1. It’s really well done. The overall production value is good and story telling is excellent and interesting.
2. One insight was particularly good, which is that some men have have talent and charisma that far exceed their personal maturity. Driscoll should not have become a pastor when he did and the way he did. He was too immature to start a church, yet it sort of happened as people kept flocking to him as a charismatic leader.
3. People who have truly been under the thumb of domineering leadership in churches will likely feel helped and encouraged by the podcast.
4. The background music is its own character in the story. The music subconsciously tells you what to think and, perhaps more importantly, how to feel about what you’re hearing. Sympathetic characters in the story get positive background music which suggests, “trust this person. This person is telling the truth.” When Mark Driscoll is speaking, however, the soundtrack turns dark and ominous. This music suggests to your brain, “can you believe what he’s saying? He’s lying. He’s wicked. Don’t trust him.”
5. I used to run my own home studio, writing songs, playing all the instruments, singing the vocals, and doing all the studio production. I’m pretty familiar with little subtle tricks you can do to give a vocal track a particular mood or feel. On the most recent episode, I noticed some extra mood sauce being added to the recordings being played. Not only did the background powerfully suggest something evil was going on, but there was an effect added to the recording of Driscoll’s voice that distorted it, making him sound unnatural and un-human. Studio tricks like this are wonderfully effective in films and TV, but those are fiction. But Cosper calls this work journalism, which should be more objective. I find the audio mixing and effects manipulative.
6. On every episode, Mike Cosper tells the audience to subscribe to CT “if you want to support this kind of journalism.” Technically, it is journalism, but not in the sense of journalistic objectivity. Initially, I thought Mars Hill and Driscoll were presented even-handedly. But as the series has gone on, it has become apparent that Cosper is driven by a a personal agenda, perhaps even a vendetta.
7. The real villain is of the story is not Mark Driscoll, but a theology Driscoll abused to gain power and influence. The real villain of the story is biblical sexuality. From the podcast, one could easily conclude that pastors and churches who believe the scripture’s teaching about sexuality will be abusive. In almost every episode, biblical sexuality (or complementarianism) lurks in the background as the dark force animating Driscoll’s abusive behavior.
8. The podcast may encourage a “pain is sovereign” mentality in its listeners. For example, when a Christian is living in some sin and his or her church tries to correct him, that will be a painful experience. Heb 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” My concern about this podcast is that when faithful churches and pastors try to correct people in sin, and when those people experience pain in the process, this podcast will encourage them to see themselves as victims of abuse, rather than recipients of pastoral care. Over the past few years, there have been a number of high profile abuse cases that have happened in churches. I thank the Lord that all of these have been exposed, and may the Lord continue to expose them and correct them. But at the same time, when a person claims to have been “hurt by the church,” it is also possible that they were lovingly corrected by their church and they got offended. My concern is that the Mars Hill podcast will lead to witch hunts in local churches that are led by faithful pastors.
9. We should remember that Christianity Today is a business, and at the end of the day, they need to make money on this podcast to stay in business. After all these years, Mark Driscoll is still human click bait and they’ve got a winner on their hands with this podcast. As long as its popularity continues, I suspect they will continue to crank out episodes because it’s good for business. This is not a criticism, by the way. I have no problem with the fact that they are making money with the podcast. I’m drawing attention to it here as a reminder that CT is not an authoritative body over the church, yet CT and Cosper have gone beyond exposing a fascinating, renegade pastor. They have begun to tell the church how it needs to operate, what its theology should be, and what faithful ministry looks like. James 3:1 is applicable here, which says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Also, Jesus said in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” I would warn CT/Cosper to be extra careful not to slander the church, but to honor her as the bride of Christ.
10. In case you’re wondering, I’m not a Driscoll apologist. I agree with CT/Cosper that Driscoll was a domineering leader that hurt many people. Driscoll was out of control and, as far as I can tell, it was good for him to be removed from his church. So this post is not a defense of Driscoll. It’s intended to help people who listen to the podcast be more discerning about what they’re hearing.
I’ve been preaching through the book of Genesis at my church, and polygamy comes up in several of the stories without condemnation or even comment (see Gen 29:16-30, for example). Since I’m not likely to give it a lengthy treatment in any of my upcoming sermons, I’m addressing it here because it is important for understanding the theology of the Old Testament.
Even though polygamy is permitted in the Old Testament, and even commanded in a few instances, it is clearly not part of God’s good design from the beginning (Gen 1-2). The first instance of polygamy occurred when Lamech took two wives in Genesis 4:19, which is presented as evidence of the increase of evil and a departure from God’s original design. But why didn’t God condemn the practice directly and unambiguously?
The answer may surprise you. We need to grasp two important concepts to understand why God allowed polygamy. First, ancient people depended on their households to survive. Second, God permitted polygamy because in a fallen world it offered vulnerable women the opportunity to belong to and build up a household. Simply put, God allowed polygamy because He is merciful to the vulnerable.
It’s hard for us to see God’s compassion in permitting polygamy because we live in the modern world where the practice is no longer necessary. Polygamy in the modern world usually occurs because of a man’s twisted and bizarre sexual fetish. And certainly, in the ancient world, polygamy occasioned much cruelty and abuse. It was an ugly practice and is not what God designed marriage to be.
I am not defending every instance of polygamy in the Old Testament as something good. It was a terrible practice and led to the cruel subjugation of women. I am defending the concept of polygamy as God’s merciful accommodation to the survival needs of women in a fallen world.
The Scarcity of the Ancient World
In the ancient world, food was scarce. Their food supply came from the work of their own hands, yet crops could fail and animals could die. Putting food on the table was a constant concern. Having more people meant more mouths to feed, but also more people working together to provide more food and provide more protection. The creation mandate (Gen 1:28) included the command for humanity to continue to increase in number and spread out across the world, because God created it with all the necessary potential to feed all the people that would be born into it.
But it was never going to be easy. There was no medicine or healthcare. Sickness and disease were an ever-present threat. People were vulnerable to any number of natural calamities. And, of course, people would violently take from others the fruit of their labors. “Violence” is a recurring theme in the early chapters of Genesis (Gen 6:11-13), because people violently oppress one another to take their resources.
In those days, the household was the primary way to provide for people’s needs and protect them from danger. People survived by belonging to and building up their households. People who did not belong to a household were much more vulnerable, especially women.
The Vulnerabilities of Women
Women are not as physically strong as men. They were not as able physically to perform the demanding work of tilling the soil, raising crops, and managing livestock. Men typically performed this work. Men also protected women who were more vulnerable to attack from violent men. Everyone valued the woman’s ability to have children, because children grew up to become productive household workers. A woman’s ability to bring new life into the household was highly prized, because children benefitted the entire household. Sons would join their fathers in working a trade to provide for the household and protect those in it. Daughters would join their mothers in building up the household from within, managing the household affairs and helping to nurture the younger ones to prepare them to contribute to the household.
The father and mother held the household together. When a son got married, he often began his new household from within his father’s household, because there was strength in numbers. When a daughter got married, she typically left her household to join the household of her new husband. Incidentally, the modern day practice of the father ceremonially “giving away” the bride faintly preserves this ancient practice.
But when the father “gave away” his daughter to be married, he was losing a productive worker for his own household. The marriage of a daughter was an economic loss for her family, but an economic gain for the groom’s family. Therefore, the groom would pay a “bride price” to compensate the bride’s family for their economic loss.
The Dangerous Duties of Men
So, how does polygamy fit into this picture?
Simply put, women outnumbered men in the ancient world, because men the duties were more dangerous. The ever-present threats of wars, accidents, or natural disasters in the world threatened the men who were tasked with protecting and providing for their households. Many men died young, leaving vulnerable widows and orphans behind. This net deficit of men available to lead their households meant a net surplus of women needing households.
Women wanted marriage and children because building up her own household was the best way for her to survive. If her husband died, her best option was to remarry and build up a household with her new husband. Paul addressed this in 1 Tim 5:14 when he said, “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” If a woman’s husband died beyond the age of remarriage, she needed to rely on the households of her her grown children. First Timothy 4:4 says, “if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.“
In other words, the household was necessary for survival, so Paul taught Timothy how to handle various situations like this in a church. The Bible emphasizes looking after widows and orphans (James 1:27) precisely because they would have a much harder time surviving without a household. God commands his people to show hospitality to sojourners for the same reason – they are traveling away from the provision and protection of their households (Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9).
Given the primacy of the household for survival in the ancient world, polygamy was often practiced to ensure that more women were able to become productive members of households. Since women were more numerous than men, some men could take a second wife and build up his household with her and her children.
You might ask, why wouldn’t someone take her in as a “live in” member of the household without her being a wife? That would have been possible, but it would be of far greater benefit to the household for her to have children who could build up the house. This would also benefit her, because children were the retirement plan for the ancient household. They would take care of her in her old age.
Children Were the Retirement Plan for the Household
Children were like the 401K plan of the ancient household. Initially, the parents “paid in” a lot of effort and investment for little economic benefit. But as the children grew up, they’d start to collect dividends on their investment. Over time, the children contributed more and more to the work of the household. Eventually, the daughters will get married, and if they married well, the household would be handsomely compensated for their loss of her productive labor. And when the sons got married, they would pay out a bride price for his new wife. The bride price of the new way repeated the “pay in” process, because soon enough her children would grow up to work for the household.
As the father and mother reached their golden years, they passed down more and more of the family responsibilities to the younger generation. Typically, the eldest son became the new patriarch of the family. His youth and strength would be expended for the benefit of the whole family, including his aged parents. The eldest son and his wife were responsible for the care of the whole household. If a man had multiple wives, the children and grandchildren of each wife would take care of their mother.
The stories of barren women in the Bible reveal the tragic desperation of women who not only wanted children for the joy they bring, but also for the economic reality that children represented the hope of a better future for her.
The bottom line is this: even though it was not his good design from the beginning, God permitted polygamy in the ancient world to mercifully protect the most vulnerable people.
When Jesus spoke about divorce, he taught a simple principle that is relevant to this discussion. Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). In other words, God allowed something evil to continue because our hearts are hard, even though it was not his design from the beginning. In the same way, God allowed the evil practice of polygamy to continue because the world is fallen and this was the best case scenario for vulnerable women and children. So instead of forbidding it, God allowed it and regulated it until his plan of redemption would render the practice obsolete, as it now is.
In the modern world, most household labor has been monetized and outsourced to other entities. This is a mixture of good and bad. Without question, the household itself is a necessary part of the Christian faith. And thankfully, polygamy is no longer necessary for women to survive. In the modern world, we benefit greatly from a Western society that is built on Christian principles of hard work, personal responsibility, and taking care of those who are vulnerable. Even though polygamy was permitted in the OT, the fact that it is nearly unheard of now can be attributed to the outworking of biblical principles in Western society.
A strange feature of modern Christianity is its fixation on “tone.” Whenever someone speaks directly, without qualification or nuance, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, the tone police quickly arrive on the scene to make sure everyone’s feelings are safely intact. They say things like, “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it.”
Presumably, the correct tone must always be friendly, winsome, calm, and unemotional; people should speak with uncertainty, like a suggestion, or a hypothesis. “This is more Christ-like,” they say. After all, doesn’t the Bible say let your “speech always be gracious” (Col 4:6)? And aren’t we supposed to correct others in a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1)?
Yes it does. But is that all it says about tone? Of course not. Now, I will freely acknowledge that tone can be sinful. Christians should not rush into controversy or provoke others for sport We will give account for every careless word we speak. I will also add that graciousness and gentleness should be the default mode of Christian speech. So this article is not about getting Christians to dial the rhetorical heat up to 11 all the time. That’s unnecessary and obnoxious. This article is about is about those times when a harsh tone is needed because people won’t hear anything else.
I used to get irritated by Christian leaders who used a harsh tone, but when I became a pastor, that changed because my perspective changed. I saw things from the perspective of a spiritual father who loves his people. And I’m thankful for other faithful men (like John Piper and Doug Wilson) who’s boldness and courage have inspired me to follow their lead. Just as good fathers use hard words and harsh tones when necessary out of love for their children, faithful pastors do the same.
Not always, but more often than you think.
Love Means Put Away Falsehood and Speak the Truth
Christians need to put away falsehood and speak the truth (Eph 4:25). In Acts, the apostles prayed for boldness, not gentleness, because they were afraid and the stakes were high. They prayed for boldness because fear would have kept them quiet. Bold speech can be costly. Boldness takes courage. Gentleness doesn’t.
In modern times, we need men who speak truth boldly, because our society is suffering from a serious bout of truth decay. Godless ideologies are pulling unsuspecting people further into its web of deceit and poisoning their souls. The overlords who control almost every lever of cultural power have become untethered from reality. They control the news media, the entertainment industry, collegiate and professional sports, universities, and most of the federal government. They have embraced self-contradictory absurdities that they wish to impose on everyone else. They are deceivers who prey on the gullible niceness of peaceable Christians. Does that sound too harsh to you? If it does, then you’d better avoid 2 Tim 3:1-9.
When faithful pastors discern the times and warn others about it, they are loving people. Love speaks the truth (Eph 4:15) and protects people from being tossed to and fro and blown whichever way the wind is blowing. They do not love controversy for its own sake; they ask God to give them boldness to protect their flocks from wolves, using whatever means necessary to do so. Sometimes that means using a sharp tone to get people’s attention because it’s more effective. It cuts through the noise. But it’s never easy.
If there’s a fire in the house, a good father runs frantically down the halls shouting “get out now!” Only a fool would criticize his tone in that moment. He loves his family by warning them harshly to get their attention. The most unloving thing for him to do would be to gingerly stroll the halls while suggesting everyone seek alternate accommodations at their earliest possible convenience.
When a child chases a loose ball into the street, his mother shouts “stop! STOP!!” to get his attention. Her love requires her to be harsh because the danger is urgent.
The same is true of pastors. When spiritual dangers are high, faithful pastors match their tone to the urgency of the moment.
But when a pastor speaks an unpleasant truth, a typical reflex is to criticize the tone. Even when the message is spoken reasonably and gently, the fact that he said anything about it will evoke complaints. Often times, the person critiquing someone else’s tone is trying to take the high-road of civility while passive-aggressively attempting to silence the truth. They see themselves as being peace-makers, but they really love aesthetics more than truth.
I get it. Speaking in a sterile and academic way is safer and less likely to ruffle feathers.Bold declarations disrupt the status quo and provoke controversy. Is that Christ-like?
The Hard Words of Jesus
Anyone who reads the Bible honestly will acknowledge the frequent use of jarring words and harsh tones. Jesus is described as having a “sharp sword” coming out of his mouth (Rev 19:15). This isn’t a circus trick; it’s the Bible’s way of saying Jesus is a warrior and words are his weapons. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joins and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Jesus never minced words. He spoke with direct and unambiguous authority, condemning sin and demanding repentance. The people who heard Jesus said, “this is a hard saying.” Jesus frequently used hyperbole, insults, and name-calling. He slung blistering rebukes, such as his seven woes in Matt 23. He told people to fight lust by gouging out their eyes and cutting off their hands (Matt 5:27-30). He called people names, such as “hypocrites” (Matt 15:7), “brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34) and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt 23:27). Ultimately, Jesus was crucified for his words.
The Hard Words of the Apostles
John the Baptist was beheaded for publicly condemning Herod by name for his sin. The apostles in the book of Acts told the Jews that they had murdered their own Messiah. They blasted the authorities for their hypocrisy and unbelief, accusing them of blasphemy. When the Jews imprisoned them and ordered them to be silent, they did not issue a press release to apologize for their “hurtful” tone. They rejoiced and went on preaching.
Paul’s letters are filled with harsh insults, sweeping generalizations, sarcasm, and name-calling. He said “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:13). Paul used the word “skubalon” in Phil 3:8, which is a crass word for dung. He was vividly saying that worldly gain is a pile of crap compared to the worth of Christ. He insults his opponents a few verses later, calling them “dogs,” “evildoers,” and “those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). He told the Galatians that if they were such big fans of circumcision, they should try castration (Gal 5:12)!
The Hard Words of the Prophets
The prophets alternated between humor and horror. Elijah made fun of Baal while his prophets cut themselves by suggesting he was too busy to answer because he was sitting on the toilet (1 Kings 18:27). Ezekiel went full shock-jock mode when he obscenely compared the nation of Israel to a whore who refused payment as a prostitute and instead paid men to have sex with her. I won’t even quote Ezek 23:20 here. Trust me. It wins the blue ribbon for harsh tone.
The Need for Hard Words
Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Christians should always and only speak hard words. But sometimes we should. And we should also not be so quick to complain about tone. People who have “itching ears… will not endure sound teaching.” Instead, they find preachers to suit them. What sort of “tone” do you think false teachers have? False teachers do not warn as a loving father does; they ease people’s consciences with vague suggestions as they turn away from truth and wander off into myths. (If that sounds too harsh, then you’d better stay away from 2 Tim 4:3-4.)
Some people would rather hear TED talks from PhD professors than the bare-knuckle proclamations from the prophets. PhDs are safe. Prophets are dangerous. The direct, unapologetic language of the Bible grabs our attention and provokes a response. Scripture cuts us open and lay us bare.
Interestingly, scripture sharply condemns those who use soft words when hard words are needed (Jer 6:14)! The false prophets were condemned for coddling and flattering God’s people when his wrath was immanent. Paul told Titus to “rebuke [the false teachers] sharply, that they [the church] may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). That may sound rude or divisive, but notice that health and maturity was the intended effect. When Peter preached, the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Despite these numerous examples from scripture, modern evangelicals don’t have much stomach for direct language.
When Someone’s Tone is “Hurtful”
When a comment hits a little too close to home, they say “it’s offensive” or “it’s hurtful.” It isn’t fun to say this, but sometimes our feelings need to get hurt. Yes, sharp words hurt feelings, but that’s a good thing. They cut in just the right ways. Feelings are not sovereign; God is. Hurt feelings do not determine reality, no matter how sincerely felt. But God cares about our souls more than our feelings, so he uses sharp words to provoke a response.
Non-offensive words are easy to tune out. Offensive words have life changing power. Offensive words grab us by the collar and shout, “listen!”
I was once sharply rebuked by a man once for having a prideful attitude. I got defensive and angry, thinking he was too blunt. What he said to me was hurtful; but he was right. His words were not hurting me as much my own sin was. I was arrogant and needed the correction. I was “cut to the heart” and committed myself to actively repent of this sin for the rest of my life. That was about 25 years ago. He loved me with hard words and it changed my life for the better.
Just as a doctor needs to cut the patient to perform surgery, God cuts us to heal us. Stinging rebukes are often necessary for spiritual health. A pastor who never speaks in this way is like a father who never disciplines his kids. They always end up wild and rebellious. Yet, “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6).
No one likes hearing a harsh “tone,” just like no child likes discipline, but it is the loving thing to do (Heb 12:5-8). When used appropriately, it is effective. A pastor who doesn’t ever use a harsh tone with his people is a weak shepherd that doesn’t love his people.
There are real dangers in the world, and wise shepherds will do what they can to protect their sheep. Words are weapons. The Bible is a sword. It cuts. Sharp knives are always safer than dull knives, because they cut in exactly the right place.
If someone hears a pastor’s faithful warning and his instinct is to say, “I don’t like your tone,” then there’s a good chance he got cut and didn’t like it. He heard something that hit the mark. His idol is being dethroned and it’s fighting back. Hard hearted people complain about tone because it’s their last defense. They know they heard something true, so tone is all they have left to complain about.
The bottom line is this: don’t be so quick to criticize someone else’s tone. Trying to get someone to soften their tone is often nothing more than thinly veiled emotional manipulation. The net effect is weakness, impotence, and division, because truth was not properly upheld. Hard words may ruffle feathers, but when skillfully deployed, they produce unity and fruit.
We need hard words, and bold Christians speaking them. Perhaps now more than ever.
America’s racial problems have a long and ugly history. The 13th amendment ended slavery in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow laws in 1964, but the root causes of racism cannot be removed simply by passing laws. Laws can manage sins, but not remove them. Laws impose a set of moral principles, values, and behaviors on people, and threaten punishment for disobedience, but no law is capable of eliminating sin from someone’s heart. Removing sin is a work of the Spirit. It is a God-sized task.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that this is merely a spiritual war and that all we should do is pray and move on. What I am saying is that whatever we do, we’d better to it with prayer and in the power of the Spirit. If we don’t, we’re going to be destroyed. When the seven sons of Sceva got all excited and decided to go out and make a difference in the world, Satan overpowered them, kicked their butts, stripped them naked, and sent them running out of the house (Acts 19:15-16). They had no idea what they were up against. Do we think we’ll do any better?
The spiritual world is real. There are demonic, evil powers that hate God and wants to cause Him pain. One way to hurt God is to hurt those He loves. When Satan wanted to make God suffer, he attacked Job. Satan knew all about Job: his name, his wife’s name, his children’s names, his work, his address (Job 1:10). Satan knew exactly how to hit him where it hurt, and he hit hard.
As we look out into our world right now, what do we see with human eyes? Cruelty. Hatred. Rage. Division. Vengeance. Bitterness. Envy. These things are right out in the open in your newsfeed and on TV. But look again, this time with spiritual eyes. The apostle Paul told us there’s more going on than we realize. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Eph 6:12). Paul is telling us to see with two sets of eyes. With our physical eyes, we see “flesh and blood” conflict going on in the world. With our spiritual eyes, we can also see that there are also demonic powers behind these events.
Paul’s writings reveal a hierarchy of evil powers at work in the world, such as rulers, principalities, authorities, powers, dominions, thrones, and world rulers. There is a range of meaning for all these words, but they often refer to demonic spirits that are arrayed against God and his people. But Christ is supreme over all these beings, having defeated them in his death and resurrection (Eph 1:20-21, Eph 3:10, Col 2:15).
Christians share in the victory of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also experience defeat. In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus sent out his disciples and gave them authority over demons. This was not absolute authority, since they could not overcome some of the demons they encountered (Mark 9:29). What did Jesus say about those demons? “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” In other words, don’t get cocky. You don’t know what you’re dealing with, and you’d better be prayed up first.
Here’s another example. Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Notice a couple of things here: First, Paul is warning us to not get caught up in philosophies – worldviews – that are based in human tradition. These philosophies begin and end with human beings as the point of reference. There is no fear of God in them. Second, while these human philosophies are God denying and man-centered in their approach, they are actually demonic in origin. The engine of their man-centered philosophy are “elemental spirits of the world” – most likely, demons. Third, they deny Christ (“not according to Christ”). Remember, Paul isn’t writing this to the Humanities Department at Colossae U. He was writing to the church. What’s my point? Christians and churches can get taken in by Christ denying, godless, man-centered, demonic philosophies.
Behind the human events we see in the news is a hierarchy of spiritual forces – rulers, authorities, powers, and evil spirits. This is evident by the account of the first sin in the garden. The serpent’s temptation of Eve was not a fraternity prank on a helpless woman. His temptation was much closer to a covert operation by an elite, demonic power to plunder the most treasured possession of his sworn enemy. It was a spiritual turf war.
Here’s what I’m getting at. Human beings in our physical world are the focal point of a spiritual battle. The things we do in the world to oppose evil in our physical world have spiritual ramifications and will incur spiritual opposition. Satan (the Father of lies) and his demonic beings are at war against God and his heavenly host. This is the worldview of the Bible – it’s what Jesus himself taught. Therefore, Christians are called to wage spiritual wars with spiritual weapons. Paul calls this the whole armor of God (Eph 6:12-18).
My concern is for Christians who are rushing into a spiritual war unprepared for battle. Many Christians want to fight for “justice and righteousness” in the world but their definitions of “justice” and “righteousness” come from critical theory, not scripture. If we want to fight for justice without a solid definition of biblical justice (“belt of truth”), we’ll get our butts kicked. If we want to fight for a more righteous society without a commitment to personal holiness (“breastplate of righteousness”), we’re going to lose. If we want to relieve worldly suffering without regard to eternal suffering (“the gospel of peace”), we’re not being truly loving. If we want to see positive change in the world without “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication,” what exactly are we trusting in?
Christians are called to make a difference in the world, but we must be adequately prepared. Christians are called to be salt and light, but salt can lose its taste and light can be put under a basket (Matt 5:13-16). Christ and his kingdom is a movement on offense, reclaiming ground stolen by the enemy. Our weapon of offense is the sword of the Spirit (“the word of God”). And the Holy Spirit is the power within us – and he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
I promised in my last post to put together some more practical suggestions for what Christians can do to fight racism in America. But first, I’ll begin with three qualifications.
First, keep the cross of Christ before you at all times. I will follow up this post with another one about the spiritual nature of “this present darkness” we are going through. But for now, remember this: the gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). Don’t be ashamed of it. If we truly want to see meaningful improvement in racial tensions in America, the church can’t sideline the gospel in the process. The gospel is the cure, not an obstacle to racial healing.
Second, everything I’m suggesting in this post should be categorized as “good works.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he means something more than sentimental well wishing. Modern Americans think love is a feeling, as though all Jesus requires of us is to feel good feelings towards other people. This is wrong. Biblical love takes action on behalf of others for their highest good. Those loving actions are called “good works” (Heb 10:24). As James says, “faith without works is dead (2:17).” From what I’ve been hearing from white Christians in my church and elsewhere, people want something meaningful to do, but they don’t know where to begin. That’s what this post is about.
Third, good works must be done freely, not under compulsion. Paul tells the Corinthians to give freely and cheerfully, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor 9:7). Paul says he could have ordered Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, but did not do so because he wanted Philmon’s goodness to “not be by compulsion but of [his] own accord” (Philemon 14). Peter tells church elders to shepherd God’s people willingly and “not under compulsion” (1 Peter 5:2). Why does the NT emphasize the freeness of good works? Because the sincere desire of Christians to obey God can easily turn into a guilt trip, and guilt-burdened Christians are easily manipulated. All it takes is a few Bible verses and a little public shaming to get them to comply with whatever promises to ease our consciences. Before long, they wind up burned out or jaded. A good conscience is a glorious gift of the gospel. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! (Gal 5:1)
I make this point about the freedom of good works because I see churches, denominations, and networks quarrelling about what “the church” should be doing right now. It goes something like this: some Christians want to deny any racism or systemic injustice in America. “Nothing to see here, move along.” That’s the wrong approach. In a sinful world, we should expect to see these things. Other Christians, however, want to recruit Christians and churches into political activism. “Silence is violence! You must say something! You must act NOW!” That’s the wrong approach too, because those are the tactics of guilt. Sure, some Christians will be motivated by this to do something, but it won’t last and they’ll resent it later on. The Holy Spirit gave us different spiritual gifts for a reason – let’s use them.
Every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, not because it’s trending on Twitter, but because the gospel demands it. It is a sin against the image of a holy God in another man or woman. But we should not expect every Christian who truly opposes racism to oppose it in the same way. God has been and still is raising up devoted Christian men and women who are doing good works to promote racial unity that feel no need to tell everyone about it on Facebook. They aren’t “silent” – as some accuse them of being – they are active. They are plodders. Steady and faithful. God sees their secret deeds and He will reward them (Matt 6:1-4).
The point is this: Christians who want to do something about racial tension in America need to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, do good works to love and serve their neighbors, and do so willingly, in the power and gifting of the Holy Spirit, not under compulsion.
Well then, here’s a few, simple suggestions of things you can do right away.
#1. Learn about the black experience in America
When you first meet someone new, you usually ask a few questions to hear their backstory. Where are you from? How many brothers or sisters do you have? Where did you go to school? These questions help people discover common interests, which give us something to build on.
I met a visitor at my church a few months ago who was from my hometown in WVa. There was an immediate connection. We could talk about schools, restaurants, and cultural quirks of our community. My small hometown has been in the midst of a drug war, leading to a massive spike in the murder rate. We were both shaped by a few similar experiences that provided context to begin a new friendship.
In some ways (I’m admittedly overgeneralizing here), some experiences are common for black people in America that white people are not familiar with. These shared experiences form a sort of cultural “hometown.” In one sense, black folks have a natural, relational starting point because they come from the same cultural hometown, “Black America, USA.” (Again, forgive the overgeneralization.) White people can learn better ways to love and serve them by spending time in their cultural hometown. This gives white people a better starting point for relating to black people as people, not as a “learning experience.” The learning experience is done on our own through books, videos, and similar resources.
There are lots of resources out there for this; too many to list. As with any topic, some resources are more helpful than others. I’ll mention three. In 2001, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith published “Divided by Faith,” which uses research and interviews to present a data-driven analysis of race and Christianity in America. George Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Gridlock” examines four different secular solutions to racial problems from a Christian perspective and suggests a Christian approach he calls “Mutual Responsibility.” I found his book very helpful. Another option that looks promising is Carl Ellis Jr’s online course called “History and Theology of the African American Church.” I haven’t completed the course yet, but I have a lot of respect for Ellis. I’ll include notes about how to access this for free at the bottom of this post.
#2. Acknowledge the pain and grieve with people of color
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I spoke with several non-white people in my church who were personally affected by it. This makes sense – I was personally affected too, but not like them. It made me sad and angry, but their reaction was much more intense. They expressed a blend of anger, sadness, exasperation, confusion, despair – all at once. Many of them live with a constant anxiety that their own death could be the next viral video.
When I was a kid, the video rental store near my house had a documentary series called “Faces of Death.” The concept was simple. The film contained footage of people getting killed. We didn’t have cameras everywhere in those days, so video footage of this sort was almost always captured accidentally and not released to the public out of respect for the dead. But the filmmakers were able to gain access to them anyway and turn them into movies, complete with the “parental advisory – extreme footage” warnings all over it.
What about now? Youtube and Facebook have thousands of videos just like this ready to view anytime, anywhere. My own children saw George Floyd die on the 6PM news. Up next, the weather. It’s so common now that we’ve become numb to the fact that we are watching people die violent deaths on our phones. God help us. The indignity of a man dying in front of an amateur paparazzi has become a common feature of our modern, social media age. And as soon as the video goes public, hyper-political and familiar narratives quickly emerge. Camps form. Division ensues.
But one simple fact remains – this is extraordinarily painful for black people in ways that white people can not easily relate to. For white people, it’s a senseless tragedy. For black people, it’s a pattern. It’s a threat. A simple way for white Christians to love our black neighbors is to recognize that these events hurt them in ways we don’t understand. That’s OK – we don’t have to fully understand in order to communicate love and concern for them. For people of color that are in your immediate spheres of influence (family members, neighbors, coworkers, church members), reach out to them personally with your prayers and love as you follow the lead of the Spirit.
#3. Start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully
As I stated above, every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, but not every Christian is called or gifted to go about it in the same way. Some Christians are gifted at using social media to make a real and meaningful difference. The rest of us suck at it. The more we say, the worse it gets. If God has called and gifted you to do ministry on social media, do it well, for the glory of God. If not, remember that even our use of social media use will not escape God’s judgment. Our words, thoughts, and motives will be brought under the bright light of God’s scrutiny, where we will all give an account for every careless word (Matt 12:36).
To truly do something worthwhile, start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully. Before you begin, state your goal and count the cost (Luke 14:28). Make it a realistic goal with a clear, attainable outcome in mind. For example, “ending racism” is a good desire, but not a realistic goal. Racism is going to continue to be a problem until Jesus returns. Until then, we have to find ways to limit its effects in society. Some people may intentionally live in a particular neighborhood out of a desire to love and serve the people who live there. If so, put down deep roots and commit to it. What could some goals look like in this situation? As a suggestion: (1) meet everyone on my block in the next year, (2) invite one person from my neighborhood into my home for a meal in the next two months, (3) share the gospel ten times in the six months, (4) try to build three significant friendships in the next year.
In 2008, my wife and I moved into an intentionally chosen Cincinnati neighborhood with our two children. We’ve been here for twelve years and we’ve had two more kids in the process. We had to be realistic – we were planting a church in a tough environment and our kids were really young. But over the years, little by little, we’ve established ourselves in our neighborhood and God has opened doors to significant and meaningful ministry. We’re plodders. Slow and steady wins the race.
As a pastor, I have broader influence than most people, but it’s still limited. My greatest influence will be in my local spheres: family, neighborhood, and church. There are great racial injustices that occur in places far away from me. For example, I have no influence with the police department in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. But I have friends and brothers in Christ who pastor churches there, and I can pray for them and support them from here. I do have influence in my own city, and God has renewed my commitment to steward that influence for the good of the city where I live (Jer 29:7).
As for you, begin with yourself: repent of the sin of partiality in your heart, seek forgiveness from anyone you’ve sinned against, and teach your children to do the same. Then, get to know your neighbors and love them with your good works as the Spirit leads you. In your workplace, treat others with respect and do not participate with others in the sin of partiality (AKA racism or racial injustice). If you are able to identify unjust practices in your neighborhood, workplace, or community, speak up for those affected by it and do your best to correct them. If you have a community council, join it and attend the meetings. This is a good opportunity to meet local law enforcement officers and talk to them about your concerns, ask them questions, understand what’s going on in your community, and take prayerful action. Whatever influence you have in your community can be leveraged to love and serve your neighbors in whatever ways that fit your context.
In your church, if there are specific prayer or serving initiatives that you can get involved in, choose one that you can fully commit to and go all in. Remember, good works are free and not compelled, so commit to what you can do and enjoy a clear conscience when you can’t.
The bottom line is this. We can do the most good for others focusing on and faithfully pursuing clear goals where we have the most influence. For most people, that will be in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches.
As mentioned above, here’s how you can access for FREE Carl Ellis Jr’s 7-hour mobile ed course on the history and theology of the African American church. If you don’t already own Logos Bible Software, here’s what you can do. First, download the free version of Logos Bible Software. Second, purchase (for free) this course, “History and Theology of the African American Church.” Third, check out this Facebook group that has frequently updated lists of FREE books that are available through Logos. You can build a mini library with free books. Currently, there is a CSB Apologetics Study Bible available for free.
I found book reviews for the two books mentioned above.
When the video of George Floyd’s death punched America in the gut last week, people from every quarter expressed outrage because another unarmed black man had died, gasping for air and pleading for his life, while a white police officer pressed his knee into the back of his neck. There are no words. It was senseless and wrong. Evil. Christians are particularly outraged, because George Floyd was an image bearer – created in God’s image, with dignity and worth. His death was an insult to his Maker (Prov 14:31).
“Racism is undeniably woven into the fabric of this nation—from our treatment of Native Americans, to the institution of slavery, segregation policies and Jim Crow laws, redlining in urban sectors, and the ever-evolving overt and covert modern practices in our economic, political, social, and religious spheres of life. Black men and women live under the particularly heavy shadow of generational pain that is the result of gross inequality and inequity.”
A Call to Justice, Restoration, and Renewal, Acts 29
In light of all this, Christians are asking, “what can we do?” How can we bring an end to the evil of racism? How can Christians bear witness to God’s kingdom in a world of such violence, hatred, and sin? What can we do to make it stop?
I plan to write a follow up post to this one with some practical suggestions. But this post is more foundational. Christians have to be distinct – we don’t simply jump on the bandwagon with what everyone is doing. Hasty action is rarely wise. The church is a city on a hill. We operate on different principles. Yes, Christians can take action, but not every action that could be taken is available to us. We have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
So in this post, I’ve outlined five things that Christians need to do first before we rush to action. In a later post, I’ll suggest a few practical things we can do right away.
#1. Christians need to fear God more than anything else.
Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment to love God more than anything else (Matt 22:36-37). But the fear of God is what I’m talking about. Fearing God and loving God are not opposed to one another. In fact, fearing God is how we love God.
When it comes to injustice, God has suffered greater injustice than any of us. God patiently endures the sin of a wicked world, allowing time for some to repent, believe the gospel, and receive mercy. Jesus also suffered in ways unimaginable to us, enduring not only the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agony of bearing the Father’s wrath against sin.
So any discussion of racism and injustice begins with God as the reference point. These are big problems that need a big God to solve them. We need “big God” theology. Not just because it’s true and biblical, but because it keeps God and his glory at the center of everything. Progressive (or liberal) Christianity is powerless against racism, because it enthrones human beings and our desires and feelings above God and his glory. That’s not gonna cut it.
So the way forward begins with the fear of God. Sovereign. Almighty. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Pr 8:13). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Pr 1:7). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life” (Pr 14:27).
#2. Christians need to define sin properly.
Sin is breaking a command of God, either by commission or omission. In other words, sin is doing something God forbids, or failing to do something God requires. It includes both outward actions and inner thoughts and motives (Matt 5:28). The sin of racism is the sin of partiality. “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). To show partiality in action, thought, or deed, according to one’s race or class, is the sin of partiality. Jim Crow laws outwardly subjected black folks to the humiliating and degrading sin of partiality. Praise God that we no longer have “white people” and “colored people” drinking fountains in America. And yet, racial prejudices still persist in people’s thoughts and motives. This, too, is sin.
Since God is our reference point for defining sin, partiality is wrong no matter which direction it’s coming from. “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev 19:15). Recently, there has been a growing trend of treating “whiteness” as a sin, leaving many white people feeling guilty simply for being white. That misdefines sin. But if we define sin biblically, we recognize that both white people and black people can show partiality in various ways, and everyone is called to repent of partiality wherever it is discovered.
#3. Christians need to define justice properly.
A just society actively works to avoid partiality. God is just. God loves justice and hates injustice (Isaiah 61:8). Justice is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus died on the cross to satisfy the righteousness and justice of God. Christians are justified in Christ because God’s justice was satisfied at the cross. Having been justified in Christ, Christians are called to live lives of justice, righteousness, and peace (Isaiah 9:7).
America is more just for some people than for others. This isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue – it’s fact. It’s right out in the open for anyone who cares to see it. The Washington Post recently published an essay about racial bias in our criminal justice system. That’s just one recent example. Of course, seeing the problem is easier than fixing it. That’s the question no one has a workable solution to right now.
Until recently, this would not have been controversial. But now, political and cultural movements rooted in critical theory and identity politics flies under a banner called “social justice,” which is actually not justice at all. It’s just the opposite. It is the sin of partiality rebranded and renamed. What is often called “social justice” nowadays is actually fighting injustice with greater injustice. We have a word for that. It’s vengeance. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ (Rom 12:19).”
Justice requires a system of just laws that are justly applied (Gal 3:19). Defining justice is easier than establishing it. Micah 6:8 famously calls God’s people to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice means establishing a true standard of what’s right and wrong and applying those standards with appropriate penalties. Biblical justice is impartial. Objective. Unemotional. Consistent. It favors neither the poor nor the rich. It does not give special treatment to blacks or whites. Rich or poor.
We live in a sinful world. No one is exempt (Rom 3:23). Jesus even said his own disciples were evil (Matt 7:11). How do you establish justice in an evil world? A just system needs to protect everyone from everyone else, while everyone has a different perspective on what justice is. It’s a delicate balancing act, like stacking golf balls on top of each other. Pray for God to show us a practical way forward.
#4. Christians need to have some humility.
The tools of the gospel are essential for Christians to make any difference with race relations. We are not, in ourselves, qualified to give justice to anyone, because we ourselves are unjust (1 Peter 3:18). Christians need to repent of their own sins before trying to fix other people’s sins. Have some humility. Take the log out of your own eye first. Failure to do so is hypocrisy (Matt 7:5). As everyone knows, hypocrites only make things worse.
#5. Christians need to fight spiritual wars with spiritual weapons.
What we are experiencing in America right now is the result of a well-coordinated and executed spiritual assault by Satan (2 Cor 10:3-5). Our country is being torn apart, piece by piece. When we see evil on TV or social media and demand “someone must do something!,” what do we mean by that? Can congress fix this? If they all united for one week to pass the greatest legislation ever known, how much difference would it make? Our problems are deeper than any legal action or charismatic leader can solve. We need a God who is big enough to kill evil at the root – in every human heart.
What I’m saying is this – right now, in America, what we need is nothing less than a miraculous work of God’s Spirit. What we’re seeing right now looks more like judgment than revival. We cannot win spiritual wars with the devil’s tools. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). We need more prayer and more fasting. We all need to humble ourselves, in fear and trembling, before a holy God, falling to our knees in prayer, and begging for his mercy, grace, and healing.
It was published while the internet was still in its infancy – well before the social media era. But these facts serve to highlight the truth of his thesis: the news makes us dumb. It’s not the news’ fault, though. The news isn’t trying to make us dumb. It’s our fault for investing so much time, energy, and trust in the news, as though the 24 hour news cycle is the most important thing that happens. It’s not.
I’ve been on a years long quest, through trial and error, of discovering better ways to keep in touch with what important things are happening in the world. What follows is some of the main takeaways from Sommerville’s book and some adjustments I’ve been making as a result.
How the News Makes Us Dumb
The most important things in life rarely, if ever, change. That’s a good thing. People build their lives on things they can count on not changing, such as family, friends, jobs, neighborhoods, and so on. God himself is immutable. From a human perspective, the more important something is, the more you want to protect and preserve it. Our change tolerance is limited. Most people do not want much to change in their lives from day to day.
Change makes things interesting, not more important. The failure to distinguish interesting from important is one of the main reasons why the news makes us dumb. For example, the fact that one day can be 78 degrees and sunny and the next day be 34 degrees with snow flurries is interesting, but that is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Having a variety of new and unusual food options for dinner each night is interesting. Having a stable circle of valued relationships to share those meals with is important.
The news is all about reporting change. The things that don’t change from day to day aren’t usually newsworthy, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. If most people in a community are healthy, employed, and content with life, that’s incredibly important, but it’s not newsworthy. If a tornado rips through that community leaving death and devastation in its wake, that’s newsworthy. But while it’s important for the community that is impacted by the tragedy, it’s not as important for people on the other side of the country who are unaffected by it. For them, it’s just news.
The news is a business, not a charity. The main purpose of the news industry is to make money. That’s not a complaint. Everyone needs to make money. Doctors spend years of their lives in training in order to provide medical care, but they expect to be paid for it. If they no longer got paid for it, they would do something else. That doesn’t make them greedy, it’s just how things are. It’s the same with the news. The news industry reports on stories that will keep people interested (change) and will keep them consuming more of their product. People don’t consume news to hear about what’s unchanging and of the greatest importance. They go to church for that. The news is a form of entertainment that is funded by advertising dollars.
Bad news is the most interesting and profitable kind of news. Fear is a more profitable news product than hope. In the news business they say, “if it bleeds, it leads.” As scintillating as bad news can be, the wise Christian will resist the temptation. Psalm 112:7 says, “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.”
The “Bad News + Video” formula is even more tempting. As the news media has become increasingly visual, video footage makes something more newsworthy. I once walked by my living room TV while my local news was reporting on a high speed car chase with video footage in California. But I live in Cincinnati. Why was this on our local news? Because they’ve got an exciting video of it. It’s interesting, but not that important.
Exaggerated coverage of bad news makes things seem worse than they are. The relentless focus on tragedy and heartbreak in the news creates an inflated perception of tragedy in the world. For example, tens of thousands of cars may safely drive through town on a given day. But safety doesn’t excite. Tragedy does. So the one tragic accident that happened that day makes the 6 o’clock news. The tragedy is very important to those who are affected by it. For the rest of us, it’s just news.
News makes the novel seem normal. The consensus is boring and uninteresting. That’s why the news focuses its attention on things that break the pattern. The outliers, the bizarre, and the things that deviate from the norm are newsworthy. For example, if hundreds of scientists have been studying a phenomena for years and arriving at similar conclusions, that’s not newsworthy, because it doesn’t represent any significant change. But if one study yields a completely different result, that’s newsworthy, even if the change reported by the study was due to poorly conceived and executed experimentation. The headlines will read, “New Study Shows…” and it will appear as though this is the new scientific consensus, but it’s not. Sloppy science is often rewarded with undeserved news coverage.
The news boosts its relevance by reducing context. Summerville writes, “The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.” In recent weeks, we’ve been treated to countless headlines talking about the “rising death toll” caused by COVID-19. Of course the death toll is rising – every day in human history will have more deaths than the day before. But what’s needed to understand the death toll numbers is context. What are the trends represented by those numbers? That information is not always provided – just the number of deaths. Understand the importance of something requires wisdom and broader context.
The news is addictive. The stimulation provided by constant change is addictive. The “fear of missing out” drives us toward the news. Joe Carter wrote that “the most disconcerting consequence of this addiction is the belief that it is normal, and that those who aren’t tuned into a daily news feed are ill-informed.” We’ve heard that trust in the news media is at an all time low, yet we still consume it. It’s addictive.
New Media has upended the News Industry. One thing that Summerville’s book couldn’t have foreseen is how the new media has disrupted the news industry. The daily news cycle has been replaced with a non-stop onslaught of news that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. The lines between news, advertising, and activism are blurred more now than ever before. Much of what passes as “news” these days is little more than click bait. Even still, the way many people get their news nowadays is through social media, which accelerates misinformation. Social Media equalizes the playing field by presenting a crowdsourced “news feed” that might contain serious journalism mixed with memes, cat videos, and conspiracy blogs. It all looks the same. When someone reads a misleading headline, they may not even realize it’s from a disreputable source. All they remember is, “I saw it on Facebook.” For example, the Babylon Bee has been criticized for spreading “misinformation,” but the critics don’t realize it’s a satire site.
Breaking the News Addiction
Consuming too much news is a bad habit, but it can be broken. Here are some personal rules I’ve developed to break the news habit without being isolated.
Stop relying on clickbait, Facebook posts, and memes for the news. Refuse to click the clickbait. Clickbait websites collect money from advertisers every time someone clicks the headline. If the headline promises a “shocking truth revealed” or some secret being “exposed,” it’s clickbait. If there’s exclamation points in the headline, it’s clickbait. If it’s got a numbered list and says, “#6 Will Blow Your Mind!,” it’s clickbait. Don’t support them. Also, avoid news sources that are blindly driven by ideology (MSNBC and Foxnews are prime examples).
Limit your intake of daily news. The 24 hour news cycle is unreliable and incapable of providing context. Limit yourself to one or two of these, known for good reporting, and pay for a subscription. Weekly or monthly news magazines may have broader perspective, but can still be ideologically driven. (World Magazine is known for excellent reporting from a biblical worldview. They also produce a podcast and a daily news brief called “The Sift.”)
Be selective with blogs. Ten years ago, most blogs looked amateur and credible news sources had sharp looking websites. Now, sophisticated blogging platforms have evened the playing field. Anyone with a half-baked opinion can write nonsense on their beautifully designed blog. Design and aesthetics matter – attractively designed blogs have an air of credibility because they look good, no matter what they say.
Read more books, especially the really old ones. Modern society increasingly needs to listen and learn from voices of the past – what GK Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” I can’t think of any better way to gain perspective on modern life than to read books by dead people. They had their blind spots, for sure, but so do we. The best way to see our modern blind spots is to let dead people from ages past point them out to us.
Certainly, of all the old books, the one we need most desperately is the Bible. It was written by men long since dead, but also written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is forever alive. God, who never changes, is the most important thing there is. To read the Bible is to hear the voice of God, who transcends all time and space, and who is directing all history towards God’s Eternal Purpose. To read the Bible is to read the newspaper of heaven, where the daily headline always reads, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).
It has been said that faith is like a muscle – it gets stronger with exercise. If this is true, then trials are the Planet Fitness of the Christian faith. They are resistance training – resistance makes us stronger. With the coronavirus pandemic, God is taking us to the gym for a faith workout. Facing and overcoming trials is an indispensable tool God uses to make us more like Jesus. It shows how much Jesus means to us – or how little.
James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Trials may be hard but the benefits are worth the cost. There’s growth to anticipate on the other side.
There are two contagions in the world right now that are a trial for Christians. One of them is the coronavirus. The other one is fear. Both can be deadly. The coronavirus outbreak has caused degrees of uncertainty that most of us have never faced before. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know how who or how many will be infected. We don’t know how bad the economic impact will be.
Uncertainty is part of the trial, because people tend to fear the unknown. In ancient times, God used high levels of uncertainty to test and strengthen believer’s faith. In modern times, we have grown accustomed to the illusion of control and predictability. When we realize how little control we truly have, newly discovered uncertainty provokes new levels of fear. None of us have ever trusted God through the uncertainty of a global pandemic before. It’s is a spiritual muscle we’ve never exercised.
In CS Lewis’ book, “The Screwtape Letters,” Screwtape is a demon who gives advice to the his nephew, Wormwood, who is learning how to deceive and tempt his human “patient.” In chapter six, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to use uncertainty against his patient:
We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them…
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him… It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Screwtape’s advice is to get his patient to succumb to the fears of all the terrible things that could happen, rather than exercise trust in God in the things that actually do happen. In other words, “use the fear of the unknown against him. Cripple him with fear of innumerable ‘worst case scenarios’ to keep him enslaved.” Put simply, as far as Screwtape is concerned, the fear that a terrible thing might happen is just as destructive as when a terrible thing does happen. It matters little whether or not it actually does happen, so long as the patient is in constant dread of the possibility.
Christians Do Not Fear Death
The coronavirus has brought human mortality into sharp focus, and with it stratospheric levels of fear and anxiety. People don’t want to die and the coronavirus is deadly. Christians know that, because of sin, everyone will die, either from the coronavirus or something else. Natural death is the great enemy of the human race. But we also believe that God created as eternal beings, and therein lies the real thing to fear.
Jesus tells us there is actually only one thing to fear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Dying apart from Christ is truly the most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone. For Christians, the matter is already settled. Jesus faced the reality of hell on our behalf, so nothing remains that can ultimately harm us. The Apostle Paul said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and also “the last enemy to be destroyed it death” (1 Cor 15:26). Hebrews 2:15 tells us that Jesus destroyed “the one who has the power of death,” and also delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In other words, Jesus saved us from death andalso from the fear of death. Death has been defeated already. Why fear it?
The Test of Faith
Christians, the test of our faith right now is how we will respond to a world that is afraid. Afraid of dying, economic collapse, or any number of other things. Satan can use our fear of what might happen just as easily as the things that do happen. But fear is the opposite of faith. It is irrational. It doesn’t care about what’s true, only what’s scary. So, right now, the most Christian thing you can do is trust God, rebuke your fear, and walk by faith.
If the gospel is true and Jesus rose from the dead, then death no longer has dominion over him nor us (Rom 6:9, 1 Cor 15:55). Death is not our master. Christ is. The coronavirus will test how deeply we believe this to be true. Will we live in fear? Will we panic like so many others? Or will we live with the confidence and hope our faith provides?
This is an opportunity to exercise our faith and refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim 1:9). We are not ruled by fear of the coronavirus, or economic collapse, or anything else. They cannot take from us anything that truly matters.
The news that Rhett and Link had deconverted from Christianity came as a shock to those of us who knew them first as Christian missionaries with CRU. But those who knew them first as entertainers were shocked that they ever claimed to be Christians in the first place.
Since I used to work with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together, I wrote a few reflections about it, as did many others. A few days later, Rhett and Link responded. When I posted my article on Facebook, one of my friends and fellow pastors commented with a great question that is relevant for all of us. I’ve reproduced some of that thread, with further thoughts below.
“What would you say to somebody who reads your article and asks, “So how do I know ‘right now’ if I have true faith or just the appearance of true faith? How can I be sure I’m a real Christian and not just somebody who appears to be a real Christian for a very long time, but doesn’t really have true faith?…”
Is it possible that there was ever a time in Rhett and Link‘s life that they read 1 John, and based on what they could discern of their life and their desires, they experienced assurance that they were Christians. And yet, now that they’ve walked away from the faith, we would say that they were never actually Christians. So my question is, given that phenomenon, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away., And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they actually have assurance that they are in fact Christians?
– Pastor Andy Barlow, Fellowship Church, Louisville, KY
In my response to Andy, I said the scripture itself presents this tension. The scripture offers us assurance and also warns us against falling away. Assurance is not the same thing as a rock-solid guarantee that we never would nor could fall away. If it were, the warnings would be meaningless. We are told to walk by faith and not by sight, which means we go through life trusting in God even when we don’t have the answers. Yet the scriptures also teach that those who are truly in Christ will indeed persevere in the faith to the end (Phil 1:6). This is a paradox, and we live in the tension. We cling to Christ and his promises, trusting that we are his and that no one can take us away from him (John 10:27-30). And we are also sobered by Jesus’ warning that false converts and even false prophets will arise within the church, so we should be alert (Acts 20:28-30). If we cannot be satisfied within this tension, then we are looking for something beyond faith.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9). The object of our faith is very real, but lies beyond what we can see with our eyes (Heb 11:1). In the Christian life, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
It is like being blindfolded while being led by the hand through a crowded and dangerous area by someone we trust. They’d say, “watch out, there’s a step here.” Or, “duck down, there’s a low ceiling ahead.” The obstacles are there and are very real, but we have to rely on a trustworthy friend to tell us about the things we can’t see. That’s what walking by faith is like.
The spiritual world is very real, and we can’t see it, but God can (2 Cor 4:4). When we become Christians, God enables us to perceive the beauty of Christ by faith, but much remains hidden. So he takes us by the hand, and tells us where to step.
Saving faith produces a conviction in our hearts that Jesus is real, that he has saved us from our sins, that he will return in power and glory, and that our lives should be ordered accordingly.
But sometimes we stumble.
Faith and Doubt
Many true Christians experience seasons of doubt. Their faith is shaken. Thomas famously doubted the resurrection until he had seen it with his own eyes. He wasn’t content with faith; he needed sight before he’d believe. When Jesus appeared to him, he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We are more blessed than Thomas.
Just before Jesus gave the Great Commission, Jesus gathered his disciples together on a mountain. Matt 28:16 says, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Written decades later, Jude 22 says “have mercy on those who doubt.” He’s referring to people who truly love Jesus yet are afflicted by nagging, unresolved questions that shake their confidence. Their faith is weak.
The smallest degree of true faith in a perfect savior is sufficient to save (Matt 17:20). But the soul of that truly saved person may not be at peace. He or she will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Doubt disturbs the tranquility of the soul.
I’ve experienced this many times in my life, especially during my college years. I was ill equipped to face the ridicule of unbelieving professors who took pleasure in mocking Christianity. I once met with a well known student atheist on campus to share the gospel with him, and found myself unable to answer his objections to Christianity. I almost lost it. Almost.
Faith and Assurance
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 20:27). Jesus promises to give us inner peace in this life, which anticipates the perfect peace of eternity with Him. Assurance is the state of the soul that is not doubting but is resting in Christ. God desires this sort of assurance for us (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a fruit that grows on the tree of vibrant and growing faith.
Faith describes how we are saved. Assurance describes how we feel. No one is saved by their feelings, however sincere those feelings may be. Only faith in Christ has saving power. Our fickle feelings are unreliable guides to eternal truth. They are not to be trusted with such important matters.
If you are blindfolded and you have confidence in your guide, you can walk confidently and without fear. But if you are not confident in your guide, you will move more slowly and cautiously. You doubt whether you are truly safe. You may wonder if you have the right guide in the first place.
It has been said that “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” Someone with saving faith may experience doubt or assurance, depending on the strength of his faith. When his faith is strong, he enjoys God’s peace and assurance. When his faith is weak, he questions his salvation and experiences doubt. The true Christian may experience both at different times.
Counterfeit Faith and False Assurance
My friend Andy pressed the question further, asking if it were possible for a person to experience assurance of salvation at one time, only to later reject the faith and prove themselves to have never been converted? He asks, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away? And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they ever have real assurance that they are in fact Christians?
We have to recognize that the scriptures speak to different people in different situations. True Christians need to grow in their confidence that Christ has saved them and will preserve them in the faith. Cultural Christians, who lack true faith, should not feel assured of a salvation he does not possess. False assurance emboldens people in unbelief, which is exactly what cultural Christianity does. It makes unsaved people feel saved, which is the worst sort of unbelief. People in this condition need to hear the warnings about falling away.
Many who have deconverted from Christianity will say that they experienced a form assurance at one time. How can this be? How can they be assured that they possess something they never truly possessed?
The distinction between faith and assurance is again helpful. We humans are masters of self-deception. Cultural Christianity excels at self-deception. Cultural Christians eagerly proclaim how much God is pleased with them. Their self-righteousness is the perfect mate for their self-deception.
First John says that we should expect this sort of thing. After all, these are the last days which are marked by the spirit of antichrist. This is where people profess Christ and yet deny him. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). As for those who deconverted from Christianity, John says, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Jesus tells the same story: “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:21-23).” Jesus does not say, “I no longer know you,” but “I never knew you.”
I do not question that Rhett and Link at one time thought themselves to be committed Christians. But their deconversion reveals that they were actually committed to something other than true Christianity. Their hope, commitment, and assurance was in some other gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They may have had an experience of assurance, but it was a lie. They never truly knew Jesus. He said so himself.
Simply put: those who end up denying Jesus never knew him in the first place, no matter how much assurance they felt at the time. They were self-deceived. At least now they’re honest. “Former Christian” is the cultural Christian’s way of reconciling outer identity with their inner unbelief. They never knew Jesus. They hold him in contempt (Heb 6:4-6). Their unbelief is now consistent, inside and out.
These are the paradoxes we see in scripture: a person can be saved but not feel saved. And a person might feel saved but not be saved. If our faith is genuine, our feeling on the matter will be a great blessing and comfort. But if it isn’t true, our feelings will be our greatest source of self-deception. As cultural Christianity continues its decline, these “ex-vangelical” stories will also continue. So, what should we do in respond to this paradox of faith, doubt, and assurance?
First, don’t rely on feelings. The substance of our faith is Christ, not our feelings.
Second, examine yourself. This is a healthy practice, in moderate doses. It sobers the soul because it acknowledges our capacity for self-deception. Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Third, remember that we are all saved the same way: by grace through faith. In my church, the most common salvation testimonies we hear is from cultural Christians who came to our church, heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and responded to him in faith. Many were raised in church but later realized they never truly believed. When they came face to face with the truth of the gospel, they searched their hearts, repented of their sins, and embraced Christ by faith. This is quite common.
Fourth, build your faith through regular intake of scripture. To understand assurance better, a great place to start is the book of 1st John. John weaves the paradoxical themes of assurance and warning throughout the letter. And he teaches that the evidence of saving faith is to know, love, and obey Jesus as Lord (1 John 5:2).
Finally, pray that you will richly enjoy God’s peace and assurance in your life. Christ is your life and your salvation, and he is committed to keep your feet from stumbling. Do not obsess over whether or not you’re saved, but focus your attention and your prayers on enjoying the salvation you have. A good place to start is to pray the doxology at the end of Jude, claiming God’s promises for your life:
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25
Last night, I found out from an article posted on Facebook that two of my former colleagues in ministry, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neil, have abandoned the Christian faith.
I used to work closely with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together. We planned our annual winter conference together where Rhett and Link were the emcees and I led the worship music. They were hilarious. They were so creative and fun to work with. My CRU ministry in Louisville hosted them for a training on effective evangelism. It was a riot. I still remember the Lionel Richie jokes.
Once upon a time, I would have thought of Rhett and Link as friends. Over the years, it’s been exciting to see them become world famous internet celebrities. So many of us who know them celebrated their success, thinking, “what an incredible opportunity to spread the gospel!”
So the news of their apostasy hit close to home. It’s heartbreaking. I fear for their own souls, for their wives and their children, and for the souls of so many Christians who looked up to them.
I’d like to make two observations.
There’s No Such Thing as “Deconversion”
No one ever goes from belief to unbelief. Rather, they go from one type of unbelief to another type of unbelief. Cultural Christianity is a type of unbelief. It is unbelief that has dressed up in the clothing of Christianity. It looks like faith, but isn’t real faith. Second Timothy 3:5 says that this sort of unbelief has “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Two verses later, it goes on to say that these people are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). In other words, some forms of unbelief can appear godly for a while, and even acquire great knowledge and learning in Christian things, but never truly embracing Christ in the heart.
In fact, every apparent deconversion is actually a reconversion. As deconversion stories have become more and more common, a familiar pattern is evident. They begin with some nagging question about God or Christianity that they can’t resolve. Then they seek answers from respected Christian thought leaders, but are unsatisfied with the answers. Then something in their personal lives forces a decision: “should I stay or should I go?”
Someone might say, “yeah, but I know them! They were sincere believers! They were Christian leaders! They even devoted years of their lives to teaching other people to share their faith. I know they were true believers.” But Paul says otherwise – none of those things are sufficient evidence of genuine faith. Their outward “form” seems godly, but there is no true spiritual life or “power” within (2 Tim 3:5). They may even continue learning more and more about Christianity, but there is no true “knowledge of the truth” within them (2 Tim 3:7). Deep within them, they even “oppose the truth” (2 Tim 3:8). In other words, what we see on the outside does not always match what’s going on on the inside. As 1 Sam 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
When we hear these stories of deconversion, they often sound like they’re simply quitting the team. “I used to be a Christian, but now I can no longer hold to these beliefs.” But that’s only half the story. No one simply walks away and becomes neutral. No one goes from playing on the team to sitting in the stands. He always joins the other team. A deconversion from Christianity always entails allegiance to a new master.
The LGBTQ Tipping Point
Sexuality is often the tipping point for cultural Christians. It’s the issue that brings about a personal crisis of faith. LGBTQ issues have become powerful “defeater” beliefs against Christianity. As the logic goes, a God who is not on board with the LGBTQ agenda is not a God worth serving. One article about Rhett and Link said, “they both felt a deep discomfort with biblical sexual ethics, which they perceived to oppress women and their LGBTQ+ friends.”
The LGBTQ agenda is the new master who takes no prisoners. The world is demanding total allegiance to the agenda, and there are penalties for non-compliance. Those who do not fully endorse this agenda are considered hate mongers and bigots. If they are prominent Christians, they are targeted for cancellation so an example can be made of them.
Of course, Jesus demands total allegiance to his agenda. Jesus said, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). Jesus announced his agenda when he said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). He came to save people from their sins and give them new life through his death, burial, and resurrection. Christians are called to take up our crosses and follow him (Matt 16:24), which includes our sexuality (Matt 19:4-6).
A house divided cannot stand (Mark 3:25). The Bible’s teaching about sexuality is fundamentally irreconcilable with what the world is currently promoting. It has become the wedge issue that is forcing Christians everywhere to choose their allegiance. If following Jesus puts us at odds with the LGBTQ agenda, then following Jesus will make us unpopular, at the very least.
That’s the issue with cultural Christians. If someone is a cultural Christian, their outward expression of Christianity requires cultural support and approval. But when culture no longer supports and approves of Christians, it should not be surprising that Christians choose to reconvert to a culturally approved belief system. The new culturally approved belief system is the LGBTQ agenda, and it will continue to expose more and more cultural Christians.
My encouragement for those of us who are discouraged by these deconversions is to take heart. We can only see what’s on the outside, but Jesus can see what’s on the inside. Deconversions are not a new thing. Paul said “times of difficulty” like this would happen “in the lat days” (2 Tim 3:1). He goes on to give two examples, Demas (2 Tim 4:10) and Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). These deconversions don’t mean something is wrong with the Christian faith, but rather the truth of scripture is confirmed.
Jesus himself experienced the worst reconversion of all, when one of his own followers, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him with a kiss. God was sovereignly able to us that deconversion to bring about salvation for everyone who would truly believe.