Assessing the Future of the churches of Christ: Part 2- Recognizing Real Threats

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Note for the Reader: This post is a continuation of a series that I started here regarding the future of the churches of Christ. Reading that piece will, hopefully, help contextualize what I say here.

I have to be honest before I fully embark on this piece: I have spent more time editing and rewriting this essay than almost any other work I’ve ever undertaken, even as a graduate student. I love the churches of Christ, and I long for this fellowship that I call home to be successful. I take no pleasure in noting her flaws or thinking about the ways in which she may destroy herself, and that’s manifested itself in the fact that I’ve discarded roughly 7500 words total over the course of writing the piece you’re reading right now. At times, I deleted something because I thought it was too harsh or unfair; in other instances, I discarded things that I thought to be unhelpful or vague. Other times, I got rid of something because I could already hear people saying, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience,” or otherwise missing my point because I wasn’t precise in my writing. My point in saying all of this is that I want to be careful, precise, and straightforward in writing this, because I love the church and recognize that if I’m going to critique the church, then I should do it in a way that is fair, honest, and helpful. With all that in mind, there are three broad, but pointed statements I want to make and try to unpack.

1. Should the churches of Christ “fall,” we will be brought down from within. I recognize, of course, that Jesus Christ declared that he would build his church and that Hell’s gates would not prevail against them, which is, amongst other things, a declaration of the impossibility of Jesus’ mission through the church failing. I also recognize, however, that congregations that seemed to be doing very well have been in mortal danger, even in the New Testament. Consider Revelation 2 & 3, which contain Jesus’ words to specific congregations in John’s day. It is easy to imagine ourselves as Smyrna or Philadelphia, faithful, yet suffering congregations, to whom Jesus says, “endure, for I am coming.” I worry, however, that it is far more accurate to see ourselves more in the congregation at Ephesus. The Ephesian congregation seems to be great in Rev 2: 1-3, and I see some parallels with congregations in the churches of Christ today. We pride ourselves on our devotion to Scripture and our testing of every manmade tradition against what God has said. We have little patience for false teachers, and we can arguably show some scars for our faith (though they would, at least in America, generally be light and small things compared to those our brothers and sisters at Ephesus bore). We are certainly a zealous people as well. However, I worry if, like Ephesus, we have left our first love, if we have lost sight of the proper motive for our dedication to Scripture and the way our zeal is supposed to be shaped and directed. Some balk at the notion that the churches of Christ could ever fail, but I wonder if some in Ephesus rejected the warnings they received about removing their lampstand as well.

We have no direct evidence of what happened in Ephesus in response to Jesus’ grave warning, but I know this: if they did not repent as Jesus instructed, then Jesus assuredly did just as he said he would and that should terrify us. If Jesus is willing to take Ephesus’ lampstand, then we have no reason to think that he’s not willing to do the same for churches today that refuse the warnings he gives in Scripture. The churches of Christ as we exist today will not fail because of people outside the church not wanting “hard preaching” or “just wanting to be entertained.” The churches of Christ, if they fail, will do so because we are unwilling to fully submit ourselves to Scripture, instead holding our opinions and preferences as sacrosanct. We will fail because we are unwilling to roll up our sleeves and engage with the world around us, instead demanding that the world meet us on our terms (an absurd request anyway, given the spiritual deadness of those outside of Christ). If we fail, it will be because we forfeited our lampstand by virtue of loving something, anything, more than we love Jesus. Should the churches of Christ end up relegated to footnotes in church history textbooks, it will be our fault and our fault alone.

2. As a rule, you attract the kind of people that you want to be around. Paul declares in 1 Cor. 15:33 that “bad company corrupts good morals.” While this is obviously true, I think a corollary to this statement is also true, that being that the company you keep says something about you, especially with reference to the kind of people you want to be around. James warns us against the sin of partiality explicitly in James 2, and Jesus frequently lived out impartiality by associating with societal outcasts, be it by eating and drinking with them, or by casting them as important figures in his parables. Yet, when we look around in our own assemblies, we may not act on partiality as such, but the makeup of our congregations reveals something about us. Common sense dictates that no one goes out of their way to be around people that they don’t want anything to do with. Granted, overriding factors can adjust how this aphorism plays out, but those factors only verify the principle in real time. Your friends and associates are a reflection of your priorities, your values, and most importantly, what kind of people you think are worth being around.

Think about the makeup of your own congregation and the company you keep religiously. During worship on Sunday morning, are you surrounded by people who look, think, and act just as you do? Do the people filling the pews every Sunday resemble the kind of people in the neighborhoods around the church building? Are people from all walks of life welcome, really and truly? Do we harbor expectations of people cleaning themselves up and meeting our standards (not the Bible’s) before they can show up? We sing “the Gospel is for all,” but I wonder at times if we really believe that. Every Christian, myself included, has to be willing to honestly ask themselves something like the following: “At both a personal and congregational level, what kind of people do I reach out to with the Gospel? What kind of people do I want to worship with? What kind of people would I prefer go somewhere else?” Honestly answering these questions will serve as a useful, and potentially unnerving, diagnostic for where our hearts are at both in evangelism and church life in general.

3. What you win people with is what you win them to. This has been stated numerous times by various people (I’ve seen it attributed to Kevin DeYoung and Kyle Idleman, as well as seeing Bob Hyatt saying it without attribution) and there’s a certain power to it. Paul Washer has made a similar case, noting that if you use carnal means to draw people in, you’ll draw carnal people. Both are true and both unsettle me deeply, but the first has more effect on me. The churches of Christ have historically decried “carnal” lures (entertainment, giveaways, fancy meals, etc.,) but I worry if some have not used altogether more destructive lures and drawn people away to unhealthy and perilous places. What we are called to win people to is obvious, even banal; Jesus and his teaching ought to be what we guide people to, per the Great Commission. The question naturally arises, however, of whether that is what people are being led to. Perhaps the easiest way to diagnose this is to ask a person what their idea of a Christian is, and not just in the sense of what makes a person a New Testament Christian. Ask them not just about key doctrines, but about various expectations and “unspoken rules.” Take note of what gets a person most incensed too, and you’ll be on the right track toward finding what it is that they care about, or more accurately what they were taught to care about. I worry that, if we’re honest, what has happened for so many Christians is not just that they’ve been led and won over to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but also to an extra-Biblical set of requirements borne out of someone else’s opinions and preferences. In a worst case, it may not just be opinions and preferences they’ve adopted, but also caustic attitudes. Behind the fire-breathing dragon that many Christians resort to being is a preacher or evangelist that blasted them with fire first.

While these may be most applicable to the thinking of hardline and harsh conservative/fundamentalist types, this phenomenon is also applicable to other instances. If we bring our children into the church on the wings of shallow Bible lessons, and we continue to give them shallow lessons even as they grow up and become Christians themselves, we have little reason to be surprised when they become adults who not only know very little of the Bible, but also care very little about it. If we bring people in on flimsy or whimsical preaching, we ought not act hurt and offended when that is what people continue to expect and want. Whether our error has been too far on the side of soft and unfulfilling spirituality or harsh and destructive legalism will vary from one individual or group to another, but this notion is worth bearing in mind. When we urge people to become Christians, what are we calling them to and how are we calling them? While exact methodology can differ in healthy and God-honoring ways, our central aim ought to always be to call people to faith in Christ and living for him, nothing more and certainly nothing less. Anything else is a death warrant slowly signed and laboriously sealed, saving no one and heaping condemnation on ourselves for preaching a false gospel.

These three points, as I see and understand them, cover every substantive threat that the churches of Christ face today, at least in part. If we as a tradition that strives to be the church as God intended are to have success at all in this day and age, we’ll have to seriously contend with these three points in both our personal and congregational efforts. With all of this said, I’m reasonably optimistic about the future. The first piece in this series was somewhat neutral, and this piece was arguably negative, but in the last piece, I want to focus on the positive and talk about why I think the future can be bright for the churches of Christ, if we are willing to put our best foot forward and work. If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, you have my thanks, and this is especially true of my readers in the churches of Christ. I hope that this has been a helpful bit of reading for you and that it will start conversations that lead to the church being the best it can be for the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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A Different Perspective on How Calvinism Became Cool Again

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Those of you unfortunate enough to know me in person know that my academic interests center heavily on the Protestant Reformation, specifically the theology born out of that movement, and especially Calvinism. I’ve spent a lot of time reading works from the Reformation and from modern adherents of Calvinism. Be it Calvin, Manton, Owen, Packer, Keller, Carson, or Piper, I’ve spent a good deal of time with them in the form of reading them or, if they’re on YouTube, watching them. I didn’t learn about Calvinism from a personal experience like meeting a Calvinist. Sure, I’d heard of it before, but I’d never actually met a devout Calvinist or knowingly read anything a Calvinist said. Like others, I was exposed gradually and then started digging deeper for myself. That started because back when I was a wee little lad in undergrad, a friend on Facebook shared a “sermon jam” video featuring Matt Chandler. I started listening to his sermons more and more frequently because he was a compelling and effective speaker. Chandler referenced John Piper, who I would begin listening to and reading, and this would naturally lead me to his most well known work, Desiring God.

There has been a whole wave of people being drawn to Calvinism in the last 10–15 years, leading to the surge of what’s called New Calvinism and even a “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. This apparently surprised many people, leading to a question: “Where did these people come from?” Mark Dever, a Calvinist Baptist pastor and theologian, addressed this question helpfully in a series of blog posts, which can be found compiled here. He’s not the only one to address the question though. Monday, a fellow from my religious neck of the woods wrote briefly about this question. I wanted to offer a different perspective on what he said, not so much because I think it was a bad article (it was actually fairly useful as an introduction for the uninitiated, though I would quibble with the author here and there), but because I don’t think it fully addresses the question of how Calvinism became popular.My main issue with this take on New Calvinism is that it focuses on the power of the cult of personality. “Calvinism is popular again because these people made it appealing,” is a short summary of the aforementioned article. Many names are mentioned, with brief explanations of their significance, but there’s not much substantial discussion. Obviously, that’s a side effect of most blogs making comparatively short posts, but it still leaves something to be desired. Sure, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, and others have drawn people to Calvinism, but how have they done so? That’s what I want to try to answer here. Before I do that, however, I want to make something clear: I’m not a Calvinist and I’m not approaching this question as a Calvinist. Instead, I’m looking at this from the outside and, in part, reflecting on why Calvinism as a movement has kept my attention as it has.

  1. Calvinism is a richly conservative system with a fascinating history of brilliant devotees. Whether one reads Calvin’s Institutes, Murray’s commentary on Romans, Owen’s exposition of Hebrews, or a variety of other works, it is very easy to find intellectually rigorous and faithful interaction with God’s Word. When you pick up a commentary written by a respected Reformed writer, you’ll almost assuredly find thoughtful and meticulous work, even if you disagree with the conclusions that are drawn. What’s more, the personalities of the Reformed movement are often themselves just as interesting and entertaining. People who have become bored and discontented with intellectually weak preaching or liberal tomfoolery find in Calvin and his progeny a welcome combination of piety and scholarship.
  2. Keeping with its intellectual rigor, Calvinism is a system of thought that lends itself to building a whole and consistent worldview. Christians find themselves confused frequently when addressing various social issues and this is largely due to their not having given much thought to their worldview. They have a worldview, because everyone does, but they just haven’t developed it much beyond a few key beliefs. Reformed theology offers a consistent (though not necessarily correct) system by which a person can assess a question and arrive at an answer. Al Mohler, for instance in his “Ask Anything tours,” emphasizes that he doesn’t just want to answer questions, but that he also wants to have a conversation about how to think. Rather than merely saying, “I believe,” Reformed theology sets the groundwork for, “I believe, and my beliefs have consequences.”
  3. Reformed theology strikes a balance between passion and intellect. The great intellectual figures of Reformed theology are/were not just nerds in ivory towers. Instead, their writing and preaching is marked by intensity and deep concern over issues near and dear to their hearts, and this passion plays out in their lives as well. A good contemporary example would be John Piper and his non-theological writing, specifically the poems that he writes for his wife, which have been partially compiled in Velvet Steel. Few men today write letters to their wives, fewer still write poetry, and fewer still than that write poetry for their wives in a language other than their native language. Yet Piper, despite his capacity for rigorous work, as demonstrated elsewhere, also turns his talent to expressing his love for his wife in poetry both in English and German. Even when one reads John Owen, known mostly for his being mercilessly precise in polemic, one can find him being deeply caring and concerned for his readers, and his work as a pastor was marked by his being deeply invested in people. People today want little to do with intellect bereft of love and most recognize the futility of vigor without intelligent direction. Reformed theology rejects the dichotomy of passion and intellect, insisting instead on passionate intellect.
  4. Reformed theologians take great pains to answer questions that people are asking. Yes, many pages are written over intramural debates, but just as much attention, if not more, is given to pressing issues of the day, addressed through the lens of Reformed thought. The Gospel Coalition has been especially visible in this capacity, frequently publishing on current issues. One may like or dislike what they talk about or how they talk about it, but New Calvinists can scarcely be accused of ignoring contemporary issues.

This isn’t exhaustive, as you could ask ten people what makes Calvinism appealing to them and get eleven answers, but hopefully it offers a perspective that’s complimentary to others given in various places. As I wrap this up, I want to take these four points and state them as directives and suggestions for fellow Christians to consider. This is especially crucial because the question that usually follows “Why is Calvinism cool again?” is “How do we respond?” In answering this question, I have five suggestions, four of which are based on what we’ve discussed.

1. It behooves us to speak fairly and accurately, especially when describing those with whom we disagree or discussing with them. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many descriptions of Calvinism that are just wrong and worse still, could be corrected with even a cursory bit of research. When we unfairly malign people, we make them more sympathetic, even if they’re wrong. Worse still, our failure to speak fairly and accurately will, perhaps permanently, hamper our efforts to be heard.

2. We must strive to be robust both in our faith and our intellect. Christians are to love God with their minds and part of this is the pursuit of excellence in the academy without sacrificing the historic Christian faith.

3. Flowing out of the pursuit of intellectual excellence, Christians must dedicate themselves not merely to having the right answers, but also having a consistent framework in which we examine questions. It is not enough to know the answers that matter: we must also know how to arrive at the answers that matter and lead others to the same.

4. We must embrace Godly passion. I’ve touched on this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it, but the mind and the heart are not enemies and we ought not insist on their acting as such. Christian history is marked by people who both thought deeply and felt deeply, and we out to emulate their doing so.

5. Perhaps most importantly, we ought to give greater attention to questions people are actually asking. I remember, about 3 years ago, sitting in the crowd at an “open forum” wherein people were free to ask questions to a panel. Good questions were asked and led to good discussion, as is usually the case at these things, but one question stands out to me today as being oh so very inane: the question of formal attire in worship. Now, I’ll argue about this all day, because I’ve had my faithfulness to essential doctrine questioned because I wore shorts to a Wednesday night service in the middle of a Mississippi summer. However, I was dumbfounded not so much at a person asking the question; it was, as I recall, a younger person asking and as such, I imagine it only recently came into their awareness, so that’s fair. What dumbfounded me was that so many people got so very incensed by it. Upwards of 25 minutes were spent in very heated debate over whether you could enter a church building at designated times without a tie! Little time was left for other questions, several of which were more technical and all of which were of greater interest both to many present and to the world at large. So it is with many of our own intramural debates.

With all of that said, I’m going to be very blunt here: the overwhelming majority of people could not care less about most of our intramural debates. John Doe off the street not only doesn’t know that people argue about instruments in worship, he also can’t even begin to care. Don’t hear what I’m not saying though: these debates matter, because they are questions of truth and truth matters by its very nature. My contention is not that we abandon intramural debates. Instead, we should, especially when evangelizing to people and in our weekly teaching and preaching, focus on a balance of rich theological teaching and addressing the questions that people are asking. Not having a worship band or expecting men to tuck their shirt in is not ultimately what keeps people away from the churches of Christ (good research has actually been done on this point: doctrine is what keeps people in church, not music styles or other factors). Rather, assuming that the research holds true with some consistency, what keeps people from the churches of Christ is that their questions about doctrine and how that doctrine plays out in the real world aren’t being satisfactorily answered or, in the worst cases, even addressed. People want answers about their faith, how that faith plays into current issues, and how to navigate personal life in a consistently Christian way and if all we’re going to offer them is a review of our pet doctrines every week, then they will seek answers elsewhere.

Many preachers that I know already strive to do this and model all 5 of these points well (and encourage their fellow Christians to do the same) and I’m thrilled to be able to say that the majority of these preachers have found that their congregations are healthier for it. Calvinism may be “cool” again, but it’s not because a random man who is now in his 70’s and has worn tweed jackets for the last 50 years suddenly caught the eye of millennials who thought, “Huh, so that’s Calvinism. Alright, I’m sold.” Instead, that man in a tweed jacket brought something to the table that people were craving, as did many of his contemporaries and friends. Calvinism is cool again because Calvinists rolled up their sleeves and did the hard work of engaging the world around them. The churches of Christ should look at the New Calvinist movement and take two lessons from it and those lessons are what I’ll close on:

1. We have no more excuses. Growing up, I heard many people bemoan how people weren’t coming to church because they just didn’t want to hear hard teaching. “Our beliefs aren’t very popular,” some would say with resignation. The New Calvinists take this kind of attitude and laugh in its face. Let’s be honest; Calvinism might be “cool,” but it’s not popular, not by honest or objective means. Strictly conservative and Reformed churches are a minority, and in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest religious body in the United States, Calvinism is hotly contested, with intense debate and vitriol coming out disagreements between Calvinists and “Traditionalists.” Calvinists could very easily say, “Our beliefs aren’t very popular,” and consign themselves to small gatherings and a minority role in American religious life, as some members of the churches of Christ have done. Instead, they’ve stood up, straightened up their shirts, and gotten back out there to spread their message. As Christians, we have no excuse not to do the same.

2. We can have our very own resurgence, if we want it. The field is ripe for harvest and people today want religious truth, not stuffy religiosity. Fortunately for us, the Restoration Movement’s whole historical emphasis was stripping away meaningless religious fluff to get at truth. Even better, our movement has also historically emphasized living out that truth, something that people long for today. I’m thoroughly convinced that anything that New Calvinism can do, we can do better, and I say that as someone with a great respect and admiration for New Calvinism. There is an entire world out there that wants meaningful religious truth that impacts their lives in both profound and mundane ways and I think we’ve got that in spades. So, what’re we waiting for? Let’s put ourselves out there and see what people think. I believe that if we’ll roll up our sleeves and do the work of really engaging the world around us, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Encroaching Darkness: a Perspective on Suicide and Depression

“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways and die over and over again each hour.”- Charles Spurgeon, “Honey in the Mouth,” MTP, Vol. 37, p. 485

In the wake of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, people have, quite naturally, begun to think about suicide and ask difficult questions around it. Why would these two people do such a thing? Both were reasonably successful and wealthy, and thus, people may understandably think, had no reason to do such a thing. Yet, therein lies the issue: crushing sorrow and the taking of one’s life are rarely, if ever, rational issues. I’ve never encountered the person, by research or personal encounter, who arrived at attempting suicide by rationality and I strongly suspect I never will. That is why, despite the fact that there are many things I would rather write about, I wanted to take a moment and write on my own experience with suicide and depression.

As a preface, please understand: my “expert” knowledge of these subjects is limited, as I only minored in psychology in undergrad and have been briefly trained in suicide prevention by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. I write this piece not as an expert sharply honed in the classroom or as a seasoned therapist, but as one who has walked through two distinct seasons of life with an overwhelming darkness hanging over him. There is a lot I could go into detail about, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only focus on two major aspects of my own struggles.

My Story

As a young teenager, I struggled with a consistent and draining melancholy. I was bullied at school and found no relief at home. Teachers would watch me be bullied, be it physically or verbally, and do nothing. Worse still, when I objected to such treatment, I was scolded and in some instances, disciplined, for disrupting class. In fact, on one occasion, a teacher told me that if I weren’t so weird, then bullies would leave me alone. At home, I was scolded for not standing up for myself, yet, I would also be scolded when teachers would inevitably mark my calling on them to stop bullies or my own feeble attempts at stopping the bullies myself as an infraction of the rules. The situation felt like a game that everyone knew was rigged against me that I was required to play anyway.

Now, as a reasonably well adjusted adult, this sort of thing would barely be an issue: if I don’t like a situation I’m in, I can, with relative ease, just leave and I can usually effectively assert myself. That said, as a teenager, such a situation was shattering. By itself, bullying isn’t/wasn’t so bad; many people are bullied or picked on and handle it fairly well. The difficulty comes in the fact that the people that could do something about it didn’t and were more than happy to tell me that they wouldn’t. The message I took away from the situation at the time was crystal clear, as I saw it: “You aren’t worth defending. You deserve to be treated poorly and you’ll be punished if you try to escape.” Now, combine that with everything else that comes from being an awkward and overall unappealing teenage boy and you’ve got a very potent sadness cocktail for a teenager to have to drink.

Much of my teenage years are at this point a blur that I struggle to remember. I do, however, remember that until I was about 14 years old, I frequently had suicidal ideations. Life was, as I saw it, painful, not only because of everything mentioned already, but because of other factors that I don’t want to mention here. I went about my days feeling like I was in a thick fog, desperately wanting the fog to lift, but seeing no tangible point at which it would. Thankfully, and obviously, that is not where things ended. Transitioning from middle school to high school alleviated most of the issues at hand, thanks largely in part to new teachers and rarely encountering the bullies from middle school again.

Things gradually improved and by the end of high school, I was a reasonably happy young man, barring the normative struggles that high school brings. Starting college was an even greater breath of air. My professors were wonderful people who treated me with genuine kindness and respect and I found good friends quickly. All signs were pointing to good things ahead. However, not everything was going to go so swimmingly. On May 20, 2012, I was driving home from preaching. I was exhausted by staying up multiple nights in a row to study for finals, especially my Greek final. As a result, I fell asleep at the wheel and flipped my Jeep. When I came to, I screamed for help and was answered by an emergency worker shouting, “He’s alive!” Indeed I was, and I was only mildly injured at that, having some cuts and bruises, as well as a crushed knuckle. All things considered, it looked like I got out of the situation about as well as one could.

Months later, I started my sophomore year of college, and I was looking forward to what was next. As things got underway, however, I struggled greatly. My memory was substantially worse than it had ever been, I made frequent errors in casual speech and I struggled with insomnia. When I did manage to sleep, I would have nightmares of being hit by a car and would rarely feel rested. When I was awake, I felt like I was in an all too familiar fog, unable to think clearly or interact meaningfully. On top of all that, all the pain I’d experienced as a teenager was forced back to the forefront of my consciousness and consumed most of my waking thoughts. My grades suffered and I could feel myself breaking. This culminated in sitting in sitting in a professor’s officer, crying and explaining that I didn’t know what to do. This professor hugged my neck and urged me to go to the university’s counseling center, which I did. There, I went to weekly appointments wherein I rehearsed and unlearned the pain that I had experienced, and came out a more whole person.

I’ve come out of these experiences a better and more complete person, but there is still a struggle. To this day, I still suffer from bouts of extreme lethargy and sadness, sometimes lasting for days on end. I still remember the pain and the desire to die, and in my worst moments, I still faintly feel the “call of the void,” though now, I also quickly and decisively reject that call. Despite all of that, I am better and see the beauty in life, even if that is sometimes expressed through aggressively morbid humor.

My Recommendation

By this point, dear reader, you know more about me than you likely ever wanted to know and you may understandably wonder, “What is the point of telling me this?” Well, there are two points. First, to the one struggling, a few key affirmations and encouragements. Life does get better, though it rarely improves quickly or easily. It may take years of struggling, but things will improve. You are not alone: your pain is uniquely yours, but you are not without others who have felt a similar pain and and who are willing to walk with you in it. You may feel that you have no one in this world who deeply cares for you and loves you, and in the worst cases you may be right, but you still have people who are on your side. Few, if any, people respond to a person coming to them for help in such a dire time indifferently, even if they are otherwise lukewarm. As such, if you can bear it at all, avail yourself of the resources around you. Counseling is tremendously helpful, particularly if your issue is a cognitive/behavioral one, and there are options available if your issue is a chemical one. There are veritable legions of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting alongside people like you, and they will do all they can to help you. If you find yourself struggling today, I beg you, don’t give in. Life is beautiful, despite the pain, and the fight is worth it. With that said, bear in mind that you may never find full freedom this side of life. Spurgeon, who I quoted earlier, was no stranger to mental illness and disorder and he also knew for some, it is an inborn thing: “Some are touched with melancholy from their birth,” as he said. You may find that you have to fight for the rest of your life, but I would encourage you in saying that there are many who will be ready to fight alongside you.

To those who are not struggling, take note as well, because it is exceedingly likely that you know someone who is. Keep an eye on your friends and family, and take notice when things don’t seem right. Be bold and gentle, willing to ask seemingly simple questions and if you’re like me, put aside southern hospitality when you do. Don’t take “I’m fine” as an answer when they are clearly not fine. Be a consistent source of love and affirmation to the people you know and mean it when you say, “I’m here for you.” Bear in mind, however, that you’re fighting an uphill battle. You are not fighting a fair fight or even a sensible one when you choose to step into the ring with mental illness of any kind and severity. Still, your willingness to stay in the fight, even in some small way, is valuable. A kind word or gesture, though itself a small thing, can be like a cup of water in the desert to a person suffering. You cannot do everything, but what you do can shine through a terrible darkness. Above all, however, recognize where your ability to help ends and where to go when you reach your limit. Learn about the mental health resources in your area and take a bit of time to learn about what to look out for. Being able to to say, “I can’t help you, but I know where you can get help,” will be infinitely more helpful than you realize.

Finally, to those who have walked with me through my own darkness, thank you. Whether you realize it or not, your love and kindness has been an invaluable aid to me and has pulled me through the darkest nights I have ever seen. Some of you may never know just how much you have done for me even by the simple act of being my friend. Your words of encouragement, humor, and even time spent together, has been a treasure trove of tremendous value. You have challenged me to reject the lies I would tell myself, sometimes directly, and you have done a greater kindness to me than I can ever repay.

More importantly, I must also point to my greatest ally in my struggle with this and every other darkness. Triune God, infinite and resplendent, you above all are to thank for where I am today. Since eternity past, you have known me and loved me, and I have benefitted from this love even in my worst days. Father, you loved me and chose me in your Son, Jesus, ordaining that his death would be a sufficient sacrifice for my sin and the sin of the world. Jesus, you took on mortal flesh and knew pain and sorrow. Living a perfect life, you did what I nor my first father could, and died in our place, offering up your righteousness for my rags. Spirit, you have sealed me for the day of redemption, a solemn sign of the efficacy of the work of Jesus. You breathe new life into me, and you groan alongside me, speaking on my behalf in ways that I never could. I have found in you, God of my salvation, one who is sufficient in all my struggles, who cares for me and has done for me far greater things than I can imagine. Others have been a great aid to me, but you alone are my sun and shield, in whom my soul trusts.

Soli Deo Gloria

Assessing the Future of the churches of Christ: Part 1- a Diagnostic of a Non-Threat

Please Note: The next three posts were supposed to be a single post about why I’m cautiously optimistic regarding the churches of Christ in the 21st century. However, because I’m long-winded, I thought it best to break this into three posts so as to avoid writing a novel. The first two parts will focus on the negative, with the final point focusing on the positive. You will have my dearest thanks if you consider all three posts together.

Growing up in a group is a double-edged sword of sorts. Yes, one might gain a special appreciation for their roots and maybe even have a feeling of nostalgia, but there is also the possibility of a frustration not at all dissimilar to seeing your child doing something embarrassing. I’ve found this to be the case with my experience growing up in the churches of Christ. There is the appreciation I have for our broadly conservative and intellectually driven history, yes, but there’s also been a fair share of times I’ve simply had to watch the train wreck and shake my head in disbelief. It’s this mix of admiration and consternation that brought me to the point of writing this series. I have high hopes for the churches of Christ, but those hopes are matched by what I perceive to be serious issues that have to be acknowledged and addressed. With all that said, let’s talk about what I think is good, bad, and overblown. Of course, this will be lengthy, because I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of writing in brief. The first topic is something I’ve heard talked about for years, but not all the talk has been helpful.

Liberalism: Our Favorite Bogeyman

Growing up, I didn’t hear the words liberal and conservative very frequently outside of the occasional political discussion, usually set within the context of a history or government class. After I graduated from high school, however, I began to notice the term getting thrown around more and more frequently, sometimes jokingly, sometimes very seriously. Now, here is the strange part of it: few, if any, people ever seemed to have a consistent definition of what a liberal or a conservative is. Sure, there’s the very broad definitions of liberals being people who tend to eschew tradition while conservatives tend to cling to tradition, but such definitions can only take one so far. As a case in point, consider a choice exchange between myself and a fellow Bible major during my undergraduate years. This guy, whom we’ll call Jack for the sake of narrative, was bemoaning how a particular congregation had embraced liberalism and how disappointed he thought a noted 20th century preacher would be by the state of this congregation today. In his elegy for all things good and pure at this particular congregation, he never spoke of specifics and that bothered me, so I asked him a question. “What makes that congregation liberal?” It seems like a simple question, right? As such, I expected a simple answer. What I got instead was Jack looking at me as if I had sprouted an arm out of my forehead. “Uh, um, well, they’re just liberal!” Jack exclaimed, apparently dumbfounded either by my inability to read his mind, or by my not simply accepting his assessment of things. Bear in mind, this was no novice. This was a fellow Bible major, who was either a junior or senior at the time, who came from a family of preachers and teachers, one of whom teaches at a brotherhood university today. He should’ve been able to identify this congregation’s departures from truth with relative ease and yet, when pressed, he could point to no such thing that made this congregation “liberal.”

This is illustrative of part of the issue of liberalism in the churches of Christ: no one seems to be able to nail down what a liberal is and efforts to do so will occasionally be met with, at best, strange looks. The other issue is a bit more insidious and illustrated by another incident. When I had free time in my college years, I’d visit various congregations, and it just so happened that I visited one congregation fairly frequently: I liked their adult Bible class, and the people there were friendly, as well as it being a convenient place to go. A friend of mine balked at my going there and asked me why I would go to a “liberal” congregation. I don’t really consider myself a liberal, so I was puzzled and asked what was so liberal about this congregation. “They clap during worship,” this person said. I had two issues with this claim: 1) It wasn’t, and isn’t, true and 2) That’s not really “liberal,” not from a historical or academic perspective at least. When I challenged this person, they brushed off my eyewitness testimony with, “Well, that’s just what I heard.” I’ll get to the whole “that’s not really liberal” bit of my objection a bit later, but the uncritical acceptance of such accusations is troubling, especially when evidence to the contraire receives little more than token acknowledgement. Given how seriously some people take labels like liberal and conservative, would it not make sense to ensure that the use of such labels is grounded in reality?

These two issues are the basis of why I think referring to liberalism as a bogeyman is especially appropriate. Notice how children discuss the monsters in their closets and under their beds. They use the same names to describe the foul beasts that encroach upon their dreams and yet, what they see (or more precisely, think they see) differs from one to the other. The differences are apparent even between siblings and of course, the basis for each description tends to be based more on what each child may think is scary as opposed to what may actually dwell in the dark recesses of their bedrooms. Worse still, when first confronted with the notion of a bogeyman’s existence, children seem eerily readily to accept the concept. Even when their parents say, “There are no monsters under the bed,” this seldom satisfies. Instead, parents often have to go through the motions of searching the room, chasing the monster out, and taking some measure to ensure that the monster won’t come back. Even then, a child may only possibly be satisfied. They may dream up yet another creature or, worse still, be told of unspeakable eldritch horrors on the playground the next day. It is only when a child begins to develop a greater capacity for critical thinking and understanding of the differences between fantasy and reality that they can be free of the relentless pursuit of the demons plaguing the corners of their imagination. Sadly, “liberalism” is often the same way. It is spoken of frequently from pulpits, coffee tables, and Facebook groups, and each time, it looks and sounds slightly different. To some, the liberal bogeyman is the daring brigand preaching from something other than the KJV. Others envision the bogeyman as the happy go lucky song leader encouraging people to clap along as they sing. Others still toss and turn, tortured by visions of praise teams and their devilish scheme to bring the instrument along in due time, or bolt awake in a cold sweat as their nightmare culminates in people wearing jeans on Sunday morning. I speak, of course, glibly here not to minimize the importance of the underlying issues at play but instead to get at something else entirely. The next time you hear a discussion of liberalism, take a mental note of what gets discussed. How frequently, for example, do you hear people express their concern that a local preacher denies the deity of Christ or the historicity of the virgin birth? How often do the same people who take note of the congregations that allegedly permit clapping stop to consider whether or not they attend a congregation where people assert that the Bible isn’t inerrant but rather, that the Bible contains some truth, but isn’t itself entirely true?

This puts forward a third reason why the bogeyman is a fitting metaphor for a view of liberalism that is all too common in the churches of Christ. At the root of a child’s fear that something in their closet is coming to get them is a fundamental question of whether they are safe. Even the routines that parents go through to assuage their children address this concern and assure the children that they are in fact safe and sound. In the same way, concerns over liberalism today point to a deeper concern for the integrity of our understanding of Biblical truth and that is a fundamental concern of tremendous importance. With that said, the way we go about addressing this concern needs to be healthy and the aforementioned anecdotes illustrate the worst of unhealthy efforts. When one can’t or won’t define their terms, they risk creating an arbitrary and peculiar standard that essentially ensures that they are the only one in the right and the only orthodox believer. Bluntly speaking, an orthodoxy of one is likely an orthodoxy of preferences, a set of beliefs based not on what is good and true but on what is liked. Further, if we do not carefully and fairly examine the beliefs and actions of others on the basis of what is true, then we risk not only attacking those who have done nothing wrong, but also perpetuating falsehood, something that Christians should oppose at every turn. Summarily, yes, we should be concerned about what is true and right and that should affect the way we approach disagreements of any caliber.

This brings me to the fourth and final reason that I think that liberalism is fittingly called a bogeyman. On the whole, the bogeyman is not nearly the threat that a child perceives it to be and there is in fact something far more dangerous they should worry about instead. There is no monster in the closet, but the chemicals in the cabinet exist and are fatal if misused, for example. This is not to say that Christians should not worry about liberalism, but rather that we shouldn’t let ourselves become paranoid about it. That assertion may be puzzling to some, but I will attempt to explain why liberalism is not the threat that I think it is. Largely, this boils down to a distinction that I think ought to be acknowledged more frequently. Theological liberalism, in the academic sense, has nothing to do with instruments, clapping, and the like. Instead, theological liberalism typically refers to beliefs that fall outside of historic Christian orthodoxy. This would include denying the inerrancy of Scripture, denying the, historicity, deity, or resurrection of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, and other rejections of fundamental Christian belief. This is important for two reasons: 1) These beliefs are essential and foundational to the Christian faith as it has been known for 2000 years. Without them, the faith is either forfeit or so radically altered as to be unrecognizable. 2) These beliefs are the substance of intense debate throughout history and across all of Christendom. No council was ever convened over whether one could clap while they sang, yet multiple councils were called together to fiercely discuss questions about Jesus. That is not meant to say that we shouldn’t figure out whether clapping is acceptable or not and then act accordingly; rather, it is meant to insist that without fundamental beliefs of the faith, a discussion on clapping or another similar subject is meaningless. While the issues that often come to the forefront in churches of Christ matter, they are ultimately secondary to fundamental truths about God and the historical facts of the Christian faith. As such, I think it is wise to differentiate between theological liberalism proper and liberalism as it is sometimes thought of, perhaps by referring to them as foundational liberalism and pragmatic liberalism. The exact terms used are not so important to me as the distinction made.

With all of that said, I think that the two categories of liberalism will meet different ends in the churches of Christ. Foundational liberalism, with its rejection of central truth, will eventually go the way of mainline Protestantism, as some branches of Episcopalianism and Methodism, as well as some non-denominational churches, have gone. Exchanging historic and inspired truth for inclusivity and openness, it will be absorbed into a semi-tangible group of churches whose only relation to the Christian faith, and to one another, is found in the ways it departs from historic Christianity. This will, I think, have a comparatively small impact on the churches of Christ. Pragmatic liberals will eventually go one of two routes. Some, who are either willing to be persuaded or unwilling to cause division, will make themselves comfortable within the churches of Christ, either because they change their mind on pragmatic issues or because they simply don’t think it’s worth fighting over. Others will find churches that accommodate their pragmatic preferences, whether they be likeminded churches of Christ or some other group, and migrate without much of a stir. While this will potentially be of greater impact than the exodus of foundational liberals, one thing is indisputable, I think. Neither foundational liberalism nor pragmatic liberalism are the harbinger of the doom of the churches of Christ. Should the churches of Christ cease to exist as we know them now (and I don’t think we will) it will be because of other causes. Those causes are the subject of part two of this series and the source of much frustration and grief for me. In the meantime, dear reader, if you have made it this far, you have my thanks. If I may be so bold, I’d ask you to stick with me for the rest of this series, and I pray that it will be helpful to you.

Soli Deo Gloria!

When the Watchman Fails: Why Being Truly Good Requires Ferocity

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“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”- C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

On February 14, a young man murdered 17 people and wounded several more in Parkland Florida. In the wake of this event people have divided their energies over various tasks, particularly discussing, debating, and more often than is proper, browbeating, over the question of gun control. I think that such conversations can, usually, be profitable and interesting, though they usually devolve into overgeneralization and hysteria if they go on long enough. However, as tragic as this situation is, there is a more disturbing event that happened right alongside it: one school safety officer and three sheriff’s deputies waited for 4–6 minutes before attempting to enter the building.

Four people, each armed and trained, each having sworn to uphold the law, decided, for whatever reason, to not confront the killer while he murdered others in cold blood. On top of that, when Scott Israel, Broward County Sheriff, was confronted by his own department’s failures in recognizing a clear threat and acting on it before hand, he decided that rather than accepting responsibly, the proper course of action was to try to swat accusations away and insist an NRA spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, was wrong about various details of the situation, despite overwhelming evidence of his office’s negligence both before and during the incident.

Say what you will about Mrs. Loesch or the NRA, or even about gun ownership in the United States. I have no particular affection for the NRA and its representatives, and even if I disagree with you about gun ownership, I believe that arguments can be made in good faith on either side. We should also try to be fair and accurate in discussing what Israel and his subordinates did and did not do or know. In the final analysis, however, whatever one may feel about the state of gun ownership in the United States, what should be a common ground here is that the shooting in Parkland reflects a series of abject failures on the part of law enforcement in Parkland and Broward County, and apparently even the FBI.

Whatever consequences you think should or should not be levied against Israel and his subordinates, anyone can recognize that there is a serious problem here. There is a serious deficit in the capacity of those appointed as watchmen to act as such. We expect LEO’s and similar personnel to respond to dangerous situations and persons on behalf of the general public: “To protect and serve,” for example, is the motto of the LAPD and has been adopted by various departments nationwide. This is not, however, intended to be a smear against the police, because the police are not the problem. The failures of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department are symptomatic of something far more important and that is the decay of our collective grasp on what it is to be truly good.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth. The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. Then I said: Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.” Is 6:1–5, CSB.

A voice came from above the expanse over their heads; when they stopped, they lowered their wings. Something like a throne with the appearance of lapis lazuli was above the expanse over their heads. On the throne, high above, was someone who looked like a human. From what seemed to be his waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be his waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the likeness of the Lord’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking.” Eze 1:25–28.

I adore the prophets for several reasons, but chief among them is the fact that a prophet is one who sees the world as it truly is, that is, as God sees it. In the Bible, the prophets had insight that was otherwise unavailable and their words reverberate through history not just as beautiful poetry or prose, but as stark messages that resound with the clarion call, “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts.” Common to the prophets, regardless of their personal flourishes, is the presentation of a God too great for words and I love Ezekiel and Isaiah’s descriptions especially because of how they respond. Ezekiel falls to the ground and Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me!” Far from a self-piteous cry of sadness, Isaiah’s cry is one of fear for what could, and as he sees it, should, happen to him. Both see God as he revealed himself to them, and their response is fear! Despite both knowing that God loves Israel and had been so good to them in the past, delivering them time and time again, they were both desperately afraid until God assuaged their fears and commissioned them. It brings to mind, as quoted earlier, Susan’s fear at the prospect of meeting Aslan. The answer to the question of whether he is safe may trouble some people. “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

God is not safe, by any means. He can call universes into existence, alter the course of nature as he pleases, take lives with the barest of effort, and rend the earth open to swallow his enemies. He answers to no one and no force in the universe holds him accountable. Such a being is terrifying to think of and yet, the first place my parents took me when I was born was a church so I could be around people who worship this unimaginably dangerous being! Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The answer is simple: God isn’t safe, not in the least. He is, however, infinitely good. God is no butcher, carving and cutting as one does. He is, as Lewis described him in A Grief Observed a surgeon; he is skilled, precise, knowledgable. He wounds, sometimes incredibly deeply, but his wounds are not without purpose.

Before we get lost in some generic notion of goodness, perhaps even one conflated with niceness, let’s get to the chase: there is nothing inherently good about being “safe.” Safe and good often sleep in the same room, but they are not the same. The aforementioned officers were safe as they delayed confronting a shooter, but they could not claim to be good. Too often today, we assume that because someone has generally good manners or is “nice,” that they are good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Notice the words of Jesus in Mark 10:18: “No one is good except God alone.” While he is obviously trying to make a point, what he said is true on its own. No one is good but God, so it stands to reason that he is who we should look to form our opinions on what is good.

When we look to God as our standard of goodness, surprises follow. Sometimes, good looks like killing 185,000 Assyrians in a single night to save people that you love. (2 Kings 19) Sometimes, good looks like walking into a storm and rescuing your companions. (Matt. 14:22–27) Good even looks like incinerating an altar, stone, wood, and all, when the occasion calls for it. (1 Kings 18:30) Perhaps most surprisingly of all, good sometimes looks like walking a crowded road, a cross on your shoulders, to a hill nicknamed “the Skull,” and letting some of the people you created nail you to that same cross so they can mock you as you die an excruciating death, all the while knowing that at any moment, you could summons legions of angels to set you free. In a word, good is intense, severe, or better still, ferocious.

This concept is uncomfortable to some, and understandably so. You might hear ferocious and think of savagery or violence, but think back to the one that is truly good. Everything that God does has an air of intensity to it. Even when he makes his presence known at Sinai to speak to Moses, he comes with fire, smoke, and thunder. (Exod 19) Nothing God does is lacking in intensity. Linguistic debates aside, I would argue that this is the essence of ferocity and, most truly, the essence of good. Good, in its clearest forms, is not mild. A mother gently coaxing her baby to sleep is good and it is far from mild in the intensity of affection on display. A father rolling around in the floor and playing with his kids, though he does not overpower them or hurt them, is not behaving mildly, and what he is doing is truly good. A couple, their marriage freshly consecrated, upon hearing, “You may kiss the bride,” do so in a way that is scarcely mild and yet, it is good. A doctor applying their knowledge and resources to seek out a cure for a patient’s obscure disease is no doubt intense in their endeavor and they are certainly good as they do so. So it is clear that good is ferocious and being truly good requires a ferocity that many of us may struggle to rise to.

This ferocity, however difficult, is what we are called to. We are not called to generic niceness or mild-manneredness, though these are not bad things in and of themselves. We are called, for instance, to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” (Matthew 22:39) and to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” (Matthew 5:44) These are intense words that demand an intense response. The call of the Christian life, to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23), is a ferocious call, one that requires everything that a person has. So, dear reader, I urge you today, to live ferociously and to be ferocious in your being and doing good. Reject weak displays of “good” that barely rise above saying “Yes ma’am” or “No sir.” Christians serve a ferociously good God who conforms us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29) who himself is the clearest and purest display of who God is (14:9) in all his divine ferocity. We were made to be ferociously good, so let us go forth and live with an unmatched ferocity for the good of all and the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Update: The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has released a statement, viewable on Twitter, regarding their interactions with the shooter. For reference, see https://twitter.com/browardsheriff/status/967593892492271617

Saying “Keep Your Religion Out of Politics!” Tells Me You Haven’t Seriously Thought About Either Religion or Politics

I never thought I’d share a screenshot from Tumblr on this blog if we’re being honest. Then again, I also never thought I’d like church history and now I want a Ph.D. in the field, so I guess I’m something of an anti-prophet; I think/say something won’t happen and it does. My budding career in prediction by negation aside, this gem from Tumblr was shared by a Facebook friend and instead of moving on with my life as normal people do, I began to really think about this dialogue and everything it represents. Now, don’t get me wrong, Tumblr is a time-sink filled to bursting with inane garbage, much like Reddit (my preferred site for wasting time). Rarely does anything of value happen there and it’s definitely a poor candidate for a place to seriously think about anything. With all that said, however, this screenshot presents some interesting food for thought and as such, I derived three observations from it:

1. Some people don’t clearly understand what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says, nor can they articulate why it says what it says with respect to history.

2. A general disdain for religion and an assumption that religious people are less intelligent or in some way less able to argue their beliefs is still fashionable. Christians aren’t persecuted in the United States, for example, but some people like to snicker at us and wonder how we get through the day with our puny brains and hatred for common sense. I blame this on the fact that many would rather read a book by Richard Dawkins than one by David Bentley Hart.

3. Some people don’t think about the implications of what they say and sacrifice careful thought for the sake of semi-popular hot takes for fake internet points.

Some of that’s harsh, I know, but it’s true and I’m going to try to unpack that. This is going to be long for a blog post, so strap yourself in and make sure you brought your overnight bag.

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The notion of “separation of church and state” is typically attributed to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, but the notion as such can be reasonably drawn from the text of the First Amendment itself. The issue is not whether such a thing as a “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s words) should exist; the issue is why such a wall should exist in the first place. While I readily concede that I’m no Constitution scholar, I would suggest that every right enumerated in the Constitution was enumerated in response to issues that the framers of the Constitution recognized both historically and in other nations they observed in their own day. A ready parallel, for instance, can be drawn between the Fifth Amendment and the numerous instances of the abuse of court systems across history. In the same way, I would suggest that the First Amendment’s clause on religion has a similar thrust, grounded particularly in the religious controversy that plagued England following the Protestant Reformation. Insisting that no religion or another be favored by a nation’s government is a reasonable thing to do in light of the fact there were times in history where a person could be killed simply for being Catholic, or for not being Catholic as the case has been.

Therefore, it seems to me a bridge too far to say that separation church and state means that religion has no place whatsoever in politics, and I’ll unpack why that’s nonsense anyway later in this piece. Rather, the separation of church and state is intended to ensure that no one religion can bring the arm of the government down on another. A Jewish president, for instance, could not pen an executive order requiring citizens of the United States to convert to Judaism, nor could Congress pass a law dictating that Muslims cannot do business in the country. In essence, the First Amendment clause concerning religion is intended to keep leaders from acting as theocrats. So no, separation of church and state doesn’t mean what some random Tumblerina thinks it means, and that is good news for the rest of us.

Religion and Politics are Inseparable

This won’t surprise anyone but religion impacts politics and vice versa. What might be surprising is the fact that this is a good thing and a necessary reality. The major question of politics, arguably, is how people and governing bodies interact with one another. Beyond questions of modes of government and market theory are numerous questions that directly impact people. “What is the role of government?” “How should governments be organized?” “Is an authoritarian or libertarian approach to governance better?” These questions are more big picture sorts of things, but the big picture breaks down into smaller vignettes. “Should government spending focus on infrastructure or the military?” “Should marijuana be legal?” “Should the government take down statues of Confederate leaders?” These kinds of questions are not only questions of more immediate interest but they are also political questions.

The major question of religion is how the divine and the mundane interact. “Does a god exist?” “Is there a standard by which all people will be divinely judged?” “Is there a god out there who cares about what we do?” “Do people have to believe in Jesus to be saved?” These are the kinds of questions that often come up in religious discussions. However, religion, particularly Christianity, is not merely concerned with death, judgment, and salvation. Religion historically shares many impulses with philosophy, so much so in fact that I’d contend that some religions (including Christianity) can and should also be considered philosophies, but that’s beside the point. Any religion worth following will have a philosophical framework of some kind. Beyond asking questions about what happens when we die or the nature of the supernatural, religion also asks questions about how we interact with one another. “Are all people truly equal?” “Should I treat others with dignity and respect?” “What does it mean to be a good person?” These are religious questions, ones that various figures have attempted to answer throughout history. They are also questions that radically change the way you view the world and how you interact with those around you.

The way that you answer religious questions invariably affects the way you answer political questions. If you believe that all humans are equal because they are declared so by a supreme being and made in that being’s image, for example, then you will rightly reject the notion that discriminating against others is acceptable, as Americans did in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery only survived as long as it did in the western world, to name another case, because so many people believed that owning other human beings was consistent with their religious principles. It was only when people began to reject that belief, alongside other factors, that abolition movements began to gain traction. Briefly stated, major political change is often preceded by changes in religious sentiment.

You cannot separate the influence of religious thought from political inclination. Reasonable people hold the political positions they do precisely because they are consistent with their religious and philosophical convictions and that is a good thing. No good thing ensues from people not thinking through what they believe and why, and politics is no exception. So no, you should not keep your religion out of politics, quite the opposite in fact. If you don’t bring your religion (or your philosophy if you are irreligious) to politics, then how can you make an informed decision? You can’t, and that’s why I titled this essay as I did. Saying “keep your religion out of politics” only makes sense if you haven’t really thought about what politics and religion are and how they overlap.

Addressing a Challenge

If you read the screenshot above, you’ll notice a challenge was issued therein: give one “non-religious” reason for being against same-sex marriage, stem cell research, or safe abortions. A part of me is tempted to say, “Well, that’s impossible,” with a snark grin, but I won’t, because I know what this person actually meant. He or she isn’t asking you to abandon rationality, though that’s what would be required if one were to act in a way consistent with the word choice here. Really, he or she is asking for a reason that doesn’t involve quoting a Bible passage. The expectation, of course, is that no one can accomplish such a Herculean task. The problem is that it’s actually pretty easy to do. So here they are: 3 “non-religious” arguments. Bear in mind these aren’t necessarily my positions, these are just arguments that are out there. I’ll state them briefly so you can finish reading this before you die of old age.

1. Same-sex marriage: Same-sex marriage should not be legalized because it is not the role of government to validate or regulate sexual preference or choice of domestic partnership between able-bodied/minded and consenting adults. Such decisions should be at the sole discretion of the individuals involved and governments should abandon any attempts to involve themselves in who people choose to live and conduct their lives with. Alternatively: The heteronormative nuclear family is the basis for all of civilization and provides the most basic and elementary environment for interacting with other human beings, as well as being the foundation for functioning communities, historically speaking. Legalizing same-sex marriage offers no such benefit to society, as it only validates a sexual preference and affords same-sex couples the same privileges heteronormative couples have, which are, legally speaking, only cordoned off from same-sex couples as a result of government interference with the concept of marriage. As such, nothing would be accomplished by legalizing same-sex marriage that could not be accomplished by removing governmental underpinnings from marriage.

2. Stem cell research: Most opposition to stem-cell research is not actually opposition to the research itself but to the methods used to acquire stem-cells to work with. Usually, embryos are destroyed in order to gather stem cells. The issue here is twofold. Firstly, some hold the conviction, apart from religious dogma, that embryos should be considered living things and as such, their destruction constitutes killing a living thing. Secondly, it is unnecessary to destroy embryos to gather stem cells. Normal cells can be reverted back to stem cells and stem cells can be gathered from the umbilical cords of recently delivered infants. The issue then is one of why embryos must be destroyed if they don’t have to be.

3. Safe abortions: Even the safest abortions result in the destruction of a zygote, embryo, or fetus. While belief that life begins at conception is predominantly held by religious persons, a non-religious argument can be made as well, hinged mainly on one scientific fact and a series of logical inferences and deductions. The fact is that regardless of the stage of development, the entity in a woman’s uterus is a Homo sapiens by sheer virtue of the fact that it can’t be any other species in a female Homo sapiens’ womb: we as a species aren’t sexually compatible with any other extant species and two members of a species cannot reproduce and create a member of another species. The inference then is that because the zygote/embryo/fetus is Homo sapiens, then it ought to be considered a human being with the right to life. This is because it is the most consistent position to assume that human status begins at conception and because, obviously, all humans have the right to life.

At Long Last, a Conclusion

Whether you agree or disagree with any of these arguments is not the point here. The point is that you can make an argument against any of these things without an overt religious reference. That does not matter, however, because it is foolish of anyone to demand a separation between politics and religion. The two are in constant dialogue and indeed must be so for the sake of rational discourse. With that said, the attentive reader will notice that there’s one point I didn’t discuss and that would be the general disdain many people have for religion, as well as the assumption that religious people are less intelligent. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, this is already a novel and secondly, I’d like to tackle that point by itself in the future. In the meantime, dear reader, don’t separate your religion from your politics. Instead, saturate your political beliefs with thinking based on your deeply held convictions. Let your beliefs about the way the world works and the way things are supposed to work inform how you navigate the political sphere. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why believe something if that belief doesn’t affect you in any way?

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Mind in the Life of Faith

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4–5, ESV)
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matt 22:34–38)

     The difference in what Jesus says the first commandment is and the text of Deuteronomy 6:5 can be jarring if you assume that “heart” means the same thing today that it did in ancient Israel. That’s not the case, however, and what God meant when he called for all the heart is an often neglected and vital aspect of Christian life. But before I expound on that, perhaps a brief word from Dallas Willard will help set the stage:
“We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.” (Hearing God)

     I love and appreciate the late Dr. Willard for many reasons, and this bluntly accurate statement is one of them. It is often the case that Christians especially are assumed to be less intelligent than their skeptical counterparts not because of some inherent lack of training or obvious mental deficiency, but simply because of their faith. This is particularly prevalent with reference to conservative branches of Christendom. Before we bemoan this however, we have to ask ourselves a question. Do we contribute to the assumption that Christians are, by and large, imbeciles? We may be inclined to find that question offensive, but let’s be honest. While it is certainly not the case that foolishness is exclusive to the Christian faith, there is no shortage of foolishness that attaches itself to the name of Jesus, and that worries me.

     To be clear, I’m not about to spend the next 700 words or so insisting that every Christian must have a terminal degree and an IQ of at least 130 to be acceptable to God. Rather, I want to make the case for loving God with the mind as a necessary component of the life of faith. This must, in my opinion, begin with the Greatest Commandment, given in Deuteronomy 6.

     To love God with the heart is often misunderstood and thought to mean mere emotional attachment, as we might mean today in saying, “I love you with all my heart.” Yet that is not what the Hebrews meant, at least not exclusively. While the Hebrew word here does literally mean the blood-moving organ, the Hebrews understood the heart not as the seat of emotion, but the seat of the will and the intellect, where information was ultimately processed and decisions were made. Jesus latches onto this reality in his quotation of this passage. He mentions heart and mind, leaving out strength in the process. This is puzzling to some scholars, a few of which assume that Jesus simply misquoted Deuteronomy. Aside from the absurdity of God Incarnate misquoting a book that he wrote, this speculation misses the point, I think. Rather than goofing up, I would humbly suggest that Jesus intentionally spoke as he did to fully expound what he meant when he told Israel the Greatest Commandment in the past. Heart and mind are emphasized here, emotion and intellect, whim and will. Therefore, Jesus called Israel (and us) anew to the high calling of loving God with all the faculties that we have, the mind included. So what does it mean to love God with the mind?

     Here’s my working definition: To love God with all of your mind entails a striving to think as deeply and meaningfully about all three persons of the triune God, and what they have revealed about themselves, as one is able, with the goal of having that knowledge lead to a greater glorifying of God and a deeper love for him, born out of amazement at what can be known about him. Easy, right? Let’s chew on this for a bit. Firstly, I want to go ahead and dismantle an objection that might be raised. To love God with your mind does not mean you have to be a world-class theologian. In fact, many such people love God very little. Instead, loving God with your mind means using the full extent of your mental capacity to ponder the glory and wonder of God and refusing to settle for simplistic quips or laziness. Little children who are amazed at a God who is big, powerful, and caring love God with their minds just as much as the college student working out the intricacies of justification and sanctification in their own lives, though it looks different. This is admittedly subjective, but that subjectivity is necessary because each person has different capacities. The key here is not brilliance, but sincerity.

     Another objection is whether intellectual love has any place for emotion. To that I would say, “Of course!” Contrary to apparently popular belief, emotion and intellect are not opposed. Further, where is emotion processed? The brain, the same organ used to process information, is the center of emotional response. Emotion and intellect lend their strength to one another, driving us and creating a fire in our hearts. For example, when I think of the many ways in which my grandmother is a wonderful person, I cannot help but feel emotion well up within me, namely love and admiration, and that love drives me to more seriously recognize her dignity and worth. When I turn then to consider God and the infinite glory and majesty that he possess, what else would be a reasonable response except to feel wonder, love, and awe fill my heart, and what else would be a suitable response to that than to say, “I must know this God more!” What else could possibly satisfy once we have pondered for a mere moment the God of the Bible? So no, I don’t think that emotion and intellect oppose one another. In fact, the peerless intellect who is not brought to their knees when they turn their mind to God has not yet begun to mine the depths of the glory God. Otherwise, their response would not be mere scholastic musing but instead, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Ro 11:33–36)

     Loving God with the mind is a lifelong discipline that will richly reward those who set themselves upon it. It entails not only knowing God well, but also being wise and intentional in how we think in every area of life. Whether it be the articles we share on Facebook, the assumptions that we have, or how carefully we listen to preachers and teachers, the mind matters in the life of the Christian. As I continue to publish here, I hope to help the interested reader think more carefully about God, matters of faith, and culture. Will you join me in turning our minds Godward and loving God with the mind?

Soli Deo Gloria!