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Whatever we believe the Scriptures say about legitimate grounds for divorce, the assumption that marital dissolution should not be common among those who claim to follow Christ and Biblical teaching is reasonable. The pertinent passages recognized in the New Testament at most allow for divorce and remarriage only for egregious violations of the marital covenant (Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:10-16). The Westminster Confession’s Chapter 24, Section 6 clearly supports this position. The very nature of marriage—a union of man and woman into one flesh, a covenant before God sealed by solemn, public vows, a revelation of the eternal bond between Christ and his Church, an expression of the Trinity, a living embodiment of the Gospel—argues forcefully against anything like “no-fault,” easy, divorce.

Yet divorce is shockingly common among professing evangelicals. In the General Social Survey (GSS) for years 1996 though 2016 combined, 48% of ever-married conservative Protestants between the ages of 40 and 65 said that their first marriages had ended in divorce or legal separation. The subset of these evangelicals who said they attended church about weekly or more did better, but the percentage—39%—was still alarming. Sadly, some of these respondents who are still married will also go on to divorce. Interestingly, in the same surveys, 28% of evangelicals wanted it to be easier to end a marriage. In another item used in the GSS in 2002 and 2012, a combined 43.5% of evangelicals agreed that divorce is the “best solution to marital problems.” Only 40% disagreed. Those of us seeking to reform practice and belief regarding divorce in the church certainly have our work cut out for us.

Certainly, two sinners remaining knit together through all the vicissitudes of life is rarely if ever going to be easy, as anyone whose marriage has lasted for decades can attest. Just about every married couple faces severe challenges in their relationship, which at times seem to drag on without clear resolution.  There are also external trials, some of which, such as the death of a child or major financial calamity, can be gut-wrenching. Contemporary Christians couples deal with these challenges in the context of a culture that emphasizes individualism, self-actualization and moral subjectivity and which has completely destigmatized divorce. Married people today often face little pressure or even encouragement to stick together when they encounter serious marital problems. Still, the Word of God has not changed, and we Christians, having available to us the grace of the Spirit and the support of the church, can do better.

However, in years of engaging believers on these matters, I have repeatedly bumped into the argument that encouraging those who are unhappy in their marriages to persevere is cruel. The explicit or implicit belief underlying this view is that believers in so-called “bad” marriages face a stark choice between ongoing misery, or divorce. But this argument relies on the assumption that most marriages that end in divorce are not riddled by conflict, which also imposes suffering upon whatever children a couple may have. While divorce is regrettable, it is argued, the alternative of remaining married will be worse for all. Such thinking represents a logical fallacy—a false dilemma—and one that is contradicted by the facts.

First of all, the vast majority of marriages that end in divorce are not characterized by high levels of conflict such as violence, numerous vicious quarrels or profound disagreements. For example, in A Generation At Risk in 1997, respected family scholars Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that only about one-third of divorces were preceded by such volatility. Two fine research studies—one by Donna Morrison and Mary Jo Coiro that appeared in The Journal of Marriage and Family in 1999, and the other by Joan Kelly and Robert Emery that was published in Family Relations in 2003—found that no more than 20 to 25% of children in divorced homes saw their parents in this kind of difficulty prior to their split. Linda Waite and her co-authors pointed out, in Does Divorce Make People Happy?, that 86% of those who said their marriages were “unhappy,” including 77% who went on to divorce, reported no violence in their relationship. There is no doubt that divorce typically involves at least one deeply unhappy spouse, and that often these feelings are justified and the marital problems are deep and challenging. However, the notion that I confront often—that divorce typically ends a marriage riddled by severe conflict—is false.

Second, the unhappiness is normally one-sided. That is, as the latter book also showed, about three of every four spouses who said their marriages were “unhappy” had a spouse who was happy with the marriage. Putting all this together, the “normal” divorce involves one person ending the marriage for reasons that are hardly compelling ones such as serious marital abuse, violent conflict, desertion, or other severe covenant violations.

Meanwhile, the post-divorce period is often marked by terrible and destructive quarreling. That should not surprise us. If couples cannot work out their differences in marriage how can we expect them to do so making tough—even heart-wrenching—decisions in the midst of court battles? A large law firm in England sponsored a study about a decade ago of over 2,000 divorced couples and about the same number of children of divorce. 42% of the children saw their parents having bad quarrels, and another 17% witnessed violence between them. About a quarter of the children were asked by a parent to lie to the other. Half of the parents had to use the courts to negotiate disputes about their children with their ex-spouses, and half said they deliberately drew out the legal battle to secure personal advantage. 68% admitted to using their children as bargaining chips, while one in five said they tried to make their ex-spouse as miserable as possible, even when they knew it hurt their children. If these people believed that ending their marriage meant ending any conflicts with their spouses, they were sadly mistaken. For some it did, but for many this was not the case.

Now For The Good News

It’s interesting to note that working on the marriage is often successful, while leaving one marriage for another does not necessarily result in a better outcome. In the 1996 through 2016 GSS, married people who were previously divorced were slightly less likely to call their second marriages “very happy,” and a bit more likely to call them “not too happy.” Waite and her co-authors found that on average, among those who said their marriages were “unhappy,” those who divorced and remarried ended up no happier than those who remained in their marriages. Two-thirds of those who stayed with their marriages identified their marriages as happy five years later, compared to only one in five of those who got a divorce or separation becoming both remarried and happy in those years.

What seems to account for those dissatisfied spouses seeing their marriages not only lasting but being turned around? There is quite a bit of good research on that. Having a high view of marriage and marital commitment, while simultaneously holding a negative opinion of divorce, are critical. Researchers at the National Marriage Project found that marriages in which the spouses have these views about marriage and divorce are much happier and more stable. These attitudes should ideally also be shared by family and friends. For this, and many other reasons, staying active and engaged in a Biblically-faithful local church is important as well.

Good marriage counseling can help, but only if the professional is committed to saving the marriage rather than being “value-neutral” on the matter of divorce. The best marital counseling will help couples with communication and conflict management skills, which are vital. After all, every problem plaguing a marital relationship can only improve if a couple learns better ways to address the problem. This is certainly true for many of the big ones, such as quarrels over children or sex, work hours and other outside commitments.

They will also help couples tackle issues which place heavy stress upon many marriages, such as debt and other financial problems. ere H

Sometimes a good financial planner can do more to save a marriage than anyone. Where sin problems such as substance abuse or pornography are undermining a relationship, repentance, accountability, and pastoral ministry can be beneficial. Quite often, the marital difficulties are associated with other stressors, such as caring for a sick parent, or having a difficult boss. When those difficulties pass, the marriage rebounds.

No couple in distress should avoid one vital weapon of spiritual warfare—prayer. Married couples need to come together against the Evil One who seeks to divide them, and direct prayer toward the issues they are confronting together, while also praising God and meditating upon his immeasurable goodness and grace. Moreover, they need to both ask for, and grant, forgiveness. This means the difficult work of confronting and confessing, done with forthrightness, but also charity and kindness.

Regrettably, some marriages cannot and even should not be preserved, because the violations are too great and the offending spouse remains unrepentant. Nevertheless, in cases that are persistently unhappy but do not rise to the level of clear and serious violations of the marital covenant, persevering through adversity in order to remain faithful to our vows to God and to one’s spouse is consistent with the gospel.

Honoring our vows, even when it costs us dearly, is commended to us repeatedly in Scripture, with promises of blessings to the faithful often attached to these admonitions (cf. Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23; Eccl. 5:4-6). That person is blessed “…who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind” (Psalm 15:4b, NIV). Turning one’s back on a marital covenant witnessed by God himself is a grave offense (Mal. 2:14). Moreover, being faithful to God in general will often require great perseverance, which is why we are instructed to count the costs when making a commitment to follow the Lord. Yet the reward is worth it (Luke 14:25-33; James 1:12). As the Book of Revelations (14:12, NIV) instructs us, “…patient endurance on the part of the people of God…” is highly esteemed by our Lord. This is as true with honoring our marriage as it is in any other aspect of our commitment to God.

There’s even better news:  normally, these difficulties will not endure forever. For most couples whose marriages are troubled, “misery or divorce” is a false choice.  Persevering while pursuing wise courses of action and engaging the help of God’s people and, where necessary, professionals, normally leads to a much better end than divorce.  Linda Waite and her co-authors wisely point that many couples who are happily married at any given point in time have weathered serious marital difficulties for two years or more, and yet worked through issues together to realize something wonderful and enduring at the other side of those storms. There is confidence and hope in the realization that the hard seasons can be endured and they do end. Many find themselves appreciating their spouse in ways they could not have imagined, especially when their partners have demonstrated their willingness to also make difficult changes. As with any trial God walks us through, there is that renewed knowledge of the depth of his goodness, provision and mercy, in his delight in and commitment to their marriages.

This brings us to the final point, namely, that those facing marital difficulties and seeking to persevere in them must never forget that the God who has called them is faithful (1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Thes. 5:24). Suffering spouse: nothing, even a difficult marriage, can separate you from the love he has showered upon you through Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:35-39). Be encouraged in him, find strength, wisdom and comfort through his Word, his Spirit, and his people, and know that these trials will not be in vain.

David J. Ayers is Professor of Sociology and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.  He is the author of the recently released Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press). He and his wife Kathy have been married over 36 years, and have six children, three sons-in-law, and four grandchildren.

It’s an old proverb: marriage is a great institution, but who wants to live in an institution?  Well, at MR, we know it can be rough—life with another sinner usually is—but we also know it can be great.  Recovering a biblical sense of the purpose, theology, practical outworking of marriage is a good first step, so we’ve published some articles with that can help you get started.  Subscribe today and read them all!

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PROGRAM AUDIO & RESOURCES

When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19), he was not only hinting at his forthcoming resurrection, but he was also claiming to be the true temple, and the ultimate meeting place between God and man. On this program Shane Rosenthal explores the biblical background to this idea by talking with J. Daniel Hays, author of The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Places from Genesis to Revelation.

Show Quote

“Throughout the Old Testament, the temple represented the presence of God, but the people stand against that and they worshipped idols. And so, in Ezekiel 8 to 10, we have an account of God’s presence leaving the temple. There’s no indication the presence of God comes back to Israel until Jesus shows up and actually walks in through those temple doors. So, when Jesus identifies himself with the temple, it signifies this is the presence of God who has now come back to interact with his people.”

–J. Daniel Hays

Term to Learn

“Christ in the Old Testament”

Q. How do we come to know that Christ came to make us right with God?

A. The holy gospel tells me. God himself began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise; later, he proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and portrayed it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; finally, he fulfilled it through his own dear Son.

(Adapted from The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 19)

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Christians who have experienced great trauma and loss are all too familiar with the tropes of well-meant consolation from friends and family—passages of Scripture recited, cliché Christian phrases inside a Dayspring card along with a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. Rational explanations for death are juxtaposed to the actual pain of death’s sting.  God’s people may reproach death, goading, “Where, O death, is your victory?”, but the curse of sin still tarnishes the living. Before the grave takes our bones and returns us to the dust, the corruption of this penultimate world stings our bodies and brains. While the church is able to comfort the mourning with the hope of the resurrection after death, she is less equipped to support those on whom the curse is inflicted in the form of mental illness.

When mental illness is revealed in adulthood, it transforms a person into a stranger to their family and friends. For parents, this transition can be more grievous than death—it isolates not only the suffering individual, but their family. Because people with mental illnesses are always unique cases (despite symptomatic categories) gaining community support and discovering beneficial resources and information is challenging. In her book Broken Pieces, Simonetta Carr tells the story of her son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia, the struggles she and her family faced as a result within their home, community, and the legal system, and her hope in Christ that fueled her love for her son amid his illness.  The first part of the book tells the story of a mother loving her son with schizophrenia; the second part is a compilation of the practical, legal, spiritual, and otherwise parental insight she gathered along the way. It is a sort of handbook for the parents of a child diagnosed with a mental illness, offering a wealth of information from a well-informed, uniquely Christian perspective while giving the reader an introduction to mental illness in twenty-first century North America.

It’s important to note that the focus of the narrative is on the mother and her personal, spiritual, and familiar learning experiences. The author states in the introduction that although her husband was just as involved in their son’s life, he is largely absent in her construction of the narrative, expanding the story to include her pastor’s care, her son’s friends and lifestyle choices, and the contribution of other forces external to their situation.  Because the story is told in the present tense, the reader is placed in the middle of the family’s turmoil, so that the author’s retrospective input and the mother’s momentary thoughts are blurred, leaving the reader to figure out when we’re hearing from Carr the author or Simonetta the mother. Often, it appears that she is reflecting on a situation and inserts knowledge she has come to acquire since an event has taken place, but these interjections are placed within the mother’s thought-process in the narrative.  For example, she frequently asks rhetorical questions or offers an anecdote or a bit of information on certain drugs or theological positions. In these instances, it is unclear whether these are pieces of information she was considering at the time, or the author later adding information to make sense of a situation.

Christians outside of the Reformed tradition may take issue with Carr’s theological perspective, but detailed examples in part two provide some helpful insight.  For example, when she discovers that her son is smoking marijuana, she immediately informs her pastor; as a result, the church elders decide “to ban him from the Lord’s Table in order to impress on him the seriousness of his offense” until he admits that it is a sin.  Her pastor suffers alongside the Carr family, praying for them, and bearing their burdens through pastoral care to the best of his ability, and she is comforted by her brothers and sisters in the church, as well.  One of the book’s most provocative theological conversations is from her friend Alex who refers to Romans 8 to describe God’s immeasurable grace.  Brenden and Tim, two seminary students, further remind Simonetta of “Christ’s relentless love” for both her and her son.  Because the reader is emotionally and experientially distanced from the narrative, it is easy to cringe at some of the less-inspiring moments—no parent or church is perfect, and Carr is refreshingly honest about her and others’ shortcomings.  But we must recognize that Carr is placing the reader in the middle of her learning process—she’s describing her thoughts and emotions as best as she could recall them, and being frank about the kinds of decisions that were made to benefit her son.

Ultimately, the story leaves the reader questioning whose pieces are broken—Jonathan’s or his mother’s? On the one hand, Jonathan is broken by social standards; his condition alienates him from being able to participate in the workplace, in church, and in his family without serious challenges.  He is broken by psychological standards in that his mind deviates from the typical performance of non-schizophrenic adults.  His mother is also broken.  She deconstructs her memories, theology, parenting, and ultimately, her identity in Christ to make sense of the trauma she faces in loving her son with a mental illness.  She encapsulates this sentiment in her reiteration of the words of medieval Jewish poet, Yehuda Ha-Levi, when she says, “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”  Broadly, Carr’s book shows how we are all broken pieces of a grand narrative—one in which God sent his own son to mend death and disease; to love what death has touched.  Carr’s story is evidence that there is comfort in knowing that salvation is external to our diseased will’s ability to choose God.  She gives thanks in knowing that God’s grace and salvation are unmerited gifts. To her reader, she offers her wisdom along with valuable, practical information for those who are learning to love their child amid mental illness.

Kimberly Olivar is a graduate of Concordia University, Irvine. She currently studies disabilities in literature at California State University, Fullerton.

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In John 2:13-16 we’re told that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, and that when “he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there, [he made] a whip of cords [and] drove them all out of the temple.” According to one  commentary, “It was in the outer court that the temple authorities arranged booths (called ‘the Bazaars of Annas’ and belonging to the family of the high priest) to provide animals approved for sacrifice and to exchange foreign currency for coins acceptable for paying the half–shekel temple tax. Because most local coins were stamped with pagan symbols, they were not acceptable” (Understanding the Bible). In actuality, the coin that the Jewish authorities accepted during this period had its own pagan symbol on it.
The coin sanctioned for the use at the Jerusalem Temple was the Tyrian shekel due to it’s particular weight and silver content. In fact, the Mishna specifically says, “The five selas for redeeming the firstborn son are in Tyrian coinage. The thirty for the slave…are to be paid in the value of shekels of the sanctuary, in Tyrian coinage” (Bek. 8:7). Around the edge of this Phoenician coin was written, “Tyre the Holy, city of refuge.” The back of this coin bore the image of an eagle, and on the front, an image of Melkart, who was “accepted by Greeks as the Olympian Hercules, and derided by Jews as Beelzebub.” One coin specialist writes, “It is ironic that Tyrian coins bore the image of Melkart, a Phoenician deity equivalent to Baal, Israel’s old enemy.”

In another section of the Mishna we see a confirmation of the claim made in all four Gospels that the money-changers eventually began to set up tables within the walls of the Temple itself:

On the first day of Adar [i.e., around the time that the Jews begin to prepare for the festival of Passover] they make public announcement concerning shekel dues (Ex 30:13)…On the fifteenth day…they repair the paths, roads, and immersion pools. And they carry out all public needs. And they mark off the graves…[and] set up money changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth they set them up in the Temple. Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges…and they do not exact a pledge from priests…He who pays the shekel…for himself and for his fellow, he is liable for a single surcharge…Just as there were shofar chests [for receiving the shekel tax] in the Temple, so there were shofar chests in the provinces (Sheqal 1:1ff).
Alfred Edersheim, who was a Jewish convert to the Christian faith in latter part of the nineteenth century, provides a great deal of historical background that helps us to understand the true significance of Jesus’ actions as he drove the money-changers out of the Jerusalem Temple: 
It was a great accommodation, that a person bringing a sacrifice might not only learn, but actually obtain, in the Temple from its officials what was required for the meat, and drink-offering…and these transactions must have left a considerable margin of profit to the treasury. This would soon lead to another kind of traffic. Offerers might, of course, bring their sacrificial animals with them, and we know that on the Mount of Olives there were four shops, specially for the sale of pigeons and other things requisite for sacrificial purposes. But then, when an animal was brought, it had to be examined as to its Levitical fitness by persons regularly qualified and appointed. Disputes might here arise, due to the ignorance of the purchaser, or the greed of the examiner…Now, as we are informed that a certain examiner of firstlings had been authorized to charge for his inspection…all trouble and difficulty would be avoided by a regular market within the Temple-enclosure, where sacrificial animals could be purchased, having presumably been duly inspected, and all fees paid before being offered for sale. 

It needs no comment to show how utterly the Temple would be profaned by such traffic, and to what scenes it might lead. From Jewish writings we know, that most improper transactions were carried on, to the taking undue advantage of the poor people who came to offer their sacrifices. Thus we read (Ker.1. 7), that on one occasion the price of a couple of pigeons was run up to the enormous figure of a gold denarius.

[It] can scarcely be doubted, that [the moneychangers] had to pay a considerable rental or percentage to the leading Temple-officials…If this inference…be admitted, we gain much light as regards the purification of the Temple by Jesus, and the words which He spake on that occasion. For, our next position is that, from the unrighteousness of the traffic carried on in these Bazaars, and the greed of their owners, the ‘Temple-market’ was at the time most unpopular. This appears…from the fact that popular indignation, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, swept away the Bazaars of the family of Annas, and this, as expressly stated, on account of the sinful greed which characterized their dealings. And if any doubt should still linger in the mind, it would surely be removed by our Lord’s open denunciation of the Temple-market as ‘a den of robbers.’ Of the avarice and corruption of this High-Priestly family, alike Josephus and the Rabbis give a most terrible picture. Josephus describes Annas (or Ananus), the son of the Annas of the New Testament, as ‘a great hoarder up of money,’ very rich, and as despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues. …It were easy to add from Rabbinic sources repulsive details of their luxuriousness, wastefulness, gluttony, and general dissoluteness. No wonder that, in the figurative language of the Talmud, the Temple is represented as crying out against them: ‘Go hence, ye sons of Eli, ye defile the Temple of Jehovah!’ (Pes. u. s.). 

These painful notices of the state of matters at that time help us better to understand what Christ did, and who they were that opposed His doing. But we can now also understand why the Temple officials, to whom these Bazaars belonged, only challenged the authority of Christ in thus purging the Temple. The unpopularity of the whole traffic, if not their consciences, prevented their proceeding to actual violence…There was not a hand lifted, not a word spoken to arrest Him, as He made the scourge of small cords…His Presence awed them, His words awakened even their consciences; they knew, only too well, how true His denunciations were. And behind Him was gathered the wondering multitude, that could not but sympathize with such bold, right royal, and Messianic vindication of Temple sanctity from the nefarious traffic of a hated, corrupt, and avaricious Priesthood. It was a scene worth witnessing by any true Israelite, a protest and an act which…gained Him respect and admiration, and which, at any rate, secured his safety (The Life & Times of Jesus The Messiah, Chapter 5, “The Cleansing of the Temple”).  

Shane Rosenthal is the executive producer of White Horse Inn, and also serves as a ruling elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri.

To view an image of the Temple coin referenced in the above article, click here:

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There’s a word in American Christendom that strikes fear into the hearts of God’s people. It’s not ‘Islam,’ ‘liberalism,’ ‘socialism,’ or ‘atheism’ (although all those do create irrational fear in Western Christians). The most terrifying word in all of American Christendom is “evangelism.”  If you doubt me, just ask a fellow believer when was the last time they verbally shared the gospel with an unbeliever—the answer will likely be silence. When one considers why it’s hard to share the gospel with the lost, many answers will come forth, but the common denominator is usually fear.  North-American Christians are afraid of looking unintelligent, weird, awkward, and ignorant.  In our celebrity-obsessed culture, to look uninformed, unintellectual, and unattractive is the highest of social sins. However, we are not called as Christ’s church to proclaim our own excellencies (we have none) but to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:19).  Fortunately, there are tools available to help with this.  Consider “The Three E’s of Evangelism”:

Engagement

What do you think of when you see that word? Do you think of going up to random people in a confrontational or obnoxious manner?  Do you think of being loud or aggressive?  You’ll be happy to know that that’s not what engagement in evangelism means. Engagement in this context is demonstrating to those who don’t follow Christ that you welcome them and their opinions by listening to them. When it comes to evangelism, we often think we have to be the ones speaking or even leading the conversation, but that’s not true.  In my experience evangelizing non-believers, they appreciate it when they see that we truly care for them as fellow human beings as opposed to being just another notch on our spiritual belt.

Recently, I was speaking with a young man at a local park.  Through the course of the conversation, he had mentioned his rough upbringing and how it shaped his view of the things of God. I could’ve gone straight to answering some of his objections, but I didn’t.  Instead, I asked him to share more of his story.  As he did, his tears started to flow. He poured out his heart and allowed me to share in his pain and sorrow. When he finished, I was able to minister to him further by offering some perspective on his trials and questions that he had. At the end of our conversation, he mentioned how he needed to rethink his views on God and I was able to share the gospel of Jesus with him.  It was a good time of fellowship and encouragement for us both, and I wonder if one of the reasons for that was my willingness to simply love him by listening. As Pastor Leon Brown of Montage Church in Los Angeles, CA writes in his book, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope that is Within Us, “A listening ear is usually welcomed and appreciated.”[1]

When speaking about evangelism, people often ask me what are some of the main things they should remember and do. I have two pieces of advice: “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…[and to] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Evangelism must come from a heart in love with God and neighbor. If our evangelism doesn’t flow out of love for God and neighbor, then we are nothing more than a “…noisy gong…[and] are nothing” (1 Corinthian 13:1-3).  The second is like it: James 1:19, “…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” If we are truly operating out of a love for God and the neighbor with whom we are sharing the message of eternal life, then we will engage by eagerly and actively listening. By doing this, we demonstrate our genuine love for the lost by treating them as fellow valuable image bearers of God instead of debating opponents against whom we’ve won an argument.

Empathy

Empathy is defined as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” There is a belief about American Christians—a belief that has sadly proven true in too many cases—that we think of ourselves as holier (and therefore, better) than our non-believing neighbors.  True, Christians are holy unto the Lord because of the work of Christ, but we are not superior to unbelievers, nor do we possess an innate quality of holiness over against them.  We easily forget that all we have (especially salvation), is a free gift of God’s sovereign grace and that we therefore we have nothing to boast about. We too were once “…dead in the trespasses and sins…” and “…were by nature children of wrath…” (Ephesians 2:1, 3).  When we forget that we were once enemies of God and on our way to the Lake of Fire and assume a self-righteous superiority, we make our evangelism more about our ‘kind willingness’ to let ‘these people’ join our special club, and less about a good desire to see all tribes, tongues, and nations praising God for his salvation.  Empathy allows for a better, more God-glorifying way of relating to our unsaved neighbors. Pastor Brown writes,

To various degrees, both believers and unbelievers know what is right and wrong. When confronted by the law, we must admit we’ve all broken it. Since this is commonplace, we have another ally: compassion. We know what it’s like to fight against our true identity and follow after the course of this world; to be constantly drawn away from the Lord to fulfill the lusts of the flesh…God in Christ had compassion on us…Can we have compassion on others in a similar way (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)? Can we relate to others since we know the struggle that sin brings-the temptations, the guilt, the shame…because Christ had compassion on us, that Christlike compassion should flow from us to others.[2]

In my years of experience sharing the gospel on high school and college campuses, street corners, boardwalks, airplanes, movie theatres, etc., I’ve seen that my willingness to admit that I have sinned against God and deserve His wrath frees others to admit that as well.  When I’m honest and admit that as a Christian, I’ve wrestled with doubts and questions and still do at times, it frees the unbeliever to admit his own doubts and questions and opens up an avenue for discussion. When I admit that I still wrestle and struggle with sin, it frees them to open up about what sin(s) they’re trapped in and how it is affecting their lives. We know what it is to be “…separated from Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

When we stop pretending that we have it all together and are honest about our struggles in life and the hope of Christ we have in the midst of it all, it shows that we aren’t holier-than-thou, but struggling pilgrims going through some of the same issues they are and yet, have hope. Wise transparency, compassion, and empathy are far more becoming to God’s chosen people, the Church, than compelling arguments and sophisticated rhetoric.

Explanation

At some point during our evangelistic conversations, we have to explain the truth of the gospel. In other words, we have to actually break down for the non-believer how they can be reconciled to God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is what most Western Christians fear the most. Listening and being empathetic comes much easier than actually sharing “…the hope that is within [us]…with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). This brings forth the question you probably wanted answered the moment you clicked on this link: how do we share the gospel? While there’s no 100%-of-the-time-it-works-every-time method, there are certain biblical principles that can help us navigate the waters of evangelism. Personally, I use these five categories: God as Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, Savior, and Caller.

At the beginning of this year, I went to that same local park near my house and spoke with a young African-American man named Jeremy. When I first asked if he had any spiritual beliefs, he answered, “Well, I don’t believe in white Jesus.”  I told him that I also didn’t believe in the white Jesus presented by American cultural Christianity, and over the course of an hour, I told him about how he was lovingly created in the image of God (Creator), how he (and I) had fallen short of the perfection God demands of us by breaking His perfect Law (Lawgiver), that we both deserved His wrath in the Lake of Fire for eternity (Judge), how God bridged that gap between us and Himself by sending His Son to live, die, and rise in our place, thus paying the sin debt we owe (Savior), and how we are called to stop running from God and trust in Jesus alone (Caller). After about ten minutes of clarifying our terms and making sure we understand one another accurately, he told me that he had been thinking about these issues for a while and that he was thankful I had spoken to him about the gospel. He then bowed his head and prayed to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior! We exchanged phone numbers and he’s been reading his Bible and asking great questions about his new faith. He’s also come to church with me since then and we’ve discussed him getting baptized.  When speaking to non-Christians, it is important to realize we no longer live in a culture and time where the Christian worldview is a commonly-held framework for life. Many don’t have or understand Christian concepts, and those that do profess a form of spiritual beliefs will use similar words with very different meanings. We must seek to make Christian truth understandable by explaining our terms and clearing up any misconceptions about our message.

Remember…..

Salvation does, after all, “belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). No matter what tools we utilize, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t regenerate a spiritually dead sinner, they won’t respond positively to the Gospel. However, the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be pleased in using these tools of engagement, empathy, and explanation to bring life to people dead in their sins and it is this truth that should make us bold in using the “Three E’s of Evangelism.” The gospel is the message non-Christian image bearers need to hear and believe in order to be reconciled to the Triune God and it is our privilege and blessing to share it with others. May the Spirit of God give you His love and boldness as you seek to reach a lost and hopeless world for Jesus Christ.

Anthony English is the Assistant Director of Mission to the World’s West Coast Office and is currently enrolled at Birmingham Theological Seminary. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three boys.

Does evangelism terrify you?  Does the thought of having philosophical and theological arguments make you want to bury yourself in the couch and start Netflix bingeing?  We get it—it’s intimidating.  That’s why we’ve written dozens of articles on the most effective ways to talk with your non-believing friends about the faith for the past 25 years (spoiler alert: it’s not having a bachelor’s in philosophy or biblical studies)—subscribe to Modern Reformation and get access to a host of helpful, practical pieces on evangelism and apologetics.

[1] Leon Brown, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope Within Us (Spotsylvania, VA: Gospel Rich Books, 2013), 68-69.

[2] Leon Brown, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope Within Us (Spotsylvania, VA: Gospel Rich Books, 2013), 116-118.

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PROGRAM AUDIO & RESOURCES

In John chapter 2, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the festival of Passover and drives the money-changers out of the temple. But who were the money-changers, and why was their presence at this sacred site so offensive? In the other Gospels, the cleansing of the temple takes place during Jesus’ final week, so how are we to explain this apparent discrepancy? Join us as we discuss these issues as part of our ongoing series through the Gospel of John.

Show Quote

“We went to a megachurch once, and this guy was walking around the stage in this kind of skit, and the prop was—he had these big dollar bills that were keeping him from seeing things on stage. Five or six different blessings that he couldn’t get to—sending your kids to college, taking that great vacation. Then the narrator said, what he obviously needs to do is to take the money that’s blinding him, give it to the church and now he can see his blessings.”

–Shane Rosenthal

“Wow. It’s that message of ‘if you give us enough money, we’ll sort things out between you and God.'”

–Sam Allberry

Term to Learn

“Consumer Culture”

Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. A consumer culture can broadly be defined as a culture where social status, values, and activities are centered on the consumption of goods, services, and experiences. A large part of what you do, what you value and how you are defined revolves around consumption. Some theorists have regarded consumer culture as oppressive and manipulative, and some argue that it is a model of “consumer sovereignty.”

After World War II, consumer spending no longer meant satisfying an indulgent material desire. The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s, as someone contributing to the ultimate success of the American way of life. “The good purchaser devoted to ‘more, newer and better’ was the good citizen,” historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote, “since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.”

Historian Elaine Tyler May argues that the new consumerism was a way to deemphasizing class differences while stressing traditional gender roles. The federal government and the American people saw that what had become defined as “the good life” was now within economic reach. For the working-class people could achieve the upward mobility they craved.

Consumerism has become one of the dominant global social forces that seeks a life of uninhibited consumption of goods, services, and experiences with almost total disregard for the global effects of such lifestyles. It is the pursuit of a good life narrated and marketed to through such practices which has cut across natural differences of religion, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality. It is central to what Manfred Steger calls the new ‘global imaginary.’ This market driven vision of life has seeped into all aspects of life, turning even rebellion against the status quo into a new market niche ready for branding and consumption, wedding itself to the politics of uninhibited desire.

(Adapted from Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, p. 119; James, Paul; Szeman, and Imre Globalization and Culture, Vol. 3: “Global-Local Consumption,” p. x; and “Consumerism” from the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia [2008])

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Encountering an author for the first time is much like meeting a new friend. In the book Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Who We Are in Christ, we meet not one, but ten doctrinally informed, Biblically rooted, Christ-exalting sisters who explore ten facets of what it means to be an image-bearer of Christ: free, a reflection, a child, a saint, fruitful, a member, beautiful, a servant, a worshipper, and a citizen.  The body of Christ is all the fuller when sister-theologians live out their calling as a royal priesthood, teaching and proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light, and this volume is a wonderful example of how the church can be edified by the good use of their gifts.

Identity is an all-pervasive subject—our self-perception affects our every decision, in every relationship, at every waking hour. Who am I in Christ? Who does the Bible tell me I am?

Like a healthy human skeleton, the framework of the book has just the right amount of flexibility and structure. Each chapter holds the same pattern: identity theft, identity truth, and identity transformed. Each author fleshes out one aspect of identity and delves into some depth of insight—a helpful approach to such a broad topic—beginning with a pithy quote and ending with a memory verse and questions based on the core scripture passages.

The authors exude serious joy and thoughtful confidence—the reader feels very much as though she is listening in on a round table discussion between ten sisters who have been walking closely with Christ.  We live in a context where criticisms are dispensed quickly and freely for the sake of elevating oneself.  Not so with these women.  They readily laugh at themselves as they share their fears and mistakes, and they edify fellow heirs of grace by welcoming others into their conversation and cultivating discussion.  This format makes it is an outstanding resource for one-to-one discipleship and small groups of three to six people.

Most importantly, this book quenches the thirst of passersby with the sweet and living water of the gospel.  All ten authors nail the gospel in every chapter in the section they call “Identity Truth.” I found myself saying “Amen!” and “praise be to God!” over and over again.  The reminders that I am not what I do; I am not my personality, I am not my failures, and that I am covered and hidden in the finished work of Christ on the cross were helpful reminders and welcome consolation. I belong to the Trinity: the Father who adopted me, Christ who died in my place, and the Spirit who makes me one with him and his people.  Nonetheless, no matter how wonderful the village well might be, one cannot live there. Sooner or later, we need to pick up our jars of water and go home. Identity Theft does not plow to the depth of any one topic, and it does not pretend to. The authors rightly point us back to the Word of God, which is the bread that daily sustains us.

One limitation of Identity Theft is that it primarily addresses the subject of identity from a Western perspective. This perspective is further limited by relative silence on a weighty subject concerning identity today—ethnicity.  The assembled panel has some experiences of racial diversity: Courtney Doctor writes about the adoption of her daughter from China; Jen Pollock Michel is an American living in Toronto, Trillia Newbell and Jasmine Holmes are African American sisters. The book itself, however, largely treats aspects of identity apart from race. The thefts of our identity mentioned in this book are distinctly American thefts.  If this was a book about the Holy Spirit or the genres of the Bible, race and ethnicity would be a lesser concern. But in a book about identity, this is a curious omission.  For example, the notion of bloodline runs thick in non-Western parts of the world. A significant “identity theft” in Asian cultures is the lie that we are defined by our genealogies, both the living and the dead. The approval and acceptance of our community and family shape us to the core, resulting in the harshest persecution, rejection, and murder of Christian converts in the Eastern part of the world not by the state, but by family members.  In a culture where ethnic tensions are simmering to a boil, I wish that Identity Theft took the opportunity to declare the power of the gospel to unite every tribe and tongue in Christ Jesus. From Genesis to Revelation, bloodline is a topic of concern for the biblical authors. Race matters. In the chapters about “Member,” “Worshiper,” and “Citizen,” I found myself wanting to hear how the gospel creates a new bond between believers that transcends earthly genealogies.

Nonetheless, Identity Theft nails the importance of reclaiming the truth of who we are in Christ. While the book may be more immediately relevant to those living in the West, it proclaims the excellencies of Christ that transcend time and culture. Christ binds us together in the new covenant; Christians are his forever family. Bloodline runs thick, but Christ’s blood runs thicker still.

Irene Sun studied liturgy and literature at Yale University (MAR) and Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (ThM).  She is the author of the children’s picture book God Counts: Numbers In His Word and His World, and lives in Chicago with her husband and four boys.

With new books coming out every week and new tasks inserting themselves into your to-do list, selecting your next book can be overwhelming.  That’s why we feature reviews of the latest releases every week—from Christian living and fiction to politics and sociology, we critique and discuss so you can prioritize and digest.  Subscribe here to get this month’s issue and see what’s been on our desk. 

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Last month, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke at the 2019 MAKERS Conference, an annual conference on gender equality.  Before her speech, she brought out a small sculpture of a vagina she’d had welded from donated melted-down purity rings and presented it to feminist icon Gloria Steinem.  Those who donated their rings received a ‘Certificate of Impurity’, stating that the donor will vow to lead ‘a SHAMELESS, open and free life, with love for themselves and their body, knowing that they are already holy,’ as well as a ‘SHAMELESS impurity ring’.

Bolz-Weber has already made waves with her bestselling book Pastrix: The Crazy, Beautiful Faith of A Sinner and Saint,[1] the story of her own conversion, journey through church-planting, and the ups and downs of life in ministry.  Five years later, she remains theologically liberal on a variety of issues, so those familiar with her positions on gender and sexuality will perhaps be unsurprised by this gesture.  In an interview with the Huffington Post, Bolz-Weber discussed the rationale behind the project, saying that it was a symbolic gesture to reclaim female genitalia from the control of the church and re-assert female ownership of it.  “This part of me is mine and I get to determine what is good for it and if it’s beautiful and how I use it in the world.” She sees the project as an encouragement to women to see the power of “tak[ing] symbols and words and actions that might have harmed me at a different time in life and to reclaim and redefine and rework those into something healing and humorous.”  “The idea is to tell former purity ring wearers that they are holy because of the life that God has breathed into them, and that this holiness isn’t something that can be taken away by another human being.”

Shocking though this act might be to conservative Christians, it should not be surprising. Bolz-Weber has identified herself as not just a theologically liberal, but an aesthetically non-conservative pastor, so using female genitalia as a symbol of both defiance and hope is almost to be expected.  What should grab our attention isn’t the display of female anatomy, but the way she is addressing a very real brokenness in the Christian community.

Purity Culture vs. Sexual Purity

While I disagree with Bolz-Weber on a number of theological and biblical points (her ideas about sin being prominent among them), I do share her concern about purity culture.  Scripture quite clearly calls women and men to sexual purity outside of marriage and sexual chastity within marriage—Paul writes to the church in Corinth that the sexually immoral, idolators, fornicators, and those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God.  He reminds the church in Ephesus that sexual immorality, impurity and covetousness must not be named among them, and admonishes the young men in Titus’ congregation to treat the young women as sisters, with all purity.

The leaders of the purity movement rightly take these admonitions seriously, and their motives are good.  The problem is not with sexual purity per se, but in the manner and emphasis of the movement’s message, the brunt of which tends to fall disproportionately on young women—“Don’t go out alone at night,” “Dress modestly,” “Don’t be a stumbling block,” etc.  This, combined with the continual focus on the biological differences between men and women and warnings about the potential dangers of male-female intimacy, creates the impression that (1) all men have a sexually predatory nature, and that it’s a woman’s job to protect herself from it, (2) the burden of male sexual purity is mostly on women—she must not dress, act, or talk in a manner that will ‘cause them to stumble,’ as her brothers cannot be expected to exercise self-control or bear the responsibility for their own thoughts and actions themselves, and (3) men are walking sexual time-bombs and there’s nothing they can do about it, except get married.

Don’t misunderstand—men and women are certainly biologically different, and that will of course manifest itself in their sexuality.  But the call to sexual purity cannot fall solely on women. We cannot reduce a woman’s worth to her virginity and a man’s sexual nature to purely biological impulses.  Doing so disassociates human sexuality from its proper context as an important and wonderful aspect of our creaturely composition and degrades both to the level of purely sexual beings with no value or purpose apart from their sexual agency.  We are not animals without souls who engage in intercourse for procreation alone; we’re image-bearers of the triune God whose sexuality is a marvelous aspect of who we are as human beings. The physical urge and biological impetus is an important part of that—one that we do well to recognize—but it’s not the only part.  That urge is accompanied by a moral conscience and (in the case of the Christian) a heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit and reoriented by love of God and neighbor. Certainly, a woman’s sexual purity is important, but not because it’s the only thing of value she has to offer—she is more than an unbroken hymen. Men’s sexual drive is a good thing, but it does not and should not control him—he is not a beast looking for release wherever he can get it.

As a result of the purity culture’s elevation of a woman’s virginity to her holiness, and the degradation of a man’s sexuality to that of uncontrollable impulse, many women and men today severely struggle to understand what it means to glorify God in their sexuality.  Some struggle with guilt and shame long after they’ve repented of their sin (or after a sinful act was committed against them); some live in constant fear of committing the same sins today they repented of tomorrow; many live with no idea how to reconcile their sexual urges with their holy identity. Bolz-Weber does well to acknowledge the hurt occasioned, and in an attempt to heal the wound, offers her own medicine: bring an offering (donate your old purity ring), I will be your mediator (I am the priestess sculpting the offering), and I will confer upon you the holiness you crave (I’ll send you a certificate and a new ring).

Unfortunately, the history of the church is rife with examples of leaders trying to mediate holiness.  During the Middle Ages, the sale of indulgences, the issuing of pardons in exchange of donations, and the power struggle of the church leadership blocking the laypeople from the word of God resulted in a massive reformation and schism in the church. Anything that attempts to replace the true gospel message of healing and hope is fraudulent at best. Fortunately, Scripture gives Christians their own signs and symbols of reassurance, ordinary elements with a sacred purpose.

Sculpture and Certificate vs. Word and Sacrament

Bolz-Weber understands the value of symbols.  Her sculpture acknowledges the wrongs inflicted upon earnest Christians, affirms the beauty and worth of the female body, and asserts a woman’s value as being more than simply sexual.  A good friend of mine who keenly feels the damage of purity culture commented to me that she wishes she had a purity ring that she could send in to be destroyed. This makes sense—there is catharsis in ritual—but while destroying the symbol of the culture that caused needless pain and shame may make one feel better, it cannot actually absolve us of our sin, sexual or not.

One of the pitfalls of purity culture is that it elevates sexual sin as permanently damaging as well as eternally damning—Christ may have borne the punishment for our failures, but virginity cannot be restored.  It is the unforgivable sin, and all others pale in comparison. While the Westminster Shorter Catechism does say, “Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (WSC 83), we must remember the following sentence: “Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come” (WSC 84).  Our sexual sin does not condemn us more than gossiping to our friend, the pride in our hearts, or our lack of love for our neighbors. Any sin—every sin—warrants the fair judgment of God. Purity culture has the tendency to elevate sexual sin to an unsavable nature while downplaying the ‘respectable sins’ into inconsequential faux pas. This in turn causes us to seek symbols and signs to relieve us of the one sin, when God has graciously provided those to heal us from all our sins.  Melting the symbol of our pain may be a therapeutic exercise, but it cannot propitiate the wrath of God against all the sins we commit every day in thought, word, and deed. We need something greater than a purge to free us from the guilt and shame of all of our sins.

This is what makes the gospel of Jesus Christ so glorious—all of our sins, public and private, have been done away with by the sacrifice of his own body at Calvary.  There is no need for a human mediator who says, “Come, let me remove your guilt and shame;” our Savior has already done it. We don’t need a defiant symbol of the assertion of our own power and autonomy because we have the freely given symbols of our salvation on Sunday—the word of the gospel, the water of our baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  His word declares our guilt in the law and our freedom in the gospel; the waters of baptism signify the washing away of our sins; the bread and wine signify the sacrifice made on our behalf by Christ and the new covenant wherein we are free not by our virginity, but by the gift of his righteousness. These signs and seals, the practice of Lord’s Day liturgy, the very Word of God contained itself are all precious tools given by God to remind us that there is no sin so great that his blood cannot cover it, and no wound so deep that he cannot heal it.  He knows the perversion of his Word that turns good exhortations into heavy burdens, and the sinful corruption of our own hearts that turn good desire into lust. He knows our shame and the bitter regret of wishing we knew better. He knows our feeble attempts to reconcile our feelings with who he declares us to be, and that we will desperately seek any means of healing and hope to deal with the depth of pain. For all these reasons and so many more, he has given us these powerful symbols, his living word, and the family of God to remind us that no matter how broken we may be, no matter how great our shame and guilt, we are now and always will be his children, precious and beloved in his sight.

Sherrene DeLong  (MAT, Westminster Seminary California) is a contributor to All Are Welcome: Toward A Multi-Everything Church.  She lives in Virginia with her husband and son.

Brooke Ventura is the digital editor of Modern Reformation.  She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.

At Modern Reformation, we make constructive discussion with everyone—whether we agree with them or not—the hallmark of our work.  If you’re looking for clarifying conversations on the hot-button issues of the day, click here to subscribe and benefit from the courteous exchanges between Christians, atheists, conservatives and liberals that have distinguished our work from the beginning. 

[1] Read Executive Editor Eric Landry’s review of the book here.

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PROGRAM AUDIO & RESOURCES

Was the Fourth Gospel written by John the Apostle, or a mysterious figure known as John the Elder? And was this text penned before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., or some time later? Is there a conservative trend in the world of New Testament scholarship? On this edition of the program, Shane Rosenthal talks with D.A. Carson about these questions and more as we continue our year-long exploration of the Gospel of John.

Guest Quote

“If you believe something that isn’t true, then your faith isn’t commendable because you’re sincere. Your faith is worthless unless the object of that faith is valid. This is an admirable misapprehension. Something that is warm and fuzzy, and therefore, to be admired. It is something on which you’re building your life falsely. In the New Testament, you increase faith not by yelling, “Believe! Believe! Believe! Believe!” but by articulating, defending, and proclaiming the truth.”

–D. A. Carson

Term to Learn

“Assurance of Salvation”

Q. 80 Can true believers be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and that they shall persevere therein unto salvation?
A. Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God’s promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation.

Q. 81 Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved?
A. Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it; and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted, through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair.

(Taken from the Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 80-81)

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They are the bane of every graduation speech, the baleful platitudes adorning 3rd grade posters since time immemorial:

Dare to be Different! Dream Big. Be Original!

Wharton professor Adam Grant’s book Originals tiptoes down the hall towards those elementary school placards. A peek at the table of contents suggests adult aphorisms for the MBA & DIY set, with chapters titled The Risky Business of Going Against the Grain and Speaking Truth to Power. As I opened it, I wondered if I had found the snowflake factory, where every person is unique and ‘original’, a bare collation of hot takes on millennial creativity.  After coming out the other side, I’m glad to say I was (somewhat) wrong.

What is Grant’s work about? Originality. Or as he puts it, “the hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” He begins by rewriting over our notions of successful startups. What makes for the best creative or institutional change? You may operate under the assumption that innovation is for the young, the 20- or 30-something entrepreneur or inventor. As Einstein quipped once, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” On the contrary, Grant marshals convincing evidence that there are different kinds of creativity. Although we tend to recall the boy geniuses, older masters of their field can provide needed sparks of originality. The young creative is a conceptual innovator—someone who begins with an idea and then attempts it. But the older nonconformist is more experimental, advancing through trial and error over the years. Therefore, if you want to continue possessing originality, ideally you will cultivate and accumulate expertise over decades.

Next, he engages the question of scale. It is one matter to advance with an idea, but implementing that idea on a broad front requires different techniques. Here we find the secrets for already-established leaders to champion new ideas. Many organizations already have a history and a culture. Not all are meant to self-start their own business. But all who work in the office can use Grant’s heuristics to measure their own culture of creativity. Here is a sampling of the strategies we receive from this work: Grant urges the counterintuitive notion of highlighting the weaknesses of your proposed culture change. Surprisingly, he notes that when fellow workers have to struggle to come up with additional objections, they begin to see the benefits of your desired shift. After his segments on individual and corporate originality, Grant segues into the territory of the future. Here, the expertise of a management guru seems the most out of place. Though he centers on maintaining originality and nurturing it among siblings, children, and future pioneers, citing the favorite childhood books of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (“likely highly original children”) confuses correlation and causation. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and Ender’s Game before, but I can’t say it’s made me highly original.

Thus, despite the value of his business-oriented techniques, I cannot give Originals a whole-throated compliment. Part of the problem with Originals is the omnipresent reliance upon psychological and sociological models. The reader is repeatedly informed that people will act a certain way when attempting to manage or create originality, that laterborn children will generate more paradigm-busting projects.

Herein lies the chief concern I have with the work: its notion of progress and innovation. “Originality”, according to Adam Grant, must include “generating a concept that is both novel and useful.”[1] The definition is notable, not so much for its emphasis on novelty but its focus on utility. What Originals lacks entirely is any moral evaluation, any heuristic for assessing the ethical worth of a given creation. This lacuna is not original to Grant, but is a common failing in the business and tech industries of our day. We simply do not consider the moral weight of our innovations. Rather, we assume that any ‘progress’ is beneficial, any change in efficiency, any expansion of the realm of human knowledge automatically equals beneficial originality. This implicit a priori lurks beneath the surface of this book, and we readers would do well to remember that the gap between technology and ethics is not so great as we may think.

And far greater landmines are seeded in this work. First among them is the ticking explosion of ambitious glory. Our Lord spoke of this to the Pharisees in John 5:43-44: “If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Half of Originals is anecdotal evidence from boom or bust creatives. Why? Because it wakes up the glory-hound within our hearts, the beast that loves to bow and scrape before men and women, driven by the assumption that if we find the silver bullet for originality we can be as famous as anyone.

Fame is transient. But the glory that comes from Jesus Christ is neither transient nor unoriginal. And it is the most creative of all, for “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3)” The desire to change the world in a new fashion is not wrong (Exhibit A—the Incarnation), but we must realize that middle-class obsession with ‘creativity’ easily can link with vain ambition and selfish pride.

Nonetheless, for the Christian who always uses the same anecdote to speak of her growth in grace, or the teen who obsesses over one doctrinal question, and thinks of none other, Originals may prompt and provoke needful reflection. For church leaders who seek to avoid the stagnation that can arise with ‘traditions of men’, here is a helpful set of stimulating ideas. And if you want to start a new business, publish that great American novel, or simply wish to survive the next office meeting with some semblance of humanity, Originals may provoke interest.

In sum, feel free to implement the practical wisdom placed throughout this work. Some of these business skills have already assisted my own productivity and may appear the next time our local church’s Session meets. But I am not putting my trust in originality for its own sake.

That would be unoriginal.

John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.

 

 

Looking for a more original take on contemporary theological discussions?  Check out some of our recent articles, and then go to https://www.whitehorseinn.org/subscribe-to-modern-reformation-magazine/ to receive interesting and provocative takes on what’s happening in Christianity every other month. 

 

[1] Originals, 3.

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