How Shall We Then Vote?

vote“How shall we then live?” it’s the age old question of the Sunday school teacher, the bible reader, and the pastor alike. After sorting through big ideas of scripture or philosophy we are faced with the challenge of applying these ideas to our own lives, or to the lives of our listeners, in finite and practical ways in order to make them effectual. In order for the study of God’s Word to be more than a mere intellectual exercise we must apply it, allow it to renew our minds and transform our actions. We must allow it to craft our very character and guide our actions in every realm of life, even in the voting booth.

There is certainly no shortage of input from pastors, professors, and politicians telling us how evangelicals will vote or should vote. But as followers of Christ we ought to have a single authority that governs how we walk through the political fiasco of this election, and that authority is the Word of God.

Interestingly the Bible doesn’t actually tell us which candidate to vote for. I scoured my largest concordance for the words “Trump” or “Clinton” and came back with nothing. And so, in the absence of clear commands from Scripture, those who desire to honor Christ in the voting booth must look to larger biblical principles to govern their actions. After spending months watching this election unfold and discussing it with believing friends and family members on both side of the isle, these are some of those biblical concepts that I have found most pertinent to tomorrow’s election.

Do not be afraid

“Fear not” is one of the most common commands of scripture.  (Gen 15:1, Ex. 20:20, Matt. 10:28, Phil 4:6, et al.) But fear is a constant theme in this election, even among those who follow Christ. Fear that Hillary will win. Fear that she won’t. Fear that the Supreme Court will be lost for a generation. Fear that religious freedoms will evaporate. Fear that somehow in the next four years a single human being will derail the work that God has been doing since the dawn of creation. (Psalm 33:11) This fear comes from a need for control, a need for power. We have come to rely on political power and influence as proof that things are under control, that we are being taken care of. But the words of Scripture tell us that true power is not ours to wield (James 4:13-14), and that even in the midst of chaos, our sovereign God reigns and His plans will always prevail. (Isiah 14:24) So we don’t need to spend our time wringing our hands about the possibility of losing our façade of power and control.

Your identity is in Christ

If you are in Christ you are not primarily a republican or a democrat. You are not primarily an American. You are a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17) This is not to say that patriotism or national identity are sinful, simply that they are utterly unimportant compared to the value of knowing Christ. (Phil. 3:7-8) I’ve heard many pastors and church leaders use the language of “dual citizenship” to describe the place of the Christian in American but ultimately this is unhelpful because citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is much more than being a part of a nation, it is being part of a family (Eph. 2:9), part of a body (1 Cor. 12:27), part of a new humanity (Eph. 2:15-16). When we elevate our national identity to the level of our participation in Christ, or when we take amoral political ideologies such as conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, and hold them up as defining and guiding pieces of our identity we commit political idolatry and serve party platforms rather than a living God.

Obey the edicts of your conscience

We like things to be black and white. Unfortunately, not everything is. While the Bible does tell us everything we need to know to live a holy life, it does not specifically address every moral issue we may face. And so we are left with the occasional grey hued conundrum. Paul addresses just these sorts of issues in Romans 14 where he discusses the observance of Jewish food laws. His instructions in cases where the commands of Scripture are not explicit can be summed up as:

  • Be sure of your personal convictions and follow them faithfully. (Romans 14:5-6)
  • Do not pass judgement on other believers whose convictions differ from your own. (Romans 14:2-4)
  • In everything seek to glorify God. (Romans 14:7-8)

Love your enemy

Loving your enemy (Matt. 5:44) is incompatible with political mudslinging. Throughout the course of this election I have seen more people on either end of the political spectrum personally attacking each other and political candidates than ever before, and more often than not they are doing so with a wanton disregard for the truth of their attacks. As believers we should stand for truth (Eph. 4:25) and love (1 Cor. 13) but when we participate in the vindictive name calling and rumor mongering that has plagued this election we stand for neither.  Perhaps this is a point that would have been better made months ago rather than on the night before the end of this ugly election cycle, but as we move forward we as Christians need to become voices that elevate the political discourse not ones that drive it further into the mud.

How shall we then vote?

It is not my intention to tell you who to vote for. Through prayer and thoughtful consideration I have come to the personal conviction that neither major party candidate is acceptable; that neither stands for life and the free exercise of religion, neither is morally righteous and upstanding, and thus neither will get my vote. But that is a personal conviction, not a command of God, not an imperative of Scripture. Scripture grants us freedom to make our own decisions apart from direct commandments. And in the case of a presidential election there is no direct commandment, just general principles that govern how we approach the process. In this way Scripture has much more to say about how we are to approach the process of voting, than it does about who we vote for.

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The Appearance of Evil

“Avoid even the appearance of evil.”

It’s a favorite mantra of flannelgraph wielding Sunday school teachers the world over.

It’s led to Christians condemning things from alcohol, to rap music, to Halloween.

And it’s right out of the Bible!

Well, sort of…

The verse being paraphrased here is 1 Thessalonians 5:22. In KJV, the preferred translation of those flannelgraph wielding Sunday school teachers, the verse says this:

22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Seems pretty straightforward right? If something could make you look evil, bad, sinful, seedy, sketchy, sleazy, degenerate, ratchet, or just generally a bad dude, then don’t do it. That seems like some pretty sound biblical advice, like something you might hear from Flanders.

flanders

(Wait, does referencing The Simpsons make me look evil?)

Unfortunately for Ned there are a few major problems with this nugget of Sunday school wisdom. For one, that’s not really what the verse says.

Without getting into all the boring technical details of Bible translation, let’s just say that that only the King James Version uses the word “appearance.” Every other translation, trust me I checked all of them, uses the words “form” or “kind.”

NIV- “22 reject every kind of evil.”

ESV- “22 Abstain from every form of evil.”

NLT- “22 Stay away from every kind of evil.”

HCSB- “22 Stay away from every kind of evil.”

You get the picture. But even if you are a KJV purest and you stick with the “appearance of evil” translation, the verse still doesn’t say to stay away from anything that might look evil. The word “appearance” can mean two different things. It can mean the way something looks, like saying that this guy has every appearance of Robert Pattinson;

pattinsonish

or “appearance” can mean a way or a place that something shows up. Like saying that this picture shows every appearance of Robert Pattinson.

pattinson

Then there is the life of Christ. If we take the “appearance” in this verse to mean everything that looks evil, then Jesus broke this rule. A LOT. He regularly hung out with sinners, prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors, all kinds of people of questionable character, and people noticed. He even let a woman who was known for her sinful life wash his feet with her hair, wetting them with her tears, anointing them with perfume, and kissing them! That’s a super intimate moment with a woman who everyone in the room knows is a sinner, but Jesus didn’t tell her to stop. Because Jesus isn’t worried about appearances, he’s worried about people.

jesus feet

(Seriously, do you realize how scandalous this was?)

In fact, he made a pretty bad name for himself among some of religious people of the day by doing stuff like this. Jesus mentions it in Matthew 11:19 when he says,

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

On the other end of the spectrum in the gospels we have the Pharisees. These guys were leaders in the synagogue. They did everything they could to avoid the appearance of evil. Their whole lives revolved around showing everyone else just how good they were. But they were co concerned with appearances that they never took care of what really matters to God, their hearts. Jesus even calls them out in Matthew 23:27-28 by comparing them to white washed tombs that are beautiful on the outside but full of rotten dead things on the inside, saying,

“28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

So, the Bible doesn’t actually say that we have to avoid everything that looks evil, but that alone doesn’t make it bad advice. In fact it’s usually pretty good idea to steer clear of evil looking things, because there is a pretty good chance that if something looks evil, it just might be. The problems start when we take this little piece of solid, but not totally biblical, advice and use it as an excuse for legalism, or to judge other people. This is when we need to check our hearts and ask if we are more concerned with honoring God, or with making ourselves look better by tearing others down.

At the end of the day it’s a question of what kind of Christian you want to be. Will you follow Christ’s example and show the love and mercy and grace of God to the world around you, without regard for how good or bad it makes you look. Or will you follow the example of the Pharisees, and worry only about how you look on the outside, trying your very hardest to look as much like a Ned Flanders Christian as you can.

The choice is yours neighborino.

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The Rest of The Gospel

THE REST OF THE GOSPEL

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

When asked what verse best sums up the gospel, John 3:16 is what springs into most of our minds, and for good reason. It does a better job than just about any other verse in the Old or New Testament of expressing the fact that we are eternally saved by faith in Christ who was given for us. But a problem arises when we let our understanding of the gospel and salvation begin and end in this verse alone.

John 3:16 is not the gospel; at least it’s not the entire gospel. Salvation from sin is so much more than a “get out of hell free card.” The amazing work of Christ on the cross is so much more than “fire insurance.” When Christ died on the cross and saved us from sin we weren’t merely freed from hell or damnation. We were freed from the tyranny of sin over our actions. We were freed from guilt and shame and condemnation. We were freed from the unattainable requirements of righteousness under the Law and we were raised into newness of life.

The message of the Gospel does not end with conversion. It’s not merely a wiping of our moral slate. The gospel is something that is enacted throughout our entire lives. The gospel is about being adopted in to God’s family, being credited with the righteousness of Christ, and being made holy by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel changes absolutely everything, not just our destination.

At the moment an individual trusts Christ a number of things happen in them. They are forgiven, adopted, and indwelled; but something else happens as well, something called imputation. Imputation is just a pretentious way to say that when someone puts their faith in Christ they are instantly credited with His righteousness. If you think of your standing before God as a moral bank account, imputation says that not only does Christ’s work on the cross pay off all of your debt, but it transfers to you the entire balance of Jesus’s infinite savings. This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 5:12 when he writes, “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” We as Christians have a righteousness before God that is not our own. Just as Christ took our sins on himself at the cross, we get to take his righteousness on ourselves, “so that by one man’s obedience, many are made righteous.”(Romans 5:19) It is because of this new found righteousness that we are now able to be adopted into God’s own family.

The concept of adoption is at the heart of the Gospel and while this doctrine is one that we all readily affirm, we often lose sight of just how glorious and profound adoption is. We refer to our “brothers or sisters in Christ,” we even refer to ourselves as children of God, but on some level we either don’t appreciate what our adoption means or we simply don’t believe it. When the Bible talks about adoption into God’s family it isn’t talking about renting a room in God’s house. It’s not even talking about the fact that we are given eternity to spend in his presence. It’s talking about something deeper and more intimate. It’s by this adoption that we are able to cry out to God saying, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) just as Jesus did.

Sanctification is the process of being made holy, or perfected, by the Spirit of God. This is how God works in the life of a believer so that they bear fruit. There are two vitally important things for us, as Christians, to know about sanctification. The first is that sanctification is a process; God works in us through us by His indwelling Spirit so that we are GRADUALLY conformed to the image of His Son, made like Christ. The second is that sanctification echoes salvation. Just as salvation is something that happens by the work of God, on the basis of faith, and completely apart from an individual’s own efforts; sanctification in our lives is form of grace from God. Regardless of what second grade Sunday school might teach you, the perfecting and growing of a believer is not on the basis of “being a good boy`,” “honoring God with your actions,” or “effectively managing sin”. In fact Paul calls the Galatians foolish for thinking this way in Galatians 3 saying asking them, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  Instead, it is on the basis of allowing the Holy Spirit of God to mold and conform us, “to the image of his son,” (Romans 8:29) that we are made to bear fruit for Christ and his kingdom. It is by the power of the Spirit that we are called dead to sin and alive in Christ and it is by His power that our hearts are changed in fundamental ways resulting in a change in our actions. True gospel sanctification starts in the heart and results in action, not the other way around.

This barely scratches the surface of what Christ’s work on the cross accomplished. The enormity of the gospel is way too big for one blog post. The writers of the New Testament took 27 books to nail it all down, not to mention the libraries upon libraries of commentaries, sermons, and theologies that have been written to examine these books on every level imaginable.

Too often we approach the gospel in a reductive way. We take a few of its most important points, forgiveness of sins and eternity in heaven, and we make them its only points. But when we look at scripture this is exactly the opposite of how the New Testament authors approach the gospel. The message of the New Testament is not “here’s how to not go to hell.”

The overwhelming message of the New Testament is one of freedom in Christ. Freedom from the Law, freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, shame, condemnation, and death. This freedom isn’t temporary, it’s not conditional. Christ doesn’t set us free from the Law of the Old Testament only to quietly nudge us towards a moralistic adherence to a slightly edited set of New Testament laws. Instead, Christ died so that we may be forgiven of our sins, adopted into the family of the Father, credited with the righteousness of the Son, and sanctified by the Spirit.

Next time you stop to contemplate the gospel, in prayer, worship, or communion, next time you discuss it in a bible study or share it at an outreach event; contemplate the whole gospel. Think about the eternally saving work of Christ’s death and resurrection; but also how Christ’s work has set you free, allowed you to be filled with the Spirit of God himself, and brought you into God’s family as his own son.

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Our Goal

Our Goal

In ministry it can be easy to get exhausted, burned out, or sidetracked. Difficulties arise and our focus can be subtly and slowly shifted. We can lose sight of our calling in a sea of pizza, parties, and purity pledges. In times like these, times experienced all too frequently by youth ministers both paid and unpaid, we need to remind ourselves what our goal in ministry really is.

Our goal is not to make “good kids,”

Our goal is not to make sure that our students are getting good grades, impressing their teachers, or making it into a good school.

Our goal is not to entertain students, to get them to church, or to make them bring friends.

Our goal is to make disciples.

Our goal is to challenge students mentally and spiritually, to ask them questions that force them to engage with God and with scripture in ways that they never have before. To make them examine things that they have previously taken for granted. To equip and enable them to love God with all their minds.

Our goal is to demonstrate to students what the life of a servant looks like. To work our very hardest to serve the Lord in whatever way He calls us and to equip them to do the same. To model and encourage loving God with all your strength.

Our goal is to help students grow closer to the all-knowing, all-loving, all-glorious God in a personal relationship of saving faith. To help them enter deeper into His love so that they may love Him with all their heart and soul.

Our goal is to make disciples.

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Piaget and Evangelism (part 1)

(The 3 posts in this series are taken directly, minus the pictures, from a pretty lengthy paper I wrote for a Christian Education class. Part 1 lays out the basics of Piaget’s “Stage Theory”, Part 2 examines child development in christian education and evangelism, and Part 3 applies these findings.  They may be long winded and  a little dry. You have been warned.)

Jean Piaget was a respected cognitive-field theorist known for his groundbreaking work on the study of childhood cognitive development. Known as the “Dean of Educational Psychology” Piaget’s work has colored the way that the educational world approaches the teaching children for decades. (Joy, 1980) In this paper we will attempt to summarize the core principles of Piaget’s theory of “Stages of Cognitive Development” and apply those principles to evangelistic ministry in the modern church. Special attention will be paid to children in the lower stages of cognitive development and how evangelistic efforts that target them must differ from evangelistic efforts intended for adults.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Although Piaget wrote many books and articles regarding the behavior of human of all ages, his most well-known theory is undoubtedly his theory of childhood development known as “Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive development.” (Singer & Revenson, 1997) Piaget’s stage theory relies on a few core assertions, including the claims that Piaget’s stages are qualitatively distinct, that they are sequential, and that they are universal.

Chief among these assertions is the observation that each of the stages is qualitatively distinct.  This assertion states that children of different ages have fundamentally different cognitive processes. For instance, the difference in the mental function of a five-year-old child and a twelve-year-old child is not simply that the twelve-year-old has lived longer and attended more school, thereby accumulating more knowledge; rather the two children have cognitive process that function completely differently. For the five-year-old thinking and learning is highly imaginative and intuitive. The twelve-year-old on the other hand is equipped to think logically and critically about concrete and sometimes even abstract issue, but may not have the same willingness as the five-year-old to engage in imaginative learning. (Krych, 1983)

The claims of the universal and sequential nature of Piaget’s stages simply state that every child, in every culture, and at every time goes through these stages in the same order. While some may not reach all four levels, the theory of development is the same for all individuals. No individual child may skip a stage of development or enter a later stage before the entering the early stages as each stage builds on the one that comes before it.

sad vi

            Sensorimotor. The sensorimotor stage is the first of Piaget’s stages. Generally taking place from a child’s birth to approximately the time they turn two-years-old in this stage learning is conducted purely by experience. This stage closely resembles the theories of early behaviorists like Johann Amos Comenius who claims that “There is nothing that enters the intellect that does not first enter through one of the senses.” While not entirely useful for later cognitive stages this dictum is largely true of the sensorimotor phase. (Singer & Revenson, 1997)

A prime example of an individual participating in learning in the sensorimotor phase would be an infant crying for her mother because she is hungry. The infant has no imaginative excuse for why her stomach is upset, no concept of why she needs food, and no inkling of what her current hunger says about its own mortality. She simply knows that she is hungry and that her mother will provide it with food.

Preoperational. The preoperational stage of cognitive development follows the sensorimotor. Children generally enter this stage around the age of two and stay here roughly until they reach age seven. In the preoperational stage children’s thought processes are exceedingly imaginative and learning is highly intuitive. Children in this stage have begun to develop language skills but have yet to develop the ability to think logically. They are almost entirely egocentric and attempt to fit everything into their limited scope of experience. This often leads to them making up explanations for confusing experiences. (Singer & Revenson, 1997)

TOY STORY 3           An example of a child in the preoperational stage is a five-year-old who is convinced that his toys have a life of their own and that they hide from him when he leaves the room. Without the ability to think logically about how his toys may have been misplaced, he makes up what he believes is a likely explanation; the toys are simply playing a game of hide and go seek.

 

Concrete Operational. The concrete operational stage is the first stage of development where children begin to develop basic logical capacity. This stage is generally entered around the age of seven and persists until the beginning of adolescence.  Leroy Howe describes the concrete operational means of cognition like this, “In the concrete operational stage, children learn to represent concrete things accurately by means of images, and to reflect upon the content of those images and their interrelationships, as long as ready reference to the things imagined remains possible.” (Howe, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development : an overview and appraisal, 1977) The key word in this description is “concrete,” while children of this stage are capable of understanding logical progression and processes, this capacity does not extend to understanding of abstract concepts and processes.

quarters

One other interesting distinctive of the concrete operational stage is the new found ability of the child to “reverse processes” allowing them to think backwards to aid in memory or understanding of a specific event. (Singer & Revenson, 1997)

An example of a child in the concrete operational stage is a ten-year-old girl who is learning how to use fractions and decimals in her math class by answering word problems about varying values of coins. She is able to understand the concept of fractions in quarters by linking it to the concrete example of physical coins.

Formal Operational. The penultimate stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is the formal operational stage. This stage, usually entered into around adolescence, is the beginning of “adult intelligence.” (Howe, Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development : an overview and appraisal, 1977) In the formal operational stage children begin to be able to understand complex, formal operations. This includes abstract concepts. Individuals in the formal operational stage are considered to be fully cognitively developed. (Singer & Revenson, 1997)

philiosophy

An example of an individual in the formal operational stage is a seventeen-year-old boy who is first starting to ask philosophical questions about right and wrong. He has previously understood morality on the basis of rewards and consequences. However, he is now able to consider the fundamental nature of right and wrong apart from their concrete consequences. (Howe, Religious understanding from a Piagetian perspective, 1978)

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The Problem With “So What?”

From time to time, as I sit down to write a Sunday school lesson for my jr. high and high school students, I rack my brain trying to get into their heads; trying to think of what it is that will resonate with them the most. What can I teach them that will hit them right were they are at? How can I, by God’s grace, speak into their lives and cause some great tangible change in their actions? More often than not this train of thought leads me to some vaguely moralistic message about how we ought to behave as born again Christians. But the problem is, I think my students deserve more than shallow moralism and application in Sunday school, I think they deserve the Bible. I think they deserve the unfiltered, unspun word of God. They deserve to be taught theology. They deserve to find out about life and salvation in the old testament. They deserve to learn more about the whole word of God and what it says about the world, about God, and yes, about their own lives as well.

In many churches today the primary focus of teaching and preaching is the personal application of a biblical passage. Even in our own private bible study time we are taught to approach the scripture with questions like. “What does this verse mean for me?” “How does this affect my life?” or “So what?” We want to hear things that radically alter the way we live. We want to uncover some great new trick to being a “good christian.” We want an easy 12 step program for holiness. If we don’t get this kind of practical and personal application then we often write off the lesson, sermon, or study as “irrelevant” or “unproductive.” What we fail to realize is how self centered this approach to scripture truly is.

Application in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact it is critically important to our spiritual growth that we are able to apply biblical passages and concepts to our lives. The problem arises when we make application our primary goal when studying or teaching scripture. Scripture should be interpreted with goal of hearing the voice of God, whatever He has to say, whether it be about the creation of the world, the person and work of Christ, or who begat whom. These are the kinds of insights that we loose when we replace unbiased interpretation with application. Allow me to use a heavy handed example to illustrate my point.

One of my absolute favorite passages of scripture is Exodus 34:6-8. Moses has just climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai for the second time to replace the tablets that he broke when he saw the golden calf and God is appearing before him.

God and moses lego

“5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Exodus 34:5-8, ESV)

Now if we interpret this passage with our focus on application we may come up message to the effect of “Moses was in the presence of God and he worshiped by ‘quickly bowing his head toward the earth.’ We ought to feel this same humility and reverence when we come into the presence of God through worship.” and that message is certainly important, but it misses the central purpose of the passage. It fails to tell us why Moses felt humility and reverence that drove him to bow and to worship. This passage is only secondarily about what Moses did, or how we are called to approach the presence of God. It is primarily a theologically rich passage about who God is and what he is like. It is God’s introduction of himself. It tells us about His justness, His grace, His wrath, His love, and His faithfulness. It is in the face of these things that Moses bows. It is at the realization of the great God before him that he worships. This passage is not centrally about Moses or even about worship. It is about how great and powerful our God is.

This is what we miss when we focus on application first rather than on faithful interpretation of the scripture. Personal application is not something that we should neglect but it should never become our primary goal when approaching the scriptures because the cold hard truth of the matter is that sometimes the bible isn’t talking about you or me. Sometimes it’s talking about God. Sometimes it’s talking about Israelites. Sometimes it’s talking about first century Jewish believers. The important thing is that we don’t try make every passage we about us. The Bible is just as important, relevant, and true today as it was the day it was written. It should inform the way we live, the way we think, and the way we worship. But we have to realize that at the end of the day, it’s not all about us.

(For a good book on how to read and apply the Bible faithfully, check out Walt Russell’s Playing With Fire.)

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