By / Mar 1

It is no secret that contemporary American society continues to be embroiled in conversations about race and interracial tensions. America has a blemished history as it pertains to historical racial injustices and that history’s reverberations continue to resound today. 

However, as I look at the complicated issues here in the United States as they relate to prejudice and the tendency to segregate, I find myself seeing these current issues through the lens of our experience having lived abroad in the Middle East. And the tensions we encountered there led me to a deeper sense of why it is so important for the church to lead the way in exhibiting a reconciliation between people who share in the same blood of Christ despite bearing different tones of skin.

On the mission field 

One of the problems we faced in our ministry in the Middle East was how best to help believers from a Muslim background enter into fellowship with those from a Christian background. As I sought outside counsel, I was told by a well-respected missionary strategist, “You should just start two different kinds of churches—one for Muslim background believers and one for Christian background believers. It will slow things down too much if these new believers have to work through all the historical and cultural baggage that comes from bringing former persecutors into the community they persecuted.”

To be honest, I was stunned by the answer. I asked him later in the day if I had heard him correctly when he said we should not encourage believers from a Muslim background to fellowship with those believers who grew up culturally as Christians. He confirmed that I had heard him correctly: start two different kinds of churches because there is too much baggage to hope for unity.

This was a man who had overseen some reportedly incredible movements of people to Christ in another context. He had been brought into our training as an expert missiologist. But his advice to avoid dealing with conflict within the fellowship of believers was grossly dissatisfying—both theologically and practically. 

The more I reflected on it, the more frustrated I got. The pragmatism reflected in this advice was being allowed to trump the beauty of the enemy-reconciling effect of the gospel. I mean, think about it: What would have been the result for the early church if in Acts 9 Ananias had refused to receive Saul because of the sociological tension that it would cause to fellowship with a former persecutor?

Back at home

These sentiments, however, aren’t exclusive to the mission field. I also had a disappointing experience in a classroom in the U.S. once when a Christian professor dismissed the discussion about multiethnic churches altogether. His comment was that this is just a fad that is responding to contemporary sensitivities and that churches would do better to stay culturally homogeneous. 

Is it true that bringing together different communities might require each community to begin to appreciate expressions and forms of worship that are not native to their subculture? Certainly. But is the potential for discomfort sufficient reason to not pursue fellowship with brothers and sisters who share a common faith and theology? Hardly. 

What is lost if segregation of churches remains a practice of convenience? We lose multiple opportunities to learn from one another as we seek to live out a shared faith in different circumstances. And we lose multiple opportunities to display to a watching world how compelling the fellowship of the gospel is.

Beautiful unity as an embodied apologetic

A few years after the disappointing advice from the missiologist, however, I got a taste of what could happen if we didn’t allow socially-defined distinctions to determine the composition of our fellowship. 

I had been given the privilege of getting to teach a church planting course in an underground Bible school. The 20-or-so students who composed the class came from various Christian upbringings, and some had come to faith in Jesus out of Muslim families. Some of those of a Muslim background were even connected to high-ranking government and military officials who would have been responsible for overseeing various waves of targeted persecution of Christians throughout their country.

Standing in front of the classroom and observing small groups of those diverse students huddled together and strategizing about how they might link arms and plant churches together was one of the most stunning displays of the unifying power of the gospel I have ever seen. Those who were formerly aligned with persecutors were collaborating with those whose families had encountered persecution. And the only thing that brought them together was a common gospel-given identity and goal. 

The pain and history they shared was not erased or forgotten. But the gospel was sufficient to call both parties to walk through the painful history toward repentance and forgiveness and to continue working together toward a shared vision of the future on the basis of a present understanding of the gospel they held in common.

As those communities began to work toward planting churches, their friendship, fellowship, and partnership displayed the healing power of the gospel. It was not unlikely that there would be conflict and tension along the way. Still, that they were drawn together by a common task and vision testifies to the reconciling power of a shared gospel identity. This unity is encouraging to those sharing in the fellowship, and it is compelling to those observing from the outside.

Applied theology

So how does all of this discussion relate to contemporary American churches and their approach to addressing ethnic tensions? From the outset, I hope it gives us a confidence in three things:

  1. We are all sin-stained and in need of reconciliation to God and then to one another as God’s people.
  2. The community of believers draws confidence in the work of reconciliation to one another that comes from a shared reconciliation to God.
  3. The secular world is attempting to manufacture human unity without a compelling reason to believe it is possible.

Yet as they observe the Church manifesting and enjoying a unity amidst diversity, they have to stop and marvel. It will take intentional work, but the result will be an embodied apologetic that supports the gospel claim to make one new humanity in Christ. The work and effort that it will take is worth it—both due to its theological foundation and its missiological impact. 

Adapted excerpt with permission from Hope for American Evangelicals by Matthew Bennett. Copyright 2023, B&H Publishing.

By / Jan 13

Saturday marks the 182nd anniversary of the death of John Leland, the most influential Baptist preacher of America’s Founding era.

Here are five facts you should know about this champion of religious liberty.

1. Leland was an active and productive pastor. From the age of 18 until his death at 86, he preached approximately 8,000 sermons, wrote numerous hymns, published about 30 pamphlets, and baptized 1,524 people. He also personally knew 962 pastors, out of which 303 he heard preach and 207 who visited him at his home.

2. Leland had an outsized influence on the establishment of religious liberty in America through his relationship with James Madison, the primary author of the U.S. Constitution. Leland, who was considered the “leader of the Virginia Baptists,” helped Madison get elected both as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and to the first Congress. Madison repaid Leland and the other Baptists by keeping his campaign promise to support a Bill of Rights that included the Establishment Clause.

3. For much of his early career Leland rarely spoke publicly about one of the key issues of his day—slavery. However, on returning to his home state of Massachusetts in 1791, he began to forcefully champion the emancipation of slaves. Leland thought the cause of freedom for Black Americans would be an opportunity for Christian youth:

If any of the slave-holders will neither give nor sell their slaves, here will be a great door opened for missionary labors. The pious youth, who are waiting for a gap, will now have a loud call to go and preach to the hard-hearted masters, and flatter them to give, and threaten them if they will not.

Although he continued to oppose slavery, Leland later in life began to denounce abolitionists as troublemakers. Many slaveholders, he said, “in heart are opposed to slavery, and would gladly set their slaves free, if they could be provided for.”

4. Leland once used a 1,234-pound block of cheese to spread the gospel. After helping Thomas Jefferson win the presidency, Leland decided to give the new chief executive a gift of cheese. According to Elihu Burritt, Leland asked everyone in his Cheshire, Massachusetts, congregation who owned a cow to donate a quart of milk (unless it was from a “Federalist cow”—a cow owned by a Federalist farmer—since that would “leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour”). The milk was curded and molded using a large cider press. This Cheshire Mammoth Cheese—which measured four feet wide, and 15 inches thick—was too heavy to transport by wagon, so it had to be delivered by sleigh during winter.

As Leland wrote, “In November, 1801 I journeyed to the south, as far as Washington, in charge of a cheese, sent to President Jefferson. Notwithstanding my trust, I preached all the way there and on my return. I had large congregations; let in part by curiosity to hear the Mammoth Priest, as I was called.”

When he arrived in the capitol, Leland was invited to preach a message of religious liberty before Congress.

5. According to L. H. Butterfield, Leland was “dubious about seminaries and campaigns for [missionary] funds.” Although Leland, who was self-educated, was not opposed to secular education, he purportedly stuck “to the primitive Baptist principle that the power to evangelize is bestowed by divine rather than human means.” 

“In these things, however, I may be wrong,” Leland told a friend, “for I claim neither infallibility nor the spirit of prophecy. — May I, may you, may every one pray and search for himself, and believe, and act, and follow the clearest light.”

By / Dec 27

What happened to the apostles after the book of Acts? In his book After Acts, Bryan Litfin brings readers along as he conducts a comprehensive investigation into answering this question. He provides background for these biblical characters and presents historical evidence that points to different theories surrounding what came next for them. Throughout the book Litfin consistently amplifies the reality that they surrendered everything for the sake of the gospel. While history is unclear, Litfin reinforces the reality that we can be certain these individuals spent their lives on mission so that people would hear the good news. 

In a way, this book is not solely a historical resource, but also a call upon its readers to ask themselves: how am I spending my life for the kingdom of God? After Acts will leave you encouraged by the boldness, faith, and love for the Lord on display in the apostles’ lives.

By / Nov 16

When we moved overseas, we began to taste how generous hospitality can be. Sitting on drab floor cushions in sparsely-furnished homes, we were welcomed into the lives of the Roma of Eastern Europe. Roma live hand-to-mouth, and even then, what they make today is often not enough for their meals tomorrow. Despite our protests and attempts to visit without sharing a meal, they had joy and honor in feeding us as their guests. Their generosity humbled us every time.

Receiving such sacrifices convicted us of our selfishness. I began to see how closely I held what we had. I wasn’t just hoarding the food we had; I was also hoarding our space, our time, and our gifts. God was teaching me that everything I had belonged to him and was not mine to be accumulated for my family alone. 

But more than stirring a desire to imitate the Roma’s welcoming hospitality, I realized how the Christian’s hospitality has a bigger purpose: to preach the gospel of Christ who poured out everything for us. 

I’d love it if I was a natural hostess who always had a clean house, delicious meals, and cooperative children. My husband and I are introverts, our house gets messy more quickly than we can clean it, and it often feels scary to give others an up-close look at our sinful family. Opening our home can take a lot out of not just me but the whole family. If it’s hard, why practice it?

Hospitality is biblical.

We are commanded to practice hospitality. Both Titus and 1 Timothy name hospitality as one of the requirements for a pastor, but elsewhere we see hospitality commanded to others within the body of Christ. Moreover, our hospitality is supposed to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). 

And we should not just offer hospitality to those we know, but also to people we’re unfamiliar with: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2). Furthermore, the Bible is clear that how we open up our homes matters: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9). 

Hospitality gives us opportunities to serve others. 

Service is a tangible way of loving one another. When we serve, we are humbling ourselves and putting the needs and desires of another in front of our own (Phil. 2). Everyone in our family has opportunities to serve when we invite people into our space. My children have learned many lessons about taking care of the needs of others because of guests. 

Jesus, our Creator and Lord, was the perfect example of a servant. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he poured himself out until he was exhausted. He “did not come to be served, but to serve,” and his ultimate service was when he gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Serving is a way we can act like Christ and point others to him.

Hospitality helps us prioritize people over stuff. 

It can be hard to let people into our home sometimes. Hospitality can come at a cost. When we have another family over, we often use our resources to feed them. My children have slept on the floor to allow overnight guests to use their beds. We have had messes left by guests that we have to clean up (including the time a toddler dumped out every one of my children’s Legos) and broken toys that we replace with our money or have to do without. 

We have long had a family saying: “People are more important than things.” This is easy to say but hard to actually believe in our hearts because of our selfish flesh. The things we own are temporary, but people have eternal souls and bear God’s image. When we have people in our home, we try to remember the significance of our stuff pales in comparison to the significance of our guests (Luke 12:15; Matt. 625-34). 

Hospitality allows us to deepen discipleship relationships.

Many of the people we have over are members of our church and have covenanted with us to encourage one another in our faith. A different facet of discipleship is caught in our home when people get to watch our family interact with each other, deepening what is taught when we study the Bible and pray together. Real life happens in our home amongst our family, and welcoming people into it is the best way to give insight into how our family functions, in all the messy ways. 

Inviting people into our home means that we cannot so easily hide our lives behind a facade presented on Sunday morning, but rather those close to us can see what we look like throughout the week and how we are trying, even as we stumble and falter, to follow Christ as a family.

Our children are also benefactors of this. Their relationships with people are strengthened when we have them in our home, allowing opportunities for our children to grow and learn from others as well. They also feel more at home within our church family because of how many people they’ve eaten meals and talked with at the dinner table. 

Hospitality provides the time and space to display and preach the gospel.

Hospitality is a means to display the gospel by using your home for the good of others. It is a way we can show what God has done and is doing in our lives. When we welcome others to our home, we have the opportunity to invite them to taste and see how good the Lord is. 

Like most Christians, we thank God before we eat for providing food to enjoy and sustain our bodies. We want to always remember that every good gift comes from him and that he alone is our provider. Remembering that God has provided our daily bread should turn our hearts to his ultimate provision: The broken body and spilled blood of Christ.

And that’s one of the sweetest parts of opening up our home: sharing testimonies about the Lord’s saving grace in our lives. We have heard stories about God’s faithfulness countless times while at our dining room table or in our living room. I am reminded that my salvation is a “gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). My children have heard how God brought people from all stages and walks of life to him. They’ve also watched us practice evangelism in our house around our normal activities. 

My family has been changed by welcoming others into our home. We’re still having our sin revealed to us and being sanctified through our attempts at hospitality, but we’ve settled into a happy family rhythm that includes people who don’t share our last name. Our kids regularly think of people who we need to have over and how we might serve them. It isn’t always easy, even after having hundreds of people in our home, but it is always worth it. 

By / Sep 9

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, three Southern Baptists leaders who held significant leadership roles on Sept. 11, 2001, help us to remember that infamous day in American history and consider its impact on the convention and our world.

At that time, Dr. Richard Land was the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Dr. James Merritt was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Dr. Jerry Rankin was the president of the International Mission Board. Each man shared his experience and reflections with us. Their words remind us of the difficult decisions during that time, the preciousness of our religious liberty, the value of every human life, and our call to take the gospel to the nations. 

Jill Waggoner: Where were you when you heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001?

Richard Land: We were in the middle of our trustee meeting. I was getting ready and listening to the news when I saw the first plane hit. I called Bobby Reed, our chief financial officer, and I said, “Have you heard? Call the rental companies and get every rental car you can find, because they are going to shut everything down.” We ended up carpooling some of our trustees home who were there from more distant states. 

It was astonishing. It’s hard to describe how shell-shocked everyone was. I had flown out of LaGuardia Airport, right past the Twin Towers, back to Nashville, just the Friday before. So, it was surreal. 

James Merritt: Amazingly, I was getting ready to go upstairs and work out before flying to speak at the ERLC! I got a call from Teresa, my wife, telling me that a pilot had flown a plane into the World Trade Center and I might want to turn on the TV. I went back downstairs, and the moment I turned on the TV, I never left my bedroom for eight hours. During that time, I called the church to dismiss everyone to go to their homes immediately.

Jerry Rankin: When I arrived at the IMB office on Sept. 11, there was a notice that Genessa Wells, a journeyman in the Middle East had been killed the night before in a bus accident two weeks before the completion of her term. At 9 a.m., I assembled our executive team for the purpose of activating crisis action procedures of notifying and ministering to family, responding to the trauma of the team on the field, and managing the media response. One of our vice presidents came into the room and suggested we turn on the TV monitor. He had just passed the one in the communications office, and something was happening in New York.

We watched the live events unfold in horror and disbelief for the next two hours and realized this would have global ramifications. Out of that day-long crisis mode, we realized the U.S. would retaliate on any number of Muslim countries and that Muslim population groups all over the world would then reciprocate, not necessarily against missionaries, but any American in their country. Although we have a policy that the decision to evacuate a country was to be made by local missionaries and their field leadership, we realized this was a larger global issue, and there was no way they could have the overview of the situation. 

The decision was made to immediately evacuate missionaries in the 20 most dominant Muslim countries, which entailed moving 400 personnel and their families, most of whom were resistant to leaving, already cognizant of the risk in serving in a hostile environment. This was a massive logistical challenge. Where do they go? Where could we immediately provide accommodations for such a large number on nearby fields, not knowing how long they may be displaced or if they could ever return? How do we arrange travel, and how much time should we allow for them to make arrangements for sustaining their ministries and protecting property?

JW: How did 9/11 affect your role at that time?

RL: On a personal level, it made travel permanently more difficult and arduous, as it still is to some degree. It’s hard for people who are younger to understand how much easier it was to travel before 9/11.

The difficulty of the moment was that you wanted to protect your country without infringing on religious liberty and how to navigate that along with the threat posed by terrorists. We had to constanly remind people that 90% of the victims of the jihadists were fellow Muslims who refused to accept this as sole interpretation of Islam. We spoke to these issues, and when there was consensus among Baptists, we relayed that to Congress and the courts. We argued for sunsetting (when specific provisions cease after a certain time) for some of the legislation that was passed so that they would be reviewed every 10 years. We had to recognize legitimate security concerns, but we didn’t want laws set in place that would violate constitutional liberties permanently. 

I got a lot of flack for coming out against waterboarding. Congressmen would ask me in private why I was against it. The shorthand definition of torture is something that is likely to produce permanent pyschological or physical damage. Having viewed waterboarding on films used to train our special forces, it was hard for me to imagine that this would not produce permant pychological damage This would be torture. If we engage in torture, then we become no better than our enemies. 

To us the big question was: How do you defend religious freedom, including the freedom of Muslims? We said we are all free to advocate for our different faiths and to proselytize . . .

We also said we disagree with everything Muslims say, but we defend to the death their right to say it. When we defend the rights of those of the Muslim faith, we are defending the rights to our faith. 

JM: It was out of that terrible tragedy that I was actually invited to the White House along with 25 other religious leaders to draft an ecumenical statement on praying for the nation. Then, I was one of seven selected to meet with the president in the Oval Office. That led to one of the most fascinating conversations and historical moments I could ever have envisioned or experienced. It also helped to cement a nice personal relationship with President George W. Bush.

JR: Any time mission executives have to take authoritative action, contrary to the wishes and desires of the missionaries, a morale problem evolves as well as a mixture of criticism and praise from their stateside families and churches. The crisis put emerging strategies that grew out of “New Directions” in 1997 on hold in terms of redeploying personnel to engage unreached people groups, provide creative access strategies in countries restricted to missionaries, and maintaining the momentum of new missionaries being appointed. (2001 had the highest number of missionary appointments in the history of the IMB, with more than a thousand being commissioned!)

September 11 impacted international relations, the safety and security of missionaries around the world, and exacerbated the danger and reality of what it meant to give of one’s life for the sake of the gospel and obedience to the call. The next year, three veteran missionaries were assassinated at our Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen; Bill Hyde, a church planter in the Philippines, died in a terrorist bombing at the Davao City airport; and four pioneer missionaries seizing the opportunity to minister to the suffering in Iraq were gunned down by insurgents.

JW: How should Southern Baptists view 9/11 from this vantage point, 20 years later?

RL: Of first importance, we must defend our core values of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, particularly in times of great stress like that was. There’s the temptation to sacrifice those liberties on the altar of security, and that’s always a devil’s bargain. We need to practice and defend those “soul freedoms” for everyone at every opportunity. 

September 11 told us — and our theology tells us this too — that we live in a world that is wracked by demonic and evil activity. The devil is a roaring lion “looking for someone to devour” as we read in 1 Peter. Paul tells us to redeem the time, “because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). The word here for “evil” is the word for an active, aggressive evil. We need to understand that the devil and evil people are up to things that we need to be vigilant against, and we are involved in spiritual warfare. Sometimes in the United States that is easy to forget because we have been spared many of the trevails that have been common to the rest of the world.

Once again, 9/11 reminded all Americans of the transitory nature of life. Churches were full right after 9/11. Then, things went back to “normal.” A lot of Americans have been lulled into a sense of “semi-immortality.” Events like this intrude upon Americans’ false sense of security. Life is a fragile thing, and none of us are guaranteed any set number of years. We need to keep our minds on eternal things and help fellow Americans keep their minds on eternal things, as well. 

JM: Like any tragedy, I believe that we should always look to a sovereign God who is in control of everything that happens in the universe and wants to use everything for his glory, for the good of his people, and to turn people toward his Son, Jesus Christ. I still believe that events like this should remind us of the fragility of life and the urgency of sharing the gospel to a world that desperately needs Christ.

JR: Amazingly, these events and 9/11 resulted in a burgeoning pool of missionary candidates volunteering to take the gospel to the Muslim world. Over the next two years, the IMB global strategy coalesced around a vision of Muslim evangelism, seeing the gospel as the only power to counter the rise in terrorism. This was met by criticism and resistance of some of our Southern Baptist constituency who insisted we were wasting resources, missionaries should not be allowed to go to dangerous places, and Muslims deserved to go to hell. 

In the last decade of the 20th century when the former Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia and Eastern Europe opened to the gospel. Unprecedented church growth swept China in spite of persecution and restrictions. The Muslim world was the one remaining formidable barrier to global evangelization. After 9/11, personnel in Muslim countries reported people expressing disillusionment in the Muslim faith that would endorse terrorism; they asked questions reflecting a search for hope and security they could not find in their traditional religion. September 11 caused the barriers to begin to crumble. Now, 20 years later we should remember what’s at stake and redouble our efforts to call out more missionaries and pray Muslims into the kingdom; after all God loves them, Jesus died for them, and his power is able to save them!

By / Jul 15

Looking at some examples might help us envision what a healthy interplay between media and community can look like. While there are many people I could highlight as models of faithful belonging and redemptive publishing, it would be hard to top Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day. For both of them, reading books and newspapers transformed their lives, introducing them to new communities of discourse and action. Their reading led them to imagine new possibilities for joining with and working among the members of their own places. This membership, in turn, led them to speak publicly on behalf of their communities, challenging others to belong redemptively to their own neighbors and to address the pressing issues of their time. 

Douglass, reading, and abolition

In his autobiography, Douglass describes the arduous process by which he learned to read, first through the good graces of a naive slave mistress, and then by giving poor White boys bread in exchange for lessons. At the age of 12, he read “The Columbian Orator,” a classroom anthology of speeches and poems that includes an imagined dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave made such good arguments for his emancipation that the master granted his manumission. Douglass was, of course, drawn to these arguments: “They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” As Douglass goes on to explain, he didn’t even know the meaning of the word abolition — much less that there was a whole community of abolitionists agitating for the end of slavery — until he read a newspaper account of abolitionist activities. 

After his reading brought the abolition community to his consciousness and helped him articulate a case for emancipation, Douglass devoted his energies to educating his enslaved friends. Once he had “created in them a strong desire to learn how to read,” he held a Sabbath school and taught any enslaved people who were interested. Their school was eventually discovered and broken up by White masters; these men knew the grave danger that reading posed to the institution of slavery. As Douglass testifies, this learning community provided a rare opportunity for these downtrodden people to behave like “intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” Eventually, Douglass escaped to the north, but instead of feeling free, he felt terribly lonely and vulnerable. He was particularly grateful for the aid of other free Black persons and abolitionists who helped him find a home in New Bedford. 

This community, and the support it provided for its vulnerable members, motivated Douglass to take a more active role in sustaining it. He describes an incident where a free Black person had a dispute with a fugitive and threatened to betray him; the entire community came together to send the traitor away and protect the fugitive. It is this camaraderie and solidarity that inspired Douglass to move into the public sphere and advocate for the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of free African Americans. He tells of his joy when he was able to pay for a subscription to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper. This paper, Douglass attests, “became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire.” And it soon gave him an “idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform.” At the urging of others, he began to speak at churches and abolitionist meetings, and his eloquence and testimony soon made him a popular speaker. 

Community and pointing to the gospel 

Douglass eventually separated himself from Garrison’s paper and speaking circuit and founded his own newspaper, the North Star. In the opening editorial, he situates the paper as a communal endeavor, arguing that the Black community “must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly — not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.” Thus it will not be committed to an ideology but to a community, which he names as “our long oppressed and plundered fellow countrymen”: “We shall cordially approve every measure and effort calculated to advance your sacred cause, and strenuously oppose any which in our opinion may tend to retard its progress.” Rather than being narrowly antislavery, it will also discuss issues such as “Temperance, Peace, Capital Punishment, Education. . . . While advocating your rights, the North Star will strive to throw light on your duties. [W]hile it will not fail to make known your virtues, it will not shun to discover your faults. To be faithful to our foes it must be faithful to ourselves, in all things.” This language of rights and duties is common in republican discourse, but it emphasizes that Douglass was committed not just to an ideology or an interest group but to the formation of a healthy community. 

Though he disagreed with Garrison about the best political strategy to achieve abolition, Douglass shared Garrison’s religious convictions. One version of the Liberator’s masthead depicts Christ in his role as liberator, proclaiming, “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor.” Similarly, the motto of Douglass’s North Star declares, “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and all we are brethren.” If Douglass belonged to his fellow oppressed countrymen (and women — he was an early supporter of the suffrage movement), he belonged equally to the biblical prophetic tradition. As his biographer David Blight puts it, “Douglass not only used the Hebrew prophets; he joined them.” Douglass consistently “rooted his own story and especially the story of African Americans in the oldest and most powerful stories of the Hebrew prophets.” 

Ultimately, Douglass strove to build a community keyed to the gospel rather than to political trends. He failed at times, getting drawn into heated and sometimes petty political disputes and caring more about wielding political power than about standing as a faithful witness, but the very existence of his papers helped people imagine a community of Christians committed to living out the gospel’s valuation of each person — regardless of their race — as a child of God. Papers like the North Star can help us see those neighbors whom we might otherwise overlook; they can help us imagine ourselves as members of a community that cares about the plight of the enslaved and others who are oppressed and that takes action to participate in God’s ongoing redemptive work. 

Adapted and published with permission from Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Chapter eight, “Belonging Outside the Public Sphere.”

By / Apr 6

Pastor Doug Logan, an associate director for Acts 29, plans to activate and equip church leaders to minister boldly in the inner-city context. Logan spearheads a new Acts 29 initiative intended to train and assist under-resourced pastors in urban areas—ministers who often lead with limited access to financial resources, theological training, and coaching. 

Acts 29 Urban and Acts 29 Español aims to bolster support and education for ministers leading gospel-centered churches in lower socio-economic and inner city areas. 

In these urban centers, pastors often minister in the face of overwhelming needs, including violence and lack of employment opportunities. Many churches in and around these metro areas fail to “reach the grime and grit in the inner city core,” said Logan, who has been working in urban ministry for over 25 years. It’s time, in other words, to get inside on a deeper level. 

Many pastors in these areas, Logan noted, lack access to theological education. Because many leaders are bivocational, the lack of assets and time also indicates that additional spiritual and theological support is vital. Pastors in any setting are acutely stressed and overworked, and those facing daily, inner city turmoil are especially so.

Acts 29 has also partnered with Grimke Seminary to provide support. Logan founded Grimke in 2019 when he saw the need for low-cost access to theological training. The seminary specifically focuses on theology, culture, and mission in the most challenging settings. Students receive training from a diverse staff team and cover required reading by ethnic minorities—two core components of the program. 

The vast majority of classes are online, while students fly in for three-day intensives several times a year to complete the remaining portion. Through theological, leadership, and cultural training, pastors graduate with renewed confidence in their local mission—one that fulfills a desperate need in the inner city. 

“Brokenness, murder, and poverty move people to church,” said Logan. Acts 29 Urban and Español initiatives aim to fill the gaps for pastors in these contexts through distinctive curriculum, coaching, content, and conferences. 

“We want to strengthen these guys who are already on mission,” said Logan. “We are there to bleed with them, to love and support them.”

Logan’s heart and mission could be summed up in 2 Timothy 2:2 when Paul urges Timothy to help “entrust faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” It’s part of why Logan founded Grimke, named after Dr. Francis Grimke, a freed slave who became a pastor and civil rights leader. Grimke was ultimately offered lofty positions in academia but opted to serve his local church as pastor for nearly six decades. That kind of long-term, faithful commitment is essential, but it takes sustenance from outside sources to maintain. 

In places where vulnerable and impoverished people struggle the most, the effort to come alongside those laboring to provide spiritual nourishment fulfills this need. 

“We aren’t here to rescue,” said Logan, “but to be brothers and sisters in the struggle to get the message to those who need it.” 

By / Mar 31

Unlike some of the other disciples, we don’t really have the exact details of Thomas’ early life and his calling. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only record Thomas as being part of the list of those called to be part of the 12 men Jesus called to leave their lives behind and follow him. The only detail we know from Thomas is that he was a twin (John 11:16). It’s likely that, like the other disciples, except for Judas, he was from the Galilee region. 

But while we don’t hear much from Thomas in most of the Gospels, we can see him there as Jesus commissions the 12 and sends them out to preach the good news of the kingdom. We can observe him in the ship, watching Jesus walk on the water. We can envision his stunned silence when Jesus calms a raging sea or makes the lame walk or raises dead people from the grave. His hands were full of food when Jesus took a little boy’s lunch that day on the hillside and fed his people in the wilderness. 

We do know that Thomas left everything to follow this itinerant rabbi. Something in Jesus compelled this young man to abandon his livelihood and risk his entire life on Jesus. When others left or faded away, Thomas was one of the few who stayed. When Judas slipped out of the Upper Room, Thomas was still there, hearing Jesus’ haunting and prophetic words about his arrest, death, and resurrection. He listened, likely with bewilderment, as Jesus taught about a new future he was creating, a Spirit-fueled movement that would be built on the foundation of these 11 ordinary men. Thomas cringed when Jesus prophesied Judas’ betrayal, wondering, like the others, if he had the seed of disloyalty in his own heart. He heard the footsteps of the soldiers as they came for Jesus. He saw the images of a bloody Jesus. He experienced the loss and separation of the One who had called him friend. 

Thomas, the brave

This is what Thomas saw. So while “doubting” has become the favorite adjective for Thomas, we must first know him as a brave follower of Jesus, who risked it all. 

Only the Gospel of John gives us any words from Thomas, and though they are few, they are profound and give us insight into his character. In John 11, Jesus was in a small town on the other side of the Jordan from Judea, near the place where John the Baptist began his ministry of baptism. Word got back to them that one of Jesus’ dearest friends, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, was dying. Lazarus was in Bethany, a four-day journey away, so it was imperative for Jesus to go back and see his friend. Strangely, Jesus didn’t rush back but instead lingered for two more days. He reassured the disciples that Lazarus was not merely dead, but sleeping. He was referring, they wouldn’t know at the time, of his ability to raise Lazarus physically from the dead. His desire in waiting was for Lazarus to be so dead, four days dead, that nobody could doubt the miracle of his resurrection. Jesus purpose in returning to Bethany was not just to raise his friend, but to raise faith in those who witnessed the miracle, including the disciples. 

But there were also other worries about going back toward Judea. The anger of Jesus’ enemies among the religious leaders was rising, and there were plots to take Jesus and possibly kill him. Jesus’ growing movement and his claims to be the Son of God, the Savior of the world, so incensed them that they had tried to seize him (John 10:38-39). They had just slipped away across the Jordan river to this hideaway where they’d be safe. So the disciples were understandably nervous. They weighed the risks, discussing a trip back into the hot zone. Of course they loved their friend Lazarus, but if he was already dead, was it worth going back and risking Jesus’ death and their own? You can hear them carefully weighing the pros and cons. 

Jesus is determined to go, to show the world a glimpse of his resurrection power, a porthole into the new creation. And so Thomas, after hearing and perhaps participating in this heated deliberation, is the first one to volunteer to go with Jesus. “Let’s go too so that we may die with him (John 1116).” It’s kind of a macabre response, perhaps giving us insight into Thomas’ more pessimistic personality. It seems Thomas was the one always counting the cost, weighing the facts, looking for certainty when others like Peter were guided by the more emotional and subjective compass of the heart. And Thomas didn’t understand all that he even said. Thomas or any of the other disciples couldn’t really go with Jesus to die. To pay for the sins of the world, Jesus had to go alone to the garden, alone to the cross, alone to the grave.

And yet in a sense, Thomas understood the call Jesus gives every disciple to come and die with him. Because he went alone, we too can take up our cross and we can die with him. Paul would later say that he was “crucified with Christ” and “no longer lives” so that the life of Christ can be lived through him (Gal. 2:2). 

This is a bold statement. Thomas seems like the silent one, who carefully weighs and thinks before coming to a conclusion and yet when he speaks, it is a profound statement of courage and loyalty. “Let’s go die with Jesus” could be a life verse, the call of everyone who sees and believes Jesus. 

Which is why, I think, if we only think of Thomas as “doubting” we miss out on Thomas altogether. Before he was “Doubting Thomas” he was “Brave Thomas”, willing to put it all on the line for the one he loved. 

Adapted and reprinted with permission from The Characters of Easter, “Chapter Six: The Doubter – Thomas,” Moody Press, 2021.

By / Jan 6

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

Christianity isn’t complicated, but it is difficult. If anything, the last year has made us realize in a special way just how broken our world truly is. But whether we’re facing a pandemic or a relative paradise, every Christian needs Jesus—not just for “salvation,” but for life. And apart from the Scriptures, Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, is among the very best places you can look to connect with Jesus in a fresh and meaningful way. We recently had the opportunity to interview Dane about the book. As you read his answers below, you’ll see why Dane’s book is worthy of your time.

In the opening page of your book you write that “this is a book about the heart of Christ” and then go on to say who it’s written for, “the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty” (13). For the person who finds that these words accurately describe them, why is a deeper understanding of the heart of Christ the balm that will soothe these ills? 

Because our deep soul wounds are beneath the reach of snappy formulas or quick fixes or even theological truth. We need a Person—the Lord Jesus himself, the Greatheart. We don’t climb our way up into his love, we collapse our way down into it. That’s where he lives. 

When describing Jesus as gentle, you say that he “is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms” (19). Why do we have such a hard time believing this and, moreover, what would believing it do for a Christian’s assurance?

We have a hard time believing this because we form Christ in our image. We don’t realize how easily we view him as a bigger, nicer version of us. But he’s on another plane entirely. He doesn’t tolerate our weaknesses; he is drawn in by them. For his own brothers, their failures cause his embrace to tighten, not loosen.

You lean a lot on the Puritans in your book. Why do you think Christians should spend more time reading Puritan works?

The Puritans understood two things at a deep level: the Bible, and fallen human hearts. And their writings take the Bible in one hand and our timid hearts in the other and build bridges between the two so that solace can flow from the Scripture into our own hearts. In other words, the Puritans were neither pure theoreticians nor pure practitioners, but a remarkable blend of both.

Many Christians may imagine Jesus as a sort of begrudging Savior, put out by our unceasing sins and shortcomings. But you say that “it is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him” (30). You go further to say, upon seeing the fallenness of the world, Jesus’ “most natural instinct is to move toward sin and suffering, not away from it” (30). And not only that, but it makes him happy to give grace and pardon sin (36). Is Jesus really a happy Savior?

The key here is to remember we are members of Christ’s body, a point the New Testament makes time and again. So think of your own body. When you slice your finger open, you care for it, bandage it, nurse it back to health, and do whatever is needed for its healing. You don’t grow impatient with it. You don’t cut it off and cast it away. In a similar way, we are members of Christ’s own body. When we are sinning or suffering, he doesn’t cut us off—he cares for us all the more insistently. He’s healing his own body. 

Apart from the Scriptures, Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, is among the very best places you can look to connect with Jesus in a fresh and meaningful way.

Many Christians undoubtedly assume that our ongoing sin disqualifies us from fellowship with God, but you seem to suggest that in our “crevices of sin,” as you call it, “Christ is most strongly drawn to us there” (83). Could you explain a little about what that means? And assuming this is true, how should that transform the act of confession and repentance for us if we’ve fallen into sin?

We naturally believe that the better we are performing spiritually, the stronger Christ’s love; and the worse we are performing, the more diluted his love. But the Gospels are very clear that it is in our ugliest and most entrenched strongholds of sin that God and Christ love us the most. This empties confession of its power and terror, because the only love that counts and the only love that satisfies, God’s, is certain, whatever happens on a horizontal level as we are honest about our sins with other humans. 

On the topic of Christ’s intercession, you quote Louis Berkhoff in chapter 8, saying “that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life” (84). I’m sure many feel negligent in their prayer life, so how should Christ’s intercession encourage us to pray? Why should we pray if he’s already doing it for us? 

By joining in prayer to the Father, we are going with the flow of Christ’s own prayers for us. We are entering in to the very fellowship of the Trinity. Moreover, Christ’s intercessory work reflects the truth that as those united to him, we have the Father’s ear as much as Christ himself does. Christ’s intercession gives hope and power and fuel for our own prayers.

You devote a chapter of your book to the idea that Jesus is a tender friend. How can Christians cultivate a deeper friendship with Jesus?

Let him be a person. Not a force, not an idea, not a philosophy, not a formula. Even “the gospel,” glorious as this good news is, is not itself a person but a message. But if Christ is a person, he is someone with whom we can cultivate a deep friendship. Don’t let his divinity and highness let you diminish his humanity and lowness.

As you close the book, you address what I imagine may be the most common question people ask after reading which is, “what are we to do with this?” (215). Your answer is simple: nothing. You encourage us to enjoy Jesus and his heart by simply opening ourselves up to him and going to him. In closing, can you give a word of encouragement on how doing this has transformed your own life?

In all my own struggles and in all my fathering and in all my ministry and in all my preaching, my main goal is to help people’s hearts calm down into fresh relief and wonder at the Savior’s befriending Love. There is plenty of time and opportunity to reprove and exhort, through and according to Scripture. But this entire world is deeply controlled by Law, by demand, by scrutinizing. I am only changed as I am surprised. And the deepest surprise in this relentless world is the tender heart of the Son of God.

You can order Gentle and Lowly here.

By / Nov 24

Peyton Hill, pastor of First Baptist Prattville, Alabama, talks about how the gospel continues to go forth during coronavirus.