By / Dec 21

What is a path of wisdom for churches to follow with emotion-packed, divisive, yet meaningful topics of today that we do not think Scripture speaks to? What do we do when we don’t want to bind consciences on things that Scripture is not clear about, but we want to promote wisdom and biblical fidelity? In an era replete with complex social issues, Christians often encounter scenarios that Scripture does not explicitly address. Consider, for instance, issues that have become more common as transgenderism has become more prominent, such as pronoun usage and restroom choices. What should we think about such matters?

Four principles for wisdom and biblical fidelity

When Scripture seems silent, here are four principles we should consider applying in order to uphold both wisdom and biblical fidelity.

1. Understand the scope of Scripture

In thinking about how to navigate these issues, Christians must first turn to Scripture. But there are two primary pitfalls we need to avoid when considering whether Scripture addresses an issue. 

The first pitfall is to assume that Scripture always has something to say about every subject. This is what philosopher Roy Clouser calls the “encyclopedic assumption”: regarding the Bible as an encyclopedia in which we may look for an answer to any sort of question we may have. The problem with this approach, as Clouser points out, is that it ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose and tries to force the Bible to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its authors.

The second pitfall is assuming that Scripture has nothing to say about a topic the Bible does not directly and specifically address. Therefore, we reason, we are free to “follow our conscience” in determining how to think about it. This approach ignores the fact that God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, equipping us for every good work. There is almost always something we can apply from Scripture to help us think about every issue we are called on to consider. 

This is especially true the closer the issue gets to the realm of the human heart. The Bible does not have much to say about the inner workings of an atom, so it does not directly address specific issues within the realm of physics. But the Bible does have a great deal to say about the inner workings of the human heart, and thus it does often have something to say about issues related to human conduct and behavior.  

2. Search for and apply relevant scriptural commands, whether directly or indirectly

If an issue proceeds from the heart, then we must consider whether Scripture has something to say about it directly or indirectly. The first place we should look is in scriptural commands, whether broad or narrow. 

Within the Bible we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love God first and then love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts. In considering the issue of pronouns, we must first ask what behavior most exhibits our love for God? For instance, since Jesus is truth (John 14:6), we must use language—including pronouns—in a way that best expresses and reflects truth. We must also do that in a way that is most loving toward our neighbors. 

The other type of Scriptural commands are narrow or specific commands, those that relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8 which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above), there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies, we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command, it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

3. Apply indirect commands analogically 

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning might be to consider the relevance of Jesus’ commands regarding oaths (Matt. 5:33-37). The application extends beyond the issue of oaths into the realm of general truthfulness. As Tim Keller explained, Jesus is “saying if you think you can create levels of truthfulness, you’re wrong. He is saying that ‘every yes and every no must be as truthful as if you just swore it on a stack of Bibles on network television.’ Every yes and every no is observed, because God is the creator and is present with us.” 

As applied to pronouns, the question you might ask is whether you believe pronouns represent specific genders or are interchangeable terms? If you do not think they are interchangeable, then are you being untruthful if you use the pronoun “she” to refer to biological males or “he” for biological women.

Ultimately, the issue is not what pronouns you are using but what you are doing with those words—and your motive behind it. Are you using the words to communicate truth or to say what you do not truly believe? And are you using pronouns as weapons in a “culture war” (e.g., to mock or hurt a person who identifies as transgender), or are you attempting to avoid conflict or hurt someone’s feelings at the expense of speaking the truth?

4. In the absence of scriptural commands, apply Christian liberty thoughtfully

Those are difficult questions to address, which is why we are tempted to classify pronoun usage as an issue of Christian liberty. 

How does Christian liberty apply? In Romans 14:1-23, Paul addresses matters of conscience where Scripture is silent. He advises believers not to pass judgment on disputable matters but to act in love. This principle of Christian liberty applies to contemporary issues not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. 

The issue of pronoun usage might not be, as we’ve argued above, a true issue of Christian liberty, though, since Scripture does seem to address how we use language for the purposes of being truthful. However, the issue of individual restroom usage may be a better—albeit counterintuitive—example of an issue where Christian liberty should prevail.

The Bible does have something to say about how to go to the toilet (Deut. 23:12-14). But it does not say anything about the necessity of those individual facilities being gender-neutral. We could argue, of course, that such an explanation was not necessary because it is a matter of “common sense.” Yet appealing to a common-sense standard might violate the purpose of Christian liberty. 

There are, after all, numerous activities that some Christians have considered to be sinful because they violate the common-sense standard. The ingestion of harmful substances, such as tobacco, has been a frequent example through the past few centuries. However, this has not prevented other groups of believers (perhaps most famously, the Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon) from claiming it to be an issue of Christian liberty. 

Whether or not it is a matter of common sense, the best approach might be to consider bathroom usage to be (in a limited sense) a matter of Christian liberty. This is not to say that in considering it a matter of liberty that Christians must therefore allow anyone of any gender to use any restroom they choose. Indeed, that is not how Christian liberty works. What it means is that in the absence of clear direction from Scripture, Christians are allowed to adopt whatever customs and practices are deemed to be best and in keeping with the principle of love. 

Restroom usage can thus be approached as an issue of Christian liberty, with a focus on other relevant concerns such as safety, privacy, and respect for persons. These are some of the reasons why many churches with newer buildings have a “family-friendly” restroom. There is nothing in Scripture, of course, that requires a separate facility for families of young children to use. But concerns over privacy and respect have led some churches to choose that as a loving and respectful option. 

In the same way, churches can use their Christian liberty to allow visitors who identify as transgender to use gender-neutral facilities (such as single-room toilets that might not be available to everyone or family restrooms when they are not in use). But Christian liberty also gives churches the freedom to require that restroom usage conform to a person’s biological sex. Both are examples of how Christian liberty might look different within different circles of believers.

After choosing a side, we might think that one group is weaker in faith than the other. Yet, because they are fellow believers, we are still required to welcome them instead of quarreling over our different opinions, despising them, and passing judgment on them (Romans 14:1,3).  

(A third option, allowing transgender individuals to use the public restroom that aligns with their gender identity is likely to be the least loving option. Christian liberty should never be used in such a way that it becomes a stumbling block to other sincere Christians (Rom. 14:13). Allowing a biological man to enter a female-only space (i.e., a space where men who aren’t transgender would be forbidden from entering) would give the impression that biological sex is irrelevant to God and his people. It does not properly love the individual because it affirms their disordered identity.)

Embracing wisdom, love, and grace

As we face questions that Scripture does not explicitly address, we should be committed to walking in wisdom, love, and grace. Rather than simply assuming we are right and another group of Christians is wrong, we must first seek diligently to hear from God and apply his Word directly and analogically. If we become convinced that Scripture is silent on the issue, we then can view it as a matter of Christian liberty. But we must embrace all that entails and not use it as a license to do whatever our sinful nature (or our sinful culture) deems to be best. 

Adopting such an approach requires humility, patience, and a commitment to uphold the core truths of our faith while navigating the nuances of our ever-changing world. It’s an approach that is rarely easy and often controversial. But in doing so, we reflect Christ’s love and wisdom, and we offer the watching world a God-honoring response to the pressing issues of our times.

By / Nov 7

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that roughly 25% of the United States population has a disability. Within Christian thought, theologians such as Amos Yong, John Swinton, and Sarah Barton are elevating disability as a theological focus. Even further, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has published numerous articles on disability, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has passed resolutions about the topic. So, what is disability, and how does the Bible lead us to respond to it?   

What is disability?

Within the field of disability studies (a generally secular, interdisciplinary academic discipline), most scholars consistently agree upon three frameworks through which society understands disability and how persons with disabilities function in the world: 

Biological: The biological view of disability contends that disability is a biological dysfunction of  an individual person. To correct the disability if at all possible, medicine is used to repair what does not properly function. 

Social: The social view of disability asserts that disability is a social construct. Eliminating disability would mean constructing society in such a way that each person can fully participate in society without restriction. 

Moral: The moral view perspective of disability articulates disability as a special moral status, either as a punishment for a sin or as a particular blessing from God. Neither is substantiated by scientific or theological view, but belief in this theory is common. 

In considering the validity of each of these frameworks to explain disability, it ought to be noted that most people with disabilities do not use the moral perspective to think about their disability in any meaningful way, as it is largely considered to be pejorative to those with disabilities. Further, the biological and societal framework can explain the same disability in different ways. 

Disability in the Bible 

How does the Bible explain disability? While the Bible never offers its own definition of disability, it provides much to think about regarding the role of disability, particularly as it relates to God and his redemptive work. 

The doctrine of the imago Dei found in Genesis 1 necessarily includes persons with disabilities. A person with a disability, regardless of the type of disability, is equally made in the image of God, bearing the same dignity and possessing the same responsibilities of personhood that all people retain. 

Additionally, as the story of God and his people unfolds throughout Scripture, it cannot be told without the integral role of persons with disabilities: 

  • Jacob/Israel’s limp was a physical disability obtained after wrestling with God (Gen. 32:32).
  • Sampson was blind (Judges 16:21). 
  • Jonathan had a son with physical disabilities (2 Sam. 9:13). 
  • Zachariah was temporarily non-verbal (Luke 1:20). 
  • Even Paul, a stalwart missionary of the faith and Christian writer, not only suffered visual impairment, but regularly referenced his “thorn in the flesh,” an allusion Alan Hisey and James Beck argue is a reference to continued visual impairment.  

This is not to say that the Bible is a monolith regarding God’s response to disability. For example, consider the man with the withered hand in Mark 9. Jesus heals the man, and when the disciples ask why the man was disabled (a cultural question referring to the possibility of physiognomy), Jesus responds by saying it is for the glory of God. If Mark’s story were to be prescriptive of disability in the Bible, then disability could be understood as a form of worship to serve as edification to God. However, not even Jesus responds to disability in the same way in every situation. Conversely, the story of Zaccheaus offers a new texture to the discussion of disability.

As Amos Yong argues based on his study of the language used to describe Zacchaeus, he likely had congenital dwarfism, a permanent physical disability. When Jesus and Zacchaeus meet, Zacchaeus is never physically healed, but this does not stop him from receiving the forgiveness of his wrongdoings and immediately participating in the work of God. The story concludes with Jesus calling Zaccheaus a “son of Abraham,” a culturally significant identifier demonstrating his spiritual lineage as a direct descendant from this father of the faith. 

In light of the complex understanding of disability that the Bible offers, the most fundamental conclusion is that persons with disabilities are made in the image of God and continue to be used by God to bring about his economy on Earth. And as we apply modern understandings of disability to Scripture, light is shed on how one can think about disability and the people of God. This is not to be a summative explanation of all there is to think about disability. However, by studying the Bible from a particular angle, the richness and complexity of the text can be made robust as we pursue in greater depth and clarity of who God is and how he continues to work today.  

3 Christian responses

What then is the proper response to the Bible being full of stories of how persons with disabilities are a necessary part of God’s redemptive work? The following are just three potential responses for Christians seeking to more closely embody the heart of God: 

1. Read: One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the world of disability as constructed in the Bible is to read books written on the topic of disability that consider it from a Christian perspective. Consider books such as Connor Bales’s Counted Worthy, Amy Kenny’s My Body is Not a Prayer Request, or Henri Nouwen’s Adam. Each of these books offers a compelling story of life proximal to disability and reflection on how that speaks to the Kingdom of God. 

2. Participate: Perhaps you live in a community that is resource-rich and can provide the social infrastructure for persons with disabilities to actively participate and be involved in the community (organizations such as L’Arche USA, Camp Barnabas, or Reality Ministries do a great job in this capacity). By becoming involved with such organizations, a common life is created with persons with disabilities, offering a foretaste of the divine economy in that each person is recognized as a full and equal member of the body of Christ.

However, though this is not possible for all persons and churches everywhere, it this does not mean one should fail to work toward participation in the mission of God as it relates to persons with disabilities. A great place to start is with this resource written by Andrew Bertodatti on how churches, regardless of resources and capacity, can better incorporate each person to their community. 

3. Pray: While reading is a noble way to become more informed, educated, and aware, it is not the same as in-person experience. Although not all communities have developed social infrastructure for full inclusion of persons with disabilities, this does not mean there are no persons with disabilities in the community. By praying for not only an awareness of persons with disabilities in your community, but opportunities to become friends, learn from, and be formed by these people also made in the image of God, we avail ourselves for the Holy Spirit to work in profound and transformational ways in our lives. 

By / Jan 16

The Bible was central to the thought, rhetoric, and development of the Civil Rights Movement. This was influenced by the essential role of Black churches and preachers in the organization of the movement. Not only was the movement characterized by meetings in churches and the singing of Negro spirituals, it was also marked by biblical themes and biblical rhetoric.

An example of biblical rhetoric

A prime example of popular civil rights rhetoric is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963. The speech reflected King’s criticisms and hopes for America set in the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, he said satisfaction would not come until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This was familiar language in the Bible-literate America of that day.

In the conclusion, as King soared into describing his dream, he described a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:4-5).

Furthermore, it should not be taken for granted that the celebrated leader of the Civil Rights Movement was a Black Baptist preacher.

The biblical teaching behind the movement

The central intellectual strain behind the movement focused on the issue of the equality of all humans, since they were “created . . . in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), whether Black or white. Throughout the Black freedom struggle in American history, the biblical teachings on creation and human dignity were foundational to the arguments being put forth, both by scholars and by everyday people. Even those who were illiterate knew from the rhetoric of the movement that God had created all people from one man (Acts 17:26).

In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail written April 16, 1963, King resorted to biblical examples as a defense when he was accused of being an extremist for participating in demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. He asked whether Jesus was an extremist when he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). He also cited the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul, asking whether their words and actions were not also “extreme.” Finally, reflecting on Jesus’ death at Calvary, he wrote that “Jesus was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.”

And in his appeal to white ministers for support, King commonly cited biblical texts and the examples of Christ.

Conclusion

The Bible was central to the pulse of the Civil Rights Movement. In planning meetings, preachers and laypersons read from its pages. In public disputes, everyday people quoted its promises and its truth regarding the dignity of all humanity, regardless of skin color. It truly would not be a stretch to suggest that the Civil Rights Movement would have lacked moral fiber (and one might further say divine blessing) without the underlying truth claims drawn from the Bible.

By / Dec 19

To outside observers, Mary and Joseph were just another Jewish family showing up at the temple for the purification rite. They were following the Jewish law. Seven days after birth, Jesus circumcised and thirty-three days after circumcision, Mary and Jesus were back here in the temple for the purification ceremony and the presentation of their child to the Lord for his service. 

But here is where this moment is anything but ordinary. That baby, after all, is the Son of God, the one whose words breathed out creation, sculpted Adam and Even from the dust of the ground and breathed into his own parents the breath of life was publicly identifying with his people, Israel, by submitting to the circumcision. Jesus, perfectly submitting to the law that only he could perfectly fulfill, the spotless One identifying with the impure so that Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and all true believers might one day become pure. 

Mary and Joseph carried with them two turtledoves as part of the sacrifice offering. There is, of course, deep irony here. Though they carried in their arms, the Lamb of God, they were too poor to purchase a lamb and instead, had to settle for the lesser turtledoves. It reminds us of the kind of people among whom God chose to dwell. The kingdom of Christ breaks in, not in the palaces or private estates of the powerful, but among the common, the meek, the kind of people who had to dig for enough shekels to afford turtledoves. And the baby held so tightly in their arms would one day become the perfect sacrifice for sins that these slain animals symbolized, the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world. 

Nobody in the temple that day was looking for a Christ child. Nobody was seeking a Savior. Nobody expected, on this of all days, a moment that would be written down later in ink by a doctor and preserved as Scripture for us to read today. There was a heaviness in Jerusalem that day and most days. It had been centuries since God spoke directly to his people. And every time Jewish people trudged past their temple, they had seen the Roman flag, flying high above their land, a recurring symbol of their lost glory. 

Would-be messiahs had come and gone. Now they were ruled by men like Herod, whose corrupt ascension to power and ruthless leadership further disillusioned ordinary Jews. None of them thought the solution for the corruption in Rome and the malfeasance in Herod’s palace and the sin in their own hearts was resting, not a few feet away, in a carpenter’s arms. 

Even the religious elites in this temple, who pored over the ancient books and prided themselves on knowing every last arcane point of theology, were oblivious to Jesus. 

But among the crowds that day, not among the waiting parents, not among the religious leaders, was a mysterious old man. Unlike the cynics, unlike the religious leaders, Simeon held onto a seemingly impossible wish grounded in a radical faith in the Scripture’s promise of a coming Messiah. Would God appear in the flesh in their day?

He studied the Scriptures and the prophecies. But more than that, he listened to the voice of God’s Spirit. 

Who is Simeon? 

So who is this Simeon character who just kind of appears, from the shadows, into the gospel story? What’s interesting is that, 2,000 years later, we still don’t really know who he was. Luke, who wrote his eyewitness account with painstaking detail thought only one thing mattered in Simeon’s bio: “faithful, devout Jew waiting for the consolation of Israel.” 

Simeon believed the promise of a coming servant-king, the son of David, threaded throughout the law and the prophets. He may not have understood everything he read, but he knew enough to believe. Simeon knew enough to listen to the Holy Spirit’s whisper and was more in tune with God than the scholars who were paid to study and the scribes who were paid to teach. 

Imagine the scene in the temple that day. An old man, stooped and graying, coming every day to the temple, expecting the Messiah. The religious people probably think he’s an eccentric. They make jokes behind his back. There’s Simeon. He thinks the Lord is coming today. 

Every day he scans the crowd. Every day he asks the Lord, “Is this baby the one?” and every day the Lord says, “No, Simeon, this is not the one.” 

And then finally one day the Spirit of God whispers those words: This is the day. This is the one. You will meet the Son of God. 

Perhaps he’s reminded of the way Israel’s last great king was chosen. A similarly aging man of faith approached Jesse’s lineup of young men, asking the Lord, Is this the next king? And the Spirit answers Samuel, each time, No, this isn’t the one. Until finally, David, the unlikely shepherd boy, summoned from the shepherds’ fields, enters. 

Yes, this is the next king of Israel. 

Imagine how Simeon’s aging heart leaped within him. “Can I hold your child”, he asks. And in his arms, Simeon carries the frail, newborn baby whose arms would one day carry Simeon from sin to salvation. He looks into the eyes of his tiny Savior, the same Jesus who holds up the universe with his power. 

What wells up in Simeon’s heart were words he had been preparing to share his entire life. A prayer that has been memorized, sung and framed from caves to cathedrals throughout church history:  

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29–32 ESV)

I can die because I’ve seen your salvation. This, for Simeon, was no ordinary baby. He would not only be Simeon’s salvation, but the salvation of the world, people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. This is the one of whom God spoke to Abraham, when he promised that the patriarch’s heir would bless the nations. This is the one of whom God spoke to David when he promised the monarch an everlasting kingdom. This is the one of whom the prophets spoke, a lion of the tribe of Judah, a suffering servant, a conquering king. 

Simeon had met Jesus, and Simeon was ready to die. 

Death, of course, is a strange subject for Christmas. It doesn’t make for cozy Hallmark specials and singing Christmas trees. But Simeon knew he could face death—something every one of us will face one day—because he met the one who would conquer death. 

There is so much for us to learn from Simeon’s life. His perseverance, his attentive listening to God in a noisy, cynical age, his worship of the baby Jesus. But what is most important about Simeon—and you—was his relationship with Jesus. Simeon could die, not because he checked off the right religious boxes or performed all the outward rituals of the Jewish faith, but because he put his faith in the God-man. 

You, like Simeon, can be unafraid of death because you can know and understand that this baby is the triumphant, conquering Jesus whose own death and resurrection defeated the sin, death and the grave. 

Don’t misunderstand: Simeon wasn’t seeking death. And neither should we. But there is a sweet assurance in knowing that if and when our time comes, whether tomorrow or in forty years, we can face death with peace because we know the Prince of peace. 

In my experience as a pastor, the people who were most full of life, who walked through every day with joy and verve were those who were most at peace with their own mortality, who understood that this little baby in the manger we celebrate at Christmas defeated the grave. This is why Paul could say, of his own contentment, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Either way, he has peace and Christ is glorified. 

This is the central message of Christmas. No doubt, today as you read this, you are enveloped in the charm and the coziness of another December. But as much as we enjoy the season, let us not remember that we set aside time, as believers, not merely to gather with family or to sip warm beverages, but to acknowledge the central truth of Christianity: Jesus has come to save us from our sins. 

This Jesus, Simeon knew, wasn’t just an ordinary baby. He may not have understood exactly how it would all play out, nor did he fully grasp the mystery of God becoming human (neither do we). But Simeon knew enough to know that Jesus would not only be the long-awaited Messiah every Jewish person longed to see; he would be “a light for the Gentiles.” This is repeated, often, in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. In Mary’s song. In Zachariahs’ praise. In the words of the angel to Joseph. 

Jesus is and was a Savior for the entire world. It’s important for us to understand this truth. Sometimes we are tempted to think Jesus came only to save people that look like us, but we are told, from the promise to Abraham in Genesis through the words of the prophets and on into the gospel narratives and on through the letters of Paul and into John’s vision in Revelation that the kingdom of God is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue.

And let’s not forget the great cost of our salvation. This day in the temple was a day of celebration and dedication, but Simeon’s words were not all pleasant for Mary to hear, especially his proclamation that “a sword would pierce” her soul. This is not what new mothers exactly want to hear about their motherhood, but Simeon knew that the promise contained both joy and pain, blessing and anguish. The baby whom Simeon held, who cooed and kicked and delighted his young parents would one day endure the unjust trial, motivated by blood thirsty crowds. The very people he formed as Creator would laugh at his cries of pain. The world he came to save would send him to his death. Most of all, the Father with whom he communed in all of eternity would see his son, not as the pure and spotless lamb, but as the embodiment of all the sin and anguish of a rebellious human race. 

This sword was Mary’s unique calling. One day she would kneel at the foot of an ugly Roman instrument of execution: a cross. One day she would weep, with the others, as he lay dead in a borrowed tomb. One day she would question and fear and doubt the angel’s promise. 

Simeon’s word to Mary was rooted in the prophet’s vision of a coming king who would both suffer and conquer, who would reign over his enemies and yet be pierced for the transgressions of his people. This is why Christmas is both wonderful and yet violent, far from the saccharine holiday we often celebrate. The kingdom of God was to first come through the violent death of the Son of God. 

But Mary, like all of those who believe, could find hope that the baby she held would not only pay for the sins of those who nailed him to the cross, but would defeat death in his resurrection. Her son would endure all of this to reconciliation between sinners–like herself, like Simeon, like you and me–and God. Jesus’ future agony would be our salvation and God’s glory.

*This excerpt is an adapted excerpt from “The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus” (Moody Publishers, 2019).

By / Sep 12

My personal study of the Scriptures has been enriched by wondering, “What was that really like?” This question feels particularly relevant to the stories of those who came face-to-face with the God-man, Jesus Christ, and lived to tell about it in the Gospels. Author Rebecca McLaughlin gives full treatment to this sort of curiosity in her book Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord (The Gospel Coalition, 2022)

Before we get into her masterful debunking of certain myths and stereotypes, let me deflate one on the author’s behalf: though women are in the title, this book is not just for women, and it is not even really about women. This is a book about the person of Christ, and it is for all those who want to know and follow him more. The fresh perspective it offers us is an aide to that lifelong endeavor. 

The book is also for those who are questioning—or even deeply skeptical—about Jesus and about the Bible that tells of his improbable life, death, and resurrection. McLaughlin has spent plenty of time considering the cynic’s vantage point, with books that include Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion in 2020 and The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims in 2021. She effortlessly brings them along in this project as well.

Birthed out of McLaughlin’s own inquisitiveness, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women was written at “breakneck speed” in late 2021, said Ivan Mesa, TGC’s editorial director. It reads easily, too, as if penned in nearly one sitting. Though there is plenty to underline in a print edition, the author’s British accent makes the just over 4-hour audiobook a delightful option as well.

A winsome apologist with a Ph.D. in renaissance literature and a degree in theology, McLaughlin brings an academic’s understanding of history, context, and biblical commentary to bear on the core question of this book: How did the women named in the Bible describe their interactions with a Christ who was as countercultural then as he is today? And what would we have missed had these women not told others, ‘I have seen the Lord’? (John 20:18)

“To look at Jesus through the eyes of women may seem at first like an innately modern project,” McLaughlin admits in the book’s conclusion. But “what we see through their eyes is not an alternative Jesus, but rather the authentic Jesus, who welcomes both men and women as his disciples, and who is best seen from below.”

Though she leads into the subject with mention of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (a text from the early church period rejected as heretical), acknowledging why it would resonate with some who view the Bible as dismissive of women—don’t worry. McLaughlin’s thesis is that the first-century Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John already reflect the eyewitness testimony of women who met Jesus and that “the Jesus we see through their eyes is more beautiful, more historically accurate, and more valuing of women than anything the Gospel of Mary can offer.”  

McLaughlin’s even-handed approach would make the book a viable suggestion even for a secular book club, and questions written by TGC’s Joanna Kimbrel at the end of each chapter make such discussions even easier. Have a few academics or self-declared feminists in the group? All the better. These are the types of readers McLaughlin seems eager to bring along, graciously refuting some of the false claims they may have heard about Christianity—that it is, at best, dismissive of the female experience and, at worst, harmful to women—while introducing them to the one who “valued women of all kinds—especially those vilified by others.”

But those who would avoid the book for fear it is tainted by feminist underpinnings would do well to pick it up, too. McLaughlin is faithful to the biblical text and to history while being keenly aware of our current cultural moment. Rather, this book lands in the good company of Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly and Paul E. Miller’s J-Curve through its meditation on Christ’s momentum toward the lowly and its call that we respond.

After building inroads for a variety of readers, McLaughlin gets into the nitty-gritty details of how women’s accounts added to the picture we see the Gospels paint of Jesus. Which stories in these books were likely included only because women witnessed and relayed them? It turns out, plenty. “If we cut the things that only women witnessed, we’d lose our first glimpse of Jesus as he took on human flesh and our first glimpse of his resurrected body,” McLaughlin writes. “The four Gospels preserve the eyewitness testimony of women.” 

The book delves into what these women witnessed by dividing the stories into six broad categories, from discipleship and nourishment, to healing and forgiveness. 

Zooming in 

Asking what Jesus looked like through their eyes helps us relate in fresh ways to familiar female characters like his mother, Mary. Just as the prophecy that new life is being birthed inside her seems unfathomable when it first arrives, the Christian can also wonder just how the promised newness of life in Christ is really at work in him or her. “Through Mary’s eyes, we see the life-upending blessing of receiving Jesus,” McLaughlin summarizes.

The book introduces us to lesser-known women of the Bible, too, like Joanna, the wife of Herod’s household manager and a likely source of inside information from the halls of power (Luke 9:1-3; 9:9). In his Gospel account, Luke would have named Joanna and other women who were with Jesus “in order to flag them as eyewitness sources” for some of the stories he includes, McLaughlin writes. McLaughlin also revisits biblical women we think we know, from Mary Magdalene to Lazarus’ sisters. 

Perhaps my favorite of these is the author’s take on the well-known story of Mary and Martha. When Jesus tells Martha, who is “distracted with much serving,” that her sister Mary “has chosen the good portion” by sitting at his feet, McLaughlin doesn’t see it as an indictment of the domestic anxieties that can plague women (how often have you heard a woman confess to “being a Martha”?). Rather, his words are a “validation of female discipleship,” of Mary’s and Martha’s access to Jesus as thinkers and students, not just servers. 

Through the eyes of these sisters, “we see [Jesus] as the one who welcomes women and defends their right to learn from him. We also see him as the one who gives us so much more than we could ever give to him.” 

It’s paradigm-shifting, then, to consider that this Martha is the one to whom Jesus later speaks some of his “most world-transforming” words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” McLaughlin points out that almost all of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements are spoken to groups, but the two that are spoken to individuals are spoken to women. 

Besides John, women are largely the consistent witnesses of Jesus’ excruciating death, burial, and resurrection as well. In a chapter on life, McLaughlin focuses on these women’s accounts to winsomely argue for, not against, biblical soundness at several points, anticipating opposing views. She even quotes a resurrection skeptic and politely refutes his claims. 

She reminds us that, in that culture, the only reason to say that women witnessed all this is that they really did. 

Bringing Christ into focus

In her chapters on healing and forgiveness, McLaughlin acknowledges the messier stories, too. Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman, in particular, “shows he doesn’t shy away from femaleness.” This is often in sharp contrast to the responses of those around him. When this woman reaches for his cloak, “Jesus does not recoil.”

As he is with these women, he is also with us. “Jesus is no more put off by our inevitable uncleanness than a mother who has just given birth would be put off from holding her blood-smeared newborn. Before long, Jesus would bleed for this woman.”

Her chapter on the theme of forgiveness brings into focus Jesus’ infamous interactions with women of ill repute. These stories show a Jesus who “welcomed prostitutes: not like the other men of his day, and of ours, but like a loving brother, searching for his sister in the slums to bring her home.” Why does he welcome them? Not because of permissiveness, McLaughlin writes, but because of their repentance. 

Through the eyes of the sinful woman who crashes Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party (Luke 7:36-49), at last we see Jesus as “the one who defends” the woman wetting his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair. Rather than tearing this woman down along with his host, Jesus lifts her up “as a shining, tear-stained paragon of love to humble the self-righteous Pharisee.”

All this goes to show that those who throw themselves at Christ’s feet are the ones who will enter his kingdom. In this way, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women bridges the growing gap between how cultures—both the New Testament’s and our own—treat women who equally bear God’s image, and how the Jesus of the Bible did. We would do well to ingest, imitate, and marvel at the latter.

By / Sep 1

If God is so good, why is there evil in the world? If you are a Christian, chances are you have been asked that question many times, and if I am being honest I haven’t always had an answer. Even now I am not completely sure. There are a lot of questions about God that are impossible to answer because we simply are not God. He is outside of time, space, and matter. We are his creation. However, there are some questions that I think God does gives us an answer to and in fact wants us to know, such as how did it all start, or why is the world the way that it is? 

Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, reveals where the answers to these questions are found in his new book, The Characters of Creation. He also answers how we can find meaning and purpose in a broken world. Darling takes readers through the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and highlights how it is not just a story but God’s living Word to humanity. Below, he talks about how his book can help us rest in God’s providence. 

Joshua Martin: I found it interesting how you pointed out that if we were in the same situation as Adam and Eve, we would have decided to partake of the fruit, causing sin to enter into the world. How was it possible, if the first humans were in perfect communion with God, to disobey him? What does that say about our nature? 

Daniel Darling: Humans walked in innocence, but were not necessarily sanctified, as Christians redeemed by Christ experience and will experience in full at the end of the age. The innocence of Adam was tested and found wanting in the Garden. Of course, the innocence of the second Adam was tested and found worthy in Jesus. The way God’s sovereignty and rule coexist with our moral agency to commit sin against God is a mystery that theologians have wrestled with throughout the church age, but it is clear that God created human beings with a conscience and moral agency, which means humans can make choices which can go against their Creator and for which they are accountable. 

JM: If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we long for community with others. In your book, you emphasize that we can see from the very first book of the Bible that we ultimately long for community with the One who created us. Does that give us any indication of what Heaven will be like? 

DD: I think it’s profound that Moses paused the narration of his description of God’s creation of humans to make a statement that “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is the only part of God’s creative acts that was declared not good, because it was unfinished. Humans were created for community as a way of imaging the community experienced by the Triune God. I think we saw this during the last few years, as the pandemic forced a worldwide social experiment that I think reminded us that we were made for community, made for togetherness. We learned that while technology has thankfully allowed us ways to interact and communicate without being physically present, there is no substitute for embodied presence. In many ways, this is how the church can minister in a digital, isolated age. The ancient and often analog rhythms of church life can in many ways serve as a respite for digitally exhausted people. 

Our longing for togetherness, for community, does, in many ways, give us a glimpse of Heaven. Heaven is not just me and a thousand mansions and Jesus. Heaven will be, as described in Revelation 5 and 7 and other places, God’s gathering of his people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. It will be perfected fellowship. Humans are embodied people, not merely souls on sticks. And by design, we grow, we find joy, in our life together. The new Jerusalem will have all of the goodness of life together as humans, absent all of the ways in which life together can be corrupted and destructive. 

JM: You state that “Sometimes we assume that the battle between God and Satan is a fight among equals.” Why do we sometimes believe this, and what dangers does this present? 

DD: There is a natural sense, even among those who are not professing Christians, that the world is a battle between good and evil. We see this in the stories we tell, from the superhero genre to the ancient tales to even the cliched Hallmark movies at Christmas. This stems from, I believe, the Christian story where God prophesied to Adam and Even an epic battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, which runs as a thread throughout Scripture, culminating in the cross where Jesus cried it is finished, and in the empty tomb, where death, the final foe, was defeated. Satan walks around as a lion today, powerful, yes, but toothless against the people of God. 

And yet, this epic struggle is not an even one. Genesis and the story of Job and other passages remind us that Satan is a created being. He is a mere fallen angel. He does not do anything that is not allowed by God and is not worked, in God’s inscrutable and mysterious way, into God’s plan from before time began. As Christians this is important to understand. We can underestimate Satan’s power in that we foolishly tempt him and think we can beat him on our own (we can’t). But we can overestimate Satan’s power, who is no match for the all powerful I Am. 

JM: In our day and age, truth gets misconstrued, and Satan’s words in the garden, “Did God really say?” do not seem so foreign. In what ways do we act like the serpent in the garden and question God’s Word? 

DD: The same whispers the Serpent uttered to our first family in the garden are uttered today, the temptations to question God’s Word, twisting it to fit the moment and our desires. At the heart of this is the lie that Satan managed to get Eve to believe, this idea that the Creator of the Universe, the one who fashioned her from dust and breathed into her the breath of life, was somehow holding out on her. We are tempted to believe the idea that our Father is not a Good Father, that we would be better gods than God, that we are better rulers of ourselves than the one who made us. All of this only ever leads, not to “being like God, ” but actually being less than human, succumbing to the animalistic instincts of the tempter. 

JM: In Genesis, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From God’s response and other verses in the New Testament, we see that the answer to that question is unequivocally yes. What does it actually look like to be our brother’s keeper? 

DD: That’s such a great question. At the heart of it is a kind of disjointed view of what it means to be human, the seeds of the expressive individualism we see championed today. Cain’s conceit was that he could find his way to God with his own self-righteousness and that by eliminating his brother, he could hide from the Creator, who sees everything. Cain falsely believed he could sin in isolation, that his hubris and pride would not affect the rest of the human family. But that’s always the case. Sin is always a public event. And God sees every act of violence, every time humans try to advance at the expense of other humans, every time we see those made in God’s image as disposable. We are our brother’s keepers, whether we admit it or not. Cain’s ethic was the exact opposite of Jesus’ ethic which tells us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” and reminds us that our neighbors are the people we least likely want to be responsible for. 

JM: What is your response to people who question, If God is so good, why is there evil in the world? How do you point them to hope? 

DD: At the heart of that question, I would say, is a conception of who God should be if he were to exist. In the mind of someone who asks that question is the idea of a God who is sovereign and big and good enough to reverse what is evil and prevent what is bad. And in a sense this is the story the Bible tells, that there is a God who is renewing and restoring creation, who is making all things new, who is making all that is broken right again. 

Personally, like Naomi, like Job, like Habbakuk and Paul and millions of believers down through the ages, I have wrestled with a God who seems to allow things I despise, to allow things even he despises. But I’ve found it more comfortable to believe in a God who is in control, to know someone is at the wheel, than the alternative, which is that life has no meaning, no purpose, and no grand plan. When I lay my head on the pillow at night, when I send my kids out into the world, I take comfort in knowing that there is a God who is big enough to control what I cannot control and who is gathering history to himself. That doesn’t mean I always like what God allows. But I trust the God who allows it. 

By / May 26

As a dad to three children now between the ages of 16 and 12, I’ve been thinking about Bible storybooks for a number of years. During that time, not only did I read many such books to my children at various ages, but I also had the privilege of writing a preschool storybook Bible and accompanying curriculum: God’s Love: A Bible Storybook (2012, the Kindle version is available for free). Trying my hand at writing a book of Bible stories for children helped me appreciate the challenges of summarizing the stories of God’s Word in a way that faithfully captured both the events (facts) and their connections to the rest of the Bible (themes). 

Some storybook Bibles focus on mainly retelling the facts of biblical events, while others also add an emphasis on a passage’s thematic connections. Some more “thematic” storybooks showcase the gospel or Jesus, while others highlight God’s love or “how the Snake Crusher brings us back to the garden” (see below). In addition to the descriptions below for each storybook, I’ve also assigned a “Thematic” score to each book. (A “1” indicates the book has practically zero interest in themes/connections, but sticks with retelling the facts of the stories. A “5” indicates that the stories, while attempting to be factually accurate, also significantly emphasize how the stories fit into the larger story of the Bible, often using a particular theme.) I’ve also added information about the ages each book might best fit. 

(Note: The score for “age” is based upon the youngest age at which the book is aimed to be read. With one exception—The Action Bible—the age score indicates the age of a child to whom a parent is reading a book, not the age at which children would read the book for themselves.) 

1. The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones 

This beautifully written and illustrated children’s story Bible has become a classic. The stories focus on Jesus and the beauty of the gospel—it’s like reading the best Tim Keller sermons, but for kids. (The author, a member at Redeemer in New York City, where Keller pastored for decades, gladly acknowledges his influence.) You may enjoy this storybook as much as your children, or even more. The book features 21 Old Testament stories and 23 New Testament stories, with each story spanning about 5-8 pages, featuring lots of illustrations, and a few paragraphs of text. 

Age: +4 read to/+9 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 4 

2. More than a Story (two volumes: OT & NT) by Sally Michael 

If you’ve ever visited a historical site, you’ll know how an expert tour guide can make all the difference. With decades of Bible study and teaching, Sally Michael now puts a masterful guide to God’s Word in your hands. Packed with Scripture, this book is more than a story because it tells the true story of what God is doing in his world. If you use these books, you can lead your family on a life-changing tour of God’s Word. Volume One features 90 OT stories and Volume Two features 66 NT stories, with each story spanning about five pages and containing a few small illustrations and mostly text. 

Age: +6 read to/+9 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 3 

3. Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos 

Catherine Vos, wife of the famous theologian, Geerhardus Vos, brings a steady hand to faithfully retelling the stories of the Bible. First published in 1935, the Child’s Story Bible has stood the test of time, having been recently redesigned, with 26 new color illustration, by P&R Publishing. The book features 110 OT stories and 93 NT stories, with each story spanning about three pages of mostly text. 

Age: +5 read to/+8 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 1 

4. The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm 

If you want your child to get a glimpse of how the whole Bible fits together, this is the storybook Bible for you. The author, Pastor David Helm, has taken the best of biblical theology—as taught by scholars like Graeme Goldsworthy—and summarized it for very young children. The fun and age-appropriate illustrations also help children see connections among the stories. The book features 11 OT stories and 15 NT stories, with each story spanning about 10-20 pages, each of which contains an illustration and just a few sentences. 

Age: +2 read to/+6 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 5 

5. The Gospel Story Bible: Discovering Jesus in the Old and New Testaments by Marty Machowski

Beautifully illustrated, this storybook faithfully retells Bible stories but always with a one eye on the gospel and the other on how it applies to life. Covering 156 stories, each one spans two pages, features bright and colorful artwork, and contains 5-7 paragraphs of text. Each story ends with a few questions to discuss. 

Age: +5 read to/+11 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 3 

6. Seek and Find Bible Story Board Book by Sarah and André Parker 

This board book, Seek and Find by Sarah Parker (and illustrated by André Parker), will captivate young imaginations with stories from the Old Testament (volume one) and the New Testament (volume two) as they seek and find dozens of “hidden,” fun elements in each captivating illustration. This series, the Where’s Waldo? of Bible storybooks, mixes Bible learning with hours of fun! Each volume of this board book covers eight Bible stories, with one paragraph of text and lots of illustrations. 

Age: +2 read with. 
Thematic Emphasis: 4 

7. Bible Stories Every Child Should Know by Kenneth Taylor 

Some Bible story books are more story than Bible—but this wonderful update of Kenneth Taylor’s classic lets the Scriptures speak. Parents and children will love the simple and direct retelling of stories from Genesis to Revelation. With fun illustrations and family discussion questions, Bible Stories Every Child Should Know points even the youngest hearts to the good news of Jesus Christ. The book features 120 stories, with each story featuring several illustrations and spanning about 2-3 pages. 

Age: +4 read to/+7 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 1 

8. The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story, illustrated by Sergio Cariello 

This is a Bible comic book, which dramatically retells stories from the Bible using exciting illustrations by Sergio Cariello. The text for this award-winning book is penned by authors (unnamed), writing for the publisher: David C. Cook. Middle-grade readers will enjoy over 230 stories, covering both the Old and New Testaments. Each story lasts about 2-4 pages and states which Bible passage the story is based upon. 

Age: +9 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 2 

9. The Biggest Story by Kevin DeYoung 

Like God’s Big Picture Bible (mentioned above) but for an older readership, The Biggest Story also focuses on telling a unified story of God’s Word. In 10 chapters, this stunningly illustrated book tells the story of “how the Snake Crusher brings us back to the garden” (the book’s subtitle). This book is a work of art (illustrations by Don Clark), and its unifying gospel message will fill hearts with wonder and worship at its beauty. Each chapter is packed with illustrations, spans 10-12 pages, and contains about 35-45 sentences. [Note: Kevin DeYoung has also published, The Biggest Story Bible Storybook, also illustrated by Don Clark, which includes 104 stories and spans 528 pages!]

Age: +4 read to/+8 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 5  

10. The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy 

Once I started reading The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible, I could hardly stop. Jared Kennedy retells favorite Bible stories with a freshness and clarity that toddlers and preschoolers (and their parents) will love. Open this book with your little one, and watch eyes light up, fingers point, and smiles start to spread. Every page pops with bright colors and playful illustrations. Best of all, each of the short chapters will point your child to Jesus. The book features 52 stories, with each story containing 15-20 sentences, featuring lots of illustrations, and spanning about 6 pages. 

Age: +3 read to/+6 read by themselves. 
Thematic Emphasis: 3 

Bible Storybooks—Honorable Mentions:
The Tiny Tots Bible Story Book by John Walton and Kim Walton
The Promises of God Storybook Bible by Jennifer Lyell
The Big Picture Interactive Bible Storybook (from The Gospel Project) 

By / Feb 14

There is a rhythm to the account of creation in Genesis 1. The work takes place over six days, with a repeated refrain coming at the end of those days: “God saw that it was good.” God is evidently not inattentive to what he is making. He doesn’t start one aspect of creation and then turn his attention to the next project. He finishes each act, steps back (as it were), and appraises it. As he assesses each day’s work of creation, he can be fully pleased with the outcome. So again and again we read, “It was good,” “It was good,” “It was good.”

That is, until we turn up. At the end of the day when God has made humanity in his image, male and female, he says something different: “It was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The difference male and female image-bearers make to his creation is to lift it from “good” to “very good.” Needless to say, it is not a track record we maintain through the rest of the Bible; but the fact remains, there is a deep fundamental very-goodness to the way God has designed us to be, and our being made as men and women is at the heart of it.

Of course, whenever we talk about God’s design for men and women, significant questions rush to the front of our minds. What exactly does it mean to be a man, or to be a woman? What should it look like? Or feel like? These are not abstract questions. Each of us has some story of how we experience our own sex. Each of us has some sort of instinct about what we are supposed to measure up to and whether we have reached it or remain woefully short of it. Much of how we feel about ourselves, along with our social confidence and our mental health, can ride on this. It matters.

And it is confusing. It feels as though there are so many potential and available answers to those questions, and they don’t cohere. What a man or woman should be like not only varies from culture to culture but enormously within cultures, from one generation to the next and one region to the next –– even from one locker room to the next. I’m not sure I know how to answer all those questions, but I find that two simple observations about the Bible give me the basic coordinates I need to start thinking about it.

More alike than different

The first observation is that the vast majority of what God has to say, he says to us as men and women without distinction. It is obvious to point out, but despite the best marketing strategies from publishers, there is not one Bible for men and another for women. The same Bible is given to both. And all the words within it are for both men and women to read. Even the parts addressed to men are still meant to be read by women, and those addressed to women by men. So whatever differences there may be between us, we must not exaggerate them. We are not different species. It is not the case (to use the language of a hugely popular book from several years ago) that men are from Mars and women from Venus. However much we may mystify, surprise, or delight one another, we are far, far more alike than we are different.

In fact, the very first interaction between a man and a woman in the Bible highlights this very point. We’ve already seen the repeated refrain in Genesis 1 of “It was good,” “It was good,” and finally, “It was very good.” But even more jarring than the addition of the word very is the addition of the word not in Genesis 2. In this close-up account of the creation of Adam and Eve, Adam is at this point on his own. And this time, as God steps back he declares this not good: 

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Gen. 2:18)

The man on his own is inadequate and insufficient. He needs an appropriate other. “Fit for him” here also carries the sense of “corresponding to him,” someone who will be his match. But God doesn’t then immediately create the first woman. Instead, he brings out various creatures before Adam for him to name. And by naming, he doesn’t mean giving each single creature its own personal name; he means taxonomy –– giving each kind of creature its appropriate name. So this involves carefully examining the nature of each species and kind so that he can give it a proper designation. Doing this only brings home to him that each creature is distinct from him. The conclusion? “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:20). The not-goodness of his original situation has not changed. On the positive side, Adam now knows what to call everything; but on the negative side, he is still without a necessary counterpart.

What first leaps out at Adam is not all the things that are different between Eve and him but the very fundamental way in which she is like him. There are differences. He’s not oblivious to that — evidenced by the one-flesh union they quickly enter into. But more fundamental than the obvious differences between men and women is the more fundamental likeness. Our human commonality precedes our sexual difference.

So our shared likeness as human beings is seen in that the vast majority of what God says to us in the Bible, he says to us as men and women without distinction. We’re not directed into separate rooms; we share the same holy Scripture. There may be ways in which we think or behave differently, but this should not be stressed at the expense of how alike we are.

Different and complementary

The second observation is that while it is essential to know that the vast majority of what God says is said to us without distinction, it is not true of everything God says. So while we have obvious differences of biology, the fact that at times we need to hear slightly different words from God indicates these differences extend beyond biology. It does not seem to be the case that, biology aside, men and women are indistinguishable from one another.

How we identify what these deeper, nonbiological differences are requires great care. With an issue so sensitive and far-reaching, we want to make every effort to go only as far as the Bible goes –– no further and no less.

It is very easy for Christians, often without realizing it, to go further than the Bible says. We each have our own deep sense of what constitutes true masculinity and femininity, and we can all too easily assume that sense has come from the Bible, especially if we’re holding it in contrast to what a wider, secular culture around us might be saying. But what seems obvious and instinctive to us about the nature of men and women might reflect our own cultural prejudices more than what the Bible actually says.

We want to say what the Bible says; we also want to say it only to the extent that the Bible says it. Sometimes we can take a genuinely biblical idea and run with it in a way that the Bible itself never does. What we end up saying might not be contradicted by Scripture and may well be consistent with one aspect of what the Bible says, while not actually being biblical. The Pharisees give us a number of examples of how easily this happens. They rightly took the Old Testament law seriously. But they often mistook their application of God’s law for the law itself. So those who didn’t obey the law in the exact way that they did were regarded as disobedient.

I suspect the same often happens when it comes to discussions of what Christian men and women are meant to do or be like. Principles found in Scripture get applied in prescriptive ways that exceed the scope of the original text, and anyone who disagrees is accused not of disagreeing with the application but with the Bible itself. I’ve seen this sort of thing numerous times, particularly in the conservative churches from which I have come. I think of one church where, in mixed prayer meetings, women were discouraged from praying at the beginning because it would discourage men from taking the lead in prayer. I can imagine (just about) this being well-intentioned to start with (perhaps seeking to apply 1 Timothy 2:8 –– “I desire then that in every place the men should pray”?), but by the time I encountered this practice, it had already been hardened into a rule about what men and women should do: men should always be first to pray in a mixed gathering; women should always hold back and wait until the men have prayed first.

So those of us (I include myself) who believe that Scripture teaches that only certain qualified men should serve as pastors or elders in the church need to be careful not to then take this teaching and start applying it to contexts the Bible never speaks to, such as women leading in certain secular contexts. Or those who take the Bible’s teaching to husbands and wives and then end up prescribing from this which spouse should be doing which tasks in the modern home.

Saying what the Bible doesn’t say or overextending what it does say are both forms of adding to Scripture. But we must be equally careful not to subtract from Scripture. And if (in my experience) adding tends to happen more in conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of wanting to take the detail of Scripture seriously), then (also in my experience) subtracting tends to happen more in less conservative churches (perhaps an unintended consequence of not wanting to be bound by rules and conventions that aren’t biblical). Either way, all of us are in danger of both.

The fact is, it is clear from Scripture that differences between men and women are not just physiological. And while we mustn’t over define what these differences are, neither must we deny they exist at all. This is especially important given that it is increasingly common to think that being equal must mean being the same in every respect –– that equality cannot properly exist where there is any kind of difference. But the Bible challenges this way of thinking. Our very difference is what makes each gender distinctly glorious. We can’t simply hope to swap out a man for a woman, or a woman for a man, and assume it will make no difference.

Content taken from What God Has to Say about Our Bodies by Sam Allberry, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

By / Jan 3

We live in a loud world, and it can feel like the one who shouts and throws around the snarkiest comments online wins. The other day I was scrolling on social media (my first mistake), clicked on a news story, and then read the comments (so many mistakes). The topic is not important, but the commenters split into two sides and were full of hate, fear, and anger. Many of the loudest voices identified as Christians. It sent me reeling for a few days. Is this what it means to be a Christian and live courageously in our day and age?

It seems many of us have lost sight of what it means to obey Jesus, especially online. There are those who claim boldness for Christ but reject his example of humility and self-sacrifice (Phil. 2). There are those who tell you God is in control one minute but then spend the following hour convincing us everything is spinning out of control (and that we better be mad about it). And there are those who try to sprinkle some Christian language on whatever agenda gets the most clicks and shares in that moment. It’s all very loud and disorienting. 

Learning about real courage from Romans 12

But here’s the thing: real courage is very often quiet. In a crazy, noisy world like ours, the most courageous and countercultural thing we can do is live with intentional calm. In a world where it seems like everyone around us is losing their minds, Christians are called to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). 

But what does that look like, practically? I’m grateful we don’t have to guess. Over and over again, the early church was given instructions about how to live as Christ-followers in the midst of hard circumstances (like living under the rule of the Roman Empire). For example, in Romans 12, Paul writes:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 17–21).

This quite opposite of the rage we see online, often perpetuated by Christians. Whether it’s a hot take about COVID-19, a defensive opinion about the latest politicized issue, or a mean-spirited theological debate, we have gotten into the habit of dishonoring Christ and his people in the name of “courage.” 

On the contrary, it takes real, Spirit-born courage to live the way Paul describes — to live peaceably and honorably when it feels better to be defensive and self-protective; to serve others faithfully, even those who wish us harm, when it’s easier to give up and hide from the evil around us; to trust that God is just and in control when it would be more satisfying to enact revenge; to be misunderstood, even by our brothers and sisters, but refusing to retaliate.  

What is most amazing to me about this passage is the last imperative: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Up until this point, Paul sounds a little bit to me, dare I say it, naive. These are hard words to live by in a fallen world. But he’s not naive. He’s reminding us that the gospel offers a new way of living that doesn’t just repay evil with more evil — it actually overcomes it with good. Amazing!

Conclusion 

For centuries, Christians have read these words and taken heart amid pandemics, wars, famine, and persecution. These living words of God enable us to live with real courage and do the kind of humble, quiet, countercultural things that have eternal consequences. And if we are called to live this way toward our enemies (v. 20), how much more should we demonstrate kindness, grace, and good to our fellow believers? 

So let’s not be fooled by those who appear to always be taking a stand courageously but only seem to spread anxiety and chaos. Let’s not be egged on by the bluster that has us creating enemies and seeking revenge. Let’s not give in to the temptation to join such practices that are wicked in nature. And let’s not even come close to describing these things as “Christian.” 

Instead, let’s seek the simple clearheadedness necessary, born of a mind renewed by the Spirit in the Word of God (Rom. 12:1-2), to keep about the work God has for us. Just as the Thessalonians were instructed “to live quietly” and continue the daily work God gave them (1 Thess. 4:11), we won’t be distracted by noisy, secondary issues because we are too focused on moving the gospel forward. 

We have days and years ahead that demand a choice: will we choose the quiet courage that’s grounded in trusting a just and sovereign God, or will we get sucked into infighting, anger, and dishonoring the glory of God. I want to wake up each morning in 2022 and choose the better. Will you join me?

By / Sep 20

Most Christians are familiar with the story of Joseph as a powerful example of forgiveness and restoration. It is that. But it is not a simple, flat story. It is a complex story that spans a lifetime. It involves family drama, multiple betrayals, and political theatre. It is not a story we can apply as simply as Aesop’s fable The Fox and The Grapes. The story of Joseph is no simple children’s story.

Tracing the theme of power

Maybe one of the most dangerous misapplications in the story of Joseph occurs when it’s cart-blanche applied to how an abuse victim should respond to their abuser; as if it is a simple one-to-one application. What needs to be understood in order to apply Joseph’s story wisely to cases of abuse? We need to begin by tracing the theme of power throughout the story.

Initially, Joseph has the power. He is his father’s favorite son (Gen. 37:1-11). This means he doesn’t have to do the worst family chores, and he gets nicer clothes than his brothers. Joseph does not steward his power well. He flaunts his power and chides his brothers. By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s actions were interpersonally offensive (i.e., rude). We would say he needed to repent, but we would not call the police.

Later, Joseph’s brothers have the power. They out-number Joseph and they are older and, therefore, physically stronger than Joseph. Joseph’s brothers do not steward their power well. They beat their brother, throw him in a well, and sell him as a slave (Gen. 37:12-36). By modern, American legal standards, Joseph’s brothers’ actions were criminal — kidnapping and human trafficking. We would say they needed to repent, and we should call the police if we learned of comparable actions.

In the final scene, Joseph has the power again. He is second in command to pharaoh and controls the distribution of grain during a famine (Gen. 42-50). We applaud Joseph because he is the first person in this sequence who uses his power to bless and redeem instead of abuse and demean. Reading this part of the story, we want to be like Joseph and want everyone else to be like Joseph, too. When we hear from someone who has been through hard times, like Joseph went through hard times, Joseph comes to mind as a great example to follow.

Forgiveness and restoration in Joseph’s story

Let’s make another distinction before we try to make wise application of Joseph’s story. When Joseph famously says to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (paraphrase of Gen. 50:20), two interpersonal activities are occurring: forgiveness and restoration. Because these two responses so frequently travel together, we can easily view them as two sides of the same coin, rather than independent actions.

Forgiveness is the removal of relational debt. Restoration is engaging a relationship as if the relational debt did not occur. To illustrate the difference, if you allowed a friend to borrow your car and they wrecked it by driving carelessly, forgiveness would mean not requiring them to pay for damages, but restoration would mean letting them borrow your next car. You might do one without the other.

In Genesis 50, Joseph is both forgiving his brothers (not throwing them into prison) and being restored to his brothers (inviting them back into family relationship). If we cavalierly use the story of Joseph as an example for abuse survivors to follow, we are communicating that it is good and safe for survivors to do both. Implying their life will turn out like Joseph’s life if they do.

Is restoration wise for an abuse victim? 

So, why was it wise for Joseph to do this, but maybe not for an abuse victim? The answer has to do with power.

It was good for Joseph’s soul to forgive his brothers. It honored God and gave Joseph freedom from bitterness. We can say with confidence that this is what God wanted for Joseph. We can also say with confidence that God was patient with the journey. It took Joseph 13 chapters (Gen. 37-50) and approximately 24 years (best guess from Bible scholars) to come to this place of forgiveness. We should be equally patient in advising survivors to forgive.

But what about restoration? Why was restoration wise for Joseph, and when would it be wise for us? Notice that the power differential that allowed for abuse had been balanced. Joseph was no longer “little brother.” Joseph was no longer outnumbered 11 to 1.

When we are caring for an abused friend considering restoration, a question we should ask is, “Has the power differential been balanced in this relationship?” If repentant, an abusive person who has leveraged power to harm someone will diffuse those power dynamics. An invitation back into an imbalanced relationship is an unwise offer to accept.

This means we must understand the kinds of things that create power in relationships: positional authority, access and control of money, age, social standing, education, etc. A near universal prerequisite for abuse is power differential, and the abuse of power makes other sin more consequential.

For example, if your accountant embezzled money from your bank account, this is more consequential than your child’s friend stealing the same amount of money left on your kitchen counter. The accountant used their position, authority, education, and social standing to get privileged access to your bank account. Even if you forgave the accountant (which would be good for your soul), you would not restore them with the pin number to your checking account.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of power, I would highly recommend Diane Langberg’s presentation at the ERLC Caring Well Conference. But, with even a basic understanding of power and abuse, we can better understand why a tearful and articulate abuser who insists on maintaining factors that gave them power is most likely not repentant. There is strong reason to believe they are like an emotional accountant wanting your social security number. They are not doing what is within their power to debunk this concern.

This is what makes Joseph’s actions in Genesis 45 an example to follow. Do you notice what Joseph did? He broke the cycle of power. He did not relate to his brothers as the VP of Egypt who had temporary guests. That would have maintained his power. He invited them into a family (power balanced) relationship.

Yet, even in this story, we notice that before Joseph restored relationship with his brothers, he took steps to vet whether greed, power, or fear would cause them to relapse into their old pattern (Gen. 44). He wanted to be restored, but he also wanted to be wise.

So, what are our takeaways from this reflection?

  • Don’t rush a survivor to forgive. Rushing godly responses is not good pastoring.
  • Do understand the power differentials in an abuse case. Unless we do, we will make sloppy application of Scripture.
  • Do set the expectation that power balancing is necessary to make restoration wise. Anything less is not addressing what made the abuse possible.
  • Marvel with a new perspective at what Jesus did to allow restoration with us.

This article originally appeared here