Some reflections on the Middle Ages

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The term “Middle Ages” refers to the long period of world history (1,000 years) which intervened between antiquity and modernity. Just as the middle life of a man is the period of life between youth and old age, and bridges the gap between the two, so also the Middle Ages of the world bridges the great chasm which separates the ancient world from the modern world. In middle life some things are lost, but others are gained, and there is an overall process of maturation; and so it was in the Middle Ages of the world. Studying the Middle Ages makes the connection between antiquity and modernity seem less remote. The Middle Ages are sometimes called the “Medieval Period,” since “Medieval” means “Middle Ages” in Latin (medius + aevum).

The Middle Ages was created by the fall of classical civilization to the barbarians. While the decline of the Roman Empire was slow and gradual, a specific date and event has recently been put forth as the dividing point between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: a massive eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in AD 535. This eruption created a worldwide ash cloud that obscured sunlight for nearly a decade, causing famines and enormous social and political upheaval. David Keys, the archaeology correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, argues in his book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World that the 535 eruption of Krakatoa caused the collapse of ancient cultures and empires and led to the emergence of a new world order. PBS also ran a two-part television special which summarized his research (part 1; part 2). I find Keys’ theory convincing, and I recommend his work.

The terminal point of the Middle Ages was the Protestant Reformation, which began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The Protestant Reformation broke the control which the Roman Catholic Church held over the peoples and governments of Europe, and in doing so it shattered the order of the medieval world. While the Reformation seems in some ways like a recent event, next year marks its 500th anniversary.

The church was the dominant feature of life in medieval Europe. Our reference to “the church” must be tempered by two observations in order to clear away common misconceptions. First, religion in medieval Europe, while dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, was far from monolithic. At the beginning of the Middle Ages much of Europe was still pagan, and the last pagan holdouts in the north were not finally converted until a century or two before the Protestant Reformation. There were also Muslims in Europe for most of the Middle Ages—first in the Iberian Peninsula, then in the Balkans after the fall of Constantinople (1453). There were, as well, sects of Christianity which were independent of the Roman See. These included the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lollards, the semi-autonomus Waldensians, and the heretical Albigensians. There were also independent Christian individuals and churches whose names we do not know. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church suppressed information on anti-papal groups. It is only in recent times that we have begun to study them, using the available sources. These studies have lifted a corner on our ignorance concerning the Middle Ages, and have revealed that the church of the Middle Ages was not a monolithic entity. We have also discovered some interesting theology of these anti-papal groups; for example, it seems that some held to a pretribulational rapture which they distinguished from the second coming. An archaeology professor I had in college claimed there is evidence that there were hundreds of house churches in Italy during the height of papal power, around AD 1000. Yet we know nothing about the doctrine of these small churches, and none of their leaders’ writings have been preserved. Virtually all that has been preserved from the Middle Ages are the writings of philosophical, mystical monks.

Second, the defining aspects of the Romanism of the Council of Trent developed by a very gradual, step-by-step process over the course of the Middle Ages. The Roman form of Christianity at the start of the Middle Ages, though it had many problems which gradually metastasized, was far different than the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Roman church recognized the legitimacy of churches that were not under its direct authority, such as Celtic Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox churches. It was not until 1054 that the Roman See finally split with the Eastern church, leading to the claim that there is no salvation apart from membership in the Roman church. Celibacy was not a requirement for clergy until well into the Middle Ages. Worship of Mary developed gradually during the Middle Ages, as did the veneration of saints, the practice of penance, the issuing of indulgences, and the concepts of a priesthood and the pope as vicar of Christ. Incidentally, the Great Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity in 1054 caused the Eastern and Western churches to develop along quite separate spiritual and intellectual paths, with the eventual result being a great Reformation in the West and total deadness in the East.

That the Roman form of Christianity had deep problems throughout the Middle Ages, there is no doubt. These problems were always present, though they grew progressively worse and eventually forced the Protestant Reformation. These problems kept most men from being saved while fooling them into thinking that they were in fact saved. The medieval church is represented in Revelation 2–3 by the church of Sardis, which was the second-worst church of the seven. It was a cold church. The very worst church, however, is the lukewarm Laodicean church, which represents the church of the present age. In fact, because the church is composed of men and governed by men (who should be governed by Christ), it is almost always far from ideal, and it almost always has much corruption and many problems. One ought not to dismiss the Middle Ages completely because of the corruption in the church. The church, in spite of its problems, was the single most positive force in society and the world throughout the Middle Ages, and it included many good things as well as bad things—though, on the whole, it well merits the sharp condemnation issued by Jesus in Revelation 3:1-6.

In some ways the Medieval Period was the polar opposite of the postmodern age. It was an age of authority, of structure and order. The Medieval Period was also an age of faith. Unlike the picture that is sometimes presented of ignoramuses who never heard anything contrary to the doctrine of the church, medieval man did in fact have many challenges to his faith—from pagan barbarians, from Muslims, from heterodox sects, and from calamities of all sorts which produced great physical suffering in the lives of faithful Christians. Medieval man persisted in faith, and, with rare exceptions, did not doubt. When his faith was assaulted, he pushed back strongly, and usually converted many of the doubters.

The Medieval Period was a spiritual age. Yes, the theology of the church had deep problems, and the majority of professing Christians, from popes to peasants, were not genuinely born again. But in an age when life was exceedingly crude, brutish, short, and meager, it was spiritual riches and spiritual health that were coveted, not material riches or material health. Kings bestowed lavish gifts on the church, and nobles threw their gold rings and precious jewels into the foundation mortar of new cathedrals. There were thousands of monasteries in which huge numbers of young men and young women renounced the things of this world and committed their lives to the full-time service of God, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Others joined mendicant (beggar) orders, living without home, possessions, or wife in order to be completely free to serve God within the world (rather than withdrawing from the world to serve God, as the monks). Pious men from all classes of society undertook arduous pilgrimages throughout the European continent to seek some spiritual benefit. Missionaries fearlessly brought the message of the Christian gospel to barbarian tribes on the fringes of civilization, while zealous kings launched invasions of pagan areas to force their conversion. Others, stirred by the church’s call to arms, led armies to faraway Palestine in order to free the Holy Land from the rule of the infidels. When most of the Crusaders returned home, gallant orders of knights stayed behind in the stifling Mideastern heat, and built castles to protect the Holy Land from reoccupation. The church was the most prominent and most noble building in any medieval town, and it was the center of village life. No expense was spared on the construction of churches, and some took well over a hundred years of faithful labor to complete. Many people attended church services every day of the year, and monks attended nine services within each twenty-four hour period. The calendar revolved around the festivals and seasons of the church year. Before the humanism of the Renaissance turned man’s focus back to himself and his world, God was the focus of all education, and most learned men spent their academic lives studying, writing, and hand-copying Christian texts. Indeed, education was almost exclusively the domain of churchmen; neither peasants nor nobles saw the need to become literate. Manuscripts of the Bible, lectionaries, the Book of Hours, and other liturgical texts were painstakingly and beautifully illuminated by hand. Artisans and stonemasons spent untold hours producing intricate works of art to beautify churches. Unlike today’s monumental constructions, none of the great churches of the Middle Ages, nor any part of any church, bore the names of the kings and nobles who contributed the funds to build them. Their reward was in heaven; the church was to bring glory to God. There was no concept of separation between church and state, nor of toleration of heresy or of paganism. In short, most people in the Middle Ages sincerely loved the church, loved religion, and loved God, though all too often it was a zeal without knowledge (cf. Rom 10:2).

The application of the term “Dark Ages” to the Middle Ages is only partly correct, and mainly only for the early Middle Ages after the crumbling of classical civilization and the decentralization of political power. Some (post)modern historical writings misconstrue the term “Dark Ages” to mean that the church made all of Europe backward and ignorant because of its Christian beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were, indeed, periods of intellectual and cultural decline during the Middle Ages, but these were due to the collapse of governments and empires, resulting in a feudal society with a large class of poor and ignorant peasants. Invasions by barbarian pagans and Muslims also diluted Europe’s culture and learning, and forced masses of people into a hand-to-mouth existence. During these periods of darkness it was the church, particularly monks, which preserved culture and learning, and which kept European society from collapsing. Modern man owes a great deal to medieval monks, who worked diligently and faithfully to serve God and the world in the midst of troubled and uncertain times. Monks not only preserved and attempted to disseminate learning, they also continually reformed themselves and the church, they taught good agricultural practices to the peasants, and they helped to convert and civilize the barbarians. Far from propagating ignorance, the biblical teachings of Christianity actually gave the people of the Middle Ages a far more penetrating view of reality than their Muslim and pagan contemporaries—or than the confused and shifting understanding of the world put forth by modern secular scholarship. The decline of Greco-Roman culture was in many ways no loss at all, since Greco-Roman philosophy and religion was unbiblical and largely untrue. The real decline of Western culture came through the revival of Greek philosophy and art which began in earnest during the Renaissance and continued through the Enlightenment, finally coming to full fruition in theological liberalism and atheistic naturalism. As for scientific knowledge, the state of scientific knowledge fluctuated with rise and decline of nations and empires, since there was often no means to save the knowledge of the previous generation if it was not passed down directly. Scientific knowledge contracted in some areas while greatly expanding in others during the Middle Ages (especially construction techniques), being once again preserved and advanced mainly by monks—but in the end this was of little consequence to people who viewed life’s basic needs as spiritual. One could live with just as much fulfillment and spiritual depth in primitive conditions as in a scientifically advanced society.

Justo Gonzalez makes the following observation:

It will be clear that any evaluation of the Middle Ages, even at their highest point, will reflect the theological presuppositions on which such an evaluation is made. If one believes that the purpose of history is to evolve to the point where humanity comes of age and is emancipated from all that has traditionally bound it, one will value the Renaissance and the subsequent centuries as the time of emancipation from the religious and political authorities of the Middle Ages. If, on the other hand, one sees the human purpose as basically spiritual and believes that such purpose can only be accomplished within the structure and under the authority of a Christian order, one will value the Middle Ages as the time when religious authority was accepted most widely, when people were most concerned for their eternal destinations, and when doubts regarding crucial religious questions were less prevalent.

(Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., vol. 2, pp. 336-37)

Gonzalez’s observation must be tempered by the reminder that the sort of spirituality that was prominent in the Middle Ages resulted in most professing Christians going to hell. Nevertheless, Jesus and the apostles made no attempt to improve society, or to invent labor-saving devices or items of comfort. There are, of course, some such items whose proper use would result in the advancement of Christianity, such as the printing press, but these can also be turned to evil ends. For the man who values the things of Christ above the things of this life, he is able to feel fulfilled without inventions, the accumulation of wealth, or the creation of great human works. He is content to study, meditate, pray, suffer, witness, and die—all in the hope of a better resurrection. The Middle Ages, for all its problems and contradictions, ought to motivate us today to a life which values the spiritual and aims to serve God above all else.

Insights from Bible scholars at the 2016 ETS conference

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This past week was the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Antonio, Texas. About 2,500 evangelical scholars from around the world attended this year’s conference. The conference is a time for those who don’t see each other for the rest of the year to interact and share their research. In this post, I will summarize some insights from presentations I attended.

The theme of this year’s conference was the trinity. One of the more interesting presentations on that topic was given by Dr. Imad Shehadeh, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. Shehadeh argued that Islam did us a great favor by showing us what a system of theology would look like without the trinity. The main difficulty in such a theological system is that a unitarian “God” can have no essential relational or moral attributes. A one-person God could not have been loving before creation, since there was no one to love. A one-person God could not have been good or just before creation, since there was no one to show goodness or justice toward. This is the great theological problem in Islam. Islamic theologians say that all of God’s attributes arise from his will, not from his nature. God is merciful because he decides to be, not because mercy is part of his nature. And no one knows his will. The central attribute of God in Islam is power/will, not holiness. All of his relational attributes, including love and mercy, are subsets of his power. The result is a capricious and arbitrary god whose will is absolute, and can override even any stated promise or law. Muslim theologians will admit that they cannot be certain who will be in paradise and who will be in eternal torment, since making any such declaration would be placing a restriction on the will of Allah. There is even a question of how language could exist before creation in a unitarian system, since language is a means of communication, and a unitarian God would have no one to communicate with. In summary, any belief that God is good, loving, kind, holy, and so forth necessitates a belief in the trinitarian God of the Bible, for only a trinitarian God could have moral and relational attributes within Himself, as part of His essential nature.

David Falk gave an interesting presentation on Abraham’s 318 “trained men” (חָנִיכִים‎, a hapax legomenon), whom he led out to battle against a coalition of kings (Gen 14:14). These men are said to have been Abraham’s household slaves. While it may seem unusual for an individual such as Abraham (Abram) to have his own in-house military force, in Abraham’s historical context it was not so unusual. As a nomadic herdsman who lived in a land which lacked a central government, Abraham was responsible for his own protection and justice system. Abraham had to provide martial arts training for his slaves for his protection and theirs (they were protecting their own families as well as their master’s). Falk’s presentation focused on evidence from ancient Egypt for a martial arts tradition (qm’). Many reliefs and paintings from Dynasty 5 to Dynasty 22 in Egypt depict forms of wrestling and sport-fighting. Some of these depictions look similar to jujitsu. Some include a referee. Tomb 215 in Beni Hasan portrays 212 different types of martial arts techniques, including some using sticks and knives. The portrayal of similar scenes and techniques over such a long period of time (ca. 1,500 years) shows that this was a martial arts tradition, and not a mere fad. Often it is clear from the way the combatants are portrayed that they are foreign slaves. Since most native Egyptians were low-skilled farmers, ironically it was often foreign slaves who were given training for highly skilled jobs. Abraham had in fact spent time in Egypt and had been given slaves by Pharaoh (Gen 12:16), so he could have received a cadre of slaves with martial arts training, or he could have had his own slaves trained in Egypt. Esau may have inherited this group of slaves military training, as he came to meet Jacob with a 400-man security force, which he evidently used to conquer Seir/Edom (Gen 33:1). A second question Falk addressed was whether 318 men would be sufficient to defeat an army led by four kings. While Falk acknowledged that the army led by these kings could have numbered 10,000 or more based on figures reported in contemporary documents, the army would have been depleted after a long campaign of conquest and some major battles. Falk also cited numerous examples from the Amarna letters in which kings requested relatively small numbers of troops from Egypt in order to turn the tide of warfare against an opposing city-state. Often the requests are for 200-400 men, and in several cases they are for less than 100 men. Falk noted that only 300 highly trained Spartan warriors stopped an entire Persian army numbering in the millions at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The simple fact that Abraham’s men were highly trained in a martial arts tradition would have made them capable of engaging a much larger force. Abraham also employed astute military strategy, launching a surprise attack in the dead of night from two directions (Gen 14:15). Abraham did not completely wipe out the opposing army or kill the opposing kings, but he did force them to leave their captives and booty behind and flee (Gen 14:16). All in all, Falk’s research puts what has been a largely obscure passage in an interesting light.

On Wednesday morning, Crossway hosted a free breakfast with John Piper in order to promote Piper’s book A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness. Piper argued that even a child can know for certain that the message of the Christian gospel is true because the Bible is self-authenticating and does not need any external proof of its validity. If the Bible is the Word of God, then the glory of God cannot but shine through its pages—similar to the way the glory of God is seen through the created universe (Ps 19:1). In fact, 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 teaches that we come to know the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ by perceiving the glory of God in our hearts as we hear the Word of God. The whole Bible authenticates itself by the shining of the glory of God in and through it. The glory of God is self-authenticating to all who genuinely perceive it. I purchased Piper’s book at the conference.

I attended a lunch meeting on Wednesday for scholars who believe in a literal six-day creation. One of the points of interest to come out of this meeting was that the identification of God as Creator is central to the biblical theology of who God is. When Jonah was asked which God he worshiped, he replied that he worships the God of heaven, who created the world (Jonah 1:9). When Paul was explaining God to the pagan philosophers in Athens, he identified Him as the Creator of the world and the Lord of heaven and earth (Acts 17:24).

Dan Wallace gave the presidential address at the banquet on Wednesday evening. He noted that while it is unknown who invented the codex (book), Christians were largely responsible for its popularization. In the first 500 years of the Christian era, 90 percent of Christian books were codices, whereas only 14 percent of non-Christian books were. Scrolls were too unwieldy to hold the large collections of texts in the Christian Bible in a single volume, so Christians used codices instead. Wallace noted three landmarks in the history of bookmaking: [1] the invention of the codex (1st century AD); [2] the invention of the moveable type printing press (1454), one year after Constantinople fell to the Muslims and scribes from the east brought their manuscripts to the west (moved a memorizing society to a reading society); [3] the advent of the digital age (moved a reading society to a reference society; we now read only snippets, not books). Wallace also noted in passing the interesting observation that Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin as dictator of the Soviet Union, likely memorized all four Gospels as a child. At the end of his address, Wallace took aim at people who supposedly do not want the Evangelical Theological Society to include the left wing of evangelicalism. In reality, the ETS leadership has been making executive decisions which support the left wing of evangelicalism against the larger right wing (primarily Baptists), especially on the issue of women in Bible teaching and leadership roles. The most conservative members of the ETS have also been given progressively less prominent places at the conferences. This has led to some tension within the ETS in recent years. When leaders were elected at the business meeting on Thursday, the Southern Baptists made nominations from the floor, but none of their preferred candidates won.

At a lunch meeting sponsored by Tuktu Tours, Mark Wilson summarized an article he coauthored with Thomas Davis in the Pharos Journal of Theology. Acts 13:13 does not say why young John Mark left Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and returned to his home in Jerusalem. Quite possibly Paul and Barnabas were originally intending to sail to Alexandria, and John Mark dropped out after they changed plans and sailed to Perga instead. Ships sailing from Paphos, on the southern coast of Cyprus, typically followed the prevailing winds south to Alexandria; if Paul had originally intended to sail north to Perga, he would have planned to sail from a port on the northern coast of Cyprus. Alexandria had a large Jewish community, and would have been a natural place to go on a missionary journey. Church tradition strongly connects Mark with the church in Alexandria, so he and Barnabas did likely go to Alexandria after parting ways with Paul in Acts 15:39-40. What made Paul change his plans was his providential encounter with the proconsul at Paphos, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12). Inscriptions discovered in Turkey show that Sergius Paulus had family connections in Antioch of Pisidia. Thus, he probably made a personal plea to Paul and Barnabas to go to Pisidian Antioch and share the gospel with his relatives, which they immediately did (Acts 13:14-50). John Mark was accustomed to living in a large urban center—he had spent his entire life in a mansion in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12)—and he did not feel comfortable traveling through the small towns and rural areas of central Turkey (Acts 15:38). Evidence from the New Testament and church history places Mark’s ministry in four of the largest urban centers in the Roman Empire: Jerusalem, Syrian Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome.

Bryant Wood of Associates for Biblical Research gave a presentation on the location of Bethel. It is often difficult to identify the location of biblical sites (aside from the most prominent ones) because, while the general area of the site may be known, there are usually remains of many ancient towns and villages in that area, with no ancient signposts giving their names. Bethel lies in the vicinity of the modern city of Ramallah in the West Bank. W. F. Albright, Anson Rainey, and Israel Finkelstein are notable proponents of the view that Bethel is to be identified with the Arab village of Beitin. This is currently the consensus view in standard archaeology texts. However, Bryant Wood and his late colleague David Livingstone identify Bethel with the nearby site of El-Bireh. One of their arguments for this identification is that El-Bireh fits with statements made by the fourth century historian Eusebius about the location of Bethel. Eusebius states that Bethel is 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem. Several Roman milestones (mile markers) have been found on the road which leads north from Jerusalem, although a number is only preserved on the marker for Mile 5. Using these milestones and our knowledge of the approximate length of a Roman mile, we know that El-Bireh lies 11.5 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Beitin lies 14 miles from Jerusalem. In addition, Eusebius stated that Gibeon lies 4 Roman miles west of Bethel. While El-Bireh is 4 Roman miles east of Gibeon, Beitin is 6 Roman miles east of Gibeon. Wood also argued that the archaeology of El-Bireh fits much better with Bethel than does the archaeology of Beitin. Bethel became a prominent city during the divided monarchy period in ancient Israel, after Jeroboam made it one of the two main centers of pagan Israelite worship (1 Kgs 12:28-29). He built a great high place of sacrifice in Bethel, complete with a golden calf and a large altar (1 Kgs 12:32-33). The other high place of sacrifice built by Jeroboam was located in Dan; this site has been well-excavated, and its high place is very impressive. The site of Beitin has been well-excavated over a period of decades, but what was found there does not match what one would expect for Bethel. No cultic objects (i.e., idolatrous figurines and other objects used for pagan worship) have been found at Beitin, in comparison to 89 cultic objects from Tel Dan. Even Albright acknowledged that there was no evidence of Jeroboam’s sanctuary at Beitin; and there were few remains from the Iron IIA period, when Bethel reached its greatest prominence. Beitin is a very unimpressive site in comparison to Tel Dan. Wood suggests that the site of Ras et-Tahuna in El-Bireh is the likely location of the high place of Jeroboam. This is a hill with a large platform which lies 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem. While it is unexcavated, much pottery from the Iron IIA period is visible on the surface, including a horse-head cultic figurine which Wood displayed in his presentation. El-Bireh is also an unexcavated site, but surveys have shown that it has many remains from Iron IIA. El-Bireh and Ras et-Tahuna are also more directly east of the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir (biblical Ai) than is Beitin, which fits with the geographical markers given in Genesis 12:8 and Joshua 7:2. While some scholars suggest that the Arabic “Beitin” preserves the ancient name of “Bethel,” Wood argued that it is closer to “Beth-aven” (Josh 7:2). While Wood’s theory is hard to prove in the absence of archaeological excavations at El-Bireh, he certainly was correct when he observed that many conclusions in the field of archaeology are not based on evidence, but rather on the opinions of eminent scholars.

The renowned scholar Edwin Yamauchi, who has studied twenty-two languages, declared that this conference would be his last. He noted that while we often associate worship with music, the Hebrew and Greek words translated “worship” in the Bible actually mean “to bow down,” “to prostrate oneself.” Yamauchi also noted that verses from the Quran are inscribed on the façade of the Dome of the Rock, but they have variations from the current accepted text of the Quran, which leads scholars to conclude that the text of the Quran was still not fixed by the time the Dome of the Rock was constructed (late 7th century). Yamauchi also noted that in New Testament times there were basically no independent farmers in Israel, only tenants for landowners. This is because the tithing requirement in the Mosaic Law was interpreted as essentially a tax on agricultural products, which meant (in the minds of the rabbis) that only farmers had to pay tithes, and profits made through other occupations were exempt. Jews therefore generally avoided the occupation of farming in the first century AD.

Scott Aniol gave a well-researched presentation on the famed hymnwriter Isaac Watts’ views on the trinity. Essentially, Watts always considered himself to be an orthodox trinitarian, and his hymns are replete with sound trinitarian theology. However, Watts walked into a theological minefield later in his career while trying to precisely define biblical trinitarianism against popular forms of unitarianism and Arianism. Some of the things which he wrote in a treatise published in 1724­–25 were controversial, and he retracted them in later works. He still held some idiosyncratic views, but explicitly affirmed the Athanasian Creed. Claims that Watts was unitarian are wholly untrue. In the end, however, Watts’ theological legacy is the theology expressed in his hymns, not the theology expressed in his books. Watts’ hymns have served the church well in teaching correctly about the triune nature of God.

Beyond all the presentations, the ETS meeting was a great opportunity to meet with old friends, as well as to make new ones. The weather in San Antonio was perfect. The conference was held by the beautiful Riverwalk, and the unforgettable Alamo was less than half a mile from the hotel. It is hard to think of a better venue for a conference in November. For those scholars who would like to brave the weather in Rhode Island for next year’s meeting, details should appear on the ETS website within a few months. Hope to see you there!

Does the Bible allow a woman to be President?

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The upcoming presidential election in the United States is unique in that a female candidate—Hillary Clinton—is featured at the top of a major party’s ticket for the first time. This is reflective of a huge upending of values in American culture, as it was less than 100 years ago when the U.S. Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote. Even thirty or forty years ago, if a woman was nominated for president, many evangelical Christian leaders would have spoken out against her, arguing that it is unbiblical and immoral for a woman to be president of the country. Most evangelical seminaries did not even admit female students before the 1980s or 1990s. Yet I have not heard any Christian leaders so much as even raise the issue of whether the Bible allows a woman to be president during this election cycle. How quickly our values have changed!

Today, either it is taken for granted that it is it is morally acceptable for women to occupy positions of leadership, or else there is so much hostility to the contrary position that no one on any part of the political spectrum dares even to raise the issue, not even on talk radio or on social media. Yet for much of the history of the United States, most people in the country believed it would be morally wrong for a woman to be president. In fact, most leaders of most countries in all the history of the world have been men, so this is not just a viewpoint unique to people who historically lived in the United States.

Since we as Christians are to be guided by God’s Word in all that we believe and do, the answer to the question of whether it is morally permissible for a woman to be president can only be resolved through a study of what the Bible has to say about the issue. One of the clearest statements in the Bible on the role of women is 1 Timothy 2:12But I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. This verse gives a blanket prohibition against women exercising authority over men. While Paul is speaking of rules for the church, if women are not permitted to exercise authority over men or even to teach in the church, surely it is also morally impermissible for a woman to exercise authority over an entire country. Paul explains the reason for this prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. First, it is because Adam was created before Eve, which set the man in a position of primacy. Second, the fact that Eve was deceived by the serpent while Adam was not shows that men have a greater capacity for discernment than women and therefore a greater inherent ability to lead. These are principles which would apply just as well to the issue of women occupying positions of leadership in government as they would to the issue of women as leaders in the church.

The New Testament does not comment directly on qualifications for political leaders, since the early church had no role in the governance of the Roman Empire. In the Old Testament, politics and religion were closely linked in the nation of Israel, although here again it was not the responsibility of the people to choose their rulers. The Old Testament does not give a list of principles for choosing a king; it says only to appoint the king chosen by Yahweh, who was to be an Israelite (Deut 17:15). To understand the criteria by which God chose kings, we can examine the choices which God made.

It is striking to the modern reader of the Old Testament that every king of Israel and Judah appointed by God was male. God never appointed a woman to rule over his people! There was only one ruling queen in the whole history of the Israelite monarchy—the wicked Athaliah, who usurped power in a coup and was overthrown by the high priest in a counter-coup. Some point to Deborah as an example of a female leader. Judges 4:4 identifies Deborah as a “prophetess” who was involved in the activity of judging. As a prophetess, she did not speak her own judgment and her own message; when people came to her with disputes, she would inquire of Yahweh and return His answer. In this sense, she was like Huldah (2 Chr 34:22-28). These prophetesses were not set in positions of authority over men; they were simply relaying messages from God to them. It does not seem that Deborah actually preached to a mixed audience, or was teaching the Law to the people. It is significant that Deborah called a man, Barak, to lead the army of Israel into battle (Judg 4:6).

Another means of understanding the criteria by which God chose leaders is to look at criticisms of leaders by the prophets. In Isaiah 3:12, God’s people are said to be pitied when women and children rule over them. However one may interpret this verse, the presence of female rulers is definitely viewed as a bad thing. God is saying that Israel will lack qualified leadership.

Interestingly, one of the qualifications for being a king chosen by God was not to be a true believer or worshiper of Yahweh. God anointed Jehu to be king over Israel because of certain good things he would do, even though Jehu was an idolater who never repented of the worship of Jeroboam’s golden calves (2 Kgs 9–10). God anointed Jehu in order to destroy the dynasty of Ahab and the religion of Ahab, which was something that apparently no believer in Israel could have done so effectively. While God disapproved of Jehu’s idolatry, He promised him a four-generation dynasty for the good that he did (2 Kgs 10:29-31).

Despite the fact that it was possible for a woman to be a prophetess, almost all the prophets were men, and every significant prophet and writer of Scripture was male. All the priests, the temple musicians, and official temple servants were required to be male. All of Israel’s military commanders and warriors were male. The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant was a mark that only males could receive. All of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus were male, and all of the later apostles were male. In the church, women are barred from positions of authority and teaching, not only by 1 Timothy 2:8-15, but also in the qualifications for elders/pastors (“husband of one wife,” 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:5-6) and by 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, which prohibits women from speaking or asking questions during church services and commands them to be in subjection to male authority. The idea that women should be in subjection to the men who are in authority over them is not just something that applies within the church; Paul cites “the Law” as the basis for this command in order to show that it is not something new or culturally-specific (1 Cor 14:34). Scripture presents women as designed to occupy a role in support of men (cf. Gen 2:18).

From a biblical point of view, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is obvious: “No way!” Why, then, does it seem that most Christians have no problem with women in positions of leadership? The answer is different for different individual Christians. Some Christians just never have heard a different point of view than the one they were taught by the culture around them. But in too many cases professing Christians simply do not care what the Bible says, and they are not serious about doing everything God wants them to do. They have already decided to commit to egalitarianism, and are not open to considering arguments to the contrary. Following this pattern, as our culture continues to move away from God, increasing numbers of Christians are adopting similarly anti-biblical positions on other cultural issues, of which the most flagrant is acceptance of homosexuality.

Finally, a disclaimer: while some people may view this post as “sexist” or “bigoted,” it is intended to be about the Bible’s teaching on women in positions of political leadership, not about my personal opinion per se. Feminists are actually divided on the issue of the Bible’s teaching about the role of women. On the one hand, there are many Christian feminists who attempt to read the Bible as a feminist book. But there are also many non-Christian feminists who would argue that the Bible is a biased, chauvinistic book which was the product of male-dominated societies and cultures. Thus, the view that the Bible prohibits women from positions of political leadership is not inherently a feminist or anti-feminist viewpoint. However, as a Christian believer I do take what the Bible says as the definitive standard for faith and practice, and I encourage other Christians to do the same.

The importance of corporate confession of sin

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It has now been well over 100 years since a large number of Bible-believing American churches separated from mainline denominations because those denominations had abandoned belief in the Bible and in certain fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. When these churches left their denominations, they stopped using the denominational liturgy as well. While there are certain advantages to having a “free” service, there are also some serious disadvantages. One problem that has arisen in the evangelical church as a consequence of the removal of liturgy is an erroneous view of the Trinity. Many evangelical Christians believe that there is no distinction between the Father and Jesus, and I often hear people thanking the Father for dying on the cross for their sins—an appalling heresy which would be obvious if some affirmation of faith were read each week by the congregation.

Another standard component of high church liturgy that is missing in most evangelical church services is corporate confession of sin. The hymn or prayer “Lord, have mercy upon us” (Kyrie Eleison) was consistently a part of Christian liturgies since the early church. Historic liturgies usually also contained a separate prayer of confession (e.g., “Merciful God, we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed”) and a prayer for forgiveness. Sometimes these prayers are read by a minister; sometimes they are read responsively by the congregation. Admittedly, these prayers and hymns often have theological faults; they may sound like a plea to be saved anew every week, and the minister may wrongly pronounce the congregation’s sins forgiven on the basis that they have read the right words or are part of the right church. Many people wrongly believe that performing the liturgy will get them into heaven. But there is also a biblical model for corporate confession; the most notable example is the Old Testament Day of Atonement, in which the high priest first made atonement for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people assembled before him. Many Psalms also include confession of sin (e.g., Pss 79:8-9; 130; compare Ezra 9; Neh 1; Dan 9). In the New Testament, the Lord taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). In a non-liturgical church service, corporate confession of sin could be as simple as a sentence in a pastoral prayer, or it could be an entire prayer where the congregation is asked to kneel. The pastor confesses that “I and my people have sinned greatly” and prays for God to have mercy upon His people.

In most evangelical churches I have attended, prayers offered during the service are about the worship service, needs in the congregation, missionaries, the sermon, the congregation’s response to the sermon, and so forth. I do often hear calls in churches for individuals to repent of specific sins. I rarely hear a pastor call the whole congregation to join with him in confessing their sinfulness and asking God to have mercy upon them. Whatever the reason for this may be, it certainly breeds spiritual arrogance. There does not seem to be a sense that the pastor and the whole congregation are in dire need of God’s mercy and grace on a daily basis. In some instances pastors may be too proud to confess that they are sinful. More commonly, there are people in evangelical congregations would be offended if the pastor confessed that they are very sinful people. Many people in churches believe that they are basically good, and only sin occasionally. But perhaps this is as much a product of failing to practice corporate confession of sin as it is a reason for not practicing it. If a congregation is told every week that they and their pastor(s) are offending God by many of the things they do and say and think, they will not think as highly of themselves (cf. Rom 12:3). They will recognize their neediness before God, and will understand that they must recognize and battle the sin that is in their life. They will not be so offended when a pastor asks God to have mercy on “us” for “our” sins and to bless us even though we do not deserve it (cf. Psalm 103:10).

Corporate confession of sin is not necessary to be saved, since salvation is an individual and personal matter. But corporate confession is an act of humility and a prayer for needed grace (unmerited favor). It also communicates to people that the sin nature has affected every aspect of their being, and that they are very far from perfection. Verbalizing the fact of one’s sinfulness on a weekly basis will not only result in obtaining grace and mercy from God, but will also guard against the rise of Pharisaical attitudes in the church in which some people view themselves in a perfectionistic manner and have difficulty either acknowledging their own faults or forgiving those of others—attitudes which have unfortunately been all too common in churches that do not practice corporate confession of sin.

Is playing the lottery the way to get rich?

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The gambling craze continues unabated in the United States. The amount of money Americans spend on lottery tickets has increased every year since the first state lottery was introduced in 1965, even when economic recessions have led to decreased spending in other economic sectors. In 2014, Americans spent more money on lottery tickets than they spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets, and music combined. Americans spend even more money on casino gambling than on lottery tickets, and they spend more than twice as much money on illegal sports betting than on lottery tickets and casino gambling combined; more money is bet on football alone every year than is spent on either casino gambling or lottery tickets. And legal betting (on sports and many other things) is increasingly popular, as is fantasy sports gambling.

Many poor and middle-income people play the lottery because they believe it is the only hope they have of ever becoming rich. A 2010 study showed that American households with annual take-home incomes of less than $13,000 spent an average of 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets. Let’s do the math. Nine percent of $13,000 is $1,170/year, or $97.50/month. Using the government’s compound interest calculator, if that same money were saved and invested in the market for 40 years at a 7 percent rate of interest (the average rate of return from the market over time), it would be worth $250,000 (compounding the interest quarterly). After 50 years, it would be worth $520,000. Thus, it is not true that the only way a poor person could ever hope to become rich is to buy lottery tickets and hope for a big win. The few poor people who do actually win big usually spend their winnings quickly anyway, because they have not learned financial responsibility and discipline. If someone living in poverty had simply saved the (gross) money he spent on lottery tickets, he would have $520,000 in an investment account at the end of his working life (from ages 18 to 68). Most poor people could easily save more money by eliminating some wasteful spending; for example, the average smoker spends 14 percent of his income on cigarettes. Other big unnecessary expenditures include cable TV, smartphones, and alcoholic beverages. It is safe to assume that the majority of poor and middle-income Americans could save $200/month over 50 years; if that money were invested in the market it would be worth over $1,000,000 and a low-income person could retire a millionaire.

Powerball is one of the most popular lottery games, due to its huge jackpots. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292 million. Tickets cost either $2 or $3, depending on the options selected. Let’s say that someone who is intent on winning Powerball buys 10 tickets for $2 each every day, or 3,653 tickets every year. In order to have a better than 50 percent chance of winning the jackpot, that person would have to keep buying 10 tickets every day for 40,000 years! Obviously it is extremely unlikely that you will win the lottery in your lifetime, no matter how many tickets you buy. But if you consistently save and invest your money, the odds are extremely good that it will result in gaining a modest fortune. Saving is the wise choice.

Of course, there are other ways to become wealthy besides saving and investing. Many poor people have become wealthy by starting businesses, by creating and patenting inventions, or by achievements and promotions in their workplace. On the other hand, while hard work and inventiveness are admirable, I disagree with the philosophy promoted by many financial gurus that becoming rich should be one’s goal in life, and that people should only choose careers with lucrative incomes. The Bible is replete with warnings against the dangers of riches (Matt 19:23-24; Luke 6:24; James 1:9-11; 5:1-6), and it specifically warns against the love of money (Luke 16:13; 1 Tim 6:9-10) and trust in money (Prov 11:28; 23:5; 1 Tim 6:17-19). Yet if you want to give away your money, the right thing to do is to give it to the church or some other Christian cause, not to gamble it away. And we need to be wise stewards of the resources God has given us, including our financial resources. The Bible teaches that, as a general rule, people who make wise choices and work hard tend to accumulate wealth and enjoy financial stability (Prov 3:16; 8:18; 10:4; 14:24; 24:3-4), merely as a result of responsible living. Also, preparing for the future is a wise thing to do, and certainly it is a good idea in the modern world to save up money for the final years of one’s life. Buying lottery tickets will hurt your financial state, not help it.

For additional reasons why gambling is inadvisable, see this post.

What does it mean to partake of communion in an unworthy manner?

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In all of the churches I have attended, observation of the Lord’s Supper (communion) is preceded by a time of introspection, usually with a solemn warning given by the pastor. In some cultures there is a time of confession, in which people will stand up or come forward and confess to sins they have committed and/or will ask forgiveness from others in the congregation. While certainly it is a good idea for Christians to identify sin in their lives and repent of it, the Bible does not make this a requirement for participation in communion. The Bible passage that is at question on this issue is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (ASV):

But in giving you this charge, I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you. 20 When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper: 21 for in your eating each one taketh before [other] his own supper; and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What, have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you? In this I praise you not. 23 For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; 24 and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink [it], in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come. 27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. 30 For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. 31 But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. 33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, wait one for another. 34 If any man is hungry, let him eat at home; that your coming together be not unto judgment. And the rest will I set in order whensoever I come.

A bit of historical context is necessary to understand Paul’s instructions. The Corinthian church consisted of many local house churches, each with its own pastor. These small congregations would meet together periodically in a joint assembly. This assembly included a shared meal (probably called the Lord’s Supper, or possibly the “love feast” [ἀγάπη], as in in Jude 12), and the communion ordinance was observed as part of this meal. This practice had a good historical precedent: when the Lord first instituted the communion ordinance with His disciples, the bread was broken as part of a meal, and the cup was drunk after the meal.

While Paul must have personally directed the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when he planted the Corinthian church, the church had badly perverted this ordinance due to their selfishness, to the extent that Paul tells them in v. 17 that they would be better off not holding their joint services at all than doing them as they were. The problem is that some people (likely the rich) were hogging the food and drink during the meal, while others (likely the poor) were going hungry. Presumably a ceremonial bread was eaten during the meal and a cup was drunk after the meal, though Paul felt the need to give specific instructions about this as well. Those who were eating and drinking gluttonously while refusing to share their food with other believers were making a mockery of what was supposed to be a solemn remembrance of Christ’s death and their union with Christ’s body (the church).

Paul’s corrective is, first of all, to eat something at home if someone is ravenously hungry (vv. 26, 34), so that everyone will have enough to eat at the shared meal. Then, when meals are shared by the whole assembly, people are to give deference to others and ensure that everyone gets something to eat (v. 33). The Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated properly, with a formal eating of the bread during the meal and drinking of the cup afterward (vv. 23-28). Finally, Paul gives a solemn warning against observing the communion ordinance improperly, since improper observance had resulted in the deaths and illnesses of many Corinthian Christians. Because God takes abuse of the Lord’s Supper very seriously, Paul commands every individual in the church to examine himself when he takes communion to make sure he is doing it in the right way (vv. 27-32).

One of the interpretive issues in this passage is what it means to “eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” (v. 27). In the Corinthian assembly, eating and drinking in an unworthy manner meant eating and drinking excessively at the communal meal, with the result that other brothers went hungry. Other forms of partaking unworthily could be imagined, but it is only a sin in the manner of partaking communion that is spoken of. Notice Paul does not say that you are better off not taking communion than partaking with unconfessed sin in your life, nor does he say, “confess your sins before taking communion.” He only warns against sinning in the actual manner in which communion is observed.

It should be emphasized that this is about partaking in an unworthy manner, not in an unworthy state. It is about an unworthy manner, not an unworthy man. That is what is v. 27 states. Verse 29 indicates that this is a sin which fails to treat the body of Christ—the church—properly (cf. 1 Cor 10:17). In spite of all the moral problems in Corinth, Paul never tells the Corinthians that they must repent of their immorality before they can take communion.

Read the passage again if you are not convinced. Paul never says that a genuine Christian should not, in certain circumstances, participate in communion. (Note: I think in that culture, children would not have been allowed to participate in either baptism or communion until coming of age; also, persons under church discipline would be barred from attending church meetings until they repented, and therefore could not participate in communion.) It is therefore unbiblical for a pastor to say that people with “unconfessed sin” should not participate in communion. Communion, like baptism, is an ordinance for every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, not just for an elite class of “spiritual” believers. (Many churches and pastors also refuse to baptize new or immature believers, and will only baptize Christians who are deemed to have reached a certain level of spiritual maturity.)

In v. 28, Paul does not say, “Do not eat of the bread or drink of the cup if you have unconfessed sin in your life.” Instead, he says that when you take communion you need to examine yourself to make sure you are doing it in the right way. This examining is not a deep introspection which involves recalling and confessing every sin one can think of. Instead, it is a brief consideration of whether one is indeed treating others right during the communion meal. If there is a problem, the solution is not to “let the elements pass,” but is rather to correct one’s manner of partaking right then and there. Paul never recommends that a believer not participate in communion or that the church should forbid unspiritual believers from participating in communion. It is only unbelievers who are forbidden to participate in communion, since communion signifies participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17).

The Old Testament equivalent to taking communion in an unworthy manner would be a priest who offered incense that was not commanded (Lev 10:1-2), or someone who was not a Levite offering a sacrifice or burning incense (1 Sam 13:7-13; 2 Chr 26:16-21). The issue in such cases is the manner in which a ritual is performed, not general sins in the life of the worshiper.

Misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 has caused much unnecessary anguish for Christians, and has caused many to needlessly refuse to partake of this ordinance when they could have and should have done so. Some people wonder if they are good enough to take communion. Often it is those with the most acute sensitivity to sin and the greatest fear of God who decide they are not worthy to take communion, when in fact these people may be the most spiritual members of the congregation. On the flip side of the coin, there are people who habitually skip communion because they do not want to give up specific sins, and they think by skipping communion they can continue living in these sins without experiencing God’s chastisement. I have heard some pastors name specific sins and declare that those who have committed those sins cannot participate in communion. All of this is wholly unbiblical. There is no sin that effectively bars a genuine Christian from participating in communion, except a sin in the manner of participation itself. Christ commanded His followers to observe the communion ordinance (“this do in remembrance of Me”). Communion is mandatory for all adult Christians (assuming we are speaking of communion properly observed, not, e.g., the Catholic Mass).

At the moment a Christian is saved (justified), all of his sins are forgiven—past, present, and future. The Christian’s status before God is “forgiven” no matter whether individual sins committed recently have been specifically confessed or not. He is part of the body of Christ, forever. There is therefore no reason to bar him from an ordinance which signifies participation in Christ’s body (the church). However, since God takes this ordinance very seriously, those who treat it lightly by mistreating other believers in the way they observe it can expect to experience God’s chastisement. As far as other sins are concerned, God will chasten believers for those sins whether they take communion or not (cf. Heb 12:4-11). Thus, while many Christians who do not want to repent of a sinful lifestyle have been led to believe that they can avoid God’s chastisement by not participating in communion, this is simply not the case. But only those who sin in the actual manner in which they participate in communion will receive God’s chastisement for partaking in an unworthy manner.

Could Donald Trump be a successful pastor?

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I do not desire to wade deeply into the politics of this year’s election season in the United States. I don’t see political action as something that will truly help people or solve the world’s problems. But the thought occurred to me the other day: what if Donald Trump had decided to start a church instead of running for president? Could the Trumpster succeed in the pastorate, as he has in politics? Trump is a businessman with a pragmatic, “do-whatever-it-takes-to-win” mentality. If he had decided to become a pastor, he might buy a beautiful building for his church, or, more likely, build a grand new one himself. He would hire experts who would tell him how to set up a church, get it running, and attract the initial congregation. He would find a way to get ordained. He would hire musicians to play whatever kind of music seemed most suitable. Every church service would be an impressive show, maybe with a steak dinner following. Experts on homiletics would write Trump’s sermons, which he would deliver with gusto. Sunday evenings might feature a concert in an outdoor amphitheater and fireworks afterward. Trump’s controversial comments on Muslims and politicians would make the news and lead people to believe that he is standing up for what is right. He would belittle pastors and churches who oppose him in order to get people to leave those churches and come to his church, which would be so much better.

With a high divorce rate among evangelicals and so much tolerance of sin, it is unlikely that most people would be bothered by Trump’s divorces, beauty pageants, casinos, and so forth. The standard of morality espoused by Trump would basically match what most people already believe and would give church members considerable freedom to live as they please. Trump’s theology would be somewhat erratic, novel, and idiosyncratic, but would likely be tolerated by many. In any case, Trump could not be voted out by the congregation, since he would own the church building. Perhaps he would offer perks for faithful members, such as free vacations at one of his resorts. Maybe he would give away raffle tickets every Sunday before the worship service, with a drawing held afterward. If the number of congregants started to decrease, he would immediately find out why and would shift course to bring them back. Big names would frequent Trump’s church to offer seminars and lead retreats. The church would have classes on financial responsibility and wealth creation, seminars on marriage and parenting, addiction recovery groups, a food pantry, and even Bible studies. Some of the teaching would seem very sound. The church would have a large counseling staff to help people work through their problems, and all of the counselors would be fully credentialed and experienced. Everything would be done first class. The youth group would take fun trips and compete for college scholarships; adults would go on cruises and take tours of the holy land. Trump’s staff would ghost-write books for him, which would make the bestseller lists. All things considered, I think if Donald Trump had decided to become a pastor instead of running for president, he would be widely regarded as a very successful pastor with a well-run church and a large following. Trump’s church might look very much like other prominent churches in the country, but with everything done bigger and better.

Many popular pastors of megachurches (and their wannabes in smaller churches) do in fact have the same pragmatic mentality as Donald Trump. I would suggest that these pastors and their followers have lost sight of what really makes a church successful. First and foremost, the church belongs to Jesus Christ, not to pastors or congregations, which means that things must be done His way, not our way. The church’s aim is to please Jesus Christ, not to build a personal empire or garner a huge following. The ends do not justify the means when it comes to church growth, if numerical growth is not the true goal of the church.

Decisions about how to do things in churches and Christian schools have now for decades been driven by pragmatic considerations about expansion and money. If starting a Saturday night service will bring in more people, then let’s do it, and let’s say that it doesn’t matter what day of the week you come to church. If having a rock band and a dance team attracts more people than having an organ and a choir, then let’s have the rock band and dance team. If most people now approve of women preaching, then let’s allow women to preach. If hosting a $100/plate dinner will raise funds for the building, then let’s have the dinner. Many other examples could be cited. The problem is that the church is not making its decisions by asking such questions as “What does God want us to do?” or “What does the Bible say we should do?” The questions driving the church’s decisions are ones such as “What will make the church grow?” and “What will bring in money?” It is time for the church to start making decisions again based solely on the Bible, and not on what people think is right or what will make a church “grow.”

There is no doubt that applying pragmatic strategies to achieve growth in a church can produce results. One reason why the Mormons have survived and expanded in spite of their patently absurd theology is because they require members go on evangelistic mission trips (two years full-time after high school) and to give ten percent of their income to the church. The Jehovah’s Witnesses require their members to do door-to-door evangelism. It is, of course, a good thing when Bible-believing Christians go on mission trips, give tithes to the church, and evangelize. However, the Bible requires that such things be done voluntarily; making them compulsory is a pragmatic shortcut to achieve church growth. Growth produced by shortcuts is always shallow and superficial, since it is not rooted in an overarching commitment to faithfulness to God and to His Word.

I may well end up voting for Donald Trump for president this fall, in spite of not agreeing with him about many things. But I would never vote for Donald Trump (or any of the other major candidates, for that matter) to be my pastor. It may be okay to vote for the least worst candidate for president (if your conscience allows you to do so), but the Bible sets forth qualifications for the pastorate that every pastor must meet. Donald Trump does not meet the biblical requirements to be a pastor, as stated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. Of course, Trump is not a pastor and has not said that he wants to be one. But I think if he had tried to become a prominent pastor, he could have gained wide acceptance. There already are many talented, pragmatic people who have made a name for themselves in the pastorate and are widely considered to be successful pastors, who nevertheless do not even meet the basic biblical qualifications for becoming a pastor.

We need to stop measuring success by numbers and fame, and start measuring success the way God measures it—by faithfulness to His Word.

The lie of gambling

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Casinos, lotteries, sports betting, and fantasy sports betting are ubiquitous in today’s America. Gambling is no longer the domain of Las Vegas or the local bar. There was a time, not too long ago, when gambling was taboo in evangelicalism; pastors would preach against it, and Christian schools would expel people who were caught doing it. Now it seems that gambling is increasingly seen as acceptable in evangelical Christian circles. Is this because the reasons for historic Christian opposition to gambling are no longer relevant in today’s culture, or is it because the church has wrongly acceded to the values of the culture?

Lotteries and casinos make money by relying on mathematical axioms (probability theory) which allow them to calculate revenue very precisely and reliably. Consider, for example, a lottery game in which a player has a 1 in 100 chance of winning $80, and game pieces are $1 each. If the game is played enough times—say 10,000—the laws of mathematics guarantee that the lottery will operate at about a 20 percent profit. Of course, it is possible that a player who only plays the game one time will come out $79 ahead. However, most people who buy lottery tickets buy them on a regular basis—especially if they win—and this means that they are mathematically guaranteed to lose money over time, just as the lottery operator is guaranteed to make money. The one exception is the few winners of large lottery jackpots; however, the odds of winning these jackpots are so small that someone who spends $10 on tickets every day for 40 years will very likely have just wasted $146,100. Actually, if that $10/day (= $304.38/mo.) was invested in the market at a 7% rate of interest (the average rate of return from the market over time), it would be worth $730,000 after 40 years, according to the government’s compound interest calculator. Smart people will do the math and go with the sure bet. Even if you only spend $10 a year on tickets when the jackpots are huge, that is still $10 a year you have wasted, not to mention the time you spent standing in line, ordering your tickets, and checking the numbers.

Some people might not understand why they are less likely to make money on gambling by playing frequently than by playing one time. The reason for this is that you can’t keep beating the odds. Let’s say you have a one in three chance of winning a particular game. If you play the game twice, you still have a one in three chance of winning on the second play, but your odds of winning both times are one in nine. You don’t have to win every time to come out ahead, but you do have to keep winning against the odds in order to make money over the long term. While the odds of making money on a particular game play may be one in three (still not a good bet), the odds of making money by playing that game thousands of times are astronomically high and mathematically impossible. In other words, since the games follow established mathematical principles, if you play enough times, your results will align with the odds. This is why the house always comes out ahead—with enough plays, they are mathematically guaranteed to do so. Using horoscopes, charms, and “lucky” numbers won’t change the mathematics and improve your odds.

One can also question whether it would actually be beneficial to win the lottery. Many virtues are produced through hard work, a disciplined life, and a sense of reliance on God to meet one’s daily needs. For most people who win big lottery jackpots, it does not turn out to be the fantastic dream they had imagined it would be. Instead, it ruins them—they waste their time and money leading a dissolute life, and sometimes they end up being just as broke as they were before. So the lottery is a lose-lose gamble—if you never hit the jackpot, you are out all your ticket money; if you do hit it, it wrecks your life. The few lottery winners who have not been ruined by their winnings are the ones who have continued to work hard as if they had not won and who have followed the guidance of financial advisors.

Betting is a little bit different than buying lottery tickets. Sometimes people can find ways to place bets in which the odds favor them and they can actually make money, such as people who find clever ways to bet on a game of golf. But swindling your playing partners out of money is certainly not a moral or ethical thing to do, and it is legally and physically dangerous. Since the only way you can make money on betting is if someone else loses, the whole practice of betting is unethical. In addition, betting usually leads to other unethical practices, such as rigged sports matches. Even if the odds of making money on sports betting were 50-50, the house always takes a cut, with the result that you will lose money over time. Surely it is a better use of one’s money and a more honorable occupation to work a job and earn a regular paycheck. And the best way never to lose a bet is never to place one.

Since the main problem with gambling is that it is a waste of money, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with accepting free lottery tickets (e.g., 10 free plays online for registering with a promo code) or free tokens to play in a casino. However, other considerations ought to give us pause about this. First, the reason why casinos offer free play is to get people hooked, and this is a serious danger (especially if you win). Second, if someone sees you playing games in the casino or walking into the lottery claims center, it will be a detriment to your Christian testimony (people will assume you are gambling). Third, you are unlikely to make enough money for the free play to be worth your time, effort, and gas money. The odds are against you winning anything big, and if you play games with smaller prizes and better odds you will only come away with a percentage of the small amount of free play they gave you. Fourth, casinos are extremely carnal places, full of booze, immorality, bad music, and plenty of pressure to gamble. There are many, many examples of compulsive gamblers in today’s world, stories of people who have gambled away everything they own. If that happens to you, you will not receive any sympathy from the casino or the state lottery—under no circumstances will they return your money, even if they know full well that they have ruined your life. So if you don’t want to start a gambling habit, you really are best off avoiding casinos altogether.

I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with entering free sweepstakes, although entering sweepstakes may not be a good idea for everyone or in every circumstance. By law in the United States, all sweepstakes must be truly free, with no purchase necessary to enter and with a purchase not improving one’s odds of winning. (Sweepstakes that appear to require a purchase always have an alternate means of entry described in the official rules in order to comply with the law. If a purchase was necessary, then it would be a pay-to-play scheme, i.e., gambling, and all the laws which regulate gambling would come into effect.) There are actually many free sweepstakes opportunities available online for United States residents. For many, entering these contests would be a waste of time. Some might fear that entering would start a bad habit. For others, entering sweepstakes might be a fun diversion and an opportunity to win some extra cash or goodies. The bottom line is, you should never pay to play—that way you can’t lose money. And never make a purchase out of guilt or sympathy for the company offering the promotion. I personally don’t like the idea of participating in contests such as the Monopoly games at McDonald’s or Albertsons, as it is essentially gambling when one is enticed to make purchases in order to get game pieces. (The alternate means of entry for these games is usually a mailed letter, which requires the purchase of a stamp and envelope.) I also won’t buy tickets at a benefit raffle—if I really want to give money to a good cause, I should decide to do so on the merits of the cause and my financial situation, not because I am hoping against long odds to come out ahead.

Most people understand that the odds at the casino and in the lottery are against them, even if they don’t fully grasp the mathematics. Gambling’s attraction therefore does not come from its wisdom as an investment choice. The attraction of gambling is the lie that there is an easier, faster way to make money than by having to work for it. People naturally want to have easy money instead of earning money through hard work. They also want to have their wealth now, instead of gradually saving up money over their working career and waiting for the interest to compound. So they believe the lie that they will get rich by buying lottery tickets or by gambling at the casino. In fact, the lottery and casino gambling are schemes to swindle people out of their hard-earned money by telling them they can win money when they mathematically can’t.

The lottery is a lie, and casino gambling is a lie. They tell that you could make money—big money—by playing, when in fact people who understand the math can see that they will lose money according to the odds of each game. If the casino sets up a game so it will make a 10 percent profit, that means you will (on average) only get $90 back for every $100 you gamble, and if you play enough times you will run out of money. It is actually the house that is guaranteed to make big money, and the players are guaranteed to lose. I personally don’t know anyone who makes a living by gambling in casinos or by playing the Daily 3. I only know hard-working people who go to casinos for vacations and lose their hard-earned money. As Christians, we need to be good stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, and that means not wasting our money on lottery tickets and casino games.

The Secular View of Human Life

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Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, introduced legislation this past week to legalize assisted suicide (now called “physician assisted death”). Assisted suicide is also legal in places in the United States and Europe. This is just the latest manifestation of the consequences of abandoning the biblical view of human life as intrinsically valuable due to the fact that man is created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9), as well as the explicit rejection of the ten commandments as a standard of morality. Assisted suicide may be seen as the next logical step following the legalization of abortion more than forty years ago.

Secular morality is riddled with irreconcilable contradictions and arbitrary value judgments. But certainly the theory of evolution teaches that man is just another animal. Ultimately, man is nothing more than a highly organized collection of matter in a meaningless universe. As such, human life only has the worth that man himself assigns to it. The criteria for assigning worth to life might be the perceived good of each individual, the good of the majority, or the good of the ruling class. In the context of contemporary Western liberal thought, the ruling class and the majority are one and the same, and therefore life should be treated in the way that the majority believes is best for itself. Many believe that a life of suffering is not worth living, and therefore it would be best for themselves personally if they could decide to end their lives when they lose hope or no longer find life pleasant. They also believe that caring for the elderly, the handicapped, the terminally ill, and others with serious and chronic medical conditions is an economic burden and a useless drain on the resources of the healthy.

I am not convinced that caring for the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped is in fact an economic burden. There are very many people who are employed to care for the sick and the elderly; viewed from this perspective, taking care of those in need is actually a positive economic activity which creates jobs. Further, caring for the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped is, from a biblical point of view, a blessing and a privilege, and therefore well worth the cost (cf. Matt 25:35-40). The people who are cared for enrich the world through their interactions with caregivers, as well as by other means. By contrast, the secular establishment talks about how much money is generated by activities such as sports, gambling, rock concerts, and other forms of entertainment. These activities are actually the real drain on the economy, since they generate no useful goods but are hugely expensive. Not only are these expenses completely unnecessary, they are counterproductive, since they promote lawlessness and immorality while taking time and money away from productive enterprises. The truth is, secular people simply like entertainment and do not like having to care for suffering people, since they lack love, and this is the real reason why they portray entertainment as a positive economic activity and caring for the elderly as an economic cost. Similarly, secularists view religion as a waste of time and money, when in fact it is a lack of (true) religion that is leading the world to destruction.

From a secular point of view, one could make a very good argument for infanticide. One could argue that babies born with serious birth defects would be better off having their lives terminated, since they would never enjoy life as adults, and would simply be a burden to their parents and other caretakers (there is no love for people in the secular mentality). Non-Christians would not accept the objection that man is created in the image of God, thereby making all human life precious, and that God has strictly forbidden the taking of human life (other than in self-defense or as judicial punishment for murder). It therefore seems very likely that infanticide will soon be practiced in the United States.

It also seems likely that laws which mandate involuntary euthanasia will soon follow laws which permit voluntary euthanasia. There was, in fact, talk of a “death committee” established under Obamacare to decide when seriously ill patients should no longer receive medical care. One of the consequences of government-run health care programs in a secular country is that an antichristian standard of medical morality is imposed upon the entire populace. If the government decides that it is not worth the financial cost to care for certain seriously ill patients, it would seem reasonable from a secular point to euthanize patients, rather than “pulling the plug” and watching them die slowly and miserably. But from a biblical point of view, man has no right to take human life; someone who does so is a murderer and must be killed by the authorities in retributive justice (Gen 9:5-6).

It is not only those who are physically sick whom the majority may judge to be unfit to live—a whole class of people may be deemed undesirable and therefore targeted for extermination. In Nazi Germany, this was the Jews; in leftist America, it would be evangelical Christians.

In many ancient pagan societies, the preferred form of entertainment was blood sport. There is no reason to think that the gladiatorial shows of the Roman Empire could not be revived in the United States. From a secular point of view, life has no ultimate value, so if two fighters give their consent they should be able to fight to the death. We are already seeing increasingly violent sport-fighting around the world, often with serious injuries to the participants. The wicked want to give expression to their wicked desires to harm others, and to watch others be harmed, and they have no love for those involved.

The movement to legalize drugs is another manifestation of the secular view of the cheapness of life. On the secular view, it is okay to destroy one’s mind, one’s health, and even one’s life if one obtains pleasure in the process. The rise in the murder rate and the suicide rate in the United States is also due to a view of human life as cheap.

One of the basic assumptions behind the push for assisted suicide is that there is no afterlife and no judgment for sin—once a man dies, he ceases to exist forever. But the Bible teaches that death will only end a person’s suffering if that person goes to heaven. For those who go to hell, their suffering will only be greatly intensified (Rev 14:9-13). The assumption that man is wholly physical and that death ends life forever is also behind the movement to cremate or even compost dead bodies. If we believe that our bodies are connected to our souls and will be raised someday, then we should want them to be treated with reverence. For more on this issue see this post and this one. It should be noted that the idea that man is simply a complex machine is absurd, since no machine can achieve consciousness or make voluntary decisions by a self-determined will. Man’s consciousness and will can only be explained by means of an immaterial soul.

It is not just the atheistic Western worldview in which life is seen as cheap. In the Shinto/Buddhist Japanese worldview, suicide is often seen as honorable, and large numbers of young Japanese men volunteered for suicide missions during World War II. In the Islamic worldview, suicide bombers may be seen as martyrs for their god. It is only in the biblical Christian worldview that life is seen as intrinsically precious and valuable. In the midst of ever-changing morality in society around us, let us remember the Bible’s teaching about human life: (1) Man is created in the image of God, which makes him different from the animals (Gen 1:26-27); (2) God forbids murder (Exod 20:13); (3) Life’s sufferings have positive value for followers of Christ (1 Pet 3:14); and (4) All men’s bodies will be raised and judged when Christ brings history to its final consummation (John 5:28-29).

Why did Jesus go to the cross?

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This article is a response to some Christian hymns and songs that say something like, “The only reason Jesus went to the cross was for me. It was all because of His love for me!” This viewpoint leads to a serious theological problem when we read Mark 14:35, which describes what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane: “And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass away from him.” We might think, “Oh, no! Jesus, how could You even consider the thought of not dying for my sins in order to save me? Don’t You care about me?” But as we read further in Mark’s account, we find that this was not what Jesus was thinking about at all. Jesus says nothing at Gethsemane about the salvation of His followers. If Jesus was waffling at Gethsemane over the question of whether to redeem His followers, He would have been discussing the issue with His disciples (who certainly would have urged Jesus not to go to the cross). Instead, Jesus prayed to God the Father about the possibility of avoiding the suffering which lay ahead of Him, but concluded by saying, “Not what I want, but what You want” (Mark 14:36). In fact, Jesus was going to the cross for the same basic reason that He originally came to earth as God incarnate: it was the Father’s will, and Jesus was absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will.

We tend to think of the cross as all about us. We think the whole reason why Jesus went to the cross was to save us. But from Jesus’ perspective, the cross was all about God. Jesus went to the cross in order to please His Father. Yes, He knew that He was the Good Shepherd, laying down His life for His sheep (John 10:11; 15:13; 1 John 3:16), but this was not His primary thought at Gethsemane. His primary thought was about doing the will of God. Even as He hung on the cross, Jesus’ thoughts remained consumed with God: He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”—not, “Oh you wicked people of the world, why did you do so much sin to make me have to suffer like this in order to redeem you?”

To be clear: Jesus never “waffled” or considered not going to the cross—Jesus was asking the Father if there was any other way, all the while maintaining His determination to follow the way the Father had determined for Him. Jesus’ prayer to be spared from the agony of the cross was not made without concern for the salvation of His followers. He had repeatedly assured His followers of His love for them and the certainty that He would save them. But when facing the most intense pain and suffering that anyone ever could face—the payment of an immeasurably great penalty for all the sins of the whole human race—Jesus felt intense stress and emotional pressure. He prayed that if there was some other way, the Father’s will might be accomplished without enduring the unimaginable agony of the cross. Yet when all others would have backed out, Jesus did in fact walk boldly to the cross and die, in submission to the will of His Father

Thus, from a theological point of view, it is most accurate to say that Jesus went to the cross to do the Father’s will, and that the Father sent Jesus to the cross in order to save the world. John 3:16 does not say “Jesus loved the world so much that He went to the cross to die for everyone’s sins.” It says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes on Him would not perish but have eternal life.” The reason why the Father sent Jesus to the cross was because of the greatness of the Father’s love for the people of this world (cf. Rom 5:8). While popular evangelical theology sees little or no difference between the Father and Jesus, the cross can only truly be understood in light of Jesus’ relationship to the Father.

As a point of application, it is wrong and self-centered for us to think of things as if they are all about ourselves. Jesus was not totally consumed with us when He went to the cross—He was totally consumed with God (the Father). We, too, need to be totally consumed about doing the will of God. If we are, it will result in doing what is best for our fellow man, since God loves mankind more than any of us ever could.