“I see dead people”: On Hope in Missions

When considering the task of the Great Commission in light of the global plight, it is an overwhelming mission. If you’ve been watching the Arab Spring revolutions that have been devastating Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey recently you’ll get a pretty stark picture of the human heart. In spite of these nations attempting to throw off tyranny and run after the freedom that other nations seem to enjoy, the fires of revolutions have primarily brought devastation, economic hardship, and instability to regions where the flames have kindled. In Syria alone, nearly 100,000 people have died in a quest that likely ends in greater bondage than what was originally thrown off. In addition, these countries reside in the 10/40 Window, an area known to be incredibly hostile to the influence Christianity. Thus, it is a place where the spiritual lives of its people is reflected in the landscape: dry, arid and dead.  What hope does such a place have?

And yet dwelling on the woes of such an “obviously” troubled region can blind us to the deadness of our own country. If we turns their gaze to states closer to home, we realizes that even in places where freedom  and tolerance are celebrated and embraced, in the “land of the free” itself, there is a very real deadness. People abuse their freedom to indulge in a number of unholy practices, and idolize people, ideas, and things rather than worshiping God. While this may be a land of plenty, it is all the more deadly for its apparent benignity. What hope does such a place have?

In the book of Ezekiel we, along with the prophet, are led to ask the same question. The people of Israel had been conquered, slaughtered and carried off to foreign lands to be slaves. They trusted in the idols and gods of the nations surrounding them and in their own might. They failed to uphold their end of the covenant with Yahweh. He removed his protection after the Israelites consistently rejected the grace God consistently offered. God had promised that they would be a nation forever, that they would be ruled by the line of David for eternity and yet they were scattered to the four winds. How would it be possible for them to regain the land? What hope do such a people have?

When God enters in to clarify the issue, it is not to alleviate Ezekiel’s fears, but to confirm them. God begins by showing Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones (If you haven’t seen this depiction of it, go watch it, it’s well worth the two minutes). The bones are “very dry,” exceptionally lifeless even for bones, and they themselves cry out, “Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; We are cut off.” God asks his prophet, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” In a sense, God asks Ezekiel, “What hope does such a place have?” Ezekiel, standing in the midst of the desolation of an entire nation, knows that there is no way that these bones can live. But he doesn’t stop by just looking at the bones, he looks to the God who made the bones. He speaks to the Mighty One of Israel, and his reply demonstrates his faith and hope: “Oh Sovereign God, you alone know.”

When considering the spiritual status of the world, we need to look beyond what is humanly possible. We need to look to the one who created us, because He and He alone knows whether spiritual life can come to a person or to a people.

Our hope is the same tremendous hope that was given to Ezekiel and the remnant of Israel. In the latter half of chapter 36 God promises spiritual life to his people beyond anything that they could have dared to imagine or hope for. They are promised holiness and cleanliness in place of their sin and idolatry. God promises to replace their hardened stone hearts with hearts of flesh. He promised to set his spirit on them, not for a short time, but perpetually and continually – to be in communion with God and to know in their hearts the way He would have for them.  To drive the point home, God has Ezekiel  walk among the bones and prophesy to them:

“Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” [Ezekiel 37:4-6]

Miraculously, flesh covers bone. Sinews, tendons, muscles, organs and skin form where before there was only dust and death. God is replacing the hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. But there was not yet any breath in the bodies. “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’” In both passages, the word breath can also be translated spirit – thus God is placing his Sprit into the bodies he has caused to form. Then they rose and stood, an “exceedingly great army”.

In these verses we see the impact that a person submitted to the will of God can have on the dead. God could have just formed flesh and breath and put them on the bones as he did in the beginning, without the help of Ezekiel. Instead, God graciously includes his servant in the process and allows him to be a source of physical awakening in the bones, and a spiritual awakening in the lives of the Israelites. The hope that these people have is a mighty God, who has provided a perfect sacrifice, priest, prophet and King to intercede at his right hand forever (see Hebrews, esp. 7:23-8:13). They also have the hope that God’s prophets will see the nations’ dead bones, and prophesy life to them. May we see dead people everywhere and seek to preach the hope of the Gospel to a dying world.

Practical Love in the Pro-Life Fight

In the wake of the recent Gosnell trial, other stories have come to light that demonstrate that Gosnell is not merely an isolated incident. The shock and horror of the initial unveiling of Gosnell’s atrocities is slowly hardening into resolve among pro-life advocates. It is a time of great mourning and reflection for those who are pro-life, even while we have hope of seeing the tidal wave of blood staunched one day in the future.

However, it is also a time for those who are pro-life to stop and examine their commitments to the pro-life cause. Reassessment is necessary because the church isn’t presently prepared to deal with the potential outworking of operating under an explicitly pro-life system. We especially need to consider what it means to love well in the midst of the pro-life fight. One of my fellow bloggers wrote in February about remembering to love in the midst of the pro-life Fight. I agree with him, and want to further that discussion with three commitments that Christians need to examine if they hope to be robustly pro-life.

1. Pro-lifers need to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to participate in adoption. While adoptions are on the rise, and this is largely due to influence from Christian communities, the reality is that the present rate of adoption in the US will only handle approximately a tenth of the babies that would otherwise be aborted (120,000 adoptions a year vs. 1,370,000 abortions each year in the US). When you break those adoption numbers down further, close to half are adopting someone they know, such as grandparents or step-parents adopting children for the sake of guardianship. Another sixth of those adoptions are international children. Finally, a little over 50,000 children are adopted out of the foster-care system each year, or a little less than four percent of yearly abortions. The stark reality is that even if those babies lived, their quality of life will be abysmal if people do not adopt them. What does love look like in this instance? Love looks like not only mourning the 53 million lives that have been lost, but also being willing to open our pocket books and homes to those who might be saved from such a fate. If Christians are not willing to open their homes to these children, then who will?

2. This first point reminds us that while we can increase the number of families who adopt babies, we also need to significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies to begin with. Thus, we must reconsider our methods of sex-education. While it is common knowledge that abstinence a great way to guarantee no pregnancy, the reality is that nearly everyone also believes they are entitled to uninhibited sexual expression. Unfortunately the values of the world after the sexual revolution and Roe V. Wade means that a large portion of people, even Christians, are having extramarital sex. Even within the bounds of marriage, people consider aborting children because their fertility methods worked too well, or because they are over-burdened financially. The result has been an explosion of unwanted pregnancies.

Studies have suggested that comprehensive sex-education would significantly reduce the number of un-wanted pregnancies each year, and yet Christians oppose it on many levels. Some of the reasons are sound, some birth control methods are potentially abortifacient and thus are a compromise of a pro-life position. Other reasons are less valid, such as the belief that allowing their children to have a comprehensive sex-education will give them license to sin. Both potential problems have thorough arguments for why there are mitigating factors to these concerns. But at bottom, there is a huge gap in how Christians deal with sex education, both in religious and secular educational settings. It is worth considering, with the number of lives at stake, that supporting comprehensive sex education in all schools could reduce the number of abortions by 60%. And if Christian parents are worried that their children knowing about safe sex will increase the likelihood that their child will be promiscuous, then this underscores that we are not teaching our youth comprehensive views of the integration of sex, their souls, and God. Instead, we are merely scaring them into following the rules, and that is never good motivation for virtue.

3. Now, lest we fall prey to the temptation to only love the apparent victims well, we need to learn to love the women who are considering or who have had abortions, and not only because they are frequently victims themselves. While Christians claim that they love the sinner while rejecting the sin, the Christian community’s language towards those who fall into sexual sin, who get pregnant, and who consider abortion is anything but loving. While I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of organizations like abolishhumanabortion.com, their language is so inflammatory that there is no room for the human struggle that goes with that. There isn’t room for the hard cases, for girls and women who get pregnant through rape or incest, or the families that would be left bereft of a mother if she didn’t choose to end her pregnancy. While we need to be uncompromising in our stances about abortion, Jesus didn’t just simply condemn sin, he healed the hurting and loved well, even as he commanded them to turn from their sin. It’s time that Christians work toward getting down with people in the trenches, doing life with them, and loving them where they are at, instead of condemning them from the sidelines.

In sum, the pro-life movement has traditionally advocated for the unborn. While this is necessary and good, the conversation also tends to further an “us vs. them” mentality, where it’s pro-life and babies on one side and pro-choice and women on the other. There needs to be a shift in perspective, wherein we acknowledge that the moral climate we live in is no longer that of older generations. We also need to find ways to love the vulnerable in the pro-life movement, and that includes the women – because society has lied to them and told them that what they do with their bodies doesn’t matter, and that abortion is no different than removing a benign tumor. We need to be firm about the rights of the unborn, but we need to love the broken hearts and bodies that abortion has left behind.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 3)

This is a third part in a series. Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 (This post will stand alone, but does draw heavily on the previous two).

As I’ve been thinking through Communion and Baptism, I considered the possibility that any action done by a believer in service of someone else is a sacrament. My reasoning was that they are gracious acts, and loving one’s neighbor was commanded by Jesus, so these acts seemed to fit the criteria of a sacrament upon an initial glance. However, I’m not convinced that each of these actions incites a necessary conferral of grace. In sacramental behavior one must be receiving, not acting, and there must be an element of faith in the receiving. Now, while the sacraments are conferred by someone, it is only the person receiving the sacramental symbol in faith that is considered a participant in the sacrament. No one can administer the sacrament to themselves; they must be served by someone else. Thus, not every action by a believer can be considered sacramental.

Upon further research, I discovered that there is a healthy discussion among Protestants concerning whether church can be considered a sacrament. Since this discussion sounded similar to my thoughts concerning Christian service as a sacrament, the fact that the church is legitimately considered as a possible a sacrament in some circles caused me to pause. Let’s consider this concept in more detail.

To begin, a definition is necessary: I say the “church is a sacrament,” the ‘church’ denotes the body of Christ in a corporate context, with emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word and ministry among the members.

The thinking of the church as a sacrament on first blush seems to fit the definition pretty squarely: the church is the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of Christ to the world today. In the words of theologian Eberhard Jungel, “The church is a sacramental sign corresponding to the sacramental being of Jesus Christ.”3 This statement is intriguing because it draws a parallel with the language that is also used for communion, and thereby pushes us towards the idea of the church being a sacrament. Moreover, the ministry of the body one to another moves us further towards such a conclusion. If your ministry to me is caring for me and loving me the way Christ would, then in a sense, you are conferring to me the grace that is given at the cross, thereby fulfilling one of the key elements of a sacrament.

The notion of the church as the body of Christ comes straight from the New Testament, albeit from Paul. If a sacrament must be originally instituted by Christ himself, then we may have already stepped too far. Of course, Christ both preached and ministered to others—so in that sense, he participated in these activities and gave significance to them the same way that he did to Communion and Baptism. He even commanded us to love our brothers, which is similar enough to his command to baptize that it bears closer examination.

One objection ought to be raised here: the contention that the meeting together of the body of Christ and it’s ministry among its members was not instituted by Christ as a means by which grace is conferred sacramentally. While acts of ministry among the members of the body of Christ may be gracious, they were not specific acts instituted as a means to recall our minds to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, nor are they outward acts that confirm our covenant with God in Christ. Thus, we must be leery of the claim of the church being a sacrament.

There is more about the idea of the church as sacrament that gives it credence: the concept of reception, particularly in the receiving of the Word of God through preaching. The idea of conferral of grace is neatly demonstrated in the idea of the receiving the Word of God in faith. For example, in Communion, we remember the work of the Word of God (Jesus) on the Cross and believe that the salvation given there is presently being applied to our lives; in essence, we receive the Word of God in faith. It is reasonable to assert that the literal receiving of the Word of God in faith from other believers ought to have credence as a sacrament itself. Such an idea has a lot of merit if you have an ecclesiology that advocates for the necessity of the ministry of all believers and regular preaching from more than one individual. These elements are necessary because sacraments cannot be self-administered—and I have doubts about whether a Pastor who is the exclusive preacher and is rarely himself taught can be considered to be receiving teaching and exhortation. If he is not receiving from someone else, then he is not participating in an element of a sacrament, and it seems odd to count something as a sacrament that is not regularly participated in by all believers. Thus, outside of an ecclesiology that embraces the regular preaching of a number of elders on a regular basis, the element of pastoral ministry cannot be considered a sacrament.

The final objection–which I take to be enough to eliminate the suggestion-is that the margin for error in the sacrament is significantly widened in this practice. While you certainly can mishandle Communion and Baptism, there is a pretty large target to hit and it’s almost impossible to stray into error with nearly 2,000 years of tradition and fairly clear lines mapped out for the ceremonies. Preaching and ministry, on the other hand, allows much potential for error and it is easier to harm someone through their malpractice. This is a major problem for the ‘church is a sacrament’ concept because then the definition of when it is efficacious gets squishy fast, and it seems that sacramental definitions is hardly the place where you want a lack of rigidity.

In sum, the idea of the church as a sacrament is one that gives us many reasons to pause. While initially the idea seems to have some merit, upon closer examination, this notion does not stand the test of objections that are tossed at it.

Regardless, I think there are a lot of fruitful attitudes that come from thinking of the church as having sacramental properties, if not a sacrament proper. First, it gives gravitas to a practice that many Christians feel is supplementary and not vital (in a very real sense—see Hebrews 10:19-25). Second, it gives importance to our interactions with other believers. If your reception of my ministry to you is considered similar to, though not actual participation in a sacrament, then a number of interactions now have weight that perhaps we didn’t give them before. Finally, it would cause us to consider carefully how we minister to our brothers, because our ministries are a reflection of Christ. Ultimately, the church may not be a sacrament, but I do think it would do the body of Christ good to reflect on the ways that the church has sacramental elements.

1 Jungel, Eberhard. Theological Essays: The Church as Sacrament? (Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1989), 191.

2 Del Colle, Ralph. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: The Church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007), 262.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

I was baptized twice. I cringe when I think about it. In brief, I was baptized when I was 8, because it was a public declaration of my decision to follow Jesus 3-4 years before. I was re-baptized at 18 because I had “made my faith my own” and I thought it necessary, since the point of baptism was to publicly declare faith.

I have found that this is a fairly common narrative for Protestants, though the majority decide against a second baptism. The problem is that we don’t understand what the sacraments do for us. Here are a few points we often assume:

1. Baptism is merely a declaration of my decision to follow Christ to the world.

Accompanying this line of thought are a couple of embedded thoughts that enable Christians to think in this direction. First, we believe that baptism is a declaration of a fact, our salvation. Thus it made sense to be re-baptized after one has been “actually” been saved. If baptism is merely a statement of fact with little import in the world, then one can be re-baptized without it having any real effect.

The inherent danger behind this line of thought is the loss of the spiritual aspect of baptism. By not acknowledging the full, rich symbolism of baptism we reduce it to a mere formal external action. While there is great theological richness to be mined from baptism, I will focus on only one aspect for the sake of space. We celebrate baptism largely because Christ was baptized, so this is a fitting place to discover its significance.

Jesus’ baptism is significant for two primary reasons: the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ baptism marks two physical actions that Christians participate in when we are baptized. Since Jesus has already died on the cross, our baptism with the Holy Spirit comes when we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives. Thus when we are physically baptized we point to spiritual reality—the work of Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and the subsequent anointing of believers with the Holy Spirit. The aspect of a declaration of sonship carries with it the language of adoption into the family of God, of being heirs of the kingdom of God, of a change of identity and a number of other resonant theological truths which are harkened back to with submission to baptism.

Reducing the baptismal ceremony to a statement of fact removes the conferral of grace from it entirely. While you are affirming your covenant with God publicly and in community (both important aspects of the sacraments) there is an aspect of intentional remembering that is lost in a mere declaration. Intentional remembering is part of conferral of grace because it presents Christ to our minds, and assists the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (see discussion in first post). Baptism reminds us that behind the external actions there lies a true baptism, the shed blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Further, we must remember that behind the external action there is an inward operation of the Holy Spirit that moves the recipient to faith in Christ’s work and accomplishing regeneration in the life of Faith.1 Without these, baptism–and any sacrament–tends towards meaningless ceremony.

2. Communion is merely a point of remembrance.

Underlying this is the assumption that the sacraments are merely mental exercises, not spiritual conditioning. If this were the case, then re-reading the story of crucifixion or watching the Passion of the Christ might be a better way to remember Christ than eating bread and drinking wine. As we saw yesterday, mere remembrance is not the whole of the Lord’s Supper—conferral of grace is also integral to the process. The point of communion is that it is an external signifier of an internal reality, a sign of what has transpired in a person’s heart. So while its purpose is to remind us of Christ’s work on the cross, it also reminds us that something transpired in our hearts when we committed to Jesus. We accepted the work of the Cross as the covering and forgiveness for our own sins, and we were transferred into sonship with Christ. It is an external reminder that God is keeping his end of the bargain and we are freely accepting the grace that is given at the cross by participating in communion.

In conclusion, the sacraments bring together two spheres of participation, mental and physical and the two united together gives a deeper understanding of the grace that God has bestowed on us. Our tendency is to emphasize one sphere to the exclusion of the other, but both are necessary for full participation in the sacraments. While the sacraments are a mental exercise and a statement of fact, the presentation of them as physical signs and our participation in them as physical elements is also a necessary component. Physical actions reinforce ideas and present ideas to our minds in different ways than words, and thus, we are spiritually conditioned in different ways. Our participation in the sacraments confers grace because it affirms both our spiritual and physical decision to follow Christ, and opens us up to receive mercy for our souls.

In my next post, I want to consider in what sense the church is sacramental, to think through the work of some more recent theologians on the topic, and to reflect on how it is useful in the life of believers.

1The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has a lot of thoughtful discussion of this and is well worth reading.

On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 1)

A Note from the Editor: This is the first in a three-part series on the Sacraments from a distinctly Protestant perspective. Today we’ll cover communion, tomorrow we’ll cover baptism, and Friday we’ll cover the possibility of the Church itself functioning as a Sacrament.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about the Protestant sacraments, particularly why it’s important to celebrate them. On the one hand, we acknowledge that we partake in the sacraments because Jesus told us to. However, it is also commonly acknowledged that in many people’s understanding, the sacraments seem to do little for the Christian. Catholics and Lutherans seem to offer a more robust approach to the sacraments, but we disagree on transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Protestants are left with the definition that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are merely symbolic and we are supposed to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice when we partake in them. I did some research and realized that there is a lot of thought behind the sacraments that Protestant Christianity doesn’t necessarily focus on. In a three part series, I want to offer some posts working through my own thoughts on the issue. My aim in this and two subsequent posts is to think through a definition of the sacraments, then Baptism and Communion as sacraments, and finally, how participation in the Church body is sacramental, if it is not properly a sacrament itself.

As a place to begin, some definitions are necessary. The sacraments are a visible sign of an inward grace, instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace, and sacraments are participated in communally by Christians as a confirmation of their covenant relationship with the Godhead.

Crucial to a robust understanding of the sacraments is an examination of the words “sign” and “symbol.” A sign is “a superficial or natural reality but with a deeper and supernatural significance, accessible only by faith.”1 In the course of the service of communion, we receive a representation of the sacrificed body of Christ (given by God) to ourselves, and we (in faith) internalize and receive it by eating. Thus, the sacraments are a sign insofar as they are a thing we do outwardly to signify an inward spiritual reality, i.e., a grace that is given by God and received by us.

The term symbol has been somewhat more controversial, because it seems to imply that something is less than real. While there is a fair amount of overlap between signs and symbols, the distinction for symbol is primarily a result of the incarnation. When Christ entered into the world, he united the human and the divine, and this is an important element that the word symbol captures. Thus, baptism is not just a cleansing of the body (as it essentially was in Judaism), but in a real sense it represents the cleansing of the soul from sin through “death, burial and resurrection to new life.” Jesus’ incarnation and participation in baptism intermingles the elements of baptism with the grace imparted by God to believers. To conclude, the initial definition’s use of both sign and symbol is appropriate, because both aspects are very present in the definition. While not all signs may be a symbol, all symbols are signs, and this seems to fit both definitions squarely.

Understanding the phrase “confer grace” is another important component of properly grasping the sacraments. It’s my understanding that “conferral of grace” is the presentation of Christ which fulfills the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This affirms the faith of believers and gives strength and mercy to their souls. While the sacraments do not give salvation, there is an understanding in the church that grace is somehow imparted through participation in the sacraments. John Calvin had this to say on the subject: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible sacrament.”2 Thus, the action of the sacrament points us to the work done by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to recognize the grace that is imparted. I think it is fair to say that the sacraments, as a vehicle of recognition, impart grace, because the recognition and acceptance of grace is the manner by which the sacraments deeply affect the life of the believer.

There have been periods of time in the church when the sacraments were thought to confer grace regardless of the reception by the human participants. However, theological thought has since revised itself in most branches of the church, and now most churches believe that they confer grace only when the participant receives them in faith. Now, does the eating of bread and wine or the dunking of a person in water itself confer grace? No. But we believe that God is actually using the sacrament as a means of grace to the believer.

The manner of God’s use of sacrament in this manner is debated, but some scholars helpfully argue that when Christ became human, he redeemed everything associated with humanity: souls, bodies, and actions. The idea of the first two entities receiving redemption is one that most are comfortable with, so I will not address them. The main thrust of these scholars’ thought concerning actions is that because Christ did things while on the earth, when He died on the Cross, the specific actions that He participated in had the ability to confer grace. This brings up the potential for objection that all of daily life therefore has the ability to confer grace, as they are actions that Christ did. Perhaps, and I will address this later. The immediate answer, though, seems to be that Christ instituted the sacraments as specific actions that He participated in and then instituted for the Church to follow. However, explicitly stated in the definition is the phrase “instituted by Jesus Christ” and thus, most of daily life is eliminated.

One of the last elements of the definition also adeptly addresses the concern over the inclusion of the majority of Christian life: the participation in the sacraments as confirmation of their covenant with God through Christ. Regular affirmation of our covenant with God is necessary, because if there is anything that humanity is famous for, it is its corporate ability to forget. Israel’s inconsistent history with God is the most obvious example of this, and I think we can all probably add commentary from our own lives. Since we are a forgetful people, we need to be reminded of and reaffirm our covenant with God. By participating in a ceremony that regularly helps us recognize the grace given to us, we reaffirm the covenant that we participate in. While we may live our lives in such a way that reflects our covenant relationship with God, daily life is hardly a reaffirmation of our covenant relationship with him.

The final element of the definition that has not been addressed is the communal practice of the sacraments. It is important to note how believers participate in the sacraments. It is the person receiving the sign who is considered a participant in a sacrament, not the one administering the sacrament. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that you can only receive communion or baptism from someone else, you cannot administer it to yourself. The aspect of reception is critical to understanding the sacraments: it suggests that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it’s all grace, all received, all finished. Even in their administration, they remind us of and reinforce the conferral of grace.

In sum, the sacraments are both sign and symbol, received from a fellow believer, that confer grace in the life of the believer, confirming their covenant relationship with God and participating in the actions of Christ that bring about his redeeming grace. In my next post I consider this definition in relation to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, how it helps correct my own misconceptions, and how this fuller definition of the sacraments really impacts one’s understanding of these two practices.


1Fahey, Michael A. Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: Sacraments. (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2007),  271.

2Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 1987), 1081.

Pastors, Elders and… Tim Tebow?

Celebrities are an odd phenomenon. There is little that these people do to earn the love of the masses—usually some demonstration of physical prowess to entertain an audience. Oddly, these people are expected to be role models for our children, to rise above what is expected of an average citizen and to espouse the ideals that are trendy in popular culture. This is the expectation in spite of the fact that their only proven virtue is their ability to physically compete, act well, or simply look beautiful. Humanity expects those who are externally “perfect” to also be a model for internal “perfection.”

When a celebrity is then outed as a Christian, suddenly the world compares that person to a different set of standards (usually moral) than what usually would apply to a celebrity. They are expected to conform to outmoded or poorly-understood notions of Christian morality. Accordingly, the Christian community gathers around the person and holds them up (provided they withstand the pressures of culture sufficiently well) as the standard-bearer of Christian culture.

A prime example of this is the ever divisive Tim Tebow. While Tim Tebow might not be a media darling, I think it is safe to say that Tebow has achieved celebrity status in both the secular and Christian worlds. At least he did have that status. After last week, there are a lot of people on both sides of the religious fence who either dislike, or are disappointed in, Tebow. What possible sin could Tebow commit to alienate both sides of his fan base? He committed to speak at a mainline, outspoken Evangelical church and then cancelled. The sides boiled down to this: Secular proponents of Tebow were enraged that he could even consider speaking at a church that espouses hate propaganda; and Christian supporters of Tebow were saddened that their idol crumbled under the pressure of culture, and then skewered him publicly for it.

Personally, I think there is a lot for a Christian to like about Tebow. In a world of “Christian” celebrities who live mostly like the rest of the world, but periodically toss up a verse or a public prayer, Tebow is like a breath of fresh air with his genuine, unabashed stances on morality and Christian principles. What is there to make of Tebow’s recant on teaching at a church? Doesn’t that make him a cultural pushover? Maybe, but I think we should hold off on crucifying him.

First, despite having a solid Christian upbringing and his apparent aspirations to one day be in ministry, he has had little formal theological training. Tebow was scheduled to share his testimony at First Baptist Church of Dallas, nothing more. In fact, the majority of what Tebow talks about when he shares publicly is his testimony. Why is this significant? It demonstrates that his strength is in his own story, not in exegesis and preaching. In other words, I don’t think that Tebow is prepared to handle the tough questions that would be lobbed at him were he to align himself with First Baptist. Despite the fact that they are well within the mainlines of Protestant Evangelicalism, Pastor Jeffress has lacked tact in the past, and as a result, his words have been misconstrued to make the church tantamount to Westboro Baptist. Tebow may have had a hard time fielding the questions that would have been asked were he to follow through with the engagement. While his parents are wonderful missionaries who are doing marvelous things for the cause of Christ around the world, it seems unlikely that they trained their children to cogently and effectively defend beliefs such as the sinfulness of homosexuality and the exclusivity of Christ for salvation in the modern American public square. I think that I would have had a hard time fielding such questions, and I’ve had four years of training at a theological institution.

Second, Tebow is under a colossal amount of pressure. The performance expectations on him as a football player would stifle most. The fact that he has managed a genial, upright, and consistent moral character demonstrates that this is not a guy who wavers easily. It seems plausible that he had good reasons for cancelling the appointment, especially given the fact that there are other men who have to undergo sensitivity training for their anti-homosexuality statements. It’s easy to criticize someone for appearing to waffle under cultural pressure, but when faced with the kind of scrutiny Tebow does daily, I doubt that any of us would hold up half as well. While I think Tebow is committed to shining the light of Christ in a dark world, I don’t think he signed up as the poster boy of good, moral evangelicalism in America. Christians put him on that pedestal and then cried foul when he didn’t live up to their expectations.

It’s moments like these that ought to cause Christians to take a step back and examine who we idolize. Perhaps we ought to even realize that we are making idols of celebrities. We need to remember that our best role models of Christianity are our local church pastors, elders, and mentors, not our athletes, actors, and models. At the end of the day, Christian role models are those who have committed their lives to the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, regardless of their fame. Yes, both are merely men and women who will stumble and fall, but at the end of the day, celebrities are committed to entertaining in a public forum, while pastors and elders are committed to the discipleship of people. Instead of turning to celebrities and expecting their interior to match their exterior, I think it’s time that the church turn within itself to find those who have committed to living a life of discipleship, regardless of how their exterior looks.

Who Won the Super Bowl? Well, it wasn’t women…

Football and live television are both ways I rarely choose to spend my time. I hate having my watching experience broken up by commercials and football never made a ton of sense to me. This year, however, I broke my rule to hang out with friends. I watched both live television in all its commercial glory and a full game of football for Super Bowl Sunday. I was pleasantly surprised when the game turned out to be interesting, but many of the commercials were awful, and the issue wasn’t production quality. The issue was in the messaging.

Some blogs [1] and books on gender theology have taught me to be sensitive to issues of objectification and sexualization that many in our culture are often simply not tuned to notice. Even so, I felt surprised at how much I was sensitized to the issue of objectification. Going in, I knew in large part what to expect: at minimum, some very suggestive ads at worst, women would be treated as objects. What I didn’t expect is the Christian reaction to these ads. The more I heard Christians in general talk about the ads this week, the opinion seemed to be that the references to sex were bad, not the objectification done (primarily) to women in the ads. While Christians ought to care about what the ad does to them personally (i.e. tempt them to lust), they are frequently trying so hard to keep a pure mind that they only condemn the potential for a particular sin that an ad represents. The Christian community therefore misses a great opportunity to push against other evils being committed.

There were plenty of incidents of sexualization in the ads, with sex being glorified or normalized in close to a third of the ads. Fiat’s tired “car = sexy woman” trope and Kia’s “hotbots” replace or equate women with objects directly, thereby objectifying them. Carl Junior’s sexy stripping bikini model eating a burger and godaddy.com’s naked woman billboard share in common women’s bodies functioning as a canvas or showcase for the intended product. The use of the women’s bodies is entirely sexual in presentation, thus sexually objectifying the women. Calvin Klein also does this with a male model, so sexual objectification periodically goes both ways (1/52 Super Bowl Commercials), but just because sexism goes both ways doesn’t make it right.

The reality is that women are being harmed by these ads because the ads set up an image in the mind of the viewer that real women are then expected to correspond to. There have been national surveys done that demonstrate that sexualization and objectification is linked to common mental health problems in girls and women, including eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Moreover, psychological studies demonstrate that women who are sexually objectified are actually associated with objects and thus are almost non-human in the minds of viewers. When women are used to sell objects and are substituted for objects, it shouldn’t surprise us that women become synonymous with objects in our minds. We, the church, ought to be about the business of humanizing people as much as we are about the business of condemning an overly sexualized culture.

Jesus, as the final revelation of God, gives us a standard of behavior to follow. Jesus (and the 12 disciples, by extension) had a lot to say to people who cared more about their own holiness than loving others, though a lot of it was subtext. (c.f. Matt 22. 34-39; 1 John4:7-21; Matt 9:9-13, 11:11-19, 12:9-14, 12:33-37, 23:1-36, Mark 2:1-3:6, 7:1-30; 12:38-40; Luke 5:17-6:16, 7:24-50; 11:37-12:3, etc.) Granted, he said to care about both holiness and love, but not one to the exclusion of the other. He said this most succinctly in his pronunciation of woes to the Pharisees in Luke 11: 39-42, “Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people…. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

Even further, Jesus took the time to humanize and love women, even at the expense of culturally imposed purity laws. A prime example of this is the woman of disrepute who washed Jesus’ feet. There are two ways that this culturally was considered an affront to Jesus’ purity – which was terribly important for religious teachers to observe in his culture –first, a woman touched him in public; and second, she was a sinful woman, which plummeted her purity standing to a place far below Jesus’ sphere of association. Despite Jewish expectations, Jesus permitted her to wash his feet – in a sense humanizing her and reminding the people in the room that women, even sinful women, have worth. He then went further and met her deeper need for forgiveness. Time and again in the life of Jesus we see instances wherein he chose not to condemn, but sought to bring fullness of life to the sinner, outcast or anyone who recognized their need for salvation. He reserved condemnation for those who were trying so hard to be pure that they neglected those who were being oppressed.

It is time that the church stopped merely condemning sex in TV ads and began to fight for the fact that women in these ads are image bearers of God, and as such they ought to be honored and treated as such. If we stand up for the dignity of women, maybe companies would see that there is a significant part of the population in which sexism and sex doesn’t sell. Maybe we would even begin to see a turn in the tides of media.

1. In particular, I have familiarized myself with MissRepresentation  and their #notbuyingit Twitter campaign. I really appreciate that Miss Representation’s mission is to stop the misrepresentation of women in media and the #notbuyingit campaign is to convince companies to stop selling products by objectifying women, or selling sexist/objectifying materials.