Can a Christian be “Gay”? Sexual identity, Foucault and the Bible

Recently, on Twitter, and in various conversations, I have been asked if “gay Christian” specifically and if “gay” in general are appropriate biblical categories. Though I have written about this in, Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted, it is a conversation that has really important issues at play. Sexual identity and the words we use are not just descriptors of one’s desires and experiences but are philosophical claims on reality. One is rooted in the social constructionism of Michael Foucault and the other is rooted in the Bible. Words matter and Christians need to use the ones that most align to biblical reality.

Michael Foucault is a primary sage of the sexual chaos around sexual identity that now exists. In his, History of Sexuality, Foucault writes:
Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special know ledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.

Here, Foucault introduces Social Constructionism into the conversation of sexuality. Sexual identity is not an objective reality but an individual and social construct that is named by individuals, and centers of power. Foucault places sexual restraints into the category of repression by powerful forces of culture and religion. Thus, freedom is the naming of self. For Foucault, we can be whoever we desire to be and ‘truth’ and the ‘common good’ are illusions. This is the world we live in.

When someone says that he is “gay”, this person is embracing a post-modern view of identity. Here I am not speaking of one’s attractions which very well might be real. Instead, I mean by embracing this linguistic reality, one is saying that each person or society has the power to identify the truth of their sexual selves. For the individual this might do little harm, but for the church the cost is immeasurable.

In the biblical account, the only way to understand sexual identity is through the lens of the Imago Dei and the divine blessing that comes from it:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”” Genesis‬ ‭1:27-28‬‬‬‬‬‬‬
Male and female is a divine edict that flows from the very reality of God. From it comes the creation ordinance: be fruitful and multiply. The Church and Christians does a disservice to those they serve when they mix the categories of Scriptures with post-modern philosophy. From the biblical perspective, categories like gay, straight, trans, bisexual do not exist as categories of identity. They do not point to reality; instead they are the words of a creature taking the place of God. As soon as these are the categories of conversation, you have left the realism of the Bible and entered into the miry chaos of post modernity.

Words have power. By entering and accepting the unbiblical categories of the current, cultural moment, the church has given up the ground of biblical authority. Identity is primum momenti; identity is the primary ground of lordship. If Jesus is your Lord, then you are a man, a woman with a divine calling. He redeems all of us including our sexuality identity.

Herman Bavinck rightly grounds sexual identity in the realism of the Bible,
God is the Creator of the human being, and simultaneously also the Inaugurator of sex and of sexual difference. This difference did not result from sin; it existed from the very beginning, it has its basis in creation, it is a revelation of God’s will and sovereignty, and is therefore wise and good. Therefore, no one may misconstrue or despise this sexual difference, either within one’s own identity or in that of another person. It has been willed by God. The authority of the father, the love of the mother, and the obedience of the child form in their unity the threefold cord that binds together and sustains all relationships within human society. Within the psychological life of every integrated personality this triple cord forms the motif and melody.

Here, one’s sexual identity is objectively decreed by God. And the psychology of this identity and the family born of it is the foundation of society and the reality every person must reckon with.

There is much that could be said about how we ought to talk about our impulses and inclinations, as well as how singleness plays into the Christian view of reality but words have power. Let us use our words with care.

Membership and Reaching the LGBTQIA Community

In recent years, churches seeking to adapt to a rapidly changing culture and expansive view on sexual ethics have sought novel ways to engage the LGBTQIA community. Some churches are still adhering to an orthodox sexual ethic while finding ways of embracing gay individuals and couples. One such way is through membership framed in “missional hospitality”. The reasoning for such churches to engage in missional evangelism is relevance, engagement and relationship. Such hospitality fosters relationship and is based in inclusion with a “long view” on discipleship. And since, historically, church relationships are embodied in membership, biblical hospitality would, “make a place at the table”, for those whose otherwise would not be there. Here, membership is primarily about relationship, evangelism and eventually discipleship. Pulling from another relational reality for an example, it is a little bit like missionary dating. We are not “equally yoked” yet but my love will make the difference. For both, relationship allows for inclusion and demonstrations of Christian love while not embracing an unbiblical worldview. The laudable goal is discipleship and transformation. If it works, we can stand, declare, love and make disciples all in the same breath. 

Hospitality is a profoundly Christian category found throughout the Scriptures. Deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition (birthed out of Genesis 18), it is one of the marks of a true Christian community (Matt 25:31-46; Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:8-9; Titus 1:8). Hospitality was such a mark of Jesus that he was called a friend of sinners for his hospitality (Matt 11:19). Christian hospitality according to the, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, “Identifies Jesus with the ‘least of these’ and links hospitality towards human beings with love for Jesus”.  Christian hospitality is loving the stranger and those we know with the same love we have for Christ. It is love in action. We show hospitality with a meal, an open home, financial help or an listening ear. Hospitality is a tangible means to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and to love the other. Authors like Rosaria Butterfield have encouraged the church that it is through hospitality—the authentic opening of home and relationship—that non-Christians can encounter the living Christ. I know from my own journey, I am a Christian today in large part because of open homes and unmerited friendships. I found Jesus there.

Hospitality is a biblical command for the Christian church to follow and is the means of evangelism in a disconnected age. As an evangelist and someone who is more prone to say yes to relationship, I have been considering whether missional hospitality gives the church a framework for membership as it is understood in the reformed tradition? 

As I have considered this question what I have found is that membership is a totally different biblical category than hospitality. While membership is an earthen but valuable sign of salvation that has specific demands on those who are members, hospitality is best thought of as the work of love the believer has towards other believers and outsiders alike. Hospitality might reveal the living Christ but it cannot take away the demands that “Jesus as Lord” puts on his disciples.For the sake of the gospel, we cannot confuse the two. 

According to article 28 of the Belgic confession, membership is defined by:

  1. Salvation 
  2. Worshiping regularly in the local congregation 
  3. Submitting to and being disciples under biblical authority through local leadership
  4. Serving 

When we think about giving membership, the goal isn’t to be hospitable to one another but to endorse with a visible sign the spiritual reality of salvation. The high goal of membership is a member’s assurance and a church’s confidence that a local church’s elders sees the fruits of salvation in a particular person. 

This is the goal of the Belgic Confessions’ obligations on a member of a local church. And in each obligation we clearly see that hospitality can help someone come under the yoke of Christ but it cannot replace the decision each person can make.

According to the Belgic Confession, there must be salvation. This isn’t just reciting some words and believing the right things, but it is the hidden reality of the heart that has decided that Jesus is Lord. He is the master in all areas of life and though one might have a long way to go to maturity, he or she has as the aim Christlikeness. Salvation is Christ’s work but in the biblical record and reformed tradition, it is coupled with a public profession. Obvious sins that are entrenched are explored graciously and if there is agreement that it is sin, and there is a holy energy to get free, a person is gladly welcomed into the community of redeemed and being redeemed sinners. But unrepentant sin that is entrenched has always been a sign that salvation has not taken root.  Here, hospitality is extended but membership withheld. A gay couple who is civically married is entrenched in cultural sin. Active homosexual activity is a sin of grave concern. Both are matters of first importance. They are issues of salvation.  The question for a church accepting a gay couple into membership is does this couple agree about this biblical conclusion and will the church along with the couple go on the journey of discipleship so that obedience might be worked into their lives? If not, the profession is hollow and the church is encouraging disobedience with its silence.

Second, according The the Belgic Confession, membership is a commitment to gather regularly together. This has more to do with discipleship than attendance. It is the commitment of a member to publicly practice the disciplines of the church to become more like Christ in every area of life. Interestingly, in every church that has engaged the practice of missional hospitality that I have engaged, sexual ethics are of little or or concern as an issue of discipleship.  For a church to be faithful, it must be clear on its sexual ethics as asserted in the Bible. It must call the whole church to fidelity no matter the cost. Doesn’t “missional hospitality” that gives membership away and reduces the importance of sexual ethics secretly malform its members, same-sex attracted and heterosexual alike? The goal of membership is radical discipleship. I am not sure how lowering the bar of Christian living helps in this most important endeavor.

Third, the Belgic Confession says there must be ever growing obedience. In the words of the Belgic Confession, members must “bend[] their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” An orthodox view of sexuality sees ongoing, unrepentant, sexual sin as something that can disqualify you from eternal life and Christ’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11). A married gay couple following Christ brings complications and costs that will be severe. Is the cost of discipleship being laid out and is church and member alike ready for this journey of the cross? Or is the church declaring, “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” If so, in an attempt to be hospitable, such a church becomes an enemy of the cross.

Fourth, the Belgic Confession calls members to serve the church and the community with the grace and hope of the gospel through the gifts given by the Spirit. Here, in a church who opens membership because of missional hospitality, utter confusion reigns. Where sin has been minimized, hospitality and discipleship confused, and the aim of membership not clear, how can a church be a force for gospel good? Sure, it will be able to be kind and do some social good, but its primary mission of making disciples who become like Jesus is totally lost.

Being fed by Jesus or healed by him does not save those who receive such kindness. Christian hospitality can bring a recipient to the door of salvation but each person must decide  to follow Christ. We walk into salvation by becoming disciples. Of course salvation is a free gift of grace but it is grace into eternal life now.

Anything that is alive has certain attributes and as long as it receives the attention and nutrients it needs and nothing harmful intervenes, the life will naturally grow into a mature life—a seed becomes a bloomed plant, an egg becomes a hen, etc… This is the way God has designed life. It is also the biblical vision for the Christian life. A man or woman who is born from above (John 3:3) begins as an “infant in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). This new life will grow and mature through the process of discipleship until a Christian lives his or her life as Christ lived his (1 John 2:6). This is the natural development of the Christian. Such growth into maturity is not for the super-Christian. It ought to be as natural as a flower seed growing into a fully bloomed plant. When membership is reduced and discipleship side-stepped in the name of hospitality, people will not grow. Salvation itself is at stake.

Anyone who loves Jesus wants to reach the community around them. Hospitality is a great way to do this but we also must not sugarcoat what becoming a Christian means. It means putting to death (Col 3) everything that stands in the way of Jesus being Lord of our lives. This includes liars, thieves, sorcerers, adulterers, envy and yes homosexual sex. Let’s be hospitable but let’s not lose the gospel in the process.

Marriage Post #2: What does a good marriage look like in daily life


In my last post, I considered how the Bible describes a good marriage. What I described was that marriage should be understood as embodied theology (read here). In Christian marriage, the world gets a window into Christ and his relationship with his church. This is the meta-meaning of marriage. In this blog I want to get practical. What I want to show is how such a Christ-exalting marriage looks like in daily life. In other words, what are the components of a healthy Christian marriage. I have been extremely helped by the research and work of Dr. John Gottman in this regard. Though not a Christian, his research reveals that a basic Christian ethic used in the marital relationship, sets the marriage up to thrive relationally and to be a space where satisfaction and care flourish. Much of what I will share in what follows comes from his research. Gottman’s relational insights along with a theological foundation, give us a real sense of what is a good marriage.

**The relational aspects that make a great marriage**

The first relational reality that is foundational to a great marriage is that there is *fondness and admiration* between partners. Fondness and admiration can be described simply as the emotional reality of liking your partner. Liking your partner is the basis of any relationship and most likely the reason a couple begins their relational journey together. It involves sexual attractiveness but more deeply it is the psychological reality of just clicking as a couple. One way to test whether fondness and admiration are alive in your marriage is to consider the story of how you met your spouse and how you courted one another. When you remember those first months/years of the relationship are you filled with joy and happy remembrance. Are the memories romantic and fun? Or has those moments become emotionally neutral or even negative? Has your beginnings lost the magic of love? Does any of the attraction you initially have remain (or at least you desire for it to be rekindled)? The number one indicator of health for a marriage is the depth and health of the underlying affection each has for the other. If this is missing, or one of the partners no longer desires it, the marriage is under deep and profound threat. If you don’t like your spouse, the enemy is at the door. But if there is affection, friendship and admiration for one another, your marriage has the most important relational reality to be a good marriage.

The second reality of a healthy marriage is whether the couple cultivates the relationship through continuous, ongoing, small acts of connection. Gottman calls these ‘bids’. Bids are any act of connection by one partner to the other in an attempt for connection. This could be as small as asking your partner to look at a picture to as big as listening to a problem your spouse is having at work. These bids happen continually throughout the day and how each partner responds is indicative on whether affection will grow or diminish over time. To each bid given the receiving partner has four choices:

1) he can ignore his partner (she asks him to look at a picture, and he acts as if he didn’t hear her).
2) he can turn away from his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he tells her that he is too busy right now).
3) he can turn against his partner (she asks him to look at the picture and he uses this moment to berate her on some topic of his choosing.

The fourth choice and what healthy couples do is turn towards one another. She asks him to look at the picture and he acknowledges her request and acts with interest in what she is displaying. When partners turn towards one another consistently over decades in small and big ways, the marriage relationship has depth, affection and is secure in relational love. Bids that are regularly used as moments to turn towards one another are the means of securing and growing love over a lifetime.

The third reality of a healthy marriage is the ability for each partner to listen empathetically to the other partner. The hardest thing that I see couples struggle with is to hear his or her spouse and see an issue, challenge or conflict from the spouse’s point of view. Men and women alike (though men are more prone to do it) are seemingly compelled to lead conversations, insert opinions, try to change a spouse’s opinion or solve a problem. Such behavior conveys loud and clearly that you care more about the sound of your own voice than the heart of your spouse. Healthy couples listen to one another well. Such healthy listening has several components:

– Empathetic listening with thoughtful questions (he tells his wife that he can’t stand a coworker. She says, “that sounds horrible. Tell me about it.”
– The listener takes the side of the spouse. If he can’t stand his coworker, she conveys that she is on his side in the conflict.
– There is no inserting of opinion or problem solving unless asked for. Instead, the goal is to cultivate a space where your partner feels completely heard, accepted and protected.
– Each partner always has time to listen. When a spouse is in distress, everything else disappears and the spouse becomes the focus.

If this is the frame of relational dialogue, most likely we are looking at a healthy couple.

The fourth element of a healthy couple is the ability to navigate conflict in a healthy way. This means the ability to hear a complaint from your partner rationally, empathize with his or her position, take responsibility for your part and together find a solution for the future. Many conflicts in marriage are perpetual. Meaning there are no easy solutions or the ‘solution’ would damage the soul of one of the partners in profoundly existential ways. Healthy couples can live in the tension of difference, find compromises and celebrate the gap that inevitably happens between two people.

Fifth, healthy couples create a culture of love for their relationship and their family. They ritualize important behavior that embodies their values. Here is an example that almost all Christian marriages celebrate that embodies a family’s values: celebrating Easter Sunday. Easter is the yearly moment of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christian families have created rituals to embody their beliefs and values about this day. Church, games and families gathering become yearly rituals that embody a profound family value—Christ is alive and this is profoundly important to us. In some significant way, the day has meaning because each family has given that meaning to it. Healthy couples do these embodied rituals for other areas of life. They ritualize love making–a special way of initiating it, declining it, figuring out what to do, and enjoying one another. They ritualize date night–it is regularly calendars with specific activities that they enjoy together. They ritualize common activities that they do and enjoy together. And as a family, they participate in shared activities that cultivate relationship and love. All of these rituals embody values, beliefs and realities the couple want in their marriage. A healthy couple practice what they see as important by their shared, repeated activities. Because love must be cultivated, healthy couples come together to make sure such cultivation happens.

Finally, healthy couples have shared purpose and meaning. This has two aspects. First, each partner is committed to the other spouse’s calling and dreams. He acts with significant energy and support to help his spouse achieve what she wants out of life (& vice versa). In this way, each partner knows they have a life long ally in life. Each spouse knows that he or she has one person who stands and believes in him or her no matter what. Second, the couple over time cultivates and comes together over a shared purpose for the marriage itself. This might involve parenting but among healthy Christian couples this will also mean embracing the particular reason that God has brought this unique marriage together. This spiritual purpose will be the guiding light of the marriage. The narrative that gives meaning and hope even in the dark places. No matter what this marriage goes through, this marriage stands as a bright light because the marriage is an inseparable team reaching for audacious goals.

When all these components are operating in a marriage, the marriage is healthy and thriving. It is a good marriage.

Marriage: Embodied Theology (Part one of five)

Marriage is hard. Marriage is beautiful. Marriage is mysterious. I have been married for almost 16 years and I know many of the contours of married life but everyday brings new challenges and adventures. To stay committed and hope-filled over decades is no small achievement. Truly, it is a gift.

I am always filled with awe when I hear of a couple who has been married for fifty or sixty years and still they love each other deeply. It is otherworldly.

As a pastor, I interact with married couples all the time. Some marriages are beautiful. Many are trudging a hard road of faithfulness but standing and believing in goodness.  And sadly, more marriages than you can believe are relationships that are slowly dying or already dead.

For a variety of reasons, some personal and some theological, I have a deep passion to see Christian marriages thrive. For me, my passion means to do all I can to help marriages flourish.

With this in mind, the next several blog posts are going to focus on marriage. The topics will be:

  1. Marriage: embodied theology (This post)
  2.  Marriage: what masters of relationship can teach us
  3.  Marriage: The four horseman of the apocalypse
  4.  Marriage: repair
  5. Marriage: @Calvary

It is my hope that these posts might help all of us grow in our marriages and help in protecting and honoring the second most important institution in our world today.

What Makes a Good Marriage?

I want to answer this question in two ways. First and in this post, I want to consider the question biblically. The Bible, in my opinion, gives us a narrative framework that helps us understand marriage and when we aim to live into and live up to this narrative, our marriages thrive. And then in my next post, I want to answer the question relationally. Or to say another way, what relational behaviors do healthy couples do on a regular basis that cause a marriage to thrive as a place of love? When we have both answers, I think we will begin to get a picture of a good marriage.

A biblical framework for marriages

A Christian narrative framework for marriage is found in one of the most controversial verses in scripture:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭5:22-33‬ ‭

To understand Paul’s commands on marriage, one needs to understand that Paul describes marriage as embodied theology. Ephesians 5 isn’t simply ethical dictums based on gender and marriage but more profoundly it places marriage in its rightful story–the story of Christ and the church.

In the Old Testament, one of the metaphors used to describe God and his people is that his people is the bride and he is the bridegroom. Paul is drawing on this narrative structure here. What he wants to do in Ephesians five is to explain the meaning of marriage, it’s purposes and ends. Marriage is not a human invention. Instead, it is a cultural reality that has meaning in that it points beyond itself to who God is, how he pursues his people, and who his people are to him.

God in Christ is the bridegroom. He is the passionate lover who has laid his eyes on the object of his love, the bride. Interlaced through Paul’s marriage theology are specific ways that Christ acts as the bridegroom.

The bridegroom is the head

Paul uses this language of ‘head’ elsewhere to describe Christ:

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

When you think of this language of head in its most basic biological function, it is the head that brings together all the separate constituent parts and makes a whole person–body, drives, emotions, and consciousness. It is that organ that runs the body–both its automated parts and conscious parts. The head makes interprets the past and seeks a preferred future.  It is also that part of the human person that makes sense of a situation, puts it into context and in a sense, explains it. The head is the storyteller–not in the sense of myth or fiction but in the sense of telling “our personal story”. It is the head that gives meaning and purpose to human life.

Without the head, there is no life at least one worth living. There is no purpose, no meaning. Without the head we cannot know where we are, what we are and where we are going. We would not exist in any meaningful way.

Christ is the bridegroom who is the head of the marriage with the church. He gives the marriage meaning and purpose. he tells the church her story–the meaning of life. He shows her who she is, where she is at and where she is going with him. He makes it possible for her to function. Without him, she has no life. This is what Christ the bridegroom does for his people the bride.

The bridegroom is Savior

Paul tells us that the bridegroom Christ is savior of his bride. He has laid down his life for her. Now we quickly understand this as substitutionary atonement and that is right. But I don’t think Paul wants you to think atonement theories here. He wants you to think in terms of a love story. This is a marital story filled with adventure, passion and romance.

Christ loves his church, he is passionate for her. His eyes are on her. He is consumed by her (the Bible calls this jealously). But she has fallen for other lovers. These are lovers that have turned into tyrants (read the Old Testament and you will see this is the continual story of Israel). She thought she knew her lover but he ended up being a jerk, abusive and cold. And instead of being a bride she became a slave to this lover. And perhaps she even longs for a real lover but she sees herself now and wonders who would want her now–used, demeaned, and made small.

But the great bridegroom still wants her even though she has been greatly diminished by false love. She is imprisoned and under lock and key. He loves her so much and wants to be with her that he goes to war to defeat this tyrant of love. And in the battle to save her, he lays down his life. He wins his beloved but it comes at great cost.

Christ is the bridegroom who has gone to war to have his bride. And to free her and love her, he paid with his life.

The bridegroom makes her beautiful

Paul says that Christ nourishes, cherishes, and washes his bride so she might be presented in splendor. In other words, he gives his energies for one purpose: so she can be beautiful.

The relationship is one in which Christ’s energies are used to make his bride shine like the sun. He waits for the day when he can show her off, when all the residue of that horrible past lover is washed off and forgotten. In the place of a demeaned and abused maiden will be the most beautiful bride.

Christ the bridegroom is a leader who passionately loves his bride. Nothing stands in his way. He faces all her captors and slays them even when it costs him everything. His actions display his love. When he has her, his energies are spent for her beauty and good. His life is spent on her. We might say that the glory of the bridegroom is seen in so far as he is willing to act in love for his bride. His actions are his glory on display. Her destiny fulfilled reveal his magnificence.

Then Paul gives a narrative framework for the bride.

The bride

The bride respectfully submits

The bride, the church, remembers her old lover, the tyrant. He promised so much, but he caused her to turn her eyes away from her beloved. The tyrant turned out to be a beast. All he did was use, abuse and demean her. For reasons that our mysterious, her Savior has come. Forgetting and forgiving her the false love, he has rescued her. The bridegroom has laid down his life for her. And he hasn’t just left her all beat up, insecure and small. He has done great work to fulfill the deepest desires of her heart. It’s his aim to bless and honor her in the marriage. Now, she is beautiful. Her glory shines because of the work of the bridegroom.

And her response is the response of love-filled, faithful following.

She declares, “You are so good, strong, mysterious in love that I will follow my beloved wherever he desires to go because I know that his aim is my good.”

So she will go wherever he goes because in following she will flourish. She fully trusts him because he is trustworthy. She submits fully to him.

She respects him. He is unlike anyone she has ever met, a hero of heroes. He is her knight who has rescued her from tyranny, pain, obscurity and raised her up to glory.

Christian marriage

Christian marriage is to tell this story of Christ and his church. This is the great drama of the universe and our marriages are to be a reenactment of the greatest love story that ever was.

Christian husbands

Before you are married, you are to look for that one woman that captures your attention, the one that captivates you. Find the woman that fills you with passion. You are to look for the one who attracts you and the one who you know with your help could be great and glorious. As her husband you believe she could be everything she was ever created to be. She can be more beautiful than she ever imagined because of your love. When you find that woman, pursue her with all the nobility and passion her unique brilliance demands. Then marry her.

You will find that your wife has tyrants in her life. These days it might be that life and relationships have made her think she is not worthy of love. Maybe she thinks she is not beautiful. Maybe a tyrant of life has said she is not brilliant or capable. Maybe a tyrant has wounded her soul. Maybe a demonic tyrant has imprisoned her with an offer of some good but now she is enslaved by this beast.

Well husband, use all your energies and all your passion to free her from all those who would seek to harm your beloved. Fight to the death to have her and to bring her to her destiny–free, mature & able to do what God has called her to do.

Whatever you do, from morning to night, small things and big, use each moment to bring out the best in her—to provoke and cultivate her beauty. Your work is to make sure this brilliant woman shines with all the radiance that God has given her. Spare no expense, leave nothing on the field. Do all you can to help her live into her destiny. If it costs you everything, it will be worth it because her radiant life is worth the price.

And finally be the head. You are the keeper of the story. You are the leader. You remind, embody and declare that all of life has a purpose. You remind that your love and this marriage points beyond itself to the great purposes of the cosmos. You keep pointing her to the great story. You help her see. You help her find her part. You use all your skills, and learn new ones if you need to, to make sure it all makes sense. Your behavior, the direction and aims of your marriage, her identity and purpose is a beautiful reenactment of the great love story. You are to lead with this story in mind. You are not a tyrant; you are a hero. Don’t settle for a lesser story. Fight for the best with all your might. This is what headship is all about in Paul’s theology.

Christian wives

In response to such a lover, wives go wherever your beloved leads because you know that he is your knight in shining armor, your “savior”. He is the one who is embodying the Bridegroom, the hero in the story of love. You know from experience that he wants you to flourish; his every decision is one with your best interests in mind. He is selfless, brave and noble. You trust him with your whole life and future because he is trustworthy. He is your best friend and it doesn’t cross your mind to stand in opposition because your hearts are so aligned that his will and yours are the same. You gladly submit. It’s easy for your heart to follow him because he is like no other lover you have ever seen.

And you respect him. You make it your marital work to make sure he knows how strong, brave and courageous he is. You let him know how his selfless, life-costing love has won your heart. Every word you utter is one soaked in a kind of awe that you got such a man. And it’s not just with him that you honor him but with all you interact with— kids, friends, coworkers and parents. Everyone. You just can’t help yourself. You have yourself a keeper. Every word you speak about him is intentionally worded to make sure that the whole world knows how his love is the treasure of your heart.

Wife, this is your part. Coupled with his selfless love and leadership, it tells the great story. The world will stand in awe to this other-world reality. This kind of marriage tells in detail the reason for existence–the great love story of the cosmos.

This is marriage as it should be using a biblical, narrative framework. Biblically, marriages that live this great story, with lots of room for sin and grace, are good marriages.  In my next blog I will look at how such a marriage actually looks like up close. I will show how healthy marriages work relationally.

Part 2: Divorce and Remarriage

This is the second post in a two-part essay. In the first essay I considered when is divorce a biblically viable choice: click here to read. What I want to cover here is the challenging subject of whether remarriage is ever permissible after divorce.

It is a challenging for a number of reasons. First, the five New Testament texts that seem to deal with remarriage seem to be saying different things. It is also challenging because divorce runs rampant in our culture; whatever the statistics, many Christian people do it. And finally it is challenging because most pastoral leaders are simply quiet on the issue because of whom they might offend or hurt.

But these challenges should not stop us from entering into these tumultuous waters. Instead, they remind us to tread carefully and humbly. What I will seek to do below is to consider the texts on divorce in light of one another and then see if we can draw conclusions and a biblically-based ethic framework for remarriage after divorce.

The 5 pertinent New Testament texts are:

“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:32‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,”
‭‭Mark‬ ‭10:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“”Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭16:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭7:15‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭7:39‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Some of reflections on these texts:

First, it is clear from these verses that marriage is a nearly insoluble relationship apart from death except in the most dire of circumstances:

  1. adultery
  2. abandonment.

Just because marriage is hard, feelings have turned neutral/negative, your partner has changed from whom you committed to or any other of the plethora of reasons people give as reasons for divorce today, we can say biblically that none of them give license to get divorced. Such illigetimate reasons for divorce are sin and simply unthinkable in a Christian framework.

Secondly, one will notice from these texts that it is assumed that it will only be a man who would get a divorce. This is because these texts in their cultural context knew that for the most part only men initiate divorce. That being said, today divorce can be initiated by either spouse and we can rightly interchange husband with wife or vice versa without touching the integrity of the text.

Thirdly, the Matthew, Mark and Luke texts are quite similar in language and construction yet the Matthew text seems to give the possibility for remarriage after divorce. In the Matthew text the husband who divorces for legitimate biblical reasons has no outright restrictions on remarriage. It is by far the most expansive view on divorce from the teachings of Jesus. The other two verses are quite restrictive and seem to say that any remarriage after divorce is an act of committing adultery.

What ought we do with this seeming contradiction between these teachings of Jesus? It seems reasonable to go with the most expansive verse. If as a parent I give several instructions to my child and one of the instructions give more freedom than some other instruction, the child is not at fault in any way for following the more freedom-filled instruction. Something similar seems to be happening here. Also, the Matthew text has within it a pastoral accommodation that need not be ignored even though the other two texts don’t have it. The text does not fully restrict remarriage after divorce and this accommodation has a quality of mercy that seems to me to be authentically from the heart of Jesus. My reading of the gospel texts get greater validity based upon the 1 Corinthians text which I cover below.

My final observation of these texts is based upon a close reading of 1 Corinthians 7. This Pauline text along with the expansive position of the Matthew text seem to give permission for remarriage in specific circumstances and is by far the strongest biblical argument for remarriage after divorce. 1 Cor 7:15, in the case of abandonment, the abandoned spouse is no longer bound to the marriage. This word “bound” is used again in
7:39. In vs. 39, “bound” is used by Paul as the clarifying ethical marker of whether remarriage is permissible. If the husband dies, the spouse is no longer bound and is free to remarry. Following Paul’s own logic, if a person is divorced for abandonment or adultery, they are no longer bound to the marriage, just like in death, and are freed to be remarried. This can be seen as a pastoral accommodation given by Paul similar to Jesus in the Matthew text. Taken together, a clear path is given.

Permission for remarriage for adultery or abandonment is not explicitly declared in any of the NT texts but the ethical framework seems fairly clear. One reason, perhaps, why it is not explicitly spelled out is that for Paul  such circumstances, among Christians, will be extremely rare and not a current reality in the Corinth church. For Paul and for us, most couples need to work out their marriage as unto the Lord. The reasons for the textual differences in Jesus’ teaching are less clear. But with the whole New Testament in view, in the cases of adultery or abandonment, a path for remarriage seems to be given.

An ethical framework for remarriage

Assuming my conclusions are correct, below is a biblically based ethical framework for remarriage after divorce.

  • Divorce and remarriage are possibilities allowed only in specific circumstances–adultery & abandonment (for a treatment on abandonment read part one).
  • Almost all married, Christian couples are biblically required to stay in their first marriage and do the work required to stay together.
  • If a couple is in their second marriage for illegitimate reasons they have sinned but since divorce to “fix” the original sin is a sin as well, one must ask which sin causes the least destruction. It seems clear that the couple in their second marriage should repent, accept mercy and seek to have a thriving marriage and not end it. Because God is gracious, we ought to expect God’s goodness to move in this marriage. He regularly does good to sinners. Thank God for that.
  • In the case of divorce where the marriage ended for illegitimate reasons (no longer in-love, fight too much, we no longer know each other, etc.), the divorced couple are commanded to embrace singleness. The marriage season is done and now they are singularly with the Lord and his church. In this relationship with God and his church, they will learn his fidelity and love. No doubt it might be a hard road of suffering. It is a long discipline towards holiness.
  • A christian couple who have divorced for illegitimate reasons but have not remarried to others should seriously consider getting remarried. This is clear in Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth.

I pray these two posts have been helpful. Please comment below on any questions you have or concerns.

Divorce and Remarriage: Part One

As a pastor, one of the hardest things I deal with on a regular basis is walking with couples who get divorced. And secondarily the challenge of helping a person who is divorced walk through the biblical reality of whether remarriage is morally permissible in his or her situation. This is painful, hard work filled with suffering, guilt and doubt. Most Christians want to follow Christ in their marriage but not many know how to follow Christ in divorce and remarriage.

What I want to do in the next couple of posts is describe what I believe are biblically legitimate reasons for divorce, what aren’t, and explore biblical realities of remarriage. The hope is that this can help you personally or be a resource if you are walking with a couple or person navigating some of the most difficult relational/emotional waters of life.

This first post will consider biblical reasons for divorce. The second post will look at whether the Bible ever endorses remarriage after divorce.

Biblical Reasons for Divorce

There seems to be two biblical reasons for divorce.

  1. Adultery is the clearest and strongest reason for divorce by the aggrieved spouse. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus gives adultery as a reason for divorce. It is the clearest and strongest reason for a divorce but it is a relational concession not a command. Marriages can survive adultery and even become more beautiful on the other side. But some marriages are so broken after the affair and the years of pain that made adultery even possible that divorce is a suitable moral decision. For the sake of putting to death a union that has brought death to the couple and those around them, divorce might offer some kind of relief.

The word used here for adultery is porneia. This word is used in the New Testament for all sexual activity outside of the marital covenant. This of course includes physical, sexual relationships and I believe unrepentant, ongoing pornography use as well.

All this is said with a clear gospel caveat. The ethical framework of love which marriage is to embody (1 Cor 13) should be employed if the sinning spouse is convicted and doing the serious work of repentance. Love forgives all things and keeps no records of wrongs. If the adulterous spouse is seeking to follow Jesus, the aggrieved spouse is mandated by gospel love to follow Jesus by seeking marital reconciliation. No matter the sin, if the sinning spouse is repentant, the faithful spouse should seek to see if the marriage can be salvaged. Remember, marriage is for life.

  1. The second reason for divorce is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15. There, divorce is possible if an unbelieving spouse leaves one’s married partner. In such a case, the believing spouse need not hold on to a marriage which the other has abandoned. Paul says to live in peace. Divorce might make that possible.

I think this reason by Paul is actually an ethical framework for ending a broken marriage. It would be unthinkable for Paul that a believing spouse would ever leave his believing spouse. This is based upon Paul’s belief, expounded in Ephesians 5, that Christian marriage is a reflection of Christ and the church. Christ is the faithful spouse even when his bride is serially unfaithful. When she returns, he will always accept her without shame or condemnation. This gracious, kind love should always be on display in marriage. Thus, only an unbelieving spouse would leave his partner for no cause. A believing spouse would endure with Christian hope.

Thus, if a spouse leaves his spouse, he is revealing that he is an unbelieving spouse. Paul seems to say as much in 1 Timothy 5:8. There, Paul makes clear that if a “believer “ does not take care of his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. What can be worse than an unbeliever? A hypocrite–one who says one thing but acts contrary to his profession thus revealing no real faith. In marriage, when a spouse professes faith but serially does not keep his commitments to spouse and family, he is a hypocrite and the very act of not living up to one’s vows reveals that he is an unbelieving spouse. Consequently, it is my opinion that if a believer is left by one’s spouse, Paul gives an ethical concession for divorce.

The word for “leave” in the Corinthian’s text has as its connotation the idea of actively distancing yourself from your spouse. This for sure happens in physical abandonment but it can also happen emotionally too. One can be physically present but has left his or her partner in every sense of the word.

Here I think of the husband who gambles his salary against his wife’s wishes and leaves the bills unpaid. When she confronts him, he berates her as judgmental and nothing ever really changes. This lasts for years. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

I think of the verbally abusive wife who for years belittles her husband for every mistake crushing his masculinity and destroying his soul. She always undermines him and he is reduced to a sheepish boy. He seeks to be faithful and loving but she won’t stop. But after years of trying, it is hell to be with her. Her meanness is one thing, her unwillingness to partner with her spouse to change the dynamics of the marriage is another. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

I think of the addicted spouse who won’t get help. Whether drugs or alcohol, her addiction causes great harm to her partner. He tries to love her but she loves the high more than her commitments. She has become her addiction and has nothing relationally for her spouse. For years she lives in the cycle of her addiction and he pays with his very soul. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

Finally, I think of the cold, harsh, abusive husband who is more tyrant than lover. Everywhere in the familial sphere he goes, he brings contempt and criticism. He belittles his spouse and won’t stop, no matter how many times she begs for them to get counseling or pastoral help. After years of this, she has lost her identity and any semblance of joy. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

It seems to me that it is not incidents or even seasons of “separation” that give legitimacy to possible divorce for Paul. But instead, a settled condition over time in the sinning spouse that declares through actions that his or her heart has left the marriage. Where this has happened, divorce might be warranted.

A couple of caveats. First, divorce is never commanded and need not be chosen. There might be good reasons to stay in a marriage where a spouse has “left”. Perhaps God has given the faithful spouse deep hope, or patience in pain or joy in suffering. In such cases, one ought to endure. For as Paul says, your faithful, committed love might bring about salvation for your spouse (see 1 Cor 7:16). But sometimes, this is not possible or healthy.

So where a sinning spouse has “left” the marriage, how does the faithful spouse decide it is time to end the marriage? First, I think there is an obligation to do all one can to awaken the leaving spouse to his or her commitments. I’m thinking of significant time living out patient love. I also think that when crisis hits, it is imperative to bring in wise council long before one begins divorce proceedings. And if one wise person doesn’t make headway, then bring in another. A competent pastor or counselor can bring help to a marriage the two partners can’t imagine. We should fight for our marriage until there is nothing there to fight for.

What I want to make sure I don’t convey is that the next time your spouse is mean or distant or forgets pay the bills, you can get a divorce. No. Divorce is the last option. It is a horrible option. But sometimes, sadly things need to die. Divorce is to name dead what is horribly ill and has no chance at being resuscitated.

One point of necessary clarification: one should always physically leave a serial, abusive relationship until wholesale change in the abusing spouse has happened and has been verified by trustworthy pastors/counselors and proper boundaries have been put in place. A serial abuser is immersed in patterns of behavior and thought that are not easily broken. In such circumstances, clear boundaries must be set with the help of counselors and pastoral help. It is too easy for love to become a sick cycle of dependency and abuse without outside wisdom. Abusive relationships are serious and need serious intervention. But even with all that said, Christ can redeem anyone willing to nail his/her flesh on the cross. I know. I’ve seen it. Don’t give up easily. Christ can do unbelievable things.

When all this work has been done and the leaving spouse has not returned, the decision to divorce is based upon what will bring “peace” according to Paul. Here peace means the cessation of ongoing conflict. There comes a point where seeking faithfulness just brings chaos, bitterness, soul death and pain. No one can live there forever. When a marriage has degraded to the point of a living hell and the leaving spouse won’t live up to his commitments or even try, divorce might bring peace. However painful such peace might be.

I do not think most Christian marriages that end in divorce have legitimate reasons for divorce. Instead, embracing a cultural belief of romantic love or personal happiness as ultimate ends, couples break life long vows. I think most Christians who divorce give up far too easily. I cannot tell you how many times I have been with couples when the aggrieved spouse declares he or she is done (often for good reasons) but then the sinning spouse finally begins the kind of gospel, personal change that would make the marriage beautiful but the aggrieved spouse won’t seek reconciliation. This is sin, it has life-long consequences and tarnishes the name of Christ.

Life-long commitment to one person is hard work. It is not for the faint hearted. There will be suffering and pain. But also joy, laughter and love. It might be the hardest thing one can do but it is well worth it. In marriage, we become mature in the fire of love. It is worth the work. In it you can experience Christ and become like him.

But for some, the work becomes soul crushing. Unrepentant unfaithfulness or abandonment from an unrepentant spouse over a span of years is something no one should endure. In such cases, divorce is an option. There is little good in it but it is better than the alternative. Sometimes, in this world, this is the best we can hope for.

In the next post we will consider divorce and remarriage.

An Open Letter from Bob Bouwer, Charlie Contreras and Ron Citlau

Dear friends,

Christian community in a broken world with sinful people–ourselves first to admit our sinfulness–is hard! Even among close friends finding the right way to do church is rife with cliffs and chasms. We have learned this first hand.

A few weeks ago Charlie Contreras and Bob Bob Bouwer (& Scott Treadway) representing the Gospel Alliance met with representatives of Room for All and did the hard work of Christian community seeking a way forward for the RCA over issues of the authority of Scriptures and sexuality. It was a hard but good meeting. From that meeting a statement of agreement was worked on and agreed to by both organizations. Ron Citlau read the statement when it became public and wrote a critique of it. Though there was limited communication between the three of us before Ron’s critique, there was not adequate time given to process the original statement or the critique among the three of us. We have been friends a long time and there were hurt feelings, misunderstanding and unneeded wounding. But there is grace and mercy. We have had good conversations, become better friends, and grown deeper in the Lord. We wanted you to know that. We also wanted to share with you learnings and clarifications so our mistakes might serve you in your journey of following Christ:

  1. In Christ, any conflict can be worked through if there is humility on all sides. We experienced this. We saw Matthew 18 work it’s good work.
  2. We all needed to ask for mercy and forgiveness.
  3. Proverbs 15:22 declares, “without counsel plans fail but with many advisors they succeed.” The original joint statement needed more editing before it went public because it doesn’t reflect our views on sexuality and redemption or The Gospel Alliance.
  4. The critique blog post should have been given to GA’s leadership team with time to respond before being published for a chance of doing this all privately and fixing the original joint statement.
  5. All of this hard work needed to be done face-to-face.
  6. We, and the Gospel Alliance, joyfully stand with the traditional Christian view of marriage and redemption. Marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman for life; and Christ redeems sexual sinners. This has never changed for us or GA and won’t, God willing.
  7. Relationships matter. We must not just seek to be right we must treat each other rightly as our master commands. We are more committed to this than ever (Matthew 22:37-40).

Conflicts like this have much to teach us and to grow us if we are willing to learn. We want to grow and learn! We will keep talking, repenting and loving. We deeply care for each other, the local church and our denomination. We will continue standing and fighting for the good. We hope you will join us.

In Brotherly Love,

Bob, Charlie and Ron

What the heck is truth anyway?

One of the interesting realities we now live in is that we cannot agree on what is the basic reality of truth. For some, “truth” is used to ostracize, correct, bully and hurt people. For others “truth” is about what can be described and measured in the physical world. For others, “truth” is a social construct that is a collective consensus about what will make humanity happy. And still others think that truth does not exist at all, or at least its unknowable; they think that truth is a subjective reality and that each person has a right to decide what is true for himself or herself.

And when it comes to religious truth, it is laughed at as not a serious form of inquiry and study. Religious truth for living life and to navigate reality has been marginalized to those poor souls who need an “opiate” for their survival. It is seen as useless as a newspaper horoscope.

Yet, does political truth, scientific truth, postmodern truth, or the truth of utilitarianism actually help us answer the deepest questions of life? At least since the time of Socrates, and I am convinced much earlier than that, humanity has sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of human life and why do I exist?
  2. What is goodness and how do I live a good life?
  3. Is there a divine presence that gives order, meaning and purpose to life, and does this divine presence promise life after death?

And for all the good of scientific knowledge, the philosophy of the enlightenment and postmodernity, their answers to these questions leave me fundamentally realizing that they give no compelling answers. At least for me.

At the center of this conversation for two millennia stands Jesus of Nazareth. This marginalized prophet has shaped our culture more than any other man who has ever existed. Hate him or love him, he stands as perhaps the most brilliant thinker humanity has ever had.

Jesus said he embodied truth. One wonders if when Jesus says truth and the folks on tv declare their truth, or the scientist shares the truths from telescopes and microscopes, or the modern or postmodern philosophers share their truths, if everyone is talking about the same thing.

One of the things that I am deeply interested in is to know the truth that Jesus said he represented and to see personally if he answers adequately the big questions of human life. So, I am on a personal crusade to know and challenge the definitions of truth that now flood our minds and compare them to how Jesus defines truth. I want to discern what is the nature of his truth and I want to know how to use “Jesus truth” in the most helpful and appropriate ways. I desire to extract principles for life from what he taught and lived.

First, we need to define truth. I think many of us define truth as objective reality–what can be measured, categorized and dissected. For example when I say, “the moon is up in space, going a certain speed, weighs a certain amount and orbiting around the earth”, I observe the physical world and then make linguistic representations of those observations. This is the truth of modernity. But objective truth (perhaps scientific truth is a better phrase) has its limits. It cannot tell me what is beautiful. It cannot tell me what is the nature of courage, compassion or love. It can describe synoptic firings and sociological stats but it cannot tell me why something is valuable (like why we love Mozart). In other words, it cannot tell me in any adequate way answers to the questions humanity has been asking for millennia. In fact, it has no framework to ask such questions or seek adequate answers.

The philosophers have been seeking truth too. They have been on the journey of defining truth for millennia. To their credit, they have been asking the right questions but their answers have sometimes done more harm than good.

Pre-modern philosophers answered these questions primarily through a deep belief in a metaphysical world. It was a time of myth, magic and mystery. It was also a time of deep human suffering. Everything was a spirit or force and the powerful used the spiritual to do horrendous things. Pre-modernity got many things wrong but it grounded truth in an eternal, spiritual universe. It gave sure answers to the big questions even if it did it at the expense (often but not always) of human dignity.

The modern era brought logic, science and it demystified the world. There weren’t spirits everywhere but atoms and gravity. It was also the rise of individualism, rationalism, and capitalism. And eventually science and rationality usurped truth as a reality and knowledge needed to live well and instead became about observation and individual autonomy. But at some point in the 19th century and surely by the early 20th century, truth as objective reality and a rationalistic endeavor just wasn’t answering the big questions. And this was mostly because our progress in science, rationalism and individual determination had shown (supposedly) that there was no god and we were an accident of accidents and our existence is just a whiff in cosmic time. For all the good of this era (in which we still live), it killed humanity’s eternal soul.

From there postmodernity was born in the quest for truth. Science, rationalism, naturalism and capitalism gave us freedom and a better quality of life but left the big questions unanswered in any compelling way. If god is dead, it must be that each person must answer these questions on her own if it is even worth trying. Truth is relative and unknown. And what might be true for you, might not be true for others. Subjective truth was embraced on a culturally wide scale. If you want to see philosophy in action, try and talk about moral absolutes with a teenager. You might be shocked by what you hear. The results have been catastrophic. There is something in humanity that is driven to find the answers to these questions and if there are no real answers, the only reality is suffering, pain and impending annihilation.

Religion used to give us seemingly good answers, then it was science and rationalism, and then subjectivity. But when these didn’t work, we still kept hunting for the answers. It is as if the questions of existence, meaning and our future is written in the depths of our souls. They demand answers. And so out of profound need, we began to find comfort and grounding by joining groups of those who share a similar truth as we embrace. Gay, straight, conservative, Marxist, atheist, religious, transgender, and the list goes on and on. If you want to understand the current political and ideological groups that permeate culture, you must understand that they are our current answers to the big questions of life. But now the game has changed. Culture has told us that we must make up truth for ourselves. Truth is found not in its universal objectivity but where I can find some comfort, happiness and protection from the winds of nihilism. Ideological groups are the new religion. Here, truth has become synonymous to gaining power for my group, being free to paint truth/reality as I see fit, getting as much happiness as I can grasp in my mortal hands, and protecting myself from other groups who might hurt me or seek to impose their truths on me. The goal is to be among friends like me, enjoying the few decades on this speck of dirt before we are extinguished forever. Hopefully forgetting what we have been told that nothing matters at all except what our imaginations can project as meaning.

This is the best humanity has collectively done in finding truth, in answering the big questions of life.

Depressed yet?

But in the midst of all of this stands Jesus and his truth.

He said things like,
come to me who are heavy burden and I’ll give you rest.

I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Know the truth and it will set you free”.

He defines truth not as a personal journey of self discovery or measurements about the objective world, or a cultural invention but truth for Jesus is this: the knowledge that the human person needs that enables him or her to flourish in human life; it is the truth that enables humanity to navigate the physical world, our time in it and prepares us for life beyond physical death. Truth is the good and purpose-filled life.

It must be stated that His truth is at the center of every serious quest to answer the big questions whether the inquirers hate him or love him. They all know that though Jesus has been relegated to death and comfort, he spoke much more about this life than anything else. Every philosopher, theologian and thinker in western culture for 2000 years has had to reckon with the words, life and worldview of Jesus. He stands in brilliance because he, the man from Galilee is responsible, more than any other, for the framework of truth that has made our civilization possible.

And he says plainly that his truth is testable. He says we can follow him and experience the very life he had. Trust him, follow him and you will find his truth causing your life to flourish just like he said. The New Testament makes clear that the truth of Jesus can be applied right now and you can see results right now. This enables anyone who is a serious inquirer to see whether Jesus has truth or not.

So from Jesus’ point of view, his truth is the reality that I must know and live to do well in this world and the next.

So here are some working principles that I am seeking to live by as I seek the truth that Jesus offers.

— I define truth as the knowledge I need to experientially live the answers to the big questions of life. I know I am living in truth when my life works, I am experienced as good by others and I find satisfaction in my particular life situation. It must work in real life or I haven’t found the truth.

—Truth can be known and it is essential to be known for human flourishing.

—Jesus asserts his truth as the best information on living life and the best answers for the big questions of existence. This necessarily means other truths are less true than his truth.

—I trust Jesus and trust him as the Lord of truth.

—The Bible is where his truth is found.

—I ought to work hard to know HIS truth and apply it.

—I am a pastor so I am to help others discern the truth that will help them flourish.

—This necessitates that I engage others’ truths to discern what is really true for the flourishing of individuals, families, the church and culture.

—The truth of Jesus and the character of Jesus are inseparable. I must share Jesus’ truth in the way he himself shared it. If I do not, then I am revealing that I don’t, yet, fully know the truth he taught.**

Notice that I intentionally reject a group identity schema that pits groups against one another for the sake of power. It is not about idealogical groups that decide who is in and who is out. Truth is not a commodity of power. It isn’t about winning in some political or cultural sense. It is all about helping people find their way in this life and the next.

It also rejects the postmodern assertion that truth is unknowable. I hear this all the time mostly from compassionate but mistaken Christians. If truth is knowledge needed for human flourishing provided by Jesus, then it can be known and we must find it for the sake of our lives and the world.

Finally, this asserts that truth is much more than what can be seen, measured, categorized and observed. For all the good that such knowledge might produce, it cannot help in answering the biggest questions of human existence. If Jesus is right, truth is rooted in his father’s kingdom.

In these principles I embrace the way of Jesus: I am part of a kingdom community of ragtag nobodies bounded not by race, education, economics, moral strength or politics but instead by the crucified and risen Lord. We are following him and learning to live life in the way he intends. He says that such a life is embracing a cruciform life in hope of spectacular resurrection… it is the way to find out personally and collectively the answers to the deepest questions of existence.

We live such a journey humbly because his truth isn’t truth that merely make us right in arguments but his truth is a gift that truly set us free. It enables us to truly live. We aren’t playing the game of ideologies. We are living a life and helping others to do the same.

But we boldly proclaim his truth. Believing in the depths of our being from experience and what he revealed that his truth is the only truth that can help us flourish as human persons and prepare us for our destinies in the eternal cosmos.

In this kingdom all are welcome. He loves everyone and will start with them wherever they are at. This is what he preached and practiced. He is patient, kind and generous in his love. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to prove he is right. For that I am thankful. But every journey with him is one into truth, reality and human flourishing. His truth is lovingly severe and exacting. It will root out all untruth from our existence or we can’t live his truth. He loves everyone but you can’t know the truth, you can’t know him, until the brightness of reality invades every part of life. And so he says, “follow me” …. “come and die”, “lose your life so that you might find it.”

Sounds like the truth to me.

A Gentle Critique of Gospel Alliance and Room for All’s Joint Statement on Sexuality and the RCA

A few months ago leaders of the Gospel Alliance (GA) and Room for All (RFA) met to discuss the future of the RCA in light of the huge denominational chasm present as it relates to the ethics and theology surrounding gay relationships, ordination of (practicing) gay pastors and gay marriage. At the end of the conversation, they created a joint statement which can be read here: GA/RFA JOINT STATEMENT 

Though the joint statement has a beautiful tone and many commendable elements, there are two areas where I believe it was seriously wrong for GA to put its name in agreement.

Before I get into my gentle critique, my church and myself are proudly committed members of the Gospel Alliance. I serve on the advisory board. Bob Bouwer is a mentor and one of my closest friends. Charlie Contreras is a second father and my first father in the faith. All who signed the agreement are godly and more mature than me. I am sure they have good reasons for the agreement but it has its fault that I think friends can graciously discuss.

The first troubling sentence is this:

We believe that the healthiest way to express human sexuality is through a committed, mutually loving relationship between two people.

This sentence has several semantic errors in my view. The statement bases its conclusion of what is the “healthiest sexual expression” on the word “committed”. What does the word committed mean in this context? A committed dating relationship? A commitment as found in gay marriage? Perhaps the commitment of traditional marriage?  Maybe it is left ambiguous to enfold all three? Or maybe it is an assertion that at least we agree that commitment is better than no commitment at all? In my opinion, “Committed” is too obscure a word without a qualifier to explain and leaves much to interpretation. We are in need of clarity not more confusion.

This particular sentence of the joint statement is further troubling by the chose of using the word, “healthiest”. Again, what does “healthiest” mean? Psychological health? Emotionally satisfying? Or the highest Christian good? When you put the sentence all together it brings no clarity or help. It just leaves me scratching my head. Really? The healthiest? It is as easy to read the sentence as a nod to traditional marriage as it is to say it affirms gay marriage. Are we saying that all of these are the healthiest? I know that all the GA folks who signed understand and believe that the healthiest expression of human sexuality is a life long, bounded-covenantal marriage between a man and a woman.  This is the healthiest expression of human sexuality and millennia of history has shown this to be true. Of course RFA doesn’t agree with such a statement. And there is no way to bridge the chasm. No need for GA to seemingly move on so central of an issue when confusion is the only gift given.

The more troubling sentence in my view that found a place in the joint statement was this:

While all things are possible through God, we do not believe that prayer or conversion therapy can change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

First of all, it is good to stand for the right of the individual to decide his or her destiny and any “therapy” or “prayer” that forces “conversion” is abhorrent to a Christian worldview. I am sure we can all agree on that. But instead of jointly agreeing on something where there is true common ground, the above sentence has profound weaknesses that strike at Gospel hope.

Its first weakness in my view is that it frames the argument in very unhelpful ways. Gender identity as used in modern parlance is code for one’s ability to name his or her gender expression based on a personal choice. The whole idea separates gender identity from biology and is the fruit of postmodern subjectivity and accepts the notion that such a thing as gender identity is up to personal preference. I see this as the madness of our cultural moment. No matter its many flaws, for sure its usuage is not the proper language of orthodox Christians. Or at the very least least it’s usage has profound challenges that need careful consideration and clarifications.

The sentence’s second weakness is the assertion that one’s sexual orientation is fixed and unmovable. As far as I can tell, the best science doesn’t even agree with the statement. Sexual attraction is fluid throughout life, differing substantially among males and females, and certainly isn’t static. The idea of sexual identity being akin to eye color is to give up significant theological ground and to create significant pastoral problems that need not exist.  Sexual identity is a movable point on a spectrum and I am not sure how a Bible-believing Christian could believe that Christ could not move that point and regularly does.

Beyond that, speaking of identity and orientation in these ways is to use non-biblical categories. The Bible only speaks of being a man or a woman with a sexual calling to the other gender. This is the language of sexuality in the Bible. It does this not because it is ignorant on current sociological and psychological research but because this is the reality that God has ordained since the beginning. It is brilliant in its simplicity and straightforwardness. I think it’s the best language to use and build from especially in conversations among professing believers. I encourage my GA friends to stand their ground on the biblical language. It is worth the fight and profoundly refreshing in an age of verbosity without substance.

And one final point, the Bible is filled with numerous  examples of broken men and women being called and transformed. The idea that a gay man called by Christ cannot live out biblical masculinity in marriage is to say that Christ does not have the resources to empower such a gospel life. I am sure no GA member would ever say such a thing.

Sinful sexuality (with all of its expressions) can be wholly transformed. I know and so do countless others. It might not be popular or hip but it is the gospel truth.

I know that my GA friends were seeking to find a way forward  for the RCA. And I trust their hearts and leadership. But these sentences within the joint statement bring confusion and seeming agreement on large, essential issues when there is none.

I hope that there will be clarification in the days ahead.

Why does evil exist?

One of the hardest things to do as a follower of Jesus is to reconcile the idea of a fully sovereign good God with the very real evil experienced throughout the world everywhere.

It does pose several challenges that are serious and possibly insurmountable.

  • Evil exists and produces suffering for every human person. No one escapes it. Does this not reveal the utter maliciousness of the divine? For a sovereign being to allow such horror and not stop it seems to suggest that he endorses it. Does this not signify that God is evil? And that evil is an ultimate aim of existence?
  • Perhaps God cannot stop evil. Then he is no god at all and perhaps evil is even more powerful than he. Or at least it has the possibility of “winning”. What you can’t control has the possibility of overcoming you or at least beating you.
  • Or perhaps evil is the surest sign that there is no god at all. It is surely the strongest proof of non existence. Perhaps the universe has no meaning or benevolence. Suffering and evil is the only reality the universe gives us. And consequently, life should be filled with dread and doom.

These are serious challenges. But I do think there is a substantive answer for why there is evil. The answer in summary is to realize that all these challenges assume a “closed system” where evil’s work is final. A system in which this present life and its joy (or at least the minimization of suffering) is primary because our physical death is the final end. Whatever goodness is, we must experience it now and whatever evil is we must run from it as fast as we can.

But this is not the Christian story. We are eternal beings. We live in an “open system”. One filled with angels, perfected beings, the sovereign Christ, his unstoppable love, and an eternity to bring about all the good he has imagined for his people and the cosmos he has created.

In other words, it is my strong belief that in Christ’s cosmos evil is a temporary reality that fades into an illusion of light in the depths of eternity. If this is true, then Goodness is everywhere.

Here is a thought experiment that shows that it is goodness that reigns and evil is a necessary means into goodness:

Imagine that you are married and have one four-year-old daughter. You are a devoted Christian family. You strive for what is good and love the Lord. You live a happy life. In one moment, this all changes.

While at the park joyfully playing, your phone rings and you look down, she darts into a nearby forest preserve, you look up and can’t find her. Frantically you look for her. You never see her again.

Later, you find out that she was abducted and killed. The killer, you find out, has done this before and was once caught but had to be let go on a legal technicality. You feel all the guilt, anger, pain and loss that comes from losing your only daughter in this way. Your marriage crumbles from the pressure of the pain and anguish from loss and your spouse leaves you. Your career, which was soaring until that day, comes to a stand still and it too dissolves into the wind of sorrow. A year after your daughter’s death you are severely depressed, divorced and jobless. All you want to do is fall asleep and never wake again. The only consolation, if you can call it that is the murderer is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

If your life and it’s goodness is measured by your physical life, evil has triumphed. But you are part of another world.

One night while laying in bed an angel visits you. He tells you that his aim in his visit is to show you that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. And at the end of the visit, you will be able to choose to keep going in the timeline you are now in or go back to that moment and save your daughter. If you choose to stay in this timeline, you will forget the angel’s visit and all you learn. If you save your daughter, you will remember every detail of the visitation. With hope welling in your heart for the first time in a year you readily agree.

With the angel, you go one billion years into the future. You are in heaven with the angel. You see your future-self with your precious daughter. You run up and hug her in an embrace of deep joy. When you set her down, you look at her and see that it is your daughter but somehow she is radically different. She is not a child, at least not in the normal sense. She is ancient and young wrapped up into the face you remember. She is a person of such nobility and power, beauty and grace that she seems divine. In fact, in a very real sense she is. She asks why you are there. You tell her. And then you tell her how sorry you are. How you know it’s your fault. You’re in agony. Your apology is filled with the fear of someone who has done something that cannot be repaired. You end saying something like, “I wish I could have saved you”.

She laughs. Not the laugh that comes from a joke; nor is it a cruel laugh. It is the most beautiful laugh you have ever heard. It is fierce, innocent and pure. It is a laugh that comes from the depths of goodness and gladness. If the sun could laugh, her laugh was close to that. It was filled with light. And she tells you that on the day of her murder was the most joyous of her existence. In the final moments Jesus was right there. All she can remember is the joy of being held by his hands. And every moment since that moment has been one ever increasing joy. She could imagine nothing better than the eternal life she now lives.

Your angel guide suddenly takes you back to the present plus twenty years. It is your daughter you see, 24 years old in what looks like a university dorm. The angel tells you that what you see is what would happen if she would not have died that day. Your daughter cannot see you. The angel tells you that she has lost her faith as she pursues a PhD in mathematics and she will never have it again. There is a sadness in the angel’s face that is so deep and final that it pierces your soul. Your ache over your daughter’s death is a mere shadow of the pain he conveys.

Then, like before, your a billion years in the future and you are in heaven with your future-self. You look at him. He is unlike anyone you have ever met. He is embodies peace. You tell him your journey and the option the angel told you. You ask him what he thinks. He tells you that those few years of pain broke him. But not in a bad way. He was broken but in the way that enables something new to be made. In fact, the broken places made possible a beautiful existence. A few years after the death of his daughter, his relationship with Jesus would flourish. In the depths of pain, he found real peace. He found the Lord. He never married again. But what he learned in the valley of the shadows gave him a power and substance that gave hope to thousands during his life on earth. And in the billion years since that earthly life, the peace only deepens. He tells you that this one moment of horror made him into the man he always wanted to be. In fact, he learned it was necessary for him to be the man God created him to be. So not only has he accepted God’s willingness to allow such suffering, these days he celebrates God’s goodness in allowing it. There is no doubt but the assurance of a man who deeply knows something true. If a perfect person could beg, you saw such a thing that day. Your future-self tells you that this is the road to goodness and without it, goodness will be lost for you.

You are stunned and confused but also you see the beauty of this future moment. You turn around and you see the murderer. You remember the way he looked in court, cold and malicious. But now he is radiant. And if you had to choose one word to describe him it would be, “safe”. Anger wells up and pain causes your body to convulse uncontrollably. He waits. He begins to weep. Real sorrow. But it is upheld, somehow, in love and goodness. He is sad but not shameful. You look in his face and you see something you have never seen before–love, sorrow, regret and joy infinitely combined into radiance. This radiance is his self. In fact, it would be impossible to divide the light from his soul. They are one in the same. He tells you that he is sorry for his heinous sin, and asks for mercy. You ask how he could even be in heaven. He tells you that in prison, 5 years after the murder, you visited him. You forgave him and shared the goodness of the risen Christ. He accepted and walked with the Lord until the moment he was executed. The story of reconciliation between you and him was told and thousands came to the Lord. He knows from eternity that those thousands would only have come into eternal gladness because of this story of forgiveness. If it did not happen, they would never know Christ. Lost forever.

The angel touches your arm and you are back in your home, in the present, alone. There is a note that reads: I will be back in one week for your decision.

The next week is like the last year, lonely and filled with anguish.

A week late the angel returns. What do you do? Is Romans 8 right? Does God cause all things to work together for good? Can that be true for you and all your pain? Or should you go back in time, with the angel, circumvent God’s plan and save your daughter? Do want to remember and have
Your daughter and marriage or forget and embrace the pain?