By / Aug 12

Though Baptists love to claim him, Roger Williams was a Baptist for about 12 minutes. 

Hyperbole aside, the founder of Rhode Island and the ardent advocate for religious freedom did in fact live out his days as a “seeker” — he did not believe any church, this side of Christ’s return, was pure. He rejected, therefore, the formation of any church and did not attend church himself in his latter years. His views on both theological and political matters made him a constant target of civil authorities in the 1600s — a time where church and state, though distinct threads, were nevertheless intertwined in a mutual pursuit to fashion a godly community. 

Why, then, should Roger Williams hold such a special place in the hearts and minds of modern Baptists? It comes down to his pre-Enlightenment support of total religious freedom. By total, I mean a comprehensive freedom that encompassed not only orthodox Protestants, but Catholics, Muslims, and even atheists. He wrote in his 1652 work The Bloody Tenet Yet More Bloody that “Jews, Turks, Antichristians, and Pagans,” were “peaceable and just . . . notwithstanding their spiritual whoredoms.” In the mid-17th century, Williams’ views scandalized his readers. Parliament ordered his books burned, and theological leaders in England like Thomas Edwards, took direct aim at Williams’ views, calling them blasphemous and pernicious. Indeed, Williams’ most famous interlocular, John Cotton, wrote a letter from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to a minister back in England, decrying Williams as an obstinate rabble rouser — a “Sheba of Bickry,” who “blew a Trumpet” of sedition and separation.

Religious liberty as a means for evangelism

Williams blew the trumpet of soul liberty. He crafted a theological and natural law defense of religious freedom with which Baptists can and should resonate. Indeed, Williams, though not a Baptist himself, stood in a stream of Baptists who defended the rights of conscience. Williams’ ideas imbibed those persecuted Baptists who came before him — figures like Thomas Helwys and John Murton, whose works on religious freedom in the early 1600s proved formative on Williams in the 1640s and 50s. Williams, furthermore, was a source for Baptists who came after him. Most notably, Isaac Backus and John Leeland frequently mentioned Williams as an important voice in their own ideological commitment to religious liberty — Backus himself cited Williams at length in his campaign to disestablish the state church in Massachusetts.   

The cornerstone of Williams’ support for religious freedom, however, came down to an issue of salvation. That is to say, Williams framed the question of whether or not there should be religious freedom around how one came to saving faith. Williams believed that true conversion necessitated the volitional choice to confess one’s sins, repent, and believe in the gospel. Only adults, or at least those who could provide evidence of their regeneration, were candidates for baptism — another controversial view during Williams’ day. Given these soteriological convictions, Williams found it utterly horrific that any civil society would attempt to enact an enforced religious orthodoxy. God, by Williams’ contention, never endowed any magistrate or government an authority over the conscience. Throughout his works, Williams pointed to the natural product of established religion. He wrote during the Thirty Years War, a religious conflict that claimed the lives of nearly 8,000,000 people. He also wrote during the English Civil War, another religious war that killed a higher percentage of the English population than World War I and World War II.

Citing these conflicts, Williams argued that coerced religion, at best, created a church of hypocrites. At worst, it ended in violent revolution. 

Instead, Williams argued that religious freedom was not only biblical, but part of God’s creational design. Men and women were to respond to the gospel summons of their own accord through the process of sharing the gospel. People did not truly repent of their sins when coerced by the civil sword of the magistrate — that, according to Williams, stifled the work of the Spirit. Instead, persuasion, reasoning with the unconverted, and an open dialogue without the fear of retribution were not only the surest means to procure societal peace, but also the means through which people could come to a saving knowledge of the Savior. 

Williams disclosed in his 1644 work, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, that the concern for evangelism nourished his belief in soul freedom. Indeed, Williams wrote, “He that is a briar, that is a Jew, a Turk, a Pagan, an Antichristian today, may be, when the Word of the Lord runs freely, a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow, cut out of the wild olive, and planted into the tree.” This was his hope and aspiration — that God’s Word be liberated from the fetters of coerced religion so that men and women, likewise freed from establishment, could respond in true faith to the gospel summons. 

In other words, religious freedom was, for Williams, a means to a greater end. He did not contend for soul liberty so that he could be left alone to his own devices or to never face the realities of religious persecution. Instead, he fought for religious liberty because of a soteriological conviction — because of a gospel conviction. 

Modern Baptists and the public square

Williams had a lot more to say about religious freedom, but this concern for evangelism that undergirded his advocacy is especially important for Baptists today. In a recent article I wrote for Public Discourse, I argued that conservatives must resist the temptation to foreclose on the public square and political engagement. Conservatives seem weary of engaging with liberals, arguing that liberals are no longer concerned about seeking the truth or engaging in meaningful dialogue. Our hyper-partisanship seems to tribalize us, entrenching us in unreasoned allegiances and an unwillingness to engage with our political rivals. A large majority of Americans are now dissatisfied with democracy altogether, and a sizeable minority of Americans — 1 in 6 — now favor military rule

My points in the Public Discourse piece were directed at political issues — but I sense that significant similarities exist between disgruntled conservatives who no longer wish to engage with liberals and evangelical Christians, who, similarly, have retreated into the comforts of our own tribes. Thus, our advocacy, as Baptists, for religious freedom, has less to do with the common good and evangelism and more to do with our desire to be left alone. 

Roger Williams has much to teach us here. 

We are in an evangelistic emergency, and I fear that Christians — Baptists included — have surveyed the public square and our political moment and surrendered our core commitment to evangelism and preaching the gospel. Like conservatives, we are ready to wash our hands of those on the left — or those we wrongfully deem unsavable. We contend for liberty, but only so that we can just be left alone. When Williams, however, staked his life on religious freedom, he did so with the expressed intent of evangelism. By setting up Rhode Island as a place for people distressed of conscience, Williams pursued those whom he thought had deviated from the truth. Rather than hanging Quakers, he engaged them, toward the end of his life, in theological dialogue. He wanted to convince them of the truth — and he was able to do so because in Rhode Island, the Word of the Lord ran freely. 

This did not mean that Rhode Island was a conflict free, perennially happy place. Williams noted the frequent and bitter disputes between the various religious groups that took up residence in the colony. William Arnold, one of the colony’s leading figures, deplored the civil calamites that besieged his community, stating that liberty of conscience served as a “pretense,” which invited “all the scum” to come and take up residence. Liberty, as it turns out, is messy. 

But religious freedom was, indeed, remains worthy of our defense, and not so that we can just retreat to a quiet and private life. We strive for this freedom for the common good, so that places like Sunrise Children’s Services (a Kentucky Baptist Convention foster care ministry) can continue to be there for the orphan and the abused child without sacrificing religious convictions. 

More than the common good, we contend for this first freedom — this soul liberty — for the reasons Williams did. When the Word of the Lord runs freely, and when we preach that Word, those who today are lost, might tomorrow be saved. 

By / Apr 27

Editor’s note: John Stott would have turned 100 this year. And to celebrate his life and legacy, we wanted to share this article about Stott’s life from Tim Chester’s book Stott on the Christian Life.

1. Stott had multiple careers.

I wonder who you think John Stott is. You may know him as the evangelist who preached at student missions around the world. You may know him as a careful exegete whose contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series remain invaluable guides. You may know him from his preaching and the way he let the text itself shape the sermon so that you felt God himself addressing you. You may know him as a defender of evangelical orthodoxy against the threat of liberal theology. You may know him for his commitment to the Church of England and his famous confrontation with Martyn Lloyd-Jones after Lloyd-Jones had urged British evangelicals to leave their denominations to create a pan-evangelical body. You may know him as an advocate of social involvement who exhorted Christians to serve within the secular world. You may know him as a supporter of Christians leaders from the Two-Thirds World and the founder of the Langham Partnership. But did you know about all these facets of his ministry? It can sometimes feel as if Stott lived a dozen lives.

2. The main influence on Stott’s preaching was someone he never met.

The culture into which Stott was converted was one where preaching was only loosely related to the Bible. Yet a few years later, his preaching was electrifying congregations with sermons that gained their power from the text itself. Stott had spent the intervening years at university in Cambridge, and I believe it was a Cambridge preacher who transformed his preaching: Charles Simeon, the vicar of Holy Trinity. But Stott never met Simeon because Simeon was preaching in the 19th century—a century before Stott went to Cambridge. Stott met Simeon only through Simeon’s writings. “Simeon’s uncompromising commitment to Scripture,” Stott once wrote, “captured my imagination and has held it ever since.” In his London apartment Stott had various pictures on his wall of some of the places that had been significant in his life, but he had only one portrait—a portrait of Simeon.

3. Stott belonged to only one congregation.

Stott’s father was a doctor and lived in Harley Street, the area of London traditionally associated with the medical profession. The nearest parish church was All Souls, Langham Place, and it was there that Stott was taken as child. Stott spent his school days at boarding school and it was at Rugby School that he was converted. After graduating from Cambridge University, he was ordained and became a curate, or trainee pastor, back at All Souls under the then-rector Harold Earnshaw-Smith. But within months, Earnshaw-Smith had suffered a heart attack and Stott was largely left in charge. Five years later Earnshaw-Smith died and in September 1950, Stott became the new rector. Though not entirely without precedent, it was unusual for a curate to move straight to the senior role in the same parish. Stott remained at All Souls as Rector and then Rector Emeritus for the rest of his ministry. Only in the last few months of his life did he move to a retirement home outside London.

4. Stott was a successful student evangelist.

In November 1952, Stott returned to Cambridge, the university where he had studied, to be the main speaker at the triennial evangelistic campaign of its Christian union. Attendance was so great that at the final meeting, people had to be turned away. For the next twenty-five years, Stott spoke at numerous university missions all round the world before returning to Cambridge for his final university mission in 1977. The substance of his addresses, honed in many different contexts, became his book Basic Christianity, first published in 1958. It has sold over 2.5 million copies and been translated into over fifty languages, becoming the standard evangelistic book for a generation of Christians.

5. Stott was a pioneer in lay mobilization.

It’s pretty normal for churches today to organize people into home groups and mobilize them for evangelism. But Stott was one of the pioneers of this. In the 1950s and 1960s he began applying the approaches he had learned from student missions to the local church. In the 1950 issue of the All Souls church magazine that announced his appointment, Stott wrote: “The task [of evangelism] is beyond the power of the clergy. . . . There are only two alternatives. Either the task will not be done, or we must do it together, a task force of Ministers and people thoroughly trained and harnessed as a team for evangelism.” Stott introduced a regular guest service to which people could invite friends and launched a six-month training program (with a written exam at the end). Later he published his ideas along with their rationale in his book One People: Clergy and Laity in God’s Church (1969).

6. Stott was a major influence in changing evangelical views of sanctification.

I’m the chair of the Keswick Convention. Originally founded in 1875, it’s one of the oldest conferences in the world. People often associate the Convention with the “holiness movement”—a movement characterized by the belief that the power of sin can be overcome through an act of surrender to God. It was a dominant view throughout evangelicalism in the first half of the 20th century. This association of the Keswick Convention with the “holiness movement” is kind of correct. It’s just fifty-five years out of date! For in 1965, John Stott addressed the Convention, expounding Romans 5-8 in his characteristic clear, careful fashion. 

The Convention had never, in fact, been monolithic and it was beginning to change. But Stott’s address marked a decisive turning point that impacted not only the Convention but evangelicalism more broadly. His key point was that, while our union with Christ makes sin incongruous, it does not make it impossible. It’s because sin is not impossible that Paul calls on us to count ourselves dead to sin—to live in a way consistent with our new identity in Christ (Romans 6:11). In The Contemporary Christian Stott describes sanctification as a process involving “ruthless repudiation” and “unconditional surrender.”

7. Stott wrote the Lausanne Covenant.

Over 2,500 delegates met from the Lausanne Congress in 1974 in an attempt galvanize evangelicals toward the task of world evangelization. But Lausanne also did much to provide theological coherence to the evangelical movement and was an important milestone in placing social action firmly on its agenda. The resulting Lausanne Covenant is a key document in the history of 20th-century evangelicalism. Though agreed by the Congress as a whole, it was Stott who had the unenviable task of bringing the perspectives expressed in the Congress together in one document.

8. On the one hand . . . on the other hand . . .

Stott believed in what he called “BBC”—“balanced biblical Christianity.” He refused to polarize if he could avoid doing so, but neither did he opt for a docile version of the middle ground. We need to develop this balanced, biblical Christianity, Stott wrote, “by combining truths which complement one another and not separating what God has joined.” So a common feature of his writing are the twins phrases: “On the one hand . . . ” and “on the other hand . . .”. He would identify two contrasting approaches before combining the best of both. 

For example, he would often refer to “holy worldliness.” He rejected two extremes: living in a religious ghetto that ignores the surrounding world on the one hand and being shaped by the world around us on the other hand. Instead he combines both: a deep involvement in the world for the sake of mission combined with an uncompromising commitment to God’s Word.

9. Stott saw over 2,500 different species of birds.

Stott was a passionate ornithologist. At first his interest in natural history was focused on butterflies. But, when a cushion landed on his butterfly collection in the midst of a sibling squabble, he switched to birds. At school he started a natural history club. Later, when he started being asked to speak overseas, the church council at All Souls agreed to this wider ministry as long as Stott always added on a few days of bird-watching to his trips. A life-time later, Stott had spent time bird-watching on every continent—ticking off the final continent when friends gave a bird-watching trip to Antarctica for his 70th birthday. By the end of his life he had seen over 2,500 different species (out of an estimated total of 9,000).

10. Stott’s great ambition was Christ.

A TV reporter once asked Stott, “You’ve had a brilliant academic career; first at Cambridge, Rector at twenty-nine, Chaplain to the Queen; what is your ambition now?” Stott replied, “To be more like Jesus.” Stott’s classic presentation of the gospel in Basic Christianity starts not with humanity’s need (which forms part 2) or with Christ’s saving work (which forms part 3) but with the person of Christ. This is what Stott found compelling about Christianity. As we see Christ’s glory, we want to serve him; as we see his beauty, we want to imitate him. This is the repeated refrain of one of Stott’s final books, The Radical Disciple

If Christian maturity is maturity in our relationship with God, in which we worship, trust and obey him, then the clearer our vision of Christ, the more convinced we become that he is worthy of our commitment.

So if we want to develop truly Christian maturity, we need above all a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ.

If only we could see Jesus in the fullness of who he is and what he has done! Why then surely we should see how worthy he is of our wholehearted allegiance, and faith, love and obedience would be drawn out from us and we would grow into maturity. Nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.

For the discipleship principle is clear: the poorer our vision of Christ, the poorer out discipleship will be, whereas the richer our vision of Christ, the richer our discipleship will be.

Content adapted from Stott on the Christian Life by Tim Chester. This article first appeared on; used with permission.

By / Nov 17

Even though the religious freedom situation in Russia is already challenging the traditional and therefore ineffective political correctness of international rights organizations and Western governments, few of them acknowledge that the continuing limitation of freedom is affecting the actual life and missionary practice of local evangelical churches. Today, churches unwillingly appear in the center of attention of officials and security services as the main spiritual extremists and terrorists. As is well known, in July 2016, the president of Russia signed a package of “antiterrorist laws” that became known by their co-author name as the Yarovaya Laws. In practice the so-called anti-terrorist laws turned out to be anti-missionary and even anti-church laws. Instead of a war on terror, the state unfurled a very real war against religious freedom.

It is remarkable that even during a pandemic there have been numerous instances of limiting the religious freedom of evangelical believers, mostly fines for distributing spiritual literature and bans on conducting worship services.1Russian Evangelicals Fined for ‘Missionary Activity’ During Pandemic The fact that the state is so active in its attempts to control the activity of evangelical communities even in the midst of more global problems shows plenty about the priorities of state policies.

Worship services in the forest

Recently in the news about religious freedom in Russia, an interesting headline caught my attention, “Vladimir Ryakhovsky Agreed with the Mayor of Novorossiysk About Solving the Problem of Evangelists Conducting Services in the Forest.”2Владимир Ряховский договорился с мэром Новороссийска о решении проблем евангелистов, проводящих богослужения в лесу // The news appeared on Sep. 10 on the official site of the Russian President’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

Immediately I thought of two things. It was strange to see a Baptist church in the woods as the result of all the heroic efforts of the president of Russia and his Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. It was even stranger to hear that it is necessary to “agree” on the implementation of constitutional rights of freedom of conscience and assembly.

I learned from the news that “believers turned to a human rights defender because in July 2019, the judicial authorities sealed the living room of a residence where a church of evangelical Baptists conducted a worship service. A ban on the owner and other persons using the yard and the residence for religious purposes was imposed by a court decision. As a result, the congregation was completely deprived of a place for worship and forced to conduct worship services in the forest during the summer of 2020.”3Ibid.

Thanks to Vladimir Ryakhovsky’s personal intervention, the congregation gained the hope that it could restore worship services in its church building. In order to understand the seriousness of the situation, one should know that Mr. Ryakhovsky is a prominent Russian attorney, a member of the presidium of the President of the Russian Federation’s Council on Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, and co-chairman of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice. His brother, Sergei Ryakhovsky, heads the very large union of Pentecostals of Russia, and even so, is considered quite loyal to the Kremlin.

It seems that even such a highly-placed intercessor is unable to defend local churches. The role of the Council regarding “human rights” is more and more becoming a façade, leading to an illusion of freedom and even hiding its absence. At the same time, anti-missionary limitations are becoming a part of a consistent government policy directed against the most active religious congregations that are not controlled by the government.

Forum 18 announced that before it went to the forest, the Novorossiysk congregation was subjected to systematic pressure by the security organs.4RUSSIA: Losing places of worship // Its pastor Yurii Kornienko was fined for conducting a worship service in a private home owned by a church member. Although there were only Baptists at the service and although the pastor himself had permission to conduct missionary activity, the ban on using the building was imposed by the Novorossiysk administration. Thus, a small Baptist congregation lost the right to gather in a building and was forced to transfer to the forest.

Suppression of evangelical church locations 

This event is part of a general problem in which the state does not allow believers to exercise even minimal rights to a designated place for assembly, forcing them into a semi-legal space and clandestine existence. Evangelical believers assemble in private homes not because they do not want to build separate church buildings (“cultic facilities”). Rather, they are not allowed to do this by the state itself, which then punishes them for this. Thus, the state deliberately creates the conditions under which no place for congregations remains in the legal space of social life and then forces them to break up into clandestine small groups or to gather in the forest.

This is a well-known story for local evangelical believers who still continue from the times of furious Soviet anti-religious campaigns when all churches were closed and when believers went underground and gathered secretly in private homes or in remote unpopulated places. Little has changed since then. Although in the first years after the collapse of the USSR, the state closed its eyes to the “self-willed-ness” of the evangelical churches and tolerated their missionary activity, in the last 20 years it transitioned to active countermeasures against further growth and church activity. Even so all this time, the Orthodox Church was allowed full government support and built luxurious religious buildings in the very best locations.

Today we see a shocking contrast between the golden cupolas of the Orthodox Church and the humble congregations of evangelical believers in the forest. These contrasts speak volumes. First, that in distinction from the Soviet practice of fighting against religion as such, the current Russian authorities are quite discriminatory in their attitudes toward religion. They maintain a course of state support for one confession and of marginalizing the others. That which can be controlled winds up in a golden cage. That which opposes control winds up behind prison bars, or in the forest.

Regrettably, many Western experts on religious freedom are inclined to follow the lead of Russian propaganda and to equate the Christian revival in Russia with the expansion of the official Orthodox Church. They are simply deceived by the results of surveys in which the majority of Russian confidently declare their adherence to Orthodoxy. Even more, they are deceived by the beauty of the Orthodox churches. Therefore, instead of solidarity with evangelical believers in defense of their freedom, the experts advise reconciling with the reality of Orthodoxy and the pro-Putin consensus and to accept the rules of the game, which are written in the Kremlin. But there is another path, a narrow path of faith in God and one’s conscience, which leads to the forest, and for some to prison.

I recall my childhood experience of being a part of the underground evangelical community. I committed my life to God in such a church, which we called Church in the Forest. Then we gathered in worship services in deserted places far from the cities and walked many miles to worship God freely in lap of wild nature. There were harsh crackdowns on congregations and frequent fines and searches of homes. But my parents were prepared for this; and we, the children of Christian parents, were proud of their courage and valued our freedom to believe in God and to be faithful to him. Sometimes the church can remain the church only in the forest.

That which occurs today in Russia is not Christian revival but determined state support of Orthodoxy and discrimination against all other confessions. But knowing the history of the evangelical church, including the history of my family which included not a few martyrs and prisoners, I can confidently say that the result of the state’s anti-missionary campaign will be not the cessation of the churches’ missionary activity and the isolation of believers but the general mobilization of the church and the creative search for new forms of service. Having been deprived of buildings, the church does not cease to gather; but it finds its place even in the woods and in prison. 

The difficulties for the evangelical church created by the anti-missionary laws aid its growth and its active mission much more than gifts or temporary concessions or privileges by the government. The church in the woods is an excellent illustration of the faithfulness to God and its mission. The persecutors of the church never did and never will understand that this history of faithfulness never frightens believers but strengthens their faith and motivates them to a more sacrificial mission.

  • 1
    Russian Evangelicals Fined for ‘Missionary Activity’ During Pandemic
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    Владимир Ряховский договорился с мэром Новороссийска о решении проблем евангелистов, проводящих богослужения в лесу //
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    RUSSIA: Losing places of worship //
By / Aug 31

I wore it with the confidence of a No Fear brand ambassador. I believed my neon yellow WWJD bracelet flashed the message I’M A CHRISTIAN, setting me apart from the world and in with the Jesus freaks.

Like other Christian movements of the 1990s, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon spawned a generation of youth group zealots motivated by peer pressure and rewarded with false assurances of holiness. Yet also like other movements during that era, WWJD carried a grain of truth. Christians should act like Jesus. Even in our current politicized evangelical landscape, the command to imitate Christ is indisputable.

Though WWJD had obvious flaws, I wonder if it deserves something of a reboot today. Hop onto any social media platform, and you’ll soon find examples of Christians acting in less than Christ-like ways. While many evangelicals have panned cancel culture, the problem extends beyond casting out a public figure to casting stones at anyone who expresses a thought or opinion that bothers you.

Take the example of the debate about COVID-19 gathering restrictions. Various opinions have been shared and stances taken on social media. In one situation, a commenter tagged several friends and told them to come after a particular individual in order to “share truth.”  Within 48 hours, more than 500 accusing comments maligning this person’s character had been recorded. 

You’d think that Christians would rise above such malicious behavior and strive to maintain a credible witness. Yet, we seem just as likely to set comment threads ablaze as the next keyboard warrior.

Tracing the source of the fire

Why is it so hard for us to tame our tongues on social media? Social scientists posit several theories about what ignites these online firestorms. One study suggests that people become aggressive online to punish those who are violating social norms—for example, insulting a politician who is abusing power. Aggressors assume their words are justified because they believe they’re standing up for the greater good.

Another study indicates that moral grandstanding—the use of moral talk to seek higher social status—contributes to vicious speech online. That study also found a link between moral/political conflict and social vigilantism, which is the desire to correct others for espousing what you consider to be bad or incorrect beliefs. Both moral grandstanding and social vigilantism are associated with polarization and breakdowns in effective communication.

Given our mission to shine truth in a dark world, it’s understandable that Christians could fall into harsh communication patterns while trying to champion moral imperatives. You could call it a misguided inversion of WWJD: “I believe I’m doing what Jesus would do, and will take down anyone who opposes Jesus’ (my) conviction.”

The problem with this mindset lies in a basic yet often forgotten truth: We’re not Jesus. We’re sinful. We don’t possess all authority, wisdom, and power. We can’t peer through our screens and pierce the thoughts and intentions of other people, nor do we bear responsibility for correcting every person for every wrongdoing we think they committed. 

Asserting ourselves as Jesus doesn’t effectively serve Jesus. As Christians who are being sanctified in truth, we still make mistakes and jump to wrong conclusions. So we can’t rely on our assumptions as a compass for how we respond to other people. In fact, the Bible issues a stern warning against those who assume superiority while speaking venomously: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). And as fallen human beings, we still have trouble taming our tongues (James 3:8). 

Christians are supposed to submit every idea we encounter to the authority of Scripture, but we rarely submit our gut reactions to the same scrutiny. Even when righteously indignant fires burn within our chests, we should bring our frustration to the Lord first before spewing it online. Though there might be times to correct error and call out false teaching, we should try to do so gently and with humility. Recognizing our own faults and exercising patience with others can help us avoid the ruin of foolish talk. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2).

Looking to the author and perfecter of our speech

Following Jesus’ lordship means we should learn from observing his communication style during his ministry on Earth. Jesus spoke to others with compassion, gentleness, and concern for their physical and spiritual welfare. He talked to strangers, practiced active listening, sat with the suffering, and remained silent under false charges. At no point did he tell his disciples to gang up on someone who offended him. Throughout his life, Jesus submitted to the mission that directed his every step: to obey the will of his Father.

Of course, we can’t overhaul our sinful speech habits by simply parroting Jesus’ words. Change must begin in our hearts. Michael Horton emphasizes this distinction in Pilgrim Theology: “The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ.” When we root ourselves in Christ, digging into the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and meditation, and service, we can banish corrupting talk and speak what is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). As we draw close to our source of renewal, words of life will naturally pour out of our mouths like fresh springs instead of cesspools.

So what would it look like if Christians today committed to examine our words before engaging online? Making such a radical pledge of self-moderation could revolutionize the digital forum and testify to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Think of how reflecting on Jesus’ example might change the way you interact on social media. What if, before firing off a nasty comment on someone’s Facebook rant, you prayed for them? What if, instead of bashing a person who tweeted something you considered wrong or offensive, you DMed them to initiate a private conversation? What if we, as children of God being conformed to the image of his Son, made the shocking decision to not post anything on social media when we’re too riled up to communicate in a gracious, God-glorifying way?

We can’t say with certainty what Jesus would post or not post on social media, or if he would create any accounts in the first place. Rather than invent hypothetical scenarios of what Jesus would do if he were to take over our social media platforms, I suggest we adopt his main ambition in life. Before posting, let’s pause and ask, “Would this please God?” For we aren’t ambassadors of our own opinions or feelings, but rather imperfect, in-progress followers of Christ.

By / Feb 6

How can Christians work to defend all life from womb to tomb? Dan Darling moderates a panel discussion on defining a holistic human dignity approach with Michael Wear, Matt Lewis, Kelly Rosati, and Karen Ellis at Evangelicals for Life 2019.

By / Dec 10

Most Christians believe God has called them to tell others of forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Most Christians want others to have the hope and joy they have found in God’s rescue. But research shows Christians aren’t actively, regularly sharing their faith. When Christians were asked if they had shared the gospel in the past six to twelve months, just 39 percent and 52 percent said they had.

If these statistics are true, then many Christians (48 percent to 61 percent) are disengaged from evangelistic efforts, despite feeling the need to do so. You might think it’s a lack of training or the discomfort of personal conversation or the fear of rejection. But LifeWay’s research shows that Christians actually feel comfortable (75 percent) sharing and few have anxiety (eight percent) about faith conversations.

So what gives?

A contemporary empathy crisis

One clue can be found in Sherry Turkle’s research. Turkle—who is a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age—connects our busy lives and overuse of technology with eroding our ability to have conversations that count. This is, as Turkle claims, “a contemporary crisis in empathy” that can be traced back to a decrease in face-to-face exchanges. Our near-constant screen time—phones, tablets, computers, TV— has dire consequences in our ability to relate to and communicate with others:

“In the past 20 years, there is a 40 percent decline in empathic capacity among college students, with most of it taking place in the past 10 years.”

This is significant because empathy is a key motivator for sharing the gospel. Empathy allows us to enter into the life of another person. Only in meaningful, heartfelt conversation do we begin to understand the joys and sorrows another person bears. Screen time steals away the connections that prompt us to share God’s Story. As face-to-face conversations decline, we miss opportunities to enter into others’ lives and see their great need for the gospel. Screen time steals away opportunities to see firsthand the hurt, fear, loneliness and emptiness people face without Jesus. We miss out on hearing stories of loss, betrayal and abuse that have left people confused about God’s love and mercy.

Without face-to-face conversations, we simply lack the empathy and motivation to share the gospel. Without empathy, our wonder of God’s Story grows dim; we forget the beauty of rescue and redemption. We don’t share the Good News.

Entering others’ empathy

If we are to combat this empathy crisis, we must purposefully, intentionally enter into the lives of others. We must renew our own wonder at the gospel, of God’s coming near in Jesus, and how it changes everything. We must seek out meaningful conversation that opens space for people to share what’s really happening in their lives.

At Spread Truth, we address two crises: the crisis of communication that hinders us from effectively sharing the gospel and the crisis of community that limits our interaction with those who need the hope of rescue in Jesus. Our community-building initiatives promote empathy through meaningful conversations and give Christians opportunities to display God’s love and share God’s Story with people in their midst.

Both empathy-driven community and effective gospel witness should be foundational to Christians today. To that end, Spread Truth designs creative and innovative gospel-sharing tools and resources, including our latest release, The Story Short Film:

This film purposefully places the beauty of God’s Story on display. For when Christians are in awe of the gospel, they will be motivated to share it with everyone, everywhere. When Christians cultivate meaningful community where empathy thrives, the love of Christ will be made manifest. In all, God will be magnified.

So how can you turn those Barna Group and LifeWay research numbers around in your own life? Here are a few things to consider.

Push back against the crisis of communicating the gospel by cultivating your awe of God’s Story. Recognize God’s great mercy in Jesus, for you. Increased awe naturally leads to increased sharing. Have gospel-sharing tools at-the-ready—for example, our free mobile app gives you 24/7 access to The Story in film, booklet and conversation tool formats.

Push back against the crisis of community by cultivating deeper friendships with non-Christian friends. Break out of your Christian friendship bubble, and build true, solid friendships with people who think differently from you. Don’t treat them as projects; learn from them, care for them, let them care for you. Sow gospel seeds and honor God as you care for people who may have no other connection to him.

Both of these efforts, sustained over time, will make all the difference in the regularity and effectiveness of your gospel engagement.

By / Oct 29


The apologists of the early church represent a group of early Christian writers primarily concerned with defending Christianity in a culture hostile to the faith. Champions of the faith such as the unknown author of the epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras of Athens demonstrate a deep concern for defending deep gospel truths. They also reveal a uniquely Christian perspective on sexual morality in a sexually deviant Greco-Roman culture. Second-century apologists offer a consistent biblical defense relating to sexual holiness as an apologetic for the veracity of the Christian faith. Additionally, this apologetic relates to other biblical motifs calling Christians to exhibit a faithful presence in society. This idea of a sexually faithful presence in culture is ever-so helpful for Christians of the twenty-first century. We may be centuries away from second century Rome, but the moral atmosphere is all too familiar and remains relatively unchanged.

The Epistle to Diognetus 

The author of mid-to-late second century, The Epistle to Diognetus, text is ultimately unknown. Though seemingly written as a letter, “the consistent impression,” Charles Hill maintains, “[is] of an oral address in which a Christian teacher explains Christianity in the presence of one who has requested it, a man of some social stature named Diognetus.”

Using the motif of citizenship, the author contrasts two ways of life, that is, Christian and gentile, or Roman. The author of the epistle claims that Christians do not “practice an eccentric way of life” (Diogn 5.2). For this author, the Christian life is heavenly in the sense that its not a “human doctrine” which might be “discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people” (Diogn 5.3). Their character and behavior is reflective of the citizenship which some may consider “remarkable” and “unusual” (Diogn 5.4). The writer of the epistle declares, “They share their food but not their wives” (Diogn 5.7). Benjamin Dunning notes how the text of chapter five “develops this framework in which Christian practice is contrasted to that of a stereotyped Roman social order” wherein “Christians fulfill expected norms of hospitality…but never at the expense of sexual purity.”

Diognetus presents an alternate realm of existence, advocating for an ethos transcending reality. This moral domain includes not just obeying the laws of the land, but transcending laws in their private lives  (Diogn 5.10). The author of Diognetus calls his reader to a life of imitation of God. Imitation of God comes when one imitates his primal act which is to love. Therefore imitation of what is ultimately Good leads to good acts. Greediness and impious ambition are contrary to God’s nature (Diogn 10.5).

Diognetus shows a consistent strand of biblical reasoning in regards to sexual holiness. Though not a diatribe against the sexual conventions of Roman society, the author provides a contrast, similar to the apostolic writings, between citizens of earth and citizens of heaven.  Michael Bird notes, “The author attempts to rise up and meet the challenge of the cultural despisers of the Christian religion in the Greco-Roman world and he employs Pauline motifs to that end.” The author posits a community wherein imitating God leads to imitating his goodness, and this is indicated in their sexual practices.

Athenagoras’s Embassy for the Christians 

Athenagoras of Athens (c. 180) sets about contrasting the gods and lifestyle of the Romans to those of the Christian community. Athenagoras states, “But we are so far from practising promiscuous intercourse, that it is not lawful among us to indulge even a lustful look” (Embassy 23). Athenagoras posits that Greco-Roman morality simply mirrors that of its gods. In the same way, Christians mirror the morality of their progenitor, Jesus Christ.

In Chapter 34 of the Embassy, Athenagoras engages the vices of Roman sexuality head on. Prostitution includes the young, even boys, “men with men working that which is base.” (Embassy 34). For Athenagoras, such a debasement is a “dishonoring [of] God’s created beauty” (Embassy 34). Athenagoras avers, “These men reproach is with those deeds which they have upon their own consciences and which they say their gods do, and brag of them as noble and godlike. Adulterers and pederasts, they revile us who live in self-denial or single marriage.” (Embassy 34). It is not the Christians who should be ridiculed for their supposed deviant behavior, but the adulterers and pederasts who should be reviled. Athenagoras betrays a knowledge of homosexuality and pederasty within society, a presence he assumes that his readers understand as well.

Justin Martyr’s First Apology

Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) provides a “veritable mine of information about mid-second-century Christian and even Jewish and Roman theology, attitudes, and practices.” Justin’s defense of Christianity demonstrates more a proof for its validity and veracity as an ancient religion and one worthy of tolerance, yet his use of Scripture and appeals to reason demonstrate a desire to convey the reasonableness of Christian moral practice. He states, “Of old we rejoiced in promiscuity, but not we embrace only temperance” (1 Apol14.2).

Chapter fifteen of the First Apology provides a string of texts relating the standards of sexual holiness in Christian marriage and Christian celibacy in contrast to Roman practice. Some have lived their entire lives as “disciples of Christ and [have remained] pure” (1 Apol15.6).  Justin’s goal in this regard is to “point them out in every race of people” that is, as a testimony of Christian morality and faithfulness to the teachings of Christ (1 Apol 15.6).

Justin’s goal, as it is with other apologists, is to show that Christians should not be judged on the basis of their name alone, but rather on the merits of their life and practice. He asserts, “For neither commendation nor punishment could reasonably be based on a name unless actions can show something to be virtuous or wicked” (1 Apol 4.3). Justin demonstrates the unique, and desirable, way of life demonstrated by the Christian community. For him as with other apologists, this included a faithful presence in regards to sexual morality.


The apologists of the second century offer modern readers much insight in understanding the contrasting morality of Christians and the surrounding culture. Especially in regards to sexuality, Christians imitate the virtues of their savior. Likewise, Romans imitate the vices of their gods. In understanding sexual ethics from an early Christian perspective, the apologists help believers today by revealing the consistently of the transformational power of the gospel, whether in the AD 100 or AD 2015.

By / Aug 25

For the past nine years, I have spent a considerable amount of time among evangelicals in the millennial generation. Most of them I know are theologically minded and committed to such biblical priorities as evangelism, discipleship, the pursuit of justice, and global missions. They want to change the world. They want to be spiritual radicals.

Yet, when it comes to evangelical engagement of the public square, many range from ambivalent to downright pessimistic. They are especially critical of how their parents’ generation engaged politics. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard millennials criticize the Religious Right, denounce the close ties between (white) evangelicals and the Republican Party, and mock leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. (Admittedly, the latter deserves most of it.) They argue that culture means more than politics, they believe that soul care is more important than statecraft, and they complain that too many evangelicals seem obsessed with politics. And to be clear, almost all of these millennial critics are theological conservatives who are pro-life, pro-marriage (traditionally defined), and pro-religious liberty.

I’ve become convinced that many of these jaded millennial evangelicals think the way they do because they aren’t aware of some of the most thoughtful and winsome role models they could draw upon, especially from the previous generation. This is why Owen Strachan’s new book is so important. The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Nelson, 2015) is an appreciative biography of Charles “Chuck” Colson (1931–2012), one of the leading evangelical public intellectuals from the mid-1970s to his death in 2012. I believe this is a timely book for a kairos moment among evangelicals navigating American culture.

Over the course of eight chapters, Strachan provides a narrative biography of Colson’s life that focuses on the latter’s spiritual journey, ministry accomplishments, and influence upon American evangelicals. Colson was raised in a family without much means, yet he became a driven overachiever with degrees from two elite universities: Brown and George Washington. He was a Marine officer, a successful attorney, and a dedicated political activist. After landing a key job in the Nixon Administration, Colson developed a reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man” who was willing to do anything to advance the cause—even the ethically questionable. He became caught up in the backlash against the Watergate Scandal, leading to his eventual conviction for a crime that he technically didn’t commit. Yet, in the midst of this season of crisis, Colson was converted to faith in Christ. His seven months in an Alabama penitentiary pricked his nascent Christian conscience regarding the need for redemptive prison reform.

Following his incarceration, Colson wrote a bestselling spiritual autobiography—the first of dozens of influential books—and founded Prison Fellowship, a parachurch ministry dedicated to promoting evangelism and spiritual flourishing among prisoners. He became increasingly attracted to Christian worldview thinking and was mentored by a number of leading evangelical theologians and apologists, including Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, and R. C. Sproul. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the entrepreneurial Colson helped launch a number of other ministry initiatives, including his Breakpoint radio program, the Wilberforce Forum (now the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview), Evangelicals and Catholics Together (with Richard John Neuhaus), and the Manhattan Declaration. Though Colson remained a political conservative until his death in 2012, he was always more of a thoughtful fellow traveler with the Religious Right rather than a card-carrying leader in the movement. Most important, he remained an evangelist with a particular burden for prisoners.

The Colson Way is not a critical scholarly study of Colson’s life and thought, but it is a well-researched biography that is meant to both inform and encourage readers. Strachan does a fine job of avoiding hagiography while also writing with a spiritual intent. Each chapter includes Strachan’s own reflections on Colson, his interaction with relevant Scripture texts, and suggestions for personal application—especially for millennial readers. The Colson Way is not just a biography of an influential man; it is a call to action.

For younger evangelicals who care about both evangelism and social justice, Colson offers a wise role model who seamlessly integrated both biblical concerns into his own spirituality and activism. For millennials who are theological and moral conservatives, but are hesitant to cast their lot uncritically with the GOP (or any other political party), Colson provides an example for how to engage in politics without becoming rankly partisan. For younger millennial believers who are unapologetically evangelical, but who also believe that the Church transcends their particular ecclesial corners, Colson points to a vision of Christian unity and cooperation that is both convictional and strategic—what Colson’s fellow Southern Baptist and frequent collaborator, Timothy George, calls an “ecumenicity of the trenches.”

I’m a little bit too old to be classed with the millennials. (I’m on the tail end of Generation X.) But I can speak first-hand to the way that Colson can help a younger evangelical think through these questions. When I was a college student, Chuck Colson’s books helped rescue me from a reactionary piety and changed the way I think about the Christian life. I learned from him that worldviews matter, cultural engagement is more than political engagement, and the Church is bigger than I thought it was. I believe he can teach millennial evangelicals the same lessons. I’m thankful that Owen Strachan has offered millennials—and the rest of us—such a helpful introduction to Colson’s vision of the Christian life. My prayer is that this book will play a role in helping an entire generation of believers embrace the Colson way of following King Jesus.

By / Jul 27

People’s perception of Colson

Most people remember Chuck Colson for his involvement in Watergate and as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” As you explain in your book, this doesn’t entirely capture Chuck Colson, the man or his character, before his conversion. What is some background information that might help us understand Chuck Colson?

Chuck Colson was a complex and fascinating man. He lived several lives in his eight-plus decades. He was a “Swamp Yankee” from Boston, turned Harvard down out of spite to go to Brown, partied while at Brown before becoming interested in the military, became a Marine in the days of Chesty Puller, worked in a high-powered Naval procurement office, started and led a successful law practice, was a husband and father of three children, and built a connection with Nixon that led to his becoming Special Counsel to the President (1969-73).

Before his conversion, Colson was powerful, famous, wealthy, and proud. He was a workaholic. If Americans love winners, then Chuck Colson was at the head of the class. The man could not fail to achieve. But he drove himself–and those around him–hard. This had major consequences, not least because while he had an amazing external life filled with high-capacity performance, he had very little internal life. God was a far-off thought for Colson.


Chuck Colson’s conversion to Christ occurred in the midst of the Watergate trial. You explain that its affect on him was immediate. You write, “conversion did not come quietly to Chuck Colson. This was a ‘Damascus Road’ experience.” How did Colson’s conversion affect his approach to the trial and prepare him for his time in prison?

Colson was implicated in Watergate in 1972 and 1973. He was not a mastermind of it, and in fact did not know of much of the corruption that came to light in that period. But Colson was a tough customer, and he had earned the name “Nixon’s Hatchet Man” for a reason. He used back-channeling, for example, to tar and feather Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Colson was a man you did not want to cross.

But in the summer of 1973, all Colson’s defenses fell. He was getting pounded by the press, and he realized that he had indeed participated in the murky ethical deeds of the Nixon White House. He retreated to the Massachusetts coast for some reprieve, and talked with his friend Tom Phillips, then CEO of Raytheon, a major defense contractor. Phillips and Colson were similar: they were high-fliers. But Phillips had been converted not long before at a Billy Graham crusade, and he refused to let Colson make excuses for his trials. He called Colson to repent for his sins in a direct and somewhat-shocking manner. It was the Spirit of God moving in Colson’s life, because as soon as he left the house, he had to pull his car over. He saw that he was guilty, that Christ had died for him, and he repeatedly cried out in his car, Take me. He wasn’t blinded as Saul was, but his conversion was dramatic, to be sure.

He was called to go to prison just like Paul, too. He entered in 1974 and was released, seven months into a three-year sentence, in 1975. 2015 is the fortieth anniversary of his release, or as I like to call it, his unleashing.

Chuck Colson was not ruined by Watergate. He was ruined by the gospel of Jesus Christ, which hunted him like a hound of heaven and claimed him when he was at his most vulnerable.

Prison Fellowship/Friendship with Political Opponents

After serving his time in prison Chuck Colson could have written a tell-all book about the Nixon administration. Instead he wrote about his conversion. It was while writing this book that Colson began formulating his plan for prison ministry. You explain that in these early years Colson partnered with an unlikely friend- political opponent Senator Harold Hughes. Talk about their cooperation in the early years of the prison ministry and what believers can learn from their example.

Hughes and Colson basically hated one another. They were on opposite sides of the political aisle prior to Doug Coe of the Fellowship bringing them together in the same room shortly after Colson’s conversion. Hughes listened to Colson meekly tell his conversion story and saw that Colson was a changed man. He too was a hard-charging leader who had climbed the ladder to major success and influence. Hughes prized a straight-arrow approach to gospel witness. You didn’t mess around and sand things down. You preached the Bible, you believed it, and you acted on it.

This resonated deeply with Colson. The two men started a nascent prison ministry program, bringing in prisoners for spiritual instruction and personal rehabilitation. I loved this part of the research for the book, because there was nothing fancy about what Colson and Hughes did (which became Prison Fellowship in 1976). The two men did not care about proprieties; they brought prisoners to wood-paneled offices on Capitol Hill to put a face on inmates for Senators who had never met a convict. All this work quickly marshaled steam, and the two former foes had made a beginning that would eventually become the world’s largest prison ministry organization.

The Lord, as I say in The Colson Way, shows us over and over how he is not perplexed by brokenness, but loves to overcome it, and even put our sinful pasts to use in his kingdom work.

Theological Roots/Education

As he engaged in ministry, Colson knew that his grasp of Scripture was limited. He wanted a stronger spiritual foundation. Talk about the development of Colson’s theological roots and how his friendships with Christian thinkers and pastors impacted his later work in the areas of worldview and apologetics.

Colson learned from several thinkers, many of whom he discovered through Michael Cromartie’s influence. From R. C. Sproul, he learned the majestic sovereignty of God, and why a “God-centered” life is the only life worth living. From William Wilberforce, he found how to wed activism with Christian conviction. From Francis Schaeffer, he came to understand the importance of developing a “Christian worldview.” From Carl Henry, he gained precious insight into how theology and ethics reinforce one another. From Abraham Kuyper, he picked up a model for a Christian standing boldly in the public square, seeking not only recovery but transformation.

Each of these thinkers and leaders made a major mark on Colson. He sets a great example for modern Christians, who sometimes have been taught that it’s very nearly a virtue to not think and go deep in study of Scripture, theology, and ethics. It was in investing in his intellectual and theological development that Colson found the gunpowder necessary to make a stand for Christ in a fallen world.

Application questions:

The Colson Way

You write, “America is caught between allegiance to the first Great Awakening and allegiance to the Enlightenment.” In this context, how can we practice the “Colson Way” as we minister and seek to engage the culture?

Great question! We must do two things: play defense and play offense. We cannot simply bemoan cultural challenges to our faith. We’ve got to stand against them, expose them for what they are, but also much more actively promote a biblical vision of gospel flourishing. We hate evil, but we stand in the public square because of love, ultimately: love of God, and love of neighbor. The second flows out of the first.

Private v. Public Christianity

Chuck Colson believed in a public dimension to his faith. This is important, especially for the millennial generation who are constantly being told they need to keep their beliefs to themselves. How can Colson’s public engagement serve as a model for believers, especially millennials?

Colson engaged in both sacrificial activism and courageous proclamation. I believe that the two work hand-in-glove to propel Christian witness in a jaded, fallen world. If we only act but do not speak, then people won’t come to faith. If we only speak but do not act, the world will judge us hypocritical. What I love about Colson is that he did not focus on one to the exclusion of the other. He was both willing to act, and willing to speak.

Millennials need this model. They can go gun-shy in this noisy age. But a witness of Christ can neither shut their eyes to real suffering nor close their mouths and fail to speak hope and truth. They must do both. They find great joy in doing both, just as Colson did. He was not perfect, but he was faithful to this two-sided mission.

Role of Church

In engaging the culture, what should the public square witness of the church be? How can Augustine’s “City of Man” and “City of God” designations help Christians think through their dual citizenship?

Playing off of Augustine, in a fallen world, the church is a counter-culture. But we are not simply an alien people. We are the true culture, as Stanley Hauerwas famously said. The true culture, the City of God, must continually speak to the dying culture, the City of Man. But we must not assume that this will us the beauty pageant. We will have to stand against evil. We will have to stand firm against attack. We will have to stand down our own instincts to fight with the world’s weapons. The church is fearless and unflinching in the face of reproach.

But this does not mean that we contend for truth as the world contends for its beliefs. Even as we utterly refuse to stop speaking, and to stop promoting the good, true, and beautiful, we do not hate our neighbor, we do not seek their harm, we do not fail to remind that we of all people–including their allies–have the most reason to seek their good, for we know who they are: they are an image-bearer (Gen. 1:26-27), invested with full dignity and worth, an enchanted being formed by God. This, and not any other foundation–“rights” or “privileges” or anything else–grounds our advocacy on behalf of our fellow man, even those who oppose us.

Being a Witness

You conclude your book by discussing the concept of “witness.” Being a witness involves being contra mundum pro mundum “against the world, for the world.” Chuck Colson knew this better than anyone. How can understanding our identity as witnesses guide our own engagement?

We must know that we do not, at base, have an easy mission. We are in a real sense “against the world.” But this is not because we want it to burn. We want it to thrive. We are “for the world.” This is what I’m after in The Colson Way. I hope to do my very small part to reframe Christian engagement with a secular culture. I’ve studied Colson in great depth, and I hope that fellow believers can see that it is not enough to be only “for” something, and it is not enough to be “against” something. You must be both, with your positive vision of gospel flourishing taking precedence.

This formulation–against the world for the world–is not precisely biblical language. But I think it elegantly sums up the Christian public-square posture writ large. Here’s hoping it can be the next “in but not of,” which I think we’ve all heard our fair share of sermons about. I would challenge pastors to preach on this theme, or a related one. I would challenge lay Christians to act on it.

We all have a role to play. That’s what the story of Chuck Colson, and the story of countless ordinary folks in Scripture, says to the church today.

By / Jun 10

The Gospel of Jesus Christ will always be true, life-giving, refreshing, glorious, stunning. But it will never be cool.

The core proclamations of the New Testament’s teachings on human sin and divine redemption ultimately are offensive to fallen humanity; this is clear from Matthew to Revelation. And as our culture’s approval of certain types of evil escalates and the denigration of marriage increases, anyone calling sin what the Bible says it is will find himself marginalized, merely tolerated, or subject to overt hostility.

At the same time, this truth is no pretext for abandoning the winsomeness, cultural sensitivity, and persuasiveness Scripture calls Christians to employ as they share the Good News. These qualities are among the tools the Holy Spirit uses to open eyes and make sinful men and women amenable to His work in their salvation.

Winsomeness is graciousness in manner and tone. It is the extension of kindness, respect, and compassion to one’s opponents. It advances reason without malice or a desire to intellectually humiliate one’s challenger.

Winsomeness does not meaning surrendering one’s position or the truth one seeks to defend and demonstrate but, rather, to express the arguments for one’s contentions from a heart of love for God, the truth itself, and one’s audience, whether an individual or an entire culture.

It is also to demonstrate in action and tone that Christ is real, and that when His followers storm the gates of Hell they do so for the purpose of liberating its prisoners, not destroying them. It is strength with warmth, resolution without grimness, joy unmixed with syrup.

Cultural sensitivity means not being unaware of popular forms of expression in dress and speech, of popular entertainments and sporting events, of such social trends as hip-hop, the I-Phone, and ethnic eateries. And, to the extent consistent with Scripture, enjoying them.

Cultural sensitivity does not mean an idolatrous desperation to be thought “normal” such that transformation in Christ gets tossed aside in favor of cultural acceptability. It does not mean reading books better left unopened, even if best-sellers, or fixating on the frivolous, transient accoutrements of extemporaneous trends. Loving the unredeemed and trying to reach them, on the one hand, and loving the world itself (and wanting its approbation), on the other, are very different things.

Persuasion means to employ means that change hearts and minds such that they are receptive to the truth and then accept it as such. Paul told the Corinthians, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (II Corinthians 5:11). The word he uses for persuasion derives from the Greek verb peitho, from which we get our word “pathetic.” It connotes the idea of being moved emotionally (its Latin counterpart is the word “persuadeo,” as in “persuasion”).

So, Christians are to be winsome – gracious, warm, and appealing – without compromising the content of the truth or becoming lachrymose or obsequious.

We are to be culturally sensitive without forgetting that truth, however attractively packaged, slashes false arguments and pretentions against the will of God – things offensive to a world that hates our Master and, thus, sometimes at least, you and me.

We are to be persuasive without being fawning, winning without lying, cogent without trimming the sometimes rough edges of intellectual honesty,

Among American Evangelicals, our success in these efforts is, at best, mixed. Recently my friend Dr. Peter Jones, Executive Director of the TruthXChange and former professor at California’s Westminster Seminary wrote a kind but direct piece about the recent “Q” event in New York. Here is an excerpt:

“Q”‘s thirty-something founder, Gabe Lyons, engages with high-powered leaders from all faiths and backgrounds to show that “Evangelical” Christianity is capable of promoting intelligent, respectful dialogue-for the common good and human flourishing.

However (at) the last Q Conference in Boston, (April 2015) … 1,300 top Christian leaders were exposed to teaching by David Gushee and Matthew Vines (together with Andrew Sullivan, the homosexual Washington pundit), defending the “Christian Gay” movement. Certainly Gabe Lyons did not endorse their convictions, but one has to wonder if publically airing the issue, in such an important “Evangelical” forum, in a cool kind of way, with its influence on younger Christians, may indeed bestow a certain legitimacy on such a biblically unsupportable position and thus threaten the on-going health of Christian orthodoxy …

Q’s cool motto: “Stay Curious. Think Well. Advance Good,” in this case, without serious scrutiny, can be costly. We must articulate a clear and compelling cosmological discourse before it is too late. In fact, to “advance” the “not good” situation, God created the heterosexual structure of marriage, in which man and woman are perfectly fitted.

Responding to critics, Lyons said, “Some people are afraid that if those who are theologically progressive are invited, it suggests they hold an equally valid idea … We still believe the historic view of sexuality is true, but we are also confident that the trueness of that view can carry its own weight.”

Gabe Lyons has done and continues to do much good. He understands the vitality of culture to all men and the need for Christians to integrate into the many facets of social experience to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Yet while I applaud Lyons’ personal allegiance to orthodoxy, his giving a platform to those who teach error was unwise. Vines and Gushee are enmeshed in false theology. Their views on human sexuality, which are grounded in exegetical and historical fallacies, are heretical. Hosting them is not like hosting persons with opposing views of covenantalism and dispensationalism or congregationalism and elder rule. Instead, by elevating Vines and Gushee to positions of public prominence, Q and other forums have engaged in the theological equivalent of inviting an Arian on-stage to talk about whether or not we should re-define the deity of Christ.

Faithful Evangelicals should not give legitimacy to those whose views on homosexuality are anti-scriptural and whose agenda is based, in some cases, on their desire to rationalize their own sin. I say that humbly – I like to rationalize my sin, too, but recognize that the immutable, clear, and finally authoritative Word of God gives me no room to re-define it. We should give no space to those who are committed to advancing an anti-biblical agenda.

Dialog is valuable, but it’s hard to envision Paul sitting calmly with his Galatian opponents and “exchanging views” on the nature of justification and the atonement. I enjoy rich fellowship with my charismatic and Pentecostal brothers, although we disagree on the application of the “glossa” passages in the New Testament. I attended a Baptist seminary although I believe in presbyterian governance. I dislike alcohol, but fellowship happily with believing wine connoisseurs.   And so on. Yet falsehood and error are in a separate category.

And, contra Lyons, while the truth indeed can defend itself, many in his audience have truth-detectors emaciated from years of poor teaching and spiritual immaturity. Robust dialog is not the same as false teaching, the latter of which is so appealing that orthodox Christians have been fighting it since, essentially, Jesus’s ascension. “Civil” discussion with error means some will accept that error, and believers should not welcome it into “the camp.” With respect, therefore: Many in the “Q” audience don’t need to hear dialog; they need to be taught what’s biblically true and what isn’t.

Vines and Gushee contort Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality – and some younger Evangelicals, unprepared for the exegetical gymnastics these errant teachers employ to achieve their theological ends, accept the Vines/Gushee narrative with relief that for them, the cultural battle over sexual ethics is over. Sadly, this is a relief animated by error and actuated by surrender.

By jettisoning the Bible’s clear, fixed, and enduring teaching about human sexuality, Vines and Gushee call evil good and good evil. In doing so, they minimize sin and thus, the very heart of the atonement: Christ died for sinners. If homosexual behavior is not sinful, the Bible is lying and Jesus’s affirmation of it was inaccurate and misleading. Thus, as a Savior, he flunks a rather basic test: If we can redefine the Bible’s definition of what constitutes sin, for what purpose did He die?

Matthew Vines, David Gushee, and their theological peers deserve personal kindness and respect. Attacking them as persons is wrong, period. Yet even as faithful believers pray for their repentance from error, they also deserve public reproof for their abandonment of revealed truth and, until they repent, be given no platform in Evangelical churches, conferences, or other venues.

When Paul appeared to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, he was winsome, culturally sensitive, and persuasive. His message, writes the University of North Carolina’s George Alexander Kennedy, was

… adapted to Greek ears: it is not the prophecy of the Old Testament that is fulfilled but the Greeks’ own search for the unknown god, who is the God of all mankind. Paul does not attempt the dialectical reasoning of a Greek orator or philosopher: he proclaims the gospel, but the proclamation is supported by a Greek quotation: “As even some of your poets have said” (Acts 17:28). Then comes the usual call to repentance and warning of judgment … God has given assurance of this by raising his son from the dead …

Paul did not compromise the message of the Gospel. The idioms and style of speech he employed were consistent with those of his audience. The content of the message remained unpolluted and uncompromised. He spoke with compassion and conviction, sensitivity and boldness.

The result? “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’ (Acts 17:32).”

Sneers and interest: About what one might expect for a first-time hearing about Jesus from educated pagan elites. Probably about what we’d get today if, say, Paul were to present to the philosophy faculty at Princeton (although emboldened by their secure tenure and the contemporary erosion of civility, the sneers of many academics more likely would be verbal attacks).

In probing, frank, and somewhat jeremiad-like piece in Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador ** writes that “Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs.” (emphasis mine). This is one of those rare quotes that resonates with exceptional volume because it is so obviously true but much too rarely said. Meador expands the point further:

If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get us somewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.

But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that … what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.

Meador follows with another intellectual fast-ball:

If ours is a problem of credibility, then we begin thinking less about the core elements of the Christian life and public ministry and more about managing perceptions, convincing people that we aren’t like those Christians, and so on.

The trouble with this approach is that when you begin behaving like a marketer, that’s what you become. And the clear presentation of the faith is lost amidst a thousand qualifications as you apologize for this awful Christian and try to distinguish yourself from that embarrassing group. By the time you’re done clearing your throat and awkwardly laughing at those silly evangelicals all you’ve succeeded in doing is confusing the room and causing no small number of people to wonder what exactly you do believe. But, then, clarity isn’t really the point if you’re a marketer. Getting the sale is.

There is nothing more countercultural than living for Jesus Christ. It is far more shocking to see someone following Him with abandon than seeing someone a bauble protruding from her cheek (as I saw on a recent visit to a restaurant).

We should share the Gospel in manner commensurate with those with whom we are sharing it: In telling children about Jesus, you might start with Veggie Tales instead of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As Paul says, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (I Corinthians 9:19-23).

Yet although God calls us to be fools for the sake of His Son (I Corinthians 4:10) in the proclamation of the cross and the Crucified One, which abrade human pride far as the curse is found (I Corinthians 1:18, Galatians 6:14), He does not call us to make fools of ourselves in attempting to be liked and approved of by the lost and dying or by false teachers and those professing Christians for whom the scratching of their ears is a greater priority than the healing of men’s hearts (II Timothy 4:3).

The most winsome, culturally sensitive, and persuasive Man Who ever lived was scourged, spat upon, and nailed to a rough-hewn cross. In downplaying or even ignoring these realities, we lose whatever “relevance” we frenetically seek to obtain.

In a recent hymn, contemporary Christian singer Chris August writes of his own allegiance to something perennially unpopular in our culture yet eternally powerful in its effect: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his prayer to his Lord, August says,

I will tell of what You’ve done, when the people ask me why
I live my life this way I’ll say that I am unashamed of
The gospel, the cross, the good news for the lost
The blood that spilled down Calvary’s Hill
For what Your grace did and what Your grace does

Chris August is culturally sensitive as well as winsome, and his songs are moving. He is also unashamed of a bloody cross. Is not that awfully good news? And shouldn’t we be sharing it without qualification, shame, or hesitation?

God is love, Christ is Lord, and the Gospel is true. These truths, unmolded by culture and immune to its approval or disapproval, are much better and greater than cool will ever be.

** Some of Meador’s other comments are a bit strong, but the thrust of his piece and the quotes extracted from it are rewarding and penetrating, not to mention brave.