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Stop Slandering Public School Teachers
March 22, 2016

We are now in our twelfth year of public schooling, and between our three children we have totaled twenty-two school years of public education. This has taken place in a limited context, of course: one primary school and one high school in one school district in one town in one province in one country. I have written elsewhere about how and why we made the decision to educate our children this way and do not wish to cover that ground again today. What I do wish to do, though, is to reflect on the way that Christians speak about public schools and, even more so, about public school teachers. The last ten years have made me realize that many Christians speak unfairly about public school teachers. They may even speak slanderously.

To slander someone is to “make a false spoken statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone.”1 It is a deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentation that does damage to a person’s reputation. I have learned a lot about this sin from R.C. Sproul of all people. Several times Dr. Sproul has written books about Catholicism and he has often said that Protestants are prone to slander Catholics by inadequately understanding and unfairly representing their beliefs. Protestants tend to say things like, “We believe that justification is by faith but Roman Catholics say it is by works. We believe it is by grace but Roman Catholics say it is by merit. We believe it is through Christ but Roman Catholics believe it is through one’s own righteousness.” But as Sproul points out, “These are terrible slanders against Rome” because from “the sixteenth century to today, the Roman Catholic Church has said that justification requires faith, the grace of God, and the work of Jesus Christ.”2 The real debate is not over faith, but over faith alone. To right this injustice he has attempted to make a careful study of Catholicism, to represent it fairly, and to critique it for what it actually is. In this way he has modeled fair engagement.

When it comes to education in North America, the tides in the Reformed world have shifted away from public education and toward Christian or home schooling. The decision on education is for each family to make on the basis of beliefs, conscience, and context. I am convinced that any of the options are in play, at least for our family, and at various times we have seriously considered all three. To this point we have maintained public schooling.

However, if we were to begin again today, I am quite sure we would not enroll our children in public schools. What concerns me is that our decision would not be based on conviction but fear, fear generated by statements we have heard from others about public schools and, in particular, about public school teachers. Over the years we have encountered hundreds of statements about the dangers of such teachers. We have been assured that public schools are the breeding ground for every kind of social evil, that they are the lair of predatory teachers, that they are full of tenured and unionized employees who care nothing for children. We have heard that public school teachers care only for ideology, that they will allow no leeway for Christian beliefs, that they will do their utmost to undermine the hard training of parents who attempt to raise their children with biblical ideals. In many Christian circles, public school teachers are made out to be the enemies of the faith.

Our experience of public school teachers has been far different and far more positive. And I don’t think we are the exception, not from what I’ve heard when speaking to people in my church, in my city, in my family, and even as I’ve spoken to many of you at conferences or churches or events. Of course some have had bad experiences, but not all. Not nearly all.

Yes, we have bumped into one or two unskilled or uncaring teachers over those twenty-two school years. But on the whole our children’s teachers have been a delight and they have gladly partnered with us in the education of our children. They have brought skill, passion, and empathy to their job. On a few occasions we have approached the teachers with cares or concerns related to what the children will be learning and we have found them eager to discuss these things and eager to work with us, not against us. They have given us detailed outlines of all they intend to teach so we have had all the relevant information and been able to make informed decisions. If we have wanted to keep our children out of a class or two, the teachers have been glad to accommodate our requests without protest and without shaming our children. One teacher even skipped a whole section of a curriculum because I expressed discomfort with it. If we have approached the teachers with concerns related to interpersonal conflicts between our children and others, the teachers have been eager and tender in helping the children get along. Academic concerns have been met with extra time, extra tutoring, extra care.

When a high school teacher showed a video that was condescending toward a particular Christian belief, my son went to him after class to explain that he is a Christian who actually believes that. The teacher then modified the lesson to ensure it would no longer disparage such beliefs. When my son’s pro-life presentation caused students to complain to a school administrator, the administrator assured him he had freedom to express himself in such ways. One teacher has asked me to speak to his class about pastoring and I’ve also been invited by a teacher to speak at the school’s Christian club complete with an announcement that invited the whole student body to come and hear me lead a Bible study. (There are other things I would love to write but would not do so without permission of the teachers involved.)

We have consistently experienced teachers who have gone out of their way to be helpful to us and who have gone above and beyond to express respect to us and love to our children. They have allowed us and our children to believe what we believe without interference. A couple have told us how our children stand out because of the kindness and respect they have learned from the Bible. One teacher wrote us to say, “If my children grow up to be like yours, I will be so pleased.” They have expressed admiration because of what we believe, not despite it! The reality has been so different from the caricature. The things we keep hearing from Christians as they speak about public school teachers does not describe reality—our reality, at least. We know now that so many of these statements are unfair and untrue. They are slanderous. Yet they come from Christians.

Now, again, we represent the experience of just one family and two schools. And maybe things are changing so that there is a new boldness among teachers to speak out against Christians and their beliefs. But if so, we have not seen it. In fact, we have seen the very opposite, that the spirit of tolerance in the schools does not shut out Christians but extends to them. Our experience has been that God’s common grace, his love for all humanity, extends even to the classrooms of the nearby public schools.

So how do I wrap this up? Let me affirm once again that I believe home schooling and Christian schooling are perfectly valid options and in many cases the best option. It is entirely possible they are options we will eventually embrace for our children as we continue to decide and discern what is best for them. What I have written here is not meant to be a defense of public education and certainly not of all public education. Rather, it is a plea for Christians to speak the truth and to speak it in love. It is a plea to speak well of those who do their job well. If we are going to argue against public education, let’s do so on the basis of reality rather than fear and fiction.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Here at the Dawn of the Revolution
March 21, 2016

As Christians, we look with ultimate hope to our ultimate future—the sure hope that we will be with God forever in a world free of sin and all its ugly effects. Christ will return, and what He has prepared for us will be more glorious than all we can ask or even imagine. It’s the immediate future that causes us anxiety, though. Our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren—these trouble us and cause us to fear.

We live in a world where one of the few constants in life is change. Yet, God has given us the ability, the desire, and the mandate to change and shape the world around us. Since the beginning, man has been doing this by creating and implementing new technologies. Technologies are good in that they allow us to carry out our God-given mandate (Gen. 4). But every technology also brings risk; it brings change. Innovations subtly shift our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. They lead us to form new customs and new habits. We have an uneasy relationship with technology, since we create technologies in our image and over time they tend to return the favor.

Historically, the pace of technological change has been slow. But over the past five hundred years that pace has consistently increased. Today we can hardly keep up. By the time we purchase and enjoy a great new gadget, the next one (and the one after that) is already being finalized and perfected in the labs. The newest, greatest, and most expensive device is built with a planned obsolescence that may be only three or four years away. It seems like every year or two we need to prepare our families and our churches for another big shift, another great innovation, that will call them to learn new skills and adapt to new realities.

With all of the changes—not to mention the speed at which they occur—we can develop a deep uncertainty about the future. Whatever we know about our current situation, the future will be very different. We know that we cannot predict future changes with any degree of accuracy. After all, the technologies we consider so normal today existed only in the realm of science fiction just twenty short years ago. And as a result, many Christians have a nascent fear of the future, wondering what it may hold both for them and their families.

Understanding the past allows us to identify trends and to see that even though the pace may have changed, the pattern has not. Seeing history through the lens of God’s Word comforts us with the sure knowledge that all change is unfolding only and exactly within God’s good and perfect will.

The history of communication is especially compelling. Consider, for example, ancient Roman roads. Roman roads were a marvelous innovation that held the empire together. They were built to quickly transport mighty armies across the empire, to expand Roman influence to new lands, and to crush any hint of rebellion in lands already conquered. And, of course, they were built to consolidate the empire through trade and communications. They were incredibly effective, and Rome’s empire thrived for centuries. But the very same roads that carried soldiers also carried the first Christian missionaries to their destinations all over the Mediterranean. The technology that was meant to extend Rome’s kingdom was used to extend God’s kingdom. And only one of those kingdoms continues to exist today.

Consider the book as well. The book—printed pages bound between two covers—is a relatively new innovation, a new technology. For the vast majority of human history, the book as such did not exist. King David never read a book. Jesus never read a book. They read scrolls. The book as we know it today is a product of developments in the centuries after Christ’s life. First the codex, an ancient form of the modern book, was invented, and then the printing press was invented many centuries later. Yet the book has become so deeply embedded in our society that we cannot imagine the world without it. We even call the Bible a book, as if it had always existed in this format.

It seems comical now, but when the book was introduced to society, people feared it, just as they had feared the rise of writing centuries earlier. People feared that the book would take ideas too far, too fast. They tied knowledge so closely with memorization that they feared the ramifications of recording words on paper instead of in human minds. After all, why would we ever want to store something in our memories if we can store it on paper? And yet today we can see how the book was used to record God’s Word and to spread it across the world. We can see that it sparked a great Reformation. We can see that it sparked revival and awakening. We can see that the Bible quickly became the best-selling book of all time. That technology changed the world. God used that technology for His own purposes.

When the radio was introduced, many people feared it. They feared its intrusion into their homes and families. They feared the consequences of families gathering in the living room to listen to the radio instead of sitting on the front porch to socialize with neighbors. They feared the fast-paced flow of information and the news that came from so far outside their local context.

But again, we can see how God used this technology for His own glory. Countless people have come to faith in Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel on the radio. Countless more have been encouraged in their Christian walk as they have listened to Renewing Your Mind or Grace to You or a host of other great programs. Even today, when radio is regarded as an antiquated technology, it continues to make a deep impact across the globe, and it continues to be used by God to carry out the Great Commission.

Television provides another ready example. There is no doubt that television transformed the family and brought with it changing morals. Yet Christians quickly identified how television could be used to transmit the Good News to the lost and to encourage those who had already been saved. Today we take it for granted that we can watch our favorite teachers and preachers on a screen. It is yet another new technology that brought both risk and great benefits as Christians saw the potential and used it to God’s glory.

Today we are at the dawn of the digital revolution, and we are grappling with many of the very same fears people faced at the dawn of every other communications revolution. We fear the ubiquity of digital devices; we fear living so much of our lives in the glow of little screens; we fear the consequences of recording our thoughts and our lives in apps. But even now we can have hope. We can look to history to see how God has used every technology to carry out his purposes and to do His will. We can look to God’s Word to see that He works all things to His glory. We can have firm confidence that He is over and above and working through all of these things.

It is good and wise for us, as Christians, to consider deeply all of the change going on around us—and within us. It is good for us to consider what happens when the “Good Book” becomes the “Good App,” or when so many of the things we used to do face-to-face become things we do through bits and bytes. It is good for us to keep a wary eye on new technologies and to introduce them to our families and our churches only after due consideration of both their risks and their benefits. We acknowledge that both we and our technologies exist in this sin-stained world, so we should examine them with discernment and consider all we stand to gain or lose. But even as we act with this kind of wisdom, we can act with confidence. We have no reason to fear.

We do not know the future, but as the saying goes, we do know the One who holds the future. And not only do we know that, we know what God is accomplishing in history. We know the end to which God is directing history. We know who will bring this world’s history to its beautiful conclusion.

Originally published in Tabletalk.

March 19, 2016

It was something of a quiet week for letters to the editor, and this despite writing an article on Roman Catholicism, typically rather a hot topic. Here are a few of the noteworthy letters:

Comments on What Does It Take To Be Made a Saint?

I am puzzled by three of your statements. “According to Catholic doctrine, dead saints benefit the living faithful by being available to them for intercession.” “We are saints who have no need of saints.” “We are the saints of God who have no need for the intercession of saints who have gone before.”

Surely Jesus taught us that He is God of the living, not of the dead (Mk 12:27). How, then, do you declare those who have gone on before to be “dead?” Surely Paul taught us, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor 12:20-21) How, then, do you declare to those Christians living in the presence of God that you have no need of them? And does James’ teaching count for nothing? “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16) How can you say we ought not ask the saints for their intercession? They are certainly more righteous than I. I know you do not believe this Tim, but your aversion to Catholicism has caused you to make statements that sound awfully a lot like a denial of the resurrection of the dead and of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in which we are all members of one another and of which Christ is the Head.
—Marcus G, Princeton, NJ

***

I couldn’t help but notice you repeated a common error, that us Catholics offer God and Mary worship (and the saints lesser worship). True we do offer God worship, as it is right and just, the multiple passages from Scripture during Mass remind us of that. But we never have, and never will, offer Mary and the Saints worship. The Catholic Church has always upheld all the teachings of Christ, not picking and choosing whatever happens to feel right at the moment.

Have you never asked your earthly mother or friend for a favour? If Christ is truely one’s brother, why is not Mary one’s mother? It’s all in the Bible. She is the only one who is spoken of as having kept His words in her heart. He even praises her for it in Luke. The Magnificat is very enlightening.

As to being saved by faith alone, Saint James the Apostle epistles are worthwhile reading. Douy Rhiems Bible is the most accurate translation out there in English. As a friend once quoted “God chose to come to us through a Virgin. If I would follow His example I must do the same.” And ” don’t be afraid to love Mother Mary, after all you can never love her more then Christ did. ” After all, we can’t limit God to our limited minds.

May the Blessed Mother and her most holy Son bless you!
—Lynn N, Front Royal, VA

Tim: I have written about Catholicism a number of times and have invariably been told that I simply do not understand Catholicism. In this case, I was very careful to say only what other Catholics have said when describing canonization and the role of saints. As for “worship,” that really depends on your understanding of the word and what it entails. Protestants very much understand that what is offered to Mary can only properly be described as worship, even if it is a lesser kind of worship than is offered to God.

Comments on Black & Reformed

Hello Sir. The article Black & Reformed was quite refreshing. I is a topic that needs to be discussed more. I am African-American and was raised in the inner city. I can say from real world experience there is a major disconnect in the church because of this issue. How can we conduct cross culture evangelism there is such a misunderstanding between two major cultures? I must say, it’s not just on behalf of whites. The African-American community needs to grow in this area as well. I have not read the book yet. I just put it on my must read list. Thank you for being bold enough to at least bring the topic.
—Ronald D, Fairmont, NC

Comments on An Intimidating Opportunity

I was reading the letters you got in response to your article “An Intimidating Opportunity,” and there it was…the argument regarding the amount of time our children spend in a “godless environment.’ This time I decided to do some number crunching to see how much weight that argument actually carries. If your kids are in school for 180 days for 7 hours a day, that is 1260 hours (give or take about 300+ hours for PA days, lunch and class trips and activities where parents are present). An average year has 8760 hours. Depending on your child’s age they are sleeping anywhere from 2920 to 4380 hours of that time, which gives us an awake time of anywhere from 5840 to 4380 hours. So, with that in mind if we go back to the amount of time they spend in school which is around 1260 hours (or less) and subtract that from the hours they are awake we get 4580-3120 hours. This means that our children, especially as they get older and sleep less, are still spending more hours with us than they are in school.
—Georgina M, Toronto, ON

Comments on Letters to the Editor

In your most recent Letters to the Editor (#16), you posted a letter from a reader who did not care for your Letters to the Editor series. I would like to add the counter vote to that - your Letters to the Editor are my favorite post of the week! Please do keep them coming. I enjoy reading the variety of views, and while I do miss the conversations that used to take place in the comment section, it is nice that the Letters to the Editor prevent back-and-forth bickering. Thanks for posting the reader letters!
—Diana J, Chandler, AZ

What Does It Take To Be Made a Saint
March 18, 2016

Yesterday we heard the unsurprising news that Pope Francis has approved Mother Teresa for sainthood. She will be officially declared a saint this September, 19 years after her death. For Protestants like myself, this raises a couple of important questions: According to the Roman Catholic Church, what is a saint? And how can a person become one anyway?

The Roman Catholic Church has a formal process they must follow before declaring a person a saint. This process is not meant to make a saint, but to recognize one. According to the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is a person of extraordinary, heroic Christian virtue, someone who exemplified holy living. Such holy living gives confidence that this person is not currently in hell or purgatory but in heaven, enjoying full communion with God. Because of this communion with God, Christians can now pray to that person and ask his or her intercession with the Father. This helps explain why Roman Catholics place such emphasis on sainthood—According to Catholic doctrine, dead saints benefit the living faithful by being available to them for intercession.

So how, then, does the church declare a person a saint? In most circumstances, there must first be a 5-year waiting period between the person’s death and the commencement of the canonization process. (To “canonize” is to officially declare a person a saint.) However, under some circumstances this requirement is waived, as it was with both John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Once begun, the process involves a number of steps, each of which involves bestowing a title upon the candidate for sainthood.

  1. Servant of God. After the 5-year waiting period (or the waiver) individuals or organizations within the diocese where the person died or is buried can lobby the local bishop to begin an investigation into that person’s life and virtue. They need to prove that the candidate lived an exemplary life and held faithfully to doctrine consistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. If sufficient evidence is gathered and produced, the bishop may then ask the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to consider the case. If and when the Congregation accepts the case, the candidate under consideration is granted the honorific title “Servant of God.”
  2. Venerable. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints looks at all of the evidence given to them, pursues new lines of evidence, and determines if this person lived a life of “heroic virtue.” If it is found that the person did, indeed, display exemplary holiness, the candidate is officially declared “Venerable.” It is important to note that this does not yet establish that the person is in heaven, but simply that he or she lived a life of exceptional holiness. However, at this point the faithful are encouraged to begin praying to the candidate for miraculous intercession.
  3. Blessed. The third step is beatification and for this to happen, the person must be credited with a verified posthumous miracle. This miracle must be the result of the candidate’s intercession in response to petitions offered after his or her death. These miracles are almost always medical, healings that must be instantaneous, complete, permanent, without scientific explanation, and not attributable to any other saint. The miracle is taken as proof that the person is in heaven, able to intercede between God and man. Upon verification of the miracle, the candidate is given the title “Blessed” and the pope establishes a feast day in his or her honor. This person may now be venerated and churches named after him or her, but only locally within a region, diocese, or religious order. (“Veneration” is a difficult term to define but is usually described as a lower form of worship than the worship given to God and Mary. It involves praying to or petitioning that person for their prayers and often creating statues or images of him or her as an aid to such acts.)
  4. Saint. The final step is canonization where the person is formally declared a saint. For this to occur, the person must be credited with a second miracle. When this second miracle has been verified, the pope assigns a feast day that may be celebrated by any Roman Catholic in any place. Any person may now pray to that saint and churches or organizations around the world may be named after him or her. The person’s sainthood is formally declared during a special papal mass said in his or her honor.

In the case of Mother Teresa, she has long been considered an exemplar of Catholic virtue, and her life and writings have been declared free from heresy. She has been formally recognized by the Vatican as responsible for two posthumous miracles: the healing of an Indian woman’s abdominal tumors after a locket containing her picture was laid on the patient’s stomach and the healing of a Brazilian man’s brain infection and abscesses. All that now remains is for the pope to declare her Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a task he will complete in September.

How do we, as Protestants, think well about all of this? So much could be said and the more we say the deeper we would need to dig into the intricacies and errors of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, especially as it relates to justification, sanctification, and glorification. But perhaps we can at least say this: We are saints who have no need of saints. All who have believed in the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone have already been declared saints by God (see Romans 1:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3, 2 Corinthians 1:1-2, and Ephesians 2:19-21). We are God’s holy people, called by him and to him. Jesus Christ is the full and final mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5) who invites us to confidently approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16) believing that his Spirit is already interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:26-27). We are the saints of God who have no need for the intercession of saints who have gone before.

The Character of the Christian
March 17, 2016

Today we continue our series on the character of the Christian. We are exploring how the various character qualifications of elders are actually God’s calling on all Christians. While elders are meant to exemplify these traits, all Christians are to exhibit them. I want us to consider whether we are displaying these traits and to learn together how we can pray to have them in greater measure. Today we will consider why elders—and all Christians—must strive to live mature and humble lives.

Paul tells Timothy, “[An elder] must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). This is a call to spiritual maturity and we learn that elders must be mature for at least two reasons: Because maturity is accompanied by the virtue of humility and because immaturity is accompanied with the vices of pride and condemnation. Thus we must give positions of responsibility only to those who are spiritually mature. John Piper writes, “the new believer, given too much responsibility too soon, may easily swell with pride. The implication is that part of Christian seasoning is a humbling process and a growing protection against pride. We should see evidences in his life that humility is a fixed virtue and not easily overturned.”

Alexander Strauch says, “Maturity requires time and experience for which there is no substitute, so a new convert is simply not ready for the arduous task of shepherding God’s flock. There is nothing wrong with being ‘a new convert.’ All Christians begin life in Christ as babies and grow to maturity. An elder, however, must be mature and know his own heart. A new Christian does not know his own heart or understand the craftiness of the enemy, so he is vulnerable to pride—the most subtle of all temptations and most destructive of all sins.” Again, he states, “If the elders are humble, the people will be humble, avoiding much contention. If the elders are servant leaders, the church will be marked by Christlike, humble servanthood.” God calls all Christians to maturity and humility—and such growth best takes place in the context of mature, humble leadership.

This call to maturity is given throughout God’s Word, not only for leaders but for all Christians. What elders are to model, all Christians are to possess. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) and calls on this congregation to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…” (Hebrews 6:1). Paul says that God gives the church 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…” (Ephesians 4:12-13). He commends Epaphras for “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:2). God expects that his children will grow in maturity and that this will in turn lead to humility.

Therefore, in a sense, this topic of maturity and humility gets to the heart of this entire series: “the character of the Christian.” Christian leaders—and all Christians—are to strive to become more like Christ—they are to grow in spiritual maturity. As they grow in maturity, they will necessarily grow in humility.

Self-Evaluation

So, how about you? In what ways do you need to pursue greater measures of maturity and humility? I encourage you to consider these questions:

  • Are there evidences in your life that you are growing both “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)?
  • Are you more spiritually mature now than you were one year ago? Two years ago? How would you know?
  • Do you seek the credit and the glory of man, or are you happy to be unknown and unappreciated? Many Christians want to be thought of as servants, but not treated as servants. Is that you?
  • In what ways would your parents, children, spouse, boss, and pastors say you need to grow?

Prayer Points

The faithfulness of God will hold us fast, even when our growth feels slow. Take heart as you pray in these ways:

  • I pray, Father, that you would make me more like your Son in every area of my life.
  • I pray that you would not let there be blind spots in my life and, if there have been, that you would give me the grace to see them and turn from my sin.
  • I pray that I would take full advantage of your means of grace so through them I can become more like Christ.
  • I pray that you would help me be the servant of all and thus pursue true greatness.

Next week we will conclude this series by considering what it means for elders and all Christians to be respected by outsiders.

The Cherubim Cheered the Loudest
March 16, 2016

If you have been a Christian any length of time, you are familiar with that miraculous moment when the great curtain of the temple was torn in two. At the death of Jesus, at the very moment he drew his last breath, that curtain was ripped apart stitch-by-stitch. And not only was it ripped apart, but it was ripped from top to bottom by the hand of God rather than bottom to top by the hand of man. There is tremendous significance in this act. But there is even greater significance if we pause for just a moment to consider one often-overlooked detail about that curtain.

Let’s start back in the Garden of Eden. Man committed sin against God and God determined that man must be barred from Eden, this place where God dwells and this place where God had planted the Tree of Life, that source of life that will never end. “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24 ESV). These cherubim, fierce angelic warriors and their ferocious swords, now stood between God and man to serve as a warning and an object lesson: The way is shut. Man can no longer be where God is, he can no longer walk and talk with God, he can no longer be near that source of life. Instead, he must live out his days alone, die, and return to the dust he was taken from.

When we advance in time to the tabernacle and the temple we see those same cherubim still guarding the way to God. This tabernacle and this temple are the place where God has chosen to be specially present, to dwell among his people. In both buildings the Holy Place is divided from the Most Holy Place by a curtain, a blood-covered veil. And stitched onto that curtain is the image of the cherubim. This curtain bars everyone from entering the Most Holy Place. Only the High Priest is allowed to go through the curtain and even then only once per year and even then only to bring an atoning sacrifice of blood before God. All through the year and all through the decades that curtain faces outward to remind the people that the way to God’s presence is closed by a barrier and guarded by cherubim. There is no doubt in their minds: We have been closed off from the presence of God. God will strike us down if we dare approach him. But there must also be a question in their hearts: Will the way to God ever be opened again?

For all of those thousands of years between Eden and the cross, the cherubim carried out this mission from God. For all those years they served as a reminder of the state of warfare between God and man. For all those years they stood between creature and Creator, guarding God’s holiness from man’s impurity.

But then, at last, Jesus was taken to a cross not too far from the temple. Jesus was nailed to the cross, he faced the wrath of God against the sin of humanity, and he died. And in that very moment, in the moment his heart beat for the last time, that curtain, that blood-colored veil, was ripped in two. It was torn apart stitch-by-stitch. But, of course, it was not only the curtain that was being torn apart. It was also the cherubim. For the first time since Eden the cherubim were relieved of their duty. They, too, were torn to pieces, demonstrating that it was no longer necessary to guard the way to God. The way was now open! And in that moment I wonder if it was the cherubim who cheered the loudest.

But if you pause and look closely you will see that there is still something, there is still someone, between God and man. It is no longer a cherubim but a human being. He is no longer threatening you with a sword and warning you away but he is inviting you to come. It is Jesus Christ, the God-man, calling out, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The way is forever open, open to all who will come.

7 Rules for Online Engagement
March 14, 2016

Christians have had their share of social media successes in over the past few years, many of them related to identifying theological error and defending theological truth. This work has been carried on through blogs, of course, but also through Facebook and YouTube and other forms of digital communication. But for all of the success, there have also been a lot of failures. Many of the most egregious failures have been in discussing or debating controversial topics. As we learn to engage controversy using these new platforms, we do well to consider how to we can speak with equal parts truth and love—love that is strengthened by truth and truth that is softened by love.

Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism, offers the kind of challenge we need. He says

We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.

This applies to discussions far beyond baptism. Tony Payne once turned to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man.

As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.

You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller’s Center Church, and in the rest of this article I distill his wisdom to seven rules that ought to guide our hearts, our minds, and our words as we have these difficult discussions.

1. Carson’s Rule

The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. “[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination), then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them.” This responds immediately to a common but misguided charge: But have you approached him personally? A person who publishes his words publicly can be responded to publicly.

2. Murray’s Rule

The second rule comes from John Murray and states You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views. “In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be ‘dashed off.’ Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr A believes and promotes before you publish.” To rule #2 I might add that if you have a relationship with a person with whom you disagree, it may be wise to attempt to contact that person to ensure that you have, indeed, understood their position and are now able to accurately represent it. More importantly, though, is to ensure you are being as accurate as possible in all you say.

3. Alexander’s Rule

The third rule comes from Archibald Alexander and states Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own. “[E]ven if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander’s Rule and, indeed, Murray’s Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.” Be fair and be accurate. You can point out what you see as an inconsistency and you can even point out that the author seems to be influenced by authors you consider dangerous. But do not conflate the two.

4. Gillespie’s Rule A

The fourth rule is from George Gillespie and states Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively. “Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, ‘Be sure that what you say is Mr X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.’ If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.”

5. Gillespie’s Rule B

The fifth rule also belongs to Gillespie and states Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form. “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.” I think we come to appreciate the importance of this rule when we see another person unfairly caricature our own beliefs. Never allow your opponent to say, “He completely misunderstood me.”

6. Calvin’s Rule

The sixth rule is Calvin’s and states Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives! “It is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.” The goal is not to vanquish an opponent or the people who have been led astray by him, but to win them all to the truth.

7. Everybody’s Rule

The seventh and final rule belongs to each of the previous six theologians and states Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology. Keller goes to John Newton and says “no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known ‘Letter on Controversy.’ Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, ‘and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.’ This practice will stir up love for him and ‘such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.’ Later in the letter Newton says, ‘Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ‘It is a great danger to aim to ‘gain the laugh on your side,’ to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with ‘the compassion due to the souls of men.’”

I commend these seven rules to my fellow bloggers and to all of us who engage in online discussion. I share them today out of the conviction that I need to do far better in each of these ways, that I need to keep these rules before me. May we, may I, exemplify God-glorifying polemics.

Image credit: Shutterstock

March 13, 2016

Letters to the Editor

With the start of another week comes another selection of letters to the editor. This was a lively week for letters and the ones I publish below represent a cross-section of the feedback from readers like you.

Comments on An Intimidating Opportunity

As a Grade 10 Christian male who is currently taking the Civics and Careers course, I thought that you approached the topic perfectly. I relate to your son in the sense of having no other Christian males in my grade, and it can be very discouraging when you see everyone around you is lost. But to me, it shows that we are to be light and salt of the earth, and I don’t think there could be a better oppurtunity. Thanks for sharing the article!
—Alex G, Cambridge, ON

***

Tim, I really appreciated (and thank God for) the opportunity you took to address your son’s civics class about pastoral ministry. As a pastor, I often get myself swamped in “Christianese” descriptions of my faith and calling, and I benefitted from reading how you articulated your vocation in simple yet faithful terms. As to whether or not you should have “preached the gospel”: Okay, you’re right—you didn’t mention the atonement or justification by faith. (I trust and pray that your son will have ample follow-up opportunities). But very few people in the West ever think about their desperate human need to be shepherded anymore. As Christians, we know that Jesus meets that need perfectly. Presenting pastoral ministry to those young men and women as something Jesus is using in the “real world” to accomplish this moved them one step closer to following Him into His fold.
—Jeremy K, Guymon, OK

***

With all due respect intended in tone and text…. “How could I explain pastoring to people who have never been inside a church, who have never read a word of the Bible, and who know Jesus as only a swear word?” Am I a jerk for thinking, “How can a pastor send his 15 year old into this godless environment for 8 hours a day and plan to send his other two children there too?” (idontwanttobeajerk)
—Chris, Sacramento, CA

Tim: I received many, many responses to this one. It was very encouraging to me! As for the final question, I may be overdue with another article on why my family (still) public schools our children.

Comments on Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife

I read your review of “Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife” with interest. I was raised in denomination which came borderline being in many instances approving of an abusive household under the flag of complementarianism. As a young (24) pastor with a wife and 2 children I have had to decide what is the best role of women not only in my own home but also in the church. I couldn’t abide with the borderline abuse of those who espoused compelmentarianism but nor could I find biblical support for eglatarianism. For me this was summed up in the phrase “Equal in Value, Unequal in authority” in order to succinctly explain the biblical stance. To my dismay I recently underwent public training to be an court advocate for children. During this training we had to learn the warning signs of an abusive household. One such and prominent warning sign was if the household embraced “traditional” roles of men and women. I have said much of this to say that it is sad that the abusive, narcissistic husbands who hide behind their interpretation of complementarianism have taken a beautiful and breathtakingly theological teaching in the Bible and ruined it in the eyes of the world. We are to be pictures of the marriage between Christ and the church not of the tyrannical rule of sin over the sinner. May our churches grow ever more closer to upholding the living picture/parable of Christ and His Bride! Thank you for your review of the book. I look forward to reading in order to better understand the struggles and choices abused women face who attend our church and live in our community.
—Steve S, Purcell, OK

***

Thank you for your candid and honest review of this book. I intend to read it, and I am in total agreement with all you have written in this review. I was married to an abusive man for 23 years. He manipulated from the pulpit as easily as he did from the home. I know this is not as rare a circumstance as we would like to believe. In your review, you give an excellent and concise description of this twisted sort of union. Thank you so much. Women in this situation need to hear repeatedly that they have biblical grounds to seek safety. Afterwards, an important part of healing is reaching an understanding regarding the difference between the union they experienced and the biblical marriage model. When a person has endured such trauma, it is easy to interpret Scripture through the lens of emotional pain. I appreciate your caution to avoid doing so. Scripture should always be interpreted in context of all Scripture, not in context of personal experience. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention.
—Jenny J, Rogers, AR

***

I read your review of the book Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife; I’m not writing because I disagree. But you mention the book’s usefulness in creating understanding and empathy for women in such situations. I’d like your thoughts on defining and determining emotional or mental abuse and how the church can help in recognizing this type of abuse. And, what should a spouse do when they find themselves in such a relationship? How does a wife maintain respect for her husband, for instance, but expose the sin in order to get outside help? I’ve been very wary of people who claim such abuse, the term seems to get thrown out at the slightest infraction, and it all seems so subjective most of the time.
—Melody N, Brownwood, TX

Tim: That is more than I can take on in letters to the editor, but I may write more about this in the future. The questions you ask are very, very important.

Comments on Letters to the Editor

I am going to stop visiting your site on Sunday. Everybody has an opinion on every subject, controversial or not, and while I appreciate the time you spend sifting through them they are just not worth the time. I prefer to read your articles and form my own opinion. You are a blessing the other 6 days!
—Jim R, Hudson, MA