God’s Judgment and Homosexuality
When humans exchange the glory of God for disordered sexual desires, the consequences are profound. In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper opens Romans 1:24–28 to show the relationship between God’s judgment and homosexuality.
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By David Mathis — 3 months ago
In this first session, I would like for us to linger together in my favorite eldership passage: 1 Peter 5:1–5. But before I read those verses and pray for our time together, let’s mark the word “So” at the beginning of verse 1. “So” links this passage to chapter 4 and therefore to the hard times Peter and these elders knew.
First Peter 4:12 mentions “fiery trials.” Verse 13, “sufferings.” Verse 14, “insults.” Verses 15, 16, 19: “suffer,” “suffers,” “suffer.” This is a passage for pastor-elders who know hard times, like the last three years may have been for some.
Bright and inspiring as the words of 1 Peter 5:1–5 can be, they are set against a dark backdrop. Don’t miss this context. The joys of pastoral ministry are not joys in a vacuum. They are amazing joys, accentuated and deepened against the backdrop of struggle and hardship and suffering. In the endless challenges of pastoral ministry, its joys shine out all the clearer.
And note how Peter gets to elders in chapter 5. A context of suffering makes the teaching and leadership of the elders all the more essential. Pastor-elders, and their teaching and leading, are always vital to congregational health, but especially in suffering.
Gift of the Great Shepherd
So, 1 Peter 5:1–5:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
One of the most precious promises in all the Bible for pastors is Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is the chief Shepherd; he is “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). He is “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He builds his church. And his work will not fail. He will prevail — over hell, and sin, and death, and disease, and division.
And one of the ways Christ builds and governs his church, and blesses her, is by giving her the gift of local leaders under him: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
Faithful pastors and elders are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church. As pastors, this is a truth that may not be healthy to regularly emphasize in public (as it will seem self-serving), but it can be good to have someone else say it to you from time to time. So that’s what I’d like to do here at the outset of our time together today: brother pastors and elders, you are a gift from the risen Christ to your flock.
No matter what that recent email said. No matter how flat the last sermon fell. No matter what you hear whispered about leaders in society (not to mention the cynical thoughts that aren’t whispered). No matter what that person posted online about your church or your elder team, or you in particular — and you didn’t see it, but your wife saw it and said, “Did you see this?”
No matter what has been said explicitly or implied to the contrary, you, dear brother, as you lean on Christ and remain faithful to his word — you are a gift from him to your church.
Of course, we pastors and elders are flawed and sinful. Some who carry the name “pastor” have made terrible mistakes, sinned grievously, fleeced their flocks, and harmed the very ones they were commissioned to protect. But such failures were not owing to the biblical vision of what true leadership is. Rather, such failures fell short of God’s vision, or departed from it altogether. In fact, such failures show — by way of contrast — what real leadership in the church should be.
That’s our focus today: what Christ calls leaders in his church to be — especially the “lead office” or “teaching office” in the church, that of “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer,” three terms in the New Testament for the same lead office.
Now, in this session, I want us to give most of our focus to the three not-but pairs in verses 2–3, but first let me make three preliminary observations on the passage, which are vital to the vision of eldership and pastoral ministry that we’ll be rehearsing today.
1. Elders are plural.
Elders is plural in 1 Peter 5:1. One of the most important truths to rehearse about Christian ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork. As in 1 Peter 5, so in every context in which local-church pastor-elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the title is plural.
Christ alone reigns as Lord of the church. He is head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and he alone. The glory of singular leadership in the church is his alone. And he means for his undershepherds to labor, and thrive, not alone but as a team.
The kind of pastors we long for in this age are good men with good friends — friends who love them enough to challenge their instincts, tell them when they’re mistaken, hold them to the fire of accountability, and make life both harder and better, both more uncomfortable and more fruitful.
Now, if pastoral ministry for you is not teamwork, if you find yourself in a lone pastor-elder situation, for whatever reason, I don’t think that means you’re in error or sin. But I do think it’s an error to prefer it, and not dream toward more, and pray for more, and take some modest steps toward looking for and raising up the kind of men who could minister alongside you.
So, number one, elders here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) are plural.
2. Elders are pastors.
Second, observe the main verb in 1 Peter 5:1–5, which is Peter’s charge to the elders: “shepherd the flock of God.” Shepherd, as a verb, is a rich image. Consider all that shepherds do: they feed, water, tend, herd, protect, guide, lead to pasture, govern, care for, nurture. To shepherd is a picture of what we might call “benign rule” (the opposite of “domineering,” as we’ll see). In shepherding, the good of the shepherd is bound up with the good of the sheep.
The concept of shepherding also has a rich Old Testament background, not just in the patriarchs and the nation of Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness, but also in King David, the shepherd boy who became the nation’s great king, God’s anointed one, who came to anticipate the greater Anointed One to come.
So, with David, and in the prophets, shepherding takes on messianic overtones. David, of course, had his own grave failures in shepherding the nation, but after David, the trend of the nation’s kings became worse and worse, with only a couple exceptions.
Five centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel condemned the nation’s leaders for “feeding themselves” rather than feeding the sheep:
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2–4)
The appointed leaders of God’s people should have fed them, not fed on them. They should have strengthened their people, and sought them out, and healed them, bound up their wounds, brought them back to God, but instead they governed them “with force and harshness” — not benign rule but malignant rule.
So, the people long for a shepherd, a king, who will rule them with strength and gentleness, with clarity and kindness, with decisiveness and persuasion and patience and grace, even as he protects them from their enemies. And in response, again and again, God not only says, “I will rescue my flock,” but also, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22–23). Note the prominence of feeding in shepherding.
The Good Shepherd’s Charge
The prophet Micah foretells that from Bethlehem, the city of David, will “come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6). During his life, Jesus himself says he is the good shepherd (John 10:11), who, rather than taking from his sheep, comes to give, and to give them life, and even to give his own life for them. He is the long-promised Shepherd.
Then amazingly, at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him (this same Peter who wrote 1 Peter), Peter says yes, and then Jesus says three times to him, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).
Here “feeding” and “shepherding” (or “pastoring”) are synonymous. Jesus, the good shepherd, has finally come, and given himself as the Lamb for his sheep, but now he is leaving, and now he will pastor his sheep through Peter and other undershepherds — not just apostles, but local-church elders, overseers, pastors.
So Paul says in Acts 20:28 to the elders in Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock [!], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [that is, pastor] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The elders are also overseers, and they are to “care for” — or literally, pastor — “the church of God” (elders = overseers = pastors).
Finally, in the book of Revelation, we find two images of Jesus as shepherd. The Lamb, as shepherd, “will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17), and in three texts, he will rule “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). Which doesn’t mean he is forceful or harsh with his people, but that he protects them from their enemies (with his rod). The shepherd’s rod and staff are for protecting and guiding his flock: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
Elders shepherd. That’s just a quick taste of the richness in this shepherding image: centrally, feeding and watering (“green pastures” and “still waters,” Psalm 23:2), but also protecting. Shepherding means caring for the sheep, and leading with gentleness and kindness, with persuasion and patience, and wielding the rod of protection with strength and decisiveness toward various threats to the flock.
So, elders is plural, and elders are pastors.
3. Elders exercise oversight.
A third and final preliminary observation, more briefly: the verb that augments “shepherd” is “exercising oversight” (episkopountes). It’s a form of the noun overseer used in Acts 20:28, as well as in four other New Testament texts (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). “Oversee” in this context doesn’t mean only to watch and observe, but also to “see to it” that important observations about the flock, and any threats to it, also become tangible initiatives and actions in the church.
Which brings us to the heart of this passage, where Peter gives us three “not-buts” — not this but that. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . .
not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;
not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Let’s take them in reverse order.
1. Not Domineering, but Exemplifying
We saw God’s condemnation for the leaders of Israel who ruled “with force and harshness.” Peter says, “not domineering” — which is the same language elsewhere translated “not lording it over.” It’s built on a strong verb (katakurieuo) that can refer in other contexts to
Jesus’s lordship (Romans 14:9; 1 Timothy 6:15);
the kind of lordship sin once had, and should no longer have, over us (Romans 6:9, 14; 7:1);
or the kind of lordship Christian leaders do not have over those in their charge (Luke 22:25).
The intensified form of the verb here in 1 Peter 5 is the same one Jesus uses in Mark 10:42–43:
Those who are considered [dokeō, seeming, purporting, thinking (hoi dokountes archein)] rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.
Okay, then, what will be so among us? Verses 43–45:
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So, the opposite of “not lording it over” others is serving them, assisting their good, attending to their joy. Like Christ himself, not coming to be served but to serve; not to be assisted, but to assist; not to be attended to, but to attend to.
With the same language, Paul says to the Corinthians about his labors as an apostle, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). As in Mark 10, “lord it over” implies the exercise of privilege, the seeking and obtaining of personal or private benefit — benefit from them (versus through or with them).
Paul’s vision of the opposite in leadership is “[working] with you for your joy.” The “we” here is Paul with his assistants Timothy and Silas (2 Corinthians 1:19). He says, “we work”: we give effort, expend energy; it is not just overflow but work, labor (as Jesus says in Matthew 9:37–38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”). It might begin almost effortlessly, as overflow, but then it takes effort (sometimes great effort) to complete. Spiritual leadership, pastoral ministry is work, requiring a work ethic. And Paul, of all people, was not one to suffer laziness, and especially among pastor-elders.
But this work isn’t alone. Not only is there a “we” in the company of the leaders, but it’s also “with you” — with the people. Pastors equip the saints to engage, expend effort, and invest energy — to work with us (which is vital to keep in mind in our discipling and counseling; we work with them, not instead of them). We don’t do it all for them; we go the extra mile, putting in more work, to win them to leaning in, working with us, taking responsibility, not just being consumers.
And that work, Paul says, is “for your joy.” Not thin, fleeting sugar highs. He’s talking real, deep, lasting, long-term, durable joy in Christ. Joy that tastes of the next age even in this painful, evil one. In Christian joy, our promised, blissful future in Christ is brought into the painful present — which means the frictions and sufferings of our present times do not preclude real joy even now but make us all the more desperate for real joy.
So, Christian leaders, as workers for the joy of their people, are not to be controlling and domineering, lording over them. Rather, they are to serve (in the words of Jesus), as workers for their people’s joy (in the words of Paul) and as examples to the flock (in the words of Peter): “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
2. Not for Shameful Gain, but Eagerly
“Shameful gain” would be some benefit not befitting of the work — or some gain for the leader that is not a gain, but a loss, for the flock, and the glory of Christ — whether it’s money as the driving motivation, or power, or respect, or comfort, or the chance to perform and be on the platform. In terms of “eagerness,” the epistle to the Hebrews gives this important glimpse into the dynamic of Christian leadership as workers for the joy of the flock:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Hebrews 13:17 is the reason John Piper says that “there is a joy without which pastors cannot profit their people.” This is a beautiful, marriage-like vision of the complementary relationship between the church and its leaders.
The leaders, for their part, labor, they work hard, for the advantage — the profit, the gain — of the church. And the church, for its part, wants its leaders to work not only hard but happily, without groaning, because the pastors’ joy in leading will lead to the church’s own benefit. The people want their leaders to labor with joy because they know their leaders are working for theirs.
Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God. And if the people see evidence of this, and become convinced of this, how eager might they be to submit to such leaders? The prospect of submitting to leadership drastically changes when you are persuaded that they aren’t pursuing their own private advantage but are genuinely seeking yours: what is best for you, what will give you the deepest and most enduring joy — when they find their joy in yours, rather than apart from or instead of yours.
The word submission has negative connotations today in many circles. But how might the charge to “submit” in Hebrews 13:17 and “be subject” in 1 Peter 5:5 change when we see it in the context of this vision of shepherding and oversight and pastoring as working for the joy of our people? There’s no charge to submit in verse 5 until verses 2–4 establish a context of “workers for your joy” who are willing, eager, and exemplary: they feed the flock, not themselves; they attend to the flock’s needs, not their own; they gain as the flock gains, not as the flock loses.
Have you ever considered what actions and initiatives and care are required in the New Testament, from husbands and fathers and governors and pastor-elders, before the charge is given to submit?
Husbands, love and be kind, not harsh (Colossians 3:19); then, wives, submit.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4), but to what? Joy! Gratitude! Then, children, submit.
Civil governors, be God’s servants for society’s good, avenging wrongdoing (Romans 13:1, 4; 1 Peter 2:13); then, citizens, submit.
Pastors, feed the flock through public teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34) and paying careful attention to (Acts 20:28) and keeping watch over (1 Timothy 4:16) the flock; then, flock, submit.
Godly pastor-elders give of themselves, their time, their energy, their attention, to work for the joy of the flock. Therefore, church, submit to your leaders. In Hebrews 13:17, negatively, God will hold the pastors accountable, and positively, it will be to your advantage, church, to your benefit, to your joy, if you let them labor with joy, for your joy, and not with groaning.
When we, as leaders in the church, show ourselves to be workers for their joy, we walk in the steps of the great shepherd — the great worker for our joy — the one who bore the greatest cost for others’ good, and not to the exclusion of his own joy. He found his joy in the joy of his Beloved. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Or, in the words of Isaiah 53:11, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.”
As workers for the church’s joy, we pastors emphatically pursue gain — not shameful gain but the shameless gain that is our joy in the joy of the church, to the glory of Christ. Joy now, and joy in the coming shameless reward: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
So, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” and “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Now, finally . . .
3. Not Under Compulsion, but Willingly
Brothers, our churches want happy pastors. Not dutiful clergy. Not groaning ministers. The kind of pastors our people want are pastors who want to do the work, and labor with joy for their joy. They want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have [them]” (1 Peter 5:2).
Did you hear that? Not just our people, but God himself wants pastors who labor willingly, from the heart, not under compulsion. He wants us to aspire to the work (1 Timothy 3:1), and do it with joy (Hebrews 13:17). Not dutifully, or under obligation, but willingly, eagerly, and happily.
And that phrase “as God would have you” does not mean that God requires something of us that is different from his own character and actions. “As God would have you” means “as God himself is” and does — literally, “according to God” (kata theon). Like God. Like he is and does — that’s how he likes it.
It says something about our God that he would have it this way. He is the infinitely happy “blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11) who acts from the boundless, immeasurable bliss of the eternal Godhead. He wants pastors to work with joy because he works with joy. He acts from fullness of joy. He is a God most glorified not by heartless duty, but by our eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, and happily.
Happy pastors and elders, not groaning pastors and elders, make for happy churches and a glorified Savior. Pastors who enjoy the work, and work with joy, are a benefit and an advantage to their people (Hebrews 13:17).
Two Ways Toward Joy
Let’s close this first session, then, with two practical manifestations of this vision. I have two suggestions, among others, for what it might mean for you, as pastors (or aspiring pastors), to be a worker with your people for their joy in Christ. One private, early morning one. One corporate, late-night one (at least “late-night” for our pastors, as we do our meetings every other Thursday night at 8:30, after our kids’ bedtimes).
There are countless implications of this vision, whether for discipling, or counseling, or your scheduling and calendar, or sermon prep, or husbanding and fathering, or sleep and exercise, and on and on. But let me start with just two. What does it look like for me to pursue my joy in the joy of our people (to the glory of God)?
1. Alone in the Morning
In the words of George Müller, my “first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day” is “to have my soul happy in the Lord.” My prayer is that this would land on you as not a burden but a blessing, not an obligation but an opportunity — not a have to as much as a get to. To feed on God, to get our souls happy in him, not with the accent on us but on him. He gives, we receive. He speaks, we listen. We come hungry, and he says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). We come thirsty, and he says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1). Müller says,
The first thing to be concerned about [is] not how much I might serve the Lord [what I might do for others’ joy] . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.
How did he pursue this? Müller’s focus, in his words, was “the reading of the word of God and . . . meditation on it” — oh, the joys of unhurried, even leisurely, meditation on the words of God himself — “that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, while meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.”
How did he go about approaching God’s word? He would meditate, he said, “searching, as it were, into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of public ministry of the word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my soul.”
2. Together as a Team
How often in our call to govern, to lead through prayer and collective wisdom and decision-making for the church, do we find two (or more) options lying before us?
This is a good moment to check ourselves. What is our framework for the decisions of leadership? It can be easy to slip into a selfish mindset: what is easiest, what’s most convenient for those of us sitting around the table. Without saying it, or thinking it explicitly, how might our preferences and comforts shape this church? How might church life be more convenient for us? Rather than asking, Which path, so far as we can tell, will be best for our people’s true joy in Christ?
But beware: when you ask a question like this, and answer in light of it, you find that the answer is often the path that is more costly to the pastors and elders. But this is the work to which we are called, as workers for their joy. If our team of pastors and elders trends toward the personal preferences and conveniences of the pastors and elders, then we are not loving our people well. We are not working with them for their joy. We are using them for ours.
But when we are “workers for their joy” — knowing that Christ is most glorified in his church when his church is most satisfied in him — then, from joy, we set aside our own convenience and personal preferences, and together we labor for the joy of our people in Jesus.
By Thomas S. Kidd — 2 years ago
ABSTRACT: Some Christians presume the story of evangelicalism in America to be one of steady decline, from the robust faith of the founding generation to the increasing secularism of today. In fact, America was far more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776. The Second Great Awakening of the mid-1800s brought a surge of new members into the nation’s churches, especially its Methodist and Baptist churches, both of which sought to reach the masses on the frontiers and among the slave populations. Whether America on the eve of the Civil War can be called a “Christian nation” is doubtful; nevertheless, in 1860 the nation was more deeply influenced by evangelical faith than it ever had been before, or ever has been since.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Thomas Kidd, Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, to trace the development of evangelical faith from America’s founding through the Second Great Awakening.
Brilliant as he may have been as a writer, Thomas Jefferson was a lousy religious demographer. In 1822, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Waterhouse about the future of American religion, and his preference for a non-Trinitarian, naturalistic version of Christianity. After denouncing the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin,” the former president issued a bold prediction: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian.”1 If there were a list of the all-time worst religious predictions in American history, this would have to be at the top of it.
“By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before.”
Even as Jefferson wrote — much to his chagrin — the Second Great Awakening was turning America into a heavily evangelical nation. By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before, or ever has been since.
Scarce Among the Founders
Evangelical Christianity was not inconsequential at the time of the American founding, of course. For example, we can thank evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, for many of the Revolutionary-era gains in religious liberty. Non-evangelical politicians such as Jefferson and James Madison depended on rank-and-file Baptists to pressure state governments to drop their official state denominations, or “establishments” of religion. Virginia abolished its official tie to the Church of England (or Episcopal Church) in 1786, guaranteeing all Virginia citizens liberty of conscience. This created a veritable free market of religion in the state. Virginia’s move was a critical precedent for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with its prohibition on a national established denomination, and its promise of “free exercise of religion” for all. It was not only evangelicals who wanted full religious liberty, but it would be hard to imagine America achieving religious freedom to the extent that it did without the aid of evangelical Christians.
Yet evangelicals did not have anything like the dominant religious and cultural position in 1776 that they would enjoy by the 1850s. Among the major Founders, evangelicals were rare. To find clear examples of evangelical believers, one has to look to lesser-known leaders such as John Jay of New York, author of a few of the Federalist essays, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Then there’s the devout Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the only person to have signed all four great state papers of the American founding: the Continental Association,2 the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Among the most recognizable Founders, there were moderate but deistic-leaning Anglicans such as George Washington, wandering and reticent figures such as Alexander Hamilton,3 Unitarians such as Jefferson and John Adams, and self-described deists such as Ben Franklin. Dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals were scarce.
Born out of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, the evangelical movement was growing across America in 1776, but it remained a minority within most segments of American Christianity. The dominant denominations in America prior to 1776, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, usually had a conflicted attitude toward the revivals and revivalists of the First Great Awakening. Church of England officials had an especially rocky relationship with George Whitefield, the leading evangelist of the Great Awakening, who died on his last visit to America in 1770. By the mid-1740s, many Congregationalist ministers in New England also had denounced Whitefield as a rabble-rouser. These “Old Light” Congregationalists had their counterpart in “Old Side” Presbyterians, who worried that revivalists would splinter the churches and bring established ministers into disrepute.
Even many of the pre–Great Awakening Baptist churches in America opposed the revivals. But the Separate Baptists changed that stance. The Separate Baptists were former Congregationalists who not only supported the revivals, but who questioned the validity of infant baptism. Separate Baptists started to become the most dynamic evangelical group in America during the mid-1740s. By the 1750s, they transported their fervor from New England, where they originated, to the southern colonies. This began the century-long transformation of the South into America’s “Bible Belt.”
Rise of Methodism
Arguably the key factor in the story of American evangelical ascendancy was Methodism. Going back to his student days, Whitefield was considered a type of Methodist, because of his association with John and Charles Wesley, and with the so-called Holy Club of pious students at Oxford. But the Wesleys spent little time in America, and John Wesley and George Whitefield had a terrible split during the Great Awakening, due to differences over their respective Arminian and Calvinist beliefs. For a quarter century, they would struggle even to get back on speaking terms. Thus, Wesleyan Methodism had almost no impact on American revivals until the 1760s, when Wesleyan preachers began to appear in Virginia and Maryland.
In the early 1770s, John Wesley vociferously opposed the burgeoning American Patriot movement. The small numbers of Methodist preachers in America accordingly had to lay low, or return to Britain, during the American Revolution, for fear of Patriot reprisals. After the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) ended, Wesleyan Methodists came to the fore again. Wesley granted the American Methodists their functional independence in 1784, ensuring that the denomination would remain nimble and responsive to local American conditions. By the mid-1780s, the Methodists were seeing massive numbers of conversions and new church members, especially in the mid-Atlantic states.
One of the Methodists’ converts-turned-preachers was the former slave Richard Allen, who would go on to become one of Methodism’s most formidable leaders and the organizer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Bethel was one of the founding churches of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American–led denomination in the country. Few African Americans were affiliated with any churches at all during the American colonial period. By the 1780s, groups such as the Methodists and Baptists began to make great evangelistic inroads among African Americans. They were especially effective when these groups employed blacks such as Allen as preachers and evangelists. When most enslaved African people had arrived in America, they had no Christian background whatsoever. The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population, at least nominally, to some kind of Protestant faith.
“The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population.”
Before the Civil War, some of those African American Christians attended black-pastored churches such as Richard Allen’s. In the South, it was more common for black Christians to formally attend white-pastored congregations. There were also functionally independent (and often secret) “brush arbor” meetings, held by enslaved people in isolated groves on the plantations. We often think of early America as a time of pervasive Christian commitment, but that was decidedly not the case for the enslaved population of the colonies. But the Second Great Awakening began to change the religious character of the American enslaved population. By the 1840s, the evangelization of the African American population (free or slave) was hardly complete, but the church had already become the most important social institution in the African American community.4
Methodism experienced the most remarkable growth of any of the evangelical churches between the Revolution and the Civil War. Methodist organizers such as Allen, Francis Asbury, and countless other itinerants and “circuit riders” kept up with the breakneck pace of population growth in the early American republic. Their tireless evangelistic and church-planting efforts explain much of the Methodist surge during the era. By 1784, there were around 15,000 American Methodists. Within six years, that number had increased fourfold to 60,000; by 1810, there were some 150,000 Methodist adherents in the nation. By the 1840s, as the sectional crisis over slavery loomed, the Methodist Church had become the largest denomination in America.5
Were it not for the Methodists, we might regard the Baptists’ expansion before the Civil War as the most remarkable story of religious growth in American history. The Baptists had an older history in America than the Methodists did, dating back to the early colonial period. Some of the Regular Baptists did support the Great Awakening, at least tentatively, but the Separate Baptists put the denomination on a path of massive revivalist increases on the trans-Appalachian frontier. Baptists claimed about 35,000 members as of 1784, but grew to 170,000 by 1810. The Methodists soon exceeded Baptist membership, however, only to be overtaken again by the Southern Baptist Convention as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination during the mid-twentieth century.
As of 1800, almost all Baptists were moderate or strict Calvinists.6 The new Freewill Baptist denomination had begun to challenge Calvinism’s supremacy among the Baptists, however. By the 1820s, doctrinaire Calvinism waned among many mainstream Baptists. Hard Calvinist conviction became more characteristic of the Primitive Baptists, who also opposed newfangled national missionary societies, such as ones sponsored by the Baptists’ Triennial Convention. The Primitive Baptists regarded these missionary societies as unbiblical and elitist.7 Many Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors remained Calvinists, though, and revivalist Christianity and Reformed theology found important institutional homes in new schools such as Andover Theological Seminary (1807) and Princeton Theological Seminary (1812). Older divinity schools such as Harvard’s came under the influence of Unitarian and Transcendentalist thought.
Overall, evangelicals during the Second Great Awakening took a big step toward becoming more theologically Arminian, due especially to the increasing dominance of Wesleyan Methodism. This is an aspect of the Second Great Awakening that Reformed or Calvinist readers might well view with concern and ambivalence. The evangelical faith of the First Great Awakening in America (less so in Britain) was almost uniformly Calvinist. That of the Second Great Awakening was a mix of Calvinist and Arminian convictions. If Jonathan Edwards’s theology was representative of the First Great Awakening, John Wesley’s was more typical of the Second. Calvinist revivalism certainly retained an important place on the Anglo-American religious scene, but Calvinism’s former dominance was becoming increasingly contested by Arminian perspectives on free will, the atonement, and other doctrinal issues.
This turn toward popular Arminian theology was capped by the enormous success of Charles Finney in the northern states in the 1830s. Finney was not the most precise or consistent theologian, but there can be no doubt that his philosophy of revival was more human-centered than Edwards’s. It clashed with Edwards’s well-known emphasis on the sovereignty of God in conversions and awakenings. Finney’s wildly popular Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) reviled the notion that people needed to wait on God to do anything in revival. God had given churches and ministers all they needed to see revival happen; the only contingency was whether people would obey God by praying for and preaching revival. With Finney, the concept of a planned revival, foreign to Edwards’s view of the “surprising” nature of true awakening, became a standard feature of American evangelical culture. “Religion is the work of man,” Finney explained. “It is something for man to do.” Finney regarded the notion of the church waiting on God to send revival as devilish. Instead, God was waiting on the church to obey him in seeking revival.
Finney became famous (or notorious, in critics’ eyes) for his use of “new measures” to induce revival, such as protracted, multiday meetings. The characteristic new measure was the “anxious seat” or bench, where men or women wishing to break through to assurance of salvation could come to the front of a sanctuary and receive prayer and exhortations to believe. Finney also followed John Wesley in his emphasis on holiness, and the prospect that devout believers could achieve a virtual state of sinless perfection in this life. This state did not necessarily last forever, or render it impossible for the believer to sin. Yet Finney and his followers taught that God’s call to holiness was not impossible to meet. After conversion, there was an opportunity to consecrate one’s life entirely to God, and to live for stretches of time with no taint of sin at all.8
The evangelical movement always had powerful female figures, such as Whitefield’s patron Selina Hastings, or Sarah Osborn, whose small home became the epicenter of a remarkable revival in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s. Limited numbers of women were chosen as deaconesses or eldresses in certain Baptist congregations in the mid- to late 1700s. But virtually all evangelicals understood that there were biblical and historic limits on women’s formal authority in congregations. Most obviously, women were not permitted to become ordained ministers. The Arminian proponents of revivalist Christianity — again following the example of John Wesley — tended to be more open to informal speaking and offices for women than were traditional Calvinists. These roles even led occasionally to arguments for the legitimacy of women serving formally as pastors and preachers.
One such advocate for female preaching was Jarena Lee. Lee, born to free African American parents in New Jersey, worked as a domestic servant in Philadelphia, and experienced conversion under the preaching of Richard Allen. She was baptized in 1807. Lee was inclined toward charismatic piety, and she believed that God called her in a vision to become a preacher. She requested that Allen and the Methodists appoint her as an evangelist, a request that Allen denied. This did not stop her from becoming a sought-after exhorter and an independent Methodist itinerant. Allen later relented and ordained her in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lee wrote, “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”9 Despite such occasional protests, it remained far more common for evangelicals to adhere to limitations on women’s public teaching, guided by passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
Splits and Sects
Biblicism was a defining mark of the evangelical movement, but as seen in Jarena Lee’s struggle to preach, or in Wesley and Whitefield’s feud over Calvinism, biblicism did not end disagreements among evangelicals regarding what the Bible taught. This problem became more acute during the Second Great Awakening. American evangelicals grew more individualistic, and confident about the power of reason to interpret Scripture, without the aid of creeds, confessions, or church tradition. This kind of populist biblicism led to an incredible proliferation of new denominations and sectarian movements in the first half of the nineteenth century. The end of established state churches also fueled the centrifugal trend within evangelicalism. Before the Revolution, the established Church of England, and the Congregationalist churches in New England, kept a lid on disruptive church practices or aberrant theology, and they could employ the force of the state to suppress dissent. Now, the same freedom that allowed for the phenomenal growth of the Baptists and Methodists led to the virtually unchecked work of other new religious movements, prophets, exhorters, and visionaries.
Some of these movements developed jarringly innovative theology, and in the case of the Mormons, entirely new scriptures. Other movements, such as the Churches of Christ, would go on to become standard fixtures of the American Protestant landscape. The Churches of Christ, led by figures such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were the ultimate products of the evangelical “Bible alone” ethos. Stone and Campbell imagined that through an unaided, plain reading of Scripture, they could take their movement back to the simple purity of the New Testament church. This effort led to distinctive priorities such as prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship services. Not even members of the Churches of Christ could agree whether such strictures were truly biblical, however, leading to a split that divided the Churches of Christ from the Disciples of Christ in the late nineteenth century.10 Evangelicals were finding that sola scriptura, while an indisputable first principle of Protestants, was more difficult to practice in a unifying fashion when it was unmoored from Christian history and creedal traditions.
Reaching the Masses
For better or worse, then, the Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history. The first reason for its massive impact is that by the mid-1800s, white and black Americans were far more “churched” than they had been in 1776. In 1776, church life in America was more urban-centered and exclusively white than it was by 1860, when evangelical churches had made much progress in reaching frontier white populations and the African American community, both free and enslaved. Whites remained the leaders of most churches and denominations, yet African Americans not only were surging into Baptist and Methodist congregations but sometimes led their own churches and even denominations, as Richard Allen did. The vast church-planting initiative led by Baptists and Methodists not only facilitated the conversion of untold thousands of Americans, but it also provided basic social structure to the burgeoning frontier. For many frontier settlers or enslaved people on plantations, the church was the only social support outlet they had.
“The Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history.”
The second reason that the Second Great Awakening was so consequential was that it led to a range of ambitious missionary and moral reform initiatives. The formal evangelical missionary movement had begun in Britain in the 1790s, but American evangelicals readily adapted to missions too, initiating evangelistic works in city slums, in Native American villages, and to the ends of the earth. Through agencies such as the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), evangelicals made physical copies of the Bible nearly ubiquitous in American homes. Finally, Christians in the Second Great Awakening era took on moral reform causes, such as ministering to the homeless and to prostitutes, curbing alcohol abuse, and opening countless schools and colleges. Some evangelicals engaged in antislavery activism, too, though their influence among evangelical whites was exceeded by proslavery sentiment, especially in the South.
To conclude, let’s return to Jefferson’s faulty prediction. Unitarianism may have been growing in 1822, but on the broader American religious landscape, it was hardly the main event. Americans, especially devout Protestants, tend to recall the American founding as a time of intense Christian fervor, and maybe even evangelical dominance. Sometimes they imply that American history has been a story of decline and decay from that idyllic origin of 1776. As usual, the historical truth is more complicated. America was far more churched and more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776.
Did this mean that America was a “Christian nation” by 1860? The brutal nature of chattel slavery, and the ruthless expropriation of Native American lands, should give us pause about making unequivocal claims to Christian identity for the nation, even by 1860. In terms of religious adherence, however, America on the eve of the Civil War was probably as Christian as it ever has been in its history. Indeed, the era of the Second Great Awakening demonstrates the incredible capacity of churches focused on the Great Commission to transform the religious character of a nation.
By David Mathis — 2 years ago
The happiest families can be surprisingly competitive. And not just in moments of play and recreation when we compete against each other, in love and good humor. But all the more in the everyday “contest” to honor and bless one another.
“Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), Paul writes for the whole church, and such a vision begins at home. And yet the glory and joy of such a “competition” is far, far larger, and more fundamental, than even our homes and churches. We might view all of history as the divine Father and his Son seeking to “outdo one another in showing honor.”
“Service is greatness,” writes Donald Macleod, “and one may even ask . . . whether the persons of the godhead do not seem to vie with one another for the privilege of serving” (Person of Christ, 88). It is an astounding and holy contest to trace through the pages of Scripture, and the story of the world — a story of their glory that delights all those who have been welcomed into the greatest of families.
One Great Design — and Medium
To marvel at the pronounced other-orientation of the Father and the Son is not to minimize the God-centeredness of God but, rather, to go deeper into it. God made the world to glorify himself. This, in short, is God’s “one great design,” as Jonathan Edwards preached in December 1744, in a sermon called “Approaching the End of God’s Grand Design.” And yet how much more can we say than simply this? Edwards says more.
He also speaks of God’s “one grand medium,” saying, “The one grand medium by which he glorifies himself in all is Jesus Christ, God-man.” Another way, then, in fuller detail, to capture God’s one great design, says Edwards, is this:
[God made the world] to present to his Son a spouse in perfect glory from amongst sinful, miserable mankind, blessing all that comply with his will in this matter and destroying all his enemies that oppose it, and so to communicate and glorify himself through Jesus Christ, God-man.
God’s God-centeredness is not at odds with the centrality of Christ. In fact, we cannot have one without the other. One is the great design; the other, the grand medium. God glorifies himself through his Son.
Prompted by Edwards, then, it is amazing to return to God’s own word, see if the dynamic is there, and watch with delight as our Father and our Lord Jesus “vie with one another,” as it were, seeking to “outdo one another in showing honor.”
Father to Glorify Son
Consider first that unexpected attribute of the Son’s glory in the magnificent opening lines of Hebrews. In these last days, God has spoken to us in his Son, “whom he appointed the heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Only after noting this appointment does Hebrews add “through whom also he created the world.” Before creation, the Father appointed his Son to be heir of it all; then the Father made all through him and for him. Paul backs it up in Colossians 1:16: “All things were created through [the Son] and for him.”
“The Father made the universe, and ordained all of history to unfold as it has, to glorify his Son.”
In other words, the Father made the world to give it to his Son. The Father loves his Son (John 3:35; 5:20) — with a love so full, so thick, so deep, so abounding that he overflowed to make a world to make much of his Son. The Father made the universe, and ordained all of history to unfold as it has, to glorify his Son, and demonstrate his infinite delight in and love for his Son. And that does not subtract, so to speak, from the Father’s glory, but only increases it in the increase of his Son. As the Father rightly pursues his glory in creation, he does so in and through the honor and praise of his Son.
So, in the fullness of time, the Father sent his Son, in human soul and body, visibly and audibly — as fully man, without ceasing to be God — to come, in stages, into this great appointed inheritance.
Son Glorified Father
Jesus, the God-man, lived his human life in utter dedication to his Father. Rightly did the angels proclaim “Glory to God!” at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:14), as the glory of the Father came to the fore in the life and ministry of the Son. In his “state of humiliation,” from manger to cross, the man Christ Jesus did not “glorify himself” (John 8:54; Hebrews 5:5), but his words and deeds, and the effect and intent of his human life, were in full and glad submission to the will, and glory, of his Father. As he says without slant in John 8:49, “I honor my Father.”
“Jesus, the God-man, lived his human life in utter dedication to his Father.”
The Son loves his Father (John 14:31). And he lived as man, and strode toward the cross, propelled by his great delight in and love for his Father. He instructed his disciples to so live, and bear fruit, that his Father would be glorified (Matthew 5:16; John 15:8), and he taught them to pray for the hallowing of his Father’s name (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2). The night before he died, Jesus summarized, in prayer, his life’s work as “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). When he sees that at last his “hour” has come, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28).
As the Son draws near to the cross, we marvel to see both glories — of Father and of Son — coming to the fore, not in competition, yet vying to accent the other. And strikingly, the Son’s lifting up, his coming into his glory as God-man, begins not only with his resurrection, but even in the shame and horror of being “lifted up” to the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). Seeing that his hour has come, and that he will now move beyond his “state of humiliation,” and enter into glory (Luke 24:26) with his great final act of self-humbling (Philippians 2:8), Jesus says,
Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (John 13:31)
Not only will the incarnate Son continue to glorify his Father, as he has since Bethlehem, but now he will do so in some new measure — and the Father too will glorify his Son. “So intertwined are the operations of the Father and the Son,” comments D.A. Carson, “that the entire mission can be looked at another way. . . . One may reverse the order” (John, 482). They glorify each other.
Father Glorified Son
In history’s greatest twist, the cross, in all its unspeakable odium and shame, begins the incarnate Son’s uplifting. Here, at Golgotha, the Father’s anticipated glorifying of the Son, as the Son spoke of, and prayed for, begins to be realized. The Father had glorified his Son, in measure, in his anointed life and ministry (John 8:54; 11:4), but now his glory comes decisively and fully at the cross, and in his rising again (John 7:39; 12:16, 23). Peter’s Pentecost sermon will recognize that God “glorified his servant Jesus . . . whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:13, 15). Or, as Peter later wrote, tying together the Son’s resurrection and glorification, “God . . . raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21).
Christ’s resurrection, then — and with it, his ascension and enthronement in heaven — ushers in a new era, the age in which we live, of the church and the Spirit. If the Father seemed to outdo the Son in showing honor before creation, and the Son tried to outdo the Father in his earthly life, and the Father thrust the glory of his Son to the fore, in history, in the terrible cross and triumphant resurrection, we now — as happy sons of God and brothers of Christ — thrill as our Father and his Son strive all the more for the privilege of exalting each other.
Glories Together Now
The New Testament teems with the glory of God, and the glory of Christ, as the saints see what Edwards called “the great design” and “the great medium” play out before our eyes. The glory we see in Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, does not exclude the Father, but is “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). All God’s centuries of promises, says 2 Corinthians 1:20, find their “Yes” in Jesus — “that is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” The fruit of righteousness we bear in life “comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). To the Father, through the Son.
We serve, says 1 Peter 4:11, “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” In our sufferings in the present time, we look to the God of all grace, who called us to “his eternal glory in Christ” (1 Peter 5:10). And in the great doxology of Hebrews, we look to the Father, “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus” to work in us what is pleasing in his sight “through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:10–21).
Perhaps best of all is Philippians 2:9–11. God the Father has “highly exalted” his Son and given him, without envy or reservation, “the name that is above every name.” This is a stunning grant — one of the great realities the Father must have dreamed up when appointing his Son “heir of all things,” and is now delighted to fulfill. And lest we worry that the holy contest has gone too far when we learn that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Paul has one last phrase to enchant us all in this happy family: “to the glory of God the Father.”
Glories at the End
Even now, as Christ sits enthroned in heaven, the Father is putting all things under his feet, and when that great work of redemption is done (Revelation 21:6), then “the Son himself will also be subjected to him” (1 Corinthians 15:27–28). Does the Father then, in the end, become the last recipient of glory, while the Son finally outdoes him in showing honor? Macleod encourages us “not to overlook the complexities of the situation” (88).
It is here, precisely with the end in view, that he observes how Father and Son seem to “vie with one another for the privilege of serving.” As we strain to look into the future, we find depths and dimensions to the divine glory we should be careful not to reduce. On the one hand, Jude 24–25 tells us the Father will present us before himself, while in Ephesians 5:27, Christ presents the church to himself in splendor. So too, not only will the Son present the kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15), but the Father will present the bride to his Son (Revelation 21:2, 9). Macleod observes, “The idea of the Father handing over the bride to Christ is as definitive as that of the Son handing over the kingdom to the Father” (88).
Such twin emphases have for two millennia led the church to confess with Christ, and with awe, the blessed mystery, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Glory Enough to Go Around
What a thrill it is to see that our Father, and our elder Brother, are not miserly with divine glory. There is no scarcity of glory in the Godhead to be hoarded and rationed. Divine persons do not compete for glory, even as they vie to show each other honor. As Dane Ortlund observes, “The New Testament oscillates so frequently between the Son and the Father as the more immediate object of glorification that it becomes unthinkable to envision one person of the Trinity being glorified and not the other persons.”
Our God does indeed, as God, righteously and lovingly seek his own glory, but we should not think of his glory as scarce, or his fingers as tight. He does not give his glory to another, even as “the Father of glory” (Ephesians 1:17) and Jesus “the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8; James 2:1) — and so too “the Spirit of glory” (1 Peter 4:14) — vie with each other, outdoing one another in showing honor.
Such “competition” makes for the happiest family of all.