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

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

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

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

Basic principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This also cannot be wished away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Considering COVID in Thurston County

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

Governor Inslee explained during a press conference:[6]

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

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

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

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

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

COVID and basic principles

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

Discrimination?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We turn to the next issue.   

Adequate cause to change the manner of worship?

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

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

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

We will not allow these things to happen.

This brings us back to the datasets about COVID:

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

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

The article goes on:[18]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more excellent way?

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

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

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

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

That is what God would have us do.

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid, s.v. “unjust,” p. 1893. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Ibid.  

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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

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

Meeting Jim Crow

Meeting Jim Crow

Like many Americans, I knew very little about the context of the civil rights era. I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school, like everyone else. That’s about it, for me. As a Christian, of course I condemn slavery and racism as evils; a poisonous fruit of the Fall.

However, like so many others, I have recently been assaulted with anti-racism rhetoric that seemingly sprang forth from nowhere. This perspective often comes from Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), a new religion I began writing about a little while ago. I have encountered this anti-racism “training” at work in State government, peddled by unwitting Human Resource personnel so the agency can now say it’s “done something” in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots.

A host of revisionist Christian pastors, all darlings in the woker quarters of the evangellyfish pond, have sallied forth to denounce racism – often employing extra-biblical categories to push a watered-down CRT in the Church. One such well-known black pastor recently called for reparations from white Americans and foolishly cited Exodus 12:33-36 as support.

Well, I want to actually learn something about the civil rights era and its context. I don’t want it from woke Christian pastors, or by radical scholars pushing an agenda. I want it from responsible sources. My studies have only begun, but I wanted to pass along some excellent resources to better understand the context of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights era:

  1. The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward. This classic, endorsed by MLK, Jr., was written by the dean of Southern historians in the mid-1950s after Brown v. Board of Education, and revised three times (the last being in 1974). It advanced the so-called Woodward thesis, that Jim Crow laws did not follow immediately on the heels of the Civil War, but were a calculated step backward after Reconstruction that deliberately disenfranchised the entire black population and reversed racial progress. The thesis is much more nuanced than I’m presenting it (racial prejudice certainly still existed during Reconstruction). But, it’s a horrifying look at how a culture deliberately took a step back towards pure evil.
  2. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow by Richard Wormser. This is a short history of the entire Jim Crow era, with particular focus on eyewitness accounts. It is the most horrifying book I’ve ever read and literally changed my perspective forever. I will never think of my country the same way again. You wonder how the Nazis constructed concentration camps? Then, wonder how a “Christian” people did this to other human beings in America. Sin can warp the mind worse than anything else. Terrible. 
  3. Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACPs legal strategy to destroy Jim Crow, using the Groveland Four case (from late 1940s Florida) as a foil. One of the most readable, enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
  4. Grand Expectations by James Patterson. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series, focusing on 1945-1974. Essential for capturing the greater context to understand the civil rights era.

I’m listening to the Oxford History entry on the Reconstruction era right now. I plan on listening to a detailed history of the pre-Civil War era slave issue (likely Impending Crisis, by Potter) after that. 

I Love Me …

I Love Me …

Carl Trueman’s forthcoming book will be required reading for any pastor (or, anybody, really) who is interested in a Christian explanation for the cult of self-worship in the West. He summarizes the issue in an article published today titled “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self … And How the Church Can Respond.”

Even if you aren’t a Christian, do you want to know what’s happened to the world? To people? Where did this “you do you!” ethos of self-worship come from? Why do people see their psychologized self-conception (which, tellingly today, almost always centers on sex) as the thing that defines them?

Trueman sums up the problem in the article:

… the idea that happiness is personal psychological satisfaction—“self-fulfillment”—is the staple of sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even commercials. And this narrative, this illusion, has powerful implications. When the goal of human existence is personal psychological satisfaction, then all moral codes are merely instrumental, and therefore continually revisable, to this subjective, psychological end.

I’ve preached both a sermon that touched on this a BIT:

and one that touched on this a LOT:

and hopefully have an article forthcoming in a Christian magazine that lays some of this out. My latest article about the Bostock decision also noted that this lens of narcissism is behind SCOTUS’ redefinition of “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Trueman closes his article with this:

We have been here before—despised, considered immoral, standing on the margins. And we can learn lessons that will fortify us as we move into an uncertain future.

I’m looking forward to the book.

On Christian Civil Religion

On Christian Civil Religion

Christian Nationalism, the tendency to conflate American patriotism with the Christian faith and message, came into its modern form in the Eisenhower years. It did so largely as a civil religious bulwark in the context of the escalating Cold War and domestic “Red Scare.” It was deliberately fostered by President Eisenhower. It morphed into the political arena in a meaningful way from the 1980s to roughly 2004; the glory years of Moral Majority and, later, the Religious Right.

Frances Fitzgerald wrote about this in her book The Evangelicals (which I previously reviewed):

Eisenhower and Graham did not agree on theology or foreign policy, but they agreed on the place of religion in what both considered perilous times. They agreed that America was fighting atheistic Communism and that national survival rested on the belief of Americans in God.

“A spiritual awakening,” Graham said, “will restore our spiritual heritage, create moral stamina and consciousness, bring back the sanctity of the home . . . strengthen the bulwarks of freedom and bring integrity back to the people of the world.”

They agreed that patriotism and religious belief were synonymous and that America had a moral and spiritual mission to redeem the world. “If you would be a loyal American, then become a loyal Christian,” Graham said in one sermon, and in another, “We are created for a spiritual mission among the nations.”

Graham, of course, did not believe that just any religion would do. In a sermon titled “Satan’s Religion” he offered five ways Americans could “most effectively combat Communism.” The first was “by old-fashioned Americanism”; the second “by conservative and Evangelical Christianity”; the third by prayer; the fourth by spiritual revival; and the fifth “by personal Christian experience.” “The greatest and most effective weapon against Communism today is to be a born-again Christian,” he said.

Despite his sectarian perspective, Graham’s position was closer to Eisenhower’s than to that of liberal Protestant leaders, all of whom objected to the conflation of Christianity with Americanism, and some of whom had a disconcerting tendency to call for nuclear disarmament and talks with the Communist Chinese.

It was also closer to the majority position of the day. In 1949 Graham had styled himself as Amos, the prophet crying in the wilderness, but in four years he had become a pastor of the national civil religion.

The Evangelicals, pgs. 185-186.

This is why this article by Michael Svigel is so helpful. He offers up a third way for Christians to engage the world. A way that isn’t isolationism or a bad marriage to politicians and their all too often crocodile promises. It’s a way Svigel calls the “Conscience of the Kingdom” approach:

In this approach, Christians uncompromisingly commit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ with regard to their priorities and values, morals and message. They surrender none of these to any other lord or any other leader. The Church is the community of their primary allegiance, which they will share with no other party or political organization.

However, Conscience Christians view their relationship to the world as analogous to the conscience of an individual. On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness.

Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker.

Svigel’s article provides a helpful corrective for Christians who may tend to conflate American nationalism with the Christian faith. They are very different. They should REMAIN very different. The hopes and dreams that fire a Christian’s heart and mind MUST come from Christ’s kingdom, not from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Read the whole article. Then, read Svigel’s wonderful book RetroChristianity.

Godspeed, Dr. Houghton!

Dr. Myron Houghton, longtime Chair of Theological Studies at Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Ankeny, IA, has passed away from complications from COVID-19.

Dr. Houghton was a legend in the more mature, balanced flavors of Baptist fundamentalism. His major written work was Law & Grace, which presented perhaps the most extensive and learned dispensational perspective on this issue yet in print. The publisher explains:

Law and Grace explores a misunderstood theological subject from several perspectives. After discussing Roman Catholic and Reformed views of law, gospel, and grace, the book uses an exposition of Romans to present a dispensational framework for distinguishing key theological concepts.

Pastors, church leaders, and ministry students will appreciate Myron Houghton’s thorough exegesis and practical applications, including practical advice on tithing, Sabbath keeping, and the believer’s responsibility to follow grace principles for godly living.

You can read several moving tributes to Dr. Houghton from former students and others:

I never met Dr. Houghton. I’ve read his Law & Grace twice, and need to read it again. I disagreed with it, and may well disagree again. However, his learned presentation of a dispensational view of the issue, and his more than fair representation of the other side, will likely never be equaled. In that respect, his work has and will continue to be rightly esteemed among dispensationalists like Alva McClain’s Greatness of the Kingdom.

I wish he’d written more. I wish I’d taken some theology classes with him.

Good advice from a guy who oughta know

William Still was pastor of the same church in Scotland for 52 years. He died in 1997. He wrote a little book titled The Work of the Pastor. In it, he wrote the following:

Make sure you are called to the ministry, because the world gets worse and worse, and if ever there was a day when an evangelical minister could become a conventional member of society and fulfil a merely social role or occupy an official status, it is not today.

In which land is the church not in a real missionary situation as pilgrims and strangers in an alien, enslaved world? Even places with a rich evangelical heritage can take nothing for granted. When the superficially evangelistic community exhausts the solid biblical capital it has inherited from its forefathers, what is there to fall back upon?

There is more likelihood that it will become increasingly worldly in ostensible attempts to maintain communication with the lost world than that it will be willing to be led back to a solid biblical diet by ministers called of God to give it what it needs and not what it wants.

You need to be called of God to stick out from a complacent, alien community like a sore thumb. Nor will you need to try to stick out. Just be faithful, and God will arrange it, and you will be the talk of the community, however self-effacing you try to be.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 1164.

He also says this, which many American ministers who grotesquely marry a peculiar civil religion to the Word of God need to heed:

Because of the nationalisation of the church under Constantine, and the institutionalisation of it subsequently, she has failed to see that as a remnant church, gathering and building up a hidden Kingdom in an ever alien world, she is always in a missionary situation. The hope of the Christianisation of the state, or even the Christianisation of a complete community, is vain.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 801.

1: Bad, bad news

Some quick thoughts about the Bostock v. Clayton County court decision that came out yesterday. The impetus for the case were three separate instances where employees were terminated for being either homosexual or transgender. The Court consolidated all three cases, and the question before it was whether the definition of “sex” under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act included the concepts of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” The Court held that it did. My focus here is not the employee terminations; it’s the question before the Court and its decision to re-define “sex” in anti-discrimination law.

  1. Christians who have made an idol of supporting the Republican Party because of the alleged advantage of appointing “conservative justices” now have no leg to stand on. Justice Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, and Chief Justice Roberts concurred.
  2. Christians may have little meaningful reason to continue to support the Republican Party, except perhaps as the alleged lesser of two evils. We will likely see a wide-scale capitulation to this newest phase of the social revolution. President Trump has already figuratively shrugged his shoulders about the decision.
  3. Republican does not equal Christian. This much should have been obvious for a long time, but now it is clear as day. Christians who have looked to the Republican Party as a vehicle for achieving social change should now see the bankruptcy of this tactic. The Religious Right is dead. This is a good thing. This entire endeavor of the Church’s political activism in the service of social reform was a mistake. I have believed this for a long time. Read Stanley Hauerwas’ book Resident Aliens for a better strategy for the Church.
  4. The idea that “textualism” is a bulwark against bad legal interpretation is now dead forever. There is no way on earth legislators in 1964 would have understood “sex” to mean “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Yet, Justice Gorsuch wants us to read it in.
  5. Textualism is only as good as the document to which it pledges loyalty. Chief Justice Taney used “textualism” (an anachronism, I know – but it’s what he did) to defend his interpretation in Dred Scott v. Sanford. The only textualism that really matters is fidelity to scripture. Because our society no longer has any semblance of a Christian view of morality (see #7, below), textualism in service of the U.S. Constitution is not a strategy in which to place anything but deep skepticism.
  6. This decision will open a floodgate of unending litigation against every Christian institution in the country. The very concept of “sex” in the context of non-discrimination law has now been irrevocably altered. This has profound implications, because Christian universities, seminaries, organizations … and churches … will now be targeted by malicious actors. The very expression of reality in this country has now been changed.
  7. How you view the world determines how you think. The Judeo-Christian worldview used to be the philosophical foundation from which citizens understood moral values, even if wasn’t a self-conscious foundation. There used to be a residue of that worldview present in society. This Court decision signals that it is gone forever.
  8. Everybody has to identify some foundation for moral values. Once you cut yourself off from objective truth, you’re cast out onto the open sea of subjectivism. Sex means gender identity because … well, why not? Forget rationality. Forget history. Forget divine revelation. Forget biology. There are only our own subjective feelings, baptized in the laver of diagnoses from mental health professionals (the new secular priests, dispensing the sacrament on letterhead) by whose mystical incantations people are “declared” to suffer from gender dysphoria. People look to what they perceive to be an objective standard to make moral value judgments. Having rejected divine revelation, they’ll look elsewhere. Today, they often look to the sciences. The DSM-V is the Bible, and the mental health professional is the high priest dispensing pagan grace. With the diagnosis letter in hand, the doors are open to validating felt gender identity. Transgender is a valid paradigm. Why? The mental professional says! See, here’s the diagnosis letter …
  9. Employers will now have little recourse to curtail unprofessional and unacceptable workplace behavior. All the employee need do is to claim the behavior is an integral part of his “gender identity.” If you believe there will be “safeguards” in place for businesses to have reasonable leeway to enforce professional codes of conduct, you are very naive.
  10. Christians must figure out what they believe on the subjects of gender and sexual orientation. They must. There is nowhere to hide. Pastors who do not take a stand on this issue are cowards.
  11. Our nation is irrevocably broken. I am more and more inclined to advocate for the Church’s total withdrawal from public life, in the sense of political activism for the social good. The only role I now see for the Church in the public square is for evangelism. Again, see Resident Aliens and perhaps Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, though I have not yet read the latter.

I’m reading the Court documents, including the transcript of oral arguments and the decision itself, and will write up an analysis in the next month or so. I did the same for the Obergefell v. Hodges decision a few years back. It’ll be an analysis of the arguments and its implications from a Christian perspective. I hope to have it ready by late July.

Prophecy, Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

Prophecy, Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

This is a short exposition of 1 Corinthians 14. It’s based on notes I prepared for our adult bible study class. It doesn’t interact with the scholarly commentaries, and nobody will mistake it for a crushing blow that will lay Wayne Grudem low. Still, I believe it’s a faithful and accurate way to understand this difficult chapter. Perhaps some people will find it useful. 

Tongues are useless without an interpreter (1 Cor 14:1-5).

Paul wants Christians to cultivate love in their congregation (1 Cor 13), and to especially desire the ability to prophecy. I understand this to refer to direct revelation from God, in the Old Testament sense. Some believe it refers to general teaching or preaching. This view is possible, but I disagree.

I understand “tongues” to refer to intelligible, human language. I think this agrees with the evidence from Acts 2 and makes the best sense in this chapter. Paul doesn’t exactly denigrate tongues, but he remarks over and over that this gift has limited use in a church setting. Tongues is a gift for evangelism.

The one who speaks in a foreign language during a church meeting isn’t actually speaking to the congregation, but to God – because nobody but God understands what he’s saying (1 Cor 14:2)! Instead, he’s uttering mysteries by the Holy Spirit, who gives this miraculous gift. However, the person who speaks prophecy directly from God can be understood. He can encourage and build up the congregation. The man who speaks a foreign language can’t do any of that; nobody understands him (1 Cor 14:3). Instead, he builds and encourages himself. The man who prophesies builds up the congregation (1 Cor 14:4). This is why the gift of prophecy is better for the church than tongues, unless someone is available to interpret (1 Cor 14:5).

Build up the church, not yourself (1 Cor 14:6-12)

Paul asks an obvious question; how can you understand someone who speaks a foreign language unless an interpreter is present (1 Cor 14:6)!? You can’t, of course.

If a flute doesn’t sound a clear note, nobody can understand or appreciate it. If a bugle isn’t clear, nobody can obey the call. Likewise, if a foreign language isn’t interpreted, nobody will even know what’s being said! It’s like you’re speaking into the air (1 Cor 14:7-9).

There are lots of languages in the world, and they all mean something (1 Cor 14:10). But, if you don’t understand the language, the audience and the speaker will be foreigners to one another (1 Cor 14:11). So, Christians should focus on gifts that will actually build up the congregation (1 Cor 14:12). The gift of tongues won’t do that.

How to use the gift of languages (1 Cor 14:13-19)

This is why the person who has the gift of speaking in a foreign language should pray that he has the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). This implies that some people could speak foreign languages, but didn’t even understand what they were saying! In this case, I assume the Christian is somehow a passive vehicle for communicating via the Spirit. This is strange, because Acts 2 suggests the Christians understood what they were saying to the Pentecost pilgrims. Whatever the situation was, Paul suggests they not be content with being passive actors.

Our minds must be engaged in worship (1 Cor 14:14-15). If you pray or speak in a foreign language, and you yourself don’t even understand what you’re saying, how can this build up anybody (1 Cor 14:16-17)? This is why Paul would rather instruct believers than speak 10,000 words in a foreign language that doesn’t do any good for anybody (1 Cor 14:19).

What tongues (“languages”) are for (1 Cor 14:20-25)

Paul suggests the Corinthians be mature as they think about this (1 Cor 14:20). Isaiah 28:11 suggests that, one day, Gentiles will come with strange languages and teach the Israelites about Yahweh (1 Cor 14:21). Paul takes this ironic situation and applies it to his own context – the gift to speak foreign languages isn’t for believers, but for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). Prophecy, on the other hand, is for believers (1 Cor 14:22).

This is why, if an outsider wanders into your assembly and sees everybody speaking foreign languages to one another, he’ll think you’re all insane (1 Cor 14:23)! But, if someone enters and hears prophecy direct from the Lord, he is convicted, he’s called to account, and he’ll worship God and confess that He’s present in the church (1 Cor 14:24-25). This is because prophecy can be understood by anybody, but tongues is for evangelism (cp. Acts 2).

Orderly worship (1 Cor 14:26-32)

So, prophecy and foreign language gifts should be done decently, in order, without chaos. Everything should be for edification (1 Cor 14:26).

If someone has the gift of languages, then have no more than two or three speak in turn, and someone must be there to interpret (1 Cor 14:27). If there isn’t an interpreter, nobody should speak (1 Cor 14:28).

For prophecy, let two or three speak and have others weigh what they say (1 Cor 14:29). If one person receives a revelation from God during the meeting, others should give way to let him speak (1 Cor 14:30). The prophets should speak one by one, so everyone in the congregation can be encouraged (1 Cor 14:31). The prophets are subject to one another, to critique and “check” one another (1 Cor 14:32).

Women and prophecy (1 Cor 14:33-36)

1 Cor 14:33-36: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

This is the most difficult part of Paul’s letter. I believe Paul means that wives should keep silent (1 Cor 14:34) in the context of critiquing and “checking” their husbands, who have just uttered prophesies.[1] Paul can’t be saying women can’t ever speak in a public gathering, for several reasons:

  1. it would imply women are somehow structurally inferior; contra Gal 3:28
  2. it contradicts 1 Cor 11:5, which says women did regular prophesy in church services
  3. it would contradict Joel’s prophesy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:18)
  4. it contradicts the prominent servant roles of Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3), Priscilla (Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19); Mary (Rom 16:6), Junia (Rom 16:7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12), Phoebe the deacon (Rom 16:1-2), Nympha who hosted a house church (Col 4:15)

The language of submission and shame suggest this is likely a case of women who are critiquing their husband’s prophesies during a church meeting. Indeed, Paul has just finished explaining how to handle prophecy during a church meeting, including critique or questioning afterwards. There is probably a local context to this controversy that we’ll never know. The data of other women performing prominent servant roles in various New Testament churches (see above) means this is likely a local command, for a local context, for a very specific situation.

I assume Corinth had a particular problem with some wives criticizing, critiquing or otherwise embarrassing their husbands during public church meetings. The overriding principle is that husbands and wives should not embarrass one another in public (cp. Eph 5:21ff). If the wife has concerns about her husband’s prophecy, she must ask at home – where there is no danger of embarrassment or shame.[2] In other words, rather than embarrass your husband in public, just ask in the car on the way home!

The reference “as the law also says” (1 Cor 14:34) is a general reference to the Old Covenant, likely to Gen 3:16 and the perpetual battle between the sexes in a marriage relationship in a post-fall context.

Wrapping up (1 Cor 14:36-40)

Paul concludes with some sharp, rhetorical arrows. The word of God didn’t just come to the church in Corinth, did it (1 Cor 14:36-37)!? Any true Christian should acknowledge Paul’s authority to speak on Yahweh’s behalf (1 Cor 14:37). If someone doesn’t acknowledge Paul’s authority, he shouldn’t be considered a Christian (1 Cor 14:38). Ask God for the ability to utter prophesies. Don’t forbid foreign languages in the church; just make sure everything is done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40).


[1] I am following (1) David Garland, 1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 664-673 and (2) Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 510-515.

[2] “Paul disallows speech in the assembly that would suggest that a wife is being insubordinate toward her husband, whether it is an interruption or a challenge to a prophetic utterance. The delicate relationship between husband and wife is imperiled by the wife’s public questioning, correcting, or challenging,” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 671).

Likewise, Kistemaker observes, “[t]he Corinthian women at worship are not told to be silent in respect to praying, prophesying, and singing psalms and hymns. They are, however, forbidden to speak when the prophesies of their husbands are discussed,” (1 Corinthians, 513).

Pray for Christians in China

The Chinese government continues to persecute religious groups, including Muslims and Christians. This is largely a policy by China’s President, Xi Jinping, who is attempting to construct a cult of personality around himself not seen since the days of Mao. Organized religion is an obvious roadblock to this goal; thus the systematic persecution. If you have a New York Times subscription (or some free articles remaining), see these background article on China’s attempts build a civil religion centered on the State: https://nyti.ms/2SCC5cO

An evangelical Chinese pastor was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for his refusal to lead his church to bow to persecution. For a latter-day example of Acts 4:23-31 in action, see the church’s statement on its pastor’s sentence, which includes the following:

Praise God for the faithful witness of our brother in Christ, whose reward is now great in heaven. May the Lord use Pastor Wang Yi’s imprisonment to draw many to himself and to bring glory to his name.

China’s mass imprisonment of Muslims in the Western portion of the country is likely the largest mass incarceration and round-up of an ethnic group since the Holocaust. For some context on the crackdown on Muslims, see https://bit.ly/2SQf4n9, and especially:

For news about the Christian persecution, see the articles here: https://bit.ly/39nOGqm.

Pray for the Christians in China!

Good Advice from a Dead Englishman

J.B. Phillips is best known for his translation of the New Testament, which he began during the War while he was a young Anglican vicar. He also wrote a number of small, practical books for “ordinary” believers. One of these was a little book titled New Testament Christianity, published in 1956.

I picked the book up on my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s Books, in downtown Portland. This is a great little book. I’ll write more on it in the coming weeks. For now, here’s a taster (pg. 99):

We may be full of joy, but we are not here for our amusement. We are here to be used as instruments in God’s purpose. It is a fine thing to know that we are ‘right with God,’ ‘converted,’ ‘born again,’ and all the rest of it, but after a while such experiences become stale an unsatisfying unless we are passing the Good News on to others, positively assisting the work of the Church, or definitely bringing to bear upon actual human situations the pattern of Christian living.

This means in effect that each Christian must ask himself, ‘Am I myself outward-looking in my Christian experience, or am I content to remain in a safe ‘Christian rut?’ The recovery of the Church’s power rests ultimately upon the individual Christian’s answer to such a question.

More to come later …