The Medicated Christian

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #4 The Medicated Christian
(Originally published on March 29, 2012)

blog - anxiety medsThis past week I preached a sermon that addressed the relationship between pride and anxiety, and how ultimately Jesus is the cure to both. Within the sermon, I briefly broached the issue of Christians being medicated for anxiety. I knew this could be a potentially tricky topic, understanding that if my congregation is statistically “normal,” nearly a quarter to a third of them could be regularly taking some medication to help manage anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, use of antidepressant drugs has risen over 400% in the past 20 years. This is the most commonly prescribed medicine to individuals aged 18-44 today.

We live at a time when more and more life problems are attributed to brain-based dysfunction. In addition, I personally live in Rochester, MN, the home of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. The people I’ve encountered in recent years, on average, have had a higher view of the capabilities of medicine than others I’ve met. This is only natural in that they’ve seen medicine accomplish more than the average person. However, what that also potentially means is that the temptation to view medicine as god is perhaps stronger than elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, I had several people contact me with questions about the validity of Christians using psychoactive drugs after the sermon, so I assume it’s probably on the mind of many others. (If you’d like to listen to the sermon from 1 Peter 5:6-8, click  The Gospel and Anxiety.)

Why am I qualified to address the issue?

Well, for starters, I’m trained as a pastor. I therefore believe that we humans are interconnected wholes, not just sacks of chemicals. If we indeed were merely chemical bags, then I suppose we could rightly expect that adding some chemicals to us could potentially fix us. However, if we’re more than that, body and spirit combined, then we probably need a more sophisticated treatment that, in addition to the bothersome behavioral glitches, regular worries, and aggravated attitudes we have, also addresses the root of all problem in the world – sin that exists in our hearts.

Secondly, long ago I was diagnosed with a fairly common anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). My symptoms began approximately 20 years ago. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I had great Christian parents. I knew plenty about Jesus and had a good education. I was not in any way abused and had a fairly cushy upbringing by most standards. I would simply suggest that I had a problem in my heart/thought that affected my mental physiology which may or may not be, in part, attributed to a genetic predisposition.

I learned to hide my symptoms quite well. Learning to actually manage and eventually conquer them was significantly more difficult. At various points in my life I have taken some medications to help alleviate the symptoms and therefore I am very familiar with the pros and cons of psychoactive medications and try to stay on top of current info surrounding them. To date, through a lot of pain, a lot of work, a lot of grace, and a lot of spiritual growth, my life is virtually unaffected by this disorder.

On top of all this, I should probably mention that OCD is unique in that the person who actually has it, as a byproduct of having it, often has the tendency to research it relentlessly. I remember a roommate in college reading a joke off the internet about how the first indicator that you have OCD is that you’ve read over 200 books on OCD. At the moment, I happened to be writing a paper on the topic and had approximately 25 books on my desk addressing anxiety, depression, and OCD. I thought, “Yep. Got me.”

So, to the heart of the issue…

Are Medications Good OR Evil?

I’d be a terrible hypocrite to suggest that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are evil. I think they are a tremendous gift from God and fortunately, the commonality of them today has all but erased the taboo that once surrounded them. Taking medication to relieve anxiety is no more shameful than taking an aspirin to relieve a headache. There is something chemically inside of you that isn’t right and it’s causing you a great deal of discomfort. The Apostle Paul encouraged a certain amount of physical and psychological medication when he told Timothy to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (1 Tim 5:23). Obviously Paul’s not encouraging any form of drunkenness. But he knows Timothy’s stomach is bothering him, possibly due to stress, and this is causing both physical and (probably) psychological distress.

In general, when looking upon the healing component of Jesus’ ministry, it’s no doubt that relieving suffering is a an important part of his New Kingdom agenda. So, while there have been many Christian martyrs, there is no need for Christians to have masochistic martyr complexes. Use the resources that God has made available to you. And if someone wants to suggest that taking something (like SSRI’s & antidepressants) to reduce discomfort is sinful or “weak,” then that same person also needs to address how receiving medical treatment ranging from cancer medications to corrective lenses would not be sinful. Probably not a theological ledge you want to walk out on.

HOWEVER, all that said, as a Bible-believing pastor who understands the way the sinful human heart (an absolute “idol factory”) operates, I’d also be a terrible hypocrite if I did not suggest that many Christians occasionally have pursued the silver bullet, magic pill that will eliminate all of their anxiety. They do so failing to understand that this symptom (anxiety) is part of a larger problem. They do so without regarding the possibility that perhaps the anxiety they’re experiencing is there for a good reason. For instance, perhaps the anxiety is there as a result of failing to trust God’s promises. Spiritually speaking, in that situation, is it wise to numb that discomfort? Think about it like this….if a person commits murder, they will likely feel guilty. If they could take a pill that erased their guilt, should they take it? Or, is it appropriate and even healthy for that person to experience the guilt? Or, say a person breaks their leg and is on crutches. Eventually the doctor will want them to rehab to the point where they get rid of the crutches. That will hurt for a time, but if you don’t get rid of the crutches, the leg won’t heal correctly and the muscles will atrophy.

Similarly, while many improvements/alterations have been made to psychoactive medications over the years, the vast majority of improvements have not made them more effective, but have lessened the side effects. In other words, science hasn’t gotten any closer to the silver bullet, which shouldn’t surprise Christians, because the only thing that can truly, thoroughly, and ultimately cure our hearts is our Savior Jesus.

So, you see, medications are a wonderful blessing from God. However, just like any blessing from God, they can be abused….specifically this occurs in the case of those who believe the drugs will “cure” the unrest in their heart.

The Healthy Use of Medications

There is a great deal of debate regarding what exact effects psychoactive drugs have on brain chemistry. The average understanding of most people is that psychoactive drugs correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. But this is very difficult to prove. This, in part, is because there is no real way to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain. In other words, it’s not like taking a blood sample from a diabetic and regulating the glucose through insulin. Contrary to what some advertisements suggest, there are no guarantees with any of these medications and therefore “God-like” expectations should not be placed upon them.

Personally, I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point of a pill that cures anxiety and depression, perhaps because they seem to be an essential  part of the human experience. From a biblical standpoint, you could make the case that God allowed many of his children, including Jeremiah, Jonah, Elijah, David, and numerous others a certain amount of anxiety and depression not only for their own spiritual benefit, but also for the benefit of others. From a personal standpoint, I could make the case that had God not allowed my anxiety and depression, I don’t know that I’d still be a Christian today.

So, if Jesus is the Ultimate Suffering Servant of God, and if it really is God’s will that we experience “the fellowship of sharing in [Jesus'] sufferings” as Paul says in Phil 3:10, then maybe some suffering is part of God’s gracious will for our lives. Michael Emlet, author of Crosstalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet says:

“…while relieving suffering is a kingdom priority, seeking mere relief without a vision for God’s transforming agenda in the midst of suffering may short-circuit all that God wants to do in the person’s life.  Another way of saying this is we should be glad for symptom relief but simultaneously look for the variegated fruit of the Spirit: perseverance in the midst of suffering, deeper trust in the Father’s love, more settled hope, love for fellow strugglers, gratitude, and more.”  (The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 26 | Number 117)

Christians are free to use psychoactive medications to relieve their symptoms.  For some, these medications function as “water wings” while we learn to swim. For others, medication might be a reality for the rest of life. That’s okay. A day comes when the Christian who struggles with anxiety and depression will know what the Apostle John saw in Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  The decisions we make regarding our use of medication are to help us grow up in Jesus and faithfully move forward to that day. When that is the goal, the Christian can gratefully receive this blessing from God and look forward to a day, whether in this life or the next, when it is no longer necessary.

I’m a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I’ll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here’s Why…

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #3 I'm a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I'll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here's Why...
(Originally published on October 4, 2012)

blog - tattoo (my second)I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo. Notice I said “another”. That means there has been at least one prior. And I clearly don’t look at it/them as a mistake. I’ll explain why in a minute.

But first, I’d like to point out two negative views on tattoos which are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I’ve had to address before on a couple of occasions.

1) “Real Christians Shouldn’t Do That”

A very kind, supportive, and faithful southern Christian gentleman asked me about tattoos a number of years ago, before I had any. His daughter had mentioned that she was interested in getting a tattoo and he wanted me to talk to her about how this would be against God’s will. I started by suggesting that since she was still a legal dependent of her father, this was an issue of respecting her God-given authorities as much as anything (4th Comm; Eph. 6:1-3). I proceeded by asking the man why he felt tattoos were against God’s will. He said something about how “Doesn’t God forbid it, in the Old Testament?” So we opened our Bibles to Leviticus 19:28, a section regarding tattoos that is often pointed to by people who recognize the authority of the Bible’s words but who don’t recognize the reality of the Bible’s setting, context, and writing style. Lev. 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Right there it was. Was he right? I asked the man, however, to read the preceding verse, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) I gently, kindly, and firmly told him that if he wants me to be a consistent and faithful Bible teacher and tell his daughter that tattoos are evil, according to his logic, I’m going to have to call him to repentance for his recent haircut.

We went on to have a good conversation about how God gave some laws to his people in the Old Testament for the purpose of guiding them away from the idolatry and wickedness of the neighboring people. We further discussed that if certain morally neutral practices of our culture were associated with the worship of false gods, that they’d generally be a good thing to stay away from as well. So, for instance, while I could put a menorah on my dinner table and suggest that I just “like the pretty candles”, it’s been so closely associated with Judaism for so long that it’s likely not wise.

Close association to the worship of false gods may, at one point, have been associated with tattoos. Fifty years ago, tattoos were most commonly associated in American society with gangs who, arguably, worshiped false gods of violence, drug use, and sexual immorality. But times have changed. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo. They’re not all in gangs :). Furthermore, a little informal research at my local workout facility would tell you that tattoos are now seemingly the norm for most Americans under 40.

There’s no biblical mandate and little cultural taboo concerning tattoos. Therefore, self-righteous legalism against tattoos ain’t doing anything good for the church.

2) “You’re Doing That To Try To Be Cool”

The other negative view I’ve gotten against tattoos is that a pastor who gets tattoos is attempting to acquiesce to modern culture and be “cool”.

Look, my Ford Escape has a decal of a cat and a rabbit that my wife put on the back window. I think the “attempts at cool” ship sank a while back.

I get it.  Attempts by churches (or pastors) to be cool, or look cool, or talk cool, are a little stomach-turning to me too. I once saw a billboard where a church advertised “Here’s what OUR pastor wears on Sunday”, followed by a picture of a proud, heavy-set, middle-aged man dressed from head to toe in denim. I think the church was trying to suggest that they don’t have a stuffy, enforced dress code. Okay. But, if in an attempt to be edgy and counter-traditional, they honestly think that a picture of a man draped in denim would coerce me to come to their church, or go anywhere for that matter, they’re mistaken. I couldn’t care less what your pastor is wearing, as long as he’s wearing something.

Most attempts by churches (or pastors) to come off as “cool” are fairly embarrassing. Since what is defined as “cool” is so often dictated by a culture tainted by sin, a church, in many ways, may look very different from that. In other ways, it maybe can/should look similar to the culture. What’s embarrassing is when you try too hard to be overly cultural (hip & trendy) OR counter-cultural (self-righteously rigid & stodgy). In either case, you’re trying too hard at the wrong things.

If you really care about sharing the gospel, you’ll be serious about understanding your culture and intentional about meeting the people of your culture where they’re at, but you won’t treat your culture like a false god that you too must bow down to.

Gluttony for cultural relevance ain’t doing anything good for the church either.

The REAL Reason for the Tattoos

It’s simple. COMMITMENT. I think it’s necessary to regularly remind myself of the importance of commitment in a world that’s terrified by it. Tattoos, for the most part, are a visual, physical lifelong commitment.

Our culture (particularly Gen X’ers & Gen Y’ers), as mentioned earlier, is getting an unprecedented amount of tattoos. InkedMiami Ink, and LA Ink have all been very popular shows on cable TV in recent years. Why do you think this is? While there might be a number of reasons, let me propose one:

In an era that I have no doubt will be characterized, historically, by hyper-relativity which leads to an extremely noncommittal attitude toward anything and everything, I think it’s clear that young people are demonstrating their longing for commitment, through tattoos.

It’s really not much different from how, despite attempts by recent generations to make our lives increasingly private, this generation of young Americans have launched head first into social networking. You simply can’t hinder relationship when, biblically speaking, you were built for relationship. Likewise, the increasing societal presence of tattoos on young people is demonstrating that you simply can’t hinder commitment when, biblically speaking, you were built for commitment.

The Bible has a great deal to say about commitment (or “covenants”). For instance, the Bible promotes a commitment in marriage that our culture simply doesn’t know. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of “Why do we need a piece of paper (i.e. marriage certificate) to prove that we love each other?”  What they won’t say, but really mean, is, “We love each other but we don’t want to completely close off all of our other options yet.” So, I’ll say, “Well if you have true marital love, that means that you want to be together for the rest of your lives. What damage then is there in getting a piece of paper?” If you refuse to get that piece of paper, you’re simply and clearly declaring that you’re just not THAT committed to the other person. This would logically mean that you don’t truly love them to the degree that you could, because the essence of true love, according to the Bible, is sacrificial commitment to the good of another. By and large, our culture doesn’t see much of that and doesn’t really get that, but still craves that, because we were designed for that.

Finally, only in Jesus can we understand true commitment. Jesus was utterly committed to us, sacrificing his entire life. And he seeks, in us, that same sort of commitment.  He said to another man, “Follow me…..No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59, 62) God didn’t give you a spirit of timidity or relativity or non-commitment. He gave you his Spirit. So in the name of Jesus, according to the will of Jesus, guided by the Word of Jesus….“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” (Psalm 37:5-6). 

My Recent Tattoo

By the way, if you’re wondering, the tattoo featured in the picture above are the words, in Greek, from the end of 1 Peter 1:12, “Even the angels long to look into these things.” In short, these words suggest that the gospel of Jesus is so magnificent and beautiful that the angels can’t even take their eyes off of it. And if that’s the case (and those angels are that much smarter than me), how could I possibly ever think of tiring of the gospel’s beauty.

So Many Denominations, but THIS Is Why I’m WELS Lutheran…

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #2 So Many Denominations, But THIS is Why I'm WELS Lutheran...
(Originally published on November 29, 2012)

blog - Wesleyan QuadrilateralSeveral years back, the United Methodist Church launched a multimillion dollar advertising campaign, targeting young Americans, with the slogan “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.”  I was reminded of this as my wife mentioned to me she heard a UMC promotional ad run while listening to Spotify Radio the other day.  If you don’t know, Spotify is a music listening tool aimed primarily at young Facebook users – precisely the demographic the UMC is now attempting to reach.

The Methodist Church has dropped approximately 3 million members in the past 40 years or so (from 11 to 8 million members).  Thus, the massive advertising efforts.

Some would look at the “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.” motto and suggest that it’s a beautiful depiction of God’s unconditional and inviting love.  They would even point to various national awards the slogan has won as validation that it is a good tagline.  Others, cynics, might say that this motto was simply abbreviated from the longer slogan which included “Open Closets, Open Biblical Interpretation, and Open to Multiple Pathways to Salvation.”

To be fair, in official documentation, in their Book of Discipline, the UMC has repeatedly reaffirmed “homosexual practice” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” consistently since 1972.  But in practice, the UMC has more often than not simply tried to avoid such taboo cultural questions.  And when official votes have been taken on such issues, the results have been, by no means, overwhelming.

Having now read a number of documents and blogs by Methodist members, it’s clear to me that those within the Methodist Church perceive it, to a degree, as a church without an identity, a body that doesn’t know what it stands for anymore.  This is all a little strange to me since I personally feel that one of the main reasons why I’m a pastor in the church body that I’m in today is because of the brilliant teaching of the man often credited as the theological father of the Methodist Church – John Wesley.

So how did studying John Wesley affirm my Confessional Lutheran beliefs?  In my second year of systematic theology at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Prof. Rich Gurgel exposed me to something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  Fortunately for me, as I’d taken no math courses since high school, this quadrilateral had nothing to do with geometry, but theology.  The term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was actually coined by Albert Outler, but was based on Wesley’s teaching.

In simple terms, John Wesley stated that the reason why we all arrive at the theological conclusions that we do is based on what we emphasize as authoritative while we’re forming our doctrinal beliefs.  There are four pillars that every Christian (and Christian denomination) use to filter their beliefs – 1) the Bible, 2) Tradition/Church History, 3) Reason, and 4) Personal Experience.  Every single Christian church or church body emphasizes these to differing degrees when they establish their beliefs.  This understanding of biblical interpretation is THE reason why you see so many different denominations out there.

I learned this Wesleyan Quadrilateral thing at about the same time that I’d started dating a girl named Adrian (now my wife) who’d had an Assembly of God background, furthering my curiosity about other denominations.  When I figured out that you could use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to graph churches and what they emphasize in doctrine relative to other churches, I did.  I started looking very carefully at different denominations’ theological backgrounds and confessions of faith and charted them.

Let me give you a brief glance at what I’m talking about, with some explanation.  Now bear in mind, EVERY Christian denomination, by definition of them being Christian, is going to use the Bible.  Therefore, it is not sufficient to say that “we use the Bible to form our beliefs.”  Don’t be fooled when people say that.  The question is whether or not any additional factors strongly influence your doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Church certainly accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  Nonetheless, church leadership is perceived to have the right to repeatedly reinterpret what Scripture says.  The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility would suggest that church leadership has the same weight and authority as the Bible itself does.  The problem with that, of course, is that everyone, including the RCC would freely admit that humans are flawed and sinful, and therefore even humans in important and influential positions can and do make mistakes.  The RCC has openly acknowledged mistakes in church history by church leadership (e.g. Sale of indulgences; Spanish Inquisition).  If you truly believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but that humans make mistakes, wouldn’t that naturally suggest that it is a dangerous position to take in suggesting that the pope holds the same type of authority that the Bible itself does?  For the two to be on equal levels of authority, then the pope must be perfect (which he is not) or the Bible must be imperfect (which it attests it is not – 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).  Since all humans, even church leaders past and present, are flawed, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

While I’m certainly speaking in general terms here, churches that strongly emphasize the spiritual gifts of individuals often have a tendency to overemphasize individuals at the expense of the individual (Jesus).  They additionally tend to come out of an Arminian theological background which places a great deal of importance on free will and personal decisions.  Most Arminians will be able to tell you the date on which “I made my decision for Jesus”, a teaching that would fly in the face of what the Apostle Paul says about us all being spiritually dead by nature (Eph. 2:1-10).  Charismatics value feeling the power of Christ in your life.  But the reality is that we all know our feelings have led us down dangerous paths before, and therefore, we cannot trust them wholeheartedly.  Some days I might feel like the greatest Christian on the planet.  Other days I might feel like the worst heathen there is.  But my perception of self counts little towards my eternal welfare.  In other words, my status before God is not ultimately based upon what I feel.  It’s based upon God’s verdict of me through Jesus (Rom. 8:1).  Since feelings are part of the flawed and fallen human state, they must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

Reformed churches generally practice the theology of John Calvin, one of the major players in the Protestant Reformation.  Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer and his humanist leanings are often reflected in his theology.  For instance, Calvin believed that the thing which separates us humans from animals, aside from our souls, is our intellect, our rational capacity.  Therefore, he also tended to believe that God would not present anything in the Bible that was beyond the realm of man’s logic.  This led Calvin to such teachings as his famous “Double Predestination” – the idea that God predetermined the eternal destiny of every human being, choosing some to eternal life through Christ, and others to everlasting punishment for their sin.  The troublesome implication here is that this understanding of God’s foreknowledge turns God into an ogre who capriciously and arbitrarily sentences some to heaven and some to hell.  The even bigger problem is that while double predestination sounds somewhat logical (since the Bible does certainly speak of predestination – Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5; 1 Peter 1:1-2), it is NOT biblical.  You will find no part of the Bible that talks about God foreordaining anyone to go to hell.  In fact, you’ll find the opposite, that God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).  This is clear evidence that Reformed theology relies too heavily upon reason in the formation of doctrine.  Since reason is part of the flawed and fallen human state, it must necessarily be weighted less in the formation of doctrine in order for us to have a correct biblical interpretation.

I won’t spend too much time here, but Mainline Protestant denominations have been bleeding a slow death in membership for many years now, in part, because they don’t know what they stand for anymore.  When you compromise the Bible as even one of your true authorities, you lose yourself as a church.  As liberal theology crept into Mainline Protestantism in the 20th century, teachings like the Creation Account, the Global Flood, Predictive Prophecy, and really anything of a miraculous nature, including belief in Jesus’ actual physical resurrection, was lost almost entirely in many churches.

As I mentioned earlier, the irony behind this for Methodists is that they still promote the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  See for yourself.  The dilemma, however, is that Wesley himself was not suggesting that all four pillars (Bible, Tradition, Reason, Experience) should contribute equally to your formation of doctrine, only that they do contribute to every church’s doctrine.  The more Methodist literature you read today though, the more you get the impression that, as with many Mainline Protestant churches, all four of these pillars contribute rather equally to what they believe.

This is why I’m WELS Lutheran.  The church I belong to and pastor in learns from the faith of the saints who have gone before us (Heb. 13:7), but also recognizes that these leaders were great not because of their perfect faithfulness, but because of their profession of Christ’s faithfulness.  Therefore, traditions, customs, and rituals developed by leaders of previous generations, while helpful, are not mandated by God nor should they be elevated to the status and authority of God’s Word.  Additionally, the church I belong to and pastor in values reason as a blessing from God for applying his Word to our lives (James 1:22) and for subduing his creation (Gen. 1:28), but also recognizes that it would be inappropriate to subjugate the Bible to flawed human reason, especially since there are undeniably “hidden” components of God’s Holy Will (Isaiah 45:15).  And finally, the church I belong to and pastor in values personal experience.  We regularly encourage Christians to tell of the great things that God has done for us (Deut. 3:24) and to use the resources the gospel gives us for humility and confidence and perspective and optimism (Rom. 8:28).  But my church also recognizes that a sinner, even a believing one, living in a sinful world, is going to experience highs and lows and that whether I feel God in my life or not, I can know he’s there (Matt. 28:20).

As I was studying to become a pastor, I became very sensitive to this question: Was I becoming a Confessional Lutheran minister simply because this is the faith I was raised in and spoon fed?  Was this merely the path of least resistance?  Through comparative denominational study, I became convinced that what I have here in this particular church body is a very unique, very healthy approach to biblical interpretation.  It’s an approach that acknowledges both the inerrancy of the Bible and the potential pitfalls of Church Tradition, Human Reason, and Personal Experience, and thereby identifies the Bible as the clear and supreme authority by which we formulate our beliefs.  I’m certainly not suggesting that this would be the only church body in which you’d find true believers; wherever the gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is working and winning hearts (Rom. 10:17).  But if God is known most decidedly through his inspired Word, then it only makes sense that I’d want to be in a church that had the safest, healthiest approach to interpreting that Word.

People choose the church they belong to for a variety of reasons – family background, friendship ties, a specific ministry, style of worship, appeal of a pastor, proximity to the church, etc.  But if “church” is the design of God to help bring believers closer to him and to one another (Eph. 2:19-22), it seems fairly obvious that the main reason for choosing the church that we do would be sound Biblical teaching – the thing that the Bible itself says is the way to know Jesus (John 5:39), and therefore know salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).

In all honesty, if I was selecting a church simply based on external preferences, I don’t know that I’d choose the WELS.  I’m not positive that the general worship style resonates with me.  I don’t know that the general church programs best connect with either the talents or needs of the average person in the 21st century.  I don’t know that the general church governance and administration that is used is the most efficient way to organize hundreds or thousands of God’s people.  But I’m a very big fan of our approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, I drive this car not for its style, nor for its comfort, nor for its efficiency, but primarily for its safety features (i.e. correct understanding of the Means of Grace – the gospel in Word and Sacraments).

Some might say that my assessment of other denominations or of my own church body is unfair and exaggerated.  That’s fine.  I’d simply encourage you to investigate for yourselves.  Try not to be too anecdotal in your research – e.g. “I knew a Baptist once who…..”  Rather, try to look at the documented teachings of the church bodies themselves, perhaps through their own official websites.

Let me know if you come to the same conclusion that I do.


ONE FINAL NOTE: In a society that I’m convinced is now officially post-Christian, I generally try not to come across as overly denominational, simply Christian.  It becomes very confusing for those 75% or so of people not regularly attending church when you start pitting one church body against another.  That said, there are occasions when it’s a worthwhile exercise to clarify the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian (the example pointed to in the above post being the acceptance of the Bible as ultimately authoritative).


It’s Not The Problem. I’m The Problem.

Modest Hits Tour

Fully engaged in one of the busiest points I’ve ever experienced in ministry, I’m tremendously thankful for all of the wonderful stuff the Lord has put on my plate. Unfortunately, however, that means that some other things – like blogging, which I LOVE doing – gets bumped aside for a moment. So, nearing five years and 200 posts of doing this, I thought it’d be okay to repost some of the more “modest hits” this blog has seen for newer readers and for the benefit of my friends over at, who have been sharing my stuff for about a year now. 
For the next month or so (till things slow down a bit), I’m going to republish older posts. The criterion is that it has to be at least a year or so old and received more attention than other posts by comparison. 
Modest Hit #1 It's Not The Problem. I'm The Problem.
(Originally published on July 6, 2011)

blog - tree knowledgeWhile preparing for a sermon on Genesis 3 several weeks ago, a thought grabbed me that hadn’t really been an issue before.  The thought was this: the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t really bad fruit.  While I’d probably processed that intellectually before, I hadn’t really thought of the bigger, concrete ramifications of that.

I guess I grew up under the impression that the fruit from that tree in the center of the Garden of Eden was sort of like the poisoned apple in Snow White.  The old woman then obviously sort of steps into the role of the serpent.  But I think that’s more of Brothers Grimm theology than actual biblical truth.  In reality, I believe the fruit itself (whether apple or otherwise) was as healthy and nourishing as any other fruit in the perfect garden, possessing the same poison-free chemical composition.  And if that’s true, I’m guessing that many have had the same misunderstanding that I’ve had much of my life.

One indicator I have that many might think the fruit Adam and Eve ate was tainted was a hymn that we sang in worship the same weekend I was preparing this sermon, the hymn titled “The Tree of Life” by Stephen P. Starke.  I actually like the hymn a lot and think it does a nice job of telling the narrative of what happens in Genesis 3.  However, my guess is that when people sang “Oh, day of sadness when the breath, Of fear and darkness, doubt and death, Its awful poison first displayed, Within the world so newly made,” a good percentage of those people probably assumed that the poison spoken of here was in the apple, not the general poison of sin.  And I’m guessing many of those same people might miss the important application point I’d like to share with you here today.

To begin, we probably should determine with some certainty whether or not the fruit was indeed poisoned if we’re going to make a bigger point out of it.  Obviously, I now believe that the fruit wasn’t poisoned.  There are several reasons why.  First, we’d naturally assume that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was created on the 3rd day of Creation, part of the vegetation that God brought forth from the dry land.   When God created all of this, like all the other days, he described it as “good” – perfect, holy, and faultless in every way.  “Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’  And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.” (Genesis 1:11-13)

Second, when God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he designates it as unique, he designates eating from it as “not good,” but he doesn’t designate the tree itself as inherently “not good.”  The disobedience against God’s command is what would usher in death, not likely the chemicals consumed in the fruit.  “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

Finally, when Satan tempts the woman to eat from the fruit of the tree, we’re told that she sees the food as healthy for consumption in addition to being (as Satan suggested) a way to gain knowledge that God possessed that she and Adam didn’t yet have.  In other words, her analysis of the fruit of the tree was the same analysis that God himself had made when he created it on the 3rd day, i.e. that it was “good.”  “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6)

I hope you’re now convinced that this fruit was good stuff.  Everything that God created was good stuff.  However, he did have specific intentions for how we were to use this good stuff.  And maybe now you’re also already understanding the bigger application point here.

Sometimes Christians fall into the trap of thinking that “the fruit” is the problem.  The Christian church, for instance, in history and by different branches has for many years labeled good things as “evil.”  Middle Age monasticism perceived society as evil.  Some mendicant church orders have perceived money as evil.  Occasionally Pietists, Puritans, and others have made statements implying a perception that sex is evil.  A Methodist by the name of Thomas Bramwell Welch popularized something called “grape juice” in the late 19th century because alcohol, for the most part, had been perceived by his church as evil and they wanted to continue celebrating the Lord’s Supper without consuming wine.  Many Southern Baptist communities in our country have done a pretty decent job of outlawing tobacco, dancing, and gambling and other card games because they are perceived as evil.

I’m not at all trying to unload on certain faith traditions or periods in church history.  My point is that many, many Christian leaders throughout history have mislabeled good gifts from God as evil.  We really don’t have any right to label anything that God created naturally or that the Bible seems to give approval to as “evil.”  And just as damaging in all of this is that it reveals one of the real problems with mankind in a Post-Fall world, a problem that we see in Adam and Eve almost immediately after their sin: blame shifting.

It’s very important for us to be clear about what is good and what is evil.  Money is a gift from God.  Money is not sinful.  Believing that it gives me more control over this world than I actually have, however, is.  My sinful nature is perverse enough to use money in the realm of greed, pride, oppression, stinginess, hoarding, self-esteem, self-centeredness, etc.  Sex also is a gift from God.  Sex is not sinful.  Irresponsibly and selfishly using it as my unfettered pleasure toy, however, is.  Our sinful natures are weird and perverse enough that we humans get very creative in how we distort God’s design for this gift – premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, transexualism, pedophilia, masturbation, bestiality, polygamy, etc.  This is why Paul simply says to the Ephesians, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” (Ephesians 5:3).  He doesn’t list 100 violations of God’s gift of sex because he knows there’s some sick dude out there who will invent number 101 and think he’s getting away with something.  Adam and Eve also clearly understood this – that it was their sickness, not God’s good gifts that was the problem.  This is the very reason that after the fall into sin they covered their nakedness….they understood that they were now capable of taking God’s good gifts and distorting them for their own perversions.  You see, there is disobedience at the core of the sinful heart, not in God’s good gifts.

We could go on and on like this.  Alcohol isn’t evil.  It’s a gift.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are immaturely looking for artificial highs or who are self-medicating emotional wounds, both of whom are in reality only compounding their problems.  Dancing isn’t evil.  It’s a gift from God.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club or perhaps by some guys who are looking to take advantage of some sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club.  Society isn’t evil.  Cities need Christians injecting Christ into them, which is part of what makes the Christian exodus from urban centers, following the American dream of isolation from other people a little more disappointing.  Community is a gift from God.  Valuing community is essential to the health of a church.  Society and community are not bad things.  Society unfortunately sometimes gets abused by sinners through seemingly easier access to violence and rudeness though.  You get the point.

When we look at the world, we want to be sure that we’re making a distinction between things from God that are good and the sinners who are distorting these good creations.

The final point in this discussion is really also the climax of the Genesis 3 account.  Adam and Eve had abused God’s good gift (and yes, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was indeed a good gift.  It provided an opportunity for humans to express their love for God above their love for his creation through their obedience to his command.).  Despite our fall though, mankind’s weakness never trumps God’s strength.  Our rebellion and sin cannot overcome God’s grace.  And when Adam and Eve sinned, God came not with a heavy hand, but with more blessing – a Serpent Crushing deliverer whom we know as Jesus.

This Jesus cured Adam and Eve not by offering an antidote to the non-existent poison of the fruit, but an antidote to the poison of their disobedience.  He injected his own obedience to God’s commands.  And, like it did for Adam and Eve, Jesus’ imputed righteousness to us cures us of all of our misuses of God’s many, many good gifts of time, talent, money, sex, alcohol, gambling, card games, dice games, board games, video games, internet, Facebook,  parties, music, dancing, clothing, books, magazines, coffee, food, desserts, chocolate, cable tv, network tv, public access tv, movies, Netflix, exercise, dieting, fishing, golfing, ultimate frisbeeing, vacationing, pets, sports, children, religion, etc.  I probably missed one.  The truth is that, YES, you and I are so twisted that we can take any good gift from God and abuse it by using it in a way that doesn’t glorify God.  And we’re also so delusional that sometimes we deny that we’re capable of such travesties.  Fortunately, the most important truth is that Jesus cures us from all of it.  While the evidence suggests that I’m the problem, it also suggests that Jesus is the perfect solution.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15)

The Line of Responsible Parenting

blog - Adrian PetersonThe reactions to the story of NFL star running back and 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson being indicted for ‘reckless or negligent injury to a child’  have been a bit divisive, to say the least.

It’s a fascinating experiment as a pastor living in Minnesota, i.e. Vikings country, to ask your 7th/8th grade confirmation class their thoughts on the issue. For starters, it’s a perfect demonstration of someone sincerely buying their own rationale when it’s personally convenient. Adolescent boys lawyer up pretty quick when the NFL is trying to take their best player off the field.

But everyone has an opinion on this case. Everyone. Football fan or not, in this particular case, everyone seems to be registering a pretty passionate plea. Even our state governor has publicly given his stance. What was revealing to me as a pastor, was that it wasn’t until over 20 minutes into our confirmation classroom discussion, and not until after heavy prompting and hinting on my part, that any student said, “What matters most is what God says about parenting our children…” 

The fact that it took that long and that I had to tip my hand that much to get to that point…I don’t think it’s simply because I’ve been a poor theology instructor for these kids. Maybe. Rather, I think it’s because kids (humans in general, for that matter) will tend to give you responses they think you want to hear until you touch a nerve, and then they respond instinctively. This specific case happens to be a topic that everyone seems to have core beliefs about. At that point, people feel justified in letting knees jerk.

blog - Adrian Peterson 2The tipping point for my confirmation students, the moment that finally led one of them to suggesting that we see what God says about the topic, was when I pointed out on the whiteboard that all of their responses thus far had begun with the words, “I think…”; “I feel…”; “I believe…”. After those prefaces had generally come thoughts like, “I think parents should be allowed to discipline their own kids in their own homes however they want” (again, this seemed to be the preference of the diehard Vikings fans. No, they didn’t perceive their logic to be self-serving.). Another popular response was, “I feel like a parent should never hit their child, no matter what the circumstances.” When I calmly asked, “Why?”, one of the young women responded with a passionate explanation that ended, “It’s just wrong.” When I further pressed her on an explanation of WHY we should all submit ourselves to her declaration that such an act is wrong, she finished with, “Because.” There were other more “moderate” responses that went something along the lines of, “Well, it’s okay to spank your child, but you shouldn’t use an object to do it like Adrian Peterson did.” Again, when pressed, there was no conceivable WHY to the reasoning.

While this is admittedly a conversation with 14-year-olds, most of the conversations I’ve heard from full-grown adults haven’t sounded much different. For that matter, the “experts” sound very similar. I could name a dozen prominent talk radio figures who have weighed in, proposing little reasoning for their stance beyond “I think” or “I feel.” The innate pride of a sinful heart simply doesn’t understand that what “I think” or “I feel” about a given situation does not make it so, no matter how many tears I shed when offering my sentiments nor even how many logical points I string together. You CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.

Someone might contend, “Sure you can! Let’s just all do what’s best for mankind without hurting someone.” First off, why? For argument’s sake, what is the logical reason why we should be working toward the benefit of mankind? Second, even if we all agree to work to not hurt one another, who are you to say what does or does not ultimately hurt someone? What makes you the authority? What makes anyone the authority? “Alright. Well, let’s just go with the majority consensus.” Okay, are you really comfortable with the majority consensus about Jewish people in mid-twentieth century Germany? Are you comfortable with the majority consensus about black people in the South in mid-nineteenth century America? Let me reiterate: logically, you CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.

So, what does God’s Word say about physicality in the discipline of children?

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Prov. 13:24)

This passage is by no means the only advice the Bible gives on parenting, but it appears the most relevant to the given case. So let’s dissect it a bit.

blog - Adrian Peterson 3What’s obvious at first glance is the acknowledgment of a parent using a “rod,” what’s generally been referred to in the Peterson case as a “switch.” The assertion of the first half of this passage of wisdom literature is exactly the opposite of what many Americans would categorize as loving parenting. The writer says that if you DON’T use a rod, when necessary, to discipline your child, you HATE your child.

So, at this point, the defenders of Adrian Peterson rejoice and those who don’t like the passage conclude that the Bible is “old-fashioned,” “regressive,” and “unreliable.” Well…hold them horses….

Reading on in the passage, upon further explanation, we see that a parent who loves his child is “careful to discipline them.” How does this relate to the Peterson case? Several medical examiners evaluated Peterson’s son and found the wounds on the child to be extensive, open lacerations which the doctors deemed “child abuse.”  So careful is obviously the operative word in “careful to discipline.” Was Adrian Peterson careful?

Technically the word “careful” is not in the original Hebrew text, but the idea is there. The word musar (translit.) means to chastise in order to reform behavior, for the benefit of the one receiving discipline. So the motive of the discipline is loving correction. But to what degree can physical discipline be enforced before it crosses a line from chastisement to abuse? Where does loving discipline end and out-of-control anger begin? I think we’d need to see into someone’s heart before we can say unequivocally. Since we can’t do that, in our country, we use a jury of peers. It’s not a perfect system, but perhaps the best we can do in a sinful world.

So, my point today is not whether to spank or not to spank. My point is not to suggest what the NFL should do with Adrian Peterson. My point is to encourage Christians to temper their gut reactions (and innate thoughts about parenting styles), and first carefully consider the Scriptural directives. A Christian should be able to recognize, “Well, how I was raised…” or what I think or what I feel does not make something gospel truth. In fact, a Christian who understands that he is victim to a sinful nature should actually assume that his natural instincts on moral issues are probably a click or two off from perfect.

Is it crazy to suggest I can’t even always trust my native instincts on what is right or wrong? Put differently, why should I subject my natural instincts to the authority of the Bible?

Simply this: Jesus endured the ultimate switch of discipline – the cross – upon which he received the beating we deserved for our sins. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5) Without hesitation I can say that Jesus is a better, more loving, more self-sacrificial, gentler man than me or anyone I’ve met. Furthermore, as one raised from the grave, Jesus clearly has insights on human nature that surpass my understanding. Finally, Jesus repeatedly states throughout the Gospels that he upholds the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:27; Matt. 5:17; Matt. 23:35). This includes our Proverbs passage. Adding this all together, I would assume Jesus’ perception of loving parenting is better than my perception, which is marred by a sinful nature. In short, I trust his Word ahead of my gut.

You cannot make a moral argument without an appeal to God. So, CHRISTIAN, the world needs your guidance. It doesn’t need your natural, gut reaction. A pagan world can produce that on its own. Instead, what the world needs is a humble, counterintuitive, nuanced, informed and thoughtful response born out of the Word that brings life (John 6:63). Graciously lead the way.

Did Jesus Really Never Say Anything About Homosexuality?

Since I get a steady diet of this question, I thought it was probably long overdue to offer a post which I can regularly direct people to moving forward. Additionally, what’s better about this video than just an email from me summarizing the Jesus/homosexuality issue is that Piers Morgan (the show’s host) makes his case with all of the matter-of-fact bravado that someone has probably tried to intimidate you with before. But…Morgan runs into someone who understands the Bible considerably better than he does.

Morgan’s argument in the clip – “Jesus clearly didn’t think homosexuality was a big issue since he never talked about it.” – you’ve likely heard this argument before. Could it be true? Well, an argument from silence really isn’t much of an argument. As Dr. Michael Brown points out, “Jesus did not address wife-beating or heroin-shooting but we don’t use that argument from silence.” Only someone with a clear agenda would do the rational gymnastics it’d take to try to surmise that the Bible (or Jesus) was okay with such things.

An even better argument, however, is that Jesus, on several occasions, outright states that he is upholding the Jewish sexual ethic that was stated throughout the Old Testament. Dr. Brown points out three instances:

1) Matthew 5:17 – Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus is saying that the universal sexual morals taught in the Old Testament are still firmly in place.

2) Matthew 15:19 – Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person.” Jesus is saying that “adultery and sexual immorality,” two terms which together fully encompass all sex that is outside of God-designed sex – i.e. between a husband and a wife – defiles people.

3) Matthew 19:4-6 – Jesus says, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus is saying that marriage was designed by God to be for one man and one woman for life. 

These passages are ONLY what Jesus himself directly says. This doesn’t include all of the specifics of the Old Testament or all of the further direction from New Testament writers concerning homosexuality.

What’s the real issue here?

I think this is another example of the trickle down effect of waning biblical literacy. People have just as strong of opinions about the Bible as they ever did, yet know their Bibles less.

Biblical illiteracy is more than the issue of people today falling for the question, “How many animals did Moses bring on the Ark?” (ANSWER: MOSES didn’t bring any animals on the Ark.) In other words, biblical illiteracy is not just a mechanical memorization of the names, places, and timeframe of the Bible. Yes, much of this has been lost. More importantly, however, the truths and themes these accounts teach are slipping from society’s consciousness…and conscience. Put differently, not knowing Jesus’ stance on homosexuality is the direct result of us becoming less familiar with our Bibles, which perfectly corresponds with our society’s increasingly lax stance on sexual immorality.

Consequently, if you hold a position different from the historically consistent biblical position, i.e. if you take the position that Jesus (and the Bible) are accepting of a homosexual lifestyle, by all means, you are free to do so. BUT, please do the name of Christ a favor. If you’re labeling yourself a Christian, please also be clear to say, “Just so you know, I’m taking a position entirely different from what the Bible teaches.” By the way, in doing so, in reinterpreting or dismissing Scripture for the sake of personal opinion, convenience, or contemporary societal assumption, just be warned that this act itself is entirely different from how “being a Christian” has historically been defined. In other words, part of the very definition of Christianity is recognizing Jesus both as your SAVIOR from sins AND your LORD, which means that you are willing to subject your personal opinions and conveniences to the truth of your master.

The case I’m trying to make here is that the clarity of Jesus’ teaching about homosexuality is not the issue. Open homosexuality taking place in our society, while not God-pleasing, really isn’t a threat to Christianity either. “Christians” not knowing what their Bible teaches and thus distorting the teaching of an inspired Word – that’s a massive threat to Christian faith right now.

Two errors to avoid

As in most cases, there are two roads Christians will hope to avoid in the conversation about the place of homosexuality in our society.

1) The self-indulgent position – Homosexuality is an important, sensitive cultural issue today. If Christians have any love whatsoever for the people around them, they will want to know how the Bible addresses an issue that today affects every single person’s life directly. A Christian will not, therefore, be unprepared when someone hits them with, “Well, Jesus never said anything against homosexuality.” If you care about that person, you will be ready to offer something about Jesus’ position on the biblical sexual ethic. If you don’t have something to say about it, you will almost invariably go along with the anti-biblical spirit of the day, the gospel conceived in the 60s sexual revolution – that love should have no borders.

2) The self-righteous position – A major part of the angst from the homosexual community when it comes to marriage legislation, etc., is that heterosexuals haven’t exactly demonstrated the beauty of God’s design for marriage and sexuality in the past half century. That’s actually a very valid argument. While our own personal failures or weaknesses don’t technically disprove a point we’re trying to make, they do tend to discredit the impact of our voice.

Consider this: nearly 80% of our country claims Christianity. Nonetheless, 50% of our country’s marriages end in divorce. Furthermore, the best research suggests that Christians are every bit as active in pre-marital sex as the non-believing world (Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, pg. 205). According to another recent study, four out of five unmarried evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine have had sex (Tyler Charles, “True Love Isn’t Waiting,” Neue 6 [April/May 2011], 32-36.). So why should anyone care what the average Christian has to say about biblical sexuality? They shouldn’t. We’ve lost credibility.

Now I’m not saying that a Christian shouldn’t be clear to explain the Bible’s stance on human sexuality (they should, or else they fall back into the self-indulgent position). I’m saying that a Christian should explain the biblical stance while at the same time never considering himself morally superior to the homosexual. I’m also saying that if we have unrepented sexual sin in our own lives, that should offend us significantly more than any sexual sin we see going on “out there” in the world. “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt. 7:5)

Or, as researcher David Kinnaman puts it:

“We (Christians) need a willingness to talk about and ‘own’ our struggles with sex, even as we stay on high alert or judgmentalism in our hearts. Hypocrisy might be defined as leniency toward ourselves and strict standards for everyone else.” (You Lost Me, pg. 162)

A Christian wants to boldly stand for truth even as he humbly acknowledges weakness. And if he’s guilty himself, the Christian confesses and corrects himself before he dreams of correcting others.


In the words of Dr. Brown, “I’d encourage you to re-study what Scripture says.” That’s it. Few things are tougher to see than Christians who think they can get away without studying their Bibles. How do we keep falling for this? If Satan could do no other single thing, it’d be to get us to not study our Bibles – the one thing that can give us spiritual life. “The Spirit gives life…The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63)

Scarier than having a misunderstanding of Jesus’ stance on homosexuality, however, is what this misunderstanding insinuates in the bigger picture. If I don’t know Jesus’ position on human sexuality, what else might I not understand about Jesus’ teaching? Do I really understand the depth of his love for me? Do I really understand the costliness of his forgiveness? Do I really understand that my salvation is entirely by grace?

Scripture isn’t just life-guiding. It’s life-giving. Therefore, I need to regularly re-study what it says.

Ice Bucket Passion – considering the merits of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

blog - ALS 1

I’m sure you’ve been enjoying your recent subscription to the 24-hour Ice Bucket Challenge Network formerly known as Facebook. It’s quite a phenomenon – one that demonstrates the power of social media, the power of peer influence, the power of ultimatums, a powerful national desire to help others, and a host of other pretty fascinating human behavioral habits.

This isn’t the Harlem Shake. This isn’t planking. It shares some similarities from a viral standpoint. But this is young America’s first real, significant attempt to use the overwhelming accessibility of social media for good.

I’m not quite ready to do the full trispectival analysis on this yet, in part, because I don’t know that it’s fair or accurate to suggest that certain positions line up with religion/irreligion, etc. But we’re going to do something similar here by pointing out how Christians might process the good, the bad, and the important questions surrounding the occasion.

There’s been lots written on both sides of this thus far (points and counterpoints), I’ll try to just link & summarize for what’s already been said, and expound on the viewpoints I haven’t yet seen addressed.

The Good

1) People moving to help others

Look what we’re capable of! For all of the new avenues for slander and the self-indulgent “look at me” proclivities of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, it’s as though we’re finally starting to see in tangible ways the tremendous reasons why God would allow something like social media to exist.

As of August 22nd, the NY Times was reporting that well over $40 million has already been donated to ALS research. While the motives of the philanthropy are debatable (which I’ll get to), there’s no denying this is more “other focused” than most of what we see. That’s a beautiful thing. For the cynics of contemporary culture who are convinced that altruism is non-existent, this at least gives pause.

2) Christians seeking to provide physical aid

Ever since F.D.R.’s New Deal, there has been a shift in American mentality – that physical and emotional aid comes through the government, not the church. Consequently, churches have lost this God-intended tangible expression of love, which I believe is a major reason why people are skeptical that churches can provide genuine spiritual aid as well. God designed for these things to go together. The recent lack of connection between physical and spiritual, I think, has likely contributed to the mass exodus from local congregations in the late twentieth century.

Historian Rodney Stark describes how social concern by Christians for physical well-being led to interest in the Christian faith in the early years of Christianity…

“alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86)

As several plagues struck the Roman Empire in the early centuries after Christ, Christians contemplated what Christ himself would do in such situations. While the pagans fled the town where plagues existed, leaving sick friends, relatives, and strangers to die, Christians reasoned that Christ himself sacrificed time, energy, resources, even his life to help the sick. Furthermore, they used belief in the gospel truth of eternal life through a Risen Savior as a resource for courage. They knew that when they died they were heaven-bound, which gave them a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than their pagan counterparts, who believed this life was it. Church fathers like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius, and Eusebius were all consistent on this. Furthermore, this life-jeopardizing mercy wasn’t some marketing ploy to attract new followers. They did this because they believed they were honoring Jesus in the process (Matt. 25:35-40). The early father Tertullian claimed:

“It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (Apology 39, 1989 ed.)

In short, Christians who aren’t seeking to provide any sort of physical relief to the ailing have lost something that is printed in the DNA of the Christian Church. So, in its own way, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as carried out by Christians, is at least demonstrating a public acknowledgment that we really do care about the physical welfare of humans. While every other religion proposes a fleeing from this present body, in the doctrine of resurrection, Jesus taught (and gave his life for) a redemption of that very body, not just the soul. Followers of Jesus care about the health of bodies as well as the souls within them.

Chris Fernandez, David DeJesus, ALS Ice Bucket ChallengeThe Bad

So how much does pouring a bucket of ice water (or wasting valuable water, if you’re a cynic) do to help the cause of ALS research anyways? What is the net gain of “raising awareness”?

Now, the critics of the critics, i.e. the people who are saying, “Why can’t you just let people do this fun thing and raise awareness in the process? Why can’t you just let this be?” while kind and gentle in spirit, aren’t recognizing some important details that do deserve careful consideration.

There are a number of arguments against the challenge. Some, like the charitable funding cannibalism argument, I personally find to be less compelling arguments. So, I’ll keep it to the two that concern me the most.

1) Coercion Motivation

I know MANY people whom I believe would take the Ice Bucket Challenge simply because they’re terrified of how it’d make them look OR how they’d feel about themselves if they didn’t.

From a Christian perspective, an action typically isn’t just a good or bad action, it’s dependent, to some extent at least, upon motives. The classic example of this is Cain and Abel, an account that proves God is not merely seeking obedience to laws, but rather a certain type of obedience – obedience that is motivated by a recognition of God’s grace.

Pride, guilt, and fear are all incredibly powerful motivators that don’t lead to God-pleasing action. Granted, if they lead people to moral behavior, to some extent, I’m still happy they exist as motivators. Jonathan Edwards, in The Nature of True Virtue, talks about a “common virtue” that exists in humanity. He’s talking about the natural moral code and conscience that God implants into all mankind alike. Ultimately, he’s suggesting that if a potential killer doesn’t pull a trigger because of thankfulness for Christ’s goodness or because of fear of going to jail, either way, regardless of motivation, we’re happy he doesn’t pull the trigger. Nonetheless, from a Christian standpoint, motivation means everything when it comes to whether or not an act is God-pleasingIf a philanthropic act is done to make yourself look good, it’s totally counterintuitive to Peter’s guidance on good deeds – “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12, also Matt. 5:16) In this case, the non-believers are acknowledging the “good” being done by believers, but notice whom they’re glorifying as a result – not the believer, but GOD. To safeguard against the pride that comes with doing good deeds to glorify self, Jesus encourages generosity and philanthropy to be done in private (Matt. 6:3-4), not on social media.

2) Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research

There has been a ton written on why this type of research does not jive with biblical ethics as well as the evidence that ALS participates in this type of research. Look here. Or here. Or here. Or, straight from the horse’s mouth, here. Without retreading everything, I’ll briefly jot down some of the clearest Bible passages that would suggest life begins at conception. Consequently, ending such life would clearly be unethical from a Biblical standpoint.

“Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.” (Is. 49:1)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.” (Ex. 21:22-23)

Bottom line, it makes zero sense to hurt life in the process of seeking to help life. Such a proposition suggests that one life is more valuable than another life, the same premise which fuels racism or genocide. Embryonic stem cell research, however, is arguably worse from the standpoint that an unborn child is entirely incapable of fighting - ALS 3

So here’s what scares me: how many lives are going to be saved by these ALS donations? And for how long? In contrast, how many lives will directly be taken specifically because of these $40 million plus in donations. Yes, I recognize that there is an option to specify that your donation does not go to embryonic stem cell research. I’m not convinced that this promotion is being carried out to the same level that the challenges are though. Furthermore, even if you can designate that your money is not going toward embryonic stem cell research, for Christians, the question remains about the ethics of knowingly funding an organization that is promoting embryonic stem cell research. And this isn’t exactly like shopping at Walmart or Target and finding out that some of their proceeds are going towards causes you wouldn’t personally support. Of course we cannot control how business owners spend their dollars. This is a little different – a direct funding of the unethical act itself, a proportionate line from your dollars to embryonic stem cell research.

I’m curious how the ALS fund gatherers would react if every single Christian, when they went to make their donation, would say, “I won’t give you $100 as long as you fund this kind of research. However, I’ll give you $200 if you stop funding embryonic stem cell research.”

The Important Questions Raised

I want to be careful not to be too dogmatic about much of this. To be perfectly honest, I’m personally not exactly sure how I feel about it. What I’m trying to do here is simply acknowledge that the ethics of this challenge are not cut and dry, despite what a passionate advocate for or against may say, no matter how loudly they may say it.

So here are the two things I can’t help but think about after reading several dozen articles…

1) End justifies means ethics. Is it okay to support an organization that is doing some good, while it is knowingly, willingly, and publicly also approving and sponsoring something that is not only biblically unethical, but logically counterintuitive – hurting life for the purpose of helping life.

2) Awareness disparity. Someone will call me insensitive here. That’s the risk I run. Why are so many Christians so passionate about raising awareness to help find a cure for a disease that, while tragic, cuts life on earth, and its quality, by several decades, but so slow to raise awareness about a KNOWN CURE for a disease (of sin) that threatens us eternally? Let’s say just 2/3 of the world (although I presume it’s significantly more), 5 billion or so people, are headed for a destruction much more debilitating than even ALS. Why don’t we witness more public, comfort-sacrificing, generosity-demonstrating gestures for the gospel? Maybe many are doing them. Maybe it’s in my head. I just don’t recall seeing many mainstream attempts by Christians.

In Luke 5, Jesus shows love and compassion for a paralyzed man. Perhaps this nameless man had ALS or a similar disease. Jesus doesn’t ignore the man’s tragic condition. He cares for the physical as well as the spiritual. Mercifully, Jesus cures the man so that he is once again able to walk. Interestingly, however, Jesus announces forgiveness for the man’s sins first. In the process, he appears to be pointing out a vital issue of prioritization – that in a dying world, a living faith trumps a healthy body. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Luke 5:23-24) Jesus desires for this physically impaired man to have access to a resurrected body even more than a temporarily restored body. Again, for followers of Jesus, it’d only make sense that such predominance in priorities (spiritual ahead of physical) would also be reflected.

Again, I’m NOT saying I disagree with the challenge. I’m NOT saying Christians taking the challenge aren’t also emphatically sharing their faith. I’m merely suggesting that something about all of this seems VERY right, and yet something else seems a bit off.

Finally, I’d encourage Christians to not fall into the cliché visceral responses that much of the world does about such issues. Rather, consider these things carefully before you form your opinion. The world often declares something the best or the worst based merely on gut. And when two different people’s big guts collide, you have an ugly societal sumo match. Christians are to be more thoughtful. We don’t embrace or dismiss “because.” We weigh things carefully on a Scriptural scale and draw conclusions. So, participate or don’t participate, but do so thoughtfully, to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)