Written by Jared C. Wilson |
Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Spiritual fathers speaking into the lives of young men realize that accountability comes with access, that authority comes with availability, that ambition must come with authenticity — and that lasting, formative influence comes from closeness. You cannot be a spiritual father simply by monitoring someone’s intellectual progress. You have to get up in someone’s business. Spiritual fatherhood is local.
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
—1 Corinthians 4:15
As I get older, I think more and more about this claim from Paul — and the concept of “spiritual fatherhood” generally — and it seems a pressing issue to me, not just “culturally,” but personally. I won’t say I’ve done a great job of being a spiritual father, but by God’s grace, I want to be. And I’ve certainly benefited from spiritual fatherhood. These are some thoughts on what this practice looks like that I’ve been kicking around for some time and thought might be worth sharing.
1. Spiritual fatherhood is fatherhood, not guru-dom.
In other words, it does not consist in handing down spiritual proverbs from on high like some kind of authoritative oracle, but rather leads from alongside, encourages through relationship, coaches as one invested. By “guides,” I take Paul to mean theological and moral influences — both good and bad, perhaps — and these kinds of voices are of course many, especially in our day of talking head religious media and Internet know-it-alls. There is of course wisdom and positive influence to be found in these arenas. But nothing beats the wisdom of one who knows you and speaks into your growth and can even tailor and customize guidance according to one’s personality, giftedness, experience, and calling. Just as a father may speak to his own children in different ways according to their capacities, a spiritual father, unlike so many of our self-appointed gurus, knows how to relate to different believers in different ways. And while a guru only knows how to dispense all the right information, the spiritual father is honest about his own sin and struggles, transparent about his own mistakes and misunderstandings, and doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He just keeps pointing you to the One who does.
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By Marissa Henley — 2 months ago
As we imperfectly love, instruct, and discipline our children, our heavenly Father perfectly loves, instructs, and disciplines us. God uses motherhood to fulfill His mission in us: to sanctify us and conform us to Christ’s image. We fulfill the mission of God as mothers as we glorify Him. When we serve our families, we are serving the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 3:24). Even before our efforts bear any other fruit, our obedience brings glory to God. This truth can bring encouragement when our parenting efforts feel futile.
When I was a teenager, my best friend and I loved to discuss parenting. We analyzed the parenting differences we saw in families around us and tried to connect the dots between parents’ actions and the children’s success. Sometimes the outcomes within a family varied widely, and we wanted to understand why. It’s no wonder that we both went on to be psychology majors in college.
Now that I’m parenting three teenagers, I sometimes fall into a similar results-based mentality. Most of my adult life has been focused on raising children, and I hope my efforts will bear fruit as my children enter adulthood. It’s tempting to think that my children’s worldly success or biblical faithfulness determines whether I fulfilled the mission of God as their mother. But I also know that only God is sovereign over my children’s hearts and lives. They are the Lord’s vessels, not mine (Isa. 64:8). I need a shift in my thinking about God’s mission for motherhood.
Long before the fruit of our labor is revealed, our motherhood fulfills the mission of God when we glorify Him by humbly and obediently laying down our lives for our children. In our daily tasks of instructing, disciplining, and caring for our children, God gives us opportunities to pass along the truth of His Word to the next generation. He uses our work as mothers to conform us to the image of His Son and to increase our dependence on Him. And He is glorified when we obey His call to serve our families sacrificially.
Motherhood Affects Our Children
When my firstborn child was just a toddler, a friend made a casual comment that shaped the way I talked with my kids from that point on. She told me how her own mother constantly pointed her grandchildren to the Lord by connecting everything back to Him. Instead of saying, “Look at the beautiful flowers,” she would say, “Look at the beautiful flowers God made and how He’s given us the gift of their beauty.” Her words were a constant reminder of a Creator who cares for us.
By Ronni Kurtz — 3 months ago
As we lay hold of the tool that is Christian theology and contemplate God and all things in relation to God, we ought to be transformed into the kind of people who can be described by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Division and discord are growing sicknesses in our day. We’re separated into ever-fracturing tribes, and the “us versus them” mentality has developed a gravitational pull. What’s more, talking heads who tell us our problems and worries come from those we disagree with saturate the screens in our homes and pockets.
The church isn’t safe from the disease of division. Our feeds offer us a steady diet of self-affirming articles that state how this political election or that theological disagreement will make or break us. When the stakes are constantly elevated to do-or-die levels, we justify any tactic that gives “our side” an edge in the war. Denominations, churches, and church members who once enjoyed unity now grow apart. Those we used to march with arm in arm are now at arm’s length. It seems our culture is ever more eager to draw lines in the sand and ever slower to listen with love. As our tribalism grows, our ability to nuance diminishes, and it becomes difficult to pursue Christian wisdom.
We watch Paul’s warning in Galatians 5:15 unfold: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Hyperbole, straw-manning, and intellectual suspicion poison the tongues of some of our most popular theologians. Why have theological leaders given in to cultural division? What can we do about it?
Roots of Theological Malpractice
Much of what’s done in the name of “theology” in our day is described by the list of vices listed in Paul’s “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19–21. It’s not hard to think of examples of theology leveraged in envy, selfish ambition, outbursts of anger, and dissension. Yes, sinful flesh is at the root of our division.
1. We’ve misunderstood theological clarity and confidence as a replacement for wisdom.
We don’t measure sincere devotion to the Lord by the memorization of theological logic. Yes, God intends theological knowledge as a means of sanctification, but theological intelligence isn’t a valid reason to neglect emotional intelligence, relational intelligence, or cultural intelligence. Christian sanctification is holistic, and while theology is a necessary ingredient, it’s not in itself sufficient. We’re called to love the Lord not just with all our mind but also with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:4–7).
A Reflection on the Presbyterian Church in America’s Coordinators’ and Presidents’ Statement on Heinous Killings on the Occasion of its Second AnniversaryBy Tom Hervey — 8 months ago
Those that are involved may consider that Christ commissioned the church to make disciples of all nations, not to make all nations fit an ideal social vision that has never been realized in this life; that she should not give aid to those whose actions stir up strife rather than peace; and that we have set the church on a dangerous moral and spiritual path that ends, not with us helping to achieve a more just society, but with us consigning ourselves to insignificance and eventual oblivion.
On June 4th, 2020, a group of agency heads in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) published a “Statement on Heinous Killings” at ByFaith, the denomination’s webzine. This document offered a response to the turbulent social climate occasioned by “the heinous killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the systemic mistreatment of many other people of color.” As this is the statement’s second anniversary, let us examine its claims, doing so in view of Scripture and of what has transpired since that time.
Commendation is due certain elements of the statement. It aims to promote peace and reconciliation in a time of turmoil. Scripture is clear that such is our duty and that “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). Many of its individual claims are sound. For example, in the body’s first section the authors appeal to all people being made in the image of God as the basis for human dignity and worth. They also relate how mistreatment of outsiders led Israel to incur God’s condemnation, how Paul emphasizes the gospel’s destruction of social barriers, and the glorious truth that the church is made up of people of every nation, tribe, and tongue.
The statement also desires to acknowledge and remedy past and present wrongs and appeals for divine mercy in seeing effectual remedies be applied by means of traditional forms such as lamentation, prayer, and personal and corporate repentance. Throughout its tone is one of a zealous desire for righteousness to be done in the matters with which it deals; yet “zeal without knowledge is not good,” and there are many elements of the statement that raise questions or are cause for concern.
What is Unclear or Fraught with Uncertain Implications
The first question that arises is as to the statement’s use of the first person plural pronoun. When the authors use “we” do they mean themselves or are they also speaking for others in the denomination? Their own statements complicate rather than clarify the issue, for they begin by saying that “we write as PCA agency presidents and permanent committee coordinators,” but then say in the next sentence that “only the General Assembly can speak for the PCA at large, and we do not presume to do so here,” only to then immediately say that “as elected leaders of PCA agencies and permanent committees, we feel compelled to speak clearly on these matters in the interest of gospel healing, unity, and peace.”
They later use “we” 27 times in describing how they intend to respond to current racial tensions. They may be fairly asked: if you are not writing for the denomination as a whole but feel your offices compel you to speak, is it a fair inference that you are speaking then only for your own agencies and committees? Or do you mean that the solemn nature of your offices has impressed upon all of you your duty to speak as united individuals, but not in your official capacities as such? Either way we are presented with an enormous wrinkle in that, the statement being anonymous, their authority (whether as people or as officeholders) is undermined thereby: when, for example, they say that “we repent of our ongoing racial sins,” the reader has no way of knowing who is in view and whether they have in fact done so.
Also uncertain is the question of the precise meaning of some of the things prayed for. What, for example, is the exact meaning of praying that leaders “shun words and actions that humiliate others or fuel violence”? Does it mean that they will not make needlessly provocative statements and abuse their power by using excessive force? If so, such a suggestion is sound. But being arrested, tried, and punished is apt to be a humiliating experience for many who experience it, so that civil authorities will probably humiliate people by implication simply by performing their duties. Or again, Minneapolis’ mayor seems to have had a similar thought as our agency heads, and it led him to order the police to abandon one of their precincts, which was subsequently torched and looted: he would probably maintain that minimizing police and rioter casualties commended such an action, whereas others might say that it emboldened yet further destruction and that in forgoing humiliating rioters such an action humiliated police and law abiding citizens.
As written, the authors’ prayer could lend support to those that believe dereliction of duty, breaking one’s oath to uphold the law, and cowardice are despicable sins that are on all too frequent display by elected officials. Conversely, prominent activist groups could find in it a plea for defunding the police and ending what they call mass incarceration. The question is, first, what the authors themselves mean, which is not clear from this document alone; second, whether they realize they might be giving moral support to others who might otherwise disagree with them – again, any side could appropriate the language of the statement.
A similar question may be asked about the authors’ prayer that “those in positions of power . . . speak with truth and humility” and that they “seek justice and righteousness ahead of comfort, affluence, and the preservation of the status quo.” Just what do truth, humility, and earnest seeking after justice look like in such cases? Do they mean going along with the moral tide of the moment, or might they lead one to dissent by suggesting the status quo is not as dire as is maintained? A reader may ask further whether, in a climate of moral foment and mob outrage as characterized both the time of the statement’s release and the present, speaking with truth and humility is likely to be well-received, whatever its form (Prov. 22:3).
What is Problematic
The statement’s use of Scripture raises real concerns. In the second paragraph under the section entitled “Scripture” we read the following:
In spite of exhortation to “do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17) Israel oppressed the poor and thrust aside outsiders, leading to judgment and exile (Malachi 3:5). Such racism and ethnocentrism were not merely the sinful acts of individuals. These sinful traits had become so embedded in the laws and customs of the society that the Prophet Isaiah pronounced a woe on “iniquitous decrees and the writers who keep writing oppression” and the Psalmist spoke pointedly of “wicked rulers who frame injustice by statute” (Isaiah 10:1; Psalm 94:20). The Bible frames racism as individual and systemic sin, and calls God’s people to stand against both.
Left to itself, the first sentence’s meaning is approximately correct, except that it omits that there were other causes of Israel’s exile (notably idolatry, 2 Kgs. 21:11-15) and uses Mal. 3:5 awkwardly: it fails to note that Malachi was written after the return from the exile that earlier prophets like Isaiah had threatened; implies 3:5 either mentions this previous exile or threatens another, where it actually speaks generically of “judgment,” and fails to note that 3:1-5 describe the future coming of John the Baptist and the Messiah four hundred years later. The next three sentences represent the central idea that controls the authors’ exposition of the passages cited, namely that they show that “the Bible frames racism as individual and systemic sin.”
Further review shows that such a statement does not do justice to the passages in view. Isaiah 1 never mentions ethnic outsiders as victims. Its tone is more general in lamenting Judah’s sins of rebellion (vv. 2,5, 23,28); ignorance of God (v. 3); corruption (vv. 4,23); infidelity and irreverence (v. 4); hypocritical displays of piety (vv. 11-15); bloodshed and murder (vv. 15, 23); injustice and oppression, especially in dealing with the poor and fatherless (v. 17); spiritual adultery (v. 21); stealing (v. 23); accepting and soliciting bribes (v. 23); dereliction of duty (v. 23); and idolatry (v. 29). The only group of victims that are mentioned by name are the widows and fatherless of v. 17, whom the statement authors omit in their quotation of the verse. Ethnic outsiders are mentioned twice when v. 7 regards them as devouring the land in front of the Judeans’ very eyes, which suggests that in some cases it was the foreigners that oppressed the Israelites, a calamity which God allowed as chastisement for their sins.
Indeed, Isaiah’s portrayal of ethnic outsiders is interesting. They are sometimes recorded in a favorable light (14:1; 56:6; 60:10; 61:5), but in some of these cases they are presented as serving the Israelites (60:10; 61:5), and on other occasions they are presented unfavorably (1:7; 2:6; 25:21; 25:5; 62:8). If we move beyond the explicit use of terms like foreigner and sojourner to those cases where particular nations are addressed, we find both harsh curses (most of chapters 13 -24) and wonderful promises (19:18-24).
Malachi 3:5 lists six sins: sorcery, adultery, false swearing, oppressing a hired worker, oppressing widows and orphans, and thrusting aside sojourners, or seven if we include not fearing God as an offense as well as the root of the others. The statement’s authors find in this and in Isa. 1:17 “racism and ethnocentrism” that “were not merely the sinful acts of individuals” but “had become so embedded in the laws and customs that the Prophet Isaiah pronounced a woe on “iniquitous decrees and the writers who keep writing oppression” and the Psalmist spoke pointedly of “wicked rulers who frame injustice by statute” (Isaiah 10:1; Psalm 94:20).
There is apparently no reason why such passages should be interpreted as indicating that injustice toward foreigners was more widespread than that toward fellow Israelites. The verse immediately preceding Isa. 10:1 says that “Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim devours Manasseh; together they are against Judah” (9:21), which suggests intra-Israelite wrongdoing. The only victims of wrong that are named in this section (9:8-10:4) are “the needy,” “the poor of my people,” “widows,” and “the fatherless” (10:2). That the poor are said to be “of my people” and that foreigners are only mentioned as adversaries (9:11-12) suggests the “iniquitous decrees” were directed rather against fellow Jews than outsiders. (Note also that the next section, 10:5-19, contains an oracle against Assyria.)
Psalm 94 does pronounce a woe against those that murder sojourners (v. 6), but this accompanies a complaint against murderers of widows and orphans (Ibid.), and the verse preceding says of the wrongdoers that “they crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage” (v. 5), which suggests that, again, much of the evil in view was directed against fellow Jews (or perhaps that the oppressors in question were foreigners).
The heinous killings statement uses “people of color” and “ethnic outsiders” as approximate synonyms: what the latter were to ancient Israel the former are to our society; and in appealing to Scripture it finds “ethnic outsiders” in the verses that speak of “sojourners.” This is a rather sloppy presentation. Sojourners are not ethnic outsiders as such, but a particular class of foreigners who temporarily reside in a place other than their native land, usually on account of economic or other personal reasons. Scripture knows many other types of ethnic outsiders, from those that oppressed the Israelites (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the Philistines, etc.) to those that were the Israelites were to destroy (Canaanites) to those that showed them some measure of favor (as Persia under Cyrus) to those nations whose relations with Israel were varied (such as Moab). To use verses that speak specifically of sojourners as though they speak generically of foreigners is to give an inaccurate view of Scripture’s testimony of Israel’s relations with foreigners.
As an aside, it may also be noted that regarding people of color as ethnic outsiders is often rather inaccurate: many people of color are among the nation’s longest-established ethnic groups, and they often suffer not as outsiders but at the hands of outsiders. Gentrification comes to mind in this respect.
Returning to the point, we see an example of this conflation of “sojourners” with “ethnic outsiders” in this excerpt:
After he redeemed Israel from slavery God commanded them to extend justice and care to all people, including ethnic outsiders. Exodus 22:21 is one example among many: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Actually, God did not command the Israelites to care for all people. Ex. 22:18-20 establishes the death penalty for certain heinous offenses, and, of course, elsewhere (including 23:20ff) they are told to annihilate the Canaanites. We might say that such people received justice rather than care.
When the statement later considers New Testament testimony about attitudes toward ethnic outsiders it says that “Jesus proactively served outsiders (see John 4:7ff).” Christ did not exactly serve the Samaritan woman at the well. He taught her (and later many other Samaritans, w. 39-43), but he performed no miracles and in the course of his teaching recognized and uttered what might strike us today as an ethnically insensitive remark (v. 22). Elsewhere we see him interact with the Syro-Phoenician woman to exorcise a demon from her daughter (Mk. 7:24-30), yet in this episode too he asserts Jewish preeminence (v.27) and performs his miracle only when the woman acknowledges the truth of his statement (vv. 28-29). In Luke’s account of the healing of a centurion’s servant we are told that the centurion employed Israelite elders as emissaries and that they appealed to Christ on the basis of the centurion’s pro-Israel sentiments and benevolence (Lk. 7:3-5). Later we are told that Greeks approached Philip seeking an audience with Jesus and that he did not grant it but used it as an occasion to discuss his approaching death (Jn. 12:20-26). Christ’s recorded dealings with Gentiles are few, and he regarded his mission as being first to the people of Israel. The reader may judge whether the best description of Christ’s relations with Gentiles is related, then, by saying that he proactively served them.
The statement continues by saying that the church “was born into a mission of multi-ethnic inclusiveness on Pentecost, when people from all over the known world heard the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection in their own language; a sign that Babel’s curse of ethnic division and hostility was being undone in the church (Acts 2:5-13).” Acts 2:5 states that the listeners were “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” i.e., pilgrims who had come from the various places where the first Jewish Diaspora had dispersed them, not Gentile citizens of those nations. Note also that some hearers (“others”) mocked the apostles (v. 13), and that the passage makes no mention of any of this having anything to do with the fruits of Babel. When Peter responds to the scoffing with a sermon (v. 14ff) he cites Joel and the Psalms, but not Gen. 11 – in fact, no New Testament writer ever refers to Babel.
As for what they call “Babel’s curse of ethnic division and hostility,” Scripture does not say that God cursed the peoples at Babel with division and strife, but that he providentially confused their speech to keep them from forming an empire of unbridled pride (Gen. 11:4-5) and to force them to fulfill the creation mandate. When Scripture records God cursing someone it is typically explicit (Deut. 27:9-26), yet we have no such language in Gen. 11. By restraining their evil God was actually blessing Earth’s inhabitants at that time. So also the passage teaches that God prevented formal unity in favor of an ethnic distinction which had existed already (as the preceding chapter relates). God willed, then and since, that men should dwell in distinct nations (Acts 17:26), and what hostility they feel between themselves is not a result of Babel but a consequence of their own sin.
The statement continues by saying that Paul “championed the gospel’s power to unite people across social barriers (Galatians 3:28-29 and Ephesians 2:12-13).” This is indeed a glorious truth, but it merits some qualification. The unity and equality that believers enjoy is first spiritual, as it is in Christ (who is one) and whose work of atonement is the same for all the elect. The main point of Gal. 3:28-29 is as a polemic against the Judaizers whose false teaching was troubling the Galatians. When Paul tells the Galatians that all are one in Christ he is telling them that they do not need to act like Jews in order to receive salvation (3:7). By his work Christ has done what the Law could not (2:16, 21), and he has thus provided a benefit that can only be received by faith and which is forfeited if one seeks it by lawkeeping (3:10; 5:2-6). This spiritual equality means that we should be humble in our dealings with each other and forgo wronging each other (5:13-15; 6:26), but it does not mean that all social distinctions have dissipated (Eph. 5:22-24; 6:1-3; Heb. 13:17). Paul recognizes the legitimacy of existing social relations and urges believers to respect them (Rom. 13:1-7), to live rightly within them (Eph. 6:5-9), and to seek to modify them where appropriate by lawful means (1 Cor. 7:21).
While the principle does hold that our spiritual equality means we are of right equal in many other respects, those that use this passage should be careful to not allow its social consequences to drown out its foremost meaning about the sufficiency of Christ and the benefits that accrue to us by faith in him. Using the passage in a manifesto concerned with social relations in the (largely unbelieving) culture at large is very different than using it, as Paul did, in an epistle to a young church troubled by grave doctrinal controversy, and so great care is needed on this point.
Similar concerns arise in connection with the statement’s use of Eph. 2:12-13. Ignorance and unbelief had created a barrier between the Ephesian Gentiles and Jews, as had some of the requirements of the Law (v.15); but these social barriers were far less formidable than the spiritual barrier that existed between the Gentiles and God before they were brought to faith. Hence v. 12 says that they were “separated from Christ” and “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Indeed, a review of the section in view (2:11-3:6) suggests that unity with the Jews is valuable especially because of its spiritual significance, in that it represents union also with Israel’s God (2:16, 19).
Again, it is spiritual unity which leads and undergirds social unity, and we ought not to lose sight of this when using these passages. In addition, that social unity is still within the church: Paul thinks of the church and the world as essentially distinct, and when he speaks of the blessings of Christ he has reference to the church and its members, not the world – he knows nothing of a transformation of the world that does not involve its citizens becoming citizens of the kingdom of God (Rom. 15:8-21; 1 Cor. 7:31). The statement, which speaks much of a temporal and material notion of justice in society rather than only of salvation and of unity within the church, is therefore in a real danger of reducing the full and proper meaning of such passages. The gospel does indeed unite people across social barriers, but it does far more than that, and in remembering its temporal consequences we must never minimize its eternal benefits.
The statement’s final sentence under “Scripture” says that “Scripture counts racial injustice (especially that which takes away life from an image bearer) as grave sin, which Christ will judge and against which the church must stand.” At first glance this appears a fair summary, but on further reflection we see that it raises a number of questions. It is true that all forms of injustice will be judged by Christ, especially those that involve murder. But it is a very fair question just what is entailed in the church standing against injustice. If that means that it faithfully preaches the law to the consciences of men to call them to repentance from all sin, then such a statement is true indeed. But if it means that the church as institution (as opposed to believers as individuals and groups) lays aside the declaration of the truth to give itself to social and political causes and means, then it is highly objectionable and would entail forfeiture of duty for an activism to which we are not called. My authority for such a statement is the example of Christ himself:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Lk. 13:1-5)
Here we see that some of his contemporaries objected to the Roman administration’s cruelty, and yet Jesus’ response was not to condemn Pilate or to urge people to trim their lamps for a social revolution (comp. 12:35ff), but to tell them that they would perish in their sin if they did not repent and make their peace with God. By the standards of many contemporary activists Jesus was guilty here of failing to stand against Roman oppression of the Jewish people, including sacrilegious murder. By being silent about such injustice and failing to stand against it he was, on their view, complicit in it.
And so also, on their view, should he have used the example of the tower of Siloam to advocate for equity in tower ownership and safety. Clearly the Siloamese were victims of structural and systemic inequities in building construction standards, and justice mandated Jesus agitate for reforms that would include regulations governing tower safety, as well as subsidies to provide the disadvantaged Siloamese with direct grants to construct safer towers to bring about tower equity and fairness. This is no facetiousness: substitute “housing” or “home” for “tower” and we have a replication of much contemporary talk about home ownership in this country.
But to the point, while Christ is the only sinless man, he did not do, in a society of more severe ethnic strife than our own, and one that was characterized by his own people’s domination by an authoritarian, cruel, pagan, Gentile power, what the authors of this statement would have us to believe that he ought to have done. He did not take a social stand, but rather deflected the matter and made it an occasion for evangelism. A thought: perhaps the church, which is Christ’s body, ought to find in this an example for how it should handle social matters, instead of going along with the spirit of the moment or taking its cues from contemporary activists, many of whom are hostile to our faith and church?
The statement later quotes approvingly a 2016 resolution which refers to the “gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10).” This section of Romans deals with the law (comp. vv. 8-9) and how believers best fulfill it in their lives, and is not treating the gospel as such, which Paul has dealt with in the earlier chapters of the book. As a rule the law and the gospel should be carefully distinguished, and each appealed to in its proper place. The statement later says:
We join our voices and hearts with those who suffer and lament the evils of personal and systemic racism in our country, our church, and our own hearts. We cry out with the Psalmist “O LORD, how long shall the wicked exult?” and with the prophet Jeremiah “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Psalm 94:3; Jeremiah 12:1).
It may be asked: who are the wicked whose exultation and prosperity is lamented? Are they the wrongdoers in the incidents mentioned by name in the introduction? If so, it seems rather odd to describe them as exulting and prospering when they were universally condemned and indicted at the time, a very different experience of the world from the wicked whose seeming impregnability is bewailed by psalmists and prophets. Or is it some other group involved that is to blame for racism in nation and church? Also, as written the combination of Jer. 12:1 and Ps. 94:3 with the last clause (“our own hearts”) suggests a measure of self-deprecation. That is an odd way to use the passages in view, to say the least – neither chapter involves confession and both include imprecation (Ps. 94:1-2; Jer. 12:3b) – especially when there are other passages that better suit the purpose of self-deprecation for wrong.
Lastly the statement appeals to Rom. 12:15 to say that its authors “strive to ‘weep with those who weep.’” Though the section of Romans in view contains instructions for how to interact with both believers and unbelievers, v. 15 is best understood as referring to showing sympathy with fellow believers. The first half of the verse says to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Now the authors had just quoted Ps. 94:3 and its mention of the wicked exulting, ergo if Rom. 12:15 established an absolute principle that makes no distinction between who is rejoicing and why, it would have to be understood as commending that we rejoice with the wicked when they exult in wrongdoing. That would entail contradiction with other Scriptures, not least the admonition of Rom. 12:9 to “abhor evil,” and therefore it is obvious that the rejoicing and weeping are limited to those cases in which they would be appropriate, which occur mainly in the case of unity with other believers. Douglas Moo therefore says that “Paul shifts from exhortation about the relation of Christians to those outside the community (v. 14) back to their relation to fellow Christians (vv. 15-16)” in his commentary on Romans.
The authors appeal to the verse as their justification for showing sympathy not only for fellow believers, but also with others in our society, which as a practical question would include groups such as BLM that lament more than just violence and that publicly lament such things as the nuclear family. This may seem an unfair charge, but when one states that he laments with those that lament and does not further qualify the statement he effectively extends solidarity and sympathy to all that are involved in the moral tide of the moment, not merely those that share his faith and morals. At the least, he cannot be surprised if readers interpret him to mean such a thing.
Out of the 20 Scriptures referenced, the statement’s use is objectionable or merits comment in 17 cases. When we examine the statement’s other language we discover the reason. The document uses terms and concepts from contemporary activist rhetoric 21 times. Many of these terms are of recent coinage and do not coincide with Scriptural conceptions of the matters in view. Racism, for example, only dates to 1928, while empathy dates to 1908 and is, to boot, a strange concept of dubious utility that comes originally from the world of art criticism. Systemic is an irregular adjective that has traditionally been used in “medicine and biology for differentiation of meaning” from the more regular form systematic.
When contemporary activists conceive of anthropological distinctions they typically divide people into two broad ethnic classes, people of color and whites, or into the two broad socioeconomic classes of oppressor and oppressed. Scripture regards humanity as one, though it distinguishes men by spiritual state as elect and reprobate, lost and saved, believers and unbelievers, as well as by ethnic distinctions: in its broad form, Jews and Gentiles; in a wider form as the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen. 10), and as the various tribes and nations into which God has providentially distinguished them (Acts 17:26).
The Scriptural record attests that because of sin these groups are often antagonistic toward each other, yet it regards all injustice and oppression as wrong, regardless of its character, motivation, or respective offenders and victims. It knows of no permanent categories of oppressors and oppressed, and regards it as a grievous evil when a formerly oppressed people oppresses others in turn (Ex. 22:21). Its conception of the nature and divisions of the human race is notably different, therefore, from that of many contemporary activists, and it has, in addition, different conceptions about the nature of justice and of how it ought to be realized (Ex. 23:1-8; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19). To attempt to read Scripture through the lens of a contemporary worldview is a mistake and will invariably lead to misinterpreting Scripture or twisting its true meaning.
Hence when the statement says that Scripture “frames racism as individual and systemic sin” it is not letting Scripture speak for itself or by its own terms, but is trying to force it into a contemporary mold. Scripture reveals much about oppression and injustice both within and between nations, and for reasons that include selfish advantage, international rivalry, partiality and prejudice, greed, and the like. It does indeed establish the principle that standards should not generally differ between people or groups, and that discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is therefore unjust. But Scripture goes much farther and condemns partiality for or prejudice against for many reasons in addition to ethnicity. The contemporary view with its obsession over what it calls racial matters is much more limited in its conception of the nature and scope of wrongdoing than is Scripture, and to interpret Scripture by modern conceptions is to impoverish the rich doctrinal and ethical material we have at hand with which to oppose all manner of wrongdoing.
Last, we come to the statement’s particular actions. We mentioned above how its authors extend sympathy of sentiment to many groups whose beliefs are hostile to our own by failing to distinguish between those who protest current social affairs. Special attention belongs to their statement that “we lament that peaceful protests, offered in good faith to highlight racial injustice, have occasionally turned violent.” That this matter receives a single sentence of this nature is concerning: protests did not simply “turn” violent, as if they were Georgia weather on a July afternoon. Cities throughout the nation were inundated with a 1960s level of rioting. Many protests were violent from the first, and that by the intention of many of their participants and organizers. Viewed from the vantage point of subsequent history the statement’s language here strikes an observer as woefully inadequate. Portland was the scene of months of rioting and a few days after this statement was published rioters in Seattle established the short-lived Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (or Occupied Protest) which recognized no government authority and whose occupants resisted police efforts to respond to shootings. Yet this state of affairs, whose rotten first fruits were already apparent, receives a single sentence that minimizes the extent and severity of the criminal violence. Three named incidents (one of which is generally regarded as an accident) get an entire manifesto, yet nationwide riots get a single sentence of mild disapproval. Such imbalance little accords with the nature and gravity of the situation.
Elsewhere we find a similarly concerning treatment of the matters in view. Under the section entitled “Repent,” the statement says:
In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice.
Repentance is indeed a Scriptural concept, and yet here it is made subordinate to concepts taken rather from contemporary activist sources than from Scripture itself. Nowhere does Scripture name “racial sins,” “silence in the face of racial injustice,” “a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege,” or failing to “surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort” as sins. It does indeed say to love neighbor as self, show no partiality, love our enemies, regard all men as neighbors worthy of love and respect, engage in self-examination to mortify sin and ensure our thinking is patterned after the example of Christ rather than that of the flesh or world, and speak truth faithfully, yet far from limiting such principles and actions to questions of proper ethnic relations it teaches that they should be realized in all matters, relations, and questions of moral conduct.
That is very different from the activist conception, which sees what it calls racial justice as paramount and which, as a practical consequence, has its proponents become greatly agitated when anyone dissents or tries to take a wider view of justice and reconciliation by saying, to cite one notable example, that ‘all lives matter.’ Let us be clear on this point: though some of the terms above could be understood as valid concepts if interpreted in light of Scripture and used alongside of its many other moral concepts and principles, the fact that they have come from extra-Scriptural sources means that it is those extra-Scriptural sources that will define their meaning. And as we noted above, the matter will go farther and see those terms used to interpret Scripture rather than Scripture being used to evaluate their prudence, veracity, and tendency to promote peace and righteousness. And let us be clear as well that Scripture’s material is, again, richer and deeper than that of the contemporary activist worldview, that it will produce true righteousness where the other will not, and that in trading the one for the other – which is what is entailed when we do not allow Scripture to speak for itself but make it the servant of the contemporary activist framework – we impoverish rather than enrich ourselves.
Also worthy of special note is the concept of “unearned privilege.” This, like the other terms, is tacitly assumed as true by the authors without any attempt to qualify, explain, prove, or even clearly define it. It raises a multitude of practical questions, such as what the unearned privilege the authors enjoy involves or whether it is the sole means of their enjoyment of the “comfort” mentioned in the last sentence quoted, or is accompanied by others. Lay that aside and note that, as the statement is not qualified, it somewhat implies that “unearned privilege” is necessarily wrong by its very nature. That may not be what the authors intend at all, but absent further explanation it is reasonable to conclude that at least some readers will come away with the idea that unearned privilege is invariably wrong.
That is a very dangerous state of affairs, to say the least. Only once let men think that unearned privilege is wrong in human affairs and they are apt to take the idea one step farther and logically conclude that it is wrong in other matters as well. For if law abiding, respectable, hardworking middle-class Americans are to be accounted guilty of grievous injustice because their comfort is a result of unearned privilege, either wholly or in part, why not proceed along that line of thought and conclude that not only temporal questions to do with the distribution of wealth are unjust because of disparities, but also eternal questions to do with salvation are so as well? If it is unfair that some people have bigger houses than others, why not think that it is unfair that some people have eternal life when others do not? Surely that is a matter of greater importance, and the potential injustice all that much greater as well.
Only once let men get this idea that unearned privilege is inherently wrong – an idea which they are sure to get if the term is not used with the greatest care and clarity – and the doctrines of providence, grace, and election are imperiled among us. For what is grace but unearned privilege, the reception of something that we are not due solely as a result of God’s mercy and good pleasure? Nay, the thing goes farther than that. Life itself is unearned privilege, for we have no right to exist at all, much less after the sin of our first parents and our own transgressions. Every breath, every article of clothing, every pleasant moment, every morsel of food is unearned privilege, for we deserve nothing but death for our sins.
Now it might be rejoined that this conflates human relations with God and human relations with each other, and that unearned privilege is the modus operandi and unobjectionable in the one but inherently unjust in the other. Fair enough, yet therein lays the essence of my complaint, that the authors do not make such a clarification but use the term quite carelessly in such a way that they invite such confusion. Also, while my theorizing might seem fanciful, it actually accords rather plainly with the actual tendency of the revolutionary spirit wherever it is found. The French precursors to our own aspirant activists did not only aim to destroy the monarchy but anything to do with the church and traditional conceptions of God; and many a revolutionary has taken the horrid blasphemy on his lips with pleasure, reciting as dogma ‘Ni Dieu! Ni Maitre!’ (‘No Gods, No Masters’) and thus endeavoring to make war upon all that is deemed evil, whether it has its source in Man or God. For those that seek to remake the world into a more just utopia seldom stop with rejecting social and economic arrangements, but in their arrogance and their lust for power give themselves to a frenzy that does not hesitate to impute error to God himself, whose government and providence are hated as the source of wrong. Not thoughtlessly should the authors give support to such a spirit or make use of its concepts, yet that is the real nature of what they have done, whether they realize it or not.
In the final section entitled “Act” the statement says:
We need to act, within the spheres where God has given us influence, in the interest of biblical justice for men and women of color. Therefore, we will work within our committees and agencies to identify and apply the gospel to our racial biases. We will seek to honestly assess our programs and practices for structural or systemic biases and work diligently to remedy those we find.
A question: what if there aren’t any “structural or systemic biases”? You say that you will remedy those you find, thus suggesting that you are sure that you certainly will find them. Is it possible that your framework is not a healthy one in which to conduct these types of investigations, leading, as it does, to foregone conclusions before the fact?
Also, the way that “gospel” is used here is fraught with potential danger. The gospel is the message of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God through the merits and satisfaction of Christ and his work, received by grace through faith. Being thus reconciled to God will begin a moral change that will lead to improved relations with one’s fellow man as the process of sanctification drives evil prejudices from our hearts and we recognize that what unites us is far more important than the very small temporal things that distinguish us. But the gospel is first about our reconciliation with God; it is not a panacea for social ills, for it is relevant that we continue to believe the gospel even if we are separated from human society by exceptional circumstances (like shipwreck in the Pacific), and it must first reconcile us to God before we can begin to love neighbor as we ought.
Plus, in many such cases what is needed is law, not gospel, the command that you shall love your neighbor as yourself; and prudence and truthfulness commend that we keep a strong separation between law and gospel lest conflating them we should deprive men of a sound knowledge of both. By thus using ‘gospel’ as a catchall generality (as is now in vogue) we detract from the essential message of salvation and cheapen the gospel by conflating it with law and by implying very bad things about its character; indeed, we move in the direction of social gospel and liberation theology, and we know from long experience the direction in which such things take the church and how the former eviscerated the mainline denominations.
This statement does not seem to have ever been retracted or modified, nor is it entirely clear that we have actually accomplished the justice in society and church that it stated we would work toward. It was a piece of moral preening that established the permissibility of bad practices: the strange combination of using the authority and dignity of office with the safety but forfeited respect of anonymity that has since been used by others (maybe – the anonymity factor means we can’t say with certainty); the general program of finding a framework for ethical thought in external and often unabashedly secular sources that can also be found elsewhere; the desire for worldly respect that shows in other matters like the ongoing Revoice controversy; the poor exegesis of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament; the abandonment of the spirituality of the church and of her proper mission of spreading the gospel for a dubious program of social and political activism; the muddying of the true gospel message of reconciliation with God for one that finds in it a cure for social ills and a means for human reconciliation; a corresponding slight of the law of God, whose message is dimmed when the gospel is used where the law ought to be used, and when the Old Testament is poorly exegeted in general and in its moral censures in particular; the desire to be in step with contemporary cultural events and to allow them a part in determining the church’s message and efforts at outreach; and the lending moral support to movements whose actual fruit has been awful and has done much harm to society at large and especially to their ostensible beneficiaries.
It is never right for the church to give its aid to people who would overthrow the civil power – which is what is involved in things like defunding the police, abolishing bail, and seeking to minimize and eventually eliminate incarceration for at least the vast bulk of offenses – and whose programs have resulted in a massive increase in crime, that is, in actual people being harmed in person and property, many of whom have been people of color themselves. We in the pews view things such as this with great alarm and see in them proof that liberalism –at least as a moral impulse, if not yet as a heretical system of doctrine – has made deep inroads into our denomination and characterizes many of our leaders at even the highest levels.
Those that are involved may consider that Christ commissioned the church to make disciples of all nations, not to make all nations fit an ideal social vision that has never been realized in this life; that she should not give aid to those whose actions stir up strife rather than peace; and that we have set the church on a dangerous moral and spiritual path that ends, not with us helping to achieve a more just society, but with us consigning ourselves to insignificance and eventual oblivion. Such has been the example of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) its remnants are now a part of, and such will be our case if we do not look to Scripture and the admonitions of history but insist upon trying to earn the world’s respect by trying to help it achieve its own very flawed vision of justice.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, S.C.
 The judgment that fell upon Israel after the arrival of the Messiah and his messenger was varied in both time and type of execution, but would ultimately include exile in addition to the other calamities of the revolts of 66-73 and 132-135, such as the destruction of the temple, abolition of the Sanhedrin, and enormous loss of life.
 There is some difference of opinion as to the meaning of the final clause (“as overthrown by foreigners”), and whether it is to be understood as referring to the nature of the desolation (i.e., the ravages are like those accomplished by a marauding foreign army), to its perpetrators, or both. There is similar difference of opinion as to the timing of the desolation in view.
 Yet in all these episodes the foreigners gave a good testimony. The Samaritans shamed the Jews by believing without signs (comp. Matt. 16:1-4) and by eagerly embracing him who was without honor in his own hometown (Mk. 6:4) and whose own nation rejected him. By her persistent humility the Syro-Phoenician woman received what many Jews could not because of their unbelief (Mk. 6:5). The centurion had faith superior to any in Israel, and the Greeks, though not receiving their immediate desire because the time was not right (comp. Rom. 11:11-24) yet gave a good testimony in desiring him of whom the Jews were soon to cry “away with him” (Jn. 19:5).
 Let the reader also ponder whether Peter spoke in tongues – nothing in the text suggests so – and how it was that the hearers discussed among themselves (2:12) unless they had a common tongue in addition to their foreign tongues.
 And so also the statement’s use of Gen. 12:3: as Gal. 3:8 teaches, this verse has reference to justification by faith. The statement asserts that it teaches the principle of ethnic equality and finds in this a motive for working toward social equality in both church and society, yet the proper meaning of the verse refers to spiritual unity and equality in Christ by faith. To move from that to calling for an end to heinous killings in the society at large is an odd use of the verse that does not comport with its primary meaning in its proper context, an appeal from the greater (spiritual equality) to the lesser (temporal social equality) that carries in its method the risk of seeing the latter drown out all thought of the former.
 The statement’s division is somewhat odd: 2:14-15 seems to be more pointed in elucidating the unity of Jew and Gentile than 2:12-13. The nearness which the Gentiles now enjoy in Christ is first a nearness to God (comp. 2:4-10; 16, 18, 22). Note the passage’s transition from Israel under the Law, from which Gentiles were estranged by unbelief and ceremonial uncleanness, to the household of God or new Israel (as Paul elsewhere calls it, Gal. 6:16), in which they participate by faith.
 The Epistle to the Romans by D. J. Moo, published 1996 by William B. Eerdman’s. He does however note that others interpret 12:15 as including weeping and rejoicing with unbelievers, and cites Chrysostom as an example.
 Per Online Etymology Dictionary
 B.B. Warfield’s On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race is recommended as a helpful resource on this point.
 The reference is to “The Letter” that appeared at afaithfulpca.net before the 2021 General Assembly. Its authorship has not been publicly stated, though email revelations suggest it was a collaborative effort spearheaded by a teaching elder in Maryland. It was however signed publicly by a group of several hundred endorsers.