If you are white, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!

Keep Your Mouth ShutOne of the most troubling aspects regarding the current national dialog about racism in America is the almost unanimous presumption that only people of color have anything valid to say about racism. Those who’s skin is not black are expected to listen and agree with what blacks have to say on the topic of racism and this expectation has only been exasperated by events at Ferguson, MO. It is frequently insinuated that white people cannot truly participate in this dialog because racism runs so deep within them that they don’t even know when they are acting out on their racism. CNN reporter John Blake argues this point strongly in a recent article. He begins making his case by citing the following “classic study” on racism, here is what he says:

In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result. They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man. When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people — black and white — incorrectly said the black man had the knife.

However, while frequently cited, this “classic study on race” simply does not exist. The actual study was a study on ‘rumor chains’ conducted by G.W. Allport and L. Postman in 1947. Ironically the frequently inaccurate and changing portrayal of this study in the psychological literature demonstrates, as the real study shows, how stories can evolve as as they pass through the ‘rumor chain’ but it does not support the claim of racial bias so frequently claimed when this study is cited. In 1989 Molly Treadway and Michael McCloskey from Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychology published a paper titled “Effects of Racial Stereotypes on Eyewitness Performance: Implications of the Real and the Rumoured Allport and Postman Studies” in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 3, pgs. 53-63 dealing with the facts and rumors regarding this study. Here is an excerpt from their paper.

This account [as described in the CNN article] of the Allport and Postman study has appeared widely in the eyewitness psychology literature (e.g. Clifford and Bull, 1978; Ellison and Buckhout, 1981; Marshall, 1980; Luce, 1977; Sannito and mcGovern, 1985; Woocher, 1977), and in expert psychological testimony on eyewitness performance (e.g. Shomer, 1984). As we pointed out in an earlier article (Treadway and McCloskey, 1987), however, the account is seriously inaccurate. The Allport and Postman experiments involved a ‘rumour chain’ procedure in which a subject described a picture, while looking at it, to a second subject who could not see it. The second subject then recounted the description as fully as possible to a third subject who had neither seen the picture nor heard the initial description. This procedure was continued until six or seven subjects had listened to a previous subject’s description and then attempted to repeat what they had heard … the only people who actually saw the picture described the scene while looking at it.

In their paper, they document several attempts to produce a study that mirrors the one that was rumored to have taken place; however, none of their attempts produced the results claimed by those who have wrongly cited the Allport and Postman study in support of the conclusion on racism. It turns out that the study that is most frequently cited to support the conclusion that people are unknowingly racist is nothing more than a rumor itself.

What about the many anecdotal stories that black people tell us about being stopped by cops without cause? Surely these stories demonstrate that blacks are being unfairly targeted by police, right? Let’s take a look at a couple examples of the kinds of stories we are told that are intended to demonstrate that cops are racist against blacks.

“I was just sitting in my car, minding my own business, when three cops approached me with their guns drawn and asked me to get out of the car with my hands up. They said that there had been a robbery in the area and that they believed that I might be the robbery suspect. They humiliated me by frisking me in front of a dozen of my friends.”

“I had just purchased my first vehicle and was driving down the freeway when a cop began to tailgate me. I wasn’t speeding and yet this cop continued to tailgate me for about 15 miles, occasionally pulling along one side of my car or the other side and then back right behind me. I was quite nervous because this continued for what seemed like an eternity. Despite making sure that I didn’t exceed the speed limit the entire time, the cop eventually turned his lights on and pulled me over without cause. He then proceeded to ask for license and registration and then began inspecting my vehicle, looking at my tires, having me demonstrate that all of my lights were working, etc…, the cop eventually cited me for not having transferred the title of my vehicle to my name. I showed the cop the bill of sale dated that same day and the note on the pink slip (a legal document issued by the state of California) stating that I had 14 days to transfer ownership. He told me that the instructions on the pink slip were not the law and issued the citation anyway. When I did get my day in court, the courts disagreed with him but I still had to spend about half a day to get this ticket dismissed.”

One question that no one ever asks when stories like these are told is “How do you know that the motivation was racism?” The assumption when stories like these are told is that the only explanation is that the cops were racist. However, neither of the stories above indicate that racism was a factor! How do I know? I know because these are my stories and neither the cops involved nor I were black. In the first incident, the cops were simply doing their job and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (this happens to people of all races all of the time). While it was frightening at the time, it is now a story I laugh about today and had I been the cop, I probably would have acted in the same way. In the second case, I was stopped by a power hungry cop that should have chosen a different profession. While this cop was clearly out of line, the motivation behind his inappropriate behavior wasn’t racism! Unquestionably, there are some racist cops (both black and white) but not every cop who pulls over a black person is motivated by racism nor is every cop who pulls over an innocent black person wrong for doing so. Some may be racist, some may be power hungry, but most are probably just doing their job to the best of their ability. They, just like you and I, are not “all knowing” and they frequently need to investigate before recognizing that they have apprehended the wrong person.

Here are some questions we should be asking:

  • How frequently are false accusations of “racism” the result of misperceptions fueled by the distrust that results when one is continually told that they will be stopped by “racist” cops without cause?
  • How frequently do situations with the police escalate as a result of unnecessary tensions created because black people are continually told that they will be stopped by racist cops ONLY because they are black?
  • When all sides are given a fair hearing, how frequently does the evidence support the claims of racism made in the anecdotal stories we so frequently hear?

Proverbs 18:17 reminds us that “the first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” It is time we stop acting after hearing only one side of the story and allow those who hold a different perspective to present their case. And just as we all recognize that racism is wrong, we must also recognize that it is just as wrong to falsely accuse someone of racism. Yes, it is time for a national dialog about race but a true dialog requires that both sides be allowed to freely speak, both sides be willing to listen, and both sides be willing to recognize that their perception may not be entirely accurate.

 

 

 

The Wilberforce Test: Preaching and the Public Square

The following thought provoking article was written by Owen Strachan,  professor of theology and church history at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. It was originally posted on the 9marks site. He raises some important questions that our churches really need to begin to think about. We need men like Wilberforce today; why are our churches not producing men like this any longer.


William Wilberforce was born with life laid out like a Persian carpet before him. He was from fantastic wealth, had access to high society whenever he pleased, and had the social graces to charm most anyone he encountered.

Wilberforce was raised by an evangelical aunt but had drifted from a close connection to Christianity. When as a 26-year-old man he found himself empty and unfulfilled by his worldly trajectory, he secretly contacted famous pastor John Newton for counsel. Through Newton’s influence, Wilberforce soon embraced the religion of the “enthusiasts” of England, a derogatory term for Christians who zealously preached the new birth.

Two Paths Out of TrialsWilberforce became the champion par excellence of abolition in Great Britain. He lived to see the defeat of slavery and the slave trade in his homeland and its imperial territories. The striking thing about Wilberforce’s story is this: he did not work alone. His pastor, John Venn, the Rector of Clapham, is basically forgotten. Yet week after week, Venn fired the conscience and stirred the heart of Wilberforce and his activist peers. The public work of Wilberforce—world-changing work, that is—was shaped by the pulpit ministry of Venn.[1]

In considering this example, I would like to pose a question: could our preaching today raise up a Wilberforce? Could it pass, in other words, what we could call the Wilberforce test? In what follows, I will sketch out how it is that a pastor can meet this mark. Every pastor, I argue, is a public theologian, called by God to bring biblical truth to bear on all of life such that his people storm the gates of hell and promote righteousness and mercy in a fallen world.

THE CORE OF A PASTOR’S LABORS: EXPOSITORY PREACHING

Too often, we are presented with just two choices when it comes to the pulpit and public-square witness. Either the pastor is a political activist, or he is effectively removed from cultural concerns. Both of these models have serious problems.

The central conviction of the pastor is the truthfulness of the gospel. This gospel announces that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for our justification and raised to life for our vindication. This message is the foundation of every minister’s work, which means that every minister stewards a theological reality. Every pastor, in other words, is a theologian. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. has noted that “The pastoral calling is inherently theological. Given the fact that the pastor is to be the teacher of the Word of God and the teacher of the gospel, it cannot be otherwise.” Mohler sharpens the point: “The idea of the pastorate as a non-theological office is inconceivable in light of the New Testament.”[2]

This is a very different conception of the pastor than we often hear today. The pastor in the historic model is not a coach, executive, administrator, cheerleader, or entrepreneur. Fundamentally, the pastor is the steward of the most precious message there is. But the pastor does not only loft this message into the air. He preaches it to all who will hear and watches as the Word and the gospel build a church. This church is not incidental to the gospel. As Mark Dever has said, “Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.”[3] To a degree that we rarely acknowledge, the church is a living picture of the gospel.

This means that the pastor is a theologian, but a theologian attached to a people. The pastor serves as theologian to his people not primarily by writing dense articles in the church newsletter, but by preaching the truth and shepherding the flock. This is, as noted, expressly theological work. Mohler has said it like this: “There is no more theological calling than this—guard the flock of God for the sake of God’s truth.”[4] Pastoral ministry is not a retreat from theological work, an escape to the adoctrinal hinterlands of what is sometimes called “practical ministry.” Pastoral ministry occurs on the front lines of the great theological conflict between God and the devil. Every pastor a theologian, then; every pastor a warrior-priest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Melchizedek, following the one who is greater than he.

Pastors are not politicians. They are appointed by God, however, to shape the worldview and thus the convictions of their people. Faithful handling of the Word of God means preaching the whole counsel of God. Preaching the whole counsel of God, in turn, cannot help but form and enliven Christian conviction, the principles that a believer must advocate in a fallen world, for the world lacks them even as it desperately needs them. Christian conviction is not made only for business meetings and quiet times. It is forged in the furnace of biblical exposition. Christian conviction looks like fire. It smells like smoke. It feels like a burning ember plucked from the flame. It emerges from the furnace of Scripture, and it is fashioned to sear and to awaken.

THE PASTOR PREACHING IN PUBLIC

Too often, preaching is described in much quieter terms than this. The grandeur and daring of biblical exposition is damped down. The private, solitary nature of the homiletical event is emphasized—each person quietly considering the claims of Christ. Preaching, to be sure, is aimed at the human heart. In biblical proclamation, God does business with the sinner. Though a pastor exposits the Word to dozens or hundreds or thousands of people, he understands that through his exposition, God meets with each individual person.

Let us hold fast to this “private” dimension of preaching. But perhaps we should ponder the recovery of the public dimension of preaching. As we have made clear, preaching is centered in the gospel of the Word. The gospel is a public announcement of a public event. Jesus was not crucified in private. He was spread out on a Roman cross, humiliated before all who would cast an eye upward at his foaming mouth and his heaving chest. His death was orchestrated and approved by the Roman political hierarchy. But the public nature of his horrific death goes far beyond Christ’s humiliation. His death, unlike every other death, was not only a cessation of life, but an act of atonement. No other person has atoned for sin in their passing. Only Jesus.

In paying for the sins of his people at Golgotha, Jesus accomplished a public work with profoundly private dimensions. All who will ever be found in him had their “record of debt cancelled” at the cross, according to Colossians 2:14. This cancellation was a “public spectacle” (2:15). It was the enactment of triumph over “the powers and authorities” of Satan’s kingdom. The cross that paid for private—or individual—sin was public, in other words. It was a display of divine force. It was a celebration of theistic power. It was an act of public shaming. Though Rome and her soldiers looked at Christ’s cross with disdain, God and his angels knew the truth. The power of Satan was broken. The head of Satan was crushed. Though hidden from the world, the defeat of darkness and death was accomplished.

Every time a pastor preaches the cross, they preach publicly. By this I do not only mean that they deliver a sermon in a forum to which the broader community is invited. I mean that from Bangladesh to Bangor, Maine to Bristol, England they announce to the cosmos that Jesus has won and Satan has lost. The church in which a pastor preaches is local. But the “theater,” to use Calvin’s language, is universal.[5] Every Sunday, across the world, 100,000 pastors announce together that the Messiah-King has come, and has triumphed. Satan must hear this every week, and must gnash his teeth every time he is reminded of his certain destruction.

There is another dimension of this public ministry to consider as well. The pastor’s message is not only addressed to the broader world, but is applicable to it. The Word and the gospel lay claim to all they encounter, advancing the kingdom of Christ over all the earth. The kingdom is dynamic. It does not shrink back. It is not overcome. It is undefeated, even as Jesus is undefeated, and his gospel is undefeated. The kingdom is inherently spiritual. It is the reign and rule of God. But though spiritual, the application of Christ’s Messiahship to this realm has powerfully public effect. By the preaching of the Word of Christ, human hearts are claimed, human behavior changes, churches are birthed, and Christians live out their faith in their community and culture. When all this happens, the gospel is working in the private sphere to influence the public sphere. The city of God, to quote Augustine, is ministering grace to the city of man.

The church, in other words, is the true culture. The community of God is created by the very mind of God. It is no mere organization. It is a living-and-breathing body, the spiritual entity that displays the glory of God and advances the kingdom of God. This means, as William Willimon has said, that the church is not only a change-agent in the world, but “is a world.” The church dares to “claim that this world, this culture—the church—is God’s way with the world, the appointed means by which Christ is bringing all things unto himself.”[6] To join the local church is not only to mark oneself as a believer as part of a larger body. It is to enter a new world, the true world.

So it is that preaching is public, for in preaching, the doorway to this other world, the true world, opens.

PASTORS AS PUBLIC THEOLOGIANS IN A FRAGMENTED WORLD: THREE CONSIDERATIONS FOR TODAY

Thus far we have sketched out what it means to be a pastor. I have argued that every pastor is a theologian, stewarding and announcing expressly theological realities. All the work of the pastor—discipling, counseling, evangelizing, leading, and everything else—proceeds from theistic truths. If God is not Triune, if the Word is not inerrant, if Jesus is not the only Savior, then pastoring is just community service with a spritz of spirituality. But it is not. Pastoring is essentially and inescapably theological work.

It is not only this: it is public. The pastor has the privilege of declaring that another world exists, and that this world is not far-off, but has broken into our own world. The kingdom of Christ is advancing with relentless pace, and though it suffers violence, no one can stop it (Matthew 11:12). Thus far we have a general understanding of the pastor as public theologian. In what follows, let us look briefly at three specific ways that pastors can function as public theologians for the good of their church and their world.

1) Pastors can publicly speak the truth in love on all kinds of ethical matters.

John the Baptist is a major forerunner in this regard. Consider the account of his death in Matthew 14:

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” (Matthew 14:1-4 ESV)

John sets a bold example for us in calling public sin to account. This example of ethical courage is for pastors and leaders of God’s church. We minister in continuity with John the Baptist. He is the original herald of Jesus Christ. He had no pulpit to call his own, but his work was the pastor’s work in its essence. John preached the truth. The truth is no respecter of feelings. The truth is no respecter of monarchs. The truth is no respecter of public/private divides. As Shakespeare said, the truth will out. If we were to put it more biblically, the truth must out.

We do not have the option, then, of quieting our theological witness on certain matters. Where wrong is being committed, the truth compels us to confront it. Where sin is being practiced, the truth inspires us to denounce it. Where evil is flourishing, the truth moves us to oppose it. This holds whether we are counseling a young believer with bad Internet surfing habits, discipling a world-making politician caught in a sinful relationship, or preaching to a church body perplexed by transgender identity. The truth is theological in nature, but it does not stop there. When it makes contact with the world, it creates an ethical witness. Pastors have no choice but to fill this role.

The gospel of Jesus Christ has fitted every pastor to call out sin and to promote goodness. This is not necessarily a complex calling. Ethical issues surely take on complexity, but at base, the ministry of John the Baptist that ends his life is a simple one. Pastors need not have written a dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr’s applied theology of depravity to be fitted for public witness on matters of sin and righteousness. They need to know Scripture. They need to have a biblically informed conscience. Then, they need to search their world and see where Herod still reigns, and where he must be opposed and called to repentance.

2) Pastors can train their people to be salt and light.

No text more speaks to this sense of identity than the call to be salt and light of the Sermon on the Mount.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

This means that as a pastor, you are called to equip your people to be salt and light. This in turn necessitates that you train them in knowing how to be a set-apart Christian. This sort of training comes by hearing sermons, week after week, that describe and differentiate the Christian as a blood-bought witness of Christ. It is also crucial that the church body understand that it needs no degree, no credential, and no voice from heaven to be activated as an embodiment of salt and light in their community, their world.

We discussed this in terms of William Wilberforce in the introduction. Wilberforce was not a pastor. But he was profoundly moved by the preaching and activism of John Newton and John Venn. If there was no Newton, there would have been no Wilberforce. No Venn, no Wilberforce. It is this simple in historical terms. If we would have the slave trade ended, we would need not only a high-flown politician of sterling talent and an enviable network, but a preacher of the Word. The Word is what made Wilberforce what he became. Sermons were his diet. Exposition was his food. He practiced public ethics because his pastor and his mentor commended and preached public theology as the Bible presented it.

Newton awoke a young Wilberforce to the evils of the slave trade in 1787. On October 28, a Sunday, the two men had a lengthy conversation that led Wilberforce to pen a now-famous entry in his diary. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” We do not know the specifics of the conversation that preceded this momentous—and ultimately predictive—statement, but it is clear that Newton exercised a powerful effect on his young charge. The very next day, Wilberforce contacted the Quakers, who were known for their persistent if underappreciated campaign to end slavery. Clearly, through Newton’s vibrant pastoral counsel, God set the wheels of history in motion.[7]

Newton continued to talk with Wilberforce over the years, and the politician came to hear him preach at St. Mary’s Woolnoth in London. In the late-1780s, Newton wrote the famous pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, testified before Parliament on the horrors of slavery, and supported the burgeoning abolitionist cause among evangelicals. He was a powerful force in British society for the cause of abolition and lended Wilberforce no small amount of aid in his work.

But it was Venn who provided Wilberforce with a steady diet of pulpit instruction. Were every person to live godly, Venn once thundered, “No scenes of cruelty would shock the eye; no cry of oppression would wound the ear. Tyranny and slavery would be only remembered with a sigh that human nature should once have suffered them.”[8] Every person did not live in such a way, however, and so it was the duty of Christians to show the world the virtues of faith:

Benevolence towards our fellow-creatures will produce [true religion] by depriving the heart of every angry passion, and leading us to sympathize in all the happiness of our fellow-creatures. The hope of glory will gild every prospect in life, and render all its afflictions light. Trust in God will impart abiding comfort to us, “for God will keep him in perfect peace who trusteth in him.” Above all, the love of God is an unceasing source of happiness; for this will make us satisfied with every dispensation of our Heavenly Father, and gladden our hearts in the view of his infinite goodness.[9]

These swatches of Venn’s preaching show that his heart was attuned to human suffering and the need of justice in the world. He did not hold back from preaching on ethical matters relevant to his Clapham context. In one famous address for the Church Missionary Society, he suggested rhetorically that Christians had done much to advance the cause of justice in the world:

Was a single hospital founded through their persuasion? Were schools provided through their suggestions for instruction of the inferior orders? Did they bear testimony against slavery? Or was the civil state of the poor at all meliorated by their labours? [10]

Venn preached directly against the slave trade. Yet his sermons also suggest that the primary way that believers could influence their context was by living godly lives characterized by love, hope, and trust. This life was no mere exercise in piety, but was anchored in the very nature of Almighty God.[11]

This pulpit ministry moved parishioners like Wilberforce to action. Yet the young man came to see that many Christians did not have what he had. Believers had too often seen their faith as inherently private and thus without connection to the greater struggles unfolding in their world. In his famous book, A Practical View of Christianity, Wilberforce decried the severing of theology from ethics in his native land:

The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.[12]

It is appropriate to read this passage as a verdict on the sleeping consciences of English Christians. Why did so few speak out against slavery and the slave trade? Why were the Quakers a lone voice years before the Clapham Sect mobilized against these evils? There are likely numerous factors, but a crucial one is this: the church’s doctrinal interest was weak. Where this happens, as Wilberforce notes, “the moral system itself” also begins “to wither and decay,” for it has been “robbed” of its ballast.

This is a powerful charge from a wise man. If the pulpit is theologically weak and ethically disengaged, the church’s call to be salt and light in a decaying, darkening world will go unheeded. The people will focus on their 401ks, their vacations, their school sports. Their faith will shrink. They will embrace “prosperity lite” theology such that they come to think that Christianity is fundamentally about their security and comfort. They will lose sight of the fact that they have been appointed as gospel agents in their communities, and that if they go silent, few exist who can take up the work.

The pastor is the one who stands against these woeful trends. The pastor must fundamentally and continually remind the people of their distinct identity and their divine calling. We are not here for ourselves, the pastor must regularly preach. We are here for the lost, and we are called to work while there is day to oppose evil and promote righteousness.

In this way, the pastor avoids making the pulpit political in the stereotypical way. He does not usually comment on ballot initiatives and candidates. But he is fearless in forming in his people the theistic and ethical convictions embedded in the Word. He is unapologetic about calling sins both ancient and modern what they are. He nurtures his people’s instinct for justice, debasing injustice wherever appropriate—social, racial, economic, and otherwise. Like Newton with the young Wilberforce, he offers counsel to his congregants that helps them probe the dimensions of their vocations and callings.

He does not hold back from encouraging his people to be who they already are in Jesus Christ: salt and light.

3) Pastors can call their people to love their neighbors.

In Mark 12:31, Jesus details the second greatest commandment, the one that follows from the first: loving God with everything you have. Jesus tells his disciples that “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Christianity suffers from a malnourished doctrine of “neighbor-love.” Such a doctrine does indeed mean baking cookies and befriending our neighbors, each a revolutionary action in a world that celebrates bowling alone. But it means much more than this. There is a world of activity and agency in the second commandment. We would be advised, like the crew of a spaceship in a Christopher Nolan space epic, to explore this world.

Texts like James 1:27 illuminate what neighbor-love can and should look like. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father,” James says, “is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” If we would claim to walk purely before God, we must be practicing “actional” faith. The Lord wants our faith to have an edge, to be directed in some way at those who cannot care for themselves. Christian faith is not only vertical, aimed toward the heavens. Christian faith is aimed at the whole world.

We cannot singlehandedly “change the world,” as we are sometimes told. We yearn to instantaneously overcome evil and instantiate goodness, but we are finite, limited creatures. So much of what is wrong in our realm will only be made right by Christ when he comes in glory. Until he does, however, God intends for us to be reaching into the darkness. He wants us to love our neighbor not only by speaking, but by acting on their behalf. He wants us not simply to critique the darkness, but to plunge into it.

We do so not as lone rangers, but as the church, led by faithful pastors. As the pastor preaches the whole counsel of God, he builds the convictional framework of his people. The gospel creates ethics. The people, in turn, begin to see in ways great and small how they can love their neighbor. They can volunteer at a homeless shelter, counsel abortion-minded women at clinics, mentor fatherless boys in their neighborhood, start a soccer league for struggling teens, and invite refugees from war-torn countries to their homes for dinner. None of these actions will likely make the evening news. None of them require a massive programmatic structure or even budgetary investment on the church’s part. All of these and many other forms of neighbor-love are small, incidental, humble, and gospel-driven. All of them are deeply meaningful.

As the church hears about such efforts, and prays for members who are loving their neighbors near and far, a cycle of investment begins. The gospel is seen not as a means to an end, but a message that creates a way of life. As this happens, the church shows the world that Christ’s body is a dynamic, others-centered institution. More than this, it reveals that it is not a culture, but the true culture. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have argued, it demonstrates that it “embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.”[13]

TRUE CULTURE IS OFTEN COUNTER-CULTURE

If pastors do not preach the true culture, then no one will. This is the essential reality of our modern situation: voices who speak for the permanent things, who advocate for the good, true, and beautiful in the public realm, are disappearing. In days past in America, pastors could assume that a coalition of institutions and individuals stood alongside them in their work to strengthen marriages, help the weak, rescue the fatherless, and champion the good of the family.

Today, there are fewer and fewer like-minded partners in the public square. Our government looms ever larger, suggesting in a friendly but insistent voice that it can solve our problems, fix our families, and cure our ills. With hesitation, and a vague sense that this might not be a good choice, we cede it the ground it requests. With resignation, we sigh, Sure, government. You can fix my problems. You can teach my children sexual ethics. You can regulate my home. That’s fine—after all, who else is offering to help?

Christians increasingly buy into this mindset, failing to see that Caesar offers us not only a political program, but a theological system. The state can be our god, and our friend. The state can be our salvation. The state can give us meaning. The state is ready and eager to teach us theology, a theology of itself. If we doubt this tendency on the part of the state, we must reconsider the lessons of the totalitarian twentieth-century. Have Whittaker Chambers, Hannah Arendt, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoken—and suffered—for nothing?

When Caesar encroaches, Christians go numb. Pastors stop forming principles in their people borne of Scripture. They leave it to other voices to shape their people. But the church today must rouse itself. Pastors today are tempted to think that they need not equip their people for public-square witness. That, they have been told, is the job of professional ethicists. They do not see that they have been appointed by God to stand on the front lines of theological and ethical formation. The view that others will take up the public cross we are called to carry is a fiction, a pleasing illusion. In reality, those who would stand for the good, true, and beautiful are vanishing like shadows passing on the mountains.

Let us make this as practical as we can.

  • If pastors will not speak for marriage, who will?
  • If pastors will not speak for the unborn baby, who will?
  • If pastors will not equip the congregation to reach the fatherless young men who tear up their communities out of anger, who will?
  • If pastors will not speak a word on behalf of religious liberty, but will allow it to be taken from them with nary a word, who will?
  • If pastors will not instruct the youth of the congregation in biblical sexual ethics, views directly opposed by the culture, who will?

Let us see a generation of pastors who does not go quietly into the night. Let us witness a generation of pastors proclaim the whole counsel of God from Scripture, forming their people both theologically and ethically as they do so. The pulpit is not political. But the pulpit must be convictional. We are not yet a people weakened by the state, crippled by Caesar, as pastors were in Germany and Russia and China in the twentieth-century. They lost their voice. They could not offer protest. They could not equip the church to be what it fundamentally is: a witness, a sign and symbol of the true culture, and the dwelling-place of God.

In a fallen world, the true culture must often be a counter-culture. It must make the case that a secular kingdom does not want it to make. It must, like Christ and the apostle Paul, offer protest against injustice (John 18:23; Acts 22). We must not muzzle ourselves, for the prophets and apostles did not do so. We must make our case and preach the gospel. As long as we have strength, we must speak and act as the true culture. By our word and congregational witness, we must be a counter-culture to bring life to a secular culture that is in many respects an anti-culture.

CONCLUSION

Filling this role will be a lonely task. It was for William Wilberforce. It was for John Venn. We laud Wilberforce today for his successful campaign, but he paid a mighty price for it. We note Venn’s name, but he is unknown today, forgotten despite his epoch-making influence.

But as we think about Venn, and about Newton, we are reminded that the cause of Christ is a humble one. It is not a call to glory. It is a call to self-sacrifice. It is a call to be a man of conscience, unafraid of what the world may do, unashamed of the gospel. It is a summons to equip the church to be salt and light, to love its neighbor, to collectively seek and pray for the advancement of the kingdom over every corner of the earth.

The pastor who preaches for the transformation of his people is equipping them for service in this life that will echo into eternity. As he forms the doctrine and ethics of his flock, he is pleasing the Lord. To return to our original query, he is passing the Wilberforce test, preaching such that his people can plunge into the darkness.

The question before us today is this: will we?

Editor’s note: This essay is an expansion of the author’s talk at T4G 2014: “The Pastor as Public Theologian in an Increasingly Hostile Culture.” In 2015, he has a book coming out on this topic with Kevin Vanhoozer entitled, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Brazos, 2015).

*****

[1] See Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway, 2003), 314-17; Eric Metaxas, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (HarperOne, 2007), 185.

[2] R. Albert Mohler Jr., He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 106.

[3] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H, 2012), xi.

[4] Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 107.

[5] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.6.1.

[6] William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), 209.

[7] See Jonathan Aitken, John Newton, 309-312.

[8] John Venn, “Godliness Profitable to All Things,” Sermons of the Rev. John Venn, M. A., Rector of Clapham, Three Volumes in Two, vol. II (Boston: R. P. & C. Williams, S. Etheridge, 1822), 22.

[9] John Venn, “On the Nature of True Religion,” Sermons, 247.

[10] “John Venn—The Forgotten Center of the Clapham Sect,” Kairos Journal, accessible at http://kairosjournal.org/document.aspx?DocumentID=5092&QuadrantID=2&CategoryID=10&TopicID=17&L=1.

[11] Venn also derived into more directly political matters at times. Wilberforce sometimes took Venn’s sermons home with him as a guide to thinking through governmental policy. See Michael Hennel, John Venn and the Clapham Sect (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 198.

[12] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Preferred Christianity (Cosimo, 2005), 205. Originally published as A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes, Contrasted with Real Christianity (1820).

[13] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 17–18.

Strong’s Theology (updated)

Strong's ConcordanceThe Strong’s concordance is a great tool, but one that is too often abused. The biblical lexicon’s numbering systems allows one to identify lexical forms (i.e. roots) of Hebrew and Greek words that are used in the source that is represented in a text of a translation. Originally, this was intended to be used by biblical language students to aid in decoding lexical forms that might be difficult to recognize in the biblical text. For example, in Hebrew it is very common for the first letter of a root to be dropped in the form used in the biblical text  For the beginning Hebrew student, finding words like these in a lexicon is nearly impossible because the entries are listed alphabetically. Before the development of computer bible software, a Strong’s concordance was one of the few ways possible for a biblical language student to identify the lexical form of words used in the biblical text.

 

The wrong tool for the job

Unfortunately, people sometimes believe that they can provide a better interpretation of  their English translation by looking up the Hebrew and Greek roots and then choosing a new meaning from the ones listed in the definition for that root even when it differs significantly from the one chosen by the translators of their bible. This is something this tool was NEVER designed to do and using the tool for this purpose is an endeavor that can lead to disastrous conclusions. Few realize is that the lexical form (found in a Strong’s lexicon) is seldom the form that is found in the text itself, and yet it is absolutely necessary to understand both the form in used in the text and the context in which it is before the meaning of a word itself can be understood. Too often people misuse a Strong’s concordance by simply looking through the list of definitions and then picking the one that “they like best”; frequently picking a definition is not even possible when the context and grammar are considered.

In Hebrew, for example, each root (lexical form) can be conjugated in seven different constructions i.e. passive, active, intensive, intensive/passive, causative, causative/passive, and reflexive. Looking at the root אכל (to eat) we find that these constructions would correspond to eat, be eaten, devour, be devoured, feed, be fed, digest. Understanding the particular construction used is required before deciding which meaning is intended. Full lexicons, like HALOT or BDB, will separate the meanings by the corresponding construction but there is not enough room in Strong’s to provide this information. Looking at the Strong’s entry below, one must realize that definitions given are examples from several different Hebrew constructions i.e. “eat” is the qal form אכל, “devour” is the piel form מאכל, and “feed” is the hiphal form מאכיל; simply choosing a definition without regard to the form used in the text and the context in which it is used is almost guaranteed to lead to error (sometimes serious error). For example, Strong’s concordance  provides the follow definition for the root אכל:

398 אכל a primitive root; to eat (literally or figuratively):– eat, burn up, consume, devour(-er, up), dine, eat(-er, up), feed (with), food.

To demonstrate how important these constructions might be in understanding a text, both of the following sentences below contain a words from the same roots i.e. Strong’s 935 (to come), 1004 (house), 398 (eat).

תבוא לביתי לאכול

תבוא לביתי להיאכל

One says, “You will come to my house to eat” and the other says, “you will come to my house to be eaten.” A Strong’s will not help one determine which form of Strong’s entry 398 was used. If you were given this invitation, don’t you think it would be important to know which form of the verb אכל was used?

 

Why does it matter?

There are many examples of popular fallacies that are passed along within evangelical circles that are the result of failing to understand the limits of word studies done with tools like Strong’s. For example, it is commonly taught that Proverbs 22:6 “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” intends to convey the idea that we are to train up a child “according to the way God created him i.e. according to his ‘bent’.” It is claimed that the real meaning of the word “way” (דרך) is “to bend” and verses like Psalms 11:2 “for behold, the wicked bend the bow” are used as proof of this original meaning. However there are several serious problems with this claim, let’s look at a few.

1) The root really does not mean “bent”; in this context it really carries a sense of aiming a bow. “Bending a bow” in preparation to aiming it is an English idiom that doesn’t work in Hebrew. This becomes readily apparent when we look at a verse like Psalms 58:7 “when he aims his arrows.” In this verse, the exact same verb is used to describe aiming (not bending) an arrow.

2) Idioms in one language frequently do not translate literally into another language.  For example, few English speakers would understand the Hebrew idiom of “doing something while standing on one leg” just like Hebrew readers would not understand a literal translation of the English idiom “according to his bent.” The English idiom that speaks of “one’s bent” does not translate directly into Hebrew.

3) Even if the etymology of this word had been “to bend” (which it is not), leaping to the conclusion that words that come from the same root must have the same meaning is also a mistake (especially when comparing verb forms with noun forms!). For example the noun “לחם” means “bread” but the verb “לחם” means “to fight.” While both come from the same root, it would be a huge mistake to assume that “giving bread to one who is in need” implied that you intended to fight with them.

While the taking into consideration the character and personality of your children as you seek to raise them is good, it simply is not an idea that is taught in this verse. It is a fallacy that is the result of using biblical study tools in ways that they were never intended to be used. And while no one will likely get hurt by misunderstanding this verse in this way, similar examples of bad teaching can be down right dangerous. For example, one very popular evangelical author teaches that Ge. 2:24 tells us that we must “abandon” our mother and father when we get married. He claims that, based on his word study, he has discovered that the word translated “leave” really should have been translated “abandoned.” How many family relationships may have been hurt by those seeking to be obedient to what they have been told was the intended meaning of this passage?

 

These are mistakes that CAN be avoided!

Fortunately this kind of mistake is easily avoided. In English we have an wealth of good English translations and by comparing a text in different English versions we can gain a deeper understanding about what the original Hebrew and Greek words really mean without needing to consult the Hebrew and Greek texts. Whenever we are told that a word study of the Greek or Hebrew has revealed a “new” meaning in the text, we should respond with a high degree of skepticism if that meaning is not easily recognizable in our English texts. If the claim comes from a competent Hebrew or Greek scholar then further research may be warranted but the opinions of other competent Hebrew or Greek scholars should be consulted before adopting this new meaning. However, if the claim comes from one with little or no training in the biblical languages then it should probably be dismissed. It is hard to imagine how someone with no training in the biblical languages could use a Strong’s concordance to discover a “new” meaning in the text that was missed by thousands of qualified scholars who have devoted their lives to studying God’s word in its original languages.