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The Bestsellers
June 10, 2016

Some time ago I began a series called “The Bestsellers” and am picking it up again after a hiatus. In this series I look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian book sells only a few thousand. We have already encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris and Randy Alcorn all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson, and William Young. Today we continue the series by looking at a book that has become a perennial fixture on the bestseller lists and one of only a handful of Christian books to top the ten million mark.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

Gary Demonte Chapman was born on January 10, 1938. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he went on to become a pastor, a counselor, the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants, and the host of a radio program devoted to relationships and marriage.

In 1971 Chapman joined the staff of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Even as a young pastor he had a heart for marriage and family and began to host seminars for couples. Naturally, many of the people he taught approached him to ask for help with their marriage conflicts. He met with many of these couples and over time came to see that a common root cause of their conflict was poor communication that left one or both spouses feeling unloved. “Adults all have a love tank,” he says. “If you feel loved by your spouse, the whole world is right. If the love tank is empty, the whole world can begin to look dark.” Different people have this love tank filled in different ways, he observed, and he came to describe these as “love languages.” He encouraged spouses to learn their partners’ love language and then to deliberately display their love in that way. What he taught in his church formed the basis for his 1992 book The 5 Love Languages.

The heart of the book is a description of the five common languages people use to express love: affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service. Each person has tendencies toward some of these languages and away from others. And, indeed, most of us can look at the list and quickly put them in order of personal preference. The key application is that each person needs to understand his or her spouse’s love language and then learn to show love in that way. It is implied that the spouse will reciprocate and a happy marriage will ensue—the communication mismatch that lies at the heart of so much conflict will be resolved.

5 Love Languages

Sales & Lasting Impact

The 5 Love Languages was released by Moody Publishers in 1992 and immediately exceeded the publisher’s modest expectations. Remarkably, for 19 of its first 20 years it would outsell its total from the previous year. In 1998 it surpassed 500,000 copies sold, just two years later surpassed 1 million, and in 2015, after selling its 10 millionth copy, received the Diamond Award from the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association. Twenty-four years after its publication date, the book remains at the top of the New York Times Love and Relationships list of bestsellers and is fixed at number 2 overall on the ECPA list, bested only by Jesus Calling. It has been translated into 50 languages.

While The 5 Love Languages has proven undeniably helpful to many struggling couples, it has not been without its critiques. The most notable of these is expressed by David Powlison in a 2002 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling. Powlison explains that “Part of considering the interests of others is to do them tangible good. But then to really love them, you usually need to help them see their itch as idolatrous, and to awaken in them a far more serious itch! That’s basic Christianity. 5LL will never teach you to love at this deeper, more life-and-death level.” In other words, the book subtly teaches that the desires we feel within are legitimate needs even though they may actually be idolatrous lusts.

A second critique is that “Chapman’s model is premised on a give-to-get economy: ‘I will give to fill your love tank. But in the back of my mind I’m always considering whether and when I’ll get my own tank filled.” In Powlison’s words, “The 5 Love Languages replaces naked self-interest with civilized self-interest. ‘I give, hoping to get.’” The love languages can mask a kind of selfishness that is the very opposite to the Bible’s selfless love.

Those critiques lead to this one: “The love language model does not highlight those exquisite forms of love that do not ‘speak your language.’ … The greatest love ever shown does not speak the instinctively self-centered language of the recipients of such love.” The saving love of God, expressed in the death of Christ, does not speak anyone’s natural love language. And yet it is the greatest love and our most desperate need. In this way Christ fails the love language test! We wanted to be loved in all sorts of ways—but none of us wanted to be loved in the way Christ has loved us, by dying for us, sending his Spirit to indwell us, and being Lord over us. And yet this is what we needed more than anything in all the world.

These critiques do not render the book or its “love languages” terminology invalid, but they do demand that we approach it with care and discernment.

Since the Award

The overwhelming success of The 5 Love Languages begat an entire industry of related material including God Speaks Your Love Language, The 5 Love Languages for Men, The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, The Love Languages Devotional Bible, The 5 Love Languages of Children (which has surpassed 500,000 copies sold), and many others. Chapman hosts a daily radio spot called A Love Language Minute and regularly hosts marriage conferences and seminars. He remains Senior Associate Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church.

A Personal Perspective

I find the love language terminology helpful and use it quite often. Aileen and I are sure to bring it up in pre-marriage counseling and in one session have the engaged couple place the languages in order of their preference. They also try to guess the preferences of their future spouse and compare their results. We are confident that this helps them better understand how to communicate their love for one another. However, we always make sure to provide the caveats Powlison expresses. Not only that, but we turn it all the way around to help them understand that they need to learn to receive love in their spouse’s language. It is more important for a husband to learn to receive love as his wife gives it than to demand that she learns to offer love in the way he wants to receive it. This, I think, is the book’s most important lesson.

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, 5 Love Languages, Journal of Biblical Counseling.

Why I Am Not Arminian
June 09, 2016

Today I am continuing the series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in these articles I am telling what I do believe by looking at what I do not believe. So far I have told why I am not atheist, why I am not Roman Catholic, and why I am not liberal. Today I want to tell why I am not Arminian. (If you are uncertain of what I mean by Arminian, Theopedia has a brief but excellent article that explains its key tenets.) I was raised within the Reformed tradition, left it as a young adult, and returned to it a few years later. Let me explain how and why that happened.

For most of my childhood my family was involved in the Canadian Reformed Church. This denomination arose in the 1950s after a wave of post-war emigration from Holland. At the time we attended, their membership was still almost exclusively Dutch and we were among the very few exceptions. Nevertheless, we were warmly welcomed and for many years were comfortably part of those churches, first in Toronto and then in Ancaster.

The Canadian Reformed churches took as their foundation the Three Forms of Unity: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These documents were woven into the life and fabric of the church. Each Sunday evening the pastor preached a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism or one of the other documents. We learned Reformed doctrine and history in the denominational schools and even attended catechism classes on Tuesday evenings. Along the way I became thoroughly versed in Reformed doctrine.

As I grew into adulthood, though, I began to grow wary of it. For all the strengths of the Dutch Reformed churches, they showed little concern for evangelism and, not surprisingly, saw almost no conversions. I longed to be part of a church that was reaching the community around it and began to believe there was something within Reformed theology that was opposed to evangelism. After all, my primary experience of that theology was through this Dutch tradition. I began to listen to Christian radio and heard non-Reformed preachers like Charles Stanley who had a soul-stirring love for the lost. I began to listen to Christian music and heard songs that spoke to me, that fed me, even though they clearly came from an Arminian perspective. My horizons began to widen a little as I encountered Arminians who were preaching, singing, and celebrating truth.

Let me pause here for a brief aside. I need to affirm that somewhere between Roman Catholicism and Arminianism we have crossed an important line. The Roman Catholic church denies that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and, for that reason, teaches a false gospel. Arminians affirm that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and for that reason teach the true gospel. Even as I explain why I am not Arminian, I need to affirm that I am looking at a difference between brothers and sisters in Christ.

In 2000, now married and with a young child, I got a job in Oakville, Ontario, and Aileen and I moved to this new community. When we set out to find a church, we deliberately looked outside of the Reformed tradition, partly because of these concerns and partly for reasons I will recount when I tell why I am not paedobaptist. When we learned that a new Baptist church (Southern Baptist as it turned out) was beginning in our neighborhood we decided to visit on its launch day. We stayed for six formative years. To this point my Reformed theology was largely untested. I had not encountered the alternative in a compelling way. But now, at last, it would be challenged.

For a time we were thrilled with what we saw and experienced. We saw diversity, community, and conversions. It was an exciting and fulfilling time. But after a few years we found ourselves dealing with a growing sense of disquiet. Church leaders had asked me to read books by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and others like them and those books didn’t sit quite right. The pastor preached through Romans and did not have compelling explanations of certain key texts. The church began to prove that it was unhealthy and built upon a shaky theological foundation. I took my concerns to this relatively new platform called the internet and even began to explore my questions and concerns through a blog. Those old doctrines I had learned as a child and teen just wouldn’t let me go.

Then there was that momentous day when I wandered into a local Christian bookstore and selected two books that, by rights, had no reason to be there: Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Montgomery Boice. The first book spoke to the structure and purpose of the church we attended and the second to its theology. I ordered Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, R.C. Sproul’s What Is Reformed Theology?, and James White’s Justification. And that was that. I realized that in leaving Reformed theology I had walked away not only from a theological system, but from truth. It was at this time that I discovered Grace Fellowship Church, a congregation that was both baptistic and Reformed. This church loved Reformed theology but also loved to reach the lost. As it happens, this pastor was also preaching through Romans and had deep, compelling explanations for those key texts. We soon withdrew from that other church—and from Arminian theology—on amicable terms. We have never looked back.

So why am I not Arminian?

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is backed up by the Bible. When I honestly examined both Reformed and Arminian doctrine in light of the Bible, I saw evidence of Reformed theology everywhere I looked. Reformed theology depends not only on key verses but on the warp and woof of the entire Bible. It offers a far more compelling explanation of Scripture than Arminianism, both in its broad outlines and in its fine details. I do not see libertarian free will in the Bible. I do not see universal prevenient grace, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, or any of the other keys to Arminian doctrine. But I do see a God who is utterly sovereign, who has set his love on his people even in the depths of their total depravity, who draws them by irresistible grace, and who then holds them fast forever.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology motivates evangelism. I came to see that my Dutch Reformed experience was not typical for Reformed theology and actually quite inconsistent with it. At its best, Reformed theology provides the greatest motivation to share the gospel locally and to the ends of the earth. It does this by assuring us of God’s sovereignty in both election and calling. Our task, then, is to take the gospel far and wide so that God can draw his people through his appointed means, the preaching of the gospel. Evangelism and Reformed theology are not enemies, but the best of friends.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology creates the healthiest churches. We began to see that Reformed theology does not begin and end at the five points, but extends into the entire life and structure of the church. It provides the foundation to build healthy, multiplying local churches. 

In short, I am not Arminian because I tried it and found it wanting, both in my experience and in my attempt to reconcile it with Scripture. I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is just too good to not be true.

If Ebooks Came First
June 08, 2016

Imagine if ebooks came first. Imagine if Gutenberg had not created the printing press but the Kindle. Now, hundreds of years later, we are beginning to experiment with this new medium of paper and beginning to acclimate ourselves to printed books. Though on one level this little scenario is absurd, it can also be an interesting thought experiment. Stick with me for just a few moments and I’ll show you.

To understand some of the fear and criticism directed toward digital reading, we need to first understand the way we tend to relate to new technologies. We do not take any new technology on its own terms, but always in comparison—in comparison to what was dominant before it. In this way the old technology always has the upper hand and we consider it superior until the contender proves itself. You and I were born into a world dominated and shaped by the printed book. For this reason we are naturally inclined to consider it superior to all that has come before and all that will come after. We are disinclined to see the strengths of any new and competing medium, for to do that we must first admit the weaknesses of the old. This is especially difficult for a medium as important and well-loved as the book.

Perhaps one way we can better assess the book, though, is to imagine that it is threatening to disrupt the ebook, rather than the other way around. In this scenario, you sat on your mommy’s knee while she read Goodnight Moon from a tablet, you heard dad read Little House on the Prairie from his Kindle, and you spent your years of schooling learning from electronic textbooks. Gutenberg had worked tirelessly centuries before to perfect the Kindle but now Jeff Bezos is heralding the remarkable new technology of the printing press and the amazing books it churns out. Where would the new book pale in comparison to the old ebook? What are the reasons we would give to remain with the status quo? Here are a few:

Endnotes and footnotes. We would encounter an endnote in the text and think it absurd that we then have to keep one finger inside the book to mark our progress, flip to the very end, search for the right page, and read that endnote in a much smaller font. Or we would encounter a lengthy footnote in the text and grow annoyed that it takes up one-third of the page, breaks into the flow of the text, and disrupts it with a font two or three points smaller than the main one. In an ebook we only need to tap the note and it immediately displays over the text. Tap it once more and it is gone. It requires no flipping and it brings no disruption. It’s a great solution.

Dictionaries. We would be amazed that anyone would expect us to consult an entirely different book—a big, heavy dictionary that may be in an entirely different room—when we need to look up an unfamiliar word. In an ebook the dictionary is built right in! Simply tap on the word and immediately we can read a dictionary definition. I look up far more words when reading ebooks than printed books because of the sheer convenience and simplicity of it.

Indexes. Indexes would perplex us. Why would we want to have an index, a list of words with their corresponding page numbers, only at the end of the book? This would prove itself in no way superior to the ability to tap a search button, type in a word or two, and gain immediate access to every use of it within the book. An index would represent a dramatic step backward.

Notes. We would count it ridiculous that any notes, marks, and highlights we make in a book reside exclusively on those pages and that only manual transcription can make them accessible outside of it. In books our highlights and annotations are nothing more than marks. In ebooks they are information that is electronically extracted and stored for us, made ready for use in other media. In this way ebooks help us easily gather important information so we can more simply put it to use.

Portability. We would consider it absurd that a personal library would now be a collection of physical objects that are heavy, bulky, and nearly impossible to move as a collection. Ebooks allow us to have a library that is completely portable. We can take thousands or tens of thousands of books with us anywhere and at any time, all on a single, inexpensive device. They add no weight and they add no bulk.

Security. We might hear about a person who lost his library to a natural disaster and blame it on the medium. We might say something like, “That’s what happens when you commit to paper books. You’re only ever one fire or flood away from losing it all.” Physical objects are always in danger of some kind (see Matthew 6:19-20). With ebooks our collection is always available and always backed up, endlessly duplicated for our convenience.

I know there are many more comparisons we could make and in many cases they would highlight the superiority of printed books—proprietary or defunct formats in ebooks, for example, or the ability to have an author personalize her book by signing her name in it. But really, this is the point. No medium is perfect, not even the beloved book. To properly assess a medium, we need to first own our tendency to compare it unfairly to the one that is currently dominant. (Do you remember people laughing at Steve Jobs and his iPhone and saying that no one would ever buy a phone that has no physical keyboard?)

For the first time in 500 years the printed book has found a worthy rival in the ebook. One will eventually inevitably emerge the winner. For what it’s worth, I think it will be a protracted battle that will eventually see the ebook vanquish its predecessor. Until then, we all have the joy and responsibility of assessing both, appreciating both for their varied strengths and weaknesses, and enjoying both grow stronger through the competition.

Image credit

A Time Like This
June 06, 2016

There are days when it is hard to read the news. I open my browser and see another set of headlines, I open my blog reader and see another collection of stories, and I despair. If it is not wars and rumors of war, it is other indicators that this world is sick and dying and in its death throes. I enjoy Al Mohler’s daily podcast and often listen to it while preparing and eating my breakfast, but a scan of recent headlines reminds me why I sometimes just want to climb straight back in bed: “Dolls for boys? Christians must recognize that even the toy aisle reflects a worldview.” “For celebrities, saving the elephants is the latest fad. Unborn babies? Not so much.” “When it comes to sexuality, what happens when a society’s only moral factor is consent?”  

I am not convinced that things are a whole lot worse now than they were tens or hundreds or thousands of years ago. Rather, we have learned to move information faster and farther while at the same time making the world grow smaller. This has left us trapped in what Neil Postman told us is as an endless cycle of cynicism and impotence where we learn all kinds of news and information but have no ability to do anything about it. We hear it all, we feel it all, but we can take no action. All that’s left to do is despair.

Whether or not the world is worse today than it once was is a matter for historians to debate, I suppose. What is clear enough to any observant Christian is that it is bad right now. Really bad. The world seems hell bent on bringing hell to earth. Millions of unborn children are viciously slaughtered in an infanticidal holocaust that now spans the globe. Marriage is being redefined so broadly that the very institution has nearly lost its meaning and significance. The good plan and purpose of God displayed in male and female is denied while transgenderism and androgyny are celebrated. The politicians we admire are belittled and beaten by ones who frighten and grieve us. Science proclaims that this world came into being without design or designer, that it exists without purpose, and that it will end with a meaningless fizzle. It’s hard to read it all and it’s agonizing to feel it all.

Locally, children I love and pray for are identifying themselves and their sexuality in ways that I know will lead only to their harm. Provincially, our Premier is planning to redefine the very notion of parenthood while at the same time increasing oversight of Christian education and homeschooling. Federally, our Prime Minister is advancing legislation to increase and celebrate the rights of transgender individuals while inevitably decreasing the freedom of anyone else to critique or deny such identifications. Everywhere I look it looks like evil is winning.

Is evil winning? I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Not when I break from the bad news to focus on the good news. The despair retreats in the face of truth. The truth I preach to myself again and again is this: The gospel was given for a time like this.

When God gave us the gospel, he knew the times that would come. He knew that just months after the culmination of the gospel in the cross of Christ people would turn on Christians and begin to persecute them. But that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that. When those early believers scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria they took the gospel with them. They proclaimed it, they lived it, they fed off of it, and it sustained them. Later the whole Roman Empire turned on those Christians, but that was okay, because the gospel was for a time like that too. Through times of persecution the gospel spread to new lands and took deeper root in the lands in which it had already been planted. The blood of the martyrs proved to be seed that sprang up into a great gospel harvest. And so it has gone in age after age and era after era.

The gospel is for times of hardship and persecution, but also for times of moral confusion. The church in Thessalonica was unsure how to live for Christ in a culture that both tolerated and celebrated every kind of sexual sin and peccadillo. But the gospel was for a time like that, and Paul reminded them of the instructions he had given them through the gospel of the Lord Jesus: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). If they would just understand the gospel and live in consistency to it, the confusion would give way to clarity.

The church in Corinth was allowing full-out sexual perversion to infiltrate its church and even its membership, but Paul did not panic, because the gospel was for a time like that. He reminded that church of the gospel and their new unity with Christ, he insisted that such immoral behavior was incongruous with people saved by such a gospel, and told them to live as they had been called. Their problem was not first addressed by panic or prohibitions but by better understanding the meaning, purpose, and freedom of the gospel. It was the gospel they needed! It was for them, for there, and for then.

The gospel was not given to a world without sin, without confusion, without difficulty and persecution—that world needs no gospel. The gospel was given to a world like this one, a world marked by every kind of pain and perversity. This world needs a gospel and, praise God!, he gave us one. He gave us the gospel of his Son. No matter how bad the news around us gets, that good news gospel is better. It was given for a time like this.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Peaceful Polemics Online
June 03, 2016

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This wonderfully pessimistic French phrase roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It points us to one of the undeniable facts about life in this world: that though times and contexts change, humanity remains the same.

Today, we find ourselves at a fascinating point in history, a point when we are witnessing a radical shift in the way we communicate. We are transitioning from old media to new media, from words on printed pages to words on pixelated screens, from words spoken face-to-face to words spoken to cameras and delivered instantly through screens ten thousand miles away. Such seismic shifts have occurred only a few times in history, and each shift has been accompanied by turmoil, by a time of learning to adapt to new abilities and new realities.

With this newest era and its groundbreaking technologies have come new capabilities as we carry out our age-old responsibility to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). God has called each one of His children to proclaim and defend the gospel. He has called each one of us to stand for truth and to stand against those who tamper with it or who outright deny it. Paul states:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:10–13)

This should be easier than ever in an age of widespread and instant communications. But with new capabilities come new temptations and new dangers.

If history were to end tomorrow, we would probably look back on the era of digital communications as an era of chaos. We have proven our deep depravity in our ability to speak too quickly, too strongly, and too harshly. All that Jesus and James and Solomon warned us about the power of the tongue can be extended to the power of our fingers as they dance over our keyboards and our thumbs as they tap out messages on our phones. Out of the overflow of the heart the fingers type.

God calls us to be people who speak the truth, but who speak the truth in love. Ephesians 4:15–16 illustrates:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Even as we contend for the faith, we are to contend in love. Even as we speak out in defense of the One who has saved us, we must speak with patience, with respect, with self-control. We have proven ourselves both willing and able to speak, but we have a long way to go to prove that we can do it all in love.

Many years ago, John Stott pondered Paul’s command to the church in Ephesus that they were to speak the truth in love. Paul called on those Christians to prove their spiritual maturity by their desire and their ability to maintain unity even through disagreement, even through debate. The way to prove the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, wrote Paul, is not only to speak true words and not only to speak loving words, but to do both at the same time and in the same measure. Stott’s warning from his commentary on Ephesians is timeless, transcending all technological eras: “Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth.” I fear that for too many of us, our words are hard, untouched by the softening quality of love. And yet we gain nothing if we speak love at the expense of truth, if our love is untouched by the strengthening power of truth.

Stott rightly points out:

The apostle calls us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself “the spirit of truth,” and his first fruit is “love.” There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity.

Our fast-paced, always-on, digital world brings us unparalleled opportunities to speak. It allows us to extend our voices around the world with the simple click of a single button. But it also offers unparalleled opportunities to do so poorly, to do so in ways that deny rather than display the fruit of the Spirit. Christian, God has called you to speak His truth, to contend for the faith. He has provided new and amazing media ideally suited to do this very thing. Your challenge and mine—the challenge of the church here in the twenty-first century—is the challenge to speak that truth in love, to contend with an equal measure of firmness and gentleness.

This article was originally written for Tabletalk Magazine. Image credit: Shutterstock

Why I Am Not Liberal
June 02, 2016

I am now well into a series titled “Why I Am Not…” In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why am I confident in my most deeply held beliefs? These are the questions I’m attempting to answer and I am doing it by looking at some of the beliefs I have weighed but found wanting. I have already told why I am not atheist and why I am not Roman Catholic. Today I want to tell why I am not liberal.

I need to define what I mean by the term. Liberalism arose as professed Christians struggled to reconcile modern minds with ancient beliefs. They found apparent conflicts between science and Scripture, for example, and grappled with how to reconcile the two. Christians had traditionally professed that the inerrant and infallible Word of God is the “norming norm,” the standard that stands above all others. Liberals, though, began to place far greater emphasis on the human mind and were willing to overrule long-held interpretations of Scripture in order to make peace with modern discoveries and sensibilities. At heart, then, liberalism was a matter of authority—the authority of the Bible against the authority of the human mind. One would have to take precedence over the other.

While the terminology of theological liberalism has faded, the spirit of liberalism lives on. To give one ready example, the emerging church movement was little more than modern liberalism masquerading in postmodern clothing. And it is in this context that I first encountered it. Like so many others, I found myself investigating Reformed theology at the very time that the emerging church was in its ascendency. Each of these competing movements had its own attraction, yet they were incompatible because of their opposing views of Scripture.

I believe that the Reformed and Emerging movements each gained prominence as an alternative to the church growth movement. Church growth had dominated the evangelical landscape for many years but many people had become disillusioned with its brand of big-box Christianity, with so much emphasis on form and style but so little on content and orthodoxy. Both movements offered a compelling alternative. The Reformed movement offered historic Protestant theology carried through expositional preaching while the Emerging movement offered relational authenticity carried through community and advocacy. Both were attractive to people weary of yet another program, yet another “next big thing.”

The church I attended at the time was once described by a sarcastic visitor as “just another Saddleback/Willow Creek knockoff,” though that meant nothing to me at the time. As the years went by, the church began to make use of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos which had begun as clever theological inquiry but which soon tiptoed awfully close to liberalism. Some of the church leaders began to read and distribute books by Brian McLaren and other Emergent writers. At the same time, I learned that a close friend was dabbling in older forms of liberalism, first reading books he had borrowed from the local public library and then eventually full-out revoking the faith.

Between the church and my friend I had reasons to investigate liberalism in both its classic and contemporary forms. I did so by reading books. I read James White, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Michel Horton, Wayne Grudem, and others as well. Few if any of these books dealt with liberalism head-on, but they didn’t need to. These authors presented a united front when it came to a theology of the Bible, and between them they renewed and reinforced my understanding of Scripture’s inerrancy, infallibility, clarity, necessity, sufficiency, and authority. I grew in my conviction that the Bible is inerrant, that, as Grudem says, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Or, even better, as the Bible says, “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5) and “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Following behind the doctrine of inerrancy were the doctrine of sufficiency (that God has said through Scripture all that he needs to say in order for us to honor and obey him), the doctrine of clarity (that the central message of the Bible and the appropriate response to it are made clear in its pages), and the doctrine of necessity (that we are utterly dependent upon God’s revelation of himself). And from there it was but a short step to the sweet doctrine of the Bible’s authority (that “to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God”). I saw that God was calling me to willingly, freely, joyfully, and immediately acknowledge and obey him by acknowledging and obeying his Word.

When I turned my eye back to the emerging church or back to my friend’s classic liberalism, I saw that at the center of it all stood a denial of the authority of the Word of God. These people read the Bible and preached the Bible and wrote about the Bible and professed to honor the Bible, but all the while they denied the full authority of the Bible. They accepted God’s Word on their own terms. But God gives us no such option. To take the Bible at any terms but its own is to reject the Bible altogether. 

I am not liberal and never will be. Instead, I am evangelical, joyfully affirming the authority of the Bible while attempting to live according to it. My investigations into liberalism led me out of the church I was part of and into a church that was both evangelical and Reformed. And that serves as an appropriate into my next article in which I will discuss why I am not Arminian.

The Transgender Conversation You Need to Have With Your Family
May 31, 2016

A friend of mine told me about her recent experience in an airport security line. She was dutifully passing through the metal detector when she heard a beep and was told she would need the pat-down procedure. It is the right of the traveler to have that procedure performed by someone of the same gender and so, as per protocol, the call went out for a female officer to assist. But as the pat-down began, my friend realized that the officer was undeniably biologically male though identifying as female. She did not know what to do or say, so simply allowed the pat-down to proceed. As she walked away, she realized that she was more surprised than offended. It had just never occurred to her that she might unexpectedly find herself being frisked by a man whom she had been told was a woman.

As you know, new laws are allowing transgender people to craft their own identity and then to have society treat them accordingly. A biological male who identifies as a woman is allowed to use the bathroom or locker room associated with his new identity. He is also granted the right to be considered female. In this way sex and gender are being deliberately disconnected so that words like “man” and “woman” have no necessary correlation to “male” and “female” or “masculine” and “feminine.” And, for that reason, we find ourselves facing new scenarios like the one my friend described. However, such situations are rare because transgenderism is rare.

But there is something that, to my mind, is of greater and wider concern. It is the fact that the same laws that allow transgender people to craft their own identity allow expansive rights to anyone else. The same laws that allow transgender persons into their preferred bathroom or locker room allow everybody else in as well—and to let them in without question or censure. Societal pressure and new legislation permits people to use the bathroom or locker room most closely associated with their gender identity, but do not allow anyone else to question that identity. This opens up the potential for some very difficult or even dangerous situations.

TIME covered one of them in an article titled Even in Liberal Communities, Transgender Bathroom Laws Worry Parents. The article tells of a pool in New York City where a man began to routinely change in the women’s locker room. This room was simultaneously used by young girls preparing for swim practice and they were made uncomfortable by his presence, his nudity, and his obvious masculinity—there was no hint about him that he identified as female. But there was nothing the pool employees could do because policy does not allow them to question him in any way. So the girls crowded together in the single-use family change room instead. Similarly, in Seattle a man recently deliberately disrobed in front of young girls. “Officials said he had made no attempt to present himself as a woman, nor to identify as transgender when he checked in. By all appearances, he was a man.” Yet a spokesman said, “We have guidelines that allow transgender individuals to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.” Those same guidelines do not allow them to ask for proof that the person does, indeed, identify in that way. Thus, he is allowed to undress in the room of his choice regardless of whether he actually considers himself transgender. Looking at such stories—and there are a growing number like them—, we come to realize that the transgender conversation has brought with it a host of others. This is the transgender conversation you need to have with your family—the conversation about what has come along with transgenderism.

Jennifer Oshman recently wrote about moving to a nation in Europe and being unprepared for some of what she and her family encountered there. They quickly learned that locker rooms in their new home were governed by very different norms. “While the locker rooms at the high school were indeed gender separate, we were surprised to find that locker rooms at local gyms were not. Rather one large locker room served both genders. You can imagine our surprise when my husband entered the door marked for men and my daughters and I entered the door marked for women and we ended up in the same room, surveying people of both genders and all ages changing in one place.” They could not run away from such situations so had to learn to navigate them well.

We found ourselves in multiple situations that we could not change or even complain about. We had to be creative in how we handled them—wanting at once to be wise stewards of our daughters’ hearts, while at the same time not wanting to drive a wedge between ourselves and the culture we had come to love and desired to serve. This dual goal is really at the heart of any Christian parent in any scenario.

She and her family were forced to learn to navigate a foreign culture. And they did. They learned to navigate it through both protection and education. As far as possible they protected their girls from danger by accompanying them into difficult situations and, for those times they could not offer direct protection, they taught them appropriate attitudes and actions.

You and I, too, are now navigating an increasingly foreign culture, a culture that has suddenly swept into being around us. If we are going to live well in this culture, we need to think through certain scenarios and consider how we will respond to them. As parents, we need to consider scenarios our children may face and teach them how to respond as well. These are not just conversations about transgenderism and scenarios that may unfold as we encounter and interact with transgender people, but conversations about the scenarios that may accompany it. Such scenarios will be different for each family in each context, but here are a few examples, none of which is entirely unlikely.

What will you do if you walk into a locker room at your pool or gym and come face to face with a naked person of the opposite sex? You may not know in that moment if that person is transgender, if that person is confused, or if that person is a predator. What will you want your spouse to do if he or she encounters this situation? Will you shrug it off? Will you walk out? Will you bring it to the attention of the management? What will you expect management to do?

What will you expect your son to do if a transgender student or team member insists on showering with him and with the other boys (or your daughter if a boy insists on showering with her)? What will you expect your daughter to do if she goes into the locker room at the pool and sees a man lounging naked by his locker (a scenario that unfolded not long ago for parents in Olympia)? Or what if she is out with friends, ducks out of the movie theatre to use the bathroom, and finds herself walking in side by side with a bearded man?

What will you do when you are told you need that TSA pat-down and they dispatch an officer who is the opposite gender to you but claiming to be the same? What if it’s your body-conscious teenaged daughter who is about to be patted down by a person claiming to be female but who is sporting a beard?

I know as I write these questions that some will accuse me of fear-mongering and, inevitably, of bigotry. But hear me: My concern is that we are hurtling full-speed into untested territory and we and our children are the ones who will need to figure out how to navigate it well. As we do that we may find ourselves in situations that are trying or even dangerous. We just don’t know what our world will look like when we begin to break down the barriers between sex and gender. Again, the very same laws that allow transgender rights extend those rights to anyone who wishes to take advantage of them. We simply don’t know who will take advantage of them to take advantage of others. We just don’t know. To carry out our mandate as parents, we need to offer our children both protection and education. We owe it to them and we owe it to the One who created them. We need to have this conversation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 29, 2016

This week I received an unusual number of letters to the editor, most of them dedicated to two topics: Catholicism and ad-blockers. In both cases there were many who agreed with me and many who did not. And in every case I am grateful to those who wrote. I genuinely enjoy receiving these letters to the editor.

Comments on Why I Am Not Roman Catholic

As a practicing Roman Catholic I would be first to say that yes, Catholicism has its excesses. However your statement that the Catholic Church does not “have” the Gospel is wrong. Without the church there would be no Gospel. The church decided which books were canonical and which were not. I would like to write briefly on why I am not a fundamentalist: I believe God gave us a heart to know God and a brain to know everything else. The Bible, when it is teaching, is teaching of God’s abiding love. In my view the Bible is not abrogating everything our God-given intelligence tells us. It has nothing to say about, anthropology, astronomy, history, physics, chemistry, medicine etc. To say that it does is to elevate the Book(s) in an idolatrous fashion. I cannot be a fundamentalist because my brain says “sort out the lesson this prehistoric myth is teaching.” It tells me “This is allegory,” “this is hyperbole” etc. I cannot be a fundamentalist because the God of the literal Bible believer is too small.
—Salvator A, Pittsburgh PA


In reference to the veneration of saints and idolatry, I must point out that from the pulpit, Catholic priests have condemned the worship of Mary and the saints. What we do is pay honor (not worship) to very honorable “friends.” We know these saints to be in heaven and so we show them true friendship in the hope that they will, in their turn, advocate for us in Heaven and ask God to pour out His grace and blessing. All this that we believe is scriptural, but Protestants removed 7-½ books from the Bible to make their man-based faith more consistent to their preaching. The Catholic Church keeps excellent records and traditions that lead back to Peter, whereas other faiths may be traced through many branches back to some troubled man who denied Christ’s Catholic Church. Thank you for your time, sir.
—Adam D, Forest Grove, OR

Tim: These comments are representative of letters I received from Roman Catholics. I have a number of replies, of course, but will not make them here and now. In short, I’ve rarely if ever had a Roman Catholic suggest that a Protestant actually understands their theology. Instead, I always hear this: You got your conclusion wrong because you haven’t properly understood.


In your article you said: “I joyfully affirm, of course, that there are true believers within Catholicism and that what is true of Rome’s official doctrine is not necessarily true of all of her adherents.” My remark to this statement is this: You got to be kidding! How can someone who believes in the mass and confession be saved? And don’t tell me they are Catholics even though they do not believe in the mass and confession. My wife was one for 20 years and I have dealt with hundreds of them in my life time along the Gulf Coast. I have never known of one person in the Catholic church that did not believe in the mass or the confession. This article gives people the false impression that a person can sit and listen to the false gospel of Catholicism and be saved. How can anyone be saved by believing a false gospel which is the only gospel the Catholic church preaches?
—Art W, Magnolia Springs, AL


Good and helpful article - and one that needs to be discussed more among protestants. I have a question/concern about this portion at the end: “I joyfully affirm, of course, that there are true believers within Catholicism and that what is true of Rome’s official doctrine is not necessarily true of all of her adherents. Yet the salvation of these brothers and sisters has come despite the teachings of the church, not through them.” I struggle with this. I fear that developing this sort of an attitude may prevent us from evangelizing them. Also—in our modern society, there is just so much information available that people—who are truly seeking God I think, will know of the difference. Would you extend the same sort of grace to someone who is involved in Mormonism or Jehovah Witnesses? Could they be saved and ignorant of what their religion teaches as well? I’m more comfortable noting that God will save his elect, and that he draws his elect to himself from all walks of life. In that, if there are elect numbered in the church of Rome right now, I would expect him to draw them out of her and bring them to a fellowship where God is worshiped in truth.
—Paul A, Oakley, CA

Tim: In this case I was quoting pastor Leonardo De Chirico, and it is important to read his comments to the end: “These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.” In other words, Roman Catholics who are saved within the Catholic Church will have to question whether they can remain in that church. Implicit in his statement is the understanding that they will soon see that they cannot. There is a vast difference between a true believer who has come to faith in the Catholic Church and who is beginning to wrestle with what he has always assumed to be true and one who, on the basis of knowledge, denies the gospel of grace alone by faith alone.

Comments on Why I Don’t Use An Ad Blocker

I love the variety of topics that you tackle. The subject of Ad Blockers is a interesting one and I completely understand your perspective that we have an obligation to view ads when we enjoy the content of a site. Otherwise, it is like we are stealing. I have used an Ad Blocker that I feel addresses the issue well. It is called Ad Blocker Plus. I started using it in addition to filtering and accountability software to help my family and I with purity issues. What I appreciate about this product is that it allows and in fact encourages ads which are meet certain guidelines. It blocks ads that include video, flashy banners, pop-ups, pop-unders etc. I think this is a good approach of allowing advertising content that is appropriate. You might want to look at their website at adblockplus.org for more information.
—Anthony W, Claremont, CA


It seems that the premise of your article about Ad Blockers is open to serious critique. You write, “I believe that when I visit a web site I am entering into an implicit agreement with the owner of that site.” You assume this is to be true (mostly) without defending it. I was uncomfortable when I first read that statement, and as I’ve pondered it it, I wondered whether you apply this consistently with everything supported by advertising? Do you ever walk away from or turn down the volume during breaks in a TV program? Do you ever switch radio stations when the music stops? Do you ever skip over the ad pages in the magazine found in the seat back pocket on an airplane?

Being impractical or inconsistently applied doesn’t automatically imply that your premise is wrong, but it does lead to me to more quickly question whether it’s true. It seems to me that people ignoring (in one way or another) advertising is inherent in the very idea of advertising. Systematically ignoring the ads seems no different to me in substance than ignoring them on an occasional basis, or when its convenient for me. Your article was thought provoking, but in the end, I don’t find it compelling because I think our premise of a “contract” is flawed.
—Josh F, Charlotte, NC

Tim: I know that my approach is open to critique. I even made sure to say that this was a matter of conscience and that others may disagree (or may have a better-informed conscience). I ask only this: If everyone blocks ads on their favorite web sites, how will those sites survive? The fact we must deal with is that ad blockers remove or decrease a site owner’s ability to support his site. If everyone blocks my ads, my advertisers will see that no one clicks those ads and stop running them. Then I will not be able to support the bills associated with the site. Sooner or later we will come up with better approaches to monetization (and perhaps I’ve already done this through sponsored posts) but in the meantime banner ads are a necessity.


Thank you for your reasonable approach to hosting ads. I wish other sites followed your principles, but the truth is that the ad networks out there can be used to serve malware. Today, ad blocking is as necessary as anti-virus. However, you are right in that many sites need the ad revenue to exist, but there are more options than ads. If a site doesn’t offer a subscription service, it is possible to use Google Contributor to pay sites their ad revenue without being served ads. This is not the right answer for everyone, but there are more options than blocking ads and strolling through the wild west of ad networks.
—Bill G, Batavia, IL

Tim: I agree it is possible, but it is very, very difficult to convince people to pay for content they are accustomed to getting for free. How many sites have tried a subscriber model and then had to abandon it? Very few have actually succeeded.


There is another side to the ad-blocker question. There have been quite a few instances of malicious ads — ads serving malware — being unwittingly served by even highly reputable websites like the New York Times, the BBC, MSN, and AOL. (Example). While I am generally sympathetic to your implied-contract argument, I don’t think that exposure to malware is part of that bargain! Safer computing strategies (like keeping all software up to date) can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk. And I’d argue that there is a moral interest in, for instance, not risking one’s computer to become part of a botnet (a network of malware-controlled computers that usually performs various evil deeds). I don’t know what the right answer to this problem is, only that it is not as straightforward as your article seems to imply. Of course, one can (and probably should) “whitelist” ads on certain websites at which the site owner is hand-selecting ads rather than working through an automated ad network. But that is quite different from not using an ad blocker at all.
—Jimmy S, Chicago, IL


Good article. But I don’t believe you. You don’t block ads because you have to do yourself exactly what the ads you would be blocking do: Sell stuff! It’s a tough conundrum. As a Christian author, you want to be humble and famous (ok popular). But you really can’t do both. So you rationalize. It’s an amazing thing Satan has done: created a way for Christianity to get better known by drawing people away from Jesus and closer to people who are becoming more popular by bemoaning the very thing they are so good at doing! BTW, I really like you and your stuff!
—Joel L, Viera, FL

Tim: It sounds like Joel has access to my innermost self and sees things there that even I don’t! What a remarkable gift.

Comments on A Call for Plodding Bloggers

Your recent article, A Call For Plodding Bloggers found me at just the right time. Admittedly, when I’m focused on social shares, page views and subscriber counts like all of the blogging coaches teach, I’m not at my best. But your words about using the gift of my blog for the good of the Kingdom hit home. I’m reminded that I write first to bring glory to God, and if only one person receives something from it then it’s all worth it. I’m encouraged by your article to press on, and I thank you for that. You’ll find me out here, plodding along!
—Gene W, Monument, CO

Tim: Wonderful. I’ll be plodding along beside you.