Christianity

 

Apr

02

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

The Fault Lines Before the Evangelical Earthquake

SAF-e1346289593322The recent controversy surrounding World Vision USA’s decision to open employment to same-sex couples and the organization’s subsequent reversal reveals the fault lines in evangelicalism today.

For the evangelicals distraught by World Vision’s initial decision, the controversy was never about the legitimacy or worthiness of people with differing views of marriage doing good work around the world. We should applaud good deeds of relief and compassion wherever we see them and wherever they come from. No, this particular controversy was about the meaning of evangelical.

Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical? Related to this discussion are questions about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, cultural engagement, and institutional power. All sides of the debate recognize that the definition of evangelical is at stake, which is why some are now publicly casting off the term altogether.

The World Vision decision was a tremor that warns us of a coming earthquake in which churches and leaders historically identified with evangelicalism will divide along all-too-familiar fault lines.

Here are the three camps I see right now:

Revisionists 

“The Church’s interpretation of Scripture and our consensus on Christian sexual ethics have been wrong and unjust. Just as we made adjustments in our treatment of women or in our position on slavery, Christians must be willing to revise our beliefs in light of ongoing Scriptural reflection and personal experience. Faithful Christians can and must celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships; otherwise, Christianity will lose its influence in the culture and bring disgrace to Jesus.”

Moderates 

“One’s position on homosexuality or gay marriage is not an essential point of theology. There are faithful Christians who disagree on these matters, just as faithful Christians disagree on baptism, the Holy Spirit, church structure, etc. The gospel is not at stake in whichever position you take. What is at stake is our unity before the world and how we love each other. We can agree to disagree on these issues and still partner in missions and relief work.”

Evangelicals

“The Bible is clear in its teaching that (1) homosexuals are created in the image of God and have innate worth and value and (2) homosexual practice is condemned as sin, one of many sins from which humanity needs deliverance. Marriage is between one man and one woman. Any other arrangement is not marriage at all, but a distortion of one of Scripture’s most beautiful pictures of the gospel. To abandon Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic is to bow before the prevailing idol of our time and dismiss the authority of Scripture.”

Other Issues 

Same-sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are a number of issues related to traditional Christian belief and practice. The same fault lines find people divided over issues such as the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, the reality of hell, and the nature of truth.

Sometimes I wonder if we are watching a replay of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that took place a century ago. Last time, the revisionists wanted to hold on to the essence of Christian morality while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s miracles. The moderates believed they could be personally conservative and yet forge a middle way and partner with people on both sides. The fundamentalists separated and withdrew from Protestant denominations, paving the way for neo-evangelicalism to rise in the middle of the 20th century. This century, the revisionists want to hold on to the essence of Christian miracles while minimizing the cultural embarrassment of the Bible’s morality.

What’s Next

Learning from history, what will be next for each of these groups?

The Revisionists will continue to shrink and lose influence over time. There are three reasons why.

1. The converts to revisionism are typically disaffected evangelical churchgoers who find cultural accommodation appealing, not lost people finding salvation through Christ. Because of this pattern, it will be challenging to sustain consistent growth over time.

2. Those who revise Christianity’s sexual ethics are often the same people who deny that Jesus is the only way to God, that there is a hell, that the Bible is fully inspired and trustworthy, etc. A liberal doctrine is never an only child.

3. Revisionists are culturally captive to the demands of a shrinking subset of affluent, Western churches. Though global evangelicalism is much more united on the authority of Scripture and the distinctiveness of Christianity’s sexual ethic, revisionists lecture global churches on why they should adopt the same beliefs and practices that emptied their own.

The Moderates hold to an unsustainable position. They uphold a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, and yet they downplay the significance of these issues by taking the “agree to disagree” posture or a quiet agnosticism (“since people disagree on this, who can really know?”). I sympathize with those who feel like the culture has thrust upon us an issue we didn’t ask for and those who are weary of the constant cultural clashes between evangelicals and revisionists. That said, this category will shrink the fastest. The revisionists will challenge moderates to stop linking arms with people who affirm traditional marriage because they are “hateful” and “bigoted.” The evangelicals will challenge moderates to recognize the underlying authority of Scripture issues that accompany this debate. Moderates today will be forced to choose sides tomorrow. Those who remain on the fence will see their children, or the next generation, move steadily into the revisionist camp in response to increasing cultural pressure. “If marriage isn’t a big deal, Mom, then why are we holding the line on this?”

Among Evangelicals we can see two subsets:

  • Combative
    Some evangelicals speak to the issue of homosexuality in ways that are needlessly inflammatory. They look primarily to political action as the strategy for bringing culture change in these areas and overlook the flesh-and-blood people in their congregations who are struggling with this sin. The combatives are the minority, but they routinely make headlines.
  • Conciliatory
    Other evangelicals speak to this issue more pastorally, not shying away from Christianity’s distinctiveness but utilizing a tone that takes into consideration the common sinfulness and brokenness of all humanity. They are often publicly silent on the issue because of their desire to not be lumped in with their combative counterparts.

It is possible that evangelicals could repeat the mistake of last century’s fundamentalists by choosing to withdraw from societal and cultural engagement in order to preserve purity of identity. The result would be the inevitable downplaying of the public implications of the gospel we preach. Our kids will then be the ones with the “uneasy conscience” of last century’s Carl Henry, urging us out of our ghettos and back into the public square.

Another possibility would be that this issue paralyzes the church, leaving people to fear cultural backlash to the point we are silent in our witness.

There is also a third way: as society’s marriage culture crumbles further, we witness to the world, not only in our stated positions but also in our families to the beauty of God’s original design.

Loving People, Not Positions

Twenty years ago, the pro-life movement was derided for caring only about babies and not about women in distress. Since the rise of crisis pregnancy centers, few say such things anymore, and when they do, the slander doesn’t stick. It’s clear that evangelical opposition to abortion is coupled with acts of love and compassion toward women facing an awful choice.

Today, evangelicals are derided for caring more about marriage laws than gay and lesbian people. There’s a kernel of truth in this assertion. Too often, we’ve turned people into positions that volley back and forth as a political football – even sometimes trying to protect our rights so much that we fail to call out true discrimination when we should. We can do better. Indeed, we must not only do better, but be better.

What can evangelicals do to show that our belief in the sanctity of true marriage is just as uncompromising and unwavering as our love for gay and lesbian people created in the image of God? How can we be simultaneously committed to upholding biblical marriage and loving our gay and lesbian neighbors? I don’t know all the answers to that question. Nor am I sure of the best way forward, but I do know that we stand in a long line of Christians who often stood against the world for the good of the world. May it be said of us that our opposition to certain cultural developments is always motivated for the good of the world we’ve been called to reach.

 
 

Apr

01

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

“God’s Like That” – What My Kids Got From Studying Hosea

mzl.nmwxxnviSome Bible stories seem ready-made for kids:

  • Jonah and the big fish.
  • Daniel in the lion’s den.
  • David and Goliath.

These stories are epic. They’re memorable. The truths translate well to kids.

But what about stories about Achan’s sin, or David’s fall, or strangely-named prophets like Hosea?

When The Gospel Project for Kids team decided to take kids on a chronological journey through the Bible, the team didn’t skip the Minor Prophets. This decision created some headaches for the team, mainly because other children’s Bibles or curriculum generally pass over these stories. There was little help in seeing how other people had handled some of the more obscure Old Testament prophets.

Then there’s the question of suitability. Hosea is a weird story, even for adults. God tells a prophet to marry a prostitute, give their children horrible names, and then go back and purchase his wife after she is unfaithful.

How in the world can we teach our kids the story of Hosea?

I was curious to see how the session would go in our own church. At lunch afterwards, I asked our nine-year-old son to tell us what The Gospel Project was about that morning. (See the video treatment of the story below.) Timothy recounted the story of Hosea marrying a woman who didn’t love him and kept running away. “But Hosea just kept going after her,” he said. “He even paid a price to get her back.” Then, he paused: “God’s like that.”

I could have leaped for joy.

That’s what I want my kids to hear in church. Not to focus only on the sensational miracles or the details of the Bible’s stranger stories, but to get the point and recognize what the Bible is telling us about God – who He is and what He is like.

My son wasn’t the only one who got the story. A pastor from Maryland posted this to my FaceBook page:

“There was a very cool moment when [one of our students] had an “aha” moment. He said something along the lines of – ‘Oh, I get it now, I finally get what my mom and dad mean when they say that Jesus paid the price for us on the cross. It’s like how Hosea paid to get Gomer back. And I think Jesus felt sad on the cross the way that Hosea felt about what Gomer was doing to him.’ His eyes lit up and he just kept saying how he got it now, he understands. “

Recently, I was working through Hosea again for a future Gospel Project session for Adults, and once again I discovered how this book wrecks my soul. The vision of God as the spurned Lover, the great and glorious Husband who pursues His bride and willingly pays the price to win her back… it is such a breathtaking picture of God’s great love.

How could we not teach our kids Hosea?

You can preview a full month of The Gospel Project for kids, students, and adults by signing up here.

 
 

Mar

24

2014

Trevin Wax|7:47 pm CT

World Vision and Why We Grieve For the Children

terrified

Update as of 3/26/2014: World Vision has reversed its decision to recognize legal same-sex marriage.

World Vision has announced that its American branch will adjust its employee code of conduct to allow same-sex couples who are legally “married.”

Hoping to keep the evangelical organization out of debates over same-sex marriage, president Richard Stearns adjusted the employee code of conduct to sexuality within the confines of “marriage” whether between man and man or woman and woman. In other words, while declaring to not take a position on redefining marriage, his organization has redefined it.

Some observers are elated.

Evangelicals are shocked.

Many are outraged.

No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.

Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance.

In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.

That’s why critics of the evangelical outcry toward World Vision will say, Get over it! Kids matter more than what men and women choose to do romantically!

Strangely enough, we agree. In fact, this is one of the main reasons we’re against redefining marriage. We believe kids matter more than gays and lesbians having romantic relationships enshrined as “marriage.”

Children are the ones who suffer when society says there’s no difference between a mom or a dad.

Children are the ones who suffer when a couple’s romantic interests outstrip a child’s healthy development, whether in no-fault easy divorce laws, or in the redefining of society’s central institution.

Children are the ones who suffer when Mom and Dad choose to live together unmarried, as if their relationship is one lengthy trial or audition, a decision that can’t provide their children with the security that comes from marriage.

Children are the ones who suffer when careers matter more than marriage, when romance matters more than reproduction, when sex is a commodity, when a marriage culture is undermined.

Children are the ones who suffer when organizations like World Vision, under the guise of neutrality, adopt policies that enshrine a false definition of marriage in the very statement that says no position will be taken.

Children are the ones who suffer when President Obama (rightly) mourns the rampant fatherlessness in the African-American community, while simultaneously campaigning for marriage laws that would make fathers totally unnecessary.

Children are the ones who suffer and die when “sexual freedom” means the right of a mother to take the life of her unborn child.

Sex is our god. Children are our sacrifice.

So, yes, we grieve for the children across the world who will be adversely affected by World Vision’s decision and the evangelical response.

But we also grieve for children here at home who are growing up in a culture in which sexual idolatry distorts the meaning of marriage and the beauty of God’s original design.

Today is a day to grieve for the children.

Update: 3/25/2014 – CLOSING THE COMMENT STREAM 

The comments stream has degenerated into an unhelpful back-and-forth, I’m afraid. Frankly, I’m tired of moderating the comments and throwing out the worst ones on both sides.

Here are a few things I’d like to say in conclusion:

1. I am not advocating that people pull sponsorships through World Vision. Your commitment to sponsoring a child (in my mind) is of utmost importance. To go back on that commitment is serious. I’m not your conscience. My original post was lamenting the fact that the fallout over this divisive decision would inevitably hurt some children. Whatever decision you make, I urge you to do so prayerfully and with wisdom.

2. Loss of a marriage culture is tragic for children. Same-sex marriage is the result of this loss, not the cause. Christians cannot blame gays and lesbians for marriage’s sorry state. That’s on us.

3. Christianity hinges on repentance. We don’t do away with sin through redefinition. Christ does away with sin through redemption. Like everyone else in this broken world, I am a great sinner. But Christ is a great Savior.

 
 

Mar

18

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

7 Steps Down the Staircase of Dishonesty

spiral-staircaseWe all know that sin generally leads to lies and dishonesty, and lying begets more lying. We see it in our kids; we see it in ourselves. But just how does lying lead to more lying?

In What We Can’t Not Know (pages 210-212), J. Budziskewski lays out the “seven degrees of descent” on the downward staircase of dishonesty. I summarize his thoughts on each step below.

1. Sin.

“The greater our trespasses, the more we have to lie about. We lie about money, sex, and our children, because we sin about money, sex, and our children.”

2. Self-protection.

Lies need bodyguards. So for each lie, we add a protective ring of additional perjuries in order to shield ourselves from the consequences of our falsehood.

3. Habituation.

Lies become your habit. You lie even when you don’t need to, and when there’s no “good” reason for it. This is the point where you move from lying to being a liar.

4. Self-Deception

This is the stage where you lose track of truth. Now, you half-believe the lies you’ve told. It’s the only way your heart can relieve the guilty conscience of lying as much as you do.

5. Rationalization.

The weakness isn’t in you and your lies; it’s in truth itself. Everything is shades of gray. Nothing is absolute. Truth is simply “what we let each other get away with.”

6. Technique

Lying is now a craft. The best lies are those that are so great no one could possibly believe you would invent them. No one would believe you could tell such big lies or so many of them. Any whistleblower who calls you out on the lies must be the one lying, since it’s virtually impossible that you could be guilty of telling so many lies.

7. Duty Turns Upside-Down

“The moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.”

 
 

Mar

17

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Christians, We Are Repenters

RepentWhen I was living in Romania and learning the language, one of the first words I encountered was pocăit. Roughly translated, it means “repenter.” It was a derogatory label given to evangelical believers last century. There were cultural “Christians,” and then there were pocăiții - “repenters” who believed an ongoing life of repentance was essential to the Christian life.

As a Baptist, I was one of the repenters. What separated our church from cultural Christianity we came into contact with was our insistence on repentance in response to God’s unmerited favor. In light of God’s grace, we called people to repent of their sins, their self-justification, and devote themselves wholly to Christ.

Ten years later, the necessity of repentance has become a watershed issue in the fading days of Christendom in the West. Contrary to popular belief, the evangelical church is not dying. Declining, perhaps. But wherever grace-driven repentance is preached and an out-of-the-mainstream lifestyle expected, people are still coming to faith.

I pray that in the West, we will be like our Romanian brothers and sisters: dissatisfied with the idea of being Christian in name only, and passionate about living as “repenters” who have tasted the goodness and grace of God and can never be the same again.

Below are ten characteristics of repentance I hope we can all say with honesty.

~~~~~ Christians, We Are Repenters ~~~~~

We are repenters.

We repent of living for ourselves, and so we commit to trading our personal kingdom agendas for the kingdom agenda of Jesus Christ.

We are repenters.

We repent of making God out to be more like us, and so we ask God to change our hearts and make us more like Him.

We are repenters.

We repent of our silly attempts to justify ourselves before God and make ourselves pleasing to Him through our own efforts, and so we ask Him to save and sustain us in His unwavering grace and help us rest in Christ’s work on our behalf.

We are repenters.

We repent of our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and so we ask God to deliver us from doublemindedness and help us seek His righteousness above all.

We are repenters.

We repent of valuing most what other people think, and so we ask God to help us value most what He thinks.

We are repenters.

We repent of withholding areas of our life from God’s command, and so we ask God to invade and overcome every part of us – our hopes, our desires, our dreams, our thoughts, our actions – and show us how to love Him and love others from a whole heart.

We are repenters.

We repent of seeking a life of ease and comfort, and so we ask God for the courage to pick up our crosses and follow Christ no matter the cost.

We are repenters.

We repent of all the good things we have failed to do, and so we ask God to open our eyes to the opportunities for us to shine His light in a dark world.

We are repenters.

We repent of serving ourselves and our own interests, and so we ask God to empower us to serve others in the name of His Son.

We are repenters.

We repent of taking pride in our own repentance, and so we ask God to remind us that salvation is all of grace and to humble us before the cross.

 
 

Mar

11

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

3 Reasons Why a Christian Worldview Still Matters

tgp_blogheader_oct13-Copy (1)

Capitalism. Socialism. Postmodernism. Consumerism. Relativism. Pluralism.

There are all sorts of -isms in our world, each representing a different outlook on humanity, each with different opinions about the way societies should function and people should behave.

Some Christians shrug off any effort to study philosophies and “isms.” They say things like, “I don’t worry myself with what other people think about the world. I just read my Bible and try to do what it says.”

This line of thinking sounds humble and restrained, but it is far from the mentality of a missionary. If we are to be biblical Christians, we must read the Bible in order to read the culture. As a “sent” people, it’s important to evaluate the -isms of this world in light of God’s unchanging revelation. In other words, we read the Bible first so we know how to read world news second.

We also read the Bible in order to know how to engage people around us with the gospel. To be a good missionary, we need to have our own minds formed by the Scriptures, and at the same time, we need to understand how people think—the people we’ve been called to reach. That’s why we need to be familiar with the big questions of life and the big debates in our world.

Here are three reasons a Christian worldview matters:

1. Because it sets us apart from the world.

Take a look at Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

In verse 1, Paul wrote that we must offer our bodies. In verse 2, he wrote that we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Mind and matter. Physical and immaterial. Thinking and behavior. Paul didn’t just say, “Think rightly.” Neither did he simply say, “Behave rightly.” Paul knew the gospel transforms both our thoughts and our actions.

If we are to keep from being conformed to this age, we’ve got to understand the connection between thoughts and deeds. Paul connected them, and so should we.

The Bible consistently presents a Christian view of the world. Along the way, the biblical authors interact with and contradict other worldviews. We ought to be skilled in doing the same. It’s part of how we keep from being conformed to this world.

There is a missional orientation to our nonconformity. Worldviews matter because people matter. Seeking to understand someone with whom we disagree is a way of loving our neighbor. It doesn’t mean we accept every point of view as valid, right, or helpful. Neither does it mean we paper over our differences. But it does mean that we will listen and learn like missionaries seeking to understand the culture we are trying to reach. If we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice,” we must live in light of the mercies of God, understand our role in the world as Christ’s ambassadors, and answer His call to bear witness to Him and His work.

2. Because it aids our spiritual transformation.

Romans 12:2 points us back to chapter 1 of Romans, where Paul laid out the dire situation of humanity before a holy God. There he wrote:

“For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…They exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:21-22, 25).

Romans 1 shows us what happens when we exchange the truth of God for lies. Our minds are darkened, and then we engage in sinful behavior, as is evidenced in Paul’s list of sinful attitudes and actions: greed, envy, murder, sexual immorality, etc. (vv. 29-31).

But in Romans 12, the situation is gloriously reversed! Because of Christ’s work, our minds are being renewed. No longer are we senseless sinners living in the dark. Instead, we are redeemed people living in the light of Christ’s resurrection. We also live in the light of His regenerating work in our hearts. Through the Spirit, God is at work changing us, conforming us—not to the world but into the image of His Son. By the mercies of God, we have been given a new identity.

It’s true that we don’t always think clearly. Our sanctification is indeed a process, and it is still incomplete. Yet God delights in seeing His children love Him with their minds. He loves to see us embrace the new identity He has given us.

The psalmist wrote, “The revelation of Your words brings light and gives understanding to the inexperienced” (Ps. 119:130). Ultimately, if we have understanding, it’s not just because we have attained a natural level of maturity but because we’ve benefited from God’s revelation.

Being transformed by the renewing of your mind won’t happen apart from God’s Spirit working through God’s Word. We need the Spirit to illuminate the meaning of the Bible so that we are able to find our place in God’s great story of redemption.

3. Because it helps us know how to live.

Do you see how the apostle Paul gave the renewing of our mind a specific purpose? It’s not so we can pride ourselves in thinking rightly. Romans 12:2 makes it plain what the purpose of our spiritual transformation is: so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

Sometimes Christians wish the Bible were simpler, a quick and easy guide that lays out every step of obedience. To be sure, the Bible has lots of do’s and don’ts. But God didn’t choose to lay out in detail specific commands for every possible situation we might find ourselves in.

What the Bible does give us is a grand narrative that focuses our attention on Jesus Christ and His gospel. In this story of redemption, we glean principles for living according to our new identity in Christ. Once we understand our general role in the plan and providence of God, we are called to exercise biblical wisdom in our everyday decisions.

God left us with something better than a simple list of commands. He gave us a renewed mind that—through the power of His Spirit—will be able to discern what actions we should take. He is seeking to transform us so that we can determine God’s will in particular situations where explicit instructions are not spelled out in Scripture.

~~~~~

This post is adapted from my introductory session of The Gospel Project – “A God-Centered Worldview.”

 
 

Mar

10

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

When Things Get Complicated, Remember the Basics

babelWe’re Christians on the track, running the race with a great cloud of witnesses in the stands, saints of old who are cheering us on. But there’s a fog hanging over the section of the track in front of us. We’ve not been here.

This is the situation we find ourselves in.

Technological advances and moral decay have accelerated, perhaps feeding off one another, with the ground shifting so rapidly under our feet that we’re not always sure what to do or where to go.

The ethical dilemmas we are facing would boggle the mind of my great grandparents.

  • A woman in your congregation considers it her full-time job to be a surrogate mother for women who cannot conceive. I don’t understand. Isn’t motherhood defined by carrying a child? How can one mother host another mother’s child?
  • A photographer feels uncomfortable participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony and is facing fines that lead to the dissolution of their business. I don’t understand. What is a same-sex marriage? Isn’t that like saying “square circle?”
  • A business owner feels like he would be complicit in evil if he is forced to pay for his employee’s “constitutional right” to a chemical abortion through the company’s insurance policy. I don’t understand. Where is the Constitutional right for a mother to take the life of her child?

It’s not going to get easier.

If in a mere decade, a society can overturn a pillar that has undergirded civilization for thousands of years, what kind of changes will come in the next decade or two? The unthinkable is now the possible.

The cultural pressure upon us will increase. We better be okay with standing out from the rest of the world, no matter how unpopular it makes us.

We also better get used to people saying we are filled with hate and vitriol toward neighbors we disagree with. And we should do our best to show the world so much love that those labels don’t stick.

Maybe the way God is teaching us to reach out to the maligned and marginalized is by letting us taste the same kind of social ostracism.

Maybe the less we seek the love of society, the more we’ll be free to love others in God’s image.

Maybe the cultural car is careening toward the cliff, and we’re supposed to be the people who are standing with our arms outstretched saying, “Stop! You know not what you do.”

I don’t have all the answers to the ethical issues we face today. Nor do I know what issues will soon appear on the horizon.

What I do know is this: when things get complicated, we should remember the basics.

  • This world God created is good. He has a plan for it. We’re going somewhere.
  • This world is broken. We’ve all rebelled against our good and loving Father. We’re lost.
  • God demonstrates His great love for us in that even in our sinfulness and rebellion, He sent Christ to die for us.
  • The world will be redeemed. The great story of our world will have chapters where all hope seems to be lost, but like all great stories, the happy ending is assured. And the sequel will never end.

Life is complicated. Our choices won’t be easy. If we are to live faithfully in this brave new world, we will need wisdom from above.

But some things just aren’t going to change:

  • God still loves His children. And He even loves the people who hate Him and His church. Jesus’ dying breaths exhaled forgiveness.
  • We’re called to love our neighbors. Sometimes, loving comes easily. Other times, it’s harder. And Christian love assumes the strange posture of sometimes standing against the world for the good of the world.
  • The world still needs Jesus. The gospel is still powerful. And the church is still on mission.
  • There’s a city whose foundations are unshakable. And there’s a city of man that builds its idol-tower of “progress” to the sky. Christians who are most comfortable in the city of man find it hard to represent the city of God.

Jesus saves. So love God. Love people. The basics never change.

 
 

Feb

18

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

3 Things to Remember in Discussion with Doubters

Clear-Winter-Nights_1a-716x1024One of the most enjoyable teaching opportunities I had last year was walking through Clear Winter Nights with a group from my church. We met on Sunday nights and talked through the Conversation Guide at the end of the book. (You can access the PDF of the Guide here for free.)

Three aspects of the discussion stand out, and they are applicable to any group that wants to discuss the big issues related to our faith and practice.

1. Saying your church is a safe place for doubters doesn’t make it so.

During the first couple of weeks, our group focused primarily on our past experiences of faith and doubt. I wanted everyone in the group to put themselves in the shoes of Chris Walker, the college student who is dealing with disillusionment and asking big questions related to Christianity.

Almost everyone has entertained doubts of some sort, but our churches are not always a safe place for expressing them. Many Christians feel guilty for ever questioning the authority of their church’s teaching or the reliability of God’s Word or the cohesiveness of Christian theology. The list goes on.

We all say we want the church to be a safe place for people to be honest and open about their struggles, but too often, we paper over our problems and satisfy ourselves with individual Bible verses, while never dealing with substantive questions. This facade gets tiresome, of course, and it is the reason some people just drift away.

2. Doubting is never just intellectual.

The interesting aspect about discussing Clear Winter Nights (“theology in story”) was the focus on the characters’ stories, not just their intellectual hang-ups. We tend to treat people who doubt as if their issues are primarily intellectual. If we can just give the right answers, everything will be fine.

Now, to be clear, the conversations between Gil and Chris in Clear Winter Nights provide plenty of answers, and that’s a good thing. But doubts don’t start only in the mind, nor are they ever totally resolved only in the mind. We are embodied creatures. Our lives are individual stories, and there are all kinds of events and people who affect the way we view things.

We shouldn’t assume that people who express doubts about Christianity are coming simply from an intellectual standpoint. There are always more factors at play. A comprehensive approach will help identify some of those big-picture issues.

3. Strengthened faith should lead to the strengthening of other people.

God uses doubt. God uses doubters.

In the first instance, God uses doubt in a similar manner to the way a broken limb can actually wind up stronger and more fortified at the very place the break occurred. We don’t have to see broken limbs as a good thing to observe that good things can come from the healing process. Many times, our experience with doubt leaves us stronger in the end.

In the second instance, God uses former doubters as instruments in the lives of other people. It was fascinating to see how the early group sessions about Clear Winter Nights had us identifying with Chris and his doubts. By the end of the sessions, we had put ourselves in Gil’s shoes. We were asking questions like:

  • What did Gil do right?
  • What did Gil do wrong?
  • How can we be a mentor to other people?
  • How can God use us to bring peace and clarity to people who are disillusioned with family, friends, or church members?

Good conversations about “truth, doubt and what comes after” should move beyond our personal stories to how we can be useful to others. A strong faith shouldn’t be kept to itself.

Conclusion

My hope is that our churches will be places where we can have good, honest conversations about the questions that matter. Let’s learn how to talk about our faith in ways that strengthen those who are struggling.

~~~~~

Access the Clear Winter Nights Conversation Guide

 
 

Jan

13

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Morality vs. Miracles: Looking at Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” Today

christianity-and-liberalismIt’s been almost a century since J. Gresham Machen’s landmark work, Christianity and Liberalismwas released. What prompted Machen’s book was the descent of many mainline churches into liberal theology and teaching. Higher critical approaches to the Bible were a factor in this development, as well as scientific discoveries that made the Christian’s affirmation of miraculous, supernatural interventions seem embarrassing.

Keeping Morality, Ditching the Miracles

The trajectory of liberalism one hundred years ago went something like this:

  • We are living in a scientific age of discovery.
  • The miracles we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
  • It is important to maintain the ethical and moral teaching of Christianity.
  • Belief in the literal occurrence of biblical miracles is not needed to maintain the moral center of Christianity.
  • If belief in miracles is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize them in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.

Machen’s point countered this line of thinking: You can’t have the moral teaching Christianity apart from its miracles.

The Issue Today

100 years later, we find ourselves in a situation where the trajectory of liberalism is almost totally reversed. Today, the issue is whether you can hold on to the center of Christianity apart from its morality.

Christian apologists today don’t usually have to convince people today that miracles can happen before they get to the specific claims about Jesus of Nazareth. You might run into hardened naturalists every now and then, but it seems like most people have an undefined belief that miracles can and do happen. The question today is whether or not these miracles are from a Deistic God who intervenes only now and then in human history, or whether they are part of a pantheistic worldview where the universe is alive, pulsating with supernatural energy, etc.

Machen wrote about Christians who wanted to cast aside the embarrassing parts of Christianity (such as belief in miracles) and keep “the essence” – Christianity’s moral precepts. What’s changed today is this: it’s not the miracles that are embarrassing but the moral precepts! It’s our view of sexuality, of objective truth claims, and of Christ’s uniqueness.

Keeping the Miracles, Ditching Morality

The trajectory of liberalism today goes something like this:

  • We are living in a tolerant age of enlightenment.
  • The morals we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
  • It is important to maintain the miraculous and supernatural events of Christianity.
  • Interpreting the commands of biblical morality literally is not needed in order to maintain to center of Christianity.
  • If belief in biblical morality is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize it in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.

There are plenty of Christians who think we can shed a traditional, biblical understanding of morality as mere “cultural oddities” and still maintain the core of Christianity. I say they’re wrong. And I think 100 years from now, people will say we were right.

 
 

Dec

16

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

No More Gender: A Look into Sweden’s Social Experiment

CH_GENDER_PRESCHOOL_09.JPG

Children at Stockholm’s Nicolaigarden preschool, which avoids gender stereotypes (Casper Hedberg / The New York Times / Redux)

In certain schools in Stockholm, teachers try not to use terms like “boys” or “girls.” In an effort to reach a greater level of gender equality, the country of Sweden is pushing for gender neutrality. Pronouns like “he and she” are replaced with “hen,” and children’s books have protagonists who are not clearly male or female.

Jeff Coulter, a resident of Sweden who assists churches, gave me some fascinating insight into how this plays out in other settings:

We moved here when my wife was seven months pregnant. It was intriguing that there was no real interest from the doctors in what sex the baby would be (we already knew from an ultrasound in the US). When our daughter was born the doctors paid no attention at all what gender was. I asked a few minutes after she was born just to make sure the ultrasound was correct. Also, my wife and I have noticed that baby clothes here are much more gender neutral. You would be hard pressed to dress your baby girl in all pink, something that seems to be very easy in America.

TIME Looks into Sweden’s Social Experiment

TIME reported on this new development in “Boys Won’t Be Boys,” an interesting article that gives an inside look into Sweden’s fight to “eradicate gender discrimination” and create “a society in which gender doesn’t matter.” The writer, Lisa Abend, describes the atmosphere in a Scandinavian school:

The cozy library is carefully calibrated to contain the same number of books with female protagonists as those with male ones. Boys and girls alike twirl silken scarves during dance class, and they have equal access to pirate and princess costumes…

How did educators convince parents to get on board with this kind of experiment?

“Once we made the decision to improve this, it wasn’t hard to convince the parents,” says Rajalin (educator). “I simply did this.” She walks over to the whiteboard and draws a circle, then divides it in half. “On the right side are the things for girls” – she draws several lines inside the semicircle – “and on this are the things for boys. And then I asked, ‘Do you want your child’s life to be a half-circle or a whole one?’”

Is the United States moving in Sweden’s direction? A professor at the University of Washington thinks so:

“For the rest of the West, Sweden is laying the groundwork… They’re sort of postgender now and are focusing more on humanism, on what – as humans – is going to bring us all closer to equal rights. Sweden is our future.”

The TIME article seems conflicted about gender neutrality. The subtitle of the article calls it a “noble experiment” but also claims it is “political correctness gone overboard.” Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the article is the description of feminism as a “state religion.”

Writer Lisa Abend quotes from people who believe the push for equality is actually “erasure” of gender distinctiveness altogether. An engineer is quoted, mourning the loss of any public discourse about the issue because of public intimidation and attempts to suppress even the mildest antifeminist expression.

How Should Christians Respond?

If Sweden is our future, then we are in trouble. The idea of humanity as completely neutral in terms of gender is foreign to a Scriptural understanding of who we are. Human beings bear God’s image, and God made us male and female. He didn’t make us merely human. He made us gendered beings.

What’s at stake in this discussion? Human flourishing. We don’t flourish when we suppress or ignore gender distinctives. Such an existence creates a flatter, duller society. Instead, we flourish when we embrace our maleness or femaleness as God’s gift to us – intended for our joy and His glory. The differences between men and women aren’t obstacles to overcome; they’re glorious and beautiful.

We should not seek to be “gender-blind,” just as we shouldn’t seek to be “colorblind.” One does not end racism by painting everyone the same color so that we no longer see any racial or ethnic distinctiveness. Neither does one create gender equality by pretending there is no inherent difference between the sexes. The failure of such a system is already evident in the fact people have resorted to social pressure and legislative attempts to keep others in line with this thinking.

Complementarian and Egalitarian Unity

Complementarian Christians in the West believe there is a difference between gender equality (men and women are of equal worth and value before God) and gender roles (men and women have unique roles). For a feminist, the idea that men and women should perform different functions in the home, the church, or society is tantamount to sex discrimination. Gender roles are something we should seek to avoid or escape, never embrace.

Egalitarian Christians in the West generally affirm uniqueness of male and female and a distinctiveness in their roles. They disagree with complementarians as to how this distinctiveness plays out in church leadership and (sometimes) home life.

Still, in looking at the Swedish experiment, I believe complementarians and egalitarians should be able to lock arms and say, We believe gender is a gift of God. We believe God made us male and female and not gender-neutral “humans,” and that equality does not erase gender distinctives.

Mission in a Post-Gender World

Our Christian calling is not merely to decry the sinfulness of a culture, but to declare the Savior of the world. That’s why I asked two church planters in Sweden to comment on the TIME article and to give some insight into how one ministers in this kind of society. Pastor Phil Whittall had this to say:

Gender equality and indeed neutrality is a huge deal in Sweden, but some nuance is also needed. Yes, there are schools that use ‘hen,’ but it is a very small number right now. It’s certainly not the case for every preschool.

On a personal level, at the pre-school our children attend, gender raises itself in a number of ways. There is a policy of opposite reinforcement – so a boy will receive praise for choosing traditionally female activities – cooking, dolls etc. and girls will receive praise for climbing a tree or playing football. No praise is given for the opposite. So no praise for girls choosing dolls or boys choosing football.

A woman in our church plant is training to work in pre-schools and was marked down in coursework for writing that she believed men and women are different. The general policy is that that the genders are the same and biology is essentially irrelevant.

Parents of pre-school children are encouraged to think about how they talk and act in regards to sons and daughters to break down prejudices.

Feminism as the state religion is probably not all that off the mark although gender activists here still find plenty of things to  campaign on.

How does one engage in ministry in this environment? Phil mentioned four things:

1. Our Attitude. We don’t want to decry everything about feminism or gender equality in many areas of society, not all the changes are bad ones. We seek to affirm what can be affirmed and to encourage what can be encouraged. Nuance isn’t easy but otherwise we’re too easy to pigeonhole and label.

2. Ask Questions. Do people really believe there are no differences? What would that mean if they did? What would we lose? What would we gain? Most people aren’t engaging with the issues but are just being swept along by the cultural tide.

3. Think through the theology of the body. This relates not just to gender but to sexuality. Sweden is a very liberal place in its approach. For example, the bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran church is a lesbian in a partnership with a son. 

4. Don’t Be Unnecessarily Gendered. There’s no sense in creating obstacles where they aren’t necessary. Just because we believe elders should be male doesn’t mean the discussion should only be had by males, for example. We can encourage women in other forms of leadership.

Jeff Coulter echoed these thoughts:

We also need to be good listeners. After spending four months in swedish language school, I have learned a lot about the culture, not just the language. Asking good questions is vital, but listening to their answers is key to knowing how to show people their need of a Savior. Ultimately the world is without hope, that’s why we are still here to declare the good news of the Gospel.