I Can’t Hear You Over All the Name Calling (Randy Nabors)

Lately I have been reading articles by a few Evangelicals who are deeply committed to racial justice.  As I agree and sympathize with much, I do find myself in reaction to some of the things they have said. These ideas, and others like them, spring up from time to time, although often in new phrases and provocative rhetoric.   Some of what they have said is not new, they are echoes of various lines of thinking that have been part of conversations that have been present as long as I have been involved in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.

Ah, you will see I mentioned a word that is part of what is at stake in the conversation, and that is the word “reconciliation.”  The phrase “racial reconciliation” is a term that has been at times threatening, revolutionary, and welcoming to people who have been convicted about the racial and ethnic alienation that has been present in our society since the idea of race was constructed to help both Arabs and Europeans feel justified in their exploitation of various nations, namely those nations and ethnicities of color.

This term is also slammed, shunned, and discarded by some as being either misunderstood or misused, and thereby not radical enough in the quest for justice. Some have postulated there can be no reconciliation since we were never unified to begin with, and though this sounds like it might make sense, the idea discards Adam and Eve and Noah as a unified human race, Babel as the dividing of the nations, and the calling of Abraham as a Jew to divide the world into Jews (circumcised) and Gentiles (uncircumcised).  I take that criticism as a cheap rhetorical trick with no logical foundation.  It also seems to accept the postulation of race as a biological reality and not a constructed one.

Some don’t like the word “racial” since it was a socially constructed idea to explain “color” in various human beings and to assign them a lower status by white people.  No less a person than John Perkins has recently spoken powerfully against this word since it creates differentiation between people groups, and God is no respecter of persons.  He thinks that our continued use of it perpetuates the differentiation in a negative way.  Nevertheless we all pretty much admit to such realities as “racism” and doing away with the term is not going to do away with racists anytime soon.

Then there is the criticism of the entire phrase as one seen to be preferred by white people because they see it as an individualized process or event and fail (or refuse) to see systemic injustice in the broader society.  One of the writers I read wants only to speak of “white supremacy,” and feels that is where the onus belongs, on the white community. I certainly sympathize with the need to see justice as a larger issue than simply our personal bias and prejudice.

White Supremacy

White Supremacy is a term that is searching for some consensus.  It seemed to have a historical context in the teachings of the slave justifiers (even among Muslim scholars prior to the Western slave trade) the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood, and going back to Nazi Germany’s view of the “Superior Race.”   The attempt to dump the guilt of such association  on all white people due to their being in the numerical majority, having inherent white privilege as a cultural majority in a racialized nation, and or being clueless as to what systemic injustice does to people is problematic at best, and frankly, racist at worst.

Let me be clear, as our former president used to say.  I think white supremacists are dangerous, and the belief in white supremacy is the essential building block of intentional white privilege.  In short systemic decisions to deprive people of color of their rights while seeking to maintain those of whites is due to an evil and deceived thinking that being white is superior and something to be maintained by economic, political, and social means.   The use of violence to achieve and maintain racial advantage has often followed soon after, but not all those who agree with this racist ideology or who passively and/or ignorantly go along and enjoy its benefits are people who would engage in violence.

I also believe that racists can be converted and changed, and that the white population that is carried along in the stream of white privilege has a conscience that can be stimulated by truth and justice. This is one of the  historic realities of the power of the Civil Rights movement in our nation, and no matter the mockery by some of the Christian Church the fact is that some of those Christians were touched and awakened to help bring about legal and substantive change in our society.  It did not happen without them.

Political ideologues, in their rhetorical world, are adept at polarizing issues, leaving no middle ground, and thereby marginalizing people who are still learning and still becoming conscious of issues.  In their eyes you are either as radical as they are, or you are the enemy.  Taking and using such political device and rhetoric may sound and read as prophetic, but the question remains as to whether or not it is genuinely Christian?  Some of it frankly is bitter, a bit mean, and seems to take delight in making people feel miserable.

Some of the rhetoric is no better, and serves no other purpose, than name calling.  I suspect some of it is an attempt to feel powerful, a sort of triumphalism, through the use of language. Rhetorical “one ups-man-ship” might make one feel better but I don’t think it convinces anybody but one’s allies.  Instead of seeking peace, which is a Christian duty, command, and practice, it alienates.  I believe one of the worse things we can do is to use language (no matter how lyrical or artistic) that is confused, opaque, and that causes more misunderstanding and less healing.

One of the realities we live in is that of a demographic white majority in the United States, and lately we are seeing in the white population (both here and in Europe) a strong reaction against and resistance to any changing of that reality through immigration.  White cultural reality is very strong in Evangelicalism, and those minorities which are present in a white Evangelical world are forced to encounter “white normativity.” Whether or not white people in majority or whole admit to the presence of other cultural realities in the United States I think “white normativity” is going to be a cultural reality for a long time to come.

Some minority individuals decide that self-segregation is what they would rather pursue for their own cultural comfort, healing, and safety.  They seek an escape from the cultural fatigue and aggravation which seems to be fairly consistent in the education and training of “one more white person,” who has only now realized and admitted there are other cultural realities.  If it is not self-segregation it sometimes seems to be an emotional self-alienation with a lot of complaining.

There is a corresponding majority culture reaction by which racial issues are simply shut down, walked away from, or mocked and ridiculed if a white person feels racially aggravated. Too often white people seem to react to racial issues, or even some racial event on the news, as if every mention, achievement, or expressed anger of black folks was taking something away from them.  When that resistance to engaging in a healthy understanding and realization of racism gives up to listening, learning, and hoping then the turn begins; the turn to reconciliation and justice.

The price to pay for real “reconciliation” is high for each of us in our own ethnic and cultural groups and we pay it in different ways.  I believe minorities pay a higher price but it is arrogance to assume others are paying nothing (though they may not being paying the full price yet), it is disingenuous and dangerous to assume it will cost any of us little.  There is both an illegitimate and a legitimate price to be paid. The illegitimate price of self-hatred and complete assimilation into the “other” while discarding our own culture and ethnic identity pays negative dividends in self, family, and community.  There is only one thing worthy of paying the legitimate price of reconciliation (which is a long exposure to misunderstanding, insult, attacks of various kinds, and sacrifice in relationships,) and that is the pursuit of being the answer to the prayer of Jesus; that we might be one.

The argument for expanding the term White Supremacy to include the entire white population (and thus take the onus off of specific political and violent groups) as responsible for systemic injustice seems to negate the idea of personal repentance, and personal relational healing, and declare it to be inconsequential as long as injustice continues. In an attempt to thwart individual evasion of institutional racism it makes the personal repentance of racism meaningless.  We agree that change must be pursued in “loosening the chains of injustice and untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke,” as Isaiah says in chapter 58:6 Change has to begin somewhere, and more pointedly in “someone.” From such individuals justice begins to arise, and it must if the repentance and change is real.

To take the term White Supremacy and make it universal rather than specific to hate groups is to deprive all of us of the vigilance needed to monitor their incipient violence and to be prepared to resist it.  White supremacists must love this universal application and definitive inflation.

Reconciliation

I would like to be one of the few voices lifted up to defend the word “reconciliation.”  Not only do I like it, want to practice it, and have paid some measure of a price to pursue it, but my bottom line is that I think it is Biblical.  It is a word far greater than race, full of grace and mercy, includes all the Gentiles in the Body of Christ (thus including in its central idea inter-Gentile union), and the Jews, and is one of the soteriological effects of the death of Jesus on the cross.

Reconciliation is not a word to despise for the reason that being personally reconciled (to God or people) does not automatically end systemic injustice, but rather a word that is to be preached!  It is our future hope that Jesus will reconcile all things to himself.  In short, it is a process which God commissioned, a message and a ministry we should all be caught up in and which will not be fulfilled in our lifetimes.

To reject reconciliation, and yes, racial reconciliation, and substitute it with permanent guilt until there is complete systemic change, is defeatist, despairing, unrealistic, and ultimately creates more division.  I think it is better to spell out, and preach out, the price of real and Biblical reconciliation; the cost of sacrificially enslaving ourselves to other groups to win them, the cost of suffering with and for them in a true “becoming” with them.

One phrase that comes up is “white fragility” in the context of conversations about race and injustice. I think I understand the historic dynamic but unfortunately this is a universal human problem, and not simply one that can be assigned to one people group.  It is difficult, as a representative of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group, to constantly hear the pathology present in one’s own people group carped on by another ethnic group.  Racial conversations are frequently difficult and sometimes feel threatening; the use of blaming and provocative language in the guise of the pursuit of justice (without giving hope) I believe will be self-defeating.

I have seen this reaction in various groups when the issues of public health and social concerns and “pathologies”are listed by race or ethnicity.  Invariably the argument is made to stop blaming those listed as representative of the statistics (from our ethnic group, or our ethnic group a whole) and attack something else; the system, society, and history that has helped to create those problems.  I’m just wondering if you can feel my love if I keep telling you how bad your people are?

Can any of our identified racial groups own any of (their) our peculiar or popular sins? It is no doubt difficult. Will our identified racial groups continue to resist group labeling as insulting and demoralizing?  I have a suspicion that they will, therefore such labeling should be used tenderly, strategically, tactfully, and even lovingly in trying to bring about change.  Every cultural group has particular sins that should bring shame to them, and certainly the white majority in this country has earned much of the shame and guilt that generally they don’t like to hear about or embrace.

Guilt, by itself, is an insufficient motivator and is quite often the edge of the blade on which people will either divide into denial, anger, and resentment on one side and admission, confession, and a search for restoration on the other. The preaching of the Gospel always contains the bad news of sinful reality, but it is not a Gospel at all if it doesn’t have “good news.”

The Gospel, the real Gospel of Christ, is not true to itself if all it does is stick people with guilt and leaves it there.  This is not a way of saying that we shouldn’t preach against societal or national sins,  it is a way of saying that with repentance there is forgiveness, there is grace, there is, (watch it, here it comes…) reconciliation.  I see that word as one which has a milestone beginning but continues as a process, both personally, socially, institutionally, and ecclesiastically.

It is progress when any community faces its reality head on, and in humility and courage seeks to change its culture toward righteousness, both personal and social, in its behavior. As the Scripture says in Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to any people.”  Does any of this humility and courage happen without change in individuals?  I would submit that it cannot. Does it suddenly happen generally, culturally, systemically, politically?   While some despise the individual aspect of Christian faith as insufficient for corporate change it is nevertheless a historic (societies and nations have changed) and realistic part of the whole, it just has to be preached (consistently) as a beginning and not an end in itself.

Randy Nabors was the pastor of New City Fellowship, a congregation committed to the African American and poor communities, in Chattanooga, TN from 1976 until 2012. In 2012 Randy began working for Mission North America–the mission agency of the PCA–in order to coordinate Urban and Mercy and to build the New City Network.

[Editorial note: This post originally appeared on Randy’s blog and is used with his permission. While it is somewhat lengthier than that which we usually run at Ref21, we believe that the content demands a more careful and developed treatment.]

Love the Sinner as You Love Your Sinful Self? (Nick Batzig)

Over the past week, I’ve seen more appeals to the second half of Matthew 22:39 than I’ve seen artist postcards in a hipster coffee shop. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which is the second greatest command, according to Jesus) is now apparently the favorite verse of atheists, agnostics and liberal Christians alike. Without doubt, it should be one of the most greatly beloved truths for anyone who calls himself or herself a disciple of Christ. However, this command can only be properly understood in light of the previous two verses, its own textual qualification and the teaching of Scripture regarding the person and work of Christ. 

Recently, while reading through Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine,” I stumbled across an enlightening section on self-love, loving other and loving God. Augustine wrote: 

“He is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself. Likewise we ought to love another man better than our own body, because all things are to be loved in reference to God, and another man can have fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God, whereas our body cannot; for the body only lives through the soul, and it is by the soul that we enjoy God.”

If we endure the enigmatic language of Augustine’s opening sentence, we come to what is one of the most profound thoughts on the relationship between the first and second greatest commandments. “No sinner is to be loved as a sinner,” he wrote, “and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.” Augustine is walking back from the second great commandment to the first great commandment; and, in that way, is showing that we cannot properly understand the second great commandment if we do not rightly understand the first. 

We will surely find ourselves at a loss to properly explain what Scripture means when it says “Love your neighbor as yourself” if we do not have an adequate understanding of what it means when it says “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” To love the Lord with all of our being is to live as a creature in dependence on our Creator, to humble ourselves under His word, to acknowledge His infinite, eternal and unchangeable being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, to seek to do those things that are pleasing in His sight and to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. It is the first and great commandment because we are, in all that we do, to seek to please God rather than men (Gal. 1:10). In short, man’s chief end is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” 

Without doubt, a vital constituent of loving the living and true God is loving those made in His image. If we don’t love our fellow image bearers, then, the Apostle says, “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). It is impossible for someone to prove that he is living for and loving God if he is not seeking to love his neighbor as himself. 

When, however, someone bandies about Matthew 22:39–irrespective of its subordination in the taxonomy of Matthew 22:37-39–he or she often goes on to misconstrue its theological and ethical meaning. The second great command is not, “You shall love the sinner as you love your sinful self.” As Augustine succinctly put it: “No sinner is to be loved as a sinner.” Rather, we are to love our neighbor “as a man for God’s sake.” This involves first realize that “God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.” When we fail to place these truths in their proper order there is no end to the sorts of evil that we will readily tolerate in ourselves and promote in others.

Of course, none of us has loved the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. None of us has loved our neighbor as ourselves as we ought. In fact, we are all pervasively depraved by nature (Eph. 2:1-4). A Christian is necessarily someone who confesses that he or she has fallen short–so very short–of the glory of God (Rom. 6:23). A Christian is one who flees to the only One who ever perfectly loved the Lord with all of His heart, mind, soul and strength–to the only One who ever perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. Jesus fulfilled the first and second great commandments. Jesus took the punishment, in His own body at the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), for our failure to keep these two commandments. Jesus bore the wrath of God that we deserve for our failure to love the Lord and our neighbor as we ought. Jesus did not “love the sinner as His sinful self.” The sinless Son of God incarnate loved sinners “for God’s sake, God for His own sake, and God more than any man.” It is only as we keep the Jesus of the Scriptures before our eyes that we too will learn to love the Lord and our neighbor in a way that brings glory to God and good to our neighbors. 

A Social Savior (Darrell B. Harrison )

As I continue to scan the landscape of Christian social justice activism, that is, social justice-labeled activities that are said to be carried out “in the name of” Christ, I’ve noticed many Christian activists have a tendency to proffer to the world an image of Jesus that is tantamount to that of a sanctified social worker, a holy humanitarian, an exalted egalitarian.

This visage of Jesus as a “Social Savior” is borne of a proclivity many Christian social justice activists have to leverage the works of Christ as the primary impetus not only for individuals who profess to follow Him to do likewise, but also institutions, such as governments and corporations, so that an equitable, just, and impartial society and world, which they believe Christ envisioned for mankind, ultimately becomes reality.

It is through this paradigm that such works of Christ as healing the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:13), and the blind man (Jn. 9:6-7), and feeding more than 5,000 people on one occasion (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 on another (Mk. 8:1-8), as well as His love for the poor (Luke 6:20) and the oppressed (Luke 4:18), are viewed as evidences that mandate Christians to take upon themselves, in accordance with Christ’s words in Jn. 9:4, to “…work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no man can work.”

This kind of sanguine worldview may seem admirable, perhaps even virtuous, to some, especially given the current milieu in which Christianity – and white evangelical Christians in particular – are being called to account for the deliberate and systematic misappropriation, to put it mildly, by their ancestors of various biblical precepts for the express purpose and intent of enslaving and otherwise oppressing black people in America.

That Christianity was practiced in such a deliberately iniquitous manner is both a sad and unarguable fact.

As author and researcher Richard Reddie notes in a 2007 BBC article on the Atlantic slave trade and abolition:

“Religion was…a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelization was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians.”

Conversely, theologian and author Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, extols:

“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. The typical criticisms…about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. Historian C. John Sommerville claims that when Anglo-Saxons first heard the Christian gospel message they were incredulous. They couldn’t see how any society could survive that did not fear and respect strength. When they did convert, they were far from consistent. They tended to merge the Christian other-regarding ethic with their older ways. They supported the Crusades as a way of protecting God’s honor and theirs. They let monks, women, and serfs cultivate charitable virtues, but these virtues weren’t considered appropriate for men of honor and action. No wonder there is so much to condemn in church history. But to give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism.”

So, admittedly, there were those, including many Christians, who, while professing to be followers of the God of the Bible, appropriated the teachings of the Bible in such ungodly ways as to devalue, disparage, and destroy those who were equally the bearers of God’s image (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26) as those who, “in the name of” God, volitionally chose to oppress, maltreat, and, on many occasions, murder them.

Be that as it may, to whatever extent the gospel was leveraged in such base and sinful ways is not the fault of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It is the fault of that which Christianity unambiguously and forthrightly addresses. Namely, the innate depravity of the human soul (Gen. 4:7, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 5:17.)

To view Jesus preeminently as a “Social Savior” is a misguided, short-sighted, and dangerous proposition, as it fails to take into account the fundamental root cause of many of the historical and contemporary socio-ethno inequities which many Christian social justice activists, particularly blacks, are seeking to redress through such propitiatory gestures as the removal of Confederate statues and monuments and the paying of reparations for slavery.

Notwithstanding the innumerable and tangible good works performed by Jesus for the practical benefit of those to whom they were graciously and mercifully imparted, those works were subsidiary to the primary reason Christ came into the world which, contrary to what many Christian social justice activists – and others – believe, was not to remedy socio-political or socio-economic inequities by improving the material, financial, or social station of those with whom He interacted, but to point people to Himself as the long-awaited Messiah.

This reality is underscored in , in which the apostle John declares:

“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

A problem many Christian activists have in their pursuit of social justice is that they confuse Christians with Christ.

That is something that should never happen.

As theologian and historian Thomas J. Kidd cautions in his 2012 article titled Slavery, Historical Heroes, and “Precious Puritans”:

“The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example.”

In other words, only Jesus is Jesus. We are not.

Even in our most well-founded expectations that those who profess to believe in Jesus display a certain level of consistency in living out that belief (Eph. 5:1-2), we must never lose sight of the fact that when an individual professes faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9), it is their salvation that is instantaneous not their sanctification (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

It is with this thought in mind that we would do well to consider the words of theologian John R.W. Stott who, in his classic work The Cross of Christ, reminds us of this spiritual reality:

“For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; whereas God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be.”

Stott’s words highlight the futility of espousing a Jesus who is a “Social Savior”–whose coming to earth is viewed strictly in terms of how works-righteousness (e.g. removing statues, paying slavery reparations, etc.) can be a means toward the kind of society in which justice, equity, and righteousness are normative (2 Pet. 3:13).

At the risk of disappointing many of my social justice warrior (SJW) brothers and sisters, Jesus is not a Social Savior. Christ came into the world save sinners not society (1 Tim. 1:15; Matt. 10:34-36). If the works of Christ themselves were sufficient as the model for how the kind of egalitarian social structure so zealously desired by many Christian SJWs is to be realized in today’s society, the question still remains: why, then, was it necessary for Him to die?

 

Darrell Harrison is a member of Rockdale Community Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation located in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia. Darrell is a 2013 Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a 2015 graduate of the Theology and Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darrell was the first African-American to be ordained as a Deacon in the 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia) where he attended from 2009 to 2015. Darrell blogs at “Just Thinking…For Myself

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When Calling Yourself a “Christian” Isn’t Enough (Adam Parker)

As a new Christian, I was very interested in studying cults. I studied the nuances of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarianism, and so on. When we think of cults, we tend to think of groups that not only pervert what the Bible says about salvation, but especially that depart from what Christianity has long taught since the very beginning. One of the other interesting features of cults is that they desperately want to be seen as in the mainstream of Christianity. When the Mormons come to my house, they insist that they’re “Christians” – in fact the last ones that came to my house told me they’re evangelicals.

Recently, I was reflecting on an important point that Dr. Trueman has been making for a number of years–namely, that the term “evangelical” has not only lost its meaning, but that it probably needs to be abandoned altogether.

Is it possible that the term “Christian,” like “Evangelical,” isn’t enough? Since the Nashville Statement was released this past week we have seen a number of negative responses from people also wanting to claim the name of Christian. I have seen many people claiming that suicides among the LGBTQ community will skyrocket every time Christians reaffirm what they’ve always said on these issues. I have seen nobody try to argue that what is in the Nashville Statement is innovative or foreign to what Christianity has always taught.

Truthfully I don’t see engagement from the dissenters when it comes to the text. I do see the modern shaming, naming, and bullying tactics of the crowd being employed in full-force. I don’t see anyone carrying the flag for historic Christianity who is opposing the Nashville Statement. There is no effort on the part of the dissenters to make any connections with the teachings that have been part of the catholic (universal) church since Christ established it.

In this regard, one of the most important books that have been released in the last year was the book Unchanging Witness, by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Unchanging Witness approaches the theological question of human sexuality from two fronts–the historical front and the exegetical front. Fortson and Grams spend most of the book examining every biblical text that refers to human sexuality, and especially to homosexual behavior. They spend about a quarter of the book surveying direct quotations from the early Church Fathers, the church during the Middle Ages, and the church during the renaissance/Reformation period. Their overall argument is that not only do the Scriptures teach with unanimity and clarity that homosexual behavior is sinful, but their larger point is that the church in history has spoken with one unanimous and unchanging voice on this specific question. Lutherans and Calvinists may differ on the Lord’s Supper. Methodists and Baptists may disagree over how to baptize. Baptists may disagree with Baptists over the five points of Calvinism (the list goes on). No Christian church or denomination ever disagreed on the morality of homosexuality.

Here’s the real money quote from Unchanging Witness

“On the issue of homosexual practice, no person or church or group should say that biblical texts mean something other than what the church has said all along because…both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching” (Fortson and Grams, pg. 5).

This is precisely where I wish to come back around to the question of whether it’s enough to just claim the name “Christian.” The people who are spearheading the ‘Gay Christian’ movement are innovators in the extreme. They must argue that there is no relevance to the church’s teaching on the subject of sexual behavior, because there is no argument to be made in that regard. Can someone really claim to be Christian while enjoying the church’s teaching (perhaps) on the doctrine of God while they at the same time willfully jettison its interpretation of what the Bible says about human sexual behavior? They can, perhaps, but they would be ‘Christian’ in name only. It is our relationship to the history of the church that makes our claim to be Christians meaningful. Wolfhart Pannenburg said this:

“If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norms, and recognized homosexual unions as personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, pg. 37).

Whatever you think of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood… whatever you think of the helpfulness of issuing public statements signed by hundreds of professors and pastors… whatever you think about the CBMW’s willingness or unwillingness to deal with the errors that they put forth during the ESS controversy… an objective reading of the Nashville Statement ought to ring true to all people who are Christians in any sense that our forefathers would have recognized. Those who belong to the cult of Evangelical Libertinism are howling in pain right now, but they should be recognized for what they are: a fringe cult masquerading as Christians, just like the Mormons and Watchtower folks.

 

Just Thinking… (Nick Batzig)

As more and more is being written about ethnicity, I thought that I’d point our readers to the B.A.R. Podcast (Biblical And Reformed), hosted by my friend, Dawain Atkinson. Dawain has had some the most noted pastors and theologians on the show (e.g.Derek ThomasMark Dever and H.B. Charles, Jr.). Additionally, he regularly interviews Christian hip hop artists and various local pastors. Recently, he interviewed Darrel B. Harrison, a fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The biblical and theological emphasis in this particular episode brings much to the table for your consideration, in light of current discussions about race and social justice. So, do yourself the favor and go listen to the episode titled, “Just Thinking…For Myself!”

Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope (Richard D. Phillips)

A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell’s prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God’s Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell’s trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups–as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from “the counsel of the wicked” to “the way of sinners” and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to “the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had placed them in peril. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is…well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell’s progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women’s ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid “touching the Jesus Box.”

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women’s ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible’s clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls “the admission of persons to sealing ordinances,” i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone’s sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment cultural of peril seems urgent: “Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.

 

*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.

Very Superstitious (Gabriel Williams)

Many Christian social commentators have lamented the devolution of American culture into a form of anti-culture. It is certainly true that the rejection of the Christian religion in our society has led to moral degeneration within our culture. However, sin not only affects the moral faculties of a person (or society); it also affects our rational/intellectual faculties. In other words, the rise of the anti-culture has also been coupled with irrationalism. It may be a surprise to some, but the secularization of our society has not led to a more rational society. Rather, the rejection of the Christian religion has led to a more speculative, less rational, and at times, a more superstitious society.

In a number of ways, this can be thought of as an expected result. Science historians have pointed out that modern science arose in the context of a Christian worldview, and was nourished and sustained by that view. An example of this can be found in a consideration Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech,and night to night reveals knowledge.There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.Their voice goes out through all the earth,and their words to the end of the world.

Regarding Psalm 19:1, John Calvin comments,

“As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme Architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at His infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.”

Calvin was deeply moved by both the beauty of creation and the wonder of providence. As mentioned in a previous blog, Calvin lived the same kind of scholarly piety exemplified by the scribes, teachers, and biblical scholars of Wisdom School. Consistent with mode of devotion from the Wisdom School, Calvin often speaks of the spiritual benefits of meditating on the glory of God in creation. Regarding Psalm 19:2, Calvin noted:

“[Natural] Philosophers who have more penetration into those matters than others, understand how the stars are arranged in such beautiful order, that notwithstanding their immense number there is no confusion;… David, therefore having spoken of the heavens, does not here descend from them to other parts of the world; but, from an effect more sensible what we just now said, namely, that the glory of God not only shines, but resounds in the heavens.”

What is interesting here, and is quite typical of the wisdom theology of the Old Testament, is that the glory of God is not only seen but heard. The sages of Israel (and the saints of the early Church) were inspired by what we might call the intellectual beauty of creation. They perceived in it a certain divine law – a certain order or purpose. The creation is understandable and this understandable order is beautiful because it teaches about the order and purpose of live. The creation has a didactic structure which witnesses to the Creator and His righteousness. It has both an intellectual and a moral beauty. One has only to look at creation to feel its beauty and its glory is that it speaks to us of divine things.

Glory is usually thought of as being seen, but in this instance it is being heard. The beauty of the heavens, the order of nature, according to Calvin, is a “visible language.” Calvin commented:

“David here metaphorically introduces the splendor and magnificence of the heavenly bodies, as preaching the glory of God like a teacher in a seminary of learning… the glory of God is written and imprinted in the heavens, as in an open volume which all men may read… Thus we are taught that the language of which mention has been made before is, as I may term it, a visible language, in other words, language which addresses itself to the sight; for it is to the eyes of men that the heavens speak, not to their ears; and thus David justly compares the beautiful order and arrangement, by which the heavenly bodies are distinguished, to a writing.”

Using more modern language, this is not a mere “God of the gaps” theory in which people only invoke God to account for gaps in modern scientific explanation. God’s works of creation and providence include all of the regularities of our natural world (cf. Genesis 8:22; Psalm 104:14, 20; Psalm 147:15-18), which includes those areas where science does best (i.e regular and predictable events, repeating patterns, etc.). From the perspective of the Scriptures, natural/scientific law is really the law of God or word of God (albeit imperfectly and approximately described by human investigators). It is His word that order, harmony, and beauty to our natural world. The mere existence of such “beautiful order and arrangement by which the heavenly bodies are distinguished” implies a rational lawgiver whose speech can be clearly articulated, illustrated, and understood. In examining Psalm 19, we see that the natural and moral order of our world all come from the same source – the Word of God.

It was this observed harmony and order that led the saints of old to ponder the works of creation and stirred the thoughts of early scientists to study the natural world. In contrast to this, one should notice the unhinged speculation associated with modern scientific theories today, particularly scientific theories which address origins. For example, in response to the harmonious order of our universe, there are now well-known scientists who postulate the existence of up to 10500 universes in order to explain the “apparent” fine-tuning of cosmic laws. Such a theory is not immediately disregarded because there is now discussion that science now longer needs to be falsifiable in order to be considered science.

Along with this, there are scientific theories that now require very little evidence in order for them to be discussed. One recent theory postulates that the origin of life follows as an inevitable consequences of the “laws of nature” and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” No theory on origins can be devoid of philosophical presuppositions and the prevailing thought today is that the origin of life is completely natural. This perhaps will explain the relatively new confidence among scientists in finding extra-terrestrial life (despite the lack of evidence) and the continued in belief in the existence of UFOs, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena in from many Westerners (and let’s not discuss the rise of flat earthers).

As is often the case, the appeal for secularism has not produced what it has promised. The rejection of the Christian religion has offered liberation, not from the bonds of superstition but from the burdens of evidence and rationality. Christians should be honest and forthright about this and we must address the fact that increasing numbers of young people are embracing this form of liberation.

Wisdom Christology in James and 1 John (Gabriel Williams)

In the previous post in this series, we briefly considered how Calvin’s appreciation of wisdom theology is particularly present in his comments on the Johannine literature. In Calvin’s commentary of 1 John, we discover one of the marks of the wisdom theology, namely, its appreciation of the transcendent nature of God’s Word. For Calvin, The Word “which believers we have heard and believed” is the same Word who is from the beginning the divine Wisdom. We find this very clearly in the following comment by Calvin:

“Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word.”

The Word of God is a transcendent reality. In fact, it is the fundamental transcendent reality of our salvation. We also notice from Calvin’s commentary that the Word of God has the capacity to enliven. Wisdom, as it is understood in Scripture, is far removed from the sort of abstract intellectualism that many associate with an education in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. Wisdom is a way of life, but more than that, it is a power and “sacred vitality”. This, too, is a mark of wisdom theology. When the text speaks of the “Word of life”, Calvin interprets this to mean the “vivifying Word.” This vivifying “Word of life” was with the Father, according to the text. Calvin comments:

“This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for He was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by His eternal wisdom.”

As Calvin understood, the eternal Wisdom is a creative, redemptive, and sanctifying wisdom; therefore, this Wisdom is a fountain of life. This divine Wisdom is a redemptive, transforming power. The ability of the Word to transform human life is the basis of its authority and its glory. It is this Word of life – the divine Wisdom – which brings us into fellowship with God and restores the bond of love between believers and God, and between believers one with another.

A very different aspect of the biblical wisdom theology is found in the Epistle of James. James describes Christian wisdom – both its theoretical knowledge and practical application – as embodied within the covenant community. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, is a collection of wise sayings on good conduct which reverberates with themes from the biblical wisdom tradition. Neither of these books tells a story nor develops a systematic line of thought. Typical of the wisdom writers (such as the sages of ancient Israel) is this delight in collecting proverbs on living the godly life.

As is well known, Luther had little appreciation for the moral concerns of James because it seemed to him to be be bogged down in works righteousness. Calvin was of a different mind, as he relates in the introduction to his commentary on James. In responding to the claim that James was not as clear on the subject of the grace of Christ as an apostle ought to be, Calvin commented:

“See how the writings of Solomon differ widely from the style of David. The former was concerned with the training of the outward man, and with handing down rules of social behavior, while the latter is noted for his profound attention to the spiritual worship of God, peace of mind, God’s lovingkindness, and the free promise of salvation. Such diversity does not make us praise one and condemn the other.”

This passage clearly indicates that Calvin recognized a “Solomonic theology”, that is, a wisdom theology. By saying that James is to the rest of the New Testament as the writings of Solomon were to the Old Testament, we discover Calvin agrees in substance with what modern biblical scholarship has recognized concerning the strongly Semitic and sapiential character of James. The whole nature of Calvin’s piety was positively disposed toward those beautiful passages in the Epistle of James which speak of the character of wisdom. Consider Calvin’s comments on James 3:13-18:

“For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious… For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others.”

Consistent with the sages of Old Testament Israel, Calvin understands that wisdom is truly a divine gift. The notion that wisdom is obtained by asking God for it is rooted in the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 3) and the relationship between wisdom being a gift and, therefore, the need to ask for it is developed in Wisdom of Solomon 8:17-9:18. In addition, because true wisdom comes “from above” it is inappropriate to boast about it. True wisdom is therefore humble. Calvin elaborated on this point further in his commentary, when he wrote:

“He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity.”

It’s clear that Calvin appreciated wisdom that was calm and well composed – the kind of wisdom that was learned but without pretension. Rather, Calvin admired simplicity, sincerity, and sobriety. Following the biblical wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, this sobriety is most clearly demonstrated in speech ethics (cf. James 3:1-12) and humility (cf. James 3:13-18). Calvin understood that true divine wisdom produces ethical fruit primarily because it is the “vivifying Word”. Because this divine Word transform human lives, it is expected that the wisdom from above produces true humility, true learning, and true godliness. The Epistle of James taught exactly the sort of piety that he so much admired and that he lived to emulate throughout his life.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Race and the Imago Dei (Editors)

In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

“To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are ‘like us’ and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ.”

In this video, Rob and Vanessa talk about race, all mandking being made in the image of God, and how the cross gives meaning to all of life

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Posted August 18, 2017 @ 6:58 AM by Editors

Mr. Moral Magoo? (Adam Parker)

I’m sure there’s a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you’re under 30, there’s a good chance that you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have “Magooed” themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn’t give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul’s words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said – maybe people are thinking it, but there isn’t any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they’re been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God’s own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God’s revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they’ve never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they’ve spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. “Of course it’s sinful! I find it gross!” But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there’s no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It’s a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this “magooing” of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn’t tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, “What has God said?”

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I’ve yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, “You know, I look at the word ‘arsenakoitai’ in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed.” The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God’s self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.