Best of the Week

I’m going to start posting a weekly collection of blog posts, articles, podcasts, and books that I have found interesting, helpful, challenging, important, or funny. I don’t endorse everything I’ll be posting, but I’ll only post content I think is worth taking the time to consider. We all have to make choices about what content we “consume” each week, so I hope I can point you in directions that are worth your time.

I’ll start with content I’ve come across the last few months, and then I’ll proceed week by week from there.

Blog Posts

Online Newspapers & Magazines

  • USA Today, “‘Born This Way?’ It’s way more complicated than that.” – Alia Dastagir throws a wrench in the rally cry of the mainstream gay rights movement by pointing to the interrelations of biology, psychology, and the social/cultural context in the development of sexual orientation.
  • The Atlantic, “The Church of Crossfit” – Julie Beck highlights how gyms and other secular communities are starting to fill spiritual and social needs for many nonreligious people.
  • NYT, “Gray Matter: Don’t believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.’s” – Psychology professor Clay Routledge explains that while religion is declining, the “religious mind” continues even and especially among secularists because we are hard wired to find meaning and significance in our lives.
  • National Review, “Post-Christian America: Gullible, Intolerant, and Superstitious” – David French interacts with the previous article and argues that although secularists expect a world without religion to be more rational, humane, and enlightened, some evidence suggests post-Christian America will be more tribal and vicious.
  • NYT, “Why I’m Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention” – African American Pastor Lawrence Ware explains why this year’s convention of Southern Baptists with its poor handling of a resolution against the Alt-Right and the marginalization of black leaders has led him to leave the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Podcast Episodes

Books

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Newbigin and the Cruciform Church

Over the last month, I have been slowly reading through Lesslie Newbigin’s famous book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It’s a treasure, and I regret not having read this book earlier in my education and ministry.

For years now, I have been reflecting on and wrestling with the nature and mission of the church. I have been thrilled to see the emergence of a gospel-centered movement, a recapturing of the gospel for the whole of the Christian life and not just for conversion. However, as the movement has grown, I have been disappointed that this has not produced cruciform churches. In other words, gospel-centered preaching has not, in large part, changed the form or shape of ministry in the American Church. Churches that identify with the gospel-centered movement still tend to be triumphalistic churches of “glory” rather than churches in the shadow of the cross.

I thought this passage from Newbigin (chapter 9, point 7) rightly explains what the character of the church’s ministry should look like:

I have said that it is clear from the New Testament that early the Church saw itself as living in the time between the times, the time when Jesus, having exposed and disarmed the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15), is seated at the right hand of God until the time when his reign shall be unveiled in all its glory among all the nations. The character of this time is given to it by the character of the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is marked by suffering, and by the presence of signs of the kingdom. That is why the Fourth Gospel, in its portrayal of the missionary commission, says that when Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them his hands and his side—the scars of his passion—and he breathed into them the Spirit who is the foretaste of the kingdom (John 20:19-23). The Church in its journey through history will therefore have this double character insofar as it is faithful to its commission. On the one hand it will be a suffering church, because the powers of darkness, though disarmed and robbed of final authority, are still powerful. As Jesus in his earthly ministry unmasked the powers and so drew their hostility on himself, so the Spirit working through the life and witness of the missionary Church will overturn the world’s most fundamental beliefs, proving the world wrong in respect of sin, of righteousness, of judgment (John 16:8). Consequently the world will hate the Church as it hated its Lord. But, on the other hand, just as the ministry of Jesus was marked by mighty works, which for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, were signs of the presence of the kingdom of God in power, so in the life of the Church there will be mighty works which have the same function. They are not—so to say—steps on the way to the kingdom, but unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality, but a reality known only to those who have been converted, have been turned from false gods to the living God. These negative and positive elements in the life of the Church will be related to each other in the ministry of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10). The cross was a public execution visible to all—believers and unbelievers alike. The resurrection was as much a fact of history as the crucifixion, but it was made known only to the chosen few who were called to be the witnesses of the hidden kingdom.

When the church fails to unmask the powers of the age overturning its most fundamental beliefs (i.e. consumerism, nationalism, etc.) and chooses instead to utilize the powers of the age in order to attract crowds of congregants, it fails to live into its own identity and actually acts in cooperation with the same powers that crucified the Lord whom the Church claims to serve and proclaim! Furthermore, when a church’s “mighty works” serve to point to the glory and importance of itself, or when the “mighty works” are thought to be steps toward transforming the world into the kingdom, she participates in the worship of false gods and shows herself not to have turned to the living God at all.

I long for a gospel-centered movement that produces gospel-shaped (cruciform) churches.

Infertility in the Church

Quite a few couples at the church where I pastor have welcomed newborns into their family over the past few months, and there are more on the way in the coming months. It’s a joyful season as these families and our church community give thanks to God for these children.

But I know that amidst the numerous pregnancies, there are couples mourning because they are struggling to conceive, often after trying for over a year. I know they long to celebrate with their friends, but they also struggle to shake feelings of jealousy, anger, and even bitterness. I remember when my wife and I waited for over a year before she could get pregnant, and it was one of the hardest seasons of my life. Month after month, we experienced hope as my wife analyzed how she was feeling only to experience disappointment once again. And I sense that this struggle is often more difficult for women who can sometimes feel alienated from or betrayed by their own bodies. Perhaps this is part of the curse of Genesis 3:16.

The difficulty of infertility makes thinking carefully about modern treatments especially complicated. Many Christians don’t know that some of the medical capabilities we possess to help couples conceive can entail moral problems with which Christians cannot be comfortable. As a pastor, part of my job is to teach, instruct, and guide people to be faithful in suffering, but sometimes, by the time we hear a couple is struggling with infertility, steps are already being taken that are morally problematic.

I can’t and shouldn’t try to tackle all of these in a blog post, but today I came across a helpful little video on The Gospel Coalition blog of a discussion with bioethicist Dr. Megan Best on infertility (find her book on the subject here). I think it’s a helpful video for those struggling with infertility and all of us seeking to care for and walk with the heartbroken in our midst.

I remember that while my wife and I struggled with infertility, I found hope in God’s promise to barren Israel in Isaiah 54:1-3 and to eunuchs in Isaiah 56:4-5 (ESV):

[54:1] “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD.
[2] “Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
[3] For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.

[56:4] For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
[5] I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

These verses don’t magically make infertility easy, but they do point us to the faithfulness of God to bring comfort to those who mourn and to bring greater joy to those who persevere in the midst of disappointment.

You can find the blog post on TGC here.

On the Necessity and Importance of Church Membership

Recently, I observed many of my fellow Christians expressing serious frustration and embarrassment on social media regarding a number of public figures (one in particular trumps them all) who self-identify as Christians. To many of my friends, the words and actions of these famous persons who claim a Christian identity not only seem out of step with the Christian faith but bring ridicule and shame upon the Church. My fellow Christians did all they could to signal to others that these people don’t represent Christianity.

This frustration and embarrassment is understandable, but it’s a necessary symptom of ignoring the importance of church membership as most American churches, pastors, and Christians have done. In other words, if we deny the importance of church membership and if we accept the claim that a person can be a Christian and part of the “invisible church” without covenanting with a local body of believers under proper biblical government, then there will always be individuals out there who claim to represent the Christian faith who will deny core doctrines and embrace behaviors out of step with Christ’s kingdom, and we won’t have any basis to deny it.

My point here is this: If you are embarrassed by people who refuse to live repentantly and yet still claim to be Christians, then become a member of a church where church discipline and real membership is practiced. If you float from church to church, if you attend a huge church where there is no possible way pastors can know the sheep and watch over them in any meaningful way, if you are a member of a church that keeps people on its rolls that haven’t been around in years, if your church doesn’t practice restorative discipline, then you are part of the problem and the reason why we will continue to be embarrassed by famous people claiming to represent Christ who will be believed by the world. However, if all of us start taking church membership and discipline seriously, we’ll simply be able to ask such persons, “To which church do you belong? To whom are you accountable?”

When asked if he is a Christian, the famous Neo-Anabaptist theologian from Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, has said many times something like this in response: “My friends tell me that I am.” His point in answering this way is to refuse to claim authority as an individual to self-identify with Christ. Hauerwas is getting at the idea that Jesus has given authority to the church to recognize who belongs to him. There is a sense in which none of us has the right to claim to be a Christian apart from baptism and membership in a particular body under biblical lawful government.

With that in mind, here are 6 basic biblical arguments borrowed and summarized from How Jesus Runs the Church by Guy Waters on why Christians must join a church.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) requires that we baptize people into communities where they continue to learn to obey all Jesus commanded.
  2. Many New Testament commands assume and require membership in a particular and defined church body in order to be obeyed, particularly those “one another commands” and those calling Christians to respect, submit to, and esteem those “over you.”
  3. The teaching of Jesus and Paul on church discipline in which the unrepentant are set outside the community assumes church membership.
  4. The practice of the Lord’s Table requires a concrete and particular fellowship to be a meaningful practice where those who have professed Christ are welcomed.
  5. Many passages in the New Testament, like Ephesians 4, speak collectively of spiritual growth. The body of Christ is to grow up together as members are joined to one another.
  6. Elders are given responsibility before God for a particular group of Christians under their care.

 

Moore Election Problems

Yesterday, the President of the Ethics and Religious Leadership Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Russell Moore, wrote a blog post in which he offered an apology of sorts for criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump:

But there were also pastors and friends who told me when they read my comments they thought I was criticizing anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I told them then, and I would tell anyone now: if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.

While Moore maintained that his criticism of Trump was and is valid and right (and I agree with his criticisms), he never intended to criticize those who planned on voting for him.

This post—written as an olive branch to evangelicals and Southern Baptists who voted for Trump—gives advice on how the Christian family can get along after the heated disagreement over the past election. He clearly wrote this in response to the growing backlash against his leadership. Those who supported Trump (i.e. Jerry Fallwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress) have threatened to eliminate their giving to the Cooperative Program (the fund that effectively makes a church belong to the SBC) because they do not believe Moore represents the views of Southern Baptists. Statistics on who Southern Baptists voted for seem to suggest they are correct.

As a response to the criticism, Moore received an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hash tag #IStandWithMoore.

Since I am not a Southern Baptist and I didn’t vote for Trump (I am concerned about him and his policies), I don’t have a dog in this fight. Moore doesn’t represent me, though I do often agree with him on many things and generally appreciate his voice in the public square. Because Moore is a prominent Christian voice in the public square and because the response to Moore on both sides has clouded the real issues involved, I want to make four brief observations that I think are being overlooked.

First, Moore’s post yesterday suggests he believes voting for Donald Trump was allowable for Christians if a person’s conscience bound them to that decision while holding their nose because no other good option existed. In other words, voting for Donald Trump was morally allowable for Christians. Whether you agree or disagree, Moore seems to be changing his position. In a New York Times Op-Ed where he opposed Trump, he famously pondered “whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus.” And earlier in the campaign, Moore said that evangelicals shouldn’t support Trump for president, and “to back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” [Update: See also this and this]. What Moore said in the past and what he is saying now seems contradictory.

Second, Moore didn’t really apologize. [UPDATE 3/20/2017: Moore has now given an actual apology here.] It’s a classic “non-apology.” He said “if that’s what you heard me say, that was not at all my intention, and I apologize.” The blame is on those who heard him say something he now says he was not ever saying. In other words, his arguments during the campaign were always at Donald Trump and not toward his Christian supporters. His “apology” didn’t acknowledge this sort of misunderstanding to be his fault. He didn’t say, “I am sorry that I wasn’t clear. That miscommunication was on me.”

Third, while Moore has received an outpouring of support on Twitter and in the press today, one cannot help but notice his supporters come primarily and overwhelming from those outside the SBC (See Jonathan Merritt’s article today, for instance). Those within the SBC that support him are relatively small compared to the denomination as a whole. For the last 5-8 years, Southern Baptists have been wrestling with an increasing theological divide between the younger and older generations. While both sides insist they can work together and remain united despite their theological differences, Moore’s polarizing leadership of the ERLC and the backlash could be the first step toward an unraveling of that union as the old guard seeks to replace denominational leaders and seminary presidents with those who align with the views of the vast majority of Southern Baptists. While most seem to lament this possible division and insist they oppose it, I see no reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing. If done with humility and peace, the two groups could break into different associations that partner in some Great Commission ventures and not others. This would allow churches aligning with the old guard and new guard, respectively, to plant churches and fund missionaries more aligned with their convictions. However, both sides seem to reject this option, and it seems to me that the reason for this boils down to their mutual desire to control all of the resources and institutions connected to the SBC. In other words, both sides fear losing the institutional power that currently belongs to the united denomination.

Finally, despite the traditional emphasis of the importance of the individual conscience in Baptist tradition, Southern Baptists continue to show a remarkable inability to handle matters of conscience. A matter of conscience refers to a moral question where there is no clear biblical command or where one cannot be inferred by good and necessary consequence. Issues such as what movies to watch, alcohol consumption, and voting are all matters of conscience, and yet Southern Baptists have for a long time tried to lay down requirements on all Christians on these matters. Both Moore and his critics have erred here.

A few months ago, I wrote:

In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes Christians are making in this election season involves dismissing, insulting, and questioning the Christian identity of those who support the other candidate. This is especially true when we seek to signal to others our virtue by expressing how appalled and outraged we are that any Christian would vote for the other person. This is happening on the conservative right (i.e. Eric Metaxas), the #NeverTrump middle (i.e. Russell Moore), and the progressive left (i.e Rachel Held Evans). This is a mistake because there are dozens of pragmatic judgments about the political process, the political system, the culture, and the leaders themselves that one must make, few of which can be clearly demonstrated from Scripture. That doesn’t mean we cannot support a candidate and seek to persuade others, but it should mean we cannot be certain we have the corner on the true Christian vote.

Leading up to the election, Christians of all varieties were casting each other out of the kingdom left and right over the election. In doing so, we actually parrot or participate in the polarizing rhetoric and behavior of the culture around us rather than pointing to and embodying an alternative kingdom reality in how we handle our disagreements. We wrongly divide the body of Christ. That was true then, and it will continue to be true going forward. There may come a time when we must oppose a political figure as a moral imperative, but it’s not at all clear we must do that now. If we continue to speak this way, we won’t be heard if that time comes.

How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.