Some Thoughts on Christian(?) Divorce

I have been asked to answer the question, ‘How does the church deal with marriages moving to divorce?’

A Ton of Preventionhosea-and-gomer
The first thing to say is that marriage should be handled more biblically and less Americanly from the start.  This would vastly reduce the phenomenon of “marriages moving to divorce.”  But it implies a more biblical and less American understanding and practice of the church itself, one in which Christians are committed to the local church more deeply than they are to any other social group in their lives, including their blood relatives.  And this is difficult to foster in modernity in the West.  Yet it must be done.

Romantic/sexual/marital love has been privatized and secularized—which is to say it has been dis-ecclesialized.  Where it is understood that a Christian marriage is the not the private property of the couple and that the elders and others of their church have a proper claim to involvement in it, there is early detection of the things that bring death to marriages.  In such a context, mistreatment between spouses will be under the discipline and loving correction of the church while the marriage is merely sick so that it will not as easily end up in the throes of death.

As a vital part of this ministry to marriages, it must be taught and rehearsed often in the church that marriage is not a means of personal happiness or fulfillment, but rather a school of sanctification into which some believers have been called.  It is not a place where we go to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves and to receive ourselves anew.  It is full of pain and death of the kind to which followers of Jesus are called (Phil. 2:1-11).  But no one—no couple—is called to walk this road alone.  Instead, we are called to walk it together in the church in the power and grace of the Spirit of Christ.

Dealing with Reality
Nevertheless, it remains true that we live in a world where evil sometimes is able to take up an entrenched existence in the human heart to such a degree that the realities of marital dissolution, even if reduced to great extent, will probably always be something with which we must deal in the church.  Thus, it is worthwhile for the church to consider its way of dealing with marital disintegration.  For two reasons, it is probably not the best idea to set forth a specific policy.  First, policies have a way of inviting test cases, or at least a view of legitimacy of that which they address.  Second, each marital situation is unique, and the complexity of a policy which would adequately address all the various minutiae would make it unmanageable.

Thus, the church should take as a single rule that all considerations of divorce should be addressed to phenomena of abuse.  Abuse here is broadly defined as the harmful, objectifying treatment of one human being by another such that free forgiveness cannot be the only response.  As such, we can see that abuse is a property of many different kinds of relationships, not just marriage.  But most non-marital relationships may be dissolved without the level or kind of scandal before heaven and earth that is divorce.  So the understanding and handling of abuse in the context of marriage is on a much higher plane of importance.

Every day, human beings fail to love each other in Christ.  Thus, harmful, objectifying treatment occurs all the time.  In terms of our discussion here, it is abusive when it is simply impossible (not just difficult) merely to forgive the sin and leave it at that.  Factors such as a refusal to repent or ongoing danger of serious harm may be present.  In such cases, it may be necessary to bring to bear on the relationship measures which protect a victim or which force a perpetrator from his or her settled position.

With this understanding, then, we can see that the presence of abuse does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the relationship, whether marital or whatever kind.  In dealing with endangered marriages, the elders and pastoral counselors of the couple can examine the nature, level and degree of the abuse present in the relationship.  And they can do so with a constant application of the brakes so as to keep divorce out of the picture until it absolutely must be allowed a place in it.  In this way, there are numerous other steps which may be taken before divorce is even allowed in view.  For example, in a case of physical abuse, physical separation may be necessary for an indefinite period, but it is possible that divorce may be kept out of the picture.  And God may bring full restoration through the ministry of the church.  In many cases, less drastic levels of church discipline may be sufficient.

It is more likely that the need to allow divorce into the picture will arise in the context of spiritual and emotional abuse where the spiritual toxicity threatens the very life of the spouse and/or children (usually in the form of depression or other kinds of spiritual ruin).  This is precisely because of the ability of such abusers to deceive themselves and thereby resist the need to change.

In some cases, it may only be the reality of divorce that is able to shake such people from their self-deceptions.  And this might happen at different points: when divorce is decided upon by the spouse they have abused, when the papers have been filed, when the divorce is final, or maybe a few years down the road when the realization of all that he or she has lost and the realities of the horrors he or she put the spouse through finally dawns on the abuser.  And of course, it is possible that the abuser may finish life on earth stubbornly hanging on to his or her delusions like most of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Whether divorce is or is not to be allowed into the picture should be the decision of the elders; the abused spouse must follow their lead as they serve under the Lord.  Whatever the actual outcome, it is important that both the church leadership and the abused spouse only make movements toward divorce with the goal of restoration always in view.  In the most extreme of cases, a spouse may need to leave and, because it is necessary for their sanity, do so with a finality of mind.

Perhaps all this sounds rather like a policy, which we said above should be avoided.  In the sense that it provides a basis for approaching endangered marriage and the possibility of divorce, it might be called a policy, but it intentionally eschews the clear categorizations and flow-charts of contingencies that usually characterize policies.

How Biblical is All of This?
In Matthew 5:32, the Lord Jesus seems to allow for divorce on the one ground of sexual immorality (porneia).  Upon close inspection, however, it appears that what He actually says is that any man who divorces his wife on any ground other than this forces her to commit adultery.  The truth is, while the Bible is keenly aware of the reality of divorce, it never gives any clear permission for it.

Anyone who reads the Prophets knows that God certainly understands how divorce can seem to be the only viable option when dealing with recalcitrant sinners.  Debate continues as to whether YHWH actually divorced Israel or merely filed for separation for a while to wake her up.  But there can be no doubt that He understands that it is sometimes necessary to let the possibility of divorce enter the picture.

Can we use the example of YHWH’s dealings with Israel as a guide to allowing divorce into the picture of endangered marriages?  Before answering in the affirmative, we must take note of two differences between God and ourselves.  First, there is the goodness gap.  The most innocent human spouse of the most horrible human abuser is much closer to that abuse in goodness than any of us is to God.  Israel was unfaithful to an infinitely good Husband.  We must keep this clearly in mind.  The second difference, however, is the power gap.  God is also infinitely stronger than any of us.  So it is that, while he was genuinely injured by Israel’s sin, He was not in danger of being destroyed by it.  The human spouse of a human abuser simply may not have the strength to withstand the onslaught of abuse.  It may actually lead to his or her destruction.  And this may occasion a broken-hearted movement toward separation.

But lest anyone be tempted rashly to take comfort in the thought that he or she is following God’s example in approaching or enacting divorce, we must hasten to remind ourselves—again—that we are not God.  We do not have His wisdom.  We do not know very well how to use the power of righteous anger and righteous battle to love a stubbornly sinful heart.  We do not have the divine strength needed to bring the awfulness of divorce to bear on a relationship while never wavering in a perfect commitment always to desire full reconciliation.  So an abused spouse, following the lead of a praying and trembling eldership, may attempt to trace the steps of the divine Husband of Israel toward the tragedy of divorce, but not with anything less than the utmost of caution and humility.

(Some of) the Truth About Homosexuality

I have been asked to answer the question ‘How should the church minister to people with same-sex attraction?’

It is possible to answer the question in short bursts which are right and true but which are not greatly helpful in and of themselves.  We might give answers such as, ‘With the love of Jesus,’ or ‘With grace and truth,’ or ‘With the good news of the gospel,’ and these would all be right and true.  But it can be seen immediately that more is needed.  It is not merely a question of the practical outworking of these things, though that is part of what remains needful; it is also that there is need for more examination and clarity of the concepts surrounding the discussion.

four-views-homosexuality-book-front-coverMy Appraisal of a Recent Collaborative Book
I have recently finished reading a book exploring this issue.  It is called Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.  It includes contributions from four authors.  Two represent what the book calls the “affirming” view, that is, the view that the church should affirm homosexual lifestyles and couples as legitimately Christian possibilities; and two represent what the book calls the “traditional” view (they wanted to stay away from the negative connotations of a term like ‘non-affirming’).  The aim, then, was to have one author from each viewpoint approach the subject biblically and one approach it theologically.  I am not sure they succeeded in separating it as neatly as that, but that is not a real problem with the book.

Following each author’s chapter, there were responses given by the other three, which were then followed by brief rejoinders from the author of the chapter.  At the beginning and end, there are introduction and conclusion provided by the editor, Preston Sprinkle.

I am sad to say that none of the five writers, in the end, gave a satisfactorily accurate view.  (Of all the people who are actually involved in this conversation and writing and speaking authoritatively on the subject, I would take Rosaria Butterfield to be the most right on.  I will point to her more a bit further on.)  Loader does pretty good exegesis of the various texts (Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6).  He concludes, against an increasing number of liberal interpretations these days, that the Scriptures and Paul in particular, are univocal in condemning not only homosexual practice, but even homosexual feelings and desires as sinful.  Despite this, he says that the church today finds it necessary to “supplement” (which really means set aside) the teachings of Scripture in light of things we now know to be true.  According to Loader, Paul knew nothing of the loving and stable same-sex relationships that we know in our day, and so we must flex our understanding of Christian sexuality to fit what we find in our world now.  Along with Holmes, I will say we must never, NEVER set aside the teachings of Scripture.  Loader’s ideas are out of the question.

DeFranza says she came from a conservative evangelical background and always believed that homosexuality was wrong.  But somewhere in the course of her post-graduate studies, she began to do research on the biological phenomenon of intersex people, hermaphrodites, etc. and found that there were sexual anomalies already built into nature for which a purely biblical view of human sexuality does not account.  Pointing to the existence of amphibians (which she says do not neatly fit into the categories of either land or water animals) as evidence for “space” opening up between the categories and norms of creation, she suggests that there is room for non-majority sex-types in the unfolding story of creation such that human sexuality may legitimately include more than just male-female complementarity.  I simply cannot take the time right now to engage this point.  I only include it here, because it seems to be a major building block for DeFranza.  Suffice it to say that she fails to prove much of anything by this line of thought, a fact which is sufficiently shown in the responses of the other authors.

A more major issue brought out in DeFranza’s chapter is the claim that the biblical image of God and His people or Christ and the church as a matrimonial relationship is based on what she disparagingly refers to as “patriarchal” marriage, not the egalitarian kind of marriage which we all now (supposedly) understand to be better and more Christian.  “Patriarchal” marriage is “the union of an inferior person to one who is superior and to whom one owes obedience” (p. 89).  It is the “imbalance of power between humanity and divinity that led ancient writers to see a parallel in the imbalance of power between wives and husbands which was assumed by them to be natural.”

There are two errors here.  First, it simply is not true that this is the essence of the biblical imagery of marriage between YHWH and Israel or Christ and the church.  The fact that all human marriages in the Bible and in the history of the world fall short of the reality—indeed, that most have been pretty far from the mark—is not the fault of the reality.  DeFranza has the reality-image relationship backward, confusing the object for its shadow.  Second—and this is a common problem running throughout the book and much modern work on the Bible in general—there is the assumption that the meaning of the eternal word of God is located in ancient history.  It simply is not.  But I do not have time to develop this idea right now and must move on.  Suffice it to say that as one who is committed to a literary-canonical hermeneutic (as opposed to a literal-grammatical-historical one), I generally don’t run into problems of trying to figure out how to relate ancient and modern concerns and modes of thought.

Wesley Hill’s chapter is probably the best in the book, but it too has a major flaw.  He identifies himself as a gay Christian and explains that following Christ and obeying Scripture means he is called to a life of celibacy.  With Holmes, who makes the point most emphatically, he reminds the reader of the importance of recognizing that we live in a culture which has over-emphasized sex and romantic love to the point of making everyone believe that they are not living authentic lives unless they are experiencing romantic and sexual fulfillment.  We live in an age where, as one of the authors put it (Hill, I think, but I do not remember which for sure), the existence of a “forty-year old virgin” is self-evidently laughable.  Hill rightly sees through this lie.  His contribution is full very well-seen and well-written insights.  Pointing to Aelred of Rievaulx and others, he calls for a recovery of the ancient practice of Christian friendship.

four-views-homosexuality-book-table-of-authors

The trouble with Hill’s view is that it legitimizes being “gay” as a type of Christian.  This idea, it seems, includes for Hill an ongoing, settled identity of being gay which even includes same-sex relationships which are not physically played out in sexual activity, which is forbidden by Scripture.  Reading Hill’s description, I find myself oscillating between celebration of his call to enhanced and deepened Christian friendships and dismay at his assumptions that ‘gayness’ can be a good feature of these relationships.

Here is where Butterfield is helpful.  She was a practicing homosexual for many years and then came to faith in Christ.  She is now the wife of a Reformed pastor and mother of several children.  While she has respect for Hill and others, she is clear about the fact that it is both tragic and dangerous to remain in a state of identifying as “gay.”  This normalizes something that God has called sin and is unnecessary for anyone who is standing in the robe of righteousness that is provided by Christ.

Holmes’ chapter is the last of the four in the book.  Thus, I first encountered him in his responses to the other three authors.  Based on those brief thoughts, I was looking forward to his chapter.  It turned out to be a great disappointment.  Almost his entire argument was based on an Augustinian model of marriage and a consequent assertion that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation.  This, then, requires a massive pile of explanations and qualifications for how it is that it okay for heterosexual couples to marry and engage in sexual activity despite infertility, being of post-menopausal age, etc. (to say nothing of the holiness of sexual activities in the marriage bed which do not include the physical possibility of conception!).  It ended up being a soft, underhand pitch right over the plate, which Loader and DeFranza obligingly knocked out of the park.

The essence of marriage is NOT procreation, though that is important.  The essence of marriage is, rather, the complementarity of unity in difference with the specific halves of male and female.  By definition, there is no such thing as same-sex marriage.  Regardless of what the state or the culture or liberal churches may say, it does not exist.  And Christians should not speak of it as if it did.  That is why I and others are always careful to use phrasing such as “so-called same-sex marriage.”  This should have been the argument presented by Holmes.  But it was not.

That is not to say that Holmes offered nothing of value.  On the contrary, he brought some very helpful points to bear on the discussion.  In fact, it is worth quoting him at length to get the force of the best thread of his contribution:

[E]very desire of every person is wrongly directed; the church is a company of sinners.  The acceptance offered to lesbian and gay people is exactly the same as the acceptance offered to straight people: we are all invited through the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Christ to come as we are, desiring wrongly in multiple ways, and to find ourselves gradually transformed to desire rightly through the work of the Spirit.  (p.64)

Responding to Loader’s assertion that it is “very unfair and inconsistent to tell people that it’s OK to be gay, but not OK to give natural expression to their sexuality,” Holmes writes,

But that is exactly what we say to all people: it is not OK to give natural expression to our sexuality—or indeed to any other natural desire we have.  Instead, the gospel calls every one of us to repentance and transformation in every area of our lives.  Christian marriage is not permission to indulge our sexual desires, but an ascetic discipline through which our wayward desires are transformed (just as celibacy is).  (pp.64-5)

What Homosexuals and Other Sinners Need
Along with Butterfield, I will say that what all of us need, throughout our lives, is the healing power of our God to conquer and reconcile and restore to Himself all the little parts of us which remain sick and broken and rebellious.  Christians who experience same-sex attraction do not need to settle into a life of “being gay.”  They need healing.  We all do.  The role of the church is to walk the path of healing with all of her members.  This is not to deny the likely reality that there is something in the psychological and perhaps even bio-chemical hardwiring of some folks which gives them a “natural” (read: “fallen”) propensity toward same-sex attraction.  Nor is it to give approval to any of the sinister schemes of “reprogramming” which think of same-sex attracted people as “patients” in need of a “cure” and treat them as objects to be dealt with.  (Butterfield refers to “reparative therapy” as a heresy of the prosperity gospel that says, ‘commit your life to Jesus, and all will be well.’)

Biblical healing in the church means friendship—deep, close friendships between equals in Christ, where the Spirit of God is growing people into the likeness of the Son.  This brother is seeing growth in his years-long struggles with anger, that brother in his critical and prideful spirit, this brother in his lust toward women, that brother in his same-sex attractedness—all of them walking together, building one another up, praying with and for one another.  For any of these people, the struggle may continue throughout their lives.  The same-sex attracted Christian may go to his grave ‘feeling gay,’ just as the Christian power-monger may struggle to his dying day with his idol of controlism.  Nevertheless, the trail will be marked by victories (even if it also includes some failures), and Christ will have been learned and known in the process.  This is sanctification.  Meanwhile, it will not do for any of them to settle into an identity which frames their lives according to their brokenness.

Church and World on the Issue of Homosexuality
One thing that is of great importance is that the church maintain her own clarity of thought.  In many cases in 21st century America, this will mean she must first recover it and then maintain it.  Without a doubt, there are several claims constantly broadcast by the surrounding culture which find their way into the church.  I finish this post by listing several ingredients, in no particular order, that add to the over all confusion we suffer here in this time and place.  Some of these have broader significance than just their bearing on the issue of homosexuality.  After each, I will offer a thought to try to clear the air a bit.

  • Cultural fog:  Everyone–at least all normal and decent people–are affirming of homosexuality as a good thing.
    • Clearing the air:  The ad populum fallacy is an informal fallacy which claims that something is either true or false because practically everyone thinks so. As I have written before here on TLW, ‘Most people believe the things they believe, because they believe most people believe them.’  This is a tremendously powerful weapon in the propaganda arsenal of culture.  It wins a free pass on so many things from evolutionary theory to Whoopi Goldberg’s “god of love and acceptance.”  It certainly holds enormous sway in the public perception of many questions involved in the discussion of homosexuality.
  • Cultural fog:  We have now arrived and know all truth—or at least sufficiently vast amounts of it to make our judgments about practically everything superior to all who have gone before us.
    • Clearing the air:  The Chronological Snobbery fallacy is also alive and well in today’s culture. This is the fallacy that assumes that, simply because an idea is old, it must be wrong.  (It can go the opposite way too,saying that something is wrong or bad because it is new.)  The culture of the day operates with the assumption that we have now arrived and know all truth.  With regard to the discussion of homosexuality, we can now arrogate to our time and place the seat of authoritative truth with disregard and disdain for many other times and places in the history of the world.  The irony is that, far from being a new height of clarity and enlightenment, it is actually a new depth of blindness and ignorance.
  • Cultural fog: True love is what we have been taught to believe it is by our televisions (et al), and it is the most important thing in the universe.
    • Clearing the air:  Romantic/sexual love, especially as a “private” affair “between two people who love each other,” has been elevated to religious status in our culture, and the church has largely bought into it. Romantic and sexual involvement is now seen as necessary for personal fulfillment.  This has resulted in the privatization and secularization (or we might say, the dis-ecclesialization) of ordinary marriages.  It is this unbiblical and sub-Christian understanding of marriage that is in view when the culture says all people deserve the right to be married.  Indeed, it is difficult to defend against such a claim when we have already agreed to this wrong definition.
  • Cultural fog:  Being ‘nice’ is the most important thing in our interactions with each other.
    • Clearing the air:  This is particularly expected of anyone who makes any claim to have faith in God.  Anyone is welcome to speak from a “religious” perspective provided that they only say nice things.  In the church, we tend to fall for a more insidious form of this in connection with the homosexual issue and others.  We have been pressured into believing that it is incumbent upon us to take the nicest position on homosexuality that we possibly can without utterly violating clear biblical teaching.  And when we do express biblical teaching, we hem and haw and apologize.
      As I have written elsewhere, “niceness” is not a Christian virtue.  Kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness–these are the fruit of the Spirit.  But they are not the same thing as niceness.  Niceness is a thin veneer over relationships that usually involves being fake.  Biblical love never involves being fake.  It is real and is the partner of the truth.  Without such a distinction between cultural niceness and actual Christian virtue, the writings of the New Testament apostles are unintelligible.
  • Cultural fog:  “Being gay” is just the way some people are; the discussion of whether homosexuality is innate or elective is settled and closed.
    • Clearing the air:  Similar to the way that evolutionary theory eventually reached the status of unquestionable acceptance throughout the culture, it is now assumed by most people that “being gay” is just the way some people are. (All five of the Christian authors of the book I discussed above seem to take this as a given.) To speak of it as a choice that some people make is to reveal oneself as desperately behind the times.  This has been a huge accomplishment for the ‘LGBT’ agenda in attaching itself to the legitimate plights of people of color, who, in fact, do NOT get to choose their ethnicity.
  • Cultural fog:  The culture, not the Bible or the church, gets to define the terms and set the parameters for discussion.
    • Clearing the air:  Among other things, this means that everyone is expected to accept and use the words “gay” and “lesbian,” the very use of which lends a constant legitimacy to the ideas that these are not only real ontological categories (which itself should be questioned) but ones deserving of acceptance and support.  Moreover, we are expected to use new definitions of terms like “marriage” and “spouse” and to use phrases like “his husband” and “her wife.”  In the case of so-called ‘transgender’ people, we are expected to use the gender pronouns that fit the sex which they claim to have become.  While I will not say that Christians must not acquiesce to these things, I would at least say we better be clear with ourselves and one another as to just what we are doing.
  • Cultural fog:  Being put together means being right and good.
    • Clearing the air:  This idea comes in the form of pointing out that, contrary to other times and places in history (e.g. ancient Greece and Rome), homosexuality is no longer to be associated with abusiveness or sickness.  Gays and lesbians, we are assured, are among the most put together, well-adjusted people in society.  They are responsible professionals who make good parents, etc.  It is important to remember that the measure of the moral quality of a person, thing or phenomenon is not how orderly or robust it appears to be.  In the proclamation of the gospel, the church has always sounded clear warnings to the healthy, happy and well-heeled that their apparent stability was not to be trusted.  Thus, the increasing amount of social polish among homosexual people should not be mistaken for God’s approval of their homosexuality.
  • Cultural fog:  The popular cultural narrative correctly teaches us that gay and gay-affirming people are heroic and “religious” and non-affirming people are goofy, if not downright villainous.
    • Clearing the air:  While it is certainly true that there have been times in the past when homosexual people were cruelly mistreated by society and were terribly hurt by people in the church, those days are pretty well gone now.  And in fact, the tables are quickly turning.  It is no longer brave to be gay or gay-affirming.  It is brave to be otherwise.  Ask any Christian student at a state college or university.

Before signing off here, I do want to try, at least, to avoid having people unnecessarily think of me as a jerk who hates homosexual people.  As I mentioned above, I cannot just say nice, politically correct things at the expense of the truth.  But that doesn’t mean that I have either a license or a desire to be a brash, uncaring jerk.  Never mind anything like a Christian duty to love, I honestly cannot remember ever meeting a homosexual person (unless maybe I didn’t know they were) whom I didn’t find it easy to like.

The aim of this post has not been to get into a public argument with homosexual people.  My aim has been to lay things out in what I believe to be a clear and accurately biblical way for the sake of other Christians.  In fact, I do not know whether any homosexual people will even see this.  In one sense, I hope not.  The things I have written of here have nothing to do with loving and serving actual homosexual people.  It has been, and I trust it will continue to be, my great pleasure to know and interact with homosexual folks.  They are sinners just like I am.  In actual relationship with actual people, I would not stand there laying out these arguments.  I would sit and listen and love.  As Rosaria Butterfield puts it, ‘Strong words belong the context of strong relationship.’

May the Lord Jesus Christ magnify His holy name among us all!

It is Good to be Near God: a Thought on the Day After Inauguration Day, 2017

It is now the day after Inauguration Day.

I watched many of the festivities on television yesterday.  I was struck by a weird feeling unlike anything I know how to label.  On the one hand, despite my Anabaptist persuasions, I felt the (beautiful?) ceremonial solemnity of the occasion.  On the other, I was awash once again in the realization of the depths of degradation this country has reached.  A very strange combination of feelings, to be sure.

This morning, when I awoke, I saw that Desiring God had published an article by John Piper titled “How to Live Under an Unqualified President.”  Also, they posted the prayer that Dr. Piper prayed for the new president.  Both are excellent, and I commend them both to all.

Two elements of these materials stand out to me at this time.  The first is that Piper prayed that the Lord would grant repentance to President Trump but noted that this would be quite a miracle, since Trump is a proud rich man, and it is exceedingly hard for such people to enter the kingdom.  But he also recalled that when the Lord expressed how difficult it was for a rich man to enter, He followed by saying, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  I thought about how it might be good for believers to pray for this president, picturing with a holy imagination what a glorious thing it would be for the Lord truly to grant him repentance—not the phony stuff focused on by the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.—but real repentance.  With God it is possible.  But for now, we have a president who has said that he has never asked for forgiveness from God or anyone else.

Second, the article also highlights the fact that this new president is egregiously far from being anything that anyone in this country can point to as an example to young people.  As Piper puts it, “Few parents would say to their young people: strive to be like Donald Trump. That is a great sadness.”  Indeed, it is.  But even worse is what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office actively teaches.  The message is clear:  There is no disqualification of leadership based on moral grounds.  If we think that the young people of this country are not getting that message loud and clear, we will find we are sadly mistaken.  They now know that a horrible moral track record—even when multiplied by a brazenly unrepentant hubris—is not sufficient to keep a person from occupying the highest office of the land.  How do parents, grandparents, teachers, youth pastors and others who work to lead young people these days explain the moral lessons of the Trump presidency?  Will they not be tempted to think that there is no point in following the way of Jesus and desiring and pursuing purity of heart?

I took a few moments to feel the concussive force of these thoughts.  Then I spent some time reading and praying over Psalm 73.  Here it is:

A PSALM OF ASAPH.

Truly God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
My steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pangs until death;
Their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
They are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
Violence covers them as a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out through fatness;
Their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against the heavens,
And their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore His people turn back to them,
And find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
Always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
And washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
It seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I discerned their end.
18 Truly You set them in slippery places;
You make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
Swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord,
When You rouse yourself, You despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
When I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward You.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with You;
You hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward You will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart
And my portion forever.
27 For behold, those who are far from You shall perish;
You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to You.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.

Mental Ascent

For some years now, I have been thinking about how Christians—with our anointing (I John. 2:20,27)—participate in the story of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.  Like Him—or rather, in Him—we have incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.  Recently, though, I have been thinking about the fact that the first advent of His story included a final piece which we call the ascension, followed by His enthronement at the right hand of the Father.

If I am crucified and risen with Christ (I can’t take the time just now to explain how I see our sharing His incarnation and life of ministry), am I also ascended and enthroned?  Well, Ephesians makes clear that I am seated with Him in the heavenly realms, so, yes.  This speaks to enthronement, at least; but what about ascension?

There is a day coming when our Lord will return to effect our literal ascension, our being caught up into the air with Him.  That is the ‘not-yet’ part.  What about the ‘already’?

Enter, Colossians 3.

“If you have been raised up with Christ,” says Paul, “keep your upward momentum!”  Look up!  Standing on your tiptoes, focus on the sky, not on the earth!  See Christ seated beside the Father!  Reach up!  Reach up as those who can’t wait to join Him there!

on-things-aboveWhat is pictured as a straining forward in Philippians 3, then, is a straining upward in Colossians 3.  Just as surely as we can live into our (Lord’s) resurrection while not yet having died physically, we are told to live into our (Lord’s) ascension while still living this earthly life.  The apostle says we do this by setting our minds on the things above.  In day-to-day life, this amounts to a murderous eradication of the aspects of ourselves which would seek to keep us chained to the earth (v.5).

One of the most striking features of the ascension that awaits us is that it is to be the moment of our final revealing.   The world around us is really in for a shock.  “The world knows neither Christ nor Christians,” wrote the 18th century NT scholar, J.A. Bengel, “and Christians do not even fully know themselves.”  He was referring to the revealing of Colossians 3:4.

The apostle John speaks in similar terms.  “… It has not appeared as yet what we will be.  We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”  As always with the Lord’s apostles, such a thought leads quite naturally to a present-time application:  “And everyone who has this hope on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John. 3:2-3).  For Paul, in Colossians, it leads to the rest of what he writes in chapter 3: putting to death our earthly members, putting on the new man, clothing ourselves in love and much more.

When the Lord returns, He will start by bringing His dead out of the ground.  Then He will bring us all up into the air with Him.  Will this give us whiplash, or will we be found already stretching ourselves in His direction?  Or as He put it, “…hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth” (Luke 18:8)?

Father, thank You for raising us up with Your Son, our Lord Jesus, and for embedding us within Him so that His glorious revealing will be our revealing too.  Thank You for giving us—in Him—the power to kill the ugliness that still attaches to us to the fallen world and to put on the new man whom You are renewing in His image.  Lord, make me into a tiptoe Christian.  Like a toddler anxious to be picked up by his Daddy, let me strain upward to Your throne.  In the name of our risen, ascended and seated Lord, Amen.

Not FROM, but FOR

Six times in his little three chapter letter to Titus, Paul calls for Christians to be into good deeds (1:16; 2:7,14; 3:1,8,14).  The last of these six comes near the end of the book where he says, “Our people also need to learn to engage in good deeds…” (3:14).  He even goes so far as to say that the reason Christ Jesus saved us was to redeem us from our lawless deeds “…and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (2:14).  We cannot miss, then, the fact that God has not saved us just to save us.  He intends to make us into a people of active goodness in the world.

And in the context of all this emphasis on good deeds, the apostle writes, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…” (3:5).  Literally, Paul tells us that our salvation is ‘not from’—‘not sourced in’—any righteous deeds on our part (ouk ex ergōn = “not out of works”).  Instead, it is completely according to His mercy (and by the means of a bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit)!

[Huge sigh of relief goes here.]

Boy, is that good news.

If God is to save me on the basis of my good works, I’m sunk.  Look at the list that characterizes us prior to the rebirth and renewal of the Spirit: “thoughtless,” “led astray,” “enslaved to various passions and pleasures,” “killing time in wickedness and envy,” “hated,” “hating each other” (3:3).  And it’s not as though Paul has the worst non-Christians in mind here.  Rather, he is thinking of all people in general.  That’s who he has just referred to in verses 1-2; if there is any particular class or kind of people in view, it is the people good enough to be in civic leadership (v. 1).  No, if God is going to save anyone, it won’t be related in any way to righteous deeds on their part.

Nevertheless, He saves us for good deeds.  Paul insists that Titus insist on this point.  Drenched in the Holy Spirit, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  Justified by grace, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  As heirs of the hope of eternal life, Christians are to be a people of good deeds.  As those who trust in God, Christians are to be a people who thoughtfully engage in good deeds.

Good deeds.  It’s not where our salvation comes from.  But it is what our salvation is for.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for my tendency to rest on the laurels of Your merciful salvation.  Make me a vessel of Your grace and love in this world.  I want to be profitable for people.  Father, wash me anew with Your Spirit for this purpose.  In Jesus, amen.

Explicable Me

“I feel ya, Bro!” says one guy to another. What he means, it seems, is that he apprehends a given situation or idea the same way the other guy does. But the expression suggests something deeper, more empathetic than a mere shared understanding of something. “I think and feel the same way you do about that,” is the apparent message. And the really incredible implication is that the first guy can give this assurance because he actually knows the very thoughts and feelings of the other.

1 + 1 = …1?
Henry Craik was evidently George Müller’s best friend for many years as they served together in Bristol, England as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Craik died, Müller described their years of friendship as being “without a jar.” Amazingly, these two close friends never fought. But that does not mean that they always saw things the exact same way. Even less does it mean that either of them knew and understood the other down to the depths of his soul. The apostle Paul writes, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?…” (I Cor. 2:11)

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis has famously written that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” He is right, of course. And the experience is one of the great pleasures of life—one of the few which gives an undeniable foretaste of heaven. Which is probably why it is so elusive and rare. The truth is, even when two people really find that they are on the same wavelength, really mutually simpatico, their unity is never total.

Each of us is so different from every one of the others that, to be honest, I sometimes despair of ever truly communicating with another human being in this world. The simpatico soul moments are so few and far between and as fleeting as a snowflake on the tongue. Moments of annoying and even painful misunderstanding are much more easily and often come by.

Like so many other people (all others?), I yearn deeply to be known and understood. And I dread the opposite. Without claiming to be “just a soul whose intentions are good,” I echo the prayer of The Animals: “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”

Lack of Communication
Recently, I had an unpleasant phone conversation in which it seemed that my dialogue partner was bent on misperceiving me while making repeated claims to ‘totally understand where I was coming from.’ It was awful, really. Leading up to the conversation and following from it, I have had the horrible self-doubts about whether it was wise even to have it. Back and forth I go from ‘why in the world did I even say anything?!’ to ‘I had to say that! And they needed to hear it!’

This last year, I worked at yet another Christian high school where I was not retained and where my departure was attended by copious amounts of relational misunderstanding. The truth is, my desire to work there was not that strong. The work was far too difficult (impossible, really) and the material rewards too minimal for it to have a naturally strong draw for me.

Among other things in my experience at this place was the constant awareness that I just didn’t fit. Like most Christian schools, it is a bastion of what I have often called, on this blog and elsewhere, God-and-Country-Evangelicalism. For the past ten years or so, my affinity for that mentality has eroded almost to nothing. Though I grew up in it and championed it myself for many years, it couldn’t survive my study of Scripture and church history.
So each week, as the school would gather on Monday morning for “Opening,” and the pledge of allegiance would be chanted to both the American flag and the “Christian flag,” I would do my best to step back into the shadows and just stand with my head down. Gabby Douglas, no hand on heart for anthemWhile I, unlike Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, never received any direct opprobrium for failing to put my hand over my heart, I always felt very foreign.

On one occasion, around the beginning of November, I did actually engage some 11th and 12th graders on the question of Christian non-violence, and the backlash was astonishing—almost like something out of a cheesy movie. Apparently, the superintendent’s phone lit up all afternoon and evening.
He did tell me, though, that a few of the calls were in support of my challenging the kids to think critically about the subject. And I did have a visit from a kind dad who came just to let me know he appreciated it. And while many of the students freaked out, there were a few who bravely defended me. I thank the Lord for all of these things. Still, they are the silver lining to what is undeniably a very large dark cloud of misfit experience.

It Only Hurts when I Relate
What bothers me about losing the position at the school the relational part. For one thing, I truly did come to love and enjoy the students; and I will miss them. But also, I hate the thought that the people of the school—the students, parents, my colleagues— might have wrong ideas about me. The official/unofficial story of why I am no longer there is likely to be that, though I was a good guy in a lot of ways, I couldn’t cut it as an English teacher, that I should just stick to Bible, etc. And that is simply not true.
What is true is that teaching all of the English classes for the entire high school is a job for at least two people. It cannot be done by just one person, especially if that one person is a real teacher. My understanding of what it means to be a Christian educator did not fit the school. I am not one for keeping things simple and shallow and just making the grades run on time.

But it is not a question of being misunderstood by robots. These are people. And what they think of me matters to me—no doubt, more than it should. I still live in the same city. I still see people from the school community around town. I’ve been bumping into them all summer. And each time, I want to run up to them and tell them that the official story is not true and that what happened to me there is not fair. But having been in similar spots before, I have learned how well such efforts turn out. It’s not pretty. As it is, writing this post probably means I will be seen as some kind of pathetic sore loser who doesn’t know how to just move on.

A Friend in the Valley
One of the most prevalent feelings I felt during the year—maybe the most significant of all—was loneliness. At times, the sense that no one else understood my heart or shared my view of things was almost oppressive. The Lord was with me, true. I knew He was present with me through the ache, and sometimes throbbing pain, of loneliness. But it was as much the presence of a wrestling opponent as of a loving friend.

Nevertheless, in the midst of the great trial that was this school year, the Lord blessed me with one really good friend among my colleagues. Mike, the Math teacher(!) from across the way, was also new to the school. That was probably what began our friendship—that, and our mutual love of coffee. But then it was sustained by a pretty good measure of shared understanding. With Mike, in the context of that place, I experienced something a little like what Frederick Buechner wrote of his childhood friend: “It was Jimmy who became my great friend, and it was through coming to know him that I discovered that perhaps I was not, as I had always suspected, alone in the universe and the only one of my kind. He was another who saw the world enough as I saw it to make me believe that maybe it was the way the world really was.”

Despite our mutual hopes of getting together, I have not seen Mike this summer. I hope we will get opportunities to hang out again. But whatever the case, I am deeply thankful to the Lord for his friendship through the last school year. He has my deep gratitude and respect.

Finding Kinship in a Book
“The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance,” writes Oswald Chambers. While it may be a bit too absolute, his point gets at something very real. Once in a while, you read a book and feel like the author knows you. Earlier this summer, I picked up a wonderful little paperback by Daniel Taylor titled The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment.

Having just finished it, I can say that it is one of those rare gems. It is only about 150 pages in length, but it took me about six weeks to reach the end. This is partly because I have had to set it aside for several days on a number of occasions since I began. But it is also because it is so rich and important that I really needed to take it slow as I chewed on each page.

In the afterword of the edition I have, Taylor mentions the nature of some of the letters he has received in response to the book. Some have expressed gratitude: “If there is a common theme to their letters it is a sense of relief at finding they are not alone…. It is no small thing to find that there are others in the world who share your experience.” Indeed.
One of the praise quotes on the back cover is from poet Luci Shaw who says, “I recognize myself on every page.” I must say that I do too—or very nearly so.

Taylor examines the plight of the reflective Christian with an insightful honesty that is downright soothing. In almost every chapter, he takes the reader on a little narrative aside in which he shows us the life of a character named Alex Adamson. Alex is a fairly young reflective Christian in his first year as a professor of English (Taylor’s actual position) at a Christian college which is steeped in unreflective fundamentalist traditionalism (hopefully not Taylor’s actual position). Poor Alex is both drawn to and repelled by two separate subcultures: the church and Christian circles on the one hand, and the secular intellectual subculture on the other.

Surrounding these narrative vignettes, Taylor deftly guides the reader in thinking through, not only the difficulties of being someone like this, but also the rightness and importance of going ahead and plunging into the risky enterprise of living a life of active faith in Christ. Here are a few excerpts which elicited from me the tearful response of ‘Oh my goodness, this guy knows me!’:

The life of a reflective person is more likely to be interesting, less likely to be serene; more likely to be contemplative, less likely to be active; more likely to be marked by the pursuit of answers, less by the finding of them. The result is a high potential for creativity, curiosity, and discovery, but also for paralyzing ambivalence, alienation, and melancholy.


Reflective Christians are, as they have always been, a great gift from God with important tasks to do. They cannot do them if mired in endless cycles of reflection without action. They also cannot do them, however, if they forfeit the life of the mind for mindless parroting of simplistic, culturally determined socio-religious agendas.


Thinking, as many have discovered, can be dangerous. It can get us in trouble—with others, but also with ourselves. And the suspicion lingers in religious circles that it can also, if we are not very careful, get us in trouble with God.


Like everyone, reflective Christians want to be accepted, to be valued, to be liked—ultimately to be secure. We are afraid of looking stupid, especially if we have an intellectual bent, but even more afraid, I hope, of being stupid. That is, I am willing, reluctantly, to be out of sync in either or both subcultures—to appear alternately naïve or rebellious, outdated or backslidden—if I am convinced that my stand is the right one.
Ah, there’s the rub. Will reflection ever give one peace about “the right” position? Intellectual orthodoxy will allow at best “a right” position, though even that is suspect. “How,” the ever-inquiring mind asks, “can I know that what I believe is right? Contrary forces witness to conflicting truths. I think I have the courage to take a stand, if only I could be sure where that stand should be.


That many people still believe that every “question” can and must be neatly linked to an “answer” illustrates exactly why the church is so often an inhospitable place for the reflective Christian.

But as I said, Taylor is not only good at articulating the problem. He gives a clear description of the way forward.

Faith is a quality and a choice consistent with the human condition. It is an appropriate response to the world as I find it. It is a superior response to cynicism or despair which use the genuine difficulty of life to deny the very real opportunity for discovering meaning in it.


There is one thing about which I do feel certain. I feel certain that the commitment to faith is a risk worth taking. I am more interested in finding a ground for commitment than I am in emphasizing the lack of certainty.


As a belief system, the Christian religion is subject to the many ills of all belief systems; as an encounter with God, it transforms individual lives and human history. God does not give us primarily a belief system; he gives us Himself, most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, so that truth and meaning can be ours through a commitment to that love with which He first loved us. The risk is great, but the reward is infinite.

The Paralysis of Uncertainty and Gospel Ministry
My own struggles with doubt and certainty do not have much to do with the question of God’s existence. For the most part, the struggles Taylor has in view seem to be on that line. But that is not what hounds me. As it turns out, I am just no good at doubting God’s existence. He has always been too palpably real for me.

I have, however, tasted something of the bitterness of which Lewis writes in A Grief Observed: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. the real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s not God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceiver yourself no longer.’”

Even this, however, has only been seasonal. Thank God for that!
Mostly, I find I am plagued by doubts about certain Christian beliefs, some of them pretty central to Christian living and ministry.

For example, the debate between exclusive soteriology and universal reconciliation continues to roil around in my mind and heart. I hear an exclusivist say that there is no salvation apart from a decision of faith in Jesus Christ, that those who do not put their faith in Him will go to hell forever—I hear this, and I sense that there is truth in it. It is what I was taught from my earliest childhood, and it seems to be consistent with biblical on God’s judgment. Yet I cannot escape the opposing sense that the love of God and the greatness of His sovereign grace will likely surprise us in heaven by including many people we thought were beyond its reach. So I find myself saying to the exclusivist, ‘I do not feel at all comfortable speaking for God like that.’

On the other hand, I hear a universal reconciliationist say that God’s love trumps judgment. I hear him say that He will not actually send anyone to hell, at least not for eternity. I hear him say that Christ died for the sins of the whole world. I hear Him say that the many, many millions of people all over the world who do not believe in Christ but whom I do not want to think of as perishing apart from Him forever will, in the end, somehow be okay. I hear all this, and my heart feels that it must somehow be true. It too seems to accord with much of what Scripture has to say. Yet I cannot escape the sense that this idea is as much a violation of God’s holiness as it is a confidence in His love. Scripture is utterly clear that there is something called “destruction,” some kind of fiery judgment, coming for those who are not in Christ by faith. So I find myself saying to the universal reconciliationist, ‘I do not feel at all comfortable speaking for God like that.’

Now maybe one would say that this dilemma is fine. Maybe I don’t need to resolve it. Just let it be. But I know the Lord has made me for the teaching and preaching of His word. I know I am meant to proclaim His truth to people and to do so from an unapologetically prophetic stance. But how can I do that if I am, as Taylor puts it, “mired in endless cycles of reflection without action?” He speaks for me when he says, “I think I have the courage to take a stand, if only I could be sure where that stand should be.”

I cannot rest in the tension. For one thing, what if the tension between the biblical ideas of the exclusivity of the gospel and the universality of God’s grace means that the two ideas are to be synthesized? Such a synthesis could very well mean that I am among those who will face the fiery judgment of God. In Matthew 25, the Lord Jesus characterizes the “goats” as those who thought they knew Him but who failed to follow Him as they should. And in II Thessalonians 1, Paul says the fiery judgment to come is for those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel. Not believe, obey! Do I obey the gospel?!

I cannot seem to resolve the issue, but I cannot just leave it alone! I am truly in a quandary!

This is part of why I have stepped down, for a time, from the preaching team at my church. It is also why I decided not to speak at Junior High Boys’ Camp this summer. If I am conflicted about these things, how can I do the work of an evangelist?

And yet, the call is there. Like Jeremiah, I feel that if I do not speak in the LORD’s name, His words will be like a burning fire in my bones. I cannot hold them in. I am a man most perplexed if not altogether despairing.

Gospel Commitment and Relationships
My prayer now is that the Lord will graciously help me find a way forward as Taylor shows in his excellent book. His formula involves memory, community and perseverance. But will that help me know how to serve God and people in gospel proclamation? I am hoping so.
I am, at least, committed to stay in the game. If the Lord will, I want Him to use me to draw people toward Christ, whichever side of an inside/outside line they might be on in terms of salvation.

Meanwhile, I wonder how many people will even understand all this.
How many will even have the time or patience to read such a long post?! Probably none.
No doubt, for many people, this is all just so much navel-gazing self-absorption.  Mea culpa!
Nevertheless, I do hope that, in and through the community of the body of Christ, the Lord will help me to know what He wants me to believe and proclaim for Him. And I appreciate any help that anyone might have.

I close with the words of Pete Townshend:

“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me…
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story.”

Announcing the Launch of a New Blog!

I am excited to announce the launch of my new blog, GEBEROLOGY!
(That’s pronounced ‘GHEH-bur-AH-luh-jee,’ NOT “Gerber”ology, for those comedians out there who will want to make wisecracks about how I’ve taken up the study of hunting knives or baby food.)
It has been in the beta phase for a while, but I think it is now ready enough to be unveiled for my millions of blog followers. 😉
Right now, there is only one post, a “welcome” post, on the main page. But a second post will show up within the hour, and more will be coming shortly.

Why a second blog?
I decided I needed to have a site that was more centered around my decades-long work of studying heroism, manhood, power, greatness and the great biblical truths about these things which run directly against the world’s ideas about them.
For the past six years or so, I have used this present blog, The Long War, as a way to focus on those sorts of topics as well as a myriad other things.
Now this blog will be where I write about most things which are not necessarily related to the issues involved in Geberology. To be sure, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two—the notion of “the long war,” after all, comes from my recognizing the centrality of the theme of heroism in the biblical narrative (II Samuel 3:1). But the distinction of focus between the two blogs will be helpful to me, and pretty quickly, to anyone who cares to follow either or both of them.

So without any further ado, here is the link to visit “GEBEROLOGY!”
Once there, you can use the “FOLLOW” apparatus in the side column to subscribe, if you are so inclined.

Thanks, in advance, to any who stop by and leave any feedback of any sort.
Grace and peace from the Hero of Heroes,
— KC/Talmid