Category Archives: Christian Living

The Church and the Coronavirus Challenge

The Commission for Theological Integrity

By now it’s fair to say that not a single church has escaped the impact of concerns over the Coronavirus. Churches have been urged to consider measures to ensure people’s safety, along with schools, businesses, and virtually every other assembled group of people. Governors and public health officials have called for certain forms of activity to be suspended, especially when they involve even as few as 50 people. More recently our President has recommended we avoid groups of 10 or more.

This poses some obvious challenges to churches. The average church size is somewhere around 75 people. And many churches have a significant number of elderly members. While it appears that the virus is less deadly to younger people, they can in fact be carriers who transmit to it other persons. So any recommendations to suspend public gatherings are to be taken seriously, regardless of how we feel about them.

The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks are two parachurch ministries that have provided several helpful articles and suggestions on this topic you can easily find on their websites. But as Free Will Baptists try to think practically as pastors, church leaders, and laymen, we’d like to offer three key principles that ministries should follow during this challenging time. We won’t repeat all the important, standard reminders about washing hands regularly, not shaking hands, and covering our mouths when we cough. Suggestions of this sort have been well publicized by mainstream news organizations. However, we cannot help but view this situation in light of the theological commitments God calls us to.

We don’t experience this pandemic as generic American citizens; we’re disciples of Christ. We care about His church. Therefore, we want to see this situation through a specific theological lens, particularly three key doctrines:

Civil Obedience

Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2 are substantial passages on the relationship between the church and the state. How we as Christians and churches relate to governing authorities is not insignificant. Naturally we don’t always agree with everything our leaders say or do (when have we ever?). Yet it is essential that unless we are asked to disobey Scripture, we should otherwise submit to governing authorities. In our American context this includes local officials, state officials, and federal officials. It’s safe to conclude that the Center for Disease Control, in our system of government, would be included in that. Whenever we hear multiple, rightly authorized institutions giving a mandate, we need to heed it. Whenever they make a suggestion, we need to give it careful consideration.

In addition to obedience, we need to pray for our leaders. God forgive us for where we have spent more time criticizing our elected and appointed officials than we have praying for them! First Peter 2 deals especially with our attitude toward leaders, while 1 Timothy 2 calls us to pray. After all, when officials make wise decisions, it promotes peace, not chaos. We need to model Christ-like speech and Spirit-led prayer to help work toward that outcome.

Embodied Community

This article will be read by people in different states and localities. The recommendations given differ slightly from place to place, though increasingly they have moved toward the complete elimination of all non-essential travel or gatherings. What does this mean for the church, the ecclesia, which itself means “gathering” or “assembly”?

We aren’t the first believers in history who have had to be creative about maintaining an ongoing ministry of worship and witness in the midst of pandemic, plague, or persecution. History is filled with occasions when churches had to determine how to obey their government, while not compromising (in the bad sense of that word) the Christian principle of assembly.

A number of churches have already instituted measures to help them continue to gather, but to do so as safely as possible. Extensive facility sanitation, no hand-shaking or hugging, and other forms of social distancing have been observed. However, church gatherings have also had to get even more creative, especially since typical church gatherings are significantly larger than 10 people. Some churches have also sought to give their members some way to stay connected when they cannot physically gather. This includes livestreaming worship services through an online platform.

We need to be both charitable and wise as we view these practices, evaluate them, and consider how or if we may also implement them. One thing is clear: biblical community and worship is an embodied reality. People often point out that the apostles were absent when they wrote letters to churches. Yet notice how often these apostles emphasize the undesirable limitations of physical absence: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. 1:12). This is just one example among many.

The point is this: any measures we take to preserve an ongoing ministry of worship and witness that utilizes smaller group meetings (smaller than the actual congregation), online media, or other hybrid options, should be treated as temporary measures. Through God’s common grace, we have many helpful technological tools to facilitate some degree of ongoing contact and connectedness. They should be spoken of that way, and not seen as a lasting substitute. Some pastors understandably worry about the “new normal” that we may inadvertently be creating by implementing such measures. Yet this is an opportunity for ministers (ironically through digital means), to teach their congregants about the vital need for gathered, embodied community and koinonia, and to foster in them a biblically rooted desire to return to it as soon as possible (Again, it’s impossible for this to be replicated online). In the meantime, acts of service to those ill and/or elderly would be an appropriate expression of biblical community. After all, such persons are much more adversely affected by social distancing than others. Phone calls, text messages, cards, and similar gestures are always appropriate, and now more than ever.

Most people understand that in times of crisis we all make concessions we wouldn’t typically make. Examples include showering every other day in times of water shortage, or keeping unnecessary lights off when power grids are stretched in a region. Similarly, the church is wise to consider how to foster ongoing awareness of each other’s needs, delivering food to those who cannot leave home at all, and in some instances, providing online teaching content to be viewed from home. However, let’s pray to be reminded in this time of absence and distance of how this is not God’s ideal nor design for us. Let’s pray that when we do return to gather normally we’ll do so with deeper appreciation and hunger for our gathered life together.

Neighbor Love

In these polarized times, social trust is a rare commodity. Many polls and surveys show that people do not trust others in their communities as much as they used to. Certainly biased media coverage sometimes fosters distrust. But when we strip away all the political commentary, we have one profound command staring us in the face: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This principle cuts against the grain of our present culture, which is self-focused, self-absorbed, and self-exalting. But this second great commandment of Christ has so much to say to us in this moment.

First, we must take this pandemic seriously. Imagine one possible outcome if we don’t: People may die. Our public officials tell us people will die, and we think they should be taken seriously. But imagine that it simply increases the likelihood that people will die because of the carelessness of citizens. If that’s true, then we aren’t loving our neighbors very well by traveling or gathering unnecessarily, not observing safe, hygienic practices, or reposting or retweeting dubious news about the Coronavirus online. The great thing about neighbor love is that it has a way of stripping away the politics of this situation. It leads us to ask, “What if this is more serious than we think it is? What might be the cost for my neighbor? How might my careless rhetoric reflect on the Gospel, the Church, or the Christ?”

Second, what happens if we take the situation too seriously? In other words, instead of proactively praying and taking precautions, we yield to fear. We rush to the stores and buy far more than we actually need, making groceries less available to our neighbors, who have the same needs as we do. Neighbor love forces us to look at our attitude and actions closely and ask tough questions of our behavior. Do people see faith working through love in what we’re doing and saying? Do we love our neighbor next door enough to give them a call, and make sure they’re okay, too? The appropriate level of concern will help us get to the other side of the pandemic and hopefully have a stronger witness before a lost world.

Much has been made about the economic impact of this pandemic. Christians need to be reminded that this has not only been disruptive to their regular work life, but also to churches and Christian institutions of many kinds. These kinds of organizations take a significant hit financially during crises like these, and without people continuing to be generous they sometimes never rebound. While the government is preparing some financial responses, few if any of these monies will in any way make it into the coffers of churches or religious organizations. As Christians, let’s remember these important institutions in our life and the need to uphold them in prayer and financial support during this time.

A final caution is also appropriate as we consider the full range of implications of loving our neighbors. Christians, churches, and religious organizations will choose to take different measures to safeguard themselves and others during this time. Provided direct government mandates are followed, there is a range of specific decisions that can be made by people of good faith. In other words, not everyone who takes different steps is being unfaithful or unloving. We need to exercise generous patience toward one another. We need to abstain from using social media to shame other churches for “selling out” and closing their doors (or for keeping their doors open when ours has closed theirs). These discussions should be had privately as we mutually discern best practices in keeping with public health recommendations, and at the same time appropriate for our unique organizations. Blasting our brethren (or neighbors in general) for their choices is unwise and unloving.

Conclusion

The Lord will have the final word on how we choose to respond to the information we’ve been provided. Let’s respect civil authority, work diligently to cherish embodied community, and practice neighbor love. Our commitment to these biblical principles is central to our ability to navigate this turbulent situation. And together let’s pray that the fallenness of this world will continue to awaken us to the hope of the Gospel, for the end of earthly corruptions, the “freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-30). May our temporal concerns press us to hope more fully in God’s eternal promises.

Augustine, Arminius, and R.C. Sproul on Christian Perfection

Matthew Pinson

Sometimes Arminius has been (inaccurately) interpreted as laying the groundwork for a doctrine of Christian perfection. With regard to perfectionism, Arminius said in his Declaration of Sentiments that he “never actually stated that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life.” Nor did he deny it. He left it as an open question, contenting himself with the sentiments of Augustine. In short, citing Augustine, Arminius believed that, through grace, perfection was a logical possibility but that an individual who had attained it had never yet been found! [1].

Given how many times I’ve heard Calvinists say this about Arminius, I found it interesting when my friend Chris Truett, in a sermon on why God calls us to rely on Christ’s work and the gospel, not on our own standards of perfection, quoted staunch Calvinist R. C. Sproul as saying what Augustine and Arminius said. I went and looked up where Sproul said this, and here’s the quotation:

“Can a person be perfect? Theoretically, the answer to that is yes. The New Testament tells us that with every temptation we meet, God gives us a way to escape that temptation. He always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. So sin in the Christian life, I would say, is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin. But on a given occasion, it is never, ever necessary. So in that sense, we could theoretically be perfect, though none of us is. [2]

_____________

[1] Gunter, Declaration of Sentiments, Kindle locations 3313-3314; cf. Arminius, Works, 1:677-78. Keith Stanglin, in his book Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation appears to agree with this interpretation of Arminius on perfection (Leiden: Brill, 2007, p. 140).

[2] R. C. Sproul, “Be Ye Perfect,” Ligonier.org, July 28, 2010; https://www.ligonier.org/blog/be-ye-perfect/

 

Matthew Bracey’s “The Institutional Good of Marriage, Family, and Society”: Review and Response

W. Jackson Watts

I was pleased to listen to Matthew Bracey’s excellent paper on marriage, family, and society at the 2018 Symposium in October. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I know one which Bracey has spent an extensive amount of time delving into. Some of his previous reflection on this broader subject can be found in a volume entitled Gender, Sexuality, and the Church (Welch College Press, 2016).

Review

In this presentation Bracey focused on what has been described as the “institutional good of marriage.” To speak of the “institutional good” of marriage is to speak to one of the ends or purposes of marriage. To state it in summary form, Bracey says, “the institution of marriage communicates a procreational good, a relational good, a spiritual good, and institutional good, each being the expression of love” (77).[1]  Each of these goods, then, could also be described as purposes for God’s gift of marriage.

The procreational purpose or good is fairly self-evident to most who have studied this subject. While not all marital relationships have the capacity to bear children (due to infertility, age, etc.), reproduction is tied to the complementary design of the two genders which God brings together in marriage. The design, we could say, gives rise to the good of procreation. Certainly in a world without sin nothing would hinder this good, but even in a fallen world this good purpose still often attains and blesses couples, and society.

A second purpose or good is the relational (or unitive) good. Genesis 2:18 describes the Lord making a helper suitable to the man whom He had made. Scripture then in numerous places unfolds the enrichment and beauty this one-flesh relationship brings, perhaps most notably in the Song of Solomon.

A third purpose is its spiritual good. The Christ-church relationship is uniquely pictured in Christian marriage. The husband’s sacrificial love serves to typify Christ’s supreme, sacrificial love for His people, while the wife’s willing submission and respect to the husband typifies the posture and attitude assumed by God’s people.

The remainder of Bracey’s presentation was focused on a fourth and generally neglected good: an institutional one.  Sometimes described as a public or formal good, marriage is not merely a private affair between consenting adults. Instead, marriage is a public institution whose blessings and benefits extend beyond the threshold of the couple’s home. Perhaps the best example of this larger social impact is the fact that couples will bear and nurture children who will in turn be citizens in civil society, contributing to its betterment or decline. The health and well-being, then, of the marital relationship has a direct bearing on the type of society we will become.

Moreover, rightly ordered sexual relationships contribute to the flourishing of human life, and by extension, the lives of those around us. Bracey summarizes this point best when he says, “The Christian ethic recognizes this reciprocal relationship between the soul and the state, and it places the family as an intermediary between them” (82).

As an aside, Bracey’s observation here feeds into a larger, growing body of literature that emphasizes the importance of mediating institutions between the state and the individual, such as the family, the church, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and charities. Not only do these serve as a buffer between the state in the face of its tendency to overreach, but these mediating institutions enrich human life in countless other ways.

Bracey’s presentation is helpful as it introduces this fourth, crucial purpose for marriage, and then moves toward offering some practical implications for the institutional good of marriage and family in society. He highlights how marriage helps civil society to flourish and protects people (especially children, the most vulnerable) from harm. He then mentions several avenues for promoting the institutional good of marriage, moving from the individual to the family, the church, society, and government.

Response

Whenever people come to our churches looking for financial assistance, or a place to stay, it is no surprise that divorce and/or cohabitation lie somewhere in the background of the situation. This is not to be uncharitable to those who are victims, at least in part, of others’ bad conduct. Certainly churches must be places of mercy. Yet an understanding of the institutional good of marriage equips us to detect the impact of family breakdown. Perhaps it can also help us to offer marital counseling to people, who may also, along the way, require some help with rent or the utility bill.

Christians who have inhabited the story of Scripture understand the way marriage provides a safe, secure, and sustainable way of guarding the interests of men, women, and the children they bear. When they choose to honor God’s good design in joining together in legitimate marital union, and proceed to bring children into the world in that context, they are embracing a framework that, in the long run, has been proven to be for their good and the good of their neighbors.

None of this, to be sure, will guarantee marital bliss. Certainly we as Christians would want to say a lot more about the components to a healthy marriage. Perhaps as part of our ministries we can make marriage resources available to our communities, ultimately forming connections that can lead to evangelism and care. But Christians have robust biblical, theological, sociological, and historical reasons to contend for the institutional good of marriage.

As elected officials try to do more and more in the way of policy making to address poverty, might Christians lend a voice to the discuss and show where family order and stability is central to long-term wealth-building? Might we point out that those in intact families have better life outcomes by any measure than those who do not?

While we need to work diligently to not make the victims of cohabitation, divorce, and other destructive choices feel guilty for being victims, we do need to be honest about the good design of marriage and its positive benefits for the world.

________________

[1] Each page number is derived from the 2018 Symposium Digest of Papers.

Memento Mori

by Randy Corn

Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him.  Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.

About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016

This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.

  1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997

This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS.  He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not.  He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk.  Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.

  1. The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969

This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children.  He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.

There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.

Millennials: They’re So Hard to Figure Out

by Matt Pinson

“We do face a danger, of course, when attempting to group individuals in a certain generation using sweeping generalizations. We risk missing the beautiful diversity of each generation, and the beautiful uniqueness of each person.”  —Jon Nielson

Recently I read a short article on the Gospel Coalition website by Jon Nielson, a 33-year-old campus ministry leader at Princeton University. It reminded me how difficult it is to “peg” the millennial generation, despite how much some people attempt to do so. One of the things the article tries to get its readers to do is to “stop trying to define millennials,” as a recent Huffington Post article urged.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry every time I hear someone in our denomination repeat this old, tired slogan: “The reason Free Will Baptists are losing our young people is because our churches are not cool enough.” The reason I don’t know whether to laugh or cry is that I know all the latest research from serious sociologists like Christian Smith and others belies this well-worn maxim of many in the FWB Baby Boomer set.

The social science research shows that evangelical churches across the board are losing their young people at the same rate—contemporary and traditional, urban and rural and suburban, large and small and mega, liturgical and charismatic—there’s no significant difference in the percentage of young people being lost or gained. Yet we continue to hear the attractional, “only-way-to-reach-Millennials” line over and over again. (For more on this, read another brief article by Nielson entitled “Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up.”)

But I’m kind of like Jon Nielson in the article below: Millennials are a lot harder to figure out than Boomers and Gen-Xers. I work with them everyday, and just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they surprise me.

Millennials want more depth and transcendence and beauty from their religion than many Boomers and Gen-Xers. They’re more interested in theology than just pragmatic “what works” methods—they want methods that actually grow out of theology. This of course doesn’t apply to all Millennials, but that’s my whole point—it’s hard to reduce them to a one-size-fits-all approach, either educationally or religiously.

This was illustrated when I received an article from a Millennial youth pastor friend of mine recently about church architecture. It was a Barna Research survey commissioned by a large church architecture firm. The firm wanted to know what Millennials like in church architecture. They showed pictures of three types of church sanctuaries—(1) the dimly lit “stage set” one (2) the center-pulpit, brightly lit “Baptist-Presbyterian” one, and (3) the formal-liturgical one.

Two-thirds of the Millennials liked the traditional sanctuaries and disliked the modern one. They showed three types of church exteriors that corresponded to the sanctuaries mentioned above. Again, two-thirds of the Millennials preferred the traditional buildings and disliked the modern one.

Now, my point here is not to make an argument about the “correct” type of church architecture. My point is that a lot of our caricatures of the Millennial generation are just that—caricatures. Millennials just aren’t leaving, or joining, churches for the reasons we often hear cited.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this brief but very insightful article by Jon Nielson.