Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, October 20, 2023
Churches should speak and teach as though this is true. It’s utterly bewildering to so many young Christians I meet that their lives are marked by difficulty. The prolonged feeling of the absence of God in the midst of it is also bamboozling, but so utterly ordinary that almost every older Christian could tell these stories.
If you want to mature, you’re going to have to suffer.
Actually, that’s not quite right. You are going to suffer, that’s the nature of life under the sun. Some of that will be petty, some of it will be serious, and (heaven-forfend) some of it will be so psychologically scarring that you’ll be getting over it for a long time.
In of itself that won’t make you mature, but it will be the venue of your testing (1 Peter 4). It will give you the opportunity to endure and in so doing develop character (Romans 5). This is what we call maturity, a growing Christlikeness (2 Corinthians 3) and a growing wisdom (Luke 2) that happens through being broken like bread.
This is, I contend, what Jesus meant by Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, but that’s not what I want to address directly today.
Suffering is normal
This is not how the world was originally designed to be—though maturity through testing is how the world was meant to be, but Adam failed the kingly test that Jesus passed—and it is not how the world will one day be.
However, our cultures think suffering is to be avoided rather than learned from, and often act as though it’s a terrible and unexpected imposition on us. It would be good if someone warned us.
The Church doesn’t always do much better. Some treat suffering as a lack of faith (more common than we’d like to admit), others as a deeply confusing reality because we expected God to bless us transactionally, and others speak as though Christians in the West don’t suffer (I hear this a lot, and then people wonder what’s wrong with them when they do).
It is of course true that Western suffering is different, we are unlikely to die in famines, less likely to die in plagues, and face fewer natural disasters. The suffering of the average Christian is much more likely to be psychological, but if following Jesus isn’t costing you anything that we could group under the catch all category of ‘suffering’ then are you actually following him?
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By Craig Thompson — 6 months ago
Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” If he is a man of faith who you want to be your pastor, then honor him by living for the Lord and imitating his faith. Make it a joy for him to shepherd you, not a burden. Keeping a pastor requires work on the part of a church.
I have just celebrated my sixteenth anniversary as the pastor of Malvern Hill Baptist Church. Often, as I reflect on my time at Malvern Hill, I offer advice or suggestions to pastors who desire a long tenure. Today, however, I am writing to churches who might desire to keep a good pastor.
For a man to remain at a church for long tenure, he must have a strong sense of calling, work ethic, an occasional thick skin, and a short memory of offenses.
But, there are things a church can (and must) do if it desires to keep a pastor. I know from experience that a church can make it a joy for a pastor to lead. If you are a church member reading this, you can bless your pastor.
Church, outside of God and his Word, your pastor is your greatest resource–especially if you have a good one.
If you like your pastor, here are several things you can and should be doing to care well for him and to make sure you are not looking for a new pastor in the near future.
Pray for your pastor. Seriously. Pray for him, he is in an odd job. It is not the hardest job in the world, but it is challenging and it is unlike any other job in the world. He carries the burdens of many people and tries to balance that out with the burdens of his own family. Pray for him and tell him how you have prayed for him.
Care for his family. When you call a pastor (or hire him if you prefer that term), you did not also hire his wife as a counselor or pianist or floor sweeper. Allow the pastor’s family to be church members. Do not place expectations on them you wouldn’t place on other Christians. Care for the pastor’s family so that they desire to be in the church. For example, when I took a sabbatical several years ago, my kids protested, “You can go somewhere else, but we want to go to our church.” And they did. Every Sunday for several weeks I attended another church, but Angela and the kids went to Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill is family and it is home.
Protect him. Don’t talk behind his back and don’t allow others to either. Ephesians 4:29 commands us, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Talk to him, not about him. His job is different than yours. He spends a lot of time alone, praying, writing, staring out his window, visiting. If you have questions about how his time is being spent or whether or not he is doing his job, go ask him. But, rest assured, he works more than “one hour per week.”
By David Schrock — 8 months ago
Now that the veil has been torn, all children of God are given access to pray and to present Gentile converts to the Lord as living sacrifices. Wonderfully, such a ministry does not require a seminary degree or a clerical robe. It does require that the knowledge of the Lord would be on our lips and that we would prayerfully share Christ with others.
When we think of the priesthood of believers, we often think of 1 Peter 2:5, 9–10, and rightly so. In addition to defiling the high priest’s servant when he cut off his ear (N.B. Jesus does not heal Malchus in John’s Gospel), Peter also picked up the sword of the Spirit to positively articulate a vision of the church as a royal priesthood. And in what follows, I will reflect on his thoughts from his first epistle.
At the same time, Paul too had a vision for the priesthood–a vision for priesthood that is often under-appreciated. And so, in the second portion below, I will highlight the one place where he uses the word “priest,” actually “priestly” (hierourgounta). From his usage, and Peter’s, we learn a key lesson, that the priestly ministry of the church means evangelism for all. Let’s consider.
Getting into the Priesthood
As the true and better high priest, Jesus is doing what the unfaithful priests of Israel never did—he is ensuring that all his people hear the good news of the new covenant (cp. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45). Through the evangelistic witness of the church, Jesus is circumcising hearts, and through the Holy Spirit, he is purifying a people for his own possession—a people who will serve as priests.
It is to these evangelistic matters that we turn, in order to show how Christ’s priestly service impels the church to carry out their priestly service.
Royal Priests Preach the Gospel (1 Peter 2:5, 9–10)
In the New Testament, there are six explicit references to the priesthood of believers (see Rom 15:16; 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). The most famous of these may be 1 Peter 2, where Peter tells the “elect exiles” that they are individually “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v. 5).
Then, just a few verses later, he reiterates the same point, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (vv. 9–10). Don’t miss what the priests do—they proclaim the mercies of God.
Significantly, the priestly role is not just related to the tabernacle/temple and sacrifices for atonement, as in 1 Peter 2:5. Rather, like the priests of old taught the people the Law of Moses (see Lev. 10:11; Deut 33:8–11), new covenant priests will proclaim the gospel—the law fulfilled in Christ.
Wonderfully, the priests depicted here are those who will pronounce the good news to those who were once not a people (i.e., the Gentiles estranged from the covenant promises of God). Thus, the ministry of these priests is not defined by sacrificial offerings, nor temple access, but by gospel proclamation. What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests today? It means that the citizens of the kingdom go into all the nations and proclaim the true king.
Priestly Service Offers the Gentiles as Living Sacrifices (Romans 15)
An evangelistic understanding of the priesthood is not restricted to Peter either. In Romans 15, Paul makes the same point, as he declares himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God.” Here, more than any other place in his letters, Paul equates the ministry of the gospel with that of a priestly ministry. As John Stott comments,
Paul regards his missionary work as a priestly ministry because he is able to offer his Gentile converts as a living sacrifice to God. . . . All evangelists are priests, because they offer their converts to God. Indeed, it is this truth more than any other which effectively unites the church’s two major roles of worship and witness. It is when we worship God, . . . that we are driven out to proclaim his name to the world.
Surely, Stott is on solid ground when he says that “all evangelists are priests,” but let’s look at the surrounding context, where we discover that all priests are evangelists and that all of us are priests.
Looking at the context of Romans 15:14–21, we find a number of related statements that develop the ministry of the church as a band of gospel-proclaiming priests. First, in the preceding verses (15:1–13), Paul details the way that the gospel has been “confirmed” to the Jews and offered to the Gentiles (v. 8). This is the explicit point of verses 9–13, which quotes four Old Testament texts. Remarkably, while each is taken from a different section of the Tanak (Hebrew Old Testament), they all affirm the gospel reaching the “Gentiles.”
Accordingly, these opening verses (vv. 1–13) function as the foundation of Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles. The significance for our considerations is that the context of Romans 15 speaks directly to the issue of the gospel moving from Israel to the ends of the earth. In other words, this crucial passage explicates the relationship between priestly service and the universal offer of the gospel.
By Kevin DeYoung — 12 months ago
Decline and Retreat
Let me start by acknowledging the understandable desire for something like Christian Nationalism. The best part of the book is Wolfe’s chapter on “The Good of Cultural Christianity” and, in particular, the section on “Celebrating Decline.” Wolfe is right to maintain that while cultural Christianity cannot save sinners (i.e., the message of the gospel is entrusted to the church, not to the civil order), a Christian culture can be both preparative and persuasive in direction of the gospel (213). Just because hypocrisy and nominalism are dangers—dangers that ministers should and do warn against—that doesn’t mean we should welcome the collapse of social assumptions and stigmas that pushed people in the direction of biblical truth and basic morality.
Too many Christians are quick to wish away cultural Christianity without considering the alternatives. “But wouldn’t you prefer to live in a community,” Wolfe asks, “where you can trust your neighbors, having mutual expectations of conduct, speech, and beliefs according to Christian standards? Wouldn’t you prefer to have neighbors with Christian standards of decency, respect, and admonishment, even if it is merely cultural?” (223).
These are good questions. I share Wolfe’s bewilderment over the Christian leaders who seem to prefer a society hostile to Christianity. I’ve seen pastors in my own denomination look wistfully at Christians losing power and becoming a minority in the country, as if Constantine ruined everything and our influence would be so much greater if we only we could lose power and become more marginalized.
It’s one thing to acknowledge cultural Christianity comes with tradeoffs or to recognize cultural Christianity allowed for certain sins to flourish; it’s another thing to say “good riddance” to Bible Belt near-Christianity, as Russell Moore did in a 2015 article that Wolfe quotes at length (224–25). Wolfe notes how Moore rejoices that “we don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did” (226). Traditional family values may have kept some children in intact families. “But,” Moore concludes, “that’s hardly revival” (225). True, not revival, but something worth preserving, if we can?
I’ve given a mini-speech in private settings probably a dozen times in the past five years. I’ve said something like this to my friends and colleagues:
We have to realize that people are scared and discouraged. They see America rapidly becoming less and less Christian. They see traditional morality—especially in areas of sex and gender—not only being tossed overboard but resolutely and legally opposed. Of course, we should not give way to ungodly fear and panic. We should not make an idol out of politics. We should not fight like jerks because that’s the way the world fights. But people want to see that their Christian leaders—pastors, thinkers, writers, institutional heads—are willing to fight for the truth. You may think your people spend too much time watching Tucker Carlson, or retweeting Ben Shapiro, or looking for Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube, or reading the latest stuff from Doug Wilson—and I have theological disagreements with all of them (after all, some of them aren’t even Christians)—but people are drawn to them because they offer a confident assertion of truth. Our people can see the world being overrun by moral chaos, and they want help in mounting a courageous resistance; instead, they are getting a respectable retreat.
The online “winsomeness” debate of 2022 was a reprise of the “empathy” debate of 2021. In both instances, someone raises the point, “Hey, that word should not represent the sum total of our Christian witness. In fact, by itself, that word may smuggle in some bad ideas and assumptions.” A number of voices chime in in agreement.
In response, other Christians say, “Woah, wait a minute. Jesus was full of compassion. We should be kind to one another and love our neighbors. Why are you anti-Jesus?” Which prompts the first group to say, “That’s not really what we were talking about.” Meanwhile, another group runs with the idea that “winsomeness” and “empathy” are bad and concludes that if you don’t assert yourself with maximum obnoxiousness and offensiveness, then you’re a Big Eva Squish. Lather, rinse, repeat. The conversation devolves into the usual taking of sides.
As frustrating as those discussions can be, they highlight an important difference in evangelical sensibilities. I’ve used the word “winsome” for years. It’s a good word. One of the unofficial slogans of Reformed Theological Seminary, where I gladly serve, is “winsomely Reformed.” If “winsome” means we engage in the battle of ideas with respect and civility, looking to build bridges where we can, then it’s certainly a worthwhile goal. The problem is when “winsomeness” and “empathy” get to be defined not by our words and deeds but by how our words and deeds make people feel. “I will be kind” is Christianity. “I will not do anything to jeopardize your good opinion of me” is capitulation.
The other problem is that winsomeness almost always runs in one direction. The “winsome” folks are careful to speak respectfully and humbly to an LGBT+ audience, while they’re eager to speak “prophetically” to the MAGA crowd. Many conservative Christians are tired of always being on the defensive and always having to communicate their convictions in ways that left-leaning secularists approve of. They want more than a tiny island of religious freedom where we promise not to bother anyone; they want a vigorous defense of what’s true.
The appeal of something like Christian Nationalism is that it presents a muscular alternative to surrender and defeat. Few conservative Christians have anything like a sophisticated political philosophy. But they know gay so-called marriage is wrong and drag queen story hour is bad. So if the two choices in political philosophy are (1) supporting gay “marriage” because that’s what pluralism demands and defending drag queen story hour as a blessing of liberty or (2) Christian Nationalism, millions of Christians in this country are going to choose the latter. I imagine the same basic equation explains the newfound interest in Catholic integralism as well.
I sympathize with the reasons many Christians want something like Christian Nationalism. They aren’t necessarily looking for culture warriors. They just don’t want to be told that the increasing hostility toward Christian ethics is all a figment of their imagination or really their own fault. These Christians are looking for leadership. They’re looking for confidence. They’re looking for a way to assert not only that Christian ideas have the right to exist but that Christian ideas are right. When a 475-page book with hundreds of footnotes from people like Althusius and Turretin reaches the top 100 on Amazon, you know something deeper is going on than a passion for political theory. Many Christians want an alternative to decline and retreat. So do I. But Christian Nationalism is not the answer.
I’m going to get to my critique, but first let me make some preliminary remarks about what makes this book difficult to review.
For starters, it’s a long book, covering a lot of ground—from philosophy to history to theology to political theory. Wolfe has a lot to say, and there’s a lot that can be said in response. But a book review is not a book, so the reviewer has to practice restraint. If you want a fuller summary and more comprehensive evaluation of the book, I recommend Neil Shenvi’s four-part review.
Second, this is a personal book. Although there are plenty of footnotes and evidence of academic research, this volume is not meant to be a dispassionate scholarly reflection on the nature of civil society. As Wolfe says in the last paragraph on the last page, “This book is not an intellectual exercise, nor intended simply to ‘contribute to the field’ of Christian political theory. It is personal. It is a vision of the future, and my family is a part of that future” (478).
With that aim, it’s hard to know whether the book should be reviewed as a work of political theorizing, as a work of historical retrieval, or as a personal manifesto. Wolfe isn’t just arguing for the establishment principle or for legislating both tables of the Mosaic law, he’s justifying violent revolution (324) and calling for “the Great Renewal” (435). It would be a mistake to think Wolfe’s interest is in settling antiquarian debates.
Third, reviewing The Case for Christian Nationalism is difficult because Wolfe stacks the rhetorical deck against critical engagement with his claims and his ideas. At the beginning of the book, Wolfe emphasizes his commitment to use “an older style” of writing that relies on actual arguments, logical coherence, and scholarly demonstration. He laments the fact that so many Christians “resort to rhetorical devices, tweetable shibboleths, and credibility development to assert disparate principles and applications” (19–20). He decries those who “personally attack those who would disagree” and “appeal to common prejudice or sentiment” (20).
And yet, Wolfe doesn’t abide by these same ideals in dealing with those who would disagree with his ideas. He speaks of his opponents as “regime evangelicals” (341) and describes them as “rhetorically enslaved to the sentiments of a coastal elite” (456). Likewise, he anticipates that “the most vociferous critics [of his pro-Russian views] will be [Globalist American Empire]–affirming Christians” (445).
Just as the left has predetermined that any opposition to its ideology must be attributable to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, so some voices on the right have predetermined that anyone unwilling to go all the way in the direction of Christian Nationalism must be sellouts eager to please a nefarious cabal of secular elites. This posture hardly encourages an open and honest exchange of ideas.
These difficulties notwithstanding, I want to offer a substantive critique of The Case for Christian Nationalism. I’ll group my concerns under four headings: nations and ethnicity, the nature of the church, Protestant political thought, and the way forward.
1. Nations and Ethnicity
By Wolfe’s own admission, his definitions are often idiosyncratic, and by my estimation, they’re not entirely consistent. For example, the all-important concept of “nation” sometimes operates in Wolfe’s thinking more organically like an ethnicity, sometimes more loosely like a culture, sometimes more locally like a love of people and place, and sometimes more traditionally like a nation-state with a recognizable set of laws, a governing magistrate, and the power of the sword. The front cover contains a picture of America with a cross in the middle, so the book would seem to be about the nation-state we know as the United States of America. But at other times, it’s clear Wolfe doesn’t like that idea of “nation” and is animated by a different understanding of nation—one that defines “nationalism” as the natural good of becoming conscious of your own “people-group,” being for your own people-group, and keeping your people-group distinct from other people-groups (135).
There are many problems with Wolfe’s defense of this “similarity principle.” It’s built upon a weak and speculative foundation about how people would have formed distinct nations even without the fall, it gives too much credence to our own fallen inclinations, and it gives too little consideration for how our desire for “similarity” has been tainted by sin. Grace may perfect nature, but it often does so in ways that feel unnatural to us.
Likewise, Wolfe’s argument doesn’t reckon with the way the Bible relativizes our sense of family (Mark 3:31–35), tears down dividing walls between people groups (Eph. 2:11–22), and presents a multitribal and multilingual reality (and hoped-for future) as a heavenly good (Rev. 5:9–10).
I also fail to see how Wolfe’s rejection of the West’s universalizing tendency squares with Wolfe’s use of natural theology and natural law (which are, by definition, universally accessible, leading to truths than can be universally affirmed). Shenvi’s review is particularly good on the issue of ethnicity, so I won’t repeat all the same arguments here.
But before moving on from this point, it’s worth mentioning how Wolfe leaves a number of serious questions unanswered. Wolfe often decries the mental habit, forced upon us by secular elites, that makes Christian nationalists feel the need to prove they’re not racists or kinists or xenophobes. Wolfe refuses to play by those rules (456–57). I understand the frustration. But surely in a 500-page book, it wouldn’t have been misplaced, or kowtowing to the spirit of the age, for Wolfe to make clear exactly what he is and isn’t arguing for (especially when he quotes approvingly from Samuel Francis on VDARE.com).
Wolfe says a mark of nationalism is that “each people group has a right to be for itself” (118), and that “no nation (properly conceived) is composed of two or more ethnicities” (135), and that our “instinct to conduct everyday life among similar people is natural, and being natural, it is for your good” (142), and that “to exclude an out-group is to recognize a universal good for man” (145), and that “spiritual unity is inadequate for formal ecclesial unity” (200), and that “the most suitable condition for a group of people to successfully pursue the complete good is one of cultural similarity” (201).
What are we to do with these statements? Is Wolfe’s main concern about immigration policy for a nation-state? That’s part of what animates his warning against self-immolation and national suicide (171). Is he making the argument that we need not be ashamed to love our family, our country, and our place more than other families, countries, and places? That’s also part of his concern; fair enough.
But you don’t have to be a left-wing watchdog to wonder how these “similarity” arguments work out in practice. In a footnote, Wolfe rejects modern racialist principles and denies that he’s making a “white nationalist” argument (119), but if we cannot accept the creedal nation concept, and if ethnicities are grouped by cultural similarity, it’s an open question how much cooperation and togetherness blacks and whites (not to mention Asians and Hispanics and Native Americans) will ever share—or if they should even try to live and worship together.
Is this really the direction we’re to be pushed by the gospel? Are we really to pursue a social ordering on earth so different from that which is present in heaven? Are we really so sure that our love for people like us and our ostracism of people unlike us are God-given inclinations and not fallen ones?
If there were no other problems with the book, Wolfe’s vigorous defense of becoming “more exclusive and ethnic-focused” (459) should stop in their tracks all who are ready to follow Wolfe’s vision for national renewal. The fact that the left thinks racism is everywhere doesn’t mean racism is nowhere. Wolfe may eschew contemporary racialist categories, but he doesn’t make clear how his ideas on kinship are different from racist ideas of the past that have been used to forbid interracial marriage and to enforce the legal injustice of “separate but equal.”
By God’s grace, America has made great strides in overcoming racism in the past 60 years. I fail to see how Wolfe’s vision isn’t a giant step in the wrong direction.
2. Nature of the Church
Key to Wolfe’s political theory is the contention that “a Christian nation is a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ” (174). I will say more about Protestant political thought in the next section. My criticism at present isn’t about moral philosophy as much as it’s about systematic theology.
To his credit, Wolfe clearly distinguishes between the civil realm and the ecclesial realm. He holds to a (kind of) two-kingdom theology. Wolfe’s project doesn’t entail theocracy; neither is it theonomy: “The Christian nation is not the spiritual kingdom of Christ or the immanentized eschaton; it is not founded in principles of grace or the Gospel” (186). Nevertheless, civil government ought to direct people to the Christian religion because “an earthly kingdom is a Christian kingdom when it orders the people to the kingdom of heaven” (195).
Wolfe doesn’t conflate the church and the world, but he argues that “the Christian nation is the complete image of eternal life on earth.” Wolfe rejects the idea of the church as a “colony” or “outpost” of heaven (222). The church may give us the “principal image” of heavenly life (public worship), but only a Christian nation can give us the “complete image” of heavenly life. “For in addition to being a worshipping people, the Christian nation has submitted to magistrates and constitutes a people whose cultural practices and self-conception provide a foretaste of heaven” (223). In short, Wolfe maintains that a Christian nation should be ordered “to make the earthly city an analog of the heavenly city” (209).
I disagree with this conclusion. It’s one thing to suggest civil society may bear resemblance to heavenly realities or that in the life to come we’ll more deeply enjoy whatever is excellent in this life. It’s another to suggest the analog of the heavenly city is to be found in the earthly city. Contrary to Wolfe, I maintain the church is an “outpost” or “embassy” or “colony” of the heavenly city.
This comports with the sweep of redemptive history: the reality of heavenly paradise is first found in Eden; then a reflection of Edenic bliss is to be found in the nation of Israel (the land in which God dwells, described with Edenic language and marked by Edenic boundaries); at present God’s dwelling is with his people in the church (where the judicial punishments in Israel are recalibrated as ecclesiastical disfellowshipping and the picture of Edenic plenty is manifested by giving generously to our brothers and sisters); and finally at the consummation will the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15).