Whenever an evangelical denomination disfellowships a church due to compromise on the issue of homosexuality, I usually hear critics complain that such action is hypocritical. Don’t most conservative denominations, after all, welcome members who have been divorced into the fellowship? Why do evangelicals single out one sexual teaching over another? Couples divorce, sometimes remarry others, and yet are welcomed within the congregation. We don’t necessarily affirm this as good, but we receive these people with mercy and grace. Why not, the argument goes, do the same with homosexuality?
The charge of hypocrisy is valid in some respects. I’ve argued for years and repeatedly that many evangelical churches have been slow-motion sexual revolutionaries, embracing elements of the sexual revolution twenty or thirty years behind the rest of the culture. This is to our shame, and the divorce culture is the number-one indicator of this capitulation. The preaching on divorce has been muted and hesitating all too often in our midst. Sometimes this is due to what the Bible calls “fear of man,” ministers and leaders afraid of angering divorced people (or their relatives) in power in congregations. Sometimes it’s due to the fact that divorce simply seems all too normal in this culture; it doesn’t shock us anymore.
A recovery of a Christian ethic of marriage will mean repentance, and a strong commitment by churches to courageously say, where applicable, what John the Baptist put his head on a platter to say to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” In that sense, the charge is correct.
But divorce and remarriage is not, beyond that, applicable to the same-sex marriage debate. First of all, there are arguably some circumstances where divorce and remarriage are biblically permitted. Most evangelical Christians acknowledge that sexual immorality can dissolve a marital union, and that innocent party is then free to remarry (Matt. 5:32). The same is true, for most, for abandonment (1 Cor. 7:11-15). If the church did what we ought, our divorce rate would be astoundingly lowered, since vast numbers of divorces do not fit into these categories. Still, we acknowledge that the category of a remarried person after divorce does not, on its face, indicate sin.
The second issue, though, is what repentance looks like in these cases. Take the worst-case scenario of an unbiblically divorced and remarried couple. Suppose this couple repents of their sin and ask to be received, or welcomed back, into the church. What does repentance look like for them? They have, in this scenario, committed an adulterous act (Matt. 5:32-33). Do they repent of this adultery by doing the same sinful action again, abandoning and divorcing one another? No. In most cases, the church recognizes that they should acknowledge their past sin and resolve to be faithful from now on to one another. Why is this the case? It’s because their marriages may have been sinfully entered into, but they are, in fact, marriages.
Jesus redemptively exposed the sin of the Samaritan woman at the well by noting that the man she was living with was not her husband. “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (Jn. 4:18). It could be that her husbands all died successively, but not necessarily. Christians are forbidden to marry non-Christians. This does not mean, though, that these are not marriages, or that, after repentance, these marriages are ongoing sins. Instead, the Scripture commands a repentance that looks like fidelity to that unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-17; 1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Even if these marriages were entered into sinfully in the first place, they are in fact marriages because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union (Eph. 5:22-31), embedded in God’s creation design of male and female together (Mk. 10:6-9).
Same-sex relationships do not reflect that cosmic mystery, and thus by their very nature signify something other than the gospel. The question of what repentance looks like in this case is to flee immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), which means to cease such sexual activity in obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). A state, or church decree of these relationships as marital do not make them so.
We have much to repent for in the accommodation to a divorce culture in our churches. And if we do not articulate an alternative gospel vision of the definition of marriage, we will see the same wreckage we’ve seen on so many churches’ capitulation on the permanence of marriage. But our attitude should not be that so many have shirked their churchly responsibility in some things, so let’s then shirk our responsibilities in everything. That would be the equivalent of someone saying, “Since I have had lust in my heart, which Jesus identified as root adultery, I should go ahead and have an affair” or “Since I am angry with you, which Jesus identified as springing from a spirit of murder, I should go ahead and kill you.
Instead, our response ought to be a vision of marriage defined by the gospel, embodied in local congregations. This means preaching with both truth and grace, with accountability for entering marriages and, by the discipline of the church, for keeping those vows. We don’t remedy our past sins by adding new ones.
Publication date: August 16, 2016
The devil is a preacher. From the third chapter of the Bible onward, he is opening up God’s word to people, seeking to interpret it, to apply it, to offer an invitation.
So the old Serpent of Eden comes to the primeval woman not with a Black Mass and occult symbols, but with the Word she’d received from her God—with the snake’s peculiar spin on it. Throughout the Old Testament, he preaches peace—just like the angels of Bethlehem do—except he does so when there is no peace. He points God’s people to the particulars of worship commanded by God—sacrifices and offerings and feast-days—just without the preeminent mandates of love, justice, and mercy. Satan even preaches to God—about the proper motives needed for godly discipleship on the part of God’s servants.
In the New Testament, the satanic deception leads the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees to pore endlessly over biblical texts, just missing the point of Christ Jesus therein. They come to conclusions that have partially biblical foundations—the devil’s messages are always expository—they just intentionally avoid Jesus.
So, the scoffers feel quite comfortable asking how a man from Nazareth could be Messiah when the coming King is of Bethlehem. They find themselves wondering how the Son of Man can be crucified when the Bible says he lives forever. When Jesus says those who follow him should eat his flesh and drink his blood, there’s little doubt that the Adversary was there to point the crowds to Leviticus’ forbidding of the consumption of human blood. When the satanically inspired crowds crucified Jesus, they did so pointing to biblical texts that called for the execution of blasphemers and insurrectionists (Deut 21).
When the early church rockets out of the upper room in Jerusalem, Satan is there, with false teachers, to preach all kinds of things that seem to be straight from God’s word—from libertinism to legalism to hyper-spirituality to carnality. He never stops preaching. But the devil is boring.
That seems like exactly the opposite of what would be true of Satan. We think of the Tempter—and his temptations—as darkly exciting, tantalizing, seemingly irresistible. But that’s not at all the case. False teaching in the Scripture—and in the ages of the church ever since—is boring. Read the expositions of Job’s counselors—and compare them to the proclamation of God at the end of the book of Job. Read what Balaam was paid to preach compared to what he announced through the power of the Spirit.
Satanic preaching is boring because the goal isn’t to engage people with preaching. It’s to leave the “desires of the flesh” alone, so that the hearers may continue in their captivity to the prince of the power of this air.
For some, dull sermons are themselves a sign of godliness. After all, doesn’t the Apostle warn us against “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1)? But the kind of rhetoric Paul is railing against here isn’t exciting—it’s typical in an era in which Greek rhetoric is everywhere. Paul doesn’t contrast engaging speech with dull speech, but the demonstration of human craft with the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:5). Indeed, Paul says his message is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7), the unveiling of an ancient mystery that unlocks the meaning of everything.
Jesus was often poorly received—but he never bored. When he preached, demons shrieked, crowds gasped, and services sometimes ended with attempted executions rather than altar calls. The prophets before him and the apostles after him were just like that too. They provoked shouts of happiness or warrants for arrest but they never prompted yawns.
If lost people don’t like your message because they’re hostile to the gospel, you’re in good company. But if you’re boring the people of God with the Word of God, something has gone seriously awry. It may be that you preach just like the devil, and that you don’t even know it.
Sometimes preachers bore because they don’t understand the nature of Scripture. The Bible, after all, captures not only the intellect, but the affections, the conscience, the imagination. That’s why the canon includes stories and parables, poetry and proverbs, letters and visions. Dull preaching often translates the imagination-gripping variety of Scripture into the boring tedium of an academic discourse or the boring banality of a “how-to” manual.
So, if you find yourself translating a Psalm into the structure of a Pauline epistle before you can preach it, you’re not letting the Scripture do its work in gripping the hearts of your people. Not even the most straightforward, rigorously doctrinal passages of Scripture are singularly intellectual. The apostles are visual preachers. Paul speaks of gouging out eyes (Gal 4:15), giving his body over to be burned (1 Cor 13:3), and compares himself to a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7), while James writes of a tongue aflame (Jas 3:6) and fattened hearts in a day of slaughter (Jas 5:5).
The biblical revelation is far from boring. It’s the most exciting, engaging story imaginable, which is why it is aped all over the place in epic, drama, poetry, and song.
Preachers who would rage against boredom can start by learning to listen to the literary power of the text. This means, for one thing, learning to form moral imaginations that can be fired by the Scriptures. Cut back on the political blogs and TV. Read some good fiction, some poetry, listen to stories being told—and thereby shape an imagination that recognizes literary structure, beauty, and coherence.
Some preachers bore because they misunderstand the nature of human rebellion. Sermons typically bore because they rest on abstractions at best, or on clichés and platitudes at worst. Abstract ideas can easily be distanced from human sin—and shopworn, recycled slogans are too familiar to threaten. Satan loves such preaching, because it leaves his authority over human rebellion unthreatened.
Often sin is left alone less by preachers who approve of sin from the pulpit than by preachers whose sermons are so vague and abstract that the hearers are able to evade the force of the proclamation. Like Saul convincing himself that he had kept God’s command to destroy “all” the property of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15), all of us are prone to dodge the truth-seeking nature of biblical proclamation. Vague abstractions do not expose the conscience. It’s not enough then to say, “Husbands love your wives”; instead, we must point out what that looks like, with concrete application, and what it doesn’t.
In his teaching, Jesus exposed how his hearers were evading the text—by jarring them with the idea of being a brother to a Samaritan, or asking how demons can cast out demons, or showing resurrection-denying Sadducees how their ridicule of resurrection doesn’t square with their own reading of Moses.
The best way to outwit the Evil One is to anticipate how his powers will seek to counter-act your preaching. The more you know your people, their struggles and triumphs, and the more you know human nature, the better you’ll know how to preach sermons that can pierce through strongholds, and gain attention. That doesn’t guarantee that people will like what you say; but it helps ensure they’ll hear it being said.
A sermonic information dump—with PowerPoint outline point by sub-point by sub-sub-point can “safely” distance your people from Christ. A sermon that simply collates and regurgitates what you’ve read in commentaries can make the Word of God a matter of cognition not submission. A strung-together list of life tips can make it easy for your people to disregard this word just like they disregard the weight loss plans commercials on television or the flossing ad campaigns they see from the dentist’s chair.
The devil doesn’t mind boring sermons, so long as you allow him to preach too. He doesn’t mind the Word being heard so long as it’s the appetites that really enliven his people. And he doesn’t mind the gospel going forward as long as God’s people hear his accusations of them (and they’re all expository and biblically-based!).
But if you grip people with the drama of the gospel of Christ, if you jolt them into seeing the ancient newness of the Word of God, then you’ll have a demonic insurrection on your hands.
Publication date: August 11, 2016
Over the past few years, I’ve heard from several pastors and Christian leaders a genuine fear that the rising generation of evangelicals will compromise the faith when it comes to public engagement. But I actually don’t think this will happen, for one reason: The gospel.
In the rising wave of evangelicals, one hears the constant refrain of “gospel focus” and “gospel centrality.” Some might dismiss this as just more evangelical faddishness and sloganeering, and perhaps some of it is. But I think the focus on the gospel is tied up with the collapse of the Bible Belt. As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. There is, for those who came and will come of age in recent years, no social utility to embracing them. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. These Christians have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.
Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined, not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.
To understand why this leads to greater engagement rather than to lesser engagement, we must understand what the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt is about, in the first place. This changes not just the number of unbelievers, but the way that believers themselves think, and relate to the outside culture. Philosopher James K.A. Smith, analyzing the work of Charles Taylor, gives the example of an evangelical church-planter relocating from the Bible Belt to a “post-Christian” urban center in the Pacific Northwest. The church planter is equipped to evangelize and make disciples by asking people diagnostic questions about what’s missing in their lives. A generation or two ago, that might have been what they were trusting in to get to heaven. In more recent years, it would have been what’s missing in order to grant meaning and purpose to their lives. The central issue isn’t that the church planter isn’t adequately trained to answer their questions; it’s that they are asking different questions. They do not feel “lost” in the world, and they don’t feel as though they need meaning or purpose. The effective evangelist must engage not only at the level of the answers, but also at the level of the questions themselves.
The same will be true when it comes to the social and political witness of Christianity in a new era. Older generations could assume that the culture resonated with the same “values” and “principles.” They could assume that the culture wanted to conserve their “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Increasingly, the culture doesn’t see Christianity as the “real America.” If Christianity is a means to American values, America can get by without it, because America is learning to value other things. This is, perhaps counter-intuitively, both good for the church and good for the church’s engagement with the outside world. J. Gresham Machen warned the church in the 1920s not only that bartering away orthodoxy wouldn’t gain the church cultural credibility, but also that the great danger for the church is to see Christianity as a means to some other end.
Christianity does indeed build stronger families, he argued, and it does indeed provide an alternative to Marxist ideologies. But if Christianity is embraced as a way to build strong families or assimilate people into American values or fight Communism, it is no longer Christianity but an entirely other religion, one he called “liberalism.” In the last generation of Christian public engagement, there were some genuine prophets and saints, who called the church out of isolation but constantly warned against a political captivity of the church, a captivity that would tap Christianity of its righteous zeal for the sake of power but would, ultimately, drain it of what every culture finds most troublesome: the exclusivity of Christ.
A church that assumes the gospel is a church that soon loses the gospel. The church now must articulate, at every phase, the reason for our existence, because it is no longer an obvious part of the cultural ecosystem. That articulation of the gospel will mean engagement because the most pressing issues are not ancillary to the gospel, in the way some other cultural and political issues are.
The temptation will be, as always, to overreact to the sins and foibles of the last generation, with a pullback altogether in an attempt to avoid culture wars and social gospels. A recalibration is called for, to be sure. We are a different people facing a different context. An attempt at wholesale withdrawal might exempt us from some of the hucksterism and moralism of some figures in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but it will take us back to the opposite errors of some in our great-grandparents’ generation, back to divorcing the gospel from the kingdom, the love of God from the love of neighbor. We could shrug off our social witness altogether, as a defense against legalism. But we would be wrong, and we would, ironically, fall into a Pharasaism of the other side, building hedges around a temptation to avoid falling into it. More that that, we would be abandoning a post to which we were assigned and from which we have no permission for leave. The test will be if we can engage the culture without losing the gospel.
If we ever were a moral majority, we are no longer. As the secularizing and sexualizing revolutions whir on, it is no longer possible to pretend that we represent the “real America,” a majority of God-loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth cultural conservatives like us. Accordingly, we will engage the culture less like the chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the Book of Acts. We will be speaking not primarily to baptized pagans on someone’s church roll, but to those who are hearing something new, maybe for the first time. We will hardly be “normal,” but we should never have tried to be.
This article is adapted from my book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.
Publication date: August 9, 2016