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.

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.

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.

What is Pentecostal Preaching?

I think for many, the idea of Pentecostal preaching conjures images of some guy with big hair, flashy clothes and lots of shouting. But I would argue that Pentecostal preaching is in fact none of those things though certainly all of them have been present in Pentecostal circles as well as non-Pentecostal circles.

I would argue however that three things make preaching truly Pentecostal.

1. Its missionally oriented. When you look at Pentecost in the book of Acts, you cannot miss the missional orientation that governs the whole of Luke’s second volume. From Acts 1:8—which says “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth”—all the way to the open-endedness of Acts 28—in which Luke, the writer of Acts, intentionally leaves the reader uncertain about the completion of Paul’s mission in order to invite the reader to see themselves as part of the continuation of that mission– there is a constant theme in Acts that underscores God’s redemptive mission to the nations.

And I think at its very heart, Pentecostal preaching should reflect this missional emphasis that runs not only all through the book of Acts but also from Genesis to Revelation. Missions was a defining feature of early Pentecostalism because as people experienced the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives they understood these signs and wonders as evidence that Jesus was coming back very soon. And so they fanned out across the globe to share the gospel with people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And I think Pentecostal preachers have a responsibility to pass on this eschatological urgency that has long characterized our movement and that is a major theme in the book of Acts.

And what concerns me is that while many of our AG churches, for example, have a strong missional emphasis, in many others, missions is merely an afterthought or its just one program among many. And I think we desperately need to recover the centrality of missions as it relates to Pentecostal identity because that reshapes everything that we do. It changes where and how we use our financial resources, our personnel, our buildings, and it shapes what and how we preach on Sunday morning. If Pentecost and missions are inextricably linked, and I am convinced they are, then that moves missions from the periphery of what we do to the very center of what we do.

And so not only is Pentecostal Preaching missionally oriented, but its also…

2. Christ-Centered. If you look closely at Peter’s Pentecost sermon, you realize it all culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It culminates in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father and with the admonition that salvation is found in Jesus only and in the power of the Spirit whom Christ sends upon those who repent.

And what this means is that Pentecostal preaching is not about material blessings—though some who preach the so-called prosperity gospel have wrongly made it about that; and its not a self-help, pull yourself up by your bootstraps program. Rather, Pentecostal preaching ultimately comes down to the very biblical notion that we all need saving, that we can’t save ourselves, and that when we trust Jesus for salvation, He gives us the Spirit to help us and to empower us to follow him.

Christ-centered preaching means that the preacher is not the star of the sermon, and neither are our stories. But rather the star of the message is Jesus, and that which can only come about through Him.

And so if we are going to preach the Living Word—that is, Jesus, then our sermons have to flow from the written Word, or Scripture. And as a missionary I’ve had the privilege of visiting lots of churches and hearing lots of sermons and one of the things that I’ve seen over and over is preaching in which the Bible only plays a minor role, and in which Jesus only plays a minor role, and sometimes no role at all.

And that brings me to our third point…

3. Its Spirit-empowered. Where the Word is the Spirit is and there is an expectation that God is alive and well to heal people, to set them free from all kinds of bondage, and to deliver them from the things that oppress them. Peter’s whole reference to Joel 2 emphasizes the centrality of Spirit empowerment as something that God desires to give to all who turn to Him. And the main part of this Spirit empowerment is prophecy—proclamation of the gospel, that as we receive the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit empowers us for global witness. And throughout the book of Acts, we see that this Spirit-empowered proclamation often involves signs and wonders that continue to attest to the truthfulness of the gospel and to the breaking in of the kingdom of God upon the kingdoms of the world. And so we see for example the healing of the beggar in Acts 3, in Acts 5 we see Peter’s shadow healing people, and we see the apostles miraculously released from prison, and we see Stephen’s vision of Christ as he’s being stoned, and we see Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and Peter’s vision of clean and unclean foods, and we could go on and on talking about the dynamic activity of the Spirit to perform signs and wonders as the gospel is preached and the kingdom of God advances.

And I think what is especially important here as it concerns Pentecostal preaching is that signs and wonders and the proclamation of God’s word often go hand in hand in the book Acts. In other words, where the Word of God is proclaimed, the Spirit of God is present to save and heal and deliver.

And I think there can be little doubt that Luke portrays the early church as a Charismatic community. Now, cessationists will sometimes argue that these signs and wonders were only needed to authentic the writing of the New Testament and that once the canon was complete, these signs and wonders were no longer necessary. But this really runs up against a major problem when we recall that Peter framed what was happening in terms of “these last days” in Acts 2. And we are still living in the last days. The last days are from the time of Jesus resurrection until the time of His return. And I think Luke goes to great lengths, through Peter’s citation of Joel 2 to underscore that these last days are the age of the Spirit. And in fact that is exactly what Jesus promised his disciples would be the case both in the Gospel of John when He promised them the paraclete to be their helper and in Luke-Acts wherein the Spirit is framed as the promise of the Father for the post-resurrection church.

I am convinced that if Pentecostal churches would take steps to recover these aspects of Pentecostal preaching, we might see some of the same success that characterize the early church and that has been a hallmark of the expansion of global Pentecostalism. And I think we need to be constantly on guard when it comes to the issue of miracles to 1) remember that miracles and signs and wonders are not every something we have a right to demand, nor are they something that the Bible portrays as dependent on us as though the sovereignty of God was somehow limited by our actions, but 2) to not lose this expectation of miraculous intervention as it relates to the church’s missional mandate.

We ought to have an expectancy that God might show up when and where His Gospel is preached.