacra tree, native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. When the material hardened, it produced exquisite resin which was typically used for burning incense in religious ceremonies—including temple liturgy (e.g. Ex 30:34; see James Knox, “Frankincense, in Lexham Bible Dictionary). It is better to render it as “pure incense” or something similar; cf. Jay Adams, John Phillips = “incense,” and Julian Anderson = “fine, sweet-smelling incense.”

[23] I believe we have a solid circumstantial to argue that (1) angels announced the Savior’s birth to these Eastern scholars at the same time as they did to the shepherds in the field (cf. Lk 2:8-20), (2) that they followed the star to find the boy, (3) the star acted as a divine GPS and was not a natural phenomenon, and (4) they just now arrived after perhaps two years journey, to worship the boy. This accounts for (1) how they found out about Christ’s birth, and (2) why their knowledge (i.e. a newborn king of the Jews, born somewhere near Jerusalem) comports so well with the announcement the angels made to the shepherds.

Speculation regarding the star is generally absurd, and Broadus sums it up rather well (for the argument seems to have advanced nowhere since his day!): “Taking Matthew’s language according to its obvious import, we have to set aside the above explanations, and to regard the appearance as miraculous; conjecture as to its nature will then be to no profit. The supernatural is easily admitted here, since there were so many miracles connected with the Saviour’s birth, and the visit of the Magi was an event of great moral significance, fit to be the occasion of a miracle,” (Matthew, p. 17).

[24] Broadus: “The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to him themselves,” (Matthew, p. 21).

Edgar Mullins’ Axioms and 2022 America

Edgar Mullins’ Axioms and 2022 America

Edgar Mullins was the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I recently finished his classic The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908). His is a refreshingly simple exposition of Baptist Christianity. I’ll provide a sketch of Mullin’s position here, and note some of its implications and possible rebukes for modern Baptists in 2022 America.

Kingdom Principles and Polity

Mullins begins by presenting four principles for the Kingdom of God as guardrails for a biblical polity. They are:

Figure 1.

Christianity is not about rote obedience, but a relationship between God and man. Because God is our Father, that personal relationship shapes how we respond to His laws—not as frightened slaves, but as obedient sons and daughters. “Those in the kingdom call God Father, and those who call God Father are swayed and molded by the laws which are of the essence of the kingdom.”[1] All this presupposes we can know God, He can communicate and we can understand Him—revelation is possible. That revelation is in Christ, through the Scriptures:

The soul cannot thrive on abstract notions about God, just as a bird cannot fly in a vacuum, or a tree root itself in a bank of mist, or as a vine cannot climb a moonbeam. Christ made the idea of God concrete. Christ is God’s message to man. It is at this point that the authoritativeness and regulative value of the Scriptures come into view. The Scriptures alone enable us to maintain contact with the Christ of history.[2]

This all implies a revelation and a response, without the interposition of priests or efficacious sacraments. Christianity is a personal religion which asks for our faith:

Not faith in the sense of blind acceptance of hidden mysteries; not implicit faith in the sense of acceptance of the total body of teachings of an infallible church, but faith in the biblical sense of an intelligent response to the revelation of truth from person to person. This faith arouses the entire being, the intellect, the emotions, the will, and the moral nature.[3]

Polity matters, because the way we organize ourselves based on this common faith betrays what we think about the kingdom. After all, the church is “the social expression of the spiritual experiences common to a number of individuals.”[4] So, the church must mirror the kingdom—and the kingdom is characterized by God’s Fatherhood, Christ as the only mediator, individual and independent capacity for God, and personal relationships. “The local church is like a leaf on the tree of the kingdom of God. As such it must reproduce in its own measure the outlines of the kingdom.”[5]

Mullins distills seven implications, or “laws” which he declared “must be respected in any and every ecclesiastical polity which can in any sense lay claim to biblical warrant …”[6]

Figure 2.

The reader can consult Mullins for more detail. Relevant implications are (1) there is no caste system in the church, (2) Scripture is the vehicle for sanctification, not sacraments, (3) a church cannot interpose between the Christian and his Father, (4) dogmatism about a particular form of worship is fallacious,[7] (5) and “nothing is more terrible in Christ’s teachings than his arraignment of merely ceremonial righteousness and empty orthodoxy.”[8]

This all leads to Mullins’ point—soul competency is the controlling principle of the Baptist faith. Everything else is a spoke around the soul competency hub. It is the sugar that sweetens the espresso. The leaven that makes the bread rise. Choose whichever metaphor you fancy—soul competency is “the thing.” It’s “the comprehensive truth” that encapsulates (1) the intellectual freedom of the Renaissance, (2) the principle of individualism, and (3) the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith.[9]

Mullins explained:

The competency of the regenerated individual implies that at bottom his competency is derived from the indwelling Christ. Man’s capacity for self-government in religion is nothing more than the authority of Christ exerted in and through the inner life of believers, with the understanding always, of course, that he regulates that inner life in accordance with his revealed word …[10]

Individualism is the watchword. Because man has free intellect, because he is personally accountable, then his salvation, his relationship with God, his faith community, his sanctification—all of it coalesces around soul competency:

The biblical significance of the Baptists is the right of private interpretation and obedience to the Scriptures. The significance of the Baptists in relation to the individual is soul freedom. The ecclesiastical significance of the Baptists is a regenerated church-membership and the equality and priesthood of believers. The political significance of the Baptists is the separation of Church and State.[11]

Thus, we come to Mullins’ axioms of religion, which are his apologetic for the Baptist expression of Christianity:[12]

Figure 3.

Soul Competency or Bust

Baptists should agree, in principle, that the State mustn’t force religion on its subjects. The civic axiom (above), which Mullins labeled “Religio-Civic,” means “the State has no ecclesiastical and the Church no civic function.”[13] This rule “has never parted company” with Baptist doctrine[14]—“there has never been a time in their history” when Baptist have capitulated on that score.[15] Toleration is different than liberty—they are “poles apart.”[16] Freedom means men are left alone to worship (or not) as they see fit.

What of the idea that government exists for moral ends? Mullins summarizes that argument:

If the government is for moral ends it is closely akin to religion in its function and purpose. Religion indeed is the best instrument for the realization and accomplishment of moral ends. Hence Church and State should be one, with the church subordinate as a part of the larger whole.[17]

To leap forward to 2022, should government promote or discourage abortion? A psychological basis for gender identity? Governments make and enforce criminal law, and those laws presuppose moral values—but whose values?

Mullins dismisses the very idea that Church and government ought to coalesce for moral values. “Americans do not deny that the ends for which government exists are moral, but they do deny that those ends are religious.”[18] The two spheres are different, and they cannot formally touch. Mullins acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution is “grounded in essential moral principles,” and that government “is the expression of moral relations which necessarily exist in human society and created by God.”[19] However, that doesn’t mean the Church has a role to play in legislating that morality.

It does not follow, however, that because an institution is the expression of moral relations in one sphere that it is meant to promote moral ends in all spheres. Church and State might in a perfect society coalesce into one; but meantime their functions must be kept separate.[20]

Each body has its specialization, and it ought to remain that way. The Church deals with souls, and the government with laws. The church is a voluntary society, and once the church becomes the government it becomes coercive—it is no longer voluntary.[21] So, for example:

  1. Religious educational institutions must never accept funds from the government—it would be a “flagrant violation.”[22]
  2. Compulsory bible reading in school is wrong, because Baptists “respect the consciences of all others.”[23]

Mullins, writing in a bygone age, admits that schools have a duty to instill moral values but insists that morality can be taught without reference to religion “within certain limits.” He reasons, “[m]oral teaching is not objectionable even to atheists.”[24]

Questions for 2022 America

If we follow Mullins, as he wrote in 1908, these are but a few of the implications:

  1. Baptists must not advocate for Christianity as an established religion. This kneecaps the ethos of at least 80 years of patriotically infused Christian expression in certain corners of American evangelicalism.
  2. Baptists cannot advocate for explicitly Christian morality. It is unjust to force religious values on other people—else they would not be free.
  3. Baptist churches and schools must never accept Federal funds. It is doubtful many such institutions would survive. Churches which accepted government monies during the pandemic are in grave error.
  4. Baptists must stop all efforts to teach creationism in public schools.
  5. Baptist must cease all textbook wars and critical race theory fights with local school boards.

In short, Baptists must largely withdraw from public advocacy for Christian values. I’m not saying this. I’m saying Edgar Mullins said this.

And yet, Mullins also wrote that changing circumstances always force Christians to dig into Scriptures and find what had been there all along, to address current threats:

Christianity is like a knife of many blades and other devices to be used in turn as need arises. There is this difference however. In Christianity many of the blades are concealed from view until new emergencies bring to light their presence and use. Every interpretation of Scripture assumes, or should assume, the divinely adapted fitness of Scripture to human need. History reacts upon and explains exegesis in many ways, just as the growth of a tree reveals what was lying potent in the seed, and as the progress of a building sheds light on the preliminary plans of the architect. Thus we are slowly obtaining an exposition of our exegesis.[25]

So, in 2022 America, is the Baptist principle of soul liberty in the civic sphere outmoded? Can Mullins be laid to rest on a dusty shelf; a quaint relic from a more innocent age? If the implications I noted are correct (and perhaps they aren’t), then how should that force convictional Baptists to re-evaluate their stance vis-à-vis the State?

Kevin Bauder, in a modern treatise on Baptist polity, has advanced far beyond Mullins because he lives in a modern context. He suggests Baptists appeal to “natural order”, and not the scriptures. “When they enter the public square … they are obligated to justify civil laws by some appeal to natural order. This takes hard thinking and careful argument. That failure to do this thinking and to make these arguments is a species of intellectual laziness.”[26] He explains “[t]he New Testament never charges Christ’s church with the duty of establishing righteousness through legislation …” The existence of a natural order means common decency is possible, and “Christians are not obligated to impose more than that level of decency within the public square.”[27]

Bauder does not specify whether he refers to natural law, or a general call to “the way things are.” It is likely the former. Is such a tactic still persuasive and effective, in our 2022 context? Is that tactic “not enough?”

Baptists have framed soul competency in opposition to a State church, yet Mullins wrote during a time when, as George Marsden notes, America still blessed an emerging secularism with Christian symbolism.[28] A Christian ethos was “the State,” in a manner of speaking. The “convictional glue”[29] of society is no longer “Christian,” but something else entirely. Because the foe now is not an imposed flavor of “Christianity,” but a religion altogether different, does the soul competency wine need a new wineskin?

It is clear Baptists have a “complicated” relationship with soul competency, the State, and moral legislation. Baptist individuals, churches, and institutions which follow partisan political impulses in 2022 America are acting less like Baptists, and more like Americans. To a Baptist, that can’t be a good thing.


[1] Edgar Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), p. 29.

[2] Ibid, p. 30.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid, p. 35.  

[5] Ibid, p. 36.  

[6] Ibid, p. 38.  

[7] Regarding the “freedom of worship” law, which Mullins labeled “Worship: Freedom of intercourse between the Father in heaven and the child,” he explained, “[t]his excludes of course the limiting of acceptable worship to particular places, or through human mediators, or by means of physical appliances,” (Ibid, p. 38).

[8] Ibid, p. 41.  

[9] Ibid, p. 57.  

[10] Ibid, p. 55.

[11] Ibid, pp. 56-57.  

[12] “These six simple propositions are as six branches from that one trunk of New Testament teaching. Let us come, then, to the axioms …” (Ibid, p. 73).

[13] Ibid, p. 185.  

[14] Ibid, p. 188.  

[15] Ibid, p. 189.  

[16] Ibid, p. 49.

[17] Ibid, p. 193.  

[18] Ibid, p. 194.  

[19] Ibid, p. 195.  

[20] Ibid, p. 195.

[21] “The Church is a voluntary organization, the State compels obedience. One organization is temporal, the other spiritual. Their views as to penal offenses may be quite different, that being wrong and punishable in the Church which the State cannot afford to notice. The direct allegiance in the Church is to God, in the State it is to law and government. One is for the protection of life and property, the other for the promotion of spiritual life. An established religion, moreover, subverts the principle of equal rights and equal privileges to all which is a part of our organic law. Both on its political and on its religious side the doctrine of the separation of Church and State holds good. Civil liberty and soul liberty alike forbid their union,” (Ibid, p. 196).

[22] Ibid, p. 197.  

[23] Ibid, p. 197.  

[24] Ibid, p. 198.

[25] Ibid, p. 13.

[26] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), p. 141.

[27] Ibid, p. 141.  

[28] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2006), p. 49.

[29] “Every culture and society exudes a certain convictional glue, an undergirding outlook on life and reality that preserves its cohesiveness. When that adhesive bond deteriorates, the sense of shared community tends to come apart at the seams,” (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 44.

Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Afraid of the mirror? On evangelicals and wagon-circling

Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr both published important books, recently. They’re both well-credentialed historians. They’re both conservative Christians. They’ve both drawn the negative attention of a particular group of conservative, male, Christian theologians. They call Du Mez and Barr (along with some other folks) “wolves.” They say these women are a threat. They say they’re paving the slippery slope to ruin. They’re undermining scripture–putting lived experiences, feelings, and sociology in the driver’s seat. The bible is denigrated! To arms!

What’s the problem? I’ll briefly introduce the two books, look at some examples of culture driving bible interpretation, take a look at the alarmist response to Barr and Du Mez from some quarters, then offer some brief analysis.

The women who wrote the books that started this great war

Kristin Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation argues that “evangelicalism” is less a set of doctrinal commitments (like, say, the Bebbington quadrilateral) than a sociological or cultural phenomenon with its own values, mores, and gatekeepers. And, this sub-culture sometimes has little to do with scripture itself. Her focus is a particular framework for masculinity, with John Wayne as the archetype. She writes:

Although foundational to white evangelical identity, race rarely acts as an independent variable. For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity. Many Americans who now identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who regularly attend evangelical churches, and by those who do not. It creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not. In this way, conservative white evangelicalism has become a polarizing force in American politics and society.

White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells. Over the past half century or so, evangelicals have produced and consumed a vast quantity of religious products: Christian books and magazines, CCM (“Christian contemporary music”), Christian radio and television, feature films, ministry conferences, blogs, T-shirts, and home decor. Many evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture. They’ve raised children with the help of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs or grown up watching VeggieTales cartoons. They rocked out to Amy Grant or the Newsboys or DC Talk. They learned about purity before they learned about sex, and they have a silver ring to prove it. They watched The Passion of the Christ, Soul Surfer, or the latest Kirk Cameron film with their youth group. They attended Promise Keepers with guys from church and read Wild at Heart in small groups. They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.

Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 6-7

She continues, in her introduction:

Contemporary white evangelicalism in America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of “biblical literalism,” nor is it the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken. It is, rather, a historical and a cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations—the desire to discern God’s will, to bring order to uncertain times, and, for many, to extend their own power.

Ibid, p. 14.

It’s fair to say that these are fightin’ words, to some Christians.

Beth Allison Barr, in her volume The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, takes aim at a complementarian understanding of gender roles. I reviewed her book, earlier this year. She is a medieval historian, and mines history to suggest culture is driving a particular interpretation of gender roles that marginalizes women:

This was my understanding of biblical womanhood: God designed women primarily to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers. God designed men to lead in the home as husbands and fathers, as well as in church as pastors, elders, and deacons. I believed that this gender hierarchy was divinely ordained. Elisabeth Elliot famously wrote that femininity receives. Women surrender, help, and respond while husbands provide, protect, and initiate. A biblical woman is a submissive woman.

This was my world for more than forty years.

Until, one day, it wasn’t.

Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 2.

Barr continues:

You see, I knew that complementarian theology—biblical womanhood—was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog, as Ben Witherington once commented—meaning that cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context. So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.

As a historian, I also knew that women have been fighting against oppression from the beginning of civilization. I knew that biblical womanhood, rather than looking like the freedom offered by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, looks much more like the non-Christian systems of female oppression that I teach my students about when we discuss the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Greece. As Christians we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else. Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these.

Ibid, pp. 6-7

Culture does drive interpretation, at some level

Both Du Mez and Barr are using history, in complementary ways (pun intended), to say something like, “don’t you see that cultural forces you don’t even acknowledge are shaping what you believe ‘the bible says,’ even right now?

This is not a revolutionary concept. It’s a good insight. We learn from history, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Here are a few examples:

Peter and Cornelius

In Acts 10:28-29, the Apostle Peter visits a Roman soldier’s home, in Caeserea. The man’s name is Cornelius. Peter is there because God, in a vision, told him to go. Cornelius and his assembled guests (Gentiles, all) are waiting. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[1] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, said what he said to this eager audience. He’s supposed to preach the Gospel (and he eventually does; cf. Acts 10:34-35), but what a bizarre and cruel way to start a conversation!

Why did Peter act this way, when Jesus so clearly did not (cf. Mt 8:5-12; cp. Isa 42:1-9)? Simple. His culture was driving his interpretation.

Augustine and Ambrose

The other day, as I studied to teach through Psalm 114, I saw that both Ambrose and his spiritual son, Augustine, interpreted that lovely passage to be about Christian baptism (see especially vv. 3-4). I hate to break it to you … but that passage has nothing to do with baptism. It’s about God’s power. His authority. He’s the one who indwells His people, who are His kingdom, rule and dominion. He’s so powerful that the Red Sea flees, the Jordan pulls a U-turn, and the mountains and hills quake!

Why would Ambrose and Augustine butcher this text into … an apology for Christian baptism? Simple. They believed in baptismal regeneration, like most Christians did in the ante and post-nicene period. Their culture warped their interpretation.

Rev. A. T. Holmes

In 1851, an Alabama minister named Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote an essay on the topic of the duties of Christian masters towards slaves (“The Duties of Christian Masters,” ca. 1851, in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South―A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: St. Martins, 2003), pp. 96-107). He wrote it for a contest sponsored by the Alabama Baptist Convention. This was in the antebellum South, of course, where slavery reigned. His tone was condescending and paternalistic–blacks are ignorant, inferior, simple. Masters have a “Christian duty” to “show them the way,” as it were. Slaves were property in “our” care. God will judge us if we fail to do our duty, Holmes declared!

The good Reverend painted a whitewashed, fictional portrait–a tissue of lies:

A kind word, a pleasant look, a little arrangement for his comfort, assures him that there is one who cares for him; and, notwithstanding he goes forth to his daily labor, and toils at his daily task, his heart is light, his song is cheerful, and he seeks his humble couch at night, in the happy consciousness that his master is his friend.”

Duties of Christian Masters, in Defending Slavery, p. 103.

This is a Gone With the Wind-level, air-brushed plantation fantasy! Slaves must be taught the master is the protector, so they’d be less likely to run away. Masters must set the Christian example―souls are at stake! Indeed, slavery is the vehicle for evangelism: “Christian master, entered the dark cabin of thy servant, and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal …” (Ibid, p. 103).

One is very tempted to see a parallel between the slave with the “dark cabin” and the “darker soul” with his dark skin, and the white master who wields the “lamp of truth.” Are these allusions an accident? I doubt it.

Rev. Holmes won $200 from the Alabama Baptist Convention for this essay. How could a Christian man actually believe this? Simple. His culture.

For more on the slavery issue and biblical interpretation, see especially Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: OUP, 2021).

Capitalism or bust?

Deuteronomy is an oft-neglected book. That’s too bad, because there’s some important stuff there. God tells us that debt must be reset and wiped out every seven years, and that this magic date is fixed and repetitive. If a covenant brother or sister is in need, you must loan to him. Is the “reset date” only 14 months away? Too bad. Is it true that you’ll never collect the money back from the guy in 14 months, if you loan to him? Yes, but too bad (Deut 15:1-6).

That’s not fair, you say! Well, God says fair ain’t got nothing to do with it. He knows you’re tempted to refuse the loan for those very reasons (Deut 15:9), and he says “[y]ou shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging …” (Deut 15:10).

What does this reveal about God’s heart for his future kingdom society? A few things come to mind:

  1. God does not like vast economic disparity.
  2. He takes the side of the poor. He doesn’t penalize the rich, per se, but puts a floor in place to stop the poor from falling and falling, and falling some more.
  3. This suggests an economic system which encourages vast wealth disparity, either by design or by default, does not reflect kingdom values.

These observations should raise the eyebrows of a conservative Christian steeped in the doctrines of the Moral Majority, Reagan-era GOP. If that’s you, then you’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of the government. They’re up to no good. They need to get outta the way. After all, the most terrifying thing in the world is to be told, “Hi! I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” You’ve seen the Reagan quotes on Facebook, usually shared by people 50 or older. George Packer, writing about this particular version of America, notes:

The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president did not vote for the destruction of the blue-collar workforce, or the rise of a new plutocracy, or legislation rigged in favor of organized money. They weren’t told that Free America would break their unions and starve their social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, concentrating financial power and strangling competition, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J. P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires, who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 65-66.

Over a century ago, Walter Rausenbusch described the plight of the average factory workers who comprised his flock, in the heyday of the industrial revolution:

The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want. It is often said in defence of the wages system that while the workman does not share in the hope of profit, neither is he troubled by the danger of loss; he gets his wage even if the shop is running at a loss. Not for any length of time. His form of risk is the danger of being out of work when work grows slack, and when his job is gone, all his resources are gone.

Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan & Co, 1907; reprint), p. 61.

He railed, not so much against individual cases of social and economic misery, but at the system that produced it:

The officers of the hospitals and the officers of the street railway company were not bad men. Their point of view and their habits of mind are entirely comprehensible. I feel no certainty that I should not act in the same way if I had been in their place long enough. But the impression remained that our social machinery is almost as blindly cruel as its steel machinery, and that it runs over the life of a poor man with scarcely a quiver.

Ibid, pp. 63-64

Why does this matter? Think Amazon. They know their workers are too often badly-educated and have little power. Amazon can force them to accept low wages because they have fewer options. Think Wal-Mart. Think the gig economy. This is all still true. Should Christians champion an economic system that abets a system that makes rich people very rich, and some people very poor?

You may be tempted to respond with a GOP talking point. Fair enough. Read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, and consider what God’s values are, regarding economics. Then look to Reagan, then back at Moses. Is there a disparity? What does that mean?

Rauschenbush declared:

Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.

Ibid, p. 88.

Why is this short discussion likely to irritate some people? Simple. Your culture has conditioned you to default to Reaganomics. You can read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, but you don’t see it. You don’t hear it. It’s mute, to you. You might even invent reasons why it can’t really mean that, or say it doesn’t apply to the New Covenant, etc. You might also turn to Wayne Grudem, who wrote a long book titled Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) that somehow manages to dovetail quite well with the GOP platform (“[t]he Bible’s teaching on the role of government gives support to the idea of a free market rather than socialism or communism,” p. 275).

But … does the bible really advocate a free-market economy, a la Reagan? Or, is that your culture talking? As you consider the cattle-like operations of the Wal-Mart and Amazon worker, I offer one more salvo from Rauschenbusch, then I’ll leave it: “The preventible decimation of the people is social murder,” (Ibid, p. 62).

When evangelicals attack

I say all that to say that the history Du Mez and Barr are doing need not be a threat. Culture does impact interpretation! If you know it, acknowledge it, you can correct for it. You can adjust. Yet, some conservative male theologians think these women are a threat.

In the Fall 2021 edition of Eikon, the journal of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one author declared these two women (among others) “all share a dangerous approach to theology via the disciplines of sociology and history.” If culture really does impact interpretation, our author fears the end result is that we won’t be able to be sure we know anything at all! The author fears Du Mez and Barr are the road to the fast train to apostasy–“their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable.”

In the latest issue of 9Marks Journal, its editor, Jonathan Leeman, sounds a similar alarm:

Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest.

Cultural forces do exist, Leeman allows, but “the Bible alone is the norming norm.” He worries Christians will read Barr and Du Mez and unwittingly forsake the Bible as the structural foundation for reality, in favor of lived experiences and feelings:

Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist theologian and President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, echoed Leeman in an exchange with Du Mez:

Burk then queried Du Mez repeatedly on her views on LGBTQ issues, which he sees as a corollary to her (to his eyes, at least) compromised view of scripture regarding gender roles. Du Mez replied with a short article in which she acknowledged she is re-thinking her stand on these issues. Burk then declared his suspicions were confirmed! According to one account, Burk, Leeman, Kevin DeYoung (who has also written a critique of Barr’s book), and Andy Naselli (who wrote a critical review of another book questioning certain gender role presuppositions) regularly text one another, wondering how they can “handle” these women. They see themselves as righteous gatekeepers, protecting a naive and vulnerable flock from danger with their terrible, swift theological swords. His truth is marching on!

Du Mez is wrong to re-consider the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. Indeed, it’s interesting that the saints whom God protects from the tribulation during the last days have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they’re not sexually immoral (whatever Revelation 14:4 means, this interpretation is surely a top contender), and (2) they follow Jesus wherever He goes. But, the LGBTQ issue has nothing to do with Du Mez’s scholarship on the evangelical theory of masculinity! Consider this–I enjoy Rick Atkinson’s history books. I’ve no idea what he thinks of sexual ethics. If he approved of LGBTQ, must I now throw his books away? Should we all burn our copies of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation? Absurd! Why, then, is Du Mez so uniquely “dangerous”?

This is the odd part. We learn from people with whom we disagree all the time. If I only read books authored by my particular flavor of Christian, on any subject, then I wouldn’t be reading much. Why are gender roles and masculinity such a unique threat?

  1. Why is it ok to quote John Calvin, who would have had Burk and Leeman trundled out of Geneva for believing in believer’s baptism, but “dangerous” to learn from Du Mez and Barr?
  2. Why is it fine to admire Huldrych Zwingli for his reforms in Zurich, during the Swiss Reformation, when he had Felix Manz murdered (by drowning) for holding to believer’s baptism? Does not my endorsement of Zwingli lead Christians to murder their theological opponents?
  3. Why should we quote from Augustine’s Confessions or City of God, when the man held to baptismal regeneration? Is this not “dangerous?” Shall I burn the copy of Confessions in the church library, lest someone be led astray by this wolf? The Gospel is at stake!

Critics may reply that these doctrinal differences were textual, not sociological. That would miss the point. Every convictional Christian looks to the text. The issue is whether we’re willing to account for our own biases and context, so we can interpret it correctly. Calvin, Zwingli, and Augustine held to the particular positions I just mentioned, in part, because of their peculiar context–their culture. Church historians recognize that. Consider the state-church context in which Zwingli and Calvin operated, then consider poor Felix Manz! And yet … I doubt the Bible Presbyterians across the street from the Baptist church where I pastor are hatching plans to bind me in chains and toss me into the Puget Sound! Why not? Because that ain’t how we do things, today.

So, I ask again, why are Du Mez and Barr so uniquely “dangerous” to a confab of conservative, American, male theologians? I’m not sure. But, I suspect their culture has something to do with it.


[1] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.

Peter and the echo chamber

Peter and the echo chamber

Acts 10 is a bit of a puzzle, because God gives us a beautiful missionary story … and a missionary who isn’t very enthusiastic! Peter does not want to be at Cornelius’ home―he makes that clear in the rudest way possible. What’s the deal? We can begin to understand if we begin a little closer to home, in a galaxy not so far away, where we have a similar problem but a different date.

At mid-century, Brown v. Board of Education was the lightening rod that oriented most Christian responses to racial integration. There have always been crude fighters like, say, Billy James Hargis―loud, racist braggarts who courted controversy. But, there have also always been more “sophisticated” versions of the same―polished sweetness camouflaging a “kinder, gentler” form of racism.

At mid-century, the “freedom of association” plea was the argument de jour among the more cosmopolitan racists.[1] Briefly, this argument claimed the Supreme Court could not force individuals to associate (i.e. integrate) against their will. Nelson Bell gives us a good example of this “freedom of association” pitch. Bell was a Virginia-born medical missionary to China, along with his wife, for 35 years. He was Billy Graham’s father-in-law. For years, he had a regular column in Christianity Today, that bastion of sophisticated, northern evangelicalism.  

In 1955, Bell published an article in his denomination’s periodical, Southern Presbyterian Journal, titled “Christian Race Relations Must be Natural, Not Forced.” He declared “… it is un-Christian, unrealistic and utterly foolish to force those barriers of race which have been established by God and which when destroyed by man are destroyed to his own loss.”[2] He said race distinctions were “God ordained,” no matter what Brown v. Board of Education said,[3] and integration has “nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.”[4] Indeed, Bell proclaimed that by way of unnatural, forced integration, “the right of the individual is violated.”[5]

What on earth is happening, here? How could a conservative, God-fearing man who gave the best years of his life to serving Christ in China write these words? How could he think them? Believe them? How could Bell’s denomination (also R.L. Dabney’s denomination, arch-racist that he was[6]) advertise a segregated “negro” ladies synod meeting in 1954,[7] and just below it include a poem that gushed:[8]

O, Word of God! Oh, blessed Book! Into that store of wealth I look, To seek, with awe and fearful care, To learn of Wisdom written there

How could a local pastor, in the same periodical, pen an article on Amos that same month and declare “[o]ur economic and social life must be permeated by the principles of Christ …”?[9] In short, why do we do things like this, which people “removed” from the time can see is totally opposed to the Gospel of Christ?

Our look at Peter and Cornelius will tell us the answer, because while we have different dates, we have the same problem.

The Two Visions

God presents us with two complementary visions, each intended to force a meeting between two very different men. First, we meet Cornelius. He’s the archetype of a Gentile convert. He’s a Roman soldier. From Italy. He gives alms. He prays continuously. He’s devout. God sends an angel to speak to him, who explains God has noted his prayer and good works. Cornelius must send men to Joppa, south along the coast, fetch Peter and ask him return with them.

Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision of his own. As he waits for lunch, he falls into a trance. God opens the heavens. A white sheet descends slowly, held as it were from the four corners so Peter cannot see what it contains. It touches the ground and, behold!―unclean animals! Lunch is served! God commands him to eat. Peter, perhaps suspecting a divine test, demurs. The voice from above responds forcefully, “what God has cleansed, don’t ever call unclean!”[10] The sheet returns and lowers twice more, then God takes the whole kaboodle back into heaven. Clearly, He doesn’t have any ritual purity issues with the animals!

Peter is confused. What does this mean? Let me ask you―is this really just about Old Covenant food laws? Jesus already declared dietary laws obsolete,[11] and while Peter may be a bit thick (just like the rest of us!), is this dramatic vision really necessary to get that point across? Why is this the divine revelation God gives to Peter, just as Cornelius’ messengers arrive? Or, does it really stand for something else?

The Summons

At that moment, Cornelius’ messengers obey their GPS and pull to the curb outside. God speaks to Peter, ordering him to go with the men “without hesitation, for I have sent them.” He lumbers down the outside stairway to hail the men at the gate, and they all agree to hit the road for Caesarea on the morrow.

When morning comes, Peter does something unusual. He takes some believers from Joppa with him. Peter has traveled alone, until now. He’s gone to Samaria to inaugurate the Samaritan Pentecost after Phillip evangelized the area. He’s gone hither and thon throughout Judea and Galilee, visiting established congregations. But, he’s not yet gone to see an arch Gentile like Cornelius. He didn’t care about traveling alone before, but now he feels compelled to drag witnesses along. Strange …

After a stop at the Wendy’s drive thru for a tasty breakfast, they hit the road and arrive at Cornelius’ home late the same day. The soldier is waiting. Not only that, he’s gathered his relatives and close friends. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[12] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, tells this eager audience, “I can’t talk to you. It’s against God’s law. But, you already knew that. Still, God told me I could talk to you now. So, here I am. What do you want from me?”

Horrifying. He doesn’t like Gentiles. Nor does the hardline faction in Jerusalem―they’ll call him on the carpet as soon as he returns. What made Peter respond this way?

The Echo-chamber

It’s the same reason Nelson Bell penned his little essay. Peter’s problem was that he lived in an interpretive echo-chamber and, like Nelson Bell, he used scripture as a blackjack to reinforce cultural prejudices. He didn’t see it, of course. God had to confront Peter, as forcefully and emphatically as possible short of a direct order. Instead, he dropped very obvious breadcrumbs and left Peter to follow the trail to the obvious conclusion.

You see, we’re all catechized into some degree of conformity based on our “social bubble.” There’s a reluctance to use language like “systemic” or “structural” today, because we fear appropriating culture war rhetoric. But, people believe in all sorts of systemic “injustices” that go beyond the level of the individual to the “system” itself. You might believe “the system is rigged” in the media world to suppress conservative political ideology. You might believe “the fix is in” on college campuses to coddle students who cower at the realities of real life. You may believe America is a “Christian nation” which “they” (whoever they are) are trying to destroy. And so it goes. We don’t have a problem with the concept of “systemic” or “structural” forces. We acknowledge them all the time, but rarely recognize when we’re the one’s caught up in the echo-chamber.

Peter didn’t. It’s why God arranged this meeting. It’s the same with Nelson Bell. What God is doing in this passage is showing us that anyone who fears him and obeys Gospel is accepted. There is no partiality. There is no elite caste in the Christian world. The Gospel is for everybody.

And, of course, God demonstrated that in the most vivid way imaginable by orchestrating a Gentile Pentecost that evening in Caesarea. The witnesses Peter dragged along are shocked―the Holy Spirit is for Gentiles, too? Mind. Blown.

Takeaways

Here are three red flags to spot echo-chambers in your spiritual community. They don’t stand on their own but, together, they form a grid that is pretty reliable.

The more removed it is from the plain meaning of scripture it is, the worse it is. If the teaching is not explicit or implicit in the text, be very careful. Can you read the scriptures and really walk away with the idea that Israelites could never speak to someone who wasn’t a Jew? Absurd!

If most Christians throughout history have never heard of it, it’s bad. The Spirit guides the Church into all truth. A broader historical sweep helps us spot interpretive weirdness in our own age.

If a scripture passage’s original audience wouldn’t have understood what you’re doing with the text, it’s probably bad. Moses married a black woman from Cush (Num 12:1). Do you think he agreed with Peter about Gentile defilement? Would Ruth? Would Isaiah (Isa 56:1-8) agree with Peter? Would Ebed-Melech (Jer 39:16-18)?

Nelson Bell’s article produced an avalanche of positive responses.[13] Two months after it ran, the editor proclaimed that it had nearly exhausted two separate print runs of 10,000 copies. He summed up readers comments as saying “it is the nearest to a truly Christian statement of what race relations should be than anything which has appeared anywhere in print.”

Yet, two years after Brown, 90% of the white population in South Carolina still opposed desegregation in schools. Most Baptist pastors in the state tried to keep quiet on the issue rather than risk alienating their congregations[14]―just like Peter in Galatians 2.

One South Carolina pastor, angry about pro-integration SBC literature, wrote that his congregation was asking: “Are the leaders of our denomination intimating, suggesting, or projecting the idea that we as Baptist Churches should open our doors to our colored brother and invite him to come and worship with us?”[15] We naturally respond with, “yes, what color is the sky in your world?” Yet, this is akin to Peter’s companion’s stunned reaction to the Gentile Pentecost in our passage!

What’s so evil about Nelson Bell’s editorial is that it puts culture into the driver’s seat of interpreting scripture. It uses the bible to banish people to the segregated margins of God’s coming kingdom community, which is exactly what Peter was pressured to do in Antioch, and what he wanted to do here. God orchestrated this entire encounter to show Peter how wrong he was … and to show us, too!

Peter realized this when Cornelius ignored his insulting greeting and explained his own vision. I wonder if Nelson Bell ever did.


[1] See especially “Here’s Text of Majority Report by Sibley Committee,” Atlanta Constitution, 29 April 1960, pp. 12-13. See also Barry Goldwater’s comments along this line in the context of criticizing forced busing in “Right ‘Not to Associate,’” New York Times, 27 October 1964, p. 30. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2ZCmLmH.

For historical context, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 380-406. See also Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. 6.

[2] Nelson Bell, “Christian Race Relations Must Be Natural, Not Forced,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 17 August 1955, p. 3. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte14dend/page/n280/mode/1up?view=theater.

[3] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4.

[4] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4. 

[5] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”pp. 4-5.

[6] See R. L. Dabney, “Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes,” (Richmond, 1868). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_Relation_of_Negroes.  

[7] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte13dend/page/n20/mode/1up?view=theater  

[8] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. 

[9] Rev. J. Kenton Parker, “Amos Condemns Social Injustice,” § “The Terrible Social Sins of Israel: 8:4-7,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 26 May 1954, p. 13.

[10] v.15 is my own translation. The strong, emphatic negation is missing from the ESV. 

[11] See Mark 7:19 and consider the broader implications of the New Covenant for moral and ritual impurity.  

[12] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.  

[13] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 October 1955, p. 21. See also Ibid, 16 November 1955, p. 3.

[14] J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (New York: OUP, 2021), p. 22.

[15] Hawkins, Bible Told Them, p. 23. 

Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Vaccine mandates have arrived, and so have questions about religious exemptions. What should Christians think about them? I’ll provide one over-arching principle, then briefly discuss some common religious justifications we see offered up.

A warning

The Third Commandment tells us we must not misuse God’s name (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11). One way we do this is when we invoke God as an authority to justify something we want to do. I want to do something, so I use God as a blank check, and I get my free pass. But … did God really say that?

People misuse God’s name for all sorts of sins. To justify divorce in unwarranted circumstances, sexual immorality, sexual confusion, gender identity, and the like. Look anywhere, and you’ll find professing Christians using God as justification for their unholy ways. This is a violation of the Third Commandment.

Now we come to religious exemptions for vaccines. You must think carefully, very carefully, about why you object to the vaccine. If you’re using God as a free pass to escape a vaccine mandate, then you’re violating the Third Commandment.

You may object and cite an abortion connection, freedom of conscience, and the like. Fair enough―we’ll get there. But ask yourself, “Is [insert religious justification] really why I don’t want the vaccine, or is [insert religious justification] a convenient pass for me to avoid something I just don’t want to do?” If the answer is yes, then you’re in danger of violating the Third Commandment.

As a well-known news anchor once said, that’s “kind of a big deal.” You don’t want to do that. Now, to the religious justifications themselves.

The Abortion Objection

This is perhaps the strongest religious exemption of the lot. Some Christians claim the various COVID vaccines have a connection to abortion. Various news outlets explain this connection is distant and far removed, and that the vaccines themselves don’t contain fetal tissue. Still, some Christians find this horrifying. Here is a representative example from a professing Christian, quoted in the New York Times:  

My freedom and my children’s freedom and children’s children’s freedom are at stake,” said Ms. Holmes, who lives in Indiana. In August, she submitted an exemption request she wrote herself, bolstered by her own Bible study and language from sources online. Some vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses, she wrote, citing a remote connection to a practice she finds abhorrent. She quoted a passage from the New Testament: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.”[1]

The Louisiana Attorney General provides a sample exemption letter with an identical objection.[2] Back to the New York Times article―note that this woman fronts her remarks with a discussion of “freedom.” Also, notice that she apparently didn’t consult her faith community about the veracity of her religious objection. Instead, she did independent study and looked up “sources online.” She then quotes 2 Corinthians 7 out of context and assumes a vaccine will “contaminate” her. As Michael Bird would say, “sweet mother of Melchisedec!”  

But, this woman isn’t you. Perhaps you have a more sophisticated form of this objection. Fair enough.

Back to the Third Commandment.

I want to ask you to re-ask that same question again―does this distant abortion connection really outrage you, or is it just a “get out of jail free” card you’re willing to use? Please think very carefully before answering this question. One way to be introspective here is to consider whether you were already against the vaccine before you learned about the abortion nexus.

Body as a temple

Proponents cite the Apostle Paul’s well-known remarks at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19. One organization, called Health Freedom Idaho, published a sample exemption letter on its website that used this objection and cited these passages. It read, in part:

Accordingly I believe, pursuant to my Christian faith, that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is a God-given responsibility and requirement for me to protect the physical integrity of my Body against unclean food and injections.[3]

Again, this does violence to the text. First, Paul’s remarks about the body as a temple were directed to the Corinthian church as a body, as a whole―the “you are God’s temple” is plural! So, he is not referring to you as an individual at all. Some may quibble about 1 Corinthians 6:19, but the best one could say there is that Paul is addressing the community as a whole with an aim to individual application. The references are still plural, as follows:

ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε (“do you all [plural] not know”) ὅτι ⸂τὸ σῶμα⸃ ὑμῶν (“that your collective [plural] body [singular]“) ναὸς (“is a temple [singular]“) τοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν ἁγίου πνεύματός (“of the Holy Spirit, within you all [plural]?”).

If one still wishes to lodge an objection and lasso this citation to a COVID vaccine, one must deal with the interpretive problem. The sample exemption letter mistakenly interprets the temple motif to refer to physical pollution to one’s body, when Paul is in fact interjecting a rhetorical question (an accusation, really) about sins that may destroy their community (“the temple”), among which Christ resides (1 Cor 3). In the 1 Corinthians 6:19 reference, Paul refers to moral impurity “contaminating” the temple that is the Christian community. He says nothing about a vaccine. He’s talking about sin, about evil, about lawlessness (cf. 1 Jn 3:4).

This objection has no interpretive merit.

It’s a sin to do what I don’t want to do

The Liberty Counsel is a Christian legal ministry. It also provides a sample religious exemption letter on its website. This letter manages to encapsulate peak narcissism with its interpretive method:

It is against my faith and my conscience to commit sin. Sin is anything that violates the will of God, as set forth in the Bible, and as impressed upon the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. In order to keep myself from sin, and receive God’s direction in life, I pray and ask God for wisdom and direction daily. As part of my prayers, I have asked God for direction regarding the current COVID shot requirement. As I have prayed about what I should do, the Holy Spirit has moved on my heart and conscience that I must not accept the COVID shot. If I were to go against the moving of the Holy Spirit, I would be sinning and jeopardizing my relationship with God and violating my conscience.[4]

According to this letter, if the Spirit “has moved” you then you have a free pass―presumably about anything. This is absurd. Christianity is not a subjective religion with scripture that shape-shifts according to taste, like an Etch-a-Sketch. God gave us His word. That word has content. That content has meaning that can be known and understood in community with the brotherhood of faith in your local congregation, and in consultation with the Great Tradition of brothers and sisters who have gone before.

This definition of sin is also specious. Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4); doing what God’s Word forbids. The author wishes to make sin Play-Dough; it’s anything the Holy Spirit “impresses upon” him to be wrong. Sin isn’t concrete anymore, it’s subjective.

This kind of bible interpretation can justify anything, and it’s dangerous.

Freedom of conscience

This objection has a strong siren song, but is harder to justify than it seems. A Christian must have a rational basis for claiming a conscience objection. If food is sacrificed to demons, then that’s a pretty good reason to avoid eating it (1 Cor 8). You get it. You can “see” the problem.

What is the conscience issue with the vaccine? It isn’t enough to hold to some form of, “I don’t like it, so it violates my conscience, so I don’t have to do it.” That’s never been how responsible Christians have interacted with society. Health Freedom Idaho offers this attempt:

… the New Testament requires of Christians that we, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). When it comes to consuming things into our own bodies, as opposed to make payments to government, compliance with God’s law is required. The mandated vaccine, with its numerous additives and its mechanism for altering my body, is the equivalent of a prohibited “unclean food” that causes harm to my conscience. Vaccines to me are unclean. I believe in and follow God and the principles laid out in His Word and I have a deeply held belief that vaccines violate them.[5]

This objection says very little. It is scarcely believable that unclean foods under the Old Covenant are a parallel to a COVID vaccine. As just a preliminary step to justify this argument one would have to establish a basis for the division of clean and unclean foods, and I wish you luck as you survey the literature on that topic! The author provides no justification about why the vaccine violates his conscience. He just asserts it as a “deeply held belief.” That isn’t good enough. Some people have a “deeply held belief” that Arbys makes good roast beef sandwiches. That don’t make it so …

God doesn’t require it

This is a novel interpretation. The New York Times reports the following:

In rural Hudson, Iowa, Sam Jones has informed his small congregation at Faith Baptist Church that he is willing to provide them with a four-paragraph letter stating that “a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.”[6]

This argument is a non-starter. God hasn’t mandated seatbelts, either. Nor the Bill of Rights. The pastor owes it to his congregation to provide a more robust argument than this. If the pastor has one, it didn’t make it into the news article.

Christians shouldn’t be afraid

This is a well-meaning but sad argument. Its logical end is to eschew all medical aid in toto. The New York Times related the following:

Threatened with a formal reprimand if she skipped work in protest, Ms. Holmes woke up in the middle of the night with a Bible verse from the book of 2 Timothy in her mind: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”[7]

The Liberty Counsel also rallied to the cause by declaring Christians have a religious exemption because they have “… a reliance upon God’s protection consistent with Psalm 91.”[8]

2 Timothy 1:7 has nothing to do with rejecting all medical aid, nor does Psalm 91. It’s a symptom of what Scot McKnight has described as a puzzle piece hermeneutic rather than a contextual reading of the bible as a story. If a man cheats on his wife, can he cite 2 Timothy 1:12 (“I am not ashamed …”) and declare he has nothing to apologize for? Why not? It’s in the bible!

Final words

There may well be valid religious exemptions out there from a Christian perspective. Those cited here are largely specious; arguments in search of proof-texts. The abortion connection has the most merit, but I again caution believers to avoid misusing God’s name and violating the Third Commandment.

One Christian named Curtis Chang, who is a former pastor, wrote what Yosemite Sam would consider to be fightin’ words:

Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.

Perhaps this goes too far. But, it is true for too many Christians. Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you do have objective religious grounds―what are they? What have your pastors said? What has your faith community said? What has the global church said? Are your objections really grounded in the scripture, or are they a prop for some very non-religious reasons?

Only you know the answer.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Vaccine Resisters Seek Religious Exemptions. But What Counts as Religious?” New York Times, 11 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/11/us/covid-vaccine-religion-exemption.html?smid=url-share.  

[2] Retrieved from http://ladoj.ag.state.la.us/Article/10941.

[3] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter for Religious Vaccine Exemption,” https://healthfreedomidaho.org/sample-letter-for-religious-vaccine-exemption/.

[4] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Religious Exemption Requests For COVID Shot Mandates,” 26 July 2021, p. 3. https://lc.org/Site%20Images/Resources/Memo-SampleCOVID-ReligiousExemptionRequests-07262021.pdf.

[5] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter.”  

[6] Graham, “Religious Exemptions.”

[7] Ibid.  

[8] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Exemption” p. 1.

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

In American Christianity, fear has long been a popular way to frame reality. The real enemy is Satan, of course, but the form of the threat has changed throughout the decades. It’s difficult to discuss this with sufficient nuance, because Satan is the real enemy, and he is a crafty one, and his tactics do change with the times.

And yet … some flavors of American evangelicalism seem to frame reality by way of fear a bit too much. Or, a lot too much. A good deal of this is tied up with various flavors of conservative politics. This is not always religion as a cloak for crude nationalist impulses. It’s also because, as historian Jason Bivens notes, political activism by conservative evangelicals also arises “from specific religious convictions as these have been shaped by their tradition’s understandings of social and political change, understandings that they aim to transmit and promote,” (Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [New York: OUP, 2008], p. 14).

John Fea, a Christian historian at Messiah College, discussed the phenomenon of “evangelical fear” in his 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Some may frown at that title, but I beg you to stay with me. Fea is describing a real phenomenon–the same one I have in mind. This phenomenon is that, for some American evangelicals, fear really is a vehicle for framing reality.

… this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long—going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history. Evangelicals’ fears that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that as president he would violate the Second Amendment and take their guns away, echo—and are about as well founded as—early American evangelicals’ fears that Thomas Jefferson was going to seize believers’ Bibles. The Christian Right’s worries in the 1960s and 1970s that they might lose their segregated academies should take us back to the worries of white evangelicals who lived in the antebellum South. Contemporary efforts to declare America a Christian nation should remind us of similar attempts by fundamentalists a century ago.

Believe Me (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 97.

This fear informs how they view the world, how they interpret the news, what they think of folks with different politics than their own. It impacts evangelism and a local church’s public face. Too often, that public face is one of outrage or bitter sullenness–sentiments incongruous with the joy the Gospel ought to bring, and the optimism it should foster in one’s heart.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be firm, but not angry. Realistic, but not afraid.

In this excerpt from a recent sermon, I chat a bit about this. I’m commenting specifically on the Acts 2:47: “they praised God and had favor with all the people.”

What is Pentecost About?

What is Pentecost About?

Pentecost is one of those events in the Christian calendar that hasn’t fared so well―so many people don’t know what to do with it! We know what happened, but the problem is what it means. Like so many discussions involving the Holy Spirit, Pentecost sometimes becomes a list of things that it doesn’t mean:

  1. Whatever else it is, it can’t be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
  2. The gift of prophecy, the experiences of dreams and visions―it’s all good, but it has nothing to do with us, you see …
  3. The gift of tongues can’t be real foreign languages; they have to be ecstatic, other-worldly sayings that require an interpreter

Presuppositions drive interpretation, shutting out the actual words on the page. Pentecost gets submerged under 50 feet of controversy. Like espresso diluted with sugar, it becomes so much less than it’s meant to be. Its meaning is lost in all the noise of theological disagreement.

What does Pentecost actually mean?

Peter tells us. He stands up, facing a crowd of perhaps thousands in the temple courtyard, and simply says “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” (Acts 2:16). What happened that morning―the Spirit descending visibly, audibly, in deliberately dramatic fashion―was what the prophet Joel said would happen. Whatever the phenomenon of Pentecost means, Joel explains it―what does Joel say?

Peter quotes a long passage from Joel (2:28-32). It’s a mysterious passage―otherworldly. There are great promises, even fantastic ones. The run-up to Peter’s citation shows us Joel urging repentance. God wants us to return to Him. The day of the Lord is illustrated by an army of locusts that devour everything in their path. Judgment is coming.  “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments,” (Joel 2:12).

And, once God’s people do that, He’ll make everything all right (Joel 2:18-27), and that’ll set the stage for something else. After God rescues and gathers all His people. After God makes us safe. After God destroys our enemies. After God blesses the land and gives us a booming economy. After He returns to dwell with us … then some important stuff is going to happen.

Acts 2:17: And in the last days it shall be, God declares

Peter is interpreting Joel, who said:

  1. after we repent,
  2. and God rescues, gathers, dwells with us,
  3. then something special is going to happen
  4. the Messianic age will be here, in some form,
  5. and it’ll come with some very specific bells, whistles and divine signs

Peter, by quoting Joel as he does, says “this is it―it’s here!”

  1. God has rescued!
  2. God has gathered!
  3. God has made His people safe!
  4. The age of the King is here!
  5. These are the divine signs Joel told us about, right here in front of us―God is striking up the band and shouting, “Here it is, guys!”

Some bible teachers don’t agree. They say “what happened at Pentecost is like what Joel said … it resembles what he said …” But, this is mistaken. Peter said, “but this is what was said by the prophet Joel …”[1] Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s words.

How can this be what Joel said, if all the stuff Joel promised would happen beforehand haven’t fully happened, yet?

  1. We’re not all gathered
  2. We’re not all safe
  3. Christ’s enemies are still around
  4. God hasn’t given us economic peace and stability
  5. God doesn’t physically, visibly dwell with us here

But (and this is the point) it’s started to happen. The dominoes are starting to fall. The ones at the end of the line are still standing, but not for long. Peter says, in effect, that just as the Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the first fruits of the agricultural harvest, so Pentecost morning is the first-fruits of God’s rescue harvest.

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33).

God, to Joel’s audience, says: “Return to me, because the Messianic age is coming, and it’s really gonna be something!”

Peter says to the pilgrims on Pentecost morning: “This is what Joel said would happen! This is the first fruits of the Messianic age, when Jesus is the King!”

God’s message to a modern Christian audience is: “If you’re a Christian, you’re part of this new Messianic age, and what happened at Pentecost proves it!”

What did the Spirit do at Pentecost, that inaugurated the New Covenant? What does all that theater (tongues of fire, the rushing wind) mean? Peter explains, by continuing his Joel quotation.

Acts 2:17: that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh

All means all (young, old, slave, free, high society, low society). Peter says God just poured out His Spirit on all His people. Christians often wonder what the Spirit did that was so unique. Depending on your church tradition, you may have heard the following:

  1. It was salvation! But, surely salvation already existed. This is a mistaken view.
  2. It was indwelling! Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit never indwelt believers before the New Covenant. This is also incorrect;[2] how could you love God and your covenant brothers and sisters without the Spirit?

So, what did this “pouring out” of the Spirit do for them then, and what does it do for us, today? Joel tells us now.

Acts 2:17: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams;

People often want to know what “prophesy” means. It can either mean (1) inspired unveiling about future or heretofore unrecognized events, or (2) communicating God’s message for His people and the world; teaching, exhorting. In some contexts it’s a combination of both. Here, the emphasis shades over to the teaching aspect. We know this because, on Pentecost morning, the pilgrims said “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” (Acts 2:11).

The bit about visions and dreams tells us God will now communicate with His people in dramatic and very personal ways. He’ll draw us into His presence in a way so much more intimate, close and personal than when He hid Himself behind the veil in the temple.

Jesus pours out the Spirit on “sons and daughters.” Both men and women. Joel (and Peter) show us no gender hierarchy in God’s family, which is a pretty revolutionary statement in a patriarchal world.

Acts 2:18: even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

God doubles down. He won’t just pour out His Spirit on men and women, generically. But on men and women who are slaves. In Peter’s context, slavery is a class status, not the race distinction it became in America. Slaves are the lowest class in society. God’s promise to give the Spirit in equal measure to even male and female slaves is quite something. One wonders how the Pharisees would have reacted (cf. Jn 9:34).

What a revolutionary vision of men, women and class in God’s family! Each has gifts to exercise. Each has an equal and honored place in the community. No matter what label the world sticks on us about age, social class or gender, inside the family there is a collaboration, a sharing, a reciprocal exchange and harnessing of gifts. There are implications here for those who wish to pick up what God is putting down.  

What does all this mean?

It means every Christian has the supernatural ability to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) other people about Jesus (sons, daughter, young, old, slave, free). To tell people about the future, about how this story ends, about how and where this merry-go-round that is the world is going to stop. To look at the scripture the same way you peek at the end of a new paperback thriller, to see the end, and tell people about it so they can be sure their end will turn out all right. To teach people about Jesus. It also means that people can know God more personally, intimately, and experientially than ever before.

Do we believe, really believe, that God’s kingdom has broken into this world? The torn veil, the resurrection, the ascension―all of it was leading to this dramatic moment when God does everything but charter a plane to write in the sky, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Violent wind, flames of fire, thousands of pilgrims gathering around, and then the realization that all believers (men, women, boys, girls, old, young) have divine empowerment to “prophesy” (i.e. teach) to people about Jesus the King.

He’s empowered you. He’s gifted you. He’s equipped you. He’s put you where you are. He’s given you the words of life to rescue captives from that future of fire, blood, smoke and doom (cf. Joel 2:30-31).

It’s not salvation. It’s not a first indwelling. It’s divine empowerment in service of the Gospel and community.

What would happen if we lived life like Pentecost had happened to us, personally? God wants you to be encouraged, inspired, energized, excited. He wants us to read about this, then go out and live like it’s real, not something in a book. To many of us (including me!) the reality of God’s empowering is atrophied, like a muscle that’s gone weak because it’s never used. The empowering has become abstract, academic, far away, maybe even almost a fable we pay lip-service to―something that’s not “real.”  

It isn’t that―it is real. What Joel said is here, right now. Jesus is in heaven, granting repentance, granting forgiveness (Acts 5:31), pouring out the Spirit on His people. What would happen if Christians exercised their “faith faculty”[3] to live like this empowerment was real, not words on a page or pixels on a screen?  


[1] ἀλλὰ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον διὰ τοῦ προφήτου Ἰωήλ

[2] For an argument for Old Covenant indwelling, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), pp. 267-276.

[3] John Phillips, New Testament Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1956), pp. 23-42.

Sad about being fightin’ mad

Sad about being fightin’ mad

I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:

Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.

Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.

  • I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
  • I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
  • I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
  • I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
  • I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
  • One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
  • Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
  • One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
  • Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
  • Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
  • I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.

In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:

  1. I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
  2. I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
  3. I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.

Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?