Category Archives: Ministry

Still Evangelical?

I am the son of two immigrants, my father was Polish and my mother is Guatemalan. I grew up in small Latino churches. I am evangelical. I was on staff at an evangelical megachurch. I am a PhD student at a historically significant evangelical institution. I am also a registered Republican.  It should go without saying that the entire Trump “event,” from his nomination to his presidency today, has been rather complicated for me.

This is not least because so much of what his presidency has brought to light, both in America and the American church, embodies values which are so contrary to me as an evangelical Christian formed by non-Western influences. So, when I saw various 4537evangelicals, like Mark Labberton, wondered aloud whether the term “Evangelical” is still useful or whether the tribe that identifies with that will be left intact I had mixed feelings: “evangelical” is what I am, yet the term has become tainted. Some of these mixed feelings are very well articulated by numerous authors in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. There is a lot I resonate with in this book.

Robert Chao Romero, in his essay, “Immigration and the Latina/o Community” describes the experiences of Latino/a Christians in the US in light of the “Latino Threat Narrative.” Basically, this is the idea that Latinos are unwilling to integrate into “American” culture and that they are bent on reconquering land that was formerly theirs. Because many have imbibed this false narrative, many evangelicals voted for a president who espouses this same view. Many Latino evangelicals were left confused as to why their Christian brothers and sisters would think so poorly of them and put nation before Kingdom. [This, I should note, is not a universal experience, I know from conversations that numerous Latino evangelicals were ardent Trump supporters.]

Jim Daly, who leads one of the most significant evangelical organizations, Focus on the Family, writes about the importance of “listening” in this period. He embodies a more conciliatory approach: “Rather than assuming what ‘those people’ are like, we should get to know them.” (180) This practice of listening goes both ways. Evangelicals who can’t fathom why other evangelicals would support Trump inspired political movements and evangelicals who think that those who refused to fall in line with American Evangelicalism both need to speak to and listen to one another. In an age of “yelling” through social media, this call to be slow speak and quick to listen almost seems biblical…

Despite the inclusion of numerous well written chapters, the one that resonated the most with me was InterVarsity President Tom Lin’s chapter. He makes the fantastic point:

Any evaluation of the world evangelical or evangelicalism must be done in the context of the global church. The decision of some American evangelicals to abandon the term is insensitive to our overseas sisters and brothers; it reflects the worst impulses of American exceptionalism and self-absorption. (186)

In my opinion, this global perspective changes everything. I grew up in such a way that my self-understanding of what it means to be an evangelical was more shaped by my Latino and European influences than by institutional Anglo-American evangelicalism. [I didn’t start attending an Anglo-American church until I was 19 years old.] To be an Evangelico was never tied to political parties – it was always tied to evangelical faith and practice. It meant we read and took the Bible seriously, we shared the gospel, we believed in salvation by faith through grace alone, and we believed in the importance of being born again. None of this was tied to a particular political party. Sure, some people in our church were democrats and some were republicans, but that was not what defined you as a “good” or “bad” Christian. Yet, it seems, that in circles just outside the ones I grew up in as a Latino evangelical, one’s political affiliation did define whether one was a “good” or “bad” Christian. Because of my social context, that word, “Evangelical” didn’t carry the same meaning as it does for many of my other Christian brothers and sisters. To me, Evangelical, was never a sociological moniker, it was a theological identity. All this to say, I understand why some evangelicals want to abandon the term, but I simply can’t. To be an evangelical, at least from a Latino perspective, just means that I am a Christ follower. And that is an identification I would never want to abandon.

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Walking Through Twilight

Openness, authenticity, and even lament are increasingly been seen as important among evangelical circles. With an increase in the valuing of these virtues and practices we have also seen an increase in the number of books addressing such topics. For example:

  • Todd Billings’: Rejoicing in Lament – Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ
  • Steve Hayner’s: Joy in the Journey – Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death

More recently we have Douglas Groothius’, “Walking Through Death: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament.” In this book, Groothius, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, walks us through what it has been like for him and his wife dealing with her rare form of dementia: Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). He walks us through the pain of learning of her condition, watching some of her strengths become weaknesses, and most significantly, loosing vital aspects of his relationship with his wife.41guszfmbtl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

The highlights of this book come in Groothius moments of raw transparency. He expresses anger and even rage. He, understatedly says, “I did not think dearly of God.” And, rather strongly says, “I hated God and told him so repeatedly.” (41) He says he never flirted with atheism, but was bordering on “misotheism” – the hatred of God. Yet at the same time he knew that God was his only hope. Those struggling with hating God in terrible situations might find solace in hearing Groothius verbalize thoughts they think they probably shouldn’t have.

In the midst of these emotionally packed moments we are also given glimpses of Groothius’ philosophical mind at work. His reflections on atheism and misotheism are interesting. His discussion about the nature of lying in chapter 13 presents some interesting philosophical reflections. Chapter 15 which addresses humanity’s relationship to animals, specifically dogs, raises some interesting questions about humanity’s nature.

The appendix, though not strictly a part of the “lament” is worth the price of the book. In it he provides three ways to engage with people who are lamenting. I won’t spoil it here, but, I recommend you take a look at this section and really reflect upon how you deal with people who are hurting.

If you are looking for a model of how to deal with pain, anger, agony, and confusion in the face of suffering, this book might be a good place to turn to.

Judge Lest You Be Judged: John Calvin on Grace in Church Discipline

“Judge lest you be judged.” This mantra has become so widely accepted in our 21st century western context that even the the church has come to take it as programmatic for church discipline. Even within the church to discipline somebody is seen as being judgmental; and to be judgmental is to commit one of the most “heinous” sins society can envision. This aversion to judgement or discipline is in some ways understandable, after all many people have been hurt by the judgments (fair or unfair) of the church. But we ought to ask, must the discipline of the church necessarily be seen as inherently harmful or can church discipline be seen as something which is uplifting and helpful to growth? It is my suggestion, that contrary to our contemporary aversion to church discipline, which sees church discipline as a necessary evil, John Calvin saw church discipline as something which was not only necessary but also good for the church. In this brief essay I will describe a few cases that occurred in Geneva and were deemed as worthy of discipline. This will give us a better understanding of how church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva. Following this I will go on to describe what Calvin takes to be the benefits of church discipline.

Church Discipline in Geneva

William Naphy writes that upon his return to Geneva Calvin experienced opposition to his system of discipline. This opposition actually came at the hands of his fellow ministers. (Naphy, 56) Apparently some ministers felt as though too much power had been given over to the hands of the city’s pastors, and that the Small Council ought to beware of giving away power which belonged to itself. These pastors believed that this shift in power would result in “disorder and revolt.” (Naphy, 56) Naphy argues that at the end of the day, Calvin was able to consolidate power under his own Calvinist party (though naturally there were some concessions). This resulted in the system which Jeffrey Watt aptly describes in “Reconciliation and the Confession of Sins: The Evidence from the Consistory in Calvin’s Geneva.” There he argues that the balance of power laid in the fact that the Consistory could not impose secular penalties to those appearing before it (Watt, 105). The Consistory however had influence to impose discipline which would lead to holy behavior. The way the Consistory did this was by referring “miscreants for criminal sentencing to the small council.” (Watt, 105) However, more powerful than their influence over secular means of discipline, the Consistory’s true power laid in the fact that they “had direct influence over the rank and file” to deny the right to participate in the Eucharist. (Watt, 105)

Among those infractions which merited a suspension from the Eucharist, the most significant act of church discipline next to excommunication, the most common were blasphemy, violence, and sexual sins. As evidence of some common causes for discipline Naphy cites that in 1550 twenty-seven percent of cases involved sexual immorality, fourteen percent involved “religious irregularities,” and forty percent involved interpersonal disputes. As one example of a personal dispute, Watt recounts that a certain Jacques Morellet had punched his wife because she had left the door open, which in turn let in a breeze that disturbed his sleep. (Watt, 107). The Consistory forbade Morellet from taking communion. A less extreme case of a personal dispute involved a feud between Pernett Durrante and Claude Jernoz. The dispute between these women led to neither of them receiving communion for four years. This action was decided with consideration of the biblical injunction to not “come to the altar” until reconciled with one’s brother or sister. As an example of sexual improprieties we may consider the case of a landlord named Jean Losserand, who attempted to rape a married woman. (Watt, 109) The Consistory excluded him from the supper and also referred him to the small council for criminal charges. There were also cases of religious impropriety. In April 1562 a large number of people avoided the regularly scheduled pre-communion pastoral visitation. Their punishment was that they needed to appear before the consistory to prove they knew the basics of the reformed faith. There were also cases of Genevan’s performing Catholic practices abroad. In these cases the consistory often recommended that the person not take communion once, but if repentant they could take communion the following time it was offered. Also, “those who renounced the Reformed faith to save their lives were routinely readmitted to the Community of Geneva after being excluded just one time, provided they were truly penitent.” (Watt, 110) As we can see there were manifold reasons for church discipline. Often these cases required wisdom to decide what was the best course of discipline and other times the proper course of action was clear as day to the consistory.

Calvin on Church Discipline

So far we have seen how church discipline was enacted in Geneva. Modern audiences may agree with the Consistory’s decisions in some of these cases, however discipline in some of the controversial cases, like the a man who sold rosaries or a woman who prayed to Mary, may seem overly harsh. Certainly, one would think, these sorts of infractions should not merit exclusion from the Eucharist! To exclude people from the means of grace they need seems harmful and counterproductive. However, this was not Calvin’s opinion.

In the Institutes Calvin outlines three purposes for church discipline. The first is that those who lead a filthy and infamous life bring dishonor to God and corrupt the name of the church and the name Christian. Thus they ought to be disciplined. (Calvin, 1232) The second is that bad company corrupts good character. In other words, impious people, corrupt the good people in the church. (Calvin, 1233) The third purpose, and the purpose which we shall focus on, is that “those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.” (Calvin, 1233) Calvin is of the opinion that the rod has the power to awaken those who are stubborn to their own evil. Here Calvin cites Paul’s famous words to hand a sinner over to Satan “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1333) Thus to excommunicate someone, or to ban someone from receiving the Lord’s supper for a time, has the power to waken up a stubborn sinner and lead them to turn back to Christ. In this way, discipline is an act of grace, being a conduit for the stubborn sinner for receiving the grace necessary to repent of their sins.

However, Calvin not only believed that church discipline was a gracious act, he also believed that it ought to be carried out in a gracious manner. For instance, he says,

Great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough – and that mild and fatherly – which should not harden or confuse the sinner, but bring him back to himself, that he may rejoice rather than be sad that he has been corrected. (Calvin, 1234)

Often times these verbal chastisements came through sermons. Parker notes that in calling out the sins of the congregation (not individuals) “there is not threshing himself into fever of impatience or frustration, no holier than though rebuking of the people.” (Parker, 119) In other words he approached sermonic reproof and exhortation in a gracious manner. The exception to this sort of behavior comes when Calvin dealt with injustice and opposition to the gospel. For example, he specifically indicts some of the Genevan Judges for acting contrary to God’s justice. (Parker, 120)

Great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough[3] – and that mild and fatherly – which should not harden or confuse the sinner, but bring him back to himself, that he may rejoice rather than be sad that he has been corrected. (Calvin, 1234)

Here we see the gracious nature of church discipline manifested in several ways. First, the sinner ought to be approached in a graceful manner, showing them the appropriate amount of severity. Not only this, but the tone of discipline ought to be fatherly, that is seeking the best for the sinner, not punishing simply for the sake of retribution. Third, the purpose of discipline is not to harden or confuse the sinner, but to bring the sinner to awareness of his sinfulness. Here Calvin shows, that he understands the ability church discipline has to harden the heart of a sinner. Calvin says, this ought to be avoided. Finally, the goal of discipline is not that the sinner feel bad about their sin, but that they may rejoice that they have been corrected and put back on the right path to godliness.

Elsewhere Calvin writes that severity ought to be joined with “a spirit of gentleness” which is fitting for the church, thus agreeing with the spirit of Chrysostom’s question: “If God is so kind, why does his priest wish to seem so rigorous?” (Calvin, 1237) Church discipline should confirm God’s love towards the sinner. Its intent is to lead the sinner to repentance, so that it may bring spiritual health not only to the sinner but the entire church body. (Calvin, 1240)

Conclusion

Thus far we have seen the way in which church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva as well as Calvin’s stated goals in enforcing church discipline. The purpose of church discipline is the good of the church and the sinner. Those who are charged with the overseeing of the spiritual well being of God’s people are charged with a duty to warn, reprove and correct evil (Calvin, 1239). They do sinners no favor in allowing them to remain guilty before the Lord. Thus church discipline is necessary, not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary means to awaken sinners to God’s grace towards them. According to Calvin, the church ought to be careful in hurting the flock when disciplining them, yet at the same time sometimes the temporary pain that comes from being publicly or privately reprimanded or being excluded from communion or from the church is the most loving and gracious thing the church can do for sinners.

10 Reasons You Should Go to Seminary

I recently came across an older blog post by Scot McKnight about going to seminary. McKnight is one of my favorite authors and biblical scholars. He also teaches at a seminary. I respect the guy a ton! So if he says, “here are 10 reasons you should go to seminary” I listen, and I think you should too.

Here are some reasons for going to seminary:

1. Gift enhancement. Seminaries will not “gift” a person but seminaries can almost always enhance the gifts God has given to a person. I have argued for years that seminaries work best when they are populated by ministers and not by folks who think or want, but aren’t sure, if they are gifted or called. What seminaries do well is enhance gifts.

2. Biblical and Theological enhancement. Seminary students will study the Bible, the whole Bible, and that will be a first for some. And, they already have a theology; seminaries can enhance that theology, both by way of subtraction (getting rid of some careless ideas) and addition (adding better ideas). Students have the opportunity to study great theologians, and pity the seminary that assigns textbook-ish theology books, and I’m thinking here of Athanasius and Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm, Luther and Calvin (and the Anabaptists like Hubmaier), and then into the modern era with Barth and Moltmann.

3. Personal enhancement. There was a day when seminaries assumed seminary students would be praying and reading the Bible and practicing the disciplines and attending church … they assumed formation was already underway. No more. Increasingly, seminaries are making spiritual formation — personal enhancement — a part of each course in the curriculum. I will be. 

4. Dedicated time. Let’s face it, to develop theologically as a minister you need time, and that’s what seminary does. In sociological terms, seminary can be a time of encapsulation: you are isolated from your work, your church, and you are holed up in a class with other students and a professor, and you wander into quiet libraries and you study — it is that dedicated time that seminaries can offer. Most pastors aren’t afforded the luxury to study in big chunks of time, so going to seminary, even if it is as a commuter, offers dedicated time. It probably won’t happen without dedicated time.

5. Access to specialists. One of the problems with seminaries is that they can take on the flavor of a research institution and its professors want to be left alone to do historical and technical research and write books and articles and monographs for the academic guild. I am proud to say at Northern, the aim is for the professors to be both specialist enough to be able to work in the guild but who are shaping their lives toward pastors, toward ministry, and toward the church. Seminaries provide specialists to ministers who need specialists on the topics of the day.

6. Theological diversity. Some seminaries (names omitted) prefer to have faculty who all think alike. I’m 100% persuaded diversity, theological diversity, is the name of the game for seminaries. No two pastors think exactly alike and no two professors think alike, and having theological diversity (within some creedal constraint) that interacts with one another sets a pattern for ministry for years to come. Taking classes from professors who don’t agree with you, or who think differently, will make you a better minister.

That is just 6/10! You can read the rest here.

By the way… I think Fuller Seminary is a great option. Just saying!

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This is a picture of Fuller Seminary’s library – oh and also  of California’s year-round beautiful weather.

(Review) The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

My wife and I have a beautiful 16 month old daughter. She loves to play around and she really loves to read. Given my profession, the fact that she loves books brings joy to my heart! Although she loves books, probably more than any other form of entertainment, Mothers Dayher mother and I still have the difficult task of figuring out how much technology we want to let her have access to at this early stage of her life. Should she have access to our phones? Should she be able to look at photos on them? Play games on them? Use the camera? Or what about the computer, she gravitates towards it! She hits the keys like she’s typing up something really important. And then, there is the ever important question, how much TV is too much TV? These are all questions that we as young parents are trying to figure out. Thankfully, Andy Crouch, author of some of my favorite books including Culture Making and Strong and Weak, has written a new book titled The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.

One of the most helpful features of this book are his 10 commandments:

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than let recoreded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

As a parent I found commandment #2 and the chapter about it especially interesting. He stresses that children are driven to create – if we nudge them in that direction. However too often, cheap technology squelches that drive to create. “For a child’s creative development, the inexpenseive, deep, organic thing is far better than the expensive, broad, electronic thing. And yet we are constantly tempted to give them toys that work on their own – that buzz and beep and light up without developing any skill.” (80) Chapter 6 – which treats the topic of boredom was also especially helpful. Apparently the English word for boredom does not appear until the 1850’s and its root word “bore” appears only a century earlier. Crouch argues that the technology that promises to free 41vj8hqrnkl-_sx355_bo1204203200_us from boredom actually makes it worse, it makes us more prone to seek distraction. Its even worse for kids! Crouch concludes that “the more you entertain children, the more bored they will get.” (141) That is powerful stuff! A short-term solution can actually become a long term problem. In this chapter he takes aim at the practice of sitting kids in front of videos in order to entertain them, or keep them busy while mom and dad try to get some work done around the house. Talk about convicting!  Videos he says, are designed to fill a screen with a level of vividness and velocity that does not exist in the real world – or only very rarely. Some entertainment is created to never require too much concentration or contemplation, it grabs our attention and constantly stimulates our desire and delight with novelty. It desensitizes us. In light of all of this it gets harder and harder to stay entertained. The ordinary, in turn, becomes boring. Dirt, grass, trees, fields, birds, all the things that require attention, the things that you see more of when you slow down and look closer, become boring. I certainly don’t want that for my daughter! I want her to delight in the magic that is God’s creation! I don’t want to stifle her creativity with quick solutions, and I don’t want her to lose her awe of the ordinary. This book serves as a fine warning to me, which will keep me from ignorantly falling into practices which counteract my desires for her.

As you can probably tell, this book has made a significant impact on the way I think about technology and parenting. If you are a parent, I highly recommend this book. Even if you are not, this book might help you bring some discipline into your technology filled life.

Note: I received this book in exchange for an impartial review.

(Review) Embodied Hope by Kelly Kapic

The problem of evil has been solved. Well, at least the logical problem of evil has been, which for the lived experience of most human beings is radically insufficient. Pain and suffering present a radically real problem for many people. People die, get sick, and deal with chronic pain. For some, these realities pose a major stumbling block to seeing God as good. Kelly Kapic, the author of Embodied Hope has experienced these realities first hand. His wife has dealt with the ravages and emotional toll of physical suffering. In light of this he has chosen to write a book which is both theological and pastoral, exploring the truths about God and ourselves which have bearing upon this problem of pain and 51a5lkxgr8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_suffering.

Naturally, the problem of evil is a really large topic, thus Kapic chooses to limit himself in two ways: First, he chooses to address Christians who suffer. Thus this book isn’t meant as a global defense against the existential problem of evil, or evil in general. It is aimed ad Christians who experience suffering. Second, he chooses to deal with suffering associated specifically with serious illness or physical pain.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. Part one deals with the limitations of easy answers often given to the problem of suffering and he deals with the nature of biblical lament. Here he also explores what it means to be embodied creatures. Part two turns to Christology in order to address some of these issues. Kapic believes that “Only by looking to this man [Christ] can we reorient our experience of suffering in a way that is truly Christian.” (15) In part three Kapic relates ecclesiology to the problem of suffering. He says that in the body of Christ we “discover a pattern for Christian discipleship that allows for genuine struggle, communal support, and transformative affection.” (15)

As someone who would consider myself to be a “pastor-theologian” I can really appreciate the nature of this work. Kapic works hard to make sure that our theological reflections are not separated from our pastoral practice. I found Kapic’s chapter on the Incarnation to be especially strong in maintaining this bond. Here he examines the theology of Athanasius and Warfield and concludes that,

The physicality of the Messiah takes us to the heart of the gospel and God’s promise, not just of sympathy but of rescue. God has come, come near, come to be God with us and God for us!” (75)

This is a powerful truth with major pastoral implications. Much incarnational theology has swung towards saying that the most important part of the incarnation is that Christ now has solidarity with us. This is certainly true, and pastorally significant, but solidarity without rescuing doesn’t offer much hope!

His chapter on confession was also enlightening. I have rarely seen a chapter on confession in a book addressing suffering. If I have, they are often very poorly written, wrongly teaching that our sickness/suffering is always tied to some hidden sin. So what does confession have to do with healing? Confession before others can help us disentangle our pain from the idea of personal punishment, it liberates us from shame and condemnation, it allows us to meet Christ in the other, and allows us to make ourselves truly vulnerable to the healing presence of God. This is truly powerful stuff!

So who should pick up this book? Undoubtedly, pastors! I mentioned above that this is a great example of pastoral theology. Kapic doesn’t present anything “new” here, or anything particularly interesting to academic theologians. However, he does an amazing job of making theology “real” for pastors and laypersons. I often hear that systematic theology is irrelevant or that it’s a nice intellectual pursuit, but here Kapic shows us that is simply untrue. The sort of historical theology  and systematic theology he is engaging in this book is supremely relevant to the life of anyone who calls themselves a Christian.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.