Three Words that Can Improve Your Bible Study Immediately

I was wrong.

Regardless of context, this is one of the most difficult statements for anyone to make. Whether you’re having a conversation at the church, at home, or even in the coffee shop, these three words come with such difficulty.

And yet, those committed to the authority of Scripture live with this possibility on a daily basis. We are called, each of us, to be submitted to God’s Word. As eighteenth-century Lutheran scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel has been quoted, each of us has the responsibility to “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” This is the task we face daily in our efforts to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).

And in order to be transformed—in order to be conformed to Scripture—we must say those three words with far more regularity than any of us would desire. Each time we approach Scripture, we bring a load a theological baggage to the task of interpretation. And we have a responsibility to let the text speak and allow it to have an affect upon our theology.

And this is so difficult, isn’t it? Even as born-again, Bible-thumping Christians who champion sola scriptura, again and again we are tempted to bring our theology and our experiences and the mounds of books we’ve read to the exegetical task and interpret Scripture in such a way as to accord with our pre-conceived notions. This proclivity seems so evident when we see it in someone else (who clearly can’t conceive of their bias), but we are then challenged to consider the other theological arenas in which we may blind to our own (unnoticed) biases which we carry into the exegetical task.

It is much more natural, when faced with teaching that opposes our thought, to reject it outright—to declare that our views are inherently right and correct. It is far more difficult to acknowledge the possibility that we might actually be wrong. In my reading of God’s Word, I am perpetually amazed at the number of scribes and Pharisees whose interpretations of Scripture were shaken by the Incarnation of Christ. Over and over again, Jesus’s actions undermined their entire framework of understanding. And while it is common to read their reactions in the Gospels as absurd, as a theologian and student of God’s Word, I become fearful of the possibility that my interpretations—as well-intentioned as I believe them to be—as much study as I have committed to the task—could be wrong (or at least fallible).

And in my brief experience training men and women to rightly divide the Word of God, I’ve taught them to ask an important question when faced with a difficult text that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their pre-determined theological position.

Rather than asking them how they might redefine or re-interpret a verse in order to make it align more closely with their position, I challenge them to ask, “How has that verse or passage affected my theological views—how has it shaped what I had already believed?”

Why is that important?

Because if we’re genuinely submitted to the authority of God’s Word, our task is to conform our thought to his Word; not to conform his Word to our thought.

Is that uncomfortable?
Yes.

Is that difficult?
You bet.

Does that require us to consistently face the possibility that our theological framework may be out of alignment with Scripture?
It does.

But, if we genuinely prize God’s Word, we are given no other option.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

On the Proper House-Training of your Youth Pastor

A few years ago, our family adopted a puppy. He was rescued from a parking lot in the rain and our kids were desperate for a dog with which to run and play. Once we saw his paws, though, we knew this would not be a small dog for long. But whereas we thought he might grow to reach 50 pounds or so, he’s give us abundantly more than we could have asked or imagined in an 80 pound dog.

Shortly after adopting him, we left him crated at home only to receive a call from our neighbor who explained that our dog—Captain America (we have four boys and only one girl)—was not crated. In fact, he was looking out of the broken blinds in the master bedroom of our house.

When I came home, not only had he broken his crate and gotten into my bedroom. He had apparently pushed the door behind him and become panicked. He destroyed my bedroom—the comforter, the sheets, the pillows, the blinds, and that smell . . .

I still have nightmares involving that smell.

Seriously. As recent as last week.

And as frustrated as I was in that moment—deep down, I knew that he was a big puppy who just wasn’t house-trained yet.

Today, he’s calmed down for the most part and become a reliable protector of my kids. He cannot stand for them to be outside without him. And he guards them like I might. He’s gentle with them and vicious toward any dog (or person) who might dare threaten them.

The puppy who gave me nightmares now gives me confidence when my kids play outside.

The Puppy-Stage of Ministry

Some years ago, when I was in the puppy-stages of ministry, I was invited to serve as a youth pastor at an established church. I was finishing up college and, despite my complete lack of experience or wisdom, I was absolutely certain as to how I wanted to “do” youth ministry.

I never let myself into a room and destroyed it quite like our family puppy had, but I may have given my senior pastor a nightmare or two.

And, in retrospect, I have come to understand that I learned more from the grace and patience he gave me during those early years than I ever understood at the time. I have no doubt that he had moments when he experienced a similar consideration as I did when I encountered our dog in the wasteland that was my bedroom, but his decision to use those moments as opportunities for growth and instruction have had a dramatic influence on my life and ministry.

It’s common among churches to hire ministerial pups as youth pastors. Often, we do so with the understanding that many youth pastors are not “lifers,” in that they don’t plan to retire a youth pastor. Most likely, they’ll cut their teeth in youth ministry before stepping up to the pastorate. As such, it really shouldn’t surprise us when they make a mess, should it?

So, what do you need to do in order to house-train your youth pastor?

Give him opportunities

He’s energetic and hungry. Point him in a good direction and give him opportunities to lead . . . and not only with the youth. Give him opportunities to preach on occasion, even if only on those “special” weekends when you don’t anticipate a large crowd.

Give him events to take the lead on. Use his energies for the sake of the church. It will benefit the church and give him some much-needed interaction with grown ups.

Give him resources

This goes hand-in-hand with opportunities. Give him the resources he needs to succeed. I realize that the money’s tight and that the church is in a budget-crunch. I understand that we all need to “tighten the belt” and make things work. I’m not asking you to go overboard.

But give him what he needs to succeed. And if the number that the budget committee returns with falls short of what he’s been asking, give him some options and suggestions for making every ministry dollar stretch. The pace with which he runs and the ministry he leads has a lot to do with the investment your church makes in him.

Give him coaching

One of the most important investments your church can make in him is through you. Pastor, you have experience in ministry. You have experience with people. You have wisdom to share. Can I just encourage you to coach your youth pastor?

He doesn’t need you to micro-manage him (probably). Doing that will only ensure that you’re overloaded with responsibilities. But he needs someone to chat with on a regular basis and discuss how things are going and what he could/should do differently next time around. You need to be that person.

Remember, he’s serving a subset of your congregation. You’re the youth’s senior pastor. And the best way you can ensure that they’re receiving the best care and attention they need is by investing and mentoring him.

Will that be a costly investment? Up front, it will. But in the long run, the entire church will benefit.

Give him leaders

A youth ministry without good volunteer leadership is an unhealthy youth ministry. Pastor, you need to take a major role in recruiting leaders for the youth ministry. Don’t send him down to the basement of the church without any strong volunteers. Speak highly of the youth ministry from the pulpit. Tell stories of how God is moving among the teenagers of your church and invite adults to find an avenue for leadership in the youth ministry.

Give him patience

He will do something stupid. He very well may do several things that leave you frustrated and shaking your head. Give him patience. If it’s not a moral deficiency or sin, make it a learning opportunity for him. Allow it to direct your guidance for a bit. He feels the weight and responsibility of ministry and his decisions. Rather than using it as an opportunity for chastisement, help him make better decisions in the future.

Last thought

Youth pastors are important to the ministry and work of the church. A good youth pastor is hard to find. He’s much easier to raise. But you’ll have to get past the stage where he chews up the furniture and pees on the carpet. And that takes time and perspective.

May God give us eager young ministers of the gospel. And may he give us wisdom and courage to help them grow. And may he give our church’s custodians patience and a good sense of humor.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Let’s Talk about Complementarianism and Humble Dialogue

Southern Baptists as a people are confessionally complementarian. Articles 6 and 18 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which speak of the church and the family respectively, make this explicit.

VI. The Church
. . . While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture . . .

XVIII. The Family
. . . The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation . . .

Recent cultural events have initiated a number of conversations that have revealed, however, that while Southern Baptists are united in their complementarianism, they are not unified in their views as to what that necessarily entails. Complementarianism, then, appears to be more of a spectrum of views than a singular point of belief. The Danvers Statement, initially published in November 1988 by the CBMW and considered the definitive statement concerning complementarianism, comprises each of the following points along the spectrum.

Two notes need to be acknowledged first, however.

First, it seems appropriate to state at the outset that all complementarians believe that while men and women (male and female) were created equal, they were not created to be identical. Those who refuse to acknowledge this are not complementarians in any sense of the word and at no point on the spectrum. Rather, they are either chauvinists who argue that females are created of lesser value than males, or egalitarians who argue that there is no distinction between males and females in value or role.

Second, though these three positions are listed as points, I want to emphasize that these are points on a spectrum. Some will line up behind each of these points. No doubt, many will agree with one of the positions, but prefer a different term. (I fully accept that as a fact and have learned the most difficult task assigned to the first Adam, apart from protecting his wife, must have been giving names to the animals.) But most importantly, many will find their own positions somewhere in the space between the following positions; that is why I describe this as a spectrum of beliefs and not merely three options.

Unrestricted Complementarianism

Those holding to a unrestricted complementarianism (my term, though I have also heard reference to “hard” complementarianism) argue that the admonitions in 1 Timothy 2 are unrestricted in their application. Paul charges men “in every place” to pray with holy hands (v. 8). He instructs that women should be dressed moderately and modestly (v. 9–10), but few interpreters would argue that this instruction is only in place in the church. Verses 11–12 (that “a woman is to learn quietly with full submission” and may not “teach or have authority over a man”), they argue, are then also unrestricted. This position further argues that Paul supported his position with a reference to the creation of Adam and Eve, whose time predates the church (or even the Old Testament congregation). Therefore, they argue, all roles of authority over males are restricted to male headship.

General Complementarianism

Those holding to what I term general complementarianism argue that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2, especially verses 11–12 are applicable only in two spheres: marriage and the church. Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve, then, need not be categorically subsumed under the church, but rather exists as reference to the necessity of male headship in the marriage.

They would argue, then, that women are free (and encouraged) to express their leadership gifts in every realm save two: the home and the church. Can a qualified woman, then, serve as President? Yes. Can she serve as CEO? Yes. Can she serve as seminary professor? Yes. And should men submit to her leadership in those venues? Yes.

In the home, however, she is called to submit herself to the authority of her husband’s servant leadership (as unto the Lord) and in the church, she is called to submit herself to the authority of the elders and deacons. Those roles are to be assumed by qualified men in accordance with 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.

Restricted Complementarianism

Those espousing restricted complementarianism (similar to that termed “soft” complementarianism) argue that the office of elder and/or senior pastor alone is that which is restricted to male headship. They might argue that the New Testament knows of no office of Sunday School teacher, associate pastoral staff, or age-based minister and, as such, could not have mandated qualifications or restrictions. Rather, that which is made clear by the New Testament is that women are prohibited from the office of elder.

These complementarians would agree with the general complementarian view that wives are to be submitted to their husbands, but every role in the church apart from senior pastor or elder is open to their full participation. According to this view a woman could teach a mixed-gender Sunday School class, serve as an associate pastor or minister of music, or even preach in the worship service of the church as long as she did not aspire or seek the role of senior pastor or elder.

Positions past the extremes of the spectrum

Chauvinism: Though critics of complementarianism may accuse its adherents of being chauvinistic and Chauvinists may even claim to be complementarian, the affirmation of the equality and value of men and women differentiate the two views. Chauvinists are disparaging toward women and seek to derive their authority from a sense of spiritual superiority. Chauvinism is not even a Christian position. If one were to view the spectrum of complementarianism as a plateau, unrestricted complementarianism is situated at the edge, but chauvinism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.

Egalitarianism: Egalitarians argue that because God has created men and women equal in value and dignity, there must then be no distinction between them concerning roles and offices of the church. General and genuine equality mandates general and genuine equal opportunity. When, in dialogue with complementarianism, egalitarians are presented with biblical texts inferring different roles in the church and home (1 Tim 2–3, Eph 5), they respond that the contexts of the texts are culturally and/or temporally specific and limited in application. Egalitarianism may certainly be believed by Bible-believing Christians. However, this view is not in accordance with the Southern Baptist Confession of Faith. Again, viewing the spectrum as a plateau, restricted complementarianism is situated at the edge opposite unconditional complementarianism, but egalitarianism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.

A Call for Humility in Dialogue

As evangelicals, or more specifically, as Southern Baptists enter into necessary and helpful conversations about complementarianism, it is necessary that we do so in a spirit of humility. Southern Baptists are united in our affirmation that “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Moreover, we are united in affirming, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

In light of our unity, can we not then jettison pejorative accusations of “liberal,” “chauvinist,” “egalitarian,” or “feminist” from these heated discussions? If we are people of the Book, and we are striving to believe, teach, and live in accordance with the Book, should our conversations not resemble fraternal discussion wherein we encourage one another to be further conformed to the text rather than the verbal mudslinging that has become typified by secular politics? Should not our “speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that our varied responses be appropriate for the conversation and conversation partners (Col 4:6)?

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Eugene Peterson and the Pastoral Heart behind The Message

Yesterday morning, Eugene Peterson—famed author and pastor—entered into his heavenly reward. In his honor, then, I think it reasonable to reflect on his pastoral heart as reflected in The Message.

The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.

The Story behind The Message

In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”

In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.

His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.

His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”

He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.

The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”

His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”

Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”

So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.

Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.

Thus began his work on The Message.

The Heart behind The Message

It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.

So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.

And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.


Source: “God’s Secretaries,” in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006), 121–36.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Learning to Trust

Remember when you first learned to swim? As a father of five, I’ve spent my share of time at the pool beckoning my children to jump in. I would re-assure them each time. “Jump in! Daddy’s got you. I won’t let anything happen.” And, eventually (and sometimes after much coercion) they would jump in. And like most fathers do, depending on the child, his temperament, and/or his capability, I would challenge them differently.

In my Christian walk, I’ve found that particular portrait—a loving father calling his child to jump in and trust him—to be very meaningful. In many ways, I see so much of my relationship with my heavenly Father in that light.

But much in the same way that my sons express their frustration that I treat one of their brothers (or their sister) differently than I do them, in my own moments of difficulty, I find that the Lord tends to treat his children differently as well.

For some, he never lets their heads go underwater. He calls them and they jump as best they can, reaching out for him and he catches them. Then, they splash the water and complain a little because the water got in their eyes and their goggles didn’t stay up.

For others, however, he does that thing where we jump in and swim and swim and he just keeps backing up!, all-the-while saying, “You’ve got this, champ! Just keep kicking.” But he doesn’t ever actually reach out and grab us until we’ve swallowed half of the pool and have begun to sink to the bottom.

I’ve seen the Lord handle other brothers and sisters in Christ like I might handle my younger boys. There’s never a doubt that they are safe and secure in his hands. Even when they hit the water, their splash is tempered by his catch.

My experience, however, has been much more like the second example. When he says “jump,” it doesn’t take me long to get airborne. But as my arms grow weary from swimming and I can’t kick my legs hard enough to remain afloat, I find myself reaching out with sheer desperation. And then, without warning, at just the right moment, he steps in and takes hold of me.

And each time I think of my experience in that light, a few points come to mind.

Just jump!

However you may envision the future—however you may think the Lord is going to respond to your faith—whether you believe he’s going to catch you before you even touch the water or if you think he’s going to keep back up—if he calls you to jump, the only proper response is to get off of the ground.

We have all had those moments when we have known with complete certainty that God has called us to something that required his intervention to succeed. It may have been a ministry initiative. It may have been a church revitalization effort. It may have been as simple as a gospel encounter. When he calls us to jump, our task is not to calculate the distance and wind speed. Our task is simple—get airborne.

Just swim!

Once you take that initial step of faith and dive in, he may catch you. And in that moment, you experience the wonderful sense of his care. But he might not catch you immediately. He might allow you to hit the water—even to go under for a brief moment—and you might surface looking for his hands.

Start swimming. Look for his face and move in that direction. The Christian life was never intended to be “easy like Sunday morning.” Paul described it as labor—even describing his own work as a struggle. Concluding his letter to the churches in Galatia, he encouraged them to “not grow weary” in their striving (Gal 6:9). Contrary to what some may believe, effort is not at odds with grace.

Even in your striving, he still watches over you.

Trust him in the air and trust him in the water

When calls us to jump out toward him and our feet leave the deck, it demonstrates our faith. When we hit the water and he seems to be backing away, our swimming once again demonstrates our faith. In either scenario, our heavenly Father is watching over us.

But, lest we forget, fathers do not call children to jump out to them for the sake of catching them, or even for the sake of not catching them and watching them struggle in the water. Two reasons come to mind:

  1. To teach children to swim.
  2. To teach children to trust.

Today, you may find yourself at the edge of the pool and you know beyond a doubt that he is calling you to jump. Stop running the calculations in your mind. If he’s calling, jump.

You may find yourself airborne in this very moment. He’s called you to do something and you’ve taken the first steps of obedience. You’ve leapt into the air. Trust that he’s going to catch you.

Or, you may be swimming at this very moment. Your eyes have grown wide because you still don’t sense his hands. Your heart has begun to race because, in that brief moment of panic, you begin to think your trust may have been misplaced.

It isn’t.

At just the right time, he’ll grab you. And he’ll lift you up. And all your effort—all your striving—all your labor—will have been worth it because you’ll be safe and secure in his hands.

Keep swimming.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Re-Surrendering to Ministry

I remember sitting in the auditorium among a few hundred other college students who had surrendered to the ministry. The professor onstage told us to look around—to the people next to us. He wasn’t trying to dissuade us from our calling, but told us that the statistics said that 3 out of 4 of us would not retire in the ministry.

I remember the faces of the guys around me.

I remember discussing with them how unbelievable those numbers were—how surely we would be the exception.

And then, over the course of years, I saw friend-after-friend walk away from the ministry. Some lasted years; some less. Many of them still play important roles in their churches, but they’re not serving in full-time, vocational ministry as they had once committed themselves. (And while there’s an entire post to be written concerning the positive manner in which they continue to serve in a number of capacities, this is not that post.) They had made an initial commitment, but for whatever reason, were unable to fulfill that calling.

In light of the number of pastors and ministers stepping away from pulpits around the nation due to moral failures (and before you fire off that email, I am not equating one leaving the ministry with a moral failure), it seems reasonable to believe those statistics have only worsened.

But, in a sense, I think this is the result of only surrendering to the ministry once.

Hear me out. However difficult it may be to make that initial decision—however much wrestling was involved in your call to the ministry—that was the easy part. Whether you left a lucrative role in the business world or stepped into ministry fresh out of college, the decision to lay down your desires and embrace God’s calling for your life was the easy part.

The Scale of Small Decisions

Big decisions are often like that. Deciding to be something or do something begins with that initial move, but the hardest part comes with the hundreds of smaller, daily decisions that follow.

This is why every January millions upon millions make the commitment to lose weight. Having worked at a gym, I can tell you that January is unlike any other month in the fitness industry. People join the gym in droves, waiting lines form behind treadmills, every aerobics and spin class is filled to capacity. But those crowds dissipate in the weeks to follow and disappear within a month. Why? Because the initial decision is so much easier than the daily decision.

It’s one thing to surrender to the ministry; it’s quite another to re-surrender to the ministry every day—to wake up each Monday and, despite the events of the previous day, make the decision to continue serving this particular flock in this particular place.

But that daily-discipline—that habitual laying down of your will, of crucifying your flesh (Gal 5:13), that taking up your cross every day (Lk 9:23)—is necessary for enduring in our calling.

Each time I hear that another pastor has stepped away from the ministry and every time that I learn of another moral failure, I grieve. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that their departure began on the day the announcement was made. Their departure from the service of the Lord took place over the course of many days, one after another, during which they refused to surrender themselves and give themselves over to their calling.

I don’t know what you’re facing in ministry at this moment in time. I don’t know what struggles or difficulties—what hurts or pains—you might be facing. But my encouragement is to find someone to talk to. It can be another pastor or a trusted friend, but talk to someone; share your struggles. Because just as our church members often put off seeking help until they’re well-down the path of sin, many of us do the same with our hurts.

Find someone who will help you surrender to the ministry again . . . and again . . . and again until you hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

What made David Brainerd stand out?

Introduction to his Life

In the late Spring of 1747, Jonathan Edwards welcomed a terribly sick young missionary by the name of David Brainerd into his home. The young man was dying of tuberculosis—a disease that plagued Brainerd’s life and ministry for seven years until finally taking it on 9 October 1747. Edwards recalled that he found Brainerd to be, “remarkably sociable, pleasant, and entertaining in his conversation; yet solid, savory, spiritual, and very profitable.”

Years earlier, a controversy had been brewing in New England as the result of the Great Awakening. Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches had experienced significant differences of opinion concerning revivalistic preachers such as George Whitefield and the new converts resulting from their ministry. Those clinging to a more traditional faith looked with contempt upon those who were emphasizing excitement and emotional responses to the revivals taking place. In 1741, Edwards was invited to give the commencement address at Yale College in the hopes that he would chide the excitable student body and support the more conservative faculty. Instead, Edwards’s sermon, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Word of a Spirit of God,” defended the legitimacy of the Great Awakening and produced greater fervor and excitement among the student population.

Young David Brainerd was in the crowd as Edwards spoke and, though he ranked at the top of his class, he was expelled shortly thereafter for making a disparaging remark regarding one of the tutors. This expulsion radically altered the trajectory of Brainerd’s life, since in that day no one could be installed as a pastor in Connecticut unless they had graduated from Harvard, Yale, or a European University.

Brainerd was a devout, pietistic young man who, due to his expulsion from Yale, was no longer able to achieve the end to which he believed God had called him—to faithfully serve as a pastor. The faculty at Yale were unwilling to reinstate him, but he was charged by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge to become a missionary to the American Indians in New England.

He served for a total of four years in three different places, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions as he saw seasons of openness and resistance to the gospel. And after the most fruitful season of his ministry, he began to succumb to the tuberculosis that had plagued his life; so he traveled to New England where he hoped to recover his health in order to return to those he affectionately deemed to be “his” Indians. Rather than recover, Brainerd was diagnosed as terminal and was nursed by Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, until he passed into his eternal inheritance.

Though Brainerd only lived to see his twenty-ninth birthday, Edwards saw fit to edit and publish his diary and journal to the public. In doing so, an obscure missionary that few would have ever been aware of has become a pivotal example in piety, devotion, self-sacrifice, and perseverance to generations.

But what made Brainerd stand out for Edwards? What makes his ministry stand out today?

An Honest View of Self

Beneath Brainerd’s missionary efforts lay a gut-wrenching, honest appraisal of his own relationship with God. Upon reading his diary and journal, one may be struck by Brainerd’s lack of missionary zeal early in his ministry. He seems much more content to study, pray, and repent than to actually share the gospel with the indians in his care. One reason for this appearance is that Brainerd wrote his journal for public consumption (to be published by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge), while his diary was written for the sake of his personal self-examination and to measure his spiritual growth. So, while his journal contains stories of preaching and conversions, his diary is full of self-introspection. This ongoing self-appraisal, and constant reminder of his own need for God’s sovereign goodness, provided the ballast he needed in order to effectively minister to others.

A High View of Preaching

One must not read Brainerd’s Life and Diary and not take note of the means by which he shared the gospel with the American Indians. He preached whenever he could find a hearer, but was convinced that, “only [God] can open the ear, engage the attention, and incline the heart of poor benighted, prejudiced pagans to receive instruction.” Brainerd understood that the Sovereign God works through the human preacher—leading Brainerd to herald the message of the gospel of Christ through an interpreter (who became the first to be baptized during Brainerd’s missionary endeavors).

A High View of Baptism

It is also noteworthy that Brainerd did not baptize new believers upon conversion, but instead, “deferred their baptism for many weeks after they had given evidences of having passed a great change.” Brainerd was not too quick to encourage new believers to enter into the baptismal waters, but first insisted upon observing the change in their lives as a result of the gospel. In doing so, he emphasized the weighty-witness that baptism is to believers and non-believers alike.

Conclusion

Brainerd’s ministry to the American Indians pales in comparison to the impact his life and sacrifice have made upon generations since his death. Yet, as one notes his intense self-introspection, the emphasis he placed upon gospel proclamation, and the weight he ascribed to the ordinance of baptism, one cannot help but turn the question toward our own efforts today.

Do we regularly seek examine our own walk with Christ? Do we value and lift high the proclamation of the gospel? Do we believe that the ordinances of the church really mean something?


Jonathan Edwards, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Let’s Talk about the Pastor and Alcohol

Any discussion of alcohol among those submitted to Scripture must begin with an acknowledgement of the sin of drunkenness. In Romans, Paul urges his readers to “walk with decency, as in the daylight,” which he contrasts with “carousing and drunkenness” (Rom 13:13). In Galatians, drunkenness included in Paul’s list of works of the flesh alongside “sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy . . . [and] carousing” (Gal 5:20–21a). These are the works of those, who according to Paul “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21b). Further, Peter assumes such behavior to be beneath believers, listing drunkenness as one of the behaviors of those apart from God. “They are surprised,” he writes,” that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living” (1 Pet 4:4).

In light of such passages, any attempt to discern a biblical position on the use of alcohol must begin with a common understanding concerning drunkenness. Only then can the discussion move forward concerning the use of alcohol. Whereas some advocate that believers abstain completely, others argue that the use of alcohol is permissible in moderation. Sadly, the conversation on this topic rarely resembles a fraternal discussion and often devolves into ad hominem attacks, overstatement, and misunderstandings.

Many preachers of abstinence are incorrect in their assertions that οἶνος (oinos) in the New Testament always refers to unfermented grape juice rather than wine (the more common translation, by far). In John’s account of Jesus’s turning the water into wine (John 2:1–11), one notes that the chief servant stood in astonishment that, unlike most parties where more-intoxicating wine is served initially and replaced with wine of lesser value, the wine which Jesus had created was contrasted with this and was considered “fine wine.” Further, in the account of the Day of Pentecost, Luke writes that the scoffers who heard the disciples accused them of having been “full of new wine” (Acts 2:13). It hardly seems likely that they would have accused the disciples of being intoxicated if new wine in the New Testament period referred to unfermented grape juice.

Also, one must note that the prophets and apostles imbibed without reluctance with the condition that drunkenness was avoided. However, it is incorrect to argue that Scripture does not include any restrictions concerning alcohol. Those who were wholly separated for God and performed a Nazarite vow were prohibited from any use of wine whatsoever (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4–7, 13–14). Further, Paul instructs the Ephesians to “be filled by the Spirit,” in contrast to getting “drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18). While noting that the restriction is against drunkenness, the discerning readers should note Paul’s juxtaposition of becoming intoxicated with wine and being filled by the Spirit. Is it possible to pursue both? Or does the active pursuit of the one negate any pursuit of the other?

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes that an overseer (or elder/pastor) must be “above reproach” and “not addicted to wine.” Deacons, likewise, must be “not drinking a lot of wine.” Once again, often these passages are interpreted according to the presuppositions of the reader. Those advocating for abstinence interpret each as restricting alcoholic consumption entirely and those advocating for the use of alcohol in moderation focus on “not addicted” and “not . . . a lot.” Moreover, in the very same letter, Paul instructs young Timothy to “use a little wine because of [his] stomach and [his] frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23). However, one observes, this is clearly a medicinal use of wine and not merely a recommendation for Timothy to come home at the end of the day, pop-a-top, and put his feet up.

How, then, does one move forward in discerning God’s will for his life concerning alcohol? Further, how should churches handle the use of alcohol among their members and leaders?

Among church members, there should be freedom of conscience (Rom 14:1–23). In light of the biblical text, drunkenness should be condemned and declared a sin. Those who fall under habitual drunkenness should be disciplined in accordance with Matthew 18. The responsible use of alcohol in moderation, however, should be allowed among church members.

Among church leaders, however, one should note that Paul was not hesitant to establish a higher standard of living for those in positions of authority over the congregation. In his teaching that overseers should be above reproach, Paul provides a helpful aid in understanding his other admonitions. The descriptor “above reproach” literally means that accusations against an overseer should have nothing to stick to. Anyone attempting to take hold of him in order to make an accusation should find no handle to take hold of. One is reminded of Paul’s instruction elsewhere to “Stay away from every kind of evil,” or, as the KJV reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22).

The easiest path for a church leader to be above reproach in terms of alcohol is simply to abstain entirely. (NOTE: This was the point of Sean’s post earlier this week reflecting on the Kavanaugh hearing.) If an elder or pastor (or deacon) chooses not to use alcohol in any sense, any accusation of drunkenness or sin has no evidence or support. This position is strengthened as one considers the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful” (1 Cor 6:11).

The question church leaders must ask of themselves is that of value: do the benefits of the use of alcohol outweigh the potential negatives of doing so? In light of this question, many will discern that, while Scripture is devoid of any definite mandate of abstinence from alcohol, wisdom dictates that one commit himself to abstinence nonetheless. In doing so, one may avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting Scripture while also pursuing God’s wisdom for Christian living.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Toleration? Or Free Exercise? George Mason Redivivus

American history buffs are already aware that Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, was influenced heavily and a drew from the pre-existing Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason and approved by the Virginia Convention of Delegates in June 1776. Interestingly, it was also a source document and inspiration for James Madison’s Bill of Rights and Lafayette’s French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In the 16th article, Mason wrote initially, “that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” This, Madison could not, for lack of a better word, tolerate. He led the charge in altering the document to read, “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

Which raises the obvious questions. Does it matter? If so, what difference does it make?

For Madison, the edit made every difference. The very idea of toleration belonged to a system of government that had embraced a state church—liberty of conscience was a thing granted; it was allowed. But it could just as easily be disallowed. The notion of toleration is predicated upon a governing standard of religion that granted permission to dissidents.

Ensuring the free exercise of religion, then, meant that liberty of conscience was not a thing granted, but rather a thing recognized; it was a right that must not be infringed.

Students of Baptist history may recognize Madison’s concern. His friend and Baptist minister, John Leland, shared this point of emphasis and seems to have influenced Madison’s thinking on the subject.

Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration, is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Our current society really doesn’t know what to do with freedom of conscience. We’ve had previous administrations and present judiciaries trample all over it, emphasizing their defense of freedom of worship. That is to say, they were prepared to defend the right of the people to worship in their churches and houses of worship in whatever manner they saw fit. But those who dare to take those same convictions into the public sphere—cake bakeries, for instance—have stepped over the line from the realm of the defensible to that worthy of prosecution.

And why?

Because we, as a nation, have traded free exercise for toleration.

The spirit of George Mason has returned and we have reversed Madison’s edit without even the intellectual integrity to strike out the words on the document.

And the rights of all people—Christians and Jews, Muslims and Mormons, pantheists and atheists—suffer as the result. The state has determined that our liberty of conscience is no longer a right to be protected. Instead, it is a grace that has been extended to us. And they get to tell us just how far it extends.

Perhaps the time has come for another Leland or another Madison to step forward.

Source: John Leland, “The Excess of Civil Power Exploded,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including Some Events in his Life, Written by Himself, with Additional Sketches, &c. by Miss L. F. Greene, Lanesboro, Mass. (n.p., New York, 1845), 118.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Observations on Samuel Pearce’s Tract for the Lascars

The post is a follow-up to my post of Samuel Pearce’s Tract for the Lascars. In that post, I offered a brief history of Pearce’s life and quoted a tract written for the Lascars—a predominantly-Muslim class of sailors from India. In this post, I would like to make a few observations—two positive and two more critical.

Pearce was Passionate about Extending the Gospel Offer to the Lost.

Pearce’s heart was touched by the plight of the Lascars. Not only were these men far from home and in a foreign land, but more importantly, they were ignorant of the love of Jesus Christ. Pearce expressed that the Lascars were not invisible to him, but that they were in his thoughts; their situation brought him to tears and put him on his knees in prayer. There is no hesitation in Pearce’s offering of the gospel to the Lacars, many (if not most) of whom were Muslim. The Lascars were of a different skin tone and worldview than Pearce . . . and they were in England. Pearce did not need to go to them, they had come to him! Pearce believed that these were men whom Christ loved; Pearce believed that these were men for whom Christ died. As such, they were men whom Pearce loved and men with whom Pearce was obligated to share the gospel.

There is a subtle missiological point to be identified here. The love of Christ for the Lascars is that which incited such love in the heart of Pearce—that he believed Christ died for them (an unlimited provision of the atonement), inspired Pearce’s obligation to offer the hope of the gospel.

Let that sit and stew for a bit, Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike. His theology drove his practice. And just as importantly, his practice shed light on his theology.

After giving it some thought, I wonder at times if we do not take the opposite approach. There is a tendency in the human heart to limit the love of God to those we find acceptable—to those we deem worthy of love. Those who dismiss the practice of sharing the gospel with those one does not know necessarily, but rather contend that believers should share the gospel only in the context of a relationship reverse Pearce’s pattern, albeit unknowingly. We may preach of God’s love for all people, but if we only offer Christ to those with whom we’ve built relationships, perhaps our practice speaks of a different gospel.

Imagine the difference it would make in our own day and our own culture if every believer cared for the lost in the same manner as Pearce. Imagine the difference it might make if every time we laid eyes on another human being, we saw them as objects of God’s affection and those with whom we are obligated to share the gospel.

Pearce Spoke and Thought Biblically.

Notice how replete the tract is with biblical passages and allusions. Pearce is so immersed in Scripture that it flows from his pen as naturally as his own thought. Yet this is no mere repetition of verses from memory. Pearce may begin with a prayer “to the great Allah,” but he moves forward to explain the truth of Jesus Christ. He speaks of the Incarnation of Christ, the sinlessness of Christ, and the suffering and sacrifice of Christ.

Imagine the difference it would make in our own day and culture if we were so immersed in Scripture that God’s Word pours forth from our mouths and our pens (keyboards?) regularly, and not only when we are sitting in Sunday School. Imagine how our evangelistic efforts would be affected if, rather than sharing four spiritual laws or a series of verses from memory believers were so saturated in God’s Word that they could share the hope of Christ without being dependent upon an Evangelistic campaign or program.

However, the Tract is Void of Any Reference to the Resurrection and Reign of Christ.

This stands out as one of the few negative observations I discovered when reading the tract. As previously mentioned, he speaks of the Incarnation of Christ, the sinlessness of Christ, and the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, but nowhere does Pearce establish Christ as having been risen, and nowhere does Pearce present Christ as reigning as the King of Creation. This is not a harmless oversight on Pearce’s part. I do not believe he had any malicious intent in this omission, but the resurrection and reign of Christ are not minor components of a dry doctrine. They are, rather, the very source and substance of our hope!

Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 5:17). The resurrection of Christ and his present reign give substance and meaning to his death and burial. He has conquered sin! He has defeated death! He was not crushed under the weight of the sins of humanity, but bore the penalty of sin, suffered death on our behalf, and yet lives. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. This matters. This matters in every context wherein we share the gospel. And it is a shame that Pearce’s otherwise exemplary tract neglects these emphases.

We Must Be Very Cautious in Adopting Any Use of the Name of Allah.

He writes that many “pray to the great Allah for you.” While some modern missiologists are comfortable invoking the name of Allah in the same way that we would use the term, “god” when not necessarily referring to “God,” others have made the point that doing so enables the hearer to import his own thoughts and conceptions of Allah into the discussion. Pearce does not linger on any thought of Allah, but rather moves directly to the discussion of the person of Christ Jesus. But does his introduction imply that he worships the same God as the Lascars, but with a different view of Jesus?

Allah is not the same as the God the Father. Their natures are entirely different. The manner in which the two are described are entirely different. Their characters are entirely different. Pearce did not worship Allah any more than the Lascars already worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his attempt to contextualize his gospel message, he opened the door for misunderstanding.

As believers seek to offer the hope of eternal life, we must strive for clarity concerning the character and nature of God. We must work to dispel any false notion or understanding of who Jesus is. The gospel we offer is inclusive in that Jesus Christ has given himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6), but it is exclusive in that no one comes to the Father, except by the Son (John 14:6).

Samuel Pearce is an admirable figure from one of the brightest eras in our Baptist heritage. His passion for the lost, his zeal for the gospel, his saturation with the Word of God are all to be commended to modern believers. And yet, as this tract attests, his model was not without flaw.

This is the great lesson of history—even our heroes were flawed and in need of grace. Learning that lesson and implementing it into our lives will help each of us become better at reading and appreciating history, but perhaps more importantly, it will help us grow in patience and kindness toward one another.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.