By / Jun 8

Ministry and mission opportunities have taken me to several “closed” countries, nations whose governments consistently silence Christianity. I have seen how routinely and brutally those in power attempt to intimidate Christians into silence. I have returned from each of those experiences with a greater appreciation of the democratic and representative republic in which I live, but also with a deeper resolve to exercise the rights and responsibilities of my citizenship.

Participation in our government is not merely a right, nor even a high privilege, but a sacred and inevitable responsibility for Christian—and especially, Baptist—citizens. My silence on the moral and social issues of the day is a desecration of every drop of blood shed by every American soldier who fought in defense of that right. If I cower now in the face of public pressure and popular sentiment, I betray bold Baptists before me who built the wall of separation between church and state that ensures the government cannot muzzle or mute my message.

I have the unique privilege to pastor in Kentucky’s capital. Consequently, my congregation is inherently political because the majority of them work for the state in some capacity. The Scripture has often led me to positions that are at odds with one or both political parties. I have had reporters show up at my house to ask my response to unflattering things a governor has said about me. And yes, I have had members whom I loved and cared for deeply leave our church over my position on one issue or another.

The consequences of truth should never become a factor in some complex calculation of whether or not we preach it. Nothing I ever preach will be more controversial or more objectionable than the gospel of Jesus Christ. If I am bold enough to preach that God created the world and made man in his own image, how could I possibly keep silent about abortion? If I dare proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way of salvation, how could I fear to preach the truth of his words, “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’”

While I earnestly desire to preach the truth with grace, humility, and patience with those who are struggling or even rejecting it, my great desire is to preach in my church and to engage the public outside my church under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit. Spirit anointed preaching avoids no subject, compromises no truth, and fears no reaction.

Under the authority of Scripture and the anointing of the Spirit, no preacher can keep silent as the culture around him rushes headlong toward hell. If we understand that sin causes misery and sorrow—and it does—and that sin cost the life of our Savior—and it did—how can we sit silently and fearfully when our culture attempts to normalize sin and stigmatize those who expose it? We must speak the truth in love, to be sure, but me must speak. No social, political or moral issue of the day should supplant or eclipse the gospel, but the gospel should inform every political and social issue.

Exodus chapter four records the familiar narrative of Moses at the burning bush, but it also relates the strange truth that God nearly killed Moses as he travelled back to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of slavery. God wanted Moses to fear Him so he would not fear Pharaoh. If we fear God—failing Him, disobeying Him, misrepresenting Him—we cannotfear man. If we spend time with Him and saturate ourselves with His Word, we will never fear to stand before the King and speak the truth.

By / May 27

Robert Gates, one-time Secretary of Defense and now the leader of the Boy Scouts of America, wants the Scouts to change course and reverse their (very long standing) ban on openly homosexual leaders. His reasoning is straightforward: The Scouts will likely be forced to do so anyway by either legislation or (more likely) a court ruling. “We can act on our own or we can be forced to act,” Gates reportedly told the Scouts, before adding: “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”

This is, quite plainly, the “wrong side of history” argument. Gates is warning his fellow Scouts that standing athwart culture in this issue is just too high a price; for the sake of the survival of the BSA, the old ways should be scrapped and the “world as it is” be embraced.

This isn’t surprising logic. “You’ll be on the wrong side of history” is practically anthemic to the same-sex marriage crusade. As a political device, it’s a fairly effective line, for two reasons. One, it appeals to most everyone’s basest desire to be thought well of, especially by strangers; and two, because it doesn’t actually advance any sort of moral or philosophical argument whatsoever, it’s almost impossible to shoot down.

It’s not hard to see why politicians and pundits relish the wrong side of history zinger. It’s a bit tougher though to see why the leader of the Boy Scouts would think that this sort of thinking comports with the traditions and character training of Scouting.

This point is made brilliantly by Kevin Williamson in his recent piece on the Gates speech. Williamson notes that those who believe that homosexuality is immoral will of course not be persuaded in the least by Gates’s call to submission. On the other hand, says Williamson, Americans who support the inclusion of gay leaders in the Scouts should likewise be unimpressed with Gates’s evasive pragmatism:

For those who take the more contemporary view of homosexuality, Gates’s position is arguably even more distasteful. If the Scouts have been wrong about the moral and social status of homosexuals, then they have been wrong about something important. If their exclusion of gays from leadership positions was based on error or malice, then they owe it to those they have excluded to admit as much, freely and openly. Perhaps more important, if the exclusion of homosexuals has been wrongful, then the Boy Scouts’ leadership owes it to the young men whose moral development is in part entrusted to it to be forthright about that fact.

In other words, preserving the Scouts from legal or political headwinds isn’t a sufficient motivation. The problem with Gates’s plea isn’t that he’s wrong about what would face the Scouts if they held onto their policy (he’s probably right, actually), it’s that Gates is calling for an (massive) ethical transformation with an explicitly non-ethical reason. Imagine if a politician plead for the cessation of human trafficking on the grounds that traffickers just face too many risks and too much scrutiny from international governments. Not only is such an argument ridiculous, it is morally repugnant.

Why do more people not sense the repugnance of the “wrong side of history” meme? One answer is that sexual revolutionaries have done an admirably ruthless job of enforcing conscientious conformity through weaponized politics. To be on the wrong side of history is, in many cases today, to be on the wrong end of law enforcement and civil courts. Everyone is born a pragmatist, and if legal trouble and social hostility await those who hold on to antiquated views, isn’t it safer to just jump ship?

The more fundamental answer to why the “wrong side of history” line doesn’t get the enthusiastic derision it deserves is that, for many average, working-class people in this culture, WSOH really IS a moral argument. The amazingly pervasive infantilization of American culture has rendered many Americans unable to distinguish the feeling of having done the right thing from the feeling of being liked. A person on the wrong side of daytime TV hosts and the local PTA must havereasons for rebuffing cultural conformity that are transcendent and say more than “This is just how I’ve chosen to live.” If those reasons aren’t there—if a person’s intellectual and moral formation is really nothing more than the sum of their learned social decorum and interpersonal skills—conformity wins.

People will always disagree about what is true and right. But something that every person who values honesty at all should believe is that doing the right thing—regardless of what “right thing” means—isn’t a matter of preserving one’s own reputation. Integrity often demands more than taking the road less traveled; it means taking the road that other travelers mock. The Boy Scouts have, historically, been stalwart in teaching this lesson. Will they keep that honor?

By / Aug 20

In May 1532, soon after resigning as Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More wrote his epitaph. Reflecting on what he presumably thought lay before him, More wrote of having obtained “the thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired, the he might have some years of his life free, in which he little and little withdrawing himself from the business of this life, might continually remember the immortality of the life to come.” For students of history, of course, More’s wishful thinking was not to be. Not even one year later, More was arrested by King Henry VIII for treason and executed in 1535 for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, denouncing papal authority and proclaiming the English crown head of the Church in England. While on the scaffold, he famously proclaimed that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Despite his connection to the Reformation, St. Thomas More has been widely honored as a role model by both Catholics and Protestants in recent years, with St. John Paul II declaring him the patron of statesmen in 2000 after requests by leaders from multiple religious backgrounds. Indeed, with the progressive movement’s wielding of state power and popular culture to punish Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims for defending marriage, sexual ethics, and the right to life, More remains not just a man for all seasons but the role model for our time. Yet, how do we reconcile his martyrdom for Christ in 1535 with the epitaph he wrote for himself just a few years earlier? By 1532, Henry VIII had already purged most of More’s supporters from the clergy and courts, and More was shrewd enough to see the writing on the walls. Within his epitaph, therefore, we see less of a wish and more of a plea. A public plea—carved in stone, no less—indicating his willingness to exit public life and pleading with the king to let him be. Henry, however, demanded acceptance—not just silence—from More, which More as a Catholic could not provide. More did not choose conflict, but he refused to avoid it if it also meant avoiding his call to be a witness to Christ.

Regardless of which side of the Reformation you find yourself standing upon, the parallels between More’s dilemma and our own as Christians in the 21st century are unmistakable. As Hollywood has increasingly produced and promoted films hostile to Christian values, we have turned to our own Christian studios and directors. As our universities have become liberal institutions while maintaining a façade of academic freedom, we have sent our children to Christian universities like Hillsdale, Biola, and Ave Maria. Like More, in response to hostility, we seek to be left alone, but how do we justify this with our Christian calling to be witnesses to Christ?

Fortunately, More’s epitaph was ironically not his last word on the subject. In The Sadness of Christ, his final work written while imprisoned in the Tower of London, More points out the contrast between the energy of Judas with the sleep of the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. He writes, “Does not this contrast between the traitors and the Apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image . . . a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times to our own?” In response to the Tudor threat, he—facing death—urged the bishops of England, “Do not be afraid.”

If then we seek to stand for Christ in our time as St. Thomas More stood for Christ in his own, we must learn his courage—the courage to remain awake and be a witness for Christ, which invariably requires suffering. Yet as More’s own struggle shows, even for those firm in their religious convictions, the temptation to choose sleep over sacrifice is strong. We read the stories of courageous religious figures like More, Bonhoeffer, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, yet it’s hard to apply their leadership to a world so different from what they face. Yes, individuals like former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in New Mexico have paid prices in their careers for defending marriage, but we live still in a society of religious intolerance that has not (yet) reached the level of religious persecution.

For the average Christian in America today, we still get up each morning, go to work or school, and proceed through life’s activities in ways remarkably similar to non-Christians with some religious activities after work and on the weekends replacing yoga and book club. For the majority of us, life has not yet forced us into the binary choice between Christ and the world, and our religious upbringing reflects this profound reality. Growing up, I participated in numerous youth activities including praise and worship, community service programs, regular Church attendance, and Christian Awakening Retreats. The activities emphasized the importance of Christian community and our reliance on God, two lessons that are important. As I entered adult life, however, I was prepared by my upbringing to be a witness to Christ but not to actively place myself in positions that needed a witness to Christ. I could loudly proclaim that I was pro-life at the March for Life, but in the working world, my faith life was death by a thousand paper cuts. I didn’t want to alienate potential new friends or isolate myself from co-workers by discussing controversial topics where it wasn’t appropriate, but in the end excuses like these eventually isolated my faith life from my working life. Was the only way to truly live a religious life and hold a career to work for an organization that aligned with my views?

The lesson of St. Thomas More says that the answer to this question is a definite no. Many are called by God to the religious life, but the Church is in and of this world as it prepares us for the next, and for that it needs laymen, like More, to be servants of God and also dedicated workers for our businesses, schools, law firms, and city halls. To advance a truly pluralistic society, we have to be witnesses of Christ daily, not to lecture about Christianity (lectures have their own time and place) but to be present as Christians. In every action and interaction, our neighbors, friends, and citizens need to know that we are God’s servants through our dedicated work and charity. As St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” When opponents of those who defend marriage declare us hostes humani generis—enemies of the human race—they need to be reminded that we are their co-workers, roommates, neighbors, family members, and friends. We must not be sleeping; we must be present in the world to remind the world of the beauty of our faith and the legitimacy of our arguments.

Will our witnesses to Christ leave us vulnerable to suffering? Of course it will. As long as humans remain imperfect, any interaction with the world will leave us open to suffering. If we wait until just the right moment to be witnesses to Christ—whether it be after we graduate college, or just until we can get our foot into the door with that first job or big promotion—we will always have an excuse not to be witnesses to Christ. As More wrote in Utopia, “do the best you can to make the present production a success—don’t spoil the entire play just because you happen to think of another one that you’d enjoy rather more . . . for things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect.”

In the end, despite More’s example, only one bishop in England refused to submit to Henry VIII’s demands, More’s friend and fellow martyr St. John Fisher. May we not be caught sleeping when we are called to be witnesses to Christ and His teachings in our own time.

By / Jul 11

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

A.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But the problem is not just that belief is no longer the default, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualities being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Pray, Love. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the reheated leftovers of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God gets the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem, particularly for the Church’s public, moral witness.

Worship and Witness, Idolatry and Darkness

Upon arriving at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel learns that she was chosen as the special object of grace from among the nations to represent God before the nations as a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. This would happen both in the Lord’s loving care for her as well as in her worshipful obedience to the covenant commands (Exodus 19:4-6).  It’s no quirk of numerical happenstance that the command against idolatry comes at the head of the 10 Commandments, Israel’s instruction in the way of the Lord (Ex. 20:2-7). The people of God are to worship God alone–the rest of the commands are justified with respect to God’s name, character, and saving actions. Our obedience to them reflects a right knowledge of his holiness, love, and righteousness. At the core of biblical ethic is biblical worship, and at the core biblical worship is a biblical doctrine of God.

It is for this reason that Israel commanded not only to worship the true God, but to worship God in truth–in a manner consistent with his revealed character. This is precisely why they are not to make false images, either of wood and stone, or as J.I. Packer reminds us, the even more pliable material of cultural preference and psychological projection in the way Feuerbach (Knowing God, pg. 42). Misconstrue God and you’ll inevitably misconstrue and, eventually, rebel against his commands.

What’s more, the public character of the laws must be re-emphasized: the command came at the head of the national covenant charter, not only the private catechism. As Jewish scholars Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit note, the charge of idolatry in Israel was one with political and social implications, not simply personal, pietistic ones (Idolatry, pg. 234). Israel was not only to be a nation of pious individuals, but a nation that qua nation ordered its public life according to its understanding of God, the righteous king. A public confused about God, would inevitably fall into confusion, immorality, and chaos, adopting as its principles the death-dealing ways of foreign deities such as Chemosh and Molech, or the vitalistic, orgiastic cultural patterns of the Baals and Asherahs. As the Apostle Paul says, after idolatry comes the darkness (Romans 1).

We can see just this confusion at work in any number of disturbing trends in contemporary culture. Not thirty years ago, Oliver O’Donovan sketched out the implications of the loss of our concept Creator God in his brief, but penetrating analysis of the changing state of medical ethics in a technological society, Begotten or Made?. For O’Donovan, the crucial distinction between begetting or making, biological nature as given and raw material to be manipulated via technique, had become so distorted as to be non-existent. Blurring those lines across which no man ought pass has pitched us headlong into the moral confusion regarding superficially innocuous elective surgeries, abortion, and quite presciently transgender confusion. All of this stems from the more fundamental and culture-wide confusion between creature and Creator, nature and its Author.

Recovering An Engaging God

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14)

If the Church is going to have a word worth speaking into the culture, or indeed, the courage and wisdom to speak it in life-giving ways, she desperately needs to recover a vision of her sovereign, holy, loving, indeed, engaging God.

A weak doctrine of God, stripped of transcendence and holiness, leads to anemic public engagement. Without a transcendent, holy God who is Other and before all things, we naturally fall into the tendency to identify the movement of the Spirit with the progressive culture of the age. Instead of the divine, disruptive ruach, you get the zeitgeist, which was part of the problem with German, liberal Kultur-Protestantism. At the personal level, this is the God who never contradicts any of my impulses and urges; the God whose Spirit simply is my spirit. Or, trending in the opposing direction, the God who is not the concerned covenant Lord leaves us with the moralistic, therapeutic deism in which God is so detached from our everyday living as to not be concerned about these sorts of things.

In either case, why would the Church ever speak up? If her God makes no claims upon the world, or, in any case, not any really demanding ones, then what is there to witness about?

Alternatively, a view of the holiness of God conceived without love leads to the acerbic, compassionless, combativeness of the Javert-like moral crusader. Here we have a public witness, but it is a false one that betrays a distorted view of its great Subject. No, the holiness God is that of a burning, inconceivably pure love that, while provoked by sin, is ultimately salvific and gentle with the broken–a bruised reed he will not crush. The Holy One of Israel is a comforter and the rock upon which the weak, the widow, the orphan, and the powerless depend. Otherwise, the world will rightly shut its ears against the clanging gong of our loveless proclamation. Only when the Church knows the holy compassion of her God will she be able to speak, and indeed, live, in a way that is true to the forgiving, gracious One she recognizes as her Lord.

Theologians and ethicists cannot avoid doing business with their conception of God if they are to equip the Church to be an adequate witness in the world God has decided to save. Only a deep understanding of the God of the commands will ground our ability to preach, teach, and elucidate the commands of God to a culture deeply entrenched in idolatry. Even more, pastors, the resident theologians of the local church, need to preach deeply, robustly theocentric sermons that press our congregants beyond the dominant therapeutic modes of spirituality on offer.

Before the Church can pronounce, “Thus says the Lord” to the world, she must know how to joyfully exclaim “Behold your God!”