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.

An Very Unexpected Ally

SCOTUSTwo citizens of Greece, NY filed a lawsuit against the town in response to a prayer given by a clergy person invited during a city council meeting because the prayer specifically mentioned Jesus’ name. The plaintiffs argued that prayers were an establishment forbidden by the First Amendment because some of them were explicitly Christian. The defense has wisely argued that if the government were to censor the prayers of the clergy that it would truly be establishing a state religion. The fact that Muslim, Christians, and Jewish leaders are free to pray according to their own conscious demonstrates that the state is not establishing any religion. The case of “Town of Greece v. Galloway” is now headed to the Supreme Court and surprising almost everyone, the Obama administration as come along side of the defense in this case. While I don’t often find myself in agreement with the Obama Administration, this is one time I believe they are truly making the right choice and deserve our praise. More on this story can be found here, at (surprise) the Huffington Post of all places.

Seeing a woman: a call to godliness

male-female-equalityNate Pyle’s article “Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son”  offers a lot of good advice, and there is much to glean from what he has said, but I think that Nate’s response falls short of being truly biblical. Yes, as Nate reminds us, men are absolutely responsible for their own sins and cannot blame their sinful choices on the women around them no matter what women do or do not do, wear or do not wear, etc… Men blaming women for their sinful choices began in the garden of Eden (Ge. 3:12) and sadly continues to this very day. Nate, very appropriately, address this poor excuse for a man’s choice to sin. Yes, godly men need to see women as a whole person created and loved by God rather than objectifying them and Nate’s advice on maintaining eye contact is one good way for men to remember this. However, one of the lies being told to our culture today is that that the way a woman dresses should not be a temptation to sin and unfortunately the church today has too frequently bought into this lie. When women dress immodestly, it really can be a source of temptation for the men around her (something we all intuitively know) and sometimes the right answer for a man is not to stay in the presence of that temptation and maintain eye contact, the right answer is to flee (1 Co. 6:18, Pr. 5, etc…). We should not expect women, who have not made a commitment to follow Christ, to dress or act in ways that honor God. Godly men should be prepared to face temptation and know when to stand strong in its presence and when to flee. However, we really should expect women, who are followers of Christ, to dress and act in ways that brings honor to him (1 Ti.2:9-10) and the church has failed our women when we refuse to discuss this topic.

Additionally, Nate tells us that we should “Encourage [a woman’s] confidence.  But don’t do all this because she is weaker.  That’s the biggest bunch of crap out there.  Women are not weaker than men. They are not the weaker sex. They are the other sex” (emphasis his). While it is true that the idea that “women are the weaker sex” has far too often been overplayed, there is truth to this statement (1 Pe. 3:7) that we should not ignore. It is not “the biggest bunch of crap out there.” It is biblical! Being the weaker sex does not mean that women have any greater propensity to sin than do men nor does it mean they are inferior, these are lies that has been perpetuated far too often throughout history. It does mean that women are typically physically and emotionally weaker (a politically incorrect idea, I know) and men do have a responsibility to be protective of the women around them (both physically and emotionally) because that is the role God has given men. Unfortunately, our culture (even in the Church) has bought into the lie that equality and sameness are identical ideas, they are not. In striving for sameness, women have lost the place of dignity and honor they deserve and once had in generations past. While the feminist movement brought about many corrections that were desperately needed, it has also taken away many things away that women of our generation deserve and desperately need today. In the church, we need to remember to call our men to be godly men and our women to be godly women even when the call to godliness is counter to the culture around us; our standard is God’s word. Neither sex is responsible for the sins of the opposite sex but both sexes have a responsibility to love, honor, and build up the whole body of Christ.

Should We Expect Unbelievers to Act Like Christians?

This was a question that was debated in my own church before and after the 2008 elections. On the ballot that year were two significant initiatives i.e. Prop 4 which required parental consent for minors seeking an abortion and Prop 8 which was an amendment to the California constitution that defined marriage as union between one man and one woman. To the dismay of many, our church said very little about either of these propositions and did not take an official stand on either issue. The heart of the debate about how the church should respond to these initiatives was focused on questions about whether we should we expect unbelievers to act like Christians in regards to the moral issues addressed by these ballot initiatives. Russell D. Moore raises many of the same questions in his recent article that were raised in the discussions that ensued after the 2008 elections in my church. In seeking to answer these questions, he begins where I believe every Christian should begin i.e. by looking to the examples we have been given in Scripture.

 


Should We Expect Politicians to Act Like Christians?

Recently I was asked whether John the Baptist lost his head for expecting a lost politician to act like a Christian. John, you’ll remember, was executed for telling Herod that it was not lawful for the king to have his brother’s wife.

This is an important question, not simply for understanding the background of this particular text. Christians often shrug off questions of public ethics because we say, “Why should we expect lost people to act like Christians?” I once heard a prominent preacher say that it didn’t matter to him if his neighbors went to hell as prostitutes or as policemen; it only mattered that they were going to hell.

In one sense, this is a good impulse. After all, Jesus never acted shocked or appalled by the behavior of the lost people. Jesus spoke with gentleness to the lost sinners around him, but with severity at religious leaders, hiding their sin behind religiosity and using their positions to serve selfish interests.

And the apostle Paul wrote that he didn’t judge “outsiders” but instead that it is those “inside the church whom you are to judge” (1 Cor. 5:12). The gospel didn’t come to achieve a society of morally straight people unreconciled to Christ.

But, if all that’s true, why does John persist in calling out this obviously unregenerate political leader for his sexual behavior? John isn’t incidental to the biblical story. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets.

Obligation of a King

This wasn’t really a question of merely personal behavior by an outsider. Herod was clearly a pagan internally, but he held an office instituted by God, an office with obligations for obedience to God. The rulership over Israel, after all, wasn’t the equivalent of the queen of England or the president of the United States. Israel was a covenant nation of priests. The king was to be of the house of David, and he was to model the line of Christ.

In the same chapter of Deuteronomy that the apostle Paul quotes to speak of internal church discipline, the law lays out the qualifications for king. He shouldn’t use the office to serve his appetites for things or for sexual gratification (Deut. 17:17), but ought to meditate on the Word of God and act according to it “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).

Not Merely Private Morality

This was a question of public justice, not merely of private morality. Herod’s sin was multifaceted. Yes, it was a private act of sexual immorality, taking as his own a woman he shouldn’t have. But Herod was acting not just as a man but as a ruler.

Herod, of course, was a puppet king, acting as a client of the Roman Empire. He couldn’t have provided what he offered in his sexually ignited boast of giving Herodias’s daughter “up to half my kingdom” (Mk. 6:23). Herod didn’t have the same power as David, but it was the same principle at work. David’s taking of Bathsheba was more than just an immoral use of his private parts, but an immoral use of his public office.

We can all see what this means, even apart from divine revelation. One of the good things the feminist movement has brought to us is the way we deal publicly now with sexual harassment. An employer who pressures an employee for sexual favors isn’t just an immoral person; he is misusing power. When the CEO sleeps with an intern, his offense isn’t just against God and his wife, but is also an unjust abuse of power.

In line with all the prophets before him, John spoke out against the powerful misusing their privilege to exploit the vulnerable. Think of Daniel telling Belshazzar that the “writing is on the wall” for his prideful kingdom’s fall or Isaiah speaking truth to power to those who “rob the poor” and “make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:2). Think of, after John, Jesus’ brother James denouncing the landowners who exploit workers with unjust wages (Jas. 5:4-6).

Judging Outsiders

John risked his neck to speak on this question not just to Herod as king but also to Herod as a man. Paul doesn’t “judge” the pagan outsiders, that’s true. He means that there is no means of holding those outside the church to the accountability of church discipline. But the church can still discern between good and evil. Even as Paul calls out the sin of the church member in Corinth, he compares it to the moral climate of the “pagans” on the outside (1 Cor. 5:1).

Jesus deals gently with tax collectors and sinners. He doesn’t, as he does with the religious leaders, call them whitewashed tombs or turn over their market tables. But he doesn’t refuse to speak to their sin. When he meets the woman at the well, he isn’t shocked by her serial monogamy, but he doesn’t leave it unquestioned either. He asks her, “Where is your husband?”

Those outside the church aren’t our battlefield but our mission-field, that’s true. We shouldn’t rail against them as though they are somehow different than we are, apart from God’s mercy in Christ. But the gospel is to be pressed on all creatures, on every human conscience. And the gospel is a call not only to faith but also to repentance. God now “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” (Acts 17:31), Paul preached at Mars Hill.

We then speak to lost people not only of the historical truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and not only of his grace and mercy in receiving sinners. We also call them to turn from sin, and to agree with God that such sin is worthy of condemnation. Without this, there is no salvation. We speak then, as the apostle did to a pagan ruler, about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25).

Still Accountable

Our lost neighbors might be “pagan” in the sense that they are not part of the community of God, but they are still accountable before God. Their consciences are embedded with a law. John wasn’t the first to say to Herod that he couldn’t have his brother’s wife; this was hardly new information. Herod’s conscience already told him that much, and pointed him to his accountability on the day of judgment. John’s rebuke was an essential part of gospel preaching.

Christians often ping back and forth between extremes. The church of the last generation was often more concerned with a moral majority than with a gospel priority. In our attempt not to fall into that error, we could fall into an opposite, and just as dangerous, ditch. We could assume that all moral norms speak merely internally to the church, and we could fail to speak to unbelievers about such things. Such would be a refusal to love our neighbors, to warn them of what we will face at the judgment seat. But it would also be a refusal to preach the gospel. Without defining sin and justice, we cannot offer mercy. Guilty consciences don’t initially like those words. None of us did, at first. But that’s the mission we’ve been given. Some of us may wind up with our heads on silver platters. Jesus knows how to put heads back on.


Article by Russell D. Moore. He is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Originally posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog

 

American arrested for preaching homosexuality is sin

“I was asked if I believe homosexuality is a sin. I was asked what portion of the Bible I was reading. I was asked that if a homosexual was hungry and walked up to me, would I give them something to eat.”

arrestedTony Miano, a retired deputy sheriff from Los Angeles County, Calif., was arrested in London, England, earlier this week for preaching on abstaining from sexual immorality, both heterosexual and homosexual, in downtown Wimbledon. He was found to be in violation of Public Order Act Section 5, for “using homophobic speech that could cause people anxiety, distress, alarm or insult,” Miano said in a YouTube video posted on Wednesday.

Preaching from 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Miano spoke about sexual sins for 25 minutes before being cut off by Metropolitan Police officers who said that although preaching in itself is not an offense, the specific part of the Bible he was preaching from was interpreted as homophobic by the woman who called to complain.

Miano told police officers that he doesn’t hate homosexuals, and then reiterated that he was preaching about all forms of sexual immorality – lust, fornication and addiction to pornography. He said that he “loves homosexuals enough to bring them the truth of the Gospel.”

Read the rest of the article here

A full transcript of the police interview can be found here

 

You can’t legislate morality!

legislation2As our country wrestles with moral questions on topics like abortion, gay marriage, etc.., some Christian leaders are telling us, with increasing frequency, that the discussions about public policy have no place in the church. They tell us that the battle for peoples hearts will not be won through the legislative process and that by taking a stand on “political” issues we are alienating those who most desperately need to hear the Gospel message. Often they tell us that there are many interpretations of Scripture and we cannot expect others to accept our interpretation. The Christian leaders who tell us these things do raise some valid concerns but their response to these concerns has been largely misguided. Let’s take a look at the issues they have raised and see why the answers provided by some Christian leaders are inadequate.

 

You can’t legislate morality!

This is probably the most deceptive of all the arguments made because virtually all legislation is rooted in morality. We have laws against murder because we believe it is morally wrong to commit murder, we have laws against theft because we believe it is morally wrong to steal, we have laws against slavery because we believe it is morally wrong to own slaves, etc… The issue has never been about whether we should “legislate morality,” the issue has always been about deciding which standards of morality should form the foundations of the laws we enact. Christians have a lot to offer our country in relation to this topic and it would be a tragic mistake to chose not to participate in this important national debate.

 

You can’t change a person’s heart through legislation!

No arguments here! This is a point on which we should all agree. Scripture is clear that salvation cannot come through the Law. It is only through the unmerited grace of God that we can come into a relationship with our Lord and Savior and it is through that relationship that we are saved. However, that does not mean that there is no purpose for having laws, it only means that the purpose for having laws is not to change a person’s heart. Paul tells us in Romans 7 that the ultimate purpose of the Law was to reveal sin. Sin always produces broken relationships and it God’s laws that provide the boundaries that protect those relationships. In other words, it is the Law that provides the framework for order, civility, and love in our society. We should remember that God, who created us, understands better than we what boundaries should protect our relationships and our society functions best when we choose to be guided by the laws given to us by our creator. Additionally, when laws are founded on God’s law, they provide opportunities for sinful people to see their own depravity in ways that they may not have otherwise had and those who see their own depravity can more easily recognize their need for a Savior.

 

Everyone has their own interpretation of Scripture!

God’s law is the standard by which we measure good and evil and it is the light that reveals sin in the darkest places of a man’s heart. One of the best ways to obscure that light is to suggest that Scripture is unintelligible. If understanding Scripture is only guess work then no one can be sure what boundaries exist or when those boundaries have been crossed. While it is true that there are places in Scripture where two people honestly seeking answers will arrive at very different conclusions, there are also many places where an honest investigation of Scripture reveals the same answers to everyone. While we recognize that many people today have their own opinions about how Scripture should be interpreted, it is equally important to recognize that simply having an opinion about what Scripture means does not automatically mean that there is merit to that opinion. An interpretation of Scripture is not valid just because someone believes it, it is valid when there is historical and linguistic evidence to support it. In many ways, the study of Scripture is similar to study of science; while there may be competing theories that seek to explain the world around us, not every competing theory is equally valid and in many cases, there really is only one theory that can adequately explain all of the evidence we see. Sometimes there is room for honest disagreement but at other times disagreement is only demonstration of either ignorance or willful deception and we have made a tragic mistake when we fail to recognize this.

 

Concluding thoughts

We need to be grace filled when we enter into public debates regarding the laws that govern our land but we also need to be willing to declare the truth found in God’s word. We must remember that God desperately loves even those who oppose him most vigorously and he has called us to demonstrate that love to those who hate him but we also must remember that it is not loving to hide the truth from those who most need to hear it. We should do all that we can to avoid causing offense but we need to recognize that some will take offense simply because we have lovingly spoken about God’s love for them and his plan for their lives. Christ himself, who modeled a perfect picture of love, grace, and truth was hated by those who had rejected his message, why should we expect a different outcome?

 

Kevin DeYoung, Collin Hansen, Trevin Wax discuss this topic in this short video.

Should Christians Try to Legislate Their Morality? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.