By / Aug 9

I did not always fit in at the Christian schools I attended growing up. I was one of only a handful of students who did not have both parents at home, which meant I was the only one in my class with a different last name than the rest of my family because my divorced mom had remarried. This required complicated explanations to my classmates and sometimes even teachers; most of them lived in a world where most moms and dads were married, so their children shared their last names. It meant I had to ask permission from the front office to wait with my little brother after school, long after everyone else had gone home, until our single mom could get off work to pick us up. And it meant that I did not have my father there to walk with me in homecoming court senior year. Often, neither of my parents were present during special school ceremonies because my father lived in another town, and my mother could not always leave work.

As a shy child, I didn’t like feeling different from my classmates. I secretly resented them for their seemingly perfect family lives and wondered what it would be like to see both my parents’ smiling faces in the audience during a school play or to be able to share a last name with my mom and half-siblings. But I knew enough to be grateful for the sacrifices my mother was making to keep me in private school — even if I didn’t always feel like I belonged there. 

When I grew up, got married, and had kids of my own, I knew I wanted a Christian education for my own kids. I eventually convinced my reluctant husband that our two-income family could afford the private school tuition if we budgeted carefully. To make it work, we’ve had to sacrifice things like a bigger house in a fancy neighborhood and newer cars, but we have never once regretted these sacrifices.

An investment in my future 

Christian education began influencing my life from about the age of two, when my newly divorced mother enrolled me in one of the area’s most popular Christian preschool programs. It was an expensive choice for a single mother, and one she continuously had to defend to family members who questioned why she would pay private school tuition when she could barely make ends meet.  

Because we moved around a lot, I ended up attending five different Christian schools over the years, ranging from a tiny Pentecostal-run academy to the large Southern Baptist school from which I eventually graduated. Nonetheless, Christian schooling became one of the few constants in my life when the shape of my family never stayed the same. Even after another divorce, various job changes, and relationship challenges, my mom always found a way to keep me (and for a time, my younger siblings) in Christian school. 

It turned out to be one of the best investments she would make in my future. For me, Christian schooling served as a lifeline out of a world plagued by father hunger, family disfunction, and economic instability. Not only did I receive a private school education, but I also gained the direction and support I needed to stay on a path toward the stable family life I enjoy today. 

A report about private education 

My experience with Christian education is backed up by a report from the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute. The Protestant Family Ethic, written by Albert Cheng, Patrick Wolf, Wendy Wang, and W. Bradford Wilcox, is the first of its kind to analyze the effects of private versus public schooling on three family outcomes for adults. The report found that students educated in private schools, especially Protestant schools, are more likely to be in intact marriages and to avoid out-of-wedlock births as adults. 

One of the report’s most striking findings involves the powerful effects of religious schooling on students from lower-income backgrounds. As the authors explain, “religious schools, both Catholic and Protestant, have comparatively more positive influences on family stability for students who grew up in financially difficult circumstances.” 

According to the report:

“About 40% of public-school attendees who grew up in financially unstable households eventually marry and never divorce. The rate is higher for Catholic-school attendees who grew up in the same unstable financial situation (53%). Meanwhile, Protestant-school attendees who grew up in financial hardship are the most likely to marry and never divorce; 72% are still in their first marriage.”

In addition to the differences between religious and public school students, the figure above also reveals that students from financially unstable backgrounds reap more positive family outcomes from religious schooling than students from financially stable backgrounds. Among Protestant school students in particular, those who grew up in financially difficult circumstances are significantly less likely to have a nonmarital birth and to have divorced than those from financially stable backgrounds.

3 ways religious schooling shaped me

As someone who was raised in a financially turbulent, single-parent household, I have a few theories about why this might be the case. Religious schooling shaped my future family life for the better by providing me with three things I needed the most: 

1. Examples of healthy marriages and decent fathers and husbands. 

Growing up in a broken home where men were either absent, unreliable, or dangerous, the messages I absorbed about fathers, marriage, and family life were overwhelmingly negative. But in Christian school, I found peace and hope in the midst of family turmoil. It was there that I was introduced to the concept of God as my Father who looked upon me as his child, which mattered a great deal to a little girl who desperately missed her biological father. And it was there I experienced Christ’s unconditional and unfailing love through the lives of my teachers and the pastors who led the school. 

At the same time, I was exposed to healthy married families with faithful dads and husbands — men who did not harm or abandon their families but who loved God, their wives, and their children. None of these men were perfect, but they were clearly striving to be the fathers and husbands their families deserved. Many of these examples came from married teachers whose spouses also worked at the school — like my favorite bus driver/ janitor, Mr. Robb, a gentle giant whose wife taught kindergarten, or my high school Algebra teacher and senior adviser, Mr. Ammons. Something I noticed about their families is the role faith played in their lives. The parents prayed together and took their children to church often, and they were committed to something, or Someone, bigger than just each other (and research confirms that couples who pray together and attend church regularly enjoy more stable marriages). 

2. A biblical worldview that pointed me to a path for a successful future. 

In the IFS/AEI report, the authors reflect on why Protestant schools appear to have a stronger influence on the future family lives of students compared to the other schools, noting that: 

“Protestant schools are more likely to stress the importance of marriage as a good in and of itself—and of having and raising children in marriage. The different messages they send may play some role in providing a normative context for their graduates’ future family lives.” 

This was certainly true in the schools I attended. The contrast between my unstable family life at home — where divorce and father absence seemed to spread like a disease — and what I experienced in the Christian school classroom gave me a taste of the healthy family life I desired but did not know how to obtain. I was taught a biblical worldview that said every life has value and purpose, that marriage was designed by God for the good of children and society, that divorce was to be avoided if at all possible, and sex and parenthood should be reserved for marriage. 

Importantly, I saw these ethics lived out in the lives of my teachers and in most of the families of my peers. I learned that boundaries matter, not to fence me in but to protect me from harm. Instead of lessons on condoms, I was encouraged to delay sex until I was married because of God’s good design, to work hard in school so I could go to college, and to eventually get married and start a family — a sequence of steps that research shows is linked to lower chances of poverty and a greater chance of achieving family stability and economic success. These values, and the support I received to sustain them, helped me to avoid some of the common risk factors for kids from broken families.

3. Supportive and like-minded peers.

As I said earlier, I was an outsider at my Christian school because of my family life at home. Most of the students lived with their married parents in stable, middle- or upper-class neighborhoods, while only a handful, like me, came from broken homes, often relying on scholarships or financial aid to be there. But the friends and classmates I found there helped keep me away from choices that would have most certainly derailed my future. Most of the students attended church regularly and avoided alcohol, drugs, and early sex. While there were definitely some kids who were having sex and partying on the weekends, most of the students were striving to avoid these behaviors. 

Again, my experience echoes the findings in the IFS/AEI report, which identified “stark differences in the peer environment of various school communities.” Compared to students who attended secular private and public schools, Millennials who attended religious schools were significantly more likely to report that “almost all” their peers attended church regularly, did not use drugs, had never had sex, and planned to go to college. 

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that religious private schools are far from perfect education models. Many of these schools lack the economic and racial diversity that could benefit their student body and the surrounding community. And emerging from the Christian school “bubble” into the real world can leave some students with a bit of culture shock. Even so, I would not trade the Christian education I received, flaws and all, for any other form of schooling — and I believe that without it, I would not be where I am today.As theProtestant Family Ethic concludes, “private schools serve the public good more by fostering stronger and more stable marriages among American men and women compared to public schools.” Religious schools have a vital and unique role to play in promoting this common good, especially among lower-income kids from unstable families who are hungry for the faith, values, and role models these schools offer. Just as it did for me, Christian schooling can provide at-risk students with a lifeline out of the cycle of family instability and point them toward a path for a brighter family future. 

By / Jan 14

Graduate students are like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. That was the claim made by one of my literature professors. What does a graduate student in engineering or a person studying law or medicine have in common with a fictional, deformed creature known for his skulking behavior? They both are staring down. Gandalf describes Smeagol (Gollum’s previous name) to Frodo in this way,

“The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Smeagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on the trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”

Inquisitive. Curious-minded. Interested in beginnings and the “roots” of things. These are the characteristics of a good graduate student one would hope. But hidden inside of that positive description is a warning as well: “his head and his eyes were downward.” And it was not just looking down at the roots, but also looking down on all those who did not share his obsession. Gollum’s obsession with knowledge and the promise that it would bring power is what caused him to look with antipathy toward all others. Thus, when we meet Gollum he is alone in a subterranean cavern playing riddle games with himself, seeing other people only as a meal. 

The problem of anti-anti-intellectualism

While graduate students may not live alone in caves obsessing over elven rings capable of making you invisible—although pouring over tomes in a library or staring at measurements in a science lab may be just as appealing to the rest of the world as an underground cave filled with goblins—they share a temptation: To allow knowledge, or formal education, to cause them to look down on their peers. 

Speaking for myself as a graduate student, I’m certain that my family and friends would prefer to have a game of riddles in the dark than listen to me engage in a description of my interest in the history of evangelicals and labor activism at the turn of the 20th century. Why? Because, so often, my eyes and head are turned downward just like Gollum when I engage in those conversations. 

And this is not unique to graduate students. Harvard professor Michael Sandel notes that this kind of bias against those without a college degree or formal education is more prevalent than other forms of contempt, and that unlike other forms of bigotry such as racism or sexism, educational elites are often “unapologetic” about their views of the less educated. In a culture where education is a marker of upward (economic) mobility, and success often the result of educational attainment, then it is unsurprising that we would value individuals and their contributions more because of the institution on their diploma. However, Christians should be the first to reject such a demeaning view of individuals, recognizing that just as worth is not defined by race or sex, neither is it defined by the number of letters after your name, whether J.D., M.D., or Ph.D. 

Education to encourage love of God

Now, I am not advocating for a lack of education. It would be disingenuous since I have completed one graduate degree and am currently pursuing another in history. Further, I think that Christians have a unique responsibility to pursue education because we are convinced that truth exists and can be known. Part of the creation mandate to take dominion over creation includes cultivating and stewarding the world, which can only be done with proper knowledge. And colleges and universities are often a mission field in need of cultivation by Christians who can speak truth and the gospel message to people asking questions about identity, the future, and purpose. 

The purpose of education is to cause you to look up, metaphorically speaking, rather than down. The scientist who probes the workings of the cosmos should exult with the psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1-4). The jurist studying the law should be confronted with the justice and perfection of the lawgiver (Psa. 19:7-8). And the student of history should look back and see the providence of God at work in the most minute details and events (Psa. 136). Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God.

Education to encourage love of neighbor

Just as important is the way that education should be a method for loving our neighbor, or looking to our right and left rather than down. On a practical level, we can see how this plays out. It is scientists and medical professionals (all, we hope, with years of training and experience) who have developed a vaccine for the pandemic, a service to their neighbor for sure. In a similar way, the lawyer may provide their services pro bono in a legal clinic for the poor, and teachers use their training to educate the next generation as a form of public service.

 Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God. 

We know what it means to use our skills to serve our neighbor. But just as education leads the Christian to worship more fully, it should also be a means for enriching the worship of others. And this is the beauty of the church—others benefit from your effort and exertion. Thus, the pastor who has learned Greek and Hebrew need not teach a course on Sunday mornings for his congregation to benefit from his study (though if congregants wanted to learn the original languages, that would not be a bad thing). In fact, it should be the opposite. Those around you should benefit from the work that you have produced and enjoy the fruits of your intellectual labor. For example:

The pastor who studies Greek or Hebrew can convey to the congregation the meaning of the text without subjecting them to a grammar lesson. Paul’s pleading can come through in the way that you explain the text rather than in your diagramming of articles, verbs, and participles. 

The Christian historian spends hours in the archives to tell the story of former slave and Baptist missionary George Liele, illustrating to the church the role that he played in the spread of the gospel after gaining his freedom. 

The theologian studies the work of the fathers and mothers of the church during the early church period to bring renewed interest in ancient methods of devotion and catechesis all to encourage spiritual piety. 

The ethcist asks the deep questions about technology, sex, or politics in an effort to help their church think not only about this immediate social issue but about the one coming down the road for the next generation of the church. 

And the Christian sociologist studies patterns of behavior and statistical analysis of transmission of values to teach parents how to better disciple their children. 

None of these examples require that the recipient be an expert in ethics, sociology, history, or ancient languages. The Christian scholar, who has been gifted the responsibility to study and serve, brings to the church the fruits of their labor and says “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8)

In Acts 2, the early church met the needs of the community by those who had much providing for those who had less. Each brought as they were able, each received what they needed, and neither looked with contempt on the other; they all “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:44-46). In the same way, the act of service of the scholar is not to puff up themselves with knowledge, but to recognize that they have been blessed with the opportunity for formal education and to bring the result of their studies to others, who for any number of reasons have not been able to devote themselves to formal training in the same way (1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Tim. 6:3-6; 2 Tim. 3:6-7). But neither is more dignified or performs more godly work. Rather, each encourages and supports the other in their specific calling, spurring one another on to greater worship of God and love of neighbor. 

Conclusion

When we first meet Gollum in The Hobbit, he is alone, muttering to himself and his precious ring. He is twisted and deformed by his quest to know the ring and use it for his own power, always at the expense of others. In contrast, the church is the picture of a community where those with college degrees and those without are gathered together to worship God and serve one another. The Christian scholar is called to use that knowledge to serve their church and proclaim the gospel message to the world, not their own prestige and importance. It is the recognition that scholastic activity should have relevance for the church, sanctification, and love of God. The Christian scholar should be humbled by the ability to list the order of salvation in Latin or Greek and remember that, Latin or not, all of us are called to the foot of the cross in repentance, and all of us will one day cast our crowns and all accolades at the feet of the only one worthy of praise (Rev. 4:10).  That is a calling better than any riddle game in the dark. 

By / Oct 6

The last few weeks have seen the reopening of school districts across the country. Teachers are adapting to the current pandemic in a number of ways with some teaching in person, others online, and some doing both. This has, understandably, created a new source of anxiety for both students and teachers. Students have to contend with Zoom fatigue in addition to struggling through long division. Online teachers are in the unenviable position of attempting to replicate the community of a classroom from the confines of a screen with tiny little Zoom boxes and weak internet connections. In this current moment, Christian parents should consider how they can serve their teachers as they adapt to the new situations of online learning. Here are three practical ways: 

Remain flexible 

If the last several months have revealed anything, it is the truth that there are many things beyond our control. Every day brings some new catastrophe or unexpected challenge. And online education is no different. Not long after schools resumed near me, teachers started their day to discover that Zoom was down worldwide because of server problems. Immediately, an entire day’s scheduled meetings and plans had to be reworked. 

In some ways, the pandemic has just affirmed the truth of Scripture: we are not in control. In response, we can cling more tightly to our plans and our belief that we are the masters of our fate, or we can accept that there is much outside our control and trust the one who sets planets in motion and hung the stars. In the midst of a season that seems intent on inducing worry and anxiety, the same voice that calmed the waves offers us the promise of peace (Mark 4:39). 

Show your support 

With many teachers teaching online or in new hybrid options, it is very likely that parents may not ever get to meet their teacher in person as they normally would. And with so much of instruction occurring in asynchronous formats, it can be easier than ever to forget the effort that many teachers have put in to redesigning their classroom, curriculum, and even teaching style. This is especially true when every day brings a new cause for anxiety: Should we wear a mask when we leave the house for groceries or have them delivered? Will my wife lose her job because she was deemed unessential? Who is in charge of childcare this week while we work from home? In this moment of continual anxiety and fear, it would be easy, and understandable, that we would forget about what we cannot see in front of us, or about the person on the other side of the screen.

Christians should make a special effort to remember and praise the work of their children’s teachers during these times. Teachers are often facing the same existential crises in their own families, all while seeking to love and serve a Zoom screen filled with kids who are facing a new challenge of their own. So look for ways to serve and care for the teachers in your life. A well-timed email, a note sent in the mail, or brief video chat just to let them know that you see and appreciate all that they are doing can be a welcome reprieve for a teacher. We know that our words have the power to build up and encourage (Prov. 18:21), so we should seek ways to offer a word of hope, encouragement, and life to those who have devoted their lives to teaching the next generation.

Extend grace

It is inevitable that no matter how much planning occurs on the part of administrators, teachers, parents, or students, there will be confusion and problems. An assignment will be given the wrong due date. An online password will be mistyped. A Zoom link won’t work. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that problems will arise. 

This time of learning from home offers a unique opportunity for parents to help their children learn not just how to read, write, or solve equations, but how to grow in love, joy, patience, and kindness (Gal. 5:22-23). 

However, Christians should be the first to extend grace to teachers in this season. When so much is beyond our control, Christians have the opportunity to meet these problems with the grace and forgiveness that we have received (Luke 7:47). It is precisely because Christians recognize that we are interacting with humans created in God’s image on the other side of our screens or emails that we extend that grace. So as you type that email to correct your teacher or prepare that post for Facebook about the school administrator, remember that they are also struggling with the new reality and often doing the best that they can with circumstances beyond their control. Just as you would want grace for yourself, extend it to teachers. 

And it is not just for the sake of the teacher, but for those little eyes and ears that are watching you. The students who see a parent lose it over a Zoom meeting or a problem with online learning are receiving an education in how Christians respond to problems, but not in how to extend grace to those around them. This time of learning from home offers a unique opportunity for parents to help their children learn not just how to read, write, or solve equations, but how to grow in love, joy, patience, and kindness (Gal. 5:22-23). 

When the school year ends, students and teachers will likely breathe a sigh of relief that they endure this challenging season. However, Christians should make special effort to serve their teachers during this time. In a time when it would be easy to retreat into survival mode and think only of what is best for ourselves, we ought to consider how we can encourage and pray for teachers. As the pandemic and school year ends, may this be a season when we have all learned how to recognize new ways to serve others. 

By / Aug 6

In June of 1996, I walked down the aisle, with 13 others, at Quentin Road Christian School in Lake Zurich, Illinois, and received my high school diploma. I distinctly remember the mixture of anticipation and hope I felt that day.

Twenty years later, I look back with amazement. First, it’s hard to believe it has been over 20 years. I don’t feel that old. Second, I’m stunned by the grace of God displayed in knitting the strands of my life together. Third, there are so many things I’ve learned in 20 years that I wish I could tell 18-year-old me. Here are 20 things I’ve learned since that day, in no particular order:

  1. School is just the beginning of learning. Much of what we learn in elementary, middle, and high school is quickly forgotten (until we need it again to help our kids with their homework). Of course, the basics of math, reading, science, and history are vital, but what’s even more important is learning to learn. School sets the trajectory for the rest of our lives. Wise people realize that, upon graduation, their education has just begun. They read, study, and grow, pursuing knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 4:7).
  2. We make choices, but God directs our steps. I remember hearing teachers, coaches, and parents telling me that the choices I make in my teens and 20s would set the course of my life. They were so right, in ways I haven’t even begun to see until now. But even more important than making good choices is the willingness to depend upon the Lord to direct our steps. Our choices are mere tools in the hand of a guiding, teaching, directing Father. We are not, nor will we ever be, self-made men. Ultimately, God uses flawed people who often make poor choices to build his church.
  3. Life is made up of seasons. When you walk down the aisle, and are handed that diploma, you may think you must chart your entire future. Planning is good stewardship, but hold your plans loosely. God will guide you into different seasons of life. I’ve already had a season as an editor, a season as a pastor, and am now in a season as an executive who writes and preaches. There are seasons yet ahead.
  4. A life of influence is mostly built in the daily disciplines of ordinary days, not in transcendent moments of glory. Yes, you will have moments and memories: that one camp meeting where you gave your life in service to Christ, the talk with a mentor that shaped your future, the movie or book or song that stirred your heart. But mostly, your life is built on the steady, patient, obscure business of doing excellent work that nobody sees. Commit to this kind of life.
  5. Work is necessary, but also a joy. There is something satisfactory about working for a long time in the area of your giftedness, not simply to make money but because of the joy that the work itself brings. Ambition is good, but ordering your life simply to get to the next rung on the ladder can be wearisome. It’s better to find deep joy in the work we do now. Work is not a means to an end. Work is a good gift from a wonderful God.
  6. Gratitude opens doors; entitlement shuts them. If you live as though the world owes you everything, you will quickly be disappointed. But, if you live as if your opportunities are gifts, you will always be surprised. One of my first jobs after high school graduation was at Ace Hardware. I was fresh off of being the “big man on campus” in our tiny, obscure Christian school. I had even won student leadership awards. Yet my boss at the hardware store didn’t care about that. His only concern was that I get to work on time, that I stop making keys that didn’t work, and that I stacked the piles of fertilizer in the correct manner on the pallet. This experience was good for me.
  7. Talent is helpful, but hard work and character are vital. I learned this playing basketball. Talent is important, hard work will get you farther, but character matters most. I’ve seen plenty of people with great talent flame out because their lack of character caught up with them. I’ve seen folks with marginal talent go far because they had integrity and were willing to work hard despite the fact that they may lack in other areas. I’ve learned and am learning the importance of cultivating the inner habits of the heart.
  8. Relationships are God’s tool for sanctification. God’s desire is for Christ to shape us more into his image, and human relationships are one of his main methods of doing so. Yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, your spouse, your children, and your co-workers will change you in ways you cannot imagine. They will expose your deepest sin patterns and force you to your knees in repentance and grace. Don’t resist this challenge. Embrace it. I have learned much from my roles as a husband, father, pastor, and boss.
  9. Who you marry matters. If God calls you to marriage, whom you choose as your mate is the most important decision you face. You will make a solemn commitment before God and others to live with and care for this person for the rest of your lives. So marry well. I married extremely well. I can’t, nor do I want to, imagine my life without Angela. We marry, not merely for pleasure or companionship, though those are good fruits of marriage, but as an opportunity to show the world a glimpse of Christ’s great love for his church.
  10. Adversity can be your greatest ally. Nobody desires hardship, opposition, and pain. Nobody asks God to rain down trouble. But trouble comes, and it comes for all of us. And if you believe in a sovereign God who loves enough to prune and sift and filter, you will slowly, over time and through much reflection, begin to see your trials as God’s handiwork of blessing. A few years ago I was betrayed and hurt in a deep and difficult way by people I loved. I would not want to live through those years again. This season caused great anguish of soul, but I can testify to experiencing God’s refining grace.
  11. Bitterness will poison; forgiveness will free. Perhaps the most important trait for a leader to cultivate is the ability to forgive. And you can only do this if you know the One who has forgiven you of much greater sins than have been committed against you. Bitterness only hurts the one who is bitter. Don’t nurture your grudges and let forgiveness form a crust around your soul. Let forgiveness free you to love and serve and lead well.
  12. Discipline is a gift. A few years ago my wife and I were counseling a young woman who made a statement that has haunted me since. She said, “I wish someone, somewhere had given me some rules to live by.” At that moment I was filled with gratitude for parents willing to teach and enforce right from wrong. They weren’t perfect, as no parents are, but what they gave me, by being parents instead of mere friends, was a gift that has shaped my own adulthood. I still need Jesus, but my parents’ discipline saved me from a life of bad choices and even worse consequences. If you have parents who loved you enough to provide meaningful structure and rules, you possess a rare gift.
  13. The gospel is the best news in the world. I know this is a cliché, but I feel this more strongly now than ever before. The Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation stands alone in answering the deep problems of the world, in fixing my own inner corruption, and in providing a future in Jesus’ cosmic renewal. In my darkest moments, when my heart is overcome with fear and uncertainty, I’m comforted, not by political movements or powerful leaders, but by the simple phrase I learned in church: “Jesus saves.”
  14. If you want to change the world, do it by loving the church. You will undoubtedly have many opportunities to use your gifts and talents to affect social change in big and small ways. God has put you here, on this earth, with your unique mix of gifts, talents, and opportunities to give yourself in service to others. But while your mission will likely be more than what you do on Sundays, it will never be less. The church is where God is most active in the world today. The most important gathering this week will not happen in a town hall, a stadium, or the White House, but in congregations big and small, around the world, where God’s people are proclaiming the reign of another King and another Kingdom. If you love Jesus, you will love the church he loves. The older I get, the more I realize my deep need for the church.
  15. The hymns I learned in my youth have stuck with me. From the time I could read, I was learning and singing, three times a week, the hymns of Luther, Crosby, Watts, and Wesley. I didn’t know what the words meant in those early years, but they were catechizing my soul for future life. Today, in moments of despair, joy, doubt, and uncertainty, the rich hymns of the faith are a reminder of the fresh theological truth, even though I learned it long ago. When we sign hymns, we are not simply providing “filler” for the rest of the service. We are declaring the reign of Christ to the world. We are teaching ourselves doctrine. And we are embedding, in the heart, powerful, sustaining truths.
  16. I never “get over” my need for grace. I used to think the gospel was something I did when I was 4 years old. But the older I get, the more I realize how desperate I am for Jesus and how little I can do without him. I recognize that the gospel is not just for sinners “out there,” but also for this sinner, right here.
  17. Asking questions and spending time with smart people is wise. Someone once said that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. This is so true. I’ve learned much simply by asking questions, reading, and realizing how little it is that I actually know. My father once said, “You never stop learning,” and he was right. I’ve learned the most from people who were much older than me, different than me, and were willing to challenge my thinking.
  18. Old paths are good paths. Along the way, you will be tempted to embrace fashionable new doctrines and fresh theologies bent to the times. But it is the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) that will be your surest guide. Beware of novel new interpretations of Scripture untested by church history. Truth and orthodoxy endure, because Christ endures. He is building his church, not on the slippery whims of modern thought, but on the sure foundation of his revealed Word.
  19. Community matters. We were not made to live alone, but in community. We worship, not in isolation, but with our brothers and sisters in Christ. I have found strength in deep friendships, intense conversations, and joyful community. But it’s up to you to cultivate that community with intentionality and the willingness to both forgive and be forgiven.
  20. Both impulsiveness and passivity kill. I’ve learned to take a lot of time when making a major decision, to get advice from a diverse group of wise people, thinking about all the major ramifications. But once I’ve counseled, prayed, and researched, it’s important to actually make decisions. Rash decisions have always hurt me, but so has “paralysis by analysis.” Endless navel-gazing is as damaging as intemperately quick decisions. Avoiding both has served me well.

If you are a parent shepherding your children through school, a pastor preaching to youth, or a student navigating the various challenges of growing up, don’t underestimate the value of what the Lord will do through these impressionable years. Make the most of formal learning, but don’t just focus on studies and grades and accolades. Instead, concentrate on growing in Christ so that you can look back on these school days, amazed at how the Lord has directed your paths and displayed his faithfulness. 

By / Mar 5

Better Together captures our desire to partner together as men and women in the church and beyond to advance the kingdom with mutual support and care. Better Together will address a wide range of topics from sexual abuse, leadership, women and work, women’s ministry, and more. Today’s podcast features Lilly Park, assistant professor of biblical counseling for Southern Seminary. Dr. Park shares about training women in the seminary context and beyond. 

By / Nov 19

I didn’t expect applause when the student presenter said, “I’m the resident heretic for the Divinity School.” To say I was hesitant was an understatement.

This was my introduction to graduate studies in religion as I was touring prospective programs. As a committed and theologically conservative evangelical, I was a bit unsure. However, I would eventually join this self-professed heretic and study with those who chose the program for its decidedly liberal perspective on matters of faith and religion. Over my two years in this program, I discovered important things about the need for Christians in educational spaces and the ability to dialogue with one another across theological lines

Depending on who asks, I get two responses when I tell them where I went to school. The conservative Christians I know always ask follow-up questions to ensure that I am still one of them. Those on the opposite side of the theological spectrum see it as a marker that I have at least learned from those different from me. I may not agree with them, but I at least understand why they think as they do. The degree grants me a position of influence and a hearing that I would lack if I had chosen another school.

What our influence looks like

So what does influence look like for a prophetic minority in culture?

It looks like the student who is an evangelical explaining to his liberal friend why he believes in the inerrancy of Scripture while they study for a Hebrew Bible final exam. It is the conversation between the Christian and their co-worker at their campus job. It’s the kind of influence that comes from friendship, proximity, and care for the other person. It is not quick, and it is not easy, but relationship discipleship rarely is.

It’s remembering that those who disagree with us are not our enemy. In this era of outrage and polarization, it is easy to write off the other side as the enemy or evil. But the people I encountered weren’t evil. We disagreed, but we also found places of communion. They didn’t believe in a literal resurrection, but they were committed to ending racial injustice. They didn’t agree with my views on marriage, but we both agreed that the church should care about the poor and marginalized.

Even the angriest of my classmates were not without cause. I could not fault them for being angry at an evangelicalism that met their skepticism with rejection, not love. As Christians, we should acknowledge that just as often as people reject the message of the gospel, they are also rejecting the messengers who they believe don’t care about them.

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” He then follows it with a warning that if the salt loses its flavor, it’s not good for anything. At the same time, salt is no good if it is left in its container. If it is never used, then it is just as problematic. Salt that isn’t salty, and salt that is never used have the same effect: nothing.

In the same way, Christians should not be isolationists and withdraw from culture. We do not practice a form of monasticism in which we purposely avoid the world. Christ did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected as we were sent into it (John 17:15-19). The church is the place where we withdraw so that we might be renewed and prepared; but we withdraw so that we might go out.

How we engage the university

Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and statesman, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” This includes universities and colleges. Christians must not absent themselves and cede their influence and vision in the realm of education. While Christians should not think of this influence as based on a model from the years of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right,  these groups did correctly understand that to absent yourself from the conversation is to give up a say in the outcome.

So we should help Christians, especially those making decisions about education, to look for the ways that their influence can be leveraged for the kingdom. While there is merit to seeking an explicitly Christian education, they might prayerfully consider how the same degree could be leveraged at a state or private institution that does not share the same commitments. Their time at college could be a time of engaging those around them who might never listen otherwise, and who they might never be around in such a concentrated number.

It could also be a time when they learn something they did not expect. My time with high church students gave me a deeper love for the liturgy of church history. Also, issues such as race, justice, and poverty were emphasized in ways that I had not heard. I did not always agree, but I came away with a new layer of how the gospel affects all of creation.

Christian parents, you should be thinking even now about how to prepare your children for their future education and vocation. It is important that we not simply fall into the trap of choosing a good college because of the name or prestige. At the same time, those colleges carry social capital and can give students access to a mission field that is untouched. So, you should be training the young Christians in your household to see every sphere of influence as one in which they can work for the advancing of the kingdom.

Christians of the past have always recognized the importance of education. The Jesuits would found schools as a means of evangelism when they entered a new region. The early European universities were begun to train clergy. Christians should not be afraid of the world of academia. We should not abandon it. It is not the realm of the world, but that of a God who calls us to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27). For in every classroom, Christ’s declaration of “Mine!” still rings true.

By / Sep 25
By / Oct 14

According to LifeWay Research, pastors are less likely to preach on the topic of domestic abuse than other topics throughout the year. Of those surveyed, 42 percent said that they rarely or never speak to their church through sermons or large group meetings about the topic. Bob Smietana reported, “A new survey from LifeWay Research found that most Protestant senior pastors say they know victims of domestic violence and believe stopping abuse is a pro-life issue. But those pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit. And less than half have been trained in how to help victims.”

Justin Holcomb hopes to eradicate this epidemic through educating pastors and congregants about the issue. Justin, along with his wife, Lindsey, wrote Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence. for pastors who are unsure about the issue and how to respond.

What led you and your wife to write a book on domestic violence?

When Lindsey and I met (9 years ago) and started dating, she worked as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter and serving as an advocate for women needing support and assistance. So, it is an issue she is very knowledgeable in. She started teaching me about it and buying me books to read. We realized specific ways that the gospel applied to those suffering abuse.

Also, in 2011, we wrote Rid of My Disgrace, which was primarily for those who suffered sexual assault but also for the family, friends, and ministers to learn how to support them. After that book, people asked us to write a book on domestic abuse.

How do you define domestic violence?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship.

This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. This definition isn’t just our personal preference. It’s the increasing consensus of psychologists, lawmakers, and experts in the field.

Domestic violence can take many forms, including willful intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, battery, stalking, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, economic control, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, isolation, any other abusive behavior, and/or threats of such. Of course, threats of abuse can be as frightening as the abuse itself, particularly, when the victim knows the perpetrator may carry out the threats.

What have you seen as the major effects of such violence?

We agree with Ann Jones and Susan Schecter, who campaigned internationally against violence against women. They identified five key feelings experienced by women who were abused by their partners:

  1. Fear
  2. Shame
  3. Guilt
  4. Anger
  5. The nameless feeling of “going crazy”

Do you see that domestic violence is in conjunction with another form of abuse, such as sexual abuse or even rape in marriage?

Yes. I do see that domestic violence is in conjunction with sexual abuse. Any situation in which a woman is forced to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity is sexual abuse. Forced sex, even by a spouse or intimate partner with whom they also have consensual sex, is an act of aggression and violence.

Sexual assault includes rape, but it also includes coercion, intimidation, or manipulation to force unwanted sex. In Rid of My Disgrace, Lindsey and I define sexual assault as “any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.”

Sexual assault is a display of power by the perpetrator against the victim. It is not a product of an “uncontrollable” sexual urge. In fact, it is not actually about sex at all; it is about violence and control. Perpetrators use sexual actions and behaviors as weapons to dominate, control, and belittle another person. According to surveys, one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes, and these statistics are probably under-estimates.

Sexual assault can occur in marriage. As a matter of fact, researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10 to 14 percent of all marriages.

Have you ever had anyone come to you either confessing committing violence or sharing having been abused?

Yes. We’ve had both many times. One man told me that he sexually abused his girlfriend a few times. He was worried that he’d do it again and asked me to go with him to turn himself in to the police. I’ve also had numerous women and two men share that they were being abused by their partner.

In your book, you focus on what the Bible says about delivering victims. How do you share these truths in faith while a woman remains in an abuse situation?

God knows and sees you in your experience of abuse, he loves you through it all, and he greatly desires your safety and protection. God has not forgotten you. He grieves with you. And we hope that knowing this will embolden you to be honest with both him and others and know that it is courageous—not shameful—to reach out for support.

We hope you will not be silent or passive but express your emotions freely, cry and grieve the pain and fear you have experienced. God has compassion for the victims of injustice, and at the root of his compassion is the fact that he witnesses the suffering of the abused. He sees your suffering, grieves with you in it, and longs for you to find freedom from it.

Affliction does not mean that God has forsaken his people. Rather, the constant biblical evidence is that God is on the move in response to prayers for deliverance. Not only that, but he equips us to move ourselves. The Psalms show us that while David prayed to God for deliverance, he also took the necessary measures he needed to get to a safe place away from the violence. David prayed, but he also wisely fled and removed himself from the threat of violence.

While we cannot always observe this deliverance immediately, God will, no doubt, deliver his people. And in the meantime, we can wait actively—taking measures to get ourselves to a safe place where we can pursue the future God has called us to, a future that is hopeful, free, and healed of violence and abuse.

When is it good for a woman to leave?

In general, it is good for a woman to leave if she is being abused and/or the children are being abused. Specifically, they feel they or their children are in any kind of danger. “Abuse” does not mean physical harm but also threats or abuse that is emotional, verbal, or psychological.

Making a safety plan is important. They can use this form, which is Appendix 3 in Is It My Fault?.

If you are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, family member, etc., you can create a personalized safety plan. A personalized safety plan will help you know what to do if/when you decide to leave or find yourself (and children) in an emergency. You can create this safety plan even if you are not ready to leave.

There are some important things that need to be considered. Evidence shows that planning before leaving is really important and is more likely to help the women stay away. Please ensure that safety is considered when creating, printing, and/or completing this document. Considering who will have access to it and where it will be stored are extremely important.

Have you ever encountered a man who endured domestic abuse and determined not to hit back?

Personally, I have met one man who was abused by his wife and did not respond violently. The overwhelming majority of domestic abuse victims are women. But we also know that there are male victims out there as well, who sometimes suffer from the added burden of feeling that it is unacceptable or a personal failure for a man to be the victim of domestic violence.

How can pastors be more informed?

There was a study by LifeWay on domestic violence and sexual assault, revealing that 52 percent of ministers do not have sufficient training to deal with cases of domestic or sexual violence. We wrote Is It My Fault? so pastors could learn about the issue and how to best respond. Steven Tracy created a recommended reading list.

Local sexual assault resource agencies and domestic violence shelters may have training sessions and seminars.

Pastors can easily look at this subject and think, “This couldn’t happen in my congregation.” Domestic violence is often hidden and therefore we want to equip pastors and ministry workers of the potential.  


Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a professor of theology and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin holds an M.A. in Theological Studies and an M.A. in Christian Thought from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University. He serves on the boards for REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade), GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) and Biblical Counseling Coalition.

Lindsey Holcomb counsels victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Previously, she worked at a sexual assault crisis center and also served as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter. Lindsey provided crisis intervention to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and conducted a variety of training seminars to service providers. She earned a Master in Public Health with a focus on violence against women and was a co-founder of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade).