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A Pentecostal Theology of Sickness

As Pentecostals we talk a lot about healing. Or, at least we used to. But that talk often went awry. It far too frequently tended toward the hyper-faith movement wherein the sovereignty of God became subject to the faith of the afflicted (thereby rendering the terms “sovereignty” and “faith” innocuous). But rarely have we articulated a theology of sickness with distinctly Pentecostal themes. And that is shortsighted.

Theologies of healing have historically had close ties to the atonement, especially Isaiah 53:5, “By his wounds we are healed.” The Messianic passages in Isaiah in which this verse is found though clearly emphasizes healing from our sins, a point sometimes overlooked by Pentecostals. That said, the more holistic theology that sees physical healing as included in salvation was from very early on embedded in the notion of the four-fold gospel emphasizing Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier (or Spirit Baptizer), Healer, and Coming King.

But what might a Pentecostal theology of sickness look like? And what value might such a theology have to a uniquely Pentecostal understanding of faith?

First, without such a theology, the Bible’s teaching on healing miracles can lead to the misplaced expectation that God always heals those who are sick. And if He doesn’t, then the fault (as mentioned above) lies squarely at the feet of the faithless. I remember when my mother-in-law was gravely ill a few years ago, just before she died. A near-constant string of Pentecostal preachers, evangelists, and plain church folk showed up at her house and, after praying, more than one declared emphatically that her sickness would not end in death. All she had to do was believe it and “take hold of it.” Well, her sickness did end in death, in some cases days after she was told emphatically it wouldn’t, and yet few people I’ve ever known had more faith or trust in Jesus than my mother-in-law.

Second, and more positively, a theology of sickness, like a theology of suffering (and I’d argue they are very closely related), helps us to have a more balanced expectation about what a life of faith might look like for some. That is, it might keep us from an overly romanticized vision of what it means to be a Christ follower. This matters because a romanticized vision of anything is sure to produce not only disappointment, but ultimately despair.

That said, I’d like to propose that a theology of sickness matters in two ways. It matters for the sick and for those in the church called to care for them. And by the latter, I mean everyone who considers themselves a true disciple. It is especially interesting to me that in a 3rd century discipleship document known as the Apostolic Tradition, candidates for baptism are to be examined to see if they (among other things) regularly visit the sick. Care for the sick was thus a primary criteria for determining if a person’s commitment to Christ was genuine. Imagine what a thinning might occur in our churches were we to return to this practice!

So what then might be the value of a theology of sickness for those who are sick? If we use the four-fold gospel as our paradigm, then I would argue that first, sickness or physical affliction drives us back to the first (and foundational) Christological truth, that Jesus is our Savior. It simultaneously drives us forward in eschatological (end-times) hope.

In our hpyer-materialistic and overly self-indulgent culture, it is easy to reduce Jesus to being a mere ornament of our faith. We commemorate Him with our cross necklaces and earrings, with fish emblems on our cars, and with nativity sets that we drag out at Christmas. But maybe we are not always as conscious as we should be that we are saved by Him, that through His shed blood our lives are redeemed from death. And sickness I think has a way of shocking us out of our apathy about that. It reminds us what salvation means. It doesn’t mean anything resembling that ever-so-common prosperity gospel “your best life now” nonsense, but maybe your hardest life now, your most trying life now, your most struggle-constant life–because your life now is a shadow of your life that is to come. Yes, to be saved is to have our present radically transformed and often for the better. But its essence is not our physical well-being but our grounding in who Christ is.

To put it another way, in light of the fourfold gospel, a theology of sickness can ground us more deeply in Christ as both Savior and as Coming King, giving a much needed balance to our understanding of Christ as healer. If our understanding of healing is not book-ended by Christ’s salvation and by His return and ultimate victory, then any theology of healing might too easily reduce God to little more than a benevolent vending machine in the sky.

Sickness sometimes helps focus our attention in laser-like fashion on the things that really matter. It moves us out of the dreary routinization of our faith, the going through the motions to which we are so easily susceptible. It reminds us of the goodness of work and the limits of work, both in relation to the kingdom and in relation to our own satisfaction. Few people on their deathbed wish they had spent more time behind the desk and less time knee deep in Legos with their child.

But these are not the most important reasons for a theology of sickness. Sometimes sickness produces in us the very opposite of these things. Sometimes it leads us to a thousand questions about God and his goodness and his providential care for us. Sometimes it produces not greater faith but rampant fear. Sometimes what sickness creates in us is something more frightening than the sickness itself because its something we never knew we were capable of, at least not for a long time now. We thought we had moved beyond this!

And so perhaps they key to a Pentecostal theology of sickness is simply mystery: the mystery of the divine revealed sometimes in pleasure (healing) and sometimes in pain (sickness). Because sickness does not always lead to revelation any more than it always results in healing and a happy ending. Sometimes it produces questions that never get answered. And the more deeply we are grounded in Christ’s salvation and in His return, the more ok I think we become with that mystery.

Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

In her latest book Jesus and John Wayne, Calvin University history professor Kristen Kobes Du Mez makes a depressingly solid case for how we arrived at this historical moment that includes self-proclaimed Evangelicals storming the U. S. Capitol building on Jan. 6th. In fact, given recent events, the book seems extraordinarily prescient, in a prophetically tragic sort of way.

Du Mez argues that Christian nationalism amounts not to an aberration within evangelicalism broadly, but rather has been intentionally propagated for decades by a host of voices from within. This brand of Christian nationalism centers on male-dominated, sexist, patriarchal, militant patriotism that readily confuses a very particular vision of the nation (with a contrived and revisionist history) with the very essence of the gospel itself. And the pervasive symbol of this hyper-masculine, largely Caucasian, and often abusive form of Christianity, was none other than the womanizing, heavy drinking actor, John Wayne (note: I had assumed when I first picked up the book that John Wayne functioned as something of a metaphor for evangelical machismo. I was shocked to learn how frequently and overtly the connection actually shows up). Evangelical support for a Casino owning, womanizing, and downright vulgar candidate like Donald Trump thus was not an anomaly, but the inevitable result of an Evangelicalism that for decades framed itself (or rather framed the manliness of its men) as the last great hope of a nation and the nation as the last great hope of the faith.

Positively, the book is extremely well-researched and the arguments built on stacks and stacks of concrete examples (so much so, the reader is left feeling a bit sorry for Dr. Du Mez and her research assistants for having to actually read and digest all the keyboard punching that passes for evangelical literature). But it is the sheer breadth of research that makes her case so compelling. As someone who locates myself somewhere in that strange intersection between Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, I had been attuned to the discipleship crisis, to all too-pervasive toxic leadership, and to widespread Christian nationalism, but until reading this book I had no idea what deep trouble we are really in. And yes, this is a positive quality of the book because we cannot begin to dig out of our current predicament, we cannot begin to work toward a better future until we acknowledge and have a serious reckoning (and repentance) with our sordid past.

Negatively, one reads Jesus and John Wayne and is left thinking that perhaps evangelicals are wholly without a single redeeming quality. I found myself wishing that Du Mez had balanced her critique with some of the good that evangelicals do, such as the millions they give to charitable causes, the sacrifices that many evangelical missionaries make to share the gospel in very dangerous places, their sometimes flawed but well-intended compassionate outreach, and perhaps, the ways in which a new generation of conservative Christians seem less prone to these errors than were their parents. But perhaps now is not the time, nor this the work, for self-congratulatory back slapping. We’ve done enough of that and some of it has landed us in the perilous position we are in. So, in the end, I think Du Mez’s instincts were right on.

I hope everyone who considers themselves an Evangelical will read this book. More importantly, I hope those who read it will join together in working for a better future.

Finding Our Way Back

The events of this past week weigh heavy on my heart, not only for the destruction and violence that took place, but for the way that many framed their actions with references to the cross and to Jesus. As Kimberly Winston reported,

  • The Christian flag, an ecumenical white flag with a blue field and a red Latin cross, was carried by one rioter on to the floor of the House of Representatives even as guns were drawn to keep them out;
  • At least two flags featuring the icthys, the outline of a fish adopted by early Christians;
  • An American flag altered to read “Make America Godly Again” on its white stripes;
  • A white flag with a green pine tree and the words “An Appeal to Heaven;”
  • And blowing prominently in the foreground as the mob kicked in a Capitol door was a red, white and blue flag that proclaimed, “Jesus is my savior” and “Trump is my President” on either sides of an elongated American flag.

Armed with pipe bombs and firearms, these terrorists wrapped their efforts in Christianity and country, or, what is otherwise known as Christian nationalism. This amounts to a syncretistic form of faith, conflating the goals of the gospel with aspirations of a nation. But it’s more than that. Its not just a vision for a godly America. Christian Nationalism is a vision for the United States that is theocratic, patriarchal, and willing to violently defend an ideal that has never really existed except in the minds of some proponents.

The effects of Christian nationalism were on full display this week, and to anyone paying attention, it is nothing short of idolatry: the idolatry of a nation, the idolatry of a way of life, the idolatry of self, over and in distinct contrast to Jesus’ call to surrender and to lay down our lives and be willing to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. In short, the reality of a gospel-centered life and the ideas of Christian nationalism stand diametrically opposed to one another.

So, how do we overcome this corrupted version of the gospel so many have bought into and find our way back to the kind of sacrificial and humble servanthood that Christ calls us to? How do we rediscover the power of loving our neighbor and abandon the false power promised by political ideologies?

I have a few suggestions.

  1. Stop being afraid. I believe that fear is the number one driver of all this: Fear of losing our rights, fear of the United States slipping further into moral decay, fear of losing the power inherent in being in the majority, fear of an uncertain future. But fear should never be a primary quality of God’s people for it is the very antithesis of faith. If we truly believe in the sovereignty of God, if we believe in all His promises, if we believe in heaven, then we should know that this world is not our home and whatever we have here is already passing away whether we know it or not. It is all temporal. But it will also one day be made new. The longer we live in fear of what we might lose if things don’t go our way, the more militantly we fight for things we should have already surrendered to Christ.
  2. Practice the fruit of the Spirit. When I look at the church in the public square today, I often wonder, where is evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our public engagement? Where are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? We need to be a people who pray every day that these qualities above all others would be evident in our lives. For too many Christians today, these are absent. And before you say to yourself, “yeah, I know somebody who needs do a better job of this!”—ask yourself if you are doing a very good job of displaying these. I know I need to do better. If someone were to ask all of your friends and everyone you interact with on social media what qualities immediately come to mind when they think of you, would they list any of these? Would they say that your top qualities are love, joy peace, patience, gentleness? Or would they say that your chief qualities are combativeness, contentiousness, argumentativeness, divisiveness, and anger? It is time to repent and let go of our political talking points and stop defending our favorite politicians at all costs and start becoming the kind of people Christ by his Spirit wants to transform us into.
  3. Be more self-critical and acknowledge our mistakes. A handful of Christian leaders like Beth Moore, Russell Moore (no relation), Brian Fikkert, and a few others have steadily and constantly denounced Christian support of a President that we all knew from day one was morally bankrupt. But too many convinced themselves that it was worth it as long as he stood for the unborn, gave us conservative justices on the Supreme Court and defended religious liberty. Those who warned us told us that we would pay a price for embracing someone whose character was so deeply flawed. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham tweeted in 2016, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed….and we will deserve it.” Yet, later, he became one of Trumps most constant supporters. The problem in all of this is that many within the church, just like Graham, convinced themselves that the ends justify the means. As long as we get what we want, it doesn’t matter how we get there. The folly of that decision played out on live TV this week in the horror show that unfolded on the US capitol. Now, instead of digging in our heals and piling folly on top of folly, lie on top of lie, its time to admit the errors we made, repent and pray that we will be more sensitive to God’s Spirit in the future. We need to admit when we are wrong.
  4. Be relentless in our pursuit of truth. What saddens me more than anything in all of this is that so many in the church are continuing to deny reality and floating more conspiracy theories and spreading more lies because they refuse to acknowledge that they made a mistake. We have to do better. We have to stop living in echo chambers in which we are only ever exposed to ideas we agree with. We have to consider that even those we support and voted for are not perfect and can be guilty of heinous crimes. We have to be so committed to the truth that we will follow it wherever it leads because to do otherwise is to abandon the Lordship of Christ, who Himself is the way, the truth, and the life.
  5. We need an encounter with God. We need to come together in humble repentance for our own sins and for the sins of our nation. We need to cry out to God from the very depths of our being that he would sanctify us and show us the error of our ways more clearly. We need the transforming power and presence of God to be manifest in such a powerful way that there is no chance that we walk away trusting in anything more than we trust in God.

I don’t write any of these things because I have any illusions that I have it all figured out or that I am somehow immune from these critiques. I too need to do better. But for the sake of the church, we have to figure this out. We cannot continue on the path that we are on if we want to reach the world for Christ. Our witness has suffered during the last 4 years because of the things we have lent our voices to and because of the things about which we have remained silent. And we cannot preach the gospel if we have been muted by our own sins. We cannot reach the lost with the hope of Christ if we place too much trust in political systems. We need to rediscover our prophetic bent and to do that we need to embrace the downward mobility of a life of service, surrender, and sacrifice. We need to decrease so that He may increase.

Loving God and Neighbor During a Pandemic: Some thoughts on Christian compassion

I recently pushed back against a viral video making the rounds on Facebook suggesting that Hydroxychloroquine was either a cure or universal treatment for COVID-19. In retrospect, I wish I had done something more productive, like binge-watching a whole season of The Great British Baking Show.
In my response, I made a couple of main points, that I wish to elaborate on here, because they seem to have been lost in the shuffle and I continue to be accused of all sorts of things from being grossly naive about various secret global conspiracies to being incompetent and ill-informed about how research works.
I’m not really concerned with the personal attacks. I can take it. But I am concerned that my main points have been lost or obscured, and it is these that I am convinced are deeply rooted in a biblical worldview. So, let me reiterate those points here.
1. I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE for hydroxychloroquine to shown (empirically) to be a safe and effective treatment, for early stage patients or for anyone for that matter. I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not a scientist or medical doctor though and I am thoroughly convinced that on this I need to stay in my lane and not share information that could endanger the public. And many of those sharing the viral video were doing just that. They were discouraging wearing masks and discouraging social distancing as though these were part of some vast conspiracy. Sharing a post that expresses hope for hydroxy to be a cure…I’m all for it. But wrap that hope in fearmongering and a political agenda, and we’ve suddenly moved from a concern for public health, which is a big part of loving our neighbor, to spreading potentially dangerous misinformation that could do the very opposite.

So, what can we share that is responsible? Share news about studies that show promise, like this one sent to me by a friend in Africa this morning. It was a study I had not seen and seems to suggest that my reservations about hydroxy may be misplaced. I hope they were:

https://www.henryford.com/news/2020/07/hydro-treatment-study#.XyPwrkQv_Rw.gmail

This seems to offer some positive affirmation of hydroxy as an effective treatment and I’m all for it. This is far more helpful than the often-shared Newsweek opinion piece, because it represents genuine research.

But we also should be careful to not say more than the scientific and medical communities are saying, and they are saying a lot, and a good bit of it points in the opposite direction. This information for example, is likewise important for people to know:
https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-treatment-clinical-data-on-hydroxychloroquine-in-covid-19-2020-4

It shows that many studies offering positive results have methodological flaws and this should be factored in when and if we present this data. Or, we need to balance the above study with things like this sent to me by a medical doctor and former colleague in Africa. The scientist who made this post rightly raises the question of why so much popular support for hydroxy, and not for other drugs that show equal or more promise? Could it be our political agendas and hopes that the president will be vindicated rather than a genuine desire to foster the public good? Its a question worth considering for both sides of the debate, including my own.

2. All of this raises the question I am most concerned with, and that is, what is the role of the church in a Pandemic? Is it medical, political, social, moral, spiritual? I would argue, based on Jesus’ statement that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors that it is primarily the latter and especially not the first two. The church has no primary mandate as either a medical advisor or political advocate. It does however have as its main purpose the wholeness (shalom) of people created in God’s image and that begins with being an agent of love and grace. In other words, our purpose is ultimately to foster reconciliation with God and to lead people down that path. And we cannot do that if we set obstacles in the way by tying the gospel to secular political agendas. Its a fine line here, I admit. Once the president advocated for the use of hydroxy, this has become a political issue whether we like it or not. And I have no doubt that this impacts the search for truth on this issue for both sides of the debate. Therefore, we must weigh how much we want our mission, the mission of the church, to be associated with a political cause rather than with reaching the lost. If we choose the political cause, it will hinder our efforts among the lost every time.

To that though I would add that that we cannot offer spiritual comfort to people without engaging in social and moral care. If you look historically at the church’s role during the many plagues throughout history, the one thing that stands out is that the church cared for the sick in a direct, hands-on way–they fed them, bandaged them, housed them, and were present among the sick often when no one else would. As a result, the church’s mission advanced. God’s people were seen as having a foot firmly set in the next world and one firmly set in this world. They avoided the errors of both fundamentalism and liberalism, one making this world ultimate the other making it irrelevant. Their compassion for the sick and dying proved a powerful testimony to the transformed lives they lived. Their spiritual care of the soul was never divorced from their care of the body. Consider for example this quote from Eusebius, the fourth century Christian historian who told of Christians responding to a plague under the reign of Maximinius II:

“Then did the evidence of the universal zeal and piety of the Christians become manifest to all the heathen. For they alone in the midst of such ills showed their sympathy and their humanity by their deeds. Every day some continued caring for and burying the dead, for there were multitudes who had no one to care for them; others collected in one place those who were afflicted by the famine, throughout the entire city and gave bread to them all.”

When I think about the this and compare it to the contemporary church’s response, I don’t see us giving care, compassion, and basic necessities. What I see is political posturing, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. I see a church that the world views as largely hypocritical adding to that reputation because we are too caught up in the politics of our day to recognize the significance of the hour. We are not maximizing our compassion, but rather fostering divisions. And where there is division, the devil is not far away.

My point then all comes down to three main things. First, let’s err on the side of caution when it comes to medical and scientific studies, especially if we lack medical and scientific training, and trust the consensus of those communities and verifiable and repeatable evidence. Christianity and science are not enemies and historically it was Christianity’s belief that God created an orderly world that gave rise to scientific inquiry in the first place. When we offhandedly dismiss scientific research, we appear as rubes, out of touch with reality, and most importantly, out of touch with the concerns of the people we are called to reach. By contrast, anecdotal examples are not evidence and here’s why. If a doctor prescribes Hydroxy to a patient and the patient recovers, that’s great news. But was it due to the hydroxy or was it due to…their diet? Other medications they also took? Their immune system? Their DNA? Their environment? Outside of a study with a control group, we can’t know the answer to these questions and should therefore be overly cautious about stating the importance of these instances.

So, hope yes. Let’s spread hope, offer hope, embody hope. But hope that is real…grounded in truth. And our best source of hope regarding COVID19, as of today, is in loving each other the way Jesus loves us. Perhaps tomorrow there will be overwhelming evidence that there is a cure or universally effective treatment and perhaps that treatment will be hydroxychloriquine. If so, I’ll be the first in line to celebrate. Right now there is not a universal cure or treatment. And as we engage in healthy, civil discussions about the prospects, let’s be sure that love and respect, not suspicion and innuendoes drive the conversation. Second, love means doing no harm. We will one day stand before the Lord and be accountable for our actions. We will answer not for how well we defended the president or supported his party or uncovered government corruption. What we will answer for is how well we loved God and how well we loved our neighbor. Right now what we know to be true is that masks and social distancing are effective means of mitigating the spread of the disease. And so we should do these things and promote these things not because they are convenient or easy or comfortable but because they are expressions of love for our neighbors. Finally, when in an attempt to defend our position, we feel the need to undermine all authority but our own, we undermine the very essence of the Gospel that is rooted in submission to divine authority and respect for civil authority (Rom. 13). In doing this we take on a very postmodern mindset in which truth is subjective and evidence irrelevant. This is an odd place to be for people who claim allegiance to the One who calls Himself Truth. We set ourselves up for, when we talk about God or the Gospel, the historicity of the resurrection, to be told merely, well, that’s your opinion. Do we really want to go down that road?

If our driving question in a pandemic and in politics, were what things can I do that will win the most people to Christ, I am fairly well-convinced that we all, myself included, would have less time for social media and more time for social action–for entering the lives of the sick and hurting and leading them on the pathway to shalom, and to the Prince of Peace.

Peace out!

To the Graduating Class of 2020 (An Open Letter):

You didn’t bargain for this and you don’t deserve it. You worked hard. Paid your dues. And when it came time to celebrate, the world went crazy.

And I wouldn’t dare say anything as tone deaf as “look on the bright side” and then proceed to pretend that I would not be angry and bitter were I in your shoes.

But, there is a bright side, and the bright side, quite frankly, is you.

Your whole life you’ve been told that technology was wrecking you—that it was turning you into mindless, socially inept automatons and that you couldn’t survive 10 seconds in “the real world.” But how foolish we all feel now, when the real world turned out to be the very world you told us was already here, as we tried haplessly to hold on to one that was passing away.

And the great irony in all of it is that at a time when you could have gloated in your prophetic success or at least rolled your eyes when we all began scrambling to figure out how to take our world online, you did nothing of the sort. Instead, you were present, you were kind, you were generous, you were everything that we said you didn’t know how to be.

The silver lining then to all of this is not the hard lessons you are learning, but the hard ones the rest of us are. We undervalued you, under appreciated you, and misunderstood you. We need to own that.

The second part of that silver lining is that the world, the one you create, will flourish. It will be less divisive, more relational, more socially aware and less self-conscious than perhaps any generation before you. How do I know that? Because these are the qualities we are seeing in you right now.

The future is bright indeed, and you make it so. And the world will perhaps remember your delayed graduation more than any that ever happened on time. And it will be remembered because we will remember you. We will not, cannot, forget your perseverance and your ability to roll with things as they come. We will never forget that you offered us compassion instead of judgment and grace instead of blame.

So happy graduation, class of 2020. The world needs you. I need you. We all need you.

A Professor

Unhelpful (and unbiblical) Things Pastors Do During a Global Pandemic

For the most part, I am inspired by what I see in the church right now. People are being smart, caring, and kind. Two of my students today told me how young people at their church are shopping for the more vulnerable elderly. Some churches are distributing food and others are actually providing testing!

But some are doing things that, frankly, are neither helpful nor biblical. Here are five things I’ve seen churches and pastors do recently in response to Corona virus that were bad ideas. Please…do not…

  1. Declare that this virus is the judgment of God for the sin of__________. Why is this a bad idea? Because 1) it presumes an awful lot that simply cannot be known, 2) if it were true, then why would those not guilty of that sin be effected, and 3) it reflects poorly on the gospel of grace we are called to preach and embody, particularly toward those suffering from this disease and their families. The fact that God used recognized prophets in Israel to declare the judgment of God on peoples and nations does not mean that such prophetic offices carry over directly into the New Testament church. While the gift of prophecy certainly is one the NT speaks of frequently and favorably, the NT prophetic task centers on the gospel of hope–the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and proclaiming that message. This is why Luke in his citation of Isa. 61 (Luke 4:18-19) stops short of the words “the day of vengeance of our God” and instead ends his quotation mid verse, at “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Today, the church is called to preach hope, not despair. Are there times to talk about judgment and hell? Absolutely. But in the midst of a global crisis when bad news is everywhere, maybe we should focus on The Good News!
  2. Reject the wisdom of experts in science and government. I watched in horror this week as an evangelist declared that it was anti-faith to not come to church. This person was an admitted follower of Kenneth Hagin and the so called “word of faith movement.” And you may have seen the insanity going on at Liberty University, where students, faculty, and staff are expected back to work this week because Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks it will keep students safer by keeping them on campus. Of course, everyone knows that the real motivator is likely money. And when you love money more than people, you make really bad decisions. As the apostle Paul said, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
  3. Add to the political divide. Ok, I really struggle with this one because every day I see politicians on both sides of the aisle making bad decisions and unable to work together even in the midst of a national crisis and it makes me angry. But as tempted as I am to share that tweet or post or article that shows how inept these people are, I have to stop and ask myself, “what good will it do? Will it help people who are dying of this disease? Will it help me love my neighbor? Will it show that I am a child of God and filled with the fruit of the Spirit?” The answer to all these questions is no. So, lets take this opportunity for the church to truly shine because we have decided to stay above the political fray and be agents of healing rather than causes of division.
  4. Stoke fear. These are fearful times and people need comfort. Let’s not forget where that comes from and that throughout history the church has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in the goodness of God in the midst of really devastating trials–far worse than the Corona-virus.
  5. Dole out platitudes and cliches. This is not the time to offer pat answers to people’s deep searching and questions about faith, about God, about pain, about anxiety or any of the other multitude of challenges people are dealing with right now. Sometimes our presence, our silent presence can be our greatest gift to a hurting world. Wisdom will guide us.

Why Character Matters (even when there’s not a global pandemic)

I’ve been thinking a lot about character lately, in part because I’ve been working on a book on compassionate discipleship for about three years now and this subject is always bouncing around in my brain.

But this afternoon as I was preparing an online lecture on missions for our University of Valley Forge Students, I came across a list of character traits in a book called Introducing Missions, by Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin and the late Gary B. McGee. The list seemed especially applicable these days and so I thought I’d share my own version of their list (with some minor changes and with my own elaborations for life in the time of COVID-19). So, here they are:

1.Focus on people over tasks – put people first, and your tasks will become richer and more meaningful.

2.Can withhold unproductive criticism – If it can go without saying, it probably should.

3.Tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility – change is the only constant. Embrace it and your stress levels will drop dramatically!

4.Empathy – laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry, and offer practical help to both (and platitudes and cliches to neither)

5.Openness in communication style – say what you mean, mean what you say. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Life is so much simpler this way.

6.High cognitive complexity – don’t fall for the intellectually lazy blame game or for making an entire race culpable for…anything.

7.Good personal relational skills – get along with folks. Its a lot less work than the alternative.

8.Perseverance – don’t give up. The answer/solution/relief is likely closer than you think.

Stay safe and joyful everyone! Jesus is in control!

Should Christians Uncritically Obey Governments?

Should Christians Always Obey Their Government Officials?

What does it mean for the Bible to declare that all authority comes from God? Does that require that all Christians acquiesce to every government authority and never challenge or question presidents or world leaders? Does it mean that even bad leaders are chosen by God? What does the Bible say?

Should Christians unflinchingly and blindly obey, say, a Hitler or Idi Amin?

In addressing these issues, there are several points I’d like to make. Importantly, the admonition of Romans 13:1-2, which does say that all authority comes from God, must also be interpreted in light of all else that Scripture says about God, authority, and those in power. 

1. Submission to Government authority does not entail blind obedience.

Romans 13:1-2 reads:

Rom 13:1-2  Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.(NASB95)

Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is found in the meaning of the word here translated as “subjection” (or in some translations, “submission”). A number of commentators have pointed out that this word (Gr. hupotassō) is less strong that the word “obey,” and that this is likely an intentional move by Paul. As Everett Harrison says, “he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.”[1] As Doug Moo explains, this is because all of our allegiances are subject to our supreme allegiance to God.[2] In other words, “submission” to government is always subsumed in the Christian life under obedience to God. Christians therefore not only have permission to question whether leaders exercise authority in accordance with God’s will, but have an obligation to do so.

2. God grants authority with the expectation that leaders will be just and righteous.

The Bible is quite clear that God appoints leaders for the specific purpose of carrying out justice and righteousness. Consider the following two verses (among many others):

Gen 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

1 Kgs 10:9 “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”

This of course raises the question of what exactly is meant by “justice” and “righteousness.” First, justice in Scripture is often related to the fact that all people have rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. As Lewis Smedes has pointed out, the Ten Commandments, for example, are inherently rights oriented. Murder is forbidden because people have a right to their own life, theft because they have a right to their own property, and so on. Righteousness then refers to actions that uphold the justice expected of God in all human relationships. Thus, the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together often in Scripture, and refer to what we in modern parlance would call “social justice”—that is just-ness in the way we treat others, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, Jeremiah declares

Jer 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Therefore, basic human rights are not granted by governments, but by God. Governments may protect human rights, but they don’t establish them. All people as divine image bearers are due fundamental protections and provisions. The Bible especially highlights the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan because these are often most vulnerable and therefore most likely to have their rights impinged upon by those that would unjustly take advantage of them.

3. God-given authority does not guarantee obedience to God.

We should carefully note that justice and righteousness are action words. They relate to what we do and define the nature of our relationship with God. Because God himself is just and righteous, those created in his image are to embody these same characteristics. Furthermore, the lack of these qualities leads to the judgment of God, but the practice of justice and righteousness restores one to a right relationship with God. In Ezekiel we read:

Ezek 18:21  “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

Because people have free will, there is no guarantee that leaders will embody this concern for justice and righteousness that God expects. Perhaps no story in Scripture illustrates this better than the story of Saul. Saul was chosen of God, but failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership God expected. At the end of Saul’s life, he had become prideful, disobedient, and jealous and God judged him for it. He rejected God’s word and chose to go his own way. As Origin said regarding Romans 13:

God will judge us righteously for having abused what he gave us to use for good. Likewise, God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the laws of God.[3]

4. Humility is a requirement for those in authority.

Remember, it was humility that God desired in Pharaoh during the Exodus (Ex. 10:3). God over and over again judges the kings of Israel for their lack of humility (e.g., 2 Chron. 33:23; 36:12). Throughout the wisdom literature humility is described as a prerequisite for obedience to God and for knowing the will of God (Ps. 25:9; 69:32; Prov. 11:2; Prov. 29:23). And Isaiah declares that humility and obedience to God’s word go hand-in-hand:

Isa 66:2 For My hand made all these things,

                        Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.

                        “But to this one I will look,

                        To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.

5. Those in power must value and stand for truth.

 When Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders that can assist him, he told him to select “men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exod. 18:21). Solomon later described his father David as having served the Lord in “truth and righteousness” (1 Kings 3:6). And when Hezekiah pleaded his case before God, he declared that he had “walked before the Lord in truth” (2 Kings 20:3).

Because of these five things (and one can likely find more), we cannot simply declare based on Romans 13 that all people in authority are so by the will of God or that they are acting in obedience to God. Romans 13 is teaching the broad principle of authority, not endorsing the actions of every person in power. Christians are to be discerning in their obedience to governments and leaders, and evaluate whether obedience to government is compatible with faith in God. The true test is to ask whether the actions of governments and government officials are grounded in justice, righteousness, humility, and truth. Nothing, not even concern for our own safety, can justify the neglect or rejection of these fundamental qualities of godly leaders.


[1]Everett F. Harrison, Romans, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 10 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.

[2]Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 797.

[3] CER 5:92–94.

What is Truth?

Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” never seems to lose its relevance.

Yesterday I caught a story on NPR about something called “Deepfake” Technology. Basically, this is technology that allows for the digital manipulation of videos in order to make people appear to say something that they never said. The story reported that this kind of technology is coming. In fact, its practically here already.

This really is not too surprising. Last year a manipulated video went viral on social media that had been slowed down to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look drunk.

Similar tech has long been available for still images via software such as Adobe’s Photoshop. Just yesterday a US congressman tweeted a doctored picture of President Obama and Iranian leader Rouhani that had clearly been manipulated.

All of this concerns me because Evangelical Christians sometimes appear especially eager to share these kinds of photos and videos on social media as evidence of the corruptness of their political opponents but without giving attention to whether or not these things are true.

This is a strange thing indeed for those who follow the One who declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”(John 14:6).

I am reminded in all of this, that for believers, truth cannot be that which is convenient, or comfortable, or likeable, or serves our purpose.

Truth cannot be whatever we want it to be and the church must be vigilant about seeking the truth, speaking the truth, cultivating the truth, and sharing the truth. We do not have the luxury to be lazy when it comes to the truth.

Why?

Because our whole movement, the very raison d’ etre of the church depends on our effectiveness in proclaiming the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. And when we become lazy about truth in other areas of life, whether it be politics or entertainment or whatever, we loose the right to be heard on the most important truth of all–the truth about who Jesus is and what He calls us to.

We as followers of Jesus cannot just shrug off facts when they become inconvenient. We should in fact be more concerned about truth than anyone.

And perhaps the best way to avoid sharing doctored photos and videos, is simply to not share them at all. Ever.

After all, why risk sharing fake bad news, when you can always share very real Good News?

Verbal-Assault Evangelism (and why it doesn’t work)

A few days ago, I had a physical therapy appointment and encountered a fellow who was rather “in-your face” about the Lord. And by “in your face,” I specifically mean, in my face.

As I was checking in, he walked up to the counter, loudly greeting the gals working there, and then shouting “Praise the Lord!”–about something. My first thought was, good for this guy. He loves the Lord! I’m happy for him! (and I genuinely was).

But we had a second encounter a few minutes later as we were both exercising on the recumbent bikes, side by side. “When did you have your surgery?” he asked me, assuming that I had the same knee replacement surgery he had recently undergone.

When I explained that I hadn’t had surgery, he quickly interrupted me to let me know that his knee wasn’t healing as fast as expected, but that “the Lord is good!” I agreed heartily, gave a reassuring smile and finished my time on the bike.

A few second later, I was doing another exercise and talking to the therapist. And the guy overheard me say that I teach theology at the University of Valley Forge. He immediately inserted himself into the conversation and began hurling a barrage of Bible verses at me, and at everyone else in the room. He was quite loud about it, and frankly it made me a bit uncomfortable. Thankfully, the therapist interrupted so that I could get back to focusing on my exercises.

A few minutes later, we found ourselves on tables next to each other, once again doing similar exercises. He asked me, “what DAY did you get saved?” Adding, “that’s the most important day of your life.” I wasn’t really in the mood to try and explain to him that biblically, salvation is described as both an event and a process; plus, I was sure that this information would fall on deaf ears. So, to humor him I gave him the 90 second version of my testimony, and then turned back to my exercises.

He was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, because after throwing a few more random Bible verses my way, he proceeded to say, “well, we’ll finish with this…”

Wait, what? Finish? Is this a church service? An inquisition? What does he mean “we’ll finish with this”?

Whatever else it meant, it surely meant that he was in charge of this encounter and it didn’t end until he decided it could.

He went on. “You can always tell somebody who’s on fire for the Lord because they love to talk about Him. They just can’t help it.” The implication was clear. He was convinced that since I didn’t match his enthusiasm for boisterous biblical sound bites, I clearly wasn’t “on fire” for Jesus.

I smiled, shook his hand and went to work.

Looking back, I think that this is actually how a good number of people in the church think evangelism should be done. You declare your faith. You cite the Bible. You pressure people into accepting it. No discussion. No debate. No room for doubts or nuance or mystery or questions.

Yet, when I look at evangelism in the Bible, what I see looks nothing like this.

I see Jesus eating in peoples homes whom He’s just met, like Zacchaeus.

I see Him asking questions. Lots of questions. Do you want to be healed? Where is your husband? Why did you go out into the desert? What does the law say? How do you read it? Where are your accusers? What’s in your wallet? (ok, not that last one, at least not in those words).

I see Him meeting with the down and out, sometimes to tell them how great their sins are but often to tell them how great is the grace of God.

Or, think about Paul. When Paul engages in evangelism we see him reasoning with people. Making a case. Engaging with culture (and appreciating it) as with Mars Hill.

We see him in the synagogues often, talking to Jews and God-fearers, those who already displayed some interest in spiritual things.

Put simply, what I see in the New Testament is a far cry from “verbal-assault evangelism” because it’s evangelism that takes work, that takes time, investment, study, knowledge, prayer, patience, and empathy.

And most importantly, it takes the leading of the Spirit. This is the point of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. Its the point of the disciples waiting in the upper room. Its the point of practically the whole narrative of Acts, which casts the mission of the church, as one writer puts it, “not so much the planned extension of a building, but as an unexpected explosion!”

And this kind of evangelism, to me, seems more crucial than ever in the times in which we live. In a world that by definition is “in your face”–perhaps Christianity’s greatest treasure is to be in people’s hearts and minds and homes and lives–in order to share the gospel authentically, organically, practically, and relationally.

But, don’t get me wrong. I’m not squashing enthusiasm or passion for the lost or suggesting we don’t talk about sin. I am only suggesting that we steer clear of methods that are indeed more about us than about those around us. As I looked around the room as my new friend lambasted the world with his convictions–what I saw as a lot of people rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. And I don’t blame them. His version of Christianity was not invitational. It wasn’t the kind of thing that made outsiders say, “hey, whatever that guy’s got, I want some.” No. It had the opposite effect. There was no effort to enter the lives of others. There was no effort to listen. No effort to hear, to understand, to know, to love. And it made people think, I suspect, that if that is Christianity, I’ll take a pass.

Simply put, in a faith defined by the incarnation of God in human flesh, a faith defined by the greatest act of condescension in history, we have woefully lost our way when our methods shun any form of condescension of our own, any form of sacrifice, any form of becoming all things to all people in hopes that we might win some.