Skip to content

"It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up."--Joseph Sobran

Is This That? 1 Peter 3 and Christian Apologetics

Several Scriptures are used as support for and instruction in Christian apologetics, but none is more common than 1 Peter 3:15: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” From the beginning of my experience with apologetics in 1985, that has been the go-to verse for telling Christians that they need to learn apologetics. I have used it myself many times.

I now think that’s a mistake. It isn’t that what Peter’s talking about has nothing to do with apologetics. The problem is equating defense in the New Testament with apologetics.

Think about Peter’s concern. Because Christians were starting to experience persecution, Peter wrote to give instructions about how to respond. In chapter 3 he tells readers how to respond to verbal challenges. This shouldn’t be understood first of all as a situation where people were inquiring about the intellectual basis for the faith. There are several pictures of that in the book of Acts. It was first of all about charges brought by officials who objected to or just wanted to find out about what the apostles and other Christians were talking about. But that surely extended to neighbors who would want to know why Christians were no longer appeasing the civic deities by offering sacrifice and participating in public rituals. The message of Christ was causing quite an uproar (see, e.g., Acts 19:23ff). Jewish officials found it offensive and objectionable, and Roman officials were concerned about anything that disturbed the peace in the realm. Think of Acts 5:27-32 when Peter and the apostles were brought before the high priest, of Paul making a public defense in Jerusalem (Acts 22) and a private defense before King Agrippa (Acts 25-26). In the latter two Paul gave his testimony, and he called it his “defense” (from ἀpologίa and ἀpologéomai respectively).”

This wasn’t a new thing for Peter and the apostles, an unexpected reality they had to deal with. Surely Peter was remembering what Jesus told his disciples:

 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.  (Luke 12:11-12)

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer [from pologéomai), for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Luke 21:10-15

Like (on a quite different scale) a mother catching her child doing something wrong and demanding, “Explain yourself!”, the officials, whether Roman or Jewish, wanted an explanation. And if they weren’t satisfied, they didn’t smile at their own intellectual victory; they punished the apostles.

Am I making a brief against Christian apologetics? Not at all. Apologetics provides an important resource for the church. But apologetics isn’t to be made first in general (except, of course, for people who are developing and teaching arguments and evidences and methods). Even if, because of the circumstances, one recognizes the need to go right for arguments and evidences, that isn’t an end in itself; it is for the purpose of bearing witness for Christ. Defense in the New Testament is witness bearing in light of a challenge. As I wrote elsewhere,

New Testament witness bearing and defense are not just confined to merely seeking a verdict about particular claims like the resurrection or Messiahship of Jesus or the fulfillment of particular prophecies. It points to Jesus, and it calls for a decision. The gospel message isn’t just a set of truths to be expounded or defended but a declaration of a person, Jesus Christ, which demands a response. Κηρύσσειν (to proclaim), one of three important New Testament terms having to do with the proclamation of the gospel, also includes the goal of persuasion, but being a witness brings in the idea of reaching a verdict. Is this true or not? And if it is true, it ought to be believed in. When Jesus’ followers are called upon to defend themselves because of their faith in and obedience to Christ, they are to turn those occasions into opportunities to bear witness of Jesus. (“Faithful Witness: Defense in the Context of the New Testament,” available on this site)

Readers might wonder why I am making an issue of this. It might seem to be too fine a point to quibble about. I don’t think it is for this two-sided reason. On the one hand, claiming that Peter is saying we have to learn apologetics (as it is typically understood) can lay an unreasonable burden on Christians to learn more than they need to or are able to. On the other hand, it can make such Christians think they are off the hook with respect what Peter really was after: faithful witness bearing. There are many Christians who won’t have any interest in the discipline of apologetics, nor should they, to any great extent anyway. Sure, it’s good to learn some basic arguments and evidences. It’s like learning first aid. One needn’t learn all or much of the detail of physiology that a physician must know, but some would help. But also there are Christians who aren’t at all intellectually oriented and shouldn’t be made to feel like becoming so is necessary to fulfill the requirements of 1 Peter 3:15. If that were necessary, the church would have died early on. Sure, there are difficult challenges to be faced today, but most Christians don’t encounter them—or few of them, anyway. And there were plenty of challenges in the early centuries too; not only intellectual challenges, but threats to their very lives. But on the other hand, for such believers to skip past the demands of 1 Peter because of their lack of need or ability, they may think they are of the hook with respect to what it really is about. We are not to fear people who challenge us (not only their arguments but they themselves) but are to speak up and say why we have this hope. I take that to be either our objective hope (eternal life in Christ) or our subjective sense of hopefulness. And the reason for our hope is Jesus, not first of all the answers to intellectual challenges. Our duty is to bear witness of him, as Jesus commanded in Acts 1:8. That might be bearing witness on our own initiative, as we reach out to people with the good news. Or it might be in response to someone challenging us about what we’re doing and saying.

So, yes, Christians should learn some basic apologetics just as they should learn at least basic theology (and there are plenty of resources; Lee Strobel’s books are especially good for lay Christians). But they should not feel like they necessarily have to learn apologetics to be faithful witnesses for Christ. In fact, looked at from another direction, I think it’s possible to do a poor job of bearing witness for Jesus by indulging ourselves in a lot of sophisticated arguments and losing sight of him in the process. It can become about the arguments and the apologist more than about Jesus.

To sum up: If in our own contexts we face challenging questions about the faith, we would do well to learn what we can in order to give an answer if we are really interested in reaching the challenger for Christ (and if we think his or her objections or challenges are serious and not just smokescreens). Or at least we can bring someone else in who can answer them, whether in writing or in person (what I suspect Barnabas was doing when he brought Paul to Antioch to address the challenges of the Hellenistic Jews [Acts 11:19-26]). But we must not cause faithful Christians to stumble over Peter’s exhortation to speak up for Christ by laying an unreasonable burden on them. This isn’t just to relieve them of an unnecessary burden. It’s also to remind us that all of us bear the burden of bearing witness regardless of our knowledge of or interest in apologetics. None of us is off the hook.


There it was. Amidst all the laudatory things said about Billy Graham was a blog post claiming that what came to be known as the “Billy Graham rule”–that he would not, if possible, travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than his wife–was legalistic, fear-based, and divisive.
There’s a stream in evangelicalism that seems to be devoted to spotting what it thinks are problems in evangelicalism and rooting them out (kind of like cult-watchers who closely examine Christian sermons and writings to ferret out any hints of cultic influence). Sometimes they’re on target, but sometimes they sound more like people attempting to get attention in an on-line world where there’s a lot of competition for people’s reading time. Worse, I think they reflect the cynicism that is part of the post-modern mindset. Almost everything and everyone are suspect.

I read years ago that cynicism is fundamentally arrogant, and I think that’s right. Cynicism says, There’s a problem and I can see it. I can see through all the smoke and bluff and cover-up to what’s really going on. All you people who think everything is fine need to listen to me.

Sometimes cynics are right; with all their attempts at revealing the “truth” they’re bound to get it right on occasion. But often they try too hard. And they are too confident in themselves.

A hope that gives meaning

In a Facebook post years ago, I made this brief comment:

Without the (unpopular) doctrine of the judgment of God, ultimate meaning is ripped out of all the “good” things one can do, for there is no good; there is only the likable, the unlikable, and the insignificant.

Notice that I said that there is no ultimate meaning. In an email exchange with an atheist years ago, she acknowledged that there is no ultimate meaning in what we do, but she was happy to live with the immediate, here-and-now meanings that we see in things today; in other words, with what we as individuals count as meaningful (meanings which we may or may not share with others). But if these meanings aren’t connected to transcendent values–ones which are above us, rooted in what is permanent–then at best they are matters of emotion. I don’t mean to trivialize this by labeling it “emotion.” My atheist interlocutor spoke about spending time with her daughter, watching her grow and enjoying their relationship. This kind of thing is more than simply a happy feeling; it can affect one’s entire life and the lives of others. Nonetheless, another less honorable mother might find nothing meaningful, nothing satisfying and worthy of personal investment, in her child. This is an internal matter, internal to the person or persons involved. If nothing eternal is involved, how can anyone criticize the harsher mother? There is no ultimate value to the daughter or mother or their relationship. There is just niceness and kindness now. Granted, these aren’t things to be gainsaid, but they still are limited to the temporal; they are fleeting and will end. This internalism or subjectivity easily devolves into mere feelings or emotions. How is it shared with others? My ideas or beliefs have no hold on others beyond my ability to persuade them to belief them, too. But I can share them as feelings because (perhaps connected to the influence of Romanticism) feelings are what count; they connect with people because they have feelings, too. I don’t feel the same as you do about something, but I know what it is to feel. Maybe this is why what people feel about things is what really matters today. Think about interviews with people after momentous events: the interviewer will almost always get around to (or spend most of his her her time on) how the person feels about what happened. Or think of the how the emotions displayed at certain events are often mentioned. And, by extension, this may be why dissing or offending someone is the great sin of the day. Making someone feel bad is simply not allowed. No one can say that what I choose to do is really wrong in itself; if I count something in my life or some belief as meaningful and valuable, then no one else has the right to criticize me for it. To do so is to be a offensive. Either affirm me or be quiet.

But what if there is ultimate meaning in what we do and say? If there is, then we can connect the things we do in the here-and-now with eternal things; this meaningfulness points to purpose that transcends us. We don’t need to flit from one thing to another, as Americans are wont to do, to chase after the latest “in” thing in search of something that really counts. C.S. Lewis said that maybe we are not able to find the complete joy that we long for in life because we were made for something bigger than this world. I don’t know that the pursuit of joy that is unattainable here proves that an ultimate joy truly exists, but it makes sense of the claim that it does. I would suggest that meaning is on that same level. Even while we deny eternal, ultimate meaning, we chase after it, and maybe that chasing is a clue that there is a meaning that is beyond us. At least it makes sense of the belief that it does.

Long ago, the apostle Peter said that we should be willing to tell people why we have the hope that we do. This isn’t a cross-your-fingers kind of hope. One of my professors long ago told us that hope is to the future what faith is to today. The hope Christians have is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. We know there is something beyond us, something that makes our hopes in the here-and-now truly meaningful. With that knowledge, we can be people at rest, at peace, not given to chasing after one thing after another in order to find real satisfaction, true contentment; and there is no need to get panicky over the turbulence of our day. We really should be people of hope in our speech and in our lives on the personal and corporate level (in our churches) because there is a true hope that makes sense of all of this, that makes all of this count.

So a mother can find meaning in raising her child beyond how it makes her feel and even beyond the longer term meaning their interaction can have for her child in this life. But to be brutally honest, such meaning will completely die with the death of the universe (if not long before then) if there is nothing transcendent, nothing eternal that will not fade away. If there is something transcendent and eternal, what we put into others’ lives can contribute to their lives and to what they in turn can put into still others’ lives, all working toward becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus–the one who has life in himself, who is eternal–and to being prepared for whatever lies head of us when death is no more.

Peter’s exhortation to be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us should not cause us to be afraid of such questions, fearing that we won’t remember all those apologetics answers we heard or read. Most people aren’t going to challenge us with the criticisms that apologists deal with.* We have this hope–both subjective and objective hope–because the God of the Bible really exists and because Jesus really rose from the dead and promised that we will too. Hope is rooted in reality, and it can reside deeply in our hearts.

Life here truly matters; it really means something, something greater than us. We can grieve over the circumstances of our day, but not as they do who have no hope. It is all in the hands of a God who is both sovereign and good.


*A real problem for me as someone who was immersed in apologetics for many years was that, because I heard or read these challenges over and over and over, I feared that they would be brought up in any conversation with an unbeliever, and that inclined me to hold back from talking about matters of the spirit with them. On the opposite side, apologists can easily be so focused on challenges that we make them issues when they aren’t for a given person. I still like what my apologetics professor said about this years ago. We should start with the cross and “back into” apologetics; that is, back up and answer questions when posed, and then move back up to the gospel. It should be emphasized with people apologists instruct that the first order of business is the proclamation of the gospel. There’s no need to start trouble by raising doubts in people’s minds through our own fascination with arguments and evidences.

Forays into the issue of women in church leadership, pt. 1

I don’t recall any discussions about the possibility of women being pastors when I was growing up. Either I was too young to be aware, or it was a non-issue for most people in the conservative evangelical sub-culture in which I grew up in the ’60s. I was just breaking into my teens when scenes of women burning their bras appeared on TV. Because I stopped going to church in the mid-70s, the subject was a total non-issue for me until I returned after coming back to the Lord in May, 1980. Even then I only heard scattered comments about it (disapproving, in my circle) until I got to Bible college in the fall of 1982. The regnant view there was disapproving, but at least it was being addressed. Among my many readings in college was Susan Foh’s Women and the Word of God. Her position was that women could certainly be involved in church ministry although not as senior pastors, and always under the leadership of men. I took it as significant support for the traditional view that a woman held it (maybe that was why it was the book assigned on the subject).

Things have changed significantly in evangelicalism since then, so much so that I have expressed here an inclination to stop using the label myself. This isn’t a simple matter, though, since there are aspects of evangelicalism that I still embrace. One of the major changes has been in thinking about the role of women in pastoral ministry (in no churches I’ve ever attended have women not played significant non-pastoral roles in church ministry). A few generations have now graced the earth since my Baby Boomer generation blessed the world with our presence. Beliefs about women in ministry in evangelicalism have changed so much by now that I would bet that most Millennial Christians think it is perfectly acceptable for women to take their places next to men in all aspects of ministry without needing to have male oversight. Attitudes have changed so much that some people on the “pro” side in this debate have adapted the attitude of the victorious. Of course, there is to be no distinction of roles! Overtones of “where have you been?!” and “NObody believes that anymore except for people like John Piper!” are occasionally detected.

What complicates the matter for me–and a significant prompt for beginning this study–is how puzzling I find the traditional position to be (I understand there to be a difference between traditional and complementarian views, but in this post I will use traditional as a label for one side of the debate). There are people (including myself) who read Christian women writers with profit and with a clear conscience but start squirming when a woman ascends the pulpit. And as things stand now, I could not be part of a church with a woman in a position of pastoral leadership. But clearly women can teach men things. I also have no reason to believe that women can’t be good leaders in general. It’s important to interject here a distinction between women teaching and preaching and women being pastors, the spiritual leaders of churches. For on the conservative side there is the position that, while women can’t be pastors, they can teach, but only under the authority of men (I’ll have to delineate the various positions later). So if I look only at the level of human abilities, I don’t know why women can’t be pastors–both teachers/preachers and leaders. But at the same time I have to remind myself (and everyone should agree with this) that God at times requires things I don’t understand and even things I think make no sense. My acceptance of or rejection of a position are not authoritative. And the traditional side seems to have the clear teaching of Scripture on its side. That is why I think egalitarian arguments focused on the abilities of women aren’t at all persuasive. If God has said no, then no it is. The question for me is, what does God say?

So, what’s a Christian who has always held the traditional point of view to do about this? Shall I stick to my gun–guns loaded largely by other people who held to the traditional view and may not have given a fair assessment of the other side? Or shall I out of fear of being considered backward hop aboard the egalitarian bus? I will resist getting swept along with a wave of social change. If the traditional view is  not truly biblical but rather comes from misreadings of Scripture and is really just an artifact of an era of improper male domination, then I need to acknowledge it and plant my flag elsewhere (I’m tempted to use the imagery of falling on my sword, but that’s a bit too drastic). If, on the other hand, the egalitarian view doesn’t have a good case from Scripture and sound theology developed by the church over the centuries but rather has been wrongly influenced by a culture not beholden to Christian doctrine, then I will stay where I am. What I can’t be expected to do is to approach this without bias. I wouldn’t expect that from an egalitarian who undertook such a study. One should not easily give up deeply held convictions that one has been convinced have scriptural authority.

One thing I can say for certain (and this is a caution to anyone debating any issue): I will not be swayed by put-downs and comments dripping with condescension nor by the feelings and experiences of people on the egalitarian side. I am not interested in hearing about “stereotyped roles” and “oppression” or even by a woman’s sense that she has been called to ministry. There are plenty of places for people to minister without being in top leadership positions. I have never been in a top leadership position in a church, and even if I wanted such a position, that wouldn’t qualify me to be hold it. Unlike the contemporary American dogma that we can do anything we want to do, there are things we aren’t suited for, and in God’s economy there may well be things we aren’t allowed to do, like it or not. The first book I pulled off my shelf to begin this foray, How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership (ed., Alan Johnson), I put back on the shelf because its primary contribution lies in presenting the personal testimonies of people who changed from the traditional view to the egalitarian view. Even though the testimonies include changed understandings of what Scripture teaches, it also appears to be heavy on the personal experience side. I will read this book eventually since what convinced people I respect (especially NT scholars and theologians) to switch sides interests me and it could help to persuade me one way or the other. But the admixture of personal experiences with biblical considerations can blur the lines between what is authoritative and what is not. I still hold the Bible to be the supreme written authority for the church, interpreted by faithful believers throughout history, so I’m mostly interested in scriptural exegesis and theological reflection.

I am not presenting this and future posts with a view to persuading anyone else in this matter but rather for these reasons: 1) writing helps me to think, and writing for others to read adds a caution to present my thoughts clearly which itself is a prod to thinking well; and 2) my musings might be helpful for others who find all this puzzling but who don’t want to read yet something else arguing one side. I will feel no need to defend my resulting position, nor will I try to persuade anyone else. If I should conclude that the traditional view is correct, some might think I’m just stuck in my paternalistic ways. After all, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (has anyone ever thought that maybe the proverbial old dog is too smart to learn yet another stupid trick?). If I change my mind, some might think I’ve gone over to the dark side of liberalism or am on my way, tip-toeing on the edge with one foot swinging perilously out over the abyss. But I’ve gotten to the age and to a stage in life where I am beholden on such things to God alone, and I feel no qualms about my ability to follow the arguments and deal with the subject fairly (despite my already confessed bias). I really do want to know the truth of the matter.

Below is a list of the books on my shelf on this subject. This collection may seem rather rag-tag as it consists of books I picked up over the years because I thought this is a subject I really need to address. There may be better books available, but this is what I have to work with. I am sure I won’t read them all, both because I’ll likely become exhausted by the subject before then (it isn’t as though it’s new to me, that I’ve never given it any thought before), and because not being a student with an assigned paper or an exam to take means I can quit when I darn well feel like it. And I’m sure I’ll come across a good deal of repetition. How many (significantly) different things can be said about this?

The list:

M. Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian
B. Clouse and R. Clouse, eds., Women in Ministry: Four Views
S. Foh, Women and the Word of God
R. T. France, Women in the Church’s Ministry
S. Gundry and J. Beck, eds., Two Views on Women in Ministry
E. Howe, Women and Church Leadership
A. Johnson, ed., How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership
R. Kroeger and C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman
J. Piper and W. Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

I will begin with Gundry and Beck’s Two Views on Women in Ministry. After that, only time will tell.

I hope to post a “part 2” in this series in the near future in which I will give a thumbnail sketch of what I read and my thoughts about it.

About one’s own brand of spirituality

In Diane Sawyer’s ABC interview with Ashley Judd about Harvey Weinstein, Ms. Judd said that years ago she had put her life into the hands of a loving God. I did a quick search online to see if I could find out what her beliefs are, and I found that she is a Christian and a Baptist. I also read this in one article:

Judd’s conception of divinity and her role in the universe is clearly something she’s given a lot of thought to. Her real religious awakening came thanks to the combination of depression therapy and the writings of New Age guru Eckhart Tolle. It was this battle with her own demons that gave Judd the perspective needed to find her own brand of spirituality. (

Now, let me say quickly that I am not posting this in order to critique Ashley Judd’s beliefs. There isn’t enough in this article to really know what she believes; I am reluctant to accept at face value what reporters say about Christians’ beliefs; and it isn’t my interest to attack individuals. So I don’t want this to become a thread about Ashley Judd or Hollywood or New Age or Eckhart Tolle. I am posting this because of the phrase at the end of the quote: “to find her own brand of spirituality.”

That phrase carries the idea that religion is something that comes from us. That is the common secular notion of religion: it is something individuals or groups create for some kind of benefit to themselves. And it may be true of many religious people, whether consciously so or not. But Christians need to be aware and settled in the fact that what we proclaim doesn’t come from us; it isn’t our invention. It has been revealed by God. That is a crucial distinction that can make talking about what we believe to non-Christians so difficult. Secularists are talking about something they think is personal and individual, but we are talking about something that is universal truth. We don’t get to invent for ourselves what our beliefs are. That doesn’t mean there won’t be differences between Christians because for a variety of reasons there are differences in our understandings of what the Bible means on certain things. But as with morality, this isn’t basically a subjective, personal matter. There is an authority above us, and we receive it as best as we can. It is either true or it is false; it cannot be sequestered in the personal, subjective realm where true and false have no meaning.
Incidentally, one thing we can do to keep from fostering the secularist idea is to avoid saying things like, “What I believe personally is ______” or “It is my own personal belief that _____” unless we are talking about something that is not a core truth of Christianity or can’t be clearly inferred from Scripture and sound doctrine. In fact, I would avoid using “personally” in stating one’s beliefs altogether to prevent misunderstanding. It isn’t our “personal” belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God who died for us for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and that everyone is lost apart from him. To give in to the contemporary sensitivity toward universal truth claims about religion and morality by using the qualifier “personal” is to throw in the towel from the start.

Not to be done alone

One of the notable phenomena of our day in the church is the reality of Christians who won’t be part of a church. For a variety of reasons, they choose to walk it alone. They may be put off by the people in the pews or by the ways churches (mal)function or by something else. This might be the result of direct experience, or it might come from reading the many criticisms of the church by Christians (or both), not to mention by non-Christians. Given all the critical analyses by blog writers (who may or may not have a good understanding of the matters of which they speak), it’s hard not to view local churches as places to avoid. They are apparently doing an awful job. One writer starts it and then a bunch of other people jump on the bandwagon and take their own shots. Or wanting to stand out, a writer will discover, much to his/her shock and dismay, some new foible that simply must be brought to the light. Sometimes I browse through blogs, wondering what the church’s failure du jour will be.

I’m reading through Ephesians now, and I read in chapter 4 a theme Paul comes back to on a few occasions; namely, the unity of the church. This isn’t just a matter of the importance of people who choose to be there being unified in purpose; it is also a call to be united with other believers, and not just in casual ways. Paul talks about the one body of which we are part and the one Spirit given to all, about the one hope we have–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This isn’t just an abstract unity. He points outs how God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” He envisions “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part of working properly, [making] the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” We have to actually be together, over time, for this to be accomplished. (See also 1 Cor. 12 about this.)

The call to unite with other Christians isn’t just a formality. We need each other for growth, for ministry, for encouragement, for the stuff of real Christian life. The writer of Hebrews puts the command very bluntly:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25).

Christ has called, not just individuals to salvation, but the church to be his ministering arm on earth. We are to join with other imperfect Christians to accomplish his mission.

So you are put off by churches or by the people in them. Is there a loving, Christian way of saying, “get over yourself”? Yes, there are sinners in churches, and churches don’t do things perfectly. Who does? Maybe the people there are beneath you. In that case you are called to be patient and bear with them in love. Or maybe you’ll find that they are just like you, doing their best (most of the time) to “work out [their] salvation” in the midst of difficult life circumstances. Lest any of us get to feeling too good about ourselves when we’re doing well, Paul says that we still have to acknowledge that we can’t be praised even for simply wanting to do God’s will, much less for pulling it off. God gets the credit for all of it (Phil. 2:12-13).

So if you’ve been staying away, come on back! The rest of us will try not to be too annoying.

On proclaiming the gospel and doing good

James K. A. Smith points out that the liberal vision of life in the West was grounded in Christianity (so, as an aside, in trying to remove religion from the public sphere, it cuts off the branch on which it sits). Moral values don’t stand alone. They need a framework, a story, a metanarrative to give them meaning. It is within such a framework that they make sense. Although people deep down know that certain things are right and wrong, it can be hard to understand and defend them apart from a worldview which explains them and gives them a foundation in the way the world is. Once a person “settles into” a religion or philosophy that includes moral valuations, those moral beliefs become more coherent. (Or, conversely, the incoherence of a set of moral values–inconsistency among them and between those values and the realities claimed to undergird them–is a good reason to doubt the worldview itself.)

Thus, when we knock heads with our neighbors in America over moral issues, if we don’t quit first we will beat ourselves unconscious unless we dig deeper and consider the larger frameworks that are believed to make sense of them. The saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, that we should preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary, should be discarded as unhelpful and even misleading, whether he said it or not. Certainly no one is going to know what the gospel message is–that the Messiah has come and his reign has (quietly) begun, and that we can participate in it through faith in Jesus–unless it is put into words. And by telling this message, our moral beliefs and claims–why we live as we do (or ought to) and why we think this way is best for society–are given a meaningful, coherent structure.

For a long time, what I heard about our Christian responsibility to our society was that we were to proclaim the gospel. Of course we should be good, godly people. But good behavior was, as I understood it, a matter of not being worldly and of protecting one’s own testimony. It wasn’t fleshed out as being part of the gospel message itself, as evidence that it was true, and simply as our responsibility as Christians to contribute to the common good. For some, it functioned more as a rebuke to the worldliness of society than as an winsome invitation to come and see. Much talk about living out our beliefs in a public context was suspect, as it might reflect that rascally social gospel that left out the matter of sin and the need for redemption in Christ. The proclamation of the gospel must come first, although it would be nice if we did good things, too.

The St. Francis quote, by contrast, swings the issue far in the other direction. We are off the hook for engaging in the sometimes uncomfortable task of talking about the gospel, which means talking about sin and forgiveness; we just have to do good, and, if someone asks why, we can tell them why we live the way we do.

It is good to do good whether we have the chance to present the gospel or not. But the latter needs to be done as well. This is a kind of “match made in heaven.” As John Frye notes, Jesus went about doing good (Acts 10:38). But he also proclaimed the good news of forgiveness and new life (Mk. 1:14,15; Jn. 3:16; 8:24). The apostle Paul asks, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher ?” (Rom. 10:14).

So the church–that is, Christians individually and collectively–needs to speak and live out the gospel. In doing so, we contribute to the common good, and, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, we show what the world would be like if God were in charge. And we bring a message of hope to people who need to hear it.

It can’t be just talk

People have been bemoaning the state of the church in the US for some time. The web is overcrowded with diagnoses and an occasional good prescription. After I finally got a Twitter account and started observing conversations there a couple years ago, I found myself wondering occasionally what the new crisis du jour would be, what new insights and ideas would be presented to the church today (I think the book Slow Church was the hot topic then). The quality is mixed. It ranges from the truly insightful to the awful. But flags are raised and people salute them for a little while, and then we’re off to something new. It’s rather like the two men near the end of The Truman Show who cheer Truman as he realizes his true situation and makes his escape, only to then look to see what else is on TV as though nothing important had just taken place. What difference has all the writing and discussion made?

On March 10, the Washington Post ran James K. A. Smith’s article, “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope,” a commentary on new books by Charles Chaput, Anthony Esolen, and Rod Dreher, all three of which raise an alarm over the state of the church in America and its loss of influence in society. They have generated a lot of conversation. Smith’s assessment was that they are all alarmist. I was disappointed with the article because it contained so little in way of supporting arguments. It came across as simple (and unhelpful) name-calling.

On the 14th, First Things ran a response by Mark Bauerlein titled “A Cheap Shot On Chaput, Esolen, Dreher.” He took Smith to task for his tone and lack of substantial arguments (it’s always gratifying to see someone else agree with me; although, of course, that’s no guarantee that we are correct!). Comments on the article came fast and furious, including a few by yours truly. (I suspect that a comment by “Tony” came from Anthony Esolen himself.)

I’m not going to provide any analysis here of either article or of the books in question. Too many people comment on books without reading them (and sometimes only on the basis of others’ comments because the books aren’t available for purchase). I am just starting Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. The other two I’ll read later. I just want to comment briefly here on these discussions in general.

What counts first about these books (and others like them) is, are these three writers on track in their diagnoses and suggested prescriptions? Do they get it right about the church and the wider society, or are they building straw men to level with a blow? Do their prescriptions for the church make sense? We all know there are things to be concerned about on both levels (church and culture/society). Jamie Smith certainly sees problems in the church, I would think, given the number of books he’s written offering instruction. Since I haven’t read the books he critiques, the verdict is still out for me on them. But there will always be disagreement on certain points in such important matters no matter how insightful the writers are.

What I’m concerned about here is what comes after determining whether the writers got it right. It is whether the thought, energy, and time put into thinking and writing and the reading and discussing that follow will result in something good for the church. In so far as these writers are correct, we need to get up from our computers and get busy and act on it, and encourage fellow believers to think and act on it, too. These matters can’t be confined to people whose first love is to bat around ideas. We can’t, like cheering Truman’s escape and then looking to see what else is on TV, read these books and draw conclusions–whether on our own or in discussion–and then move on to the next issue of interest. There is work to be done to build up, to strengthen the church, whether it will give us a better reputation in secular culture or not. There is no promise that our country will widely reflect Christian beliefs and virtues, but there is the promise that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church. However, the church’s prevailing in its mission will require hard work on our part, always in dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s read and debate Chaput and Esolen and Dreher and others, take what is good and leave what is bad (as we do with our own thinking), and get busy. When a car starts running off the asphalt toward the ditch, the driver has to jerk the wheel back hard to get back on the road. This, I think, is a time for hard corrections thoughtfully made.

Reclaiming the past

In this blog post on the American Conservative website, Rod Dreher ruminates on Paul Connerton’s 1989 book, How Societies Remember, regarding how Connerton’s ideas about memory apply to Dreher’s Benedict Option. Quite apart from its significance for the Option, I found Connerton’s comments to be a helpful summary of the nature of modernity and its significance for the meaning of the past and for traditions and rituals that help us to remember. Here is a short section from Connerton’s book:
For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later.
Our market system requires constant change. What would happen if people used their computers and printers and cars and clothes and home decorations and appliances, and the other stuff of life, for years on end without replacing them? No, we need to keep up with changing products. But this mindset of change has affected much more than our buying habits. Like the ideas of Darwin that were extended beyond the biological to purportedly explain and govern a wide swath of human life, the market mentality extends beyond merely selling and buying goods and services. It affects our way of seeing life and the world. It not only fuels consumerism (living to consume rather than consuming to live), but maybe more critically it detaches us in general from the past and its valuable contributions to the human experience even today, most obviously with regard to religious and moral beliefs. To be old is wrong; to be new is right. We are rebuked for not keeping up, for being “on the wrong side of history” (as if history itself has a mind). “Progress,” it is called, but by what measure do we judge whether life is truly progressing? If newness is the standard, then simply to be new is to progress. Just a moment’s thought reveals the weakness of that conclusion.
Whether Dreher’s ideas are the prescription the church needs to reclaim the past and let it instruct and anchor us, I don’t know (I’m trying to avoid reading reviews before the book is even available to buy). But think and act we must if we are going to regain a stable footing and weather secularizing changes in our society rather than being swept up in them or destroyed by them. Sometimes change has to be drastic, like over-steering a car in the other direction after running off the road. Whatever the church does, it cannot be just a new fad, just another hip idea for Christians to promote and debate ad nauseam. If the failings of the church today can be blamed to an extent on the infusion of a modern mentality, then maybe the past can provide needed correctives.

If they do listen, do we have anything to say?

How are Christians to live in an era which is so far removed from Christian theological and moral values (which from the beginning had held sway in America, more or less) that now prominent people like Chris Cuomo (and many others) simply dismiss our moral concerns as intolerant without making the slightest attempt to interact with them? Cuomo responded to a father’s concerns about his daughter encountering a male in a high school lockeroom. Here is Cuomo’s tweet as reported by Rod Dreher:

i wonder if she is the problem or her overprotective and intolerant dad? teach tolerance.

— Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) February 23, 2017

There you have it. Teach tolerance. End of discussion. There’s no room even for debate anymore.

More and more is being written by Christians about how to think about how to live in a society racing headlong into total secularization where the rules of life are chosen by us with no transcendent input. Not only are Christian beliefs rejected; there is little or no attempt to even understand them. Rod Dreher has gotten a lot of attention for his “Benedict Option.” I won’t describe it here; descriptions are easy to find online. In his (very long) article on The American Conservative linked above, Dreher challenges the lack of thoughtful opposition to his (and most any other Christian) views. He has several links to other blogs and articles worth reading.

I encourage–no, urge–Christians to start thinking seriously about this, first by stepping out of the typical political liberal vs. conservative vs. libertarian framework. Politics has to do with action, with how we live in society. More fundamental issues have to be addressed before action can be considered. We must first have a good foundation in Christian doctrine, especially today in the areas of divine authority and human nature. Then we have to engage in some serious self-analysis. Have evangelicals capitulated to our secular culture? Having focused our thinking, we can then consider more clearly how to think and live as faithful Christians in today’s culture. A good place to start with that is to read or at least skim through articles like Dreher’s to become familiar with the issues involved (this article or any of his many others online). I still recommend James Davison Hunter’s book How to Change the World which reviews several perspectives on the Christians-in-culture issue and offers his own ideas. There is much more available as well.


A side note here: In Dreher’s discussion of what stands behind conservative Christian views, things opponents and critics ought to understand before dismissing them (and us), he gives some space to the significance of metaphysics, a subject Christian apologists should give more attention to. We have been made male and female; to alter that is to go against the way we are designed. He quotes Michael Martin:

“Our current, postmodern moment — materialistic, technological, technocratic, atheistic — exemplifies a nominalism writ large. Here there are no universals. There are no ideas, no archetypes. Only names. ‘Marriage,’ for instance, no longer embeds universal cultural archetypes of ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ . . . Marriage, previously assumed as the union of a man and woman into organic whole, has been relativized beyond the point of recognition. A collateral ontological shift has also occurred in the postmodern understanding of the word ‘family.’ Perhaps most emblematic of this shift is the new conceptualization of the term ‘gender,’ which, tellingly, has proved the most plastic of all. Does not the notion of elective gender reassignment surgery, like nominalism, assert in the clearest terms that universals do not exist?”

And this from Russell Moore:

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.

“This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, ‘male and female,’ from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be, and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?”

If it is so that we are designed for a purpose (teleology), then this would be more than a simple philosophical notion, but should be visible in nature. If transgenderism is an alteration of an built-in design, then our bodies should show damage or at least some kind of diminishment when “re-purposed.” I would also expect that, since we are wholistic beings, changes would also be seen in non-physical aspects of our beings. Time will tell if this is so as more and more people become transgenders.