By / Dec 21

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

Four principles for wisdom and biblical fidelity

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

1. Understand the scope of Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Apply indirect commands analogically 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing wisdom, love, and grace

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

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

By / Sep 20

God is love. Christ demonstrated God’s love by laying down his life for us while we were still his enemies. Theology helps faith become understanding as we explore the details of this life-giving love in the doctrine of the atonement, which, as we study it, helps us be increasingly transformed into a loving people. Let’s consider what a theologically fueled love actually looks like. The combination of the biblical testimony and Christian wisdom seems to point toward a three-directional love—love of God, love of others, and a healthy love of self.

Love of God 

First John 4:19 tells us that the direction of our love for God and God’s love for us has a clear pattern: “We love because he first loved us.” In fact, the Scriptures teach us that God loved us even before the foundation of the world (Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:4–6). God’s love for us enables our love for God.

What’s more, in the contemplation of how God displayed his love for us, we might find the fuel needed to love God in return. It is the preeminent joy and responsibility of Christians to love God. As the greatest of all the commandments, we set our affections Godward, and our pilgrimage takes us from one degree of love to another for this God who has ransomed our wayward souls. 

Love of others 

In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis depicts the danger of loving another and the vulnerability that comes with it. 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Lewis is of course correct. To love our neighbor is a dangerous endeavor. Loving our neighbor often involves a necessary inconvenience, as we lay ourselves down for the good of our neighbor. It is often easier to love the idea of “mankind” without bothering to love our actual fellow man. Yet the chorus of “one another” commands in the New Testament—to love one another, look after one another, mourn with one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc.— demands that we actually step into the messy particularities of our neighbors’ lives.

While entering into the joys and burdens of our neighbors might be exhausting work, it is worthy work. Theology can help us. As we set our minds on how the Lord loves us wayward sinners, we find more than enough impetus to get out and love our neighbors. When our mind’s eye catches a gaze at just how great God’s love is for us, love will move us. Love will move Christians to adopt the fatherless, to feed the hungry, to nurse the sick, to pursue the lost, to insist on kindness, and to count our neighbor as more important than ourselves.

Love of self

I have a gravitational pull toward self-criticism and self-hatred. I’ve spent hours in prayer and in counseling rooms to work against the intense inward pull toward critical self-analysis, but it still resides within me. I know I’m not alone in this fight against the flesh. As a pastor, I’ve heard of countless Christians who struggle with self-worth and a healthy sense of self-love.

Of course, in our world it’s easy to take a nuanced and careful understanding of love for oneself and let it devolve into selfishness or self-centeredness. That error of pride is not what we are after here. Instead, there is a place in Christian wisdom for a healthy measure of love for yourself, and theology might be one tool we can use to pursue this form of Christian maturity. 

God created all things and called them “good,” but when God created man and woman, he called them “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Humans are made in the image of God, and by virtue of our Creator, there is something innately good about us. While sin has tarnished all we see and experience, and while our transgressions have taken much from us, our sin cannot take away our status as those who bear the image of our Creator. Moreover, the command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” implies that we have a healthy measure of self-love. Christians can grab hold of theology to gain a right-sized view of who they are—which is one riddled with sin and corruption but also one treasured and redeemed by God. In the tension of life as a sinner and a saint, there is a place for theologically informed love of self. 

Love, the leading virtue 

It was by no mistake that love leads the list of virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Love is central to both the great commandment and the Great Commission. In that one word—love—we see the fulfillment of the law. So then, while theology can lead to all the fruit of the Spirit, we are right to prioritize love. 

In Colossians 3, Paul exhorts us to “put on” compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. However, just one sentence later he writes, “Above all, put on love” (v. 14). Theology expands our minds; may it also enflame our hearts toward love. As Christians who love truth, may the life of the mind make its way into the life of our soul, helping us “put on love” in all we do.

Excerpted with permission from Fruitful Theology by Ronni Kurtz. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.

By / Sep 8

“You probably don’t have another book like this in your library” (9).

These are the words that open Patrick Schreiner’s new book, The Visual Word: Illustrated Outlines of the New Testament Books. And I suspect he’s right. The Visual Word stands alone in its uniqueness and, in many ways, its utility. The book is an achievement that gives modern-day Bible readers an aid, as Jen Wilkin writes, “in having not just ears to hear the Word in context, but also eyes to see.”

Schreiner, a professor of New Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of several books including The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross and The Ascension of Christ, teamed up with Anthony Benedetto, an accomplished and award-winning illustrator and designer, to produce this gripping resource.

If you are a Bible reader looking for a jolt to help energize and inform the way you apprehend the New Testament, take a look at this creative and beautiful accompaniment to the Scripture.

“What is this book?”

“For most of you this is not a typical book on the Bible” (10). 

Indeed, not only is this not a typical book on the Bible, it is not a typical book at all. While many works of contemporary theology are packaged in a sort of narrative format, tracing a logical route through the entire arc of their argument, The Visual Word is packaged not as narrative but as a collection of illustrated outlines covering each book of the New Testament. Thus, instead of being read straight through (though you can certainly do that), the book is meant to serve as a resource that sits next to one’s open Bible, illuminating the context of the Scriptures, enabling the reader to better comprehend and remember God’s Word.

Schreiner’s own experience as a seminary professor has been that many of his students have responded positively to the method that he and Benedetto employ in this book. When developing and using visual aids, he “could see things clicking in the students’ minds as they followed the author’s train of thought” with the help of his drawings (10). 

Fast-forward to today, and The Visual Word stands alone as a resource, a study tool, and a vivid and new way to interact with the final 27 books in the canon of Scripture. 

Who is this book for?

Who is The Visual Word for? In a word, everyone. 

In the introductory pages, Schreiner instructs his readers on the best ways to utilize this resource, from “church members and attenders” to “pastors” to “Sunday School teachers, lay Bible instructors, parents, and professors” to “students.” There are specific instructions and uses outlined for each group, but the common thread that ties each directive together is this: The Visual Word is for you. 

Regardless of where you find yourself, whether a young student or an experienced pastor, there is something within the pages of this book that will be of great benefit. Students, for instance, may find it useful to treat The Visual Word like a textbook (11), while many pastors may discover it’s helpful in their sermon preparation. Whatever the case, it is clear that anyone’s shelf this book occupies will be aesthetically enriched (it is a beautiful book, but more on that later). But more importantly, anyone’s Bible study accompanied by Schreiner’s and Benedetto’s labor in these illustrated outlines will be spiritually enriched.

Employing beauty and beholding beauty

One of the central themes of The Visual Word, though it goes largely unstated, is the idea and importance of beauty — the beauty plastered on each page of the book and the beauty of the Scriptures themselves. In a day of weakened attention spans and biblical illiteracy, “we need resources that help readers better understand Scripture,” yes, “but also that help readers love Scripture,” as Brett McCracken writes. And there is simply nothing more potent to awaken love than beauty. 

The icons and images illustrated by Benedetto do a masterful job of employing beauty for the sake of helping readers excavate and behold the beauty embedded in the Bible. As Schreiner writes early on, “Each book of the Bible contains a story. An argument. Like a symphony or a play, the Bible was not put together haphazardly but carefully designed to communicate something” (10). And that something, as Mike Reeves argues in Delighting in the Trinity, is “the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God” (9), and, I might add, the sacred text he has given to make himself known to us. 

One of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s most famous lines was his declaration that “beauty will save the world.” As Christians, we can go even further than Dostoevsky by saying that Beauty, himself, created the world, sustains the world, and will one day return to his world and make it right. And it takes an encounter with God’s beauty in Christ for us to come awake to this reality. 

To that end, Schreiner and Benedetto have pulled back the curtain of Scripture just a bit further — and done so beautifully — so that their readers can discover the beauty of God’s Word and encounter the beauty of God himself. 

By / Sep 6

Genesis 1 shows us that God created the world by working. After creating the world, God gave Adam and Eve the “Creation Mandate,” instructing Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and take dominion over it (Gen. 1:28). In this verse, God instituted work as a way for humans to care for creation and steward his gifts. 

Unfortunately, ever since the Fall, the relationship between people and work has been cursed and broken. One of the ways this is evident is in our view of work. Sin has led many of us to see work only as a means of self-fulfillment and individualism instead of a way to serve others. In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller claims that this view of work “crushes people . . . and undermines society itself.” 

As Keller points out, we must look to the Bible to reacquire a biblical view of work. Since Scripture discusses work often, I will focus on three of the major things the Bible says about work.

The Bible says work is part of God’s design for his creation

One common perspective today is that work is a necessary evil. Many people work simply to pay bills while waiting for the weekend, and they despise their jobs. There has been a big push to make life as easy as possible and avoid work. And though much of work is hard, cursed by humanity’s sin (Gen. 3), Keller argues that an avoidance view of work is self-destructive and harmful to society. To move away from an individualistic view of work, we must see how God’s Word demonstrates his good plan for work. 

God’s extensive use of work throughout Genesis shows us that it is part of God’s design for creation. Throughout Genesis 1, God works to craft the universe and declares it “good,” indicating that it’s exactly as he desires. Since all of creation is a direct result of God’s work, we know work is an integral part of creation. Additionally, the Creation Mandate occurs before the Fall. Thus, the introduction of sin did not introduce work; instead, it has affected work with difficulty and fruitless labor. The mandate from God also shows that we are not created merely for leisure and time spent in idleness. Rather, humanity was made to work, cultivate, and create. 

Remembering that work was given to us by God so that we could enrich his creation and reflect his nature is a critical part of renewing our minds and recovering a biblical view of work.

A pattern of work and rest is essential for our well-being

While God created us to work and take care of creation, he also showed that rest is necessary for us to flourish as humans. After working to create the world over six days, God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:1-3). Genesis 2:3 says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in Creation.” God sets the example by taking a rest day after creation, though, unlike us, he does not grow tired and weary (Is. 40:28). And in Exodus 20, he the Israelites to take a day of rest. In verses 8-11, God draws from his examples in creation and establishes the Sabbath as a day of total rest, dedicated to him. 

While we were created to work, we still need time to rest, worship God, and trust in his provision. Resting can counter the tendency many of us have to tie our identities to our work. In a culture such as ours where productivity and busyness are often our ways of defining success, the scriptures continually remind us that we are finite and must rest. Even Christ in his earthly body slept (Mark 4:38). The rhythm of rest and work structures our life and keeps us between the extremes of laziness or idleness on the one hand and frenetic activity on the other. Most importantly, a set pattern of work and rest in our lives teaches us to rest in our God and his work on our behalf. 

Work is a way to serve your community and spread the gospel

The Bible also commands us to use our work to serve others (Matt. 23:11). And Christians have been commanded to share the gospel and make disciples throughout the world (Matt. 28:19-20). God has called each of us into specific careers and paths, and our jobs are where we spend most of our time interacting with our community. This means, as Andy Mills has argued, that if we have a biblical view of work, we should be doing our work to the best of our ability so that what we produce can serve others and represent Christ well (Col. 3:23). Focusing on serving others with our work, advancing the kingdom, and glorifying God (1 Cor. 10:31) can break us out of the self-serving mindset that sees work just as a means of self-fulfillment and enrichment.

The Bible is clear that work is a good part of God’s plan for creation. Through our work, we steward God’s creation and serve our neighbors. At the same time, we weren’t created to work nonstop. God has established a rhythm of work and rest that we might know he is the source of our provision and strength. We can fight the sinful tendencies to despise our work and to use it as a means of individualistic self-enrichment by embracing it as a gift from God. May he strengthen us to work hard for his kingdom and to rest in his care.

By / Jun 14

The study of Christian ethics is an underdeveloped area within the evangelical tradition, as many of the resources on biblical ethics come from the Roman Catholic moral tradition. While this is an area that has seen a recent surge of interest in the last few decades, there are several older works that the church would do well to pick up and read with a discerning mind. One of these volumes, written in the 1950s, is Principles of Conduct by theologian John Murray. 

It may seem odd to look back at a past work on biblical ethics given the rapidly shifting culture all around the church today. But many of these works are not only prescient in their insights but remind today’s believers that the core of the Christian moral tradition remains unchanged from generation to generation. This is because the biblical witness and the metaphysical realities do not fluctuate with the passing winds of society.

John Murray spent nearly his entire teaching career at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught systematic theology from 1930 to 1966. He began his teaching career at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying under J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. He left Princeton after one year to help found Westminster Seminary. He is the author of numerous works, including Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and an exposition of Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament. 

Although the present volume is one of his only primary works on ethics, originally delivered as the 1955 Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary, Murray serves as a seasoned and experienced model of Christian ethics, offering readers a robust biblical ethic that is refreshingly grounded in God’s Word and focused on the “goodness, purity, and holiness” that flows from a life lived in pursuit of godliness (11). 

The biblical ethic

Murray’s work is primarily organized around the creation ordinances of marriage (the sexual union) and labor before shifting to the sanctity of life (focusing primarily on the death penalty, warfare, and seeking justice as a society) and truth-telling (lying, social order, and Jesus as the Truth). These topics are followed by chapters on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the relationship of law and grace, and the dynamic of the biblical ethic and the fear of God. The 1957 volume also contains four appendices on various scriptural questions and two essays on slavery in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and antinomianism. 

One of the most striking features of the book comes at the outset. The subtitle of the book is Aspect of Biblical Ethics. But almost immediately, Murray states that his goal is “to show the basic unity and continuity of the biblical ethic” (7, emphasis mine). This shift from the plural to the singular biblical ethic is strategic because he is focused on showing readers that there is a single ethic that arises from the biblical text, not multiple truths or conflicting accounts. This ethic not only considers the individual, but he states that there is a “corporate responsibility and there is corporate action” (13). This action flows from Scripture, which does not solely focus on the individual’s heart or relationship with God, but also on the corporate nature of the church and society.

This work was heavily influenced by Geerhardus Vos and the biblical theology movement. Vos’ 1954 work, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, significantly shaped Murray, as well as his approach to ethics. His stated goal is to apply the biblico-theological methods to the ethic of Scripture (7). Murray agrees with Vos that biblical theology is the “process of self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” Vos is highlighted throughout the volume as Murray dissects various themes and passages in Scripture, building this biblical ethic. For Murray, the Bible has an organic unity of divine revelation “of which the Bible itself is the depository” (9). The sum of this revelation is found in the greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Murray states at the beginning that the people of God are commanded to love God and love neighbor, which speaks to the deontological focus of Murray’s understanding of the biblical ethic. This theme is reiterated throughout the volume and featured prominently again near the end where Murray reminds readers that these commands have often “been used (we should say abused) as vague generalizations to conceal antipathy to the particulars of divine demand which these commandments require us to fulfill” (227). This two-fold emphasis on the actual text of Scripture and the pursuit of godliness is foundational to Murray’s entire work and serves as one of the primary strengths of the volume.

While Murray does not touch on some of the moral modern moral issues we have become accustomed to seeing in books on ethics, the principles he articulates are directly applicable to today’s complexities. For example, his emphasis on truth in chapter 6 is directly applicable today given the rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation with the ubiquity of social media and digital communication today. The church would do well to heed the biblical ethic charted by Murray as we seek to apply the timeless truths of Christianity to the important matters of today.

Foundational truths

One of Murray’s primary concerns for the church and her moral witness is shown in how he models a robust, biblical, and theological foundation especially in regard to the relationships of law and grace, epitomized in how many pit the Old and New Testaments against one another in some formulations of Christian ethics. Murray sees this move as a misunderstanding springing from a misinterpretation of Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14, which may lead some to create a false division between the Mosaic economy and covenant in relation to the new covenant found in the New Testament. (195) Murray focused this debate over law and grace on the fulfillment of the law in Christ, as well as on the constant call toward a life of godliness for the believer and by extension the entire church. He brilliantly states, “the fear of God is the soul of godliness,” which encapsulates the biblical ethic he models of seeing God as the center of the Christian life and the Scriptures as divine revelation calling God’s people to live in light of the gospel in every aspect of their lives. (229) Grace doesn’t free us from obligation, but nor does duty bring about salvation.

While this robust and thoroughly biblical volume is a testament to Murray’s own teaching career, one area of weakness is that the volume lacks a substantive discussion of the imago Dei and its implications on the biblical ethic, even though the concept of human dignity is prevalent throughout the work. Opening the book with the biblical ordinances would have been even more forceful had he set a foundation of the value of each human being as created in God’s image. As mentioned, human dignity is touched on numerous times in the work, but Murray doesn’t delve into the doctrine or show how it functions within the biblico-theological storyline. Though this omission could be based on how Murray seeks to stick to the biblical theological thread since the Bible does not spend considerable amounts of time on the doctrine even though, based on creation, it undergirds the entirety of the biblical ethic.

Overall, Murray’s volume on the biblical ethic is a classic text within the Reformed moral and ethical tradition for good reason. While he doesn’t address every particular issue of Christian ethics, he lays a solid foundation, grounded in God’s unchanging word and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures unlike many modern treatments of Christian ethics which tend to be organized around issues but lack an in-depth exposition of the Scriptures themselves. He does not simply apply Scripture to ethical debates but rather walks through the text showing their ethical value and calling upon God’s people to pursue a life of godliness. Murray’s ultimate vision for Christians ethics is that “the ethics of the bible reflect the character of God,” thus God’s people are to seek to become more like God as his unique image bearers as they follow him. (202)

By / Aug 12

This week RNS reported that the organization Young Life is facing pressure to overturn its policies on sexual conduct. For those unfamiliar with Young Life’s ministry, the organization exists to reach students in middle school, high school, and college. It also does specific outreach to teen moms, those with special needs, and young adults in military families And according to their website, Young Life is presently doing ministry in all 50 states and in more than 90 countries. 

Christians and sexuality

As a Christian ministry, Young Life has always embraced the tradition of biblical sexual ethics to which the church has held for nearly two millennia. But recently, the organization’s views and policies related to sexuality have come under scrutiny for excluding individuals identifying as LGBT. Though the policy is not publicly available, a copy obtained by RNS confirms that Young Life’s sexual conduct policy, which applies to staff members, “explicitly prohibits any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.”

At the center of this controversy is the question of whether those who reject Young Life’s positions on sexuality should be eligible for employment with the organization. The RNS story opens by highlighting two individuals who recently worked for Young Life but had their employment terminated for conduct that violates the organization’s sexual conduct policy. In this case, both individuals are homosexual. After sharing their stories on social media about the way their service with Young Life ended, one of them used the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife.

Since then, the #DoBetterYoungLife hashtag has gained considerable traction online. In addition to spawning multiple social media accounts and prompting hundreds of individuals to share stories of exclusion and pain related to their sexual identity or orientation, perhaps the most significant result of this movement has been a petition launched on Change.org that has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures calling for Young Life to repeal its sexual conduct policy and make other changes.

A complicated reality

Anyone taking the time to investigate can recognize that this is a complicated and multifaceted situation. The men and women speaking out on social media—many of whom are very young—are sharing stories of deep pain and hurt they’ve experienced as a result of being excluded or marginalized in various ways. These stories are moving and emotional and sad. Not only that, but many are marked by obvious sincerity.

At the same time, there is no real question about what Young Life should do, at least in terms of the substance of its policy. Young Life’s views on sexuality are, after all, not really Young Life’s views on sexuality. For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well. And these things are not ancillary to the Christian life, but central to what it means to faithfully follow Christ. For Young Life, and for any Christian organization, obedience to Scripture and fidelity to the Christian tradition requires that they maintain their prohibition on any kind of sexual activity beyond the bounds of heterosexual marriage.

For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well.

It has barely been five years since the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But in intervening years, society’s attitudes toward homosexuality and LGBT rights have continued to shift rapidly. So much so, that it seems we’ve reached the tipping point where, in many cases, failing to affirm same-sex marriage and expanded protections for LGBT individuals is now likely to bring forth rejection and scorn and potentially even more significant consequences. And this is the reality Young Life is facing.

The RNS article cited a statement from Young Life’s president, Newt Crenshaw, responding to the situation which indicated the organization would be taking steps to review the stories of current and former Young Life members who had “experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.” Speaking as an outsider, I think this is obviously a commendable step for Young Life. Even when policies are substantially correct (as Young Life’s policy on sexual conduct assuredly is), there is still ample opportunity to address any means by which the policy may have been poorly implemented and to plan to better address such matters going forward.

Compassion and conviction

Though I’ve never personally been involved in Young Life, I know a number of people whose lives and faith were shaped in a profound and lasting way through the organization’s ministry. Moreover, it is clear that those who have spoken out about the hurt and pain they’ve experienced are often doing so as former insiders—those who’ve experienced the rich, loving community that Young Life creates for the thousands of students they minister to each year. That kind of love and community motivated by the gospel is the focal point of Young Life’s ministry; it is critical that they find a way to continue to model that for future generations without surrendering their core beliefs.

Young Life is not alone among Christian organizations thinking through ways they might better respond and minister to those whose sexual identity or orientation run contrary to the sexual ethics of Scripture. As Christian leaders seek to navigate these challenges, they should consider how they might imitate Jesus who was known for the tremendous compassion he showed toward those who were hurting or on the margins. Jesus was never guilty of compromise, nor was he ever bereft of compassion.

The church should be known as a community that loves and welcomes people, regardless of what kind of past, or baggage, or identity they might have. And loving and welcoming people includes what happens in our church buildings as well as the various kinds of ministries we create. Christians don’t have to back away from what the Bible says in order to love people as people and to point them to the hope, healing, and restoration that is available to them in Jesus. 

All of us should pray for Young Life’s leadership as they seek to address these matters in the days ahead and make whatever corrections are appropriate. And each of us can strive to care for those who are hurting even as we hold fast the things the church has always believed.

By / Jul 13

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib writes that America, in one of the most tumultuous years in its history, is suffering from a “goodwill deficit.” This is, he says, “a growing tendency to see those with whom you disagree as not merely wrong, but evil. There is a diminishing willingness to believe that the person on the other side of the debate—any debate—is well intentioned.”

You’ve probably experienced this as you scroll your social media timeline or even in conversations (probably text or Zoom these days) with friends. There is a temptation for us to think that the “other side” is not just crazy, but dangerous. And every day there is ample evidence to suggest that perhaps this thesis is right. Daily, our news intake is curated in such a way that we get fresh reminders of the extremes from either the left or the right. 

I happen to be conservative, so my bent leads me to view liberals with suspicion and my own “side” as perfectly reasonable. It’s harder to see the darker impulses when it is wrapped in political philosophy I tend to affirm. But this kind of bias—this wanting to believe the best about my team and believe the worst about the other team—doesn’t just affect our politics. It seems to be affecting the way we see others who disagree with us theologically, or perhaps those who belong to other tribes. 

What’s more, our sources of information and the communications platforms we use often incentivize this kind of zero-sum outlook. Social media companies prize attention and engagement, which requires conflict. Media organizations need sensationalism and clickbait in order to get eyeballs and advertising and subscriptions. And the way to get ahead, to build an audience, is to be provocative. 

A Christian way to speak

But should Christians engage this way? Scripture gives us quite a bit of guidance on the way we should conduct ourselves, the way we use words, and how we treat those with whom we disagree. On the one hand, public polemics and courageous speech is encouraged, almost required, of a follower of Jesus. Paul urges Timothy, over and over again, to stand fast, stand up, to courageously defend the truth. Peter, writing to the first-century church, exhorts them to stand fast in the face of opposition. And in the Upper Room, Jesus warned his disciples that to follow him would lead to persecution and death. 

There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe.

And yet the disciple of Jesus is called to a certain kind of otherworldly gentleness. In every single list of qualifications for Christian leadership, Paul lists gentleness. Sometimes he even warns against brawling and being quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24). Peter urged God’s people to clothe their polemics in gentleness and kindness (1 Pet. 3:15). Neither of these men were known for their cowardice; both died martyrs’ deaths. 

So we should speak the truth in love. There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe. But what does that look like in a digital age, when the means of publishing our opinions are so quick and easy, with a few taps of the thumb? Some advocate leaving social media platforms all together, and perhaps that’s wise for some. But the Internet is here to stay. We are not going back to 1950. 

So, how can we can apply Scripture to the way we engage online? 

1. Be slow to speak: First, we should follow James 1:19 and be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Before we retweet or post that story that confirms our worst ideas about those with whom we disagree, we might get the whole story, wait a day, or not say anything at all. Regardless of what anyone says, we are not required to speak on every topic all the time on every platform. 

2. Be measured: Second, we might consider how we want to speak and ask ourselves how our words might be misunderstood. 

3. Be accountable: Third, we might ask a friend or two before we post. I have found it helpful to have a text thread of close friends where I can try out my hottest takes. Thankfully most of that never sees the public. Community and accountability are helpful. 

4. Be reasonable: Perhaps, most importantly, we should consider Philippians 4 which urges us to “let [our] graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Some translations render this, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The idea of being reasonable seems so out of fashion. Love, however, requires us to strive to be reasonable. 

Writing to a warring congregation of Corinthians, Paul says that love “believes all things.” Love requires the benefit of the doubt. It demands that we not see the worst in that person we disagree with. This is not a natural impulse for sinners. It’s a supernatural impulse and something God has to do in us. But it’s sorely needed in our world. 

Sadly there is very little of this even in the church. When controversies arise or when someone misspeaks, there seems to be a digital mob waiting to proclaim their own self-righteousness and heap public scorn. It seems we get up every day ready to cancel someone, to remind the world of how much better and more righteous we are then them. Before we know it, with a few keystrokes, we’ve joined a digital mob. 

There is a better way. The way of love. This doesn’t mean we never engage in meaningful public debates. This doesn’t mean we don’t write public polemics. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold the powerful accountable. But we should resist the urge to cancel, to hurt, and to crush. The people on the other side of our screens are not avatars, but human beings. They are not the sum total of their one bad tweet. They have families who might one day Google their names. 

There is a lot we cannot control about our troubled world and the polarization that grips the nation. But what we can do is show a bit of love and reasonableness when we engage online. We can pause before we post. And we might consider that we are not always as right as we think we are.  

Check out Daniel’s new book, A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.

By / Aug 24

Randall Goodgame teaches parents how to engage their kids with the message of the Gospel through music, and explains why creative outlets such as art and music can be effective tools to build a Gospel-centered family. 

By / Aug 4

We live in a time of cultural disintegration. Not just America, but the entire Western world is jettisoning the wisdom of the ages and striving to remake the world after our own image. And, unsurprisingly, the fundamental arena in which this cultural unraveling is playing out is that of sexuality.

Given the breakneck pace of the change before us, we Christians have struggled to know precisely how to respond. The responses that tend to attract much of the media attention have to do with court cases, legal briefs, legislation, and elections. But in and through all of these legitimate responses, we Christians must labor to revive the moral imagination of this country, and especially of the young people who are casualties and victims of the sexual revolution. This revival of the moral imagination is not first an imposition of Christian morality on a pagan and secular society. After all, if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that imposing law on a wicked people only gives them more creative ways to sin. And in saying this, I don’t mean in any way to reject the legal and political battles being waged to preserve what we can through law and social policy; it’s simply a recognition that, apart from a revival of a moral (and specifically biblical) imagination, such political efforts can only be a part of a slow retreat. Laws and policies play a crucial role in shaping culture (for good and for ill), but they are insufficient for preserving and promoting the godliness and health of society. For that, the imagination must be converted.

Such a conversion and revival of the moral imagination must begin with the church of Jesus Christ. As Peter reminds us, judgment always begins at the household of God. So what would such a revival of a robustly Christian moral imagination look like?

It would start with anointed preaching of the whole counsel of God. We cannot export what we don’t have, and therefore, our minds and hearts must be shaped by Scripture—by its stories, its precepts, its warnings, and its promises. We must train our imaginations to run in biblical ruts, allowing the narratives of Scripture to exert a formative pressure on our understanding of ourselves and the story we find ourselves in. The Word of God remains living and active, and the task of pastors and preachers is to unleash it through faithful and timely proclamation.

Second, the church’s response to such preaching should begin with our own sincere repentance. For example, we ought to recognize that most of the damage done to the institution of marriage in our society was inflicted by heterosexuals (including professing Christians) through rampant divorce, marital bitterness, and repressed frustration in ostensibly Christian families. Expecting the broader culture to conform to God’s standards when half the church is neck deep in all kinds of sexual foolishness is a classic example of putting carts before horses. Paul has some pretty harsh words for those who berate idolaters while robbing their temples (Rom. 2:17ff). When the salt loses its taste, God throws it out in the street so that it’s trampled underfoot. And the only way to restore saltiness is through receiving the grace of God in heartfelt repentance and faith.

Third, we must seek to bear fruit in keeping with that repentance. Such fruit-bearing begins by demonstrating some antithesis, by actually being a City on a Hill. Let there be a clear and evident difference between marriages and families inside and outside the church. We need strong, sacrificial husbands, who take responsibility for their capable, godly wives, who joyfully submit to their strong, godly husbands, as they together seek to gladly spend themselves that their children may hope in God. Words about the sanctity and centrality of marriage ring hollow when they are not issuing from happy and hopeful families. This means, among other things, that we must take a lesson from the Proverbs 31 woman and “laugh at the time to come.” The short-term prospects for our culture may be bleak, but we’re reminded daily that light follows darkness like that’s its job, as if Someone was preaching a resurrection sermon with every sunrise.

Fourth, faithful preaching of the Scriptures, sincere repentance of our sins, and careful removal of the logs protruding from the eyes of our own families must be part and parcel of the cultivation of glad-hearted, confident, and sacrificial churches. When the church is under assault, one of the central temptations is to complain, murmur and shriek about our plight, as though we could bring down the gates of Hades by our shrillness. Fighting the good fight is essential, particularly when it comes to defending the unborn and preserving the family for the good of children. What’s more, when an onerous and overbearing state insists that we trample our consciences and join them in their hell-bound handbasket, we ought to quote Peter’s words about obeying God and not men and then use every legitimate means to demolish strongholds, topple lofty thoughts and expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness.

But we must always endeavor to winsomely wage culture war, to fight as those whose feet are firmly planted on a Rock that is unshaken by Gallup polls, HHS mandates, or Supreme Court decisions. Fighting from fear and anxiety, besides being tacky, is ineffective. Instead, when we take stock of the present situation and see all of those slopes getting slipped, we remember that we are standing on a mountain that the prophet Daniel says will grow until it fills the whole earth. Which means we are free to gladly and cheerfully sacrifice our time, treasure, and reputations (and some day soon, perhaps, more than that) for the good of fellow believers and for the salvation of the lost and perishing in the world.

In all of this, we must remember that our responsibility, whether at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or in our churches, is not to singlehandedly change the culture. Instead God is calling us to be faithful at our post, to be faithful where God has planted us. When confronted with the depravity and brokenness that is endemic and multiplying in God’s world, the main question that you should ask is this: What is God requiring of me now? What is right in front of my face that God is calling me to do?

The centrality of faithfulness in little cannot be overstated. Too often, my concern for the advancement of the gospel in the world turns into an attempt to coordinate heavenly troop movements, to treat the culture war like it’s a game of Risk and I’m perched on a balcony on one of Saturn’s moons. In short, it’s easy to try and usurp Christ’s place as the reigning King who is subduing his enemies under his feet (and ours). But the burden of running the cosmos does not fall on my shoulders. The burden of managing my household well does. The crying need of the hour is for millions of Christians to realize that their primary contribution in the culture war may be reading bedtime stories to their children, dating their spouse, and looking for opportunities to cheerfully, sacrificially, and practically love their neighbors. It’s almost impossible to quantify the potency of simple faith and obedience, but let’s just say that it was that sort of thing that has brought more than one godless culture to its knees.

Finally, we must pray. We must pray for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the world and a release from God’s chastening judgment. Rebellious blindness holds sway in so many places in this world. And so we plead with God to lift his judgment and unleash his storehouses of mercy. And we pray confidently with the knowledge that, if he so chooses, God could drown the world in grace.