Criticizing the Church

Christians have received their fair share of criticism throughout the history of the church. Some of that criticism has been well deserved and much needed. That’s true whether it’s come from outside the church or, prophetically from within. Reproof and correction is two-thirds of the word of God if you consider 2 Timothy 3:16’s formulation that Scripture is for teaching, reproof, and correction. All three are needed if we are to receive the “training in righteousness” of which the same verse speaks. As Proverbs 6:23 says: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV) Christians should not only expect reproof and

The Prophet Jeremiah

correction, we should desire and love it. The truly wise certainly will.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. ~ Proverbs 12:1

Not all criticism is equal though. Constructive criticism is good; but not all criticism is constructive. Some criticism of the church is indeed godly and prophetic. The reproof from Jesus himself in Revelation chapter 2 and 3 come to mind. Other criticism aimed at the church in general or at individual Christians in particular, however, is not intended to bring life, and it is not of God. The devil, which literally means “the one who slanders,” specializes in criticism himself. Another name for the evil one from the Hebrew is Satan. Satan means the adversary or “the accuser.” The criticism of the devil is anything, but constructive. To slander is to direct false and damaging accusations against someone. It is to bear false witness. Of this the evil one is the master and that in more ways than one.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. ~ Revelation 12:9-11

Satan uses criticism to stir up hostility against Christians and to pressure the church to conform to the ways of the world. Much of the positive change that has taken place in the history of the church has been in response to godly prophetic criticism. We would call this transformation more into the image of God by the renewal of the mind. Not all change, however, is for the better. A lot of change in the church has been in response to slander. The result has been conformity with the fallen world, which is still under the sway of the devil. If we change too hastily in response to criticism we just might find ourselves dancing with the devil rather than walking with the Lord. Some of the bad criticism has come from people outside the church; lately much of it has come from within. Interestingly, Robert Louis Wilken, in his book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, notes how Enlightenment arguments against orthodoxy, much of which comes from “critics” within the church, in many ways mirrors—sometimes uncannily—the arguments of pagans against the church in the ancient Roman Empire.

Wisdom is knowing the difference between genuinely prophetic godly criticism in which there is life, the life of God, and criticism that is ultimately destructive and leads to death. One will lead us on a hard, narrow path to life; the other on a wide, easy path that leads to destruction. May God give us discernment to know the difference and courage to take the right path.


On A Change of Mind Indeed

In a recent address the current president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough, implored his colleagues to be open to having Christ change their minds. Some major metanoia (Koine Greek for repent which more literally means “a change of mind”) is certainly in order. Unfortunately, Bishop Ough’s idea of a change of mind seems to only go in one direction as his use of the common progressive buzz words would indicate. According to Bishop Ough, if we would only be open to Christ changing our minds we will find ourselves “freed to replicate Jesus’ pattern of expanding the boundaries of whom God loves and includes in the Kingdom.” It’s no mystery that he thinks that of necessity would involve the Church accepting and even celebrating everyone under the rainbow, so to speak, including the behavioral expression of what he sees as God-given sexual orientations and gender identities.


The truth is the true Church already welcomes and includes everyone from any background and has since Jesus gave the great commission, although the Spirit, as Bishop Ough alludes to in his reference to the Book of Acts, had to guide the church into the full meaning and implications of the mission to the Gentiles. As the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 indicates, the blessing of God’s election of Israel was always meant to include the Gentiles, that is all the peoples of every nation on earth. By its very nature the Church commissioned by Christ Jesus and set apart by the Spirit of God is inclusive of all people of every nation and background, including those whose sexual desires have been corrupted by sin (i.e. all of us).

This certainly does not mean, however, that every set of sexual desires, proclivities, and practices will be included, commended, or recommended in the church. The genuine inclusive nature of the church is summed up well by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. ~ 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV

Because of God’s great love for the world and everyone in it, we are all invited to come as we are, but not to stay as we came!

Now I know some are going to continue to argue that sexual immorality here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, does not really condemn all sexual activity outside of natural marriage traditionally understood as a covenant union of one man and one woman. And I know some are going to argue that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, never really condemned committed same-sex unions (although it is becoming impossible to believe that sex confined to monogamous marital unions is a satisfactory norm for progressives as I and others have demonstrated before–see here and here). The official position of the so-called “centrist” (“contextualist”? see Dr. Chris Ritter’s assessment of the re-branding here) movement, the Uniting Methodists, is: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.”

Some sincerely believe this, I’m sure. But undoubtedly there are others who know this is not true, but will go along with it because it is obviously more marketable than just admitting that they are in fact rejecting the authority of Scripture. One of their leaders, Adam Hamilton, certainly one of the most influential United Methodist pastors in America, is clearly on record saying that he does not believe that all Scripture is inspired by God. He also diminishes the special inspiration of the Bible in general when he says the Bible is inspired “in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age” (Making Sense of the Bible, 294 as quoted by David Watson in Scripture and the Life of God). It is just not credible that the progressive “centrists/contextualists” have the same view of the authority of Scripture. How far we have fallen from John Wesley’s view of Scripture!

In his introduction to his notes on the New Testament Wesley said:

The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

As always the question is not whether someone says they too believe in the authority of Scripture, the question is, what exactly do they mean by the authority of Scripture? I don’t think traditionalists and progressive/centrists mean the same thing at all.

Nevertheless, some are still going to make the more marketable argument that they really do still have a high view of Scripture but simply believe the church has historically misinterpreted the Bible to condemn all forms of homosexual relationships. They will insist the Bible says nothing in condemnation of committed same-sex relationships. Some, I do not doubt, are genuinely sincere in this belief, although I sincerely believe they are sorely deceived. As Dr. Tim Tennent says in his assessment of this claim, “the exegetical case for this is not defensible.” (see full article here)

Although I know some sincerely believe the revisionist arguments, it’s not a given that everyone making these arguments is sincere.

In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams relays the following regarding the revisionist arguments of the now deceased Yale professor, John Boswell:

Commenting on Boswell’s book, Homosexuality, Intolerance and Christianity, gay author John Lauritsen writes: It is not surprising that Professor Boswell has been enthusiastically hailed by the gay Christians, to whom he appears as a new Savior who will rescue them not only from queer-hating religionists, but from gay liberation secularists as well, by demonstrating historically that it’s all right to be a gay Christian. . . . I cannot remember reading a more frustrating book. Undeniably, it is a formidable work of scholarship. . . . On the other hand, Boswell’s arguments, his use of evidence, are fatally flawed by his doomed attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. . . . It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but willful dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned. . . . We should invite John Boswell to join gay liberation wholeheartedly; he has skills and knowledge that we need. To join us, Boswell must first extricate himself from the impossible position he’s in: attempting to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. It would be an act of maturity for Boswell to graduate from Christianity to secular humanism….. (Unchanging Witness, location 7734-7745 Kindle edition).

Revisionist arguments that find support for homosexual relationships in the Bible have repeatedly proven to be untenable. Despite the vitriolic epithet given to traditionalist Christians above by John Lauritsen, we are not driven by hatred of anyone. Rather we are driven by a love for the God who washed us, sanctified us, and justified us, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God and a desire to live faithfully with integrity according to God’s word.

I agree with Bishop Ough that we do indeed need to be open to change. But the change I envision goes in a different direction. As I’ve said before, the way forward is the way backward—the old fashioned way of repentance! United Methodists do indeed stand at a crossroads.

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls….” Jeremiah 6:16

Will United Methodists respond as the majority in Israel did at the time as the rest of Jeremiah 6:16 reveals? “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”

The way forward is the way back! For those with ears to hear, you “shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’ …. (Isaiah 30:21).

Celebrating in Heaven With Billy Graham: Thank You Jesus!

Over the past week, I’ve had the honor of presiding over the funerals of two precious saints of the Lord. One, Mrs. Pattie Mae Swisher, was 94. She served as a Sunday School teacher for young children for 50 years, among other invaluable service rendered in the church. What a testimony to faithfulness! The other beloved saint, Doris Kurfees was 87. Doris was a woman with a servant’s heart and a mind renewed by word of God, which dwelled in her richly even though dementia inhibited her expression of it over the past couple of years. Doris served well, adding a touch of beauty as much as she could to everything she did to bless her family, the church, and the community. Both Pattie and Doris were sweet spirits who were much beloved because they both loved much.

I’ve just been thinking about what it must be like for both of them as they entered into the joy of the Lord in Heaven at about the same time as Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. He went home to be with the Lord February 21st, just a few days after Pattie and only two days before Doris. Would the celebration of their entrance into the heavenly kingdom of God pale in comparison to Rev. Graham?

I saw a cartoon of Billy Graham standing at the pearly gates with millions waiting to say billy graham goes to heaventhank you. But from what I know of Rev. Graham he would point them all back to the cross and say that they all, including him, should only give thanks to Jesus. Indeed, Brother Billy said himself,

I won’t be in heaven because I’ve preached to large crowds or because I’ve tried to live a good life. I’ll be in heaven for one reason: Many years ago I put my faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to make our forgiveness possible and rose again from the dead to give us eternal life. ~ Billy Graham 

thankyoujesussign In light of Jesus’ parables on the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), I know there is an abundance of joy in heaven over each sinner who repents. I think there will also be plenty of celebration over each saint who is welcomed into God’s heavenly kingdom after death. And considering what the Apostle Paul said about the seemingly weaker members of the body of Christ being indispensable and worthy of more honor ( 1 Cor 12:21-26), I think there will be also be plenty of honor for the countless number of saints, who weren’t known much at all outside of their own communities.

Whoever enters into the joy of the Lord and that eternal rest from the trials and tribulations of this fallen world can only thank God for what he has done for us through Christ and what he has done in us and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thank God for all the saints in glory—like Pattie, Doris, and Billy Graham—whose gifts, whatever they may have been, were used to build up the body of Christ in love here on earth! To God be the glory!

Something Should be Done! But What?

Something should be done! When it comes to the epidemic of mass murder, I don’t think there is anyone who disagrees with that. When it comes to exactly what should be done, of course, that’s a different story.

Many, including me, are quick to offer prayer and call others to it. Others are just as quick to dismiss it as a nuisance and distraction from the “real” solutions. Many, on both sides of the gun control debate seem certain what solutions are needed and/or which are not. But maybe the fact that prayer is so easily dismissed or even engaged in so lightly is part of the problem. I’m not saying it is the only thing we should do, but it certainly should not be dismissed or even offered lightly as just a polite courtesy for that matter. I think we sometimes offer prayers, but fail to really pray. Saying prayers and actually praying may be two different things. We should pray with expectancy and faith that God will really move in powerful ways to change hearts, minds, and legislation where necessary. Neither should we assume that we already know exactly what needs to be done. We should pray seeking divine wisdom and the faith to obey. We pontificate too much and pray too little. God, help us!

Something needs to be done! But what? As with any major problem, this is multifaceted. I don’t think the best solutions will be reached through the blame game played in the arena of partisan politics. The political parties hell bent on gaining or maintaining power by making their political opponents look bad may not be the best source for real solutions apart from ulterior motives. I don’t think we can name call our way to the best solutions either.

What exactly is it that we want to stop? That may sound like a stupid question, but if we really want to find solutions, I think we should be asking at least as many questions with the desire for real answers as we spout off pat answers and offer simple analogies to make those we disagree with look stupid or worse.

What do we want to put a stop to? We need to be specific. Do we want to reduce the overall number of murders each year? Or do we just want to focus on preventing mass shootings? What’s the difference?

Well, according to the CDC there are a little more than 11,000 homicides by firearms committed each year. According to one database, Statista, the vast majority were committed with handguns. There is a very significant category, however, where the type of firearm was not stated. Where identified, rifles, presumably of all varieties, only accounted for 374 homicides in 2016—knives and other cutting instruments were used in more than 1600 homicides. Although it would be good to know more about that unidentified firearm category, which accounts for a little more than 3,000 homicides, if the aim is to reduce overall homicides by firearms through gun control measures, then the handgun should clearly garner most of the attention. Barring a repeal or amendment of the 2nd Amendment, however, a handgun ban is not viable—not that I think we should repeal the 2nd amendment.

If, on the other hand, we want to prevent mass shootings at schools, then the focus could be on semi-automatic rifles, but then again, handguns are still more commonly used. Apart from a total gun ban, what more could be done to keep the guns out of the hands of those likely to commit mass murder? And would a gun ban actually keep these things from happening? Making it harder to get a semi-automatic rifle would not eliminate mass-shootings, although it might reduce the number of deaths during each incident. If handguns are still easily accessible, then what would prevent someone, or multiple shooters as in the case of Columbine, from bursting into a school with multiple handguns still capable of murdering multiple people rapidly?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I don’t know the answers for sure, but I don’t think simply focusing on gun control measures as the simple solution is the answer, even without considering the need to amend or repeal the 2nd amendment.

It may very well be time to invest in increased security measures at our public schools. Too many schools are just too vulnerable in our increasingly volatile society. How can we increase security to protect our children in our schools?

Legislative measures and security logistics, while important is still not enough. How do we address our culture’s and popular entertainment’s glorification of gratuitous violence. There’s something in us that seems to enjoy gratuitous violence for entertainment—I think of the popularity of movies like Saw, for example. Without violating the First Amendment, what do we do? Can we not think of anything other than adding more laws to the books anyway?

What about bolstering and equipping children’s very first institution of nurture, education, discipline, and authority: the family? Can we really address these issues without making moral judgments about right and wrong, and teaching about good and evil in the family? Parent’s need to be parents and not just the ones with the troubled kids who might be likely to commit murder, but also those with kids who might be likely to bully and gossip at the expense of other kids, which stokes the already burning fires of resentment and anger in those who have been alienated at home and among their peers.

There is talk about mental health, but what if we no longer know how to differentiate between mental problems and moral problems as a society. Psychiatrist Scott Peck, long lamented the lack of the recognition of evil as a clinical category. Being better equipped to provide mental health to troubled teens is important, but still insufficient, I suspect. I’ve heard some say law enforcement needs the ability to apprehend kids who make the kind of threats that the shooter in Florida apparently made; but how long could they be retained against their will for making threats; and how effective would mental health treatment be if you are dealing with a true sociopath?

What can really be done right now? Is there anything that most people can agree on? I don’t think the majority would agree with a gun ban. Would a majority even agree with additional “common-sense gun laws”? Perhaps, but I don’t know.

If we want to prevent mass shootings at our schools, what can the majority agree on now? Increased security at our schools? I don’t know.

The fires of resentment and contempt are burning pretty hot in our country right now. That is a danger in and of itself. What can we do to cut off the fuel supply?

Maybe less blame-throwing and more cool-headed cooperation on the things most actually agree on. Is there anything left that the majority of us actually agree on?

God, help us!

Moreover, I don’t think we can continue to ignore the larger philosophical and theological issues that may contribute to the multifarious epidemics we seem to have all at the same time. As I’ve said before, America seems to be firmly in the grip of each of the seven deadly sins. Hedonism seems to be the reigning value. Should we be surprised that we are reaping the effects of the nihilism that comes with it? (See my article on a conversation with a teenager who talked about what he would do if he were to shoot up a school and the topic of hell)

We may need prayer, real, fervent, godly prayer, more than anything!

God help us! Deliver us from evil! Show us the hard path to life. Amen.

Becoming More Childlike During Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Of course I’m not talking about the fuzzy stuff that builds up in your dryer vent. Lent is that period of humble preparation leading us into the celebration of the Easter, and the new life we have through the resurrection of Christ. Lent is a period of 40 days traditionally marked by fasting. Sundays, however, are not counted as part of the Lenten days of fasting; Sundays are always feast days, and, being the Lord’s Day, are always commemorative of the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the New Creation in Him. Every other day during the season of Lent is a day of fasting and self-denial.

Lent is a special time to be reminded that though we may be tempted to think of ourselves as stars who don’t really need God, in truth we are but dust, the residue of the cosmos and the stars within it. Lent is that special time of year to be reminded that we need to humble ourselves in dust and ashes in the face of the temptation to exalt ourselves above the stars like the prideful king mentioned by the prophet Isaiah.

 How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low!
 You said in your heart,
   “I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
    I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
    in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to Sheol,
    to the far reaches of the pit.  

Isaiah 14:12-15 ESV

The language of this taunt directed toward the human king of Babylon may faintly echo a more ancient fall—that of Satan himself. As Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b). The latter, Jesus himself provides the greatest example for us (Philippians 2:1-11).

Exaltation of self also seems to always involve a demotion of God—if only in the minds of those exalting themselves. In some way God becomes less than the revelation of God we find in the Bible. It seems the more significant we become in our own eyes, the less significant and personal God becomes in our minds.

I’ve seen a meme floated around social media to mock theists—those, like me, who believe in an intelligent and personal Creator who cares intimately for creation, especially humans whom he created in His image. The graphic was of a model of the entire universe with a message of incredulity to the effect that theists are silly to believe that a being would have created all of this just to have a personal relationship with them. What may be surprising is that not only atheists have circulated this mean to mock Christians. Even other Christians, who consider themselves non-theistic, have circulated it too. universe modelAs I mentioned in a couple of articles around Christmas, not everyone who considers themselves to be Christian believes in a personal God—some are pantheists or even self-declared atheists of some sort.

Now the meme is a caricature of the historic Christian faith. Some immature Christians may hold the view that the entirety of the cosmos revolves around them, but there is plenty in the cannon of Scripture, like the book of Job, to show us otherwise. Yet though the God revealed in the Bible is a transcendent, He is also a personal God, who created the universe and reigns sovereign over it. And He does seek a special covenant love relationship with us.

Ironically, Albert Einstein described belief in a personal god like this as “childlike,” preferring instead an impersonal pantheistic view of God—that the universe itself may be divine in some way. Jesus, did, say, nonetheless, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). He would go on to connect this with humility. Faith in the all powerful yet personal God revealed in Jesus Christ and the Bible requires humility.

I have counseled with life-long church members who have shared their struggles in believing in the miracles mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, for example. They have said they just can’t believe in this virgin birth thing or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I ask if they believe that God created the universe? At first they usually say yes, but when I probe a little deeper something else becomes evident. I ask, “So you believe that God could create everything that exists out of nothing through the spoken Word, but you can’t believe that God could handle a virgin conception and raising His only begotten Son bodily from the dead?” The truth is when people struggle to believe those things, they also lack faith in a God who is an intelligent and personal Creator. It would be like saying I believe someone could build the Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium, but couldn’t handle making a mousetrap!

Faith in the God revealed in Jesus and in the Scriptures requires humility. If God is powerful enough to create the entire universe, surely He could also handle having a personal relationship with any human being he wants. I’m sure He could even handle becoming human Himself in the person of Jesus, our Lord.

Interestingly, it seems the more we exalt ourselves, we also, paradoxically, think less of ourselves. That is, the more we think about fulfilling our own desires and that we are, as expressed in the Poem Invictus, the master of our fates, and the captain of our souls, the less we think of humanity as a whole. Rather than special creatures, each created in the image of God, regardless of ability, we think of human worth in terms of usefulness because of ability. This doesn’t usually bode well for those on either extreme end of the age continuum, or the disabled, or those we might perceive to be inferior because of ethnicity, race, or some other reason.

The image of God in humanity is stamped on the entirety of our being, collectively and individually. It is not limited to any particular trait or function. God designed each of us with the capacity to reflect His character into creation and to be in a holy relationship with Him and each other, first to be loved and then to love. We are always loved before we really begin to love God and others. “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Sin has inhibited and distorted our original God-given capacity as image-bearers. That capacity is inhibited and distorted in different ways and to different degrees in all of us. A person’s individual worth is not determined by his or her ability to express that capacity in this fallen world where sin still remains in all and reigns in most. Rather our worth and dignity is inherent in God’s original design for each of us in the garden of Eden and his purpose (telos) for us in the New Creation, where sin will no longer inhibit our capacity, spiritually or physically, to express and fully reflect God’s holy love and righteousness into the world. Ironically perhaps, it also takes humility to recognize our true worth and the priceless worth of each of our neighbors created in the image of God.

Faith requires humility; humility receives love as the love of God is “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). And those who recognize they have been so loved, love as they have been loved.

The crisis in the church today in the Western world is really a crisis of faith. Unbelief is at the root of all that ails us. Faith requires that we become more childlike; faith requires humility.

Father, for the sake of your Son Jesus, by the power of your Holy Spirit, make us more childlike during this season of Lent. Amen.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: A Doctorate?!!!

About 17 1/2 years ago, I started a graduate program at East Carolina University to pursue a master’s degree in general psychology with a concentration in industrial/organizational psychology. Less than a couple of weeks in my wife, Christi, informed me that we were expecting our first child. When it comes to having kids Christi and I are good at planning but not so much with timing.

My intention was to move from full-time to part-time employment to focus more on my studies. With the news that we were expecting our first child, I knew I would need to remain in my full-time position at work in order to have affordable insurance coverage for our family. The graduate program I got into did not allow for the option of taking classes on a part-time basis. So I decided I would both work and go to school full-time, not knowing if I would be able to handle it or not.

Just a couple weeks before finals that following spring semester, we delivered a happy and healthy baby girl. As a matter of fact Christi’s water broke while we were at a classmate’s apartment where he and I were trying to complete one of our assignments – probably one of Dr. Karl Wuensch’s notoriously difficult statistics and research design assignments. I completed everything on time that semester, and went on to complete the entire program on time too.

Cliff and Grace

About six years and two more kids later we moved into the parsonage at Banks United Methodist Church in Wilton, NC; that fall I started a Master’s of Divinity program at Duke Divinity School. As a student pastor, I completed the program in four years, rather than the typical three, in 2012. Since then, Christi and I have brought two more children into the world, and last fall discovered that we are expecting our sixth early summer this year. So what do you do when you’re expecting your sixth child? You start a doctor of ministry program of course!

Several months ago, I commented on a Facebook post by Rev. Dr David Watson, Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary (UTS) in Dayton, Ohio. Dean Watson posted that he and Dr. Justus Hunter, professor of Church history, were starting a DMin focus group called, “Living the Historic Faith: Christian Wisdom for Today’s Church.” I commented just to say that it sounded like an awesome focus group – very much needed – and that I would be interested in that myself if I didn’t have such a large family. Dean Watson replied that they would really like to have me and he wished I could find a way to join them. I don’t even think I replied back, but I definitely said to myself, there is no way I could do it.

United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, founded by Bishop Milton Wright, father of the famed Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, in 1871. Bishop Wright was a minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.

Christi, my wife, caught wind of it and said I should at least think about it and see what might be available in terms of scholarships and financial aid. A couple weeks went by and, especially, after her comment, I did indeed think about it. I also started praying about it. Then I decided to shoot Dean Watson an email to see what might be available.

With the scholarship and other financial aid available, Christi and I believed it would be feasible for us, although our remaining expenses will still be quite significant. Nonetheless, I have sensed the Holy Spirit’s involvement in drawing me to this opportunity for such a time as this. Ironically, while I was preaching a revival for a friend and fellow pastor, I said, “No way! Absolutely not!” when he asked if I would ever pursue a doctorate degree. Well …

I just got home from my first week of intensive classes in Dayton. It was a great week, and I know, in spite of the work load, I’m really going to enjoy this DMin program. I’m incredibly excited to work with our mentors David Watson and Justus Hunter. By all indications, UTS seems to be a vibrant seminary. The leadership and staff obviously enthusiastically believe in the mission and value of UTS. They are graciously welcoming and eager to help students succeed academically, professionally, and personally. The UTS DMin program is designed with maximum support, guidance, and instruction for each student in mind. UTS is also welcoming of people from mainline, evangelical, and charismatic traditions. There is also a strong black church presence at United- the DMin program was started by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor, an African-American Baptist church and civil rights leader. At UTS you will find people from a wide variety of Christian traditions: Methodist, Baptist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, and many others. One African-American pastor I met at the intensives this week is a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor from Alabama. UTS has a wide offering and excellent training for people from a variety of backgrounds, whether your interest is church administration, discipleship in the historic faith today, prophetic preaching or supernatural ministry and more.

Well, here we go again. I’m thankful for the opportunity and God’s provision. Pray for me and my family as I embark on another exciting educational journey. I pray that this journey bears much fruit for the kingdom of God as we seek to be equipped to help the people of God rediscover the historic faith and find the wisdom to live it fervently in the power of the Spirit again today.

If you’re thinking about a doctoral program, consider United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. The great folks at UTS will do all they can to help you and to see how they can make it feasible for you. If you’ve been looking for ways contribute to the work of the kingdom financially, consider giving to help provide scholarships for seminary students. Pray and consider supporting UTS. Students like me greatly benefit from the generosity of people like you.

Again, I’m grateful for the opportunity to expand my capacity to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God and to make disciple-making disciples of Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!

Who is this Jesus?

In Mark 4:35-41 we find this story of Jesus being awakened by his terrified disciples while he is asleep on a boat in the midst of a life-threatening storm. After he is awakened Jesus “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (v. 39). Afterwards Jesus chastises his disciples for their lack of faith, and leaves them wondering among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41)

As Richard Hays so astutely observes in his book, “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” (2016, pp. 66-69), one immersed in the Scriptures of Israel would readily pick up on the clues embedded in Mark’s story, that is the echoes of specific passages in the Old Testament (see Ps 107:23-32; Job 38:8-11; Ps 89:9; Ps 106:8-12; Is 51:9-11; Ps 44:23). These echoes are especially resonant when you look to the Greek translation of the Old

“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt – 1632

Testament (the Septuagint) which is what the New Testament writers quote much of the time. These same echoes are present in Matthew’s account too, but there he leaves us with the question, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? (Matt 8:27).

The answer from Israel’s sacred Scriptures indicates that it was the Lord (Yahweh) God himself who commanded the wind and the sea (see also the story of Jonah). So this man Jesus wasn’t just another ordinary man! He was indeed a man, as the New Testament makes clear in many ways (i.e. he ate, slept, prayed, learned, laughed, loved, cried, suffered, and even died). Yet he was more than just a man. Mark and Matthew both indicate that Jesus controlled the forces of nature just as God is described as controlling the forces of nature. Hence, Jesus doesn’t here pray to God the Father to rebuke the winds and the sea, he rebukes them himself as Yahweh (the Lord) is described rebuking the Red Sea for the sake of the terrified Israelites in the exodus (Ps 106:8-12).

This question of Jesus full identity posed by his disciples in Mark 4 follows a similar question posed by some of the scribes in Mark 2. There, after Jesus declares to a paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, some of the scribes saw this as blasphemy as they rightly asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Jesus, discerning their thoughts, insisted that as “the Son of Man” he shared God’s authority to forgive sins (v. 10).  So by the time we reach Mark chapter 4 – the gospel supposedly with the “lowest” Christology – we know that Jesus possesses God’s authority to forgive sins and to control the forces of nature.

Most of the debate regarding Jesus’ identity often centers around several proof-texts, much of the time without regard to the wider context. There are a few places in the Bible where Jesus is specifically referred to as God. Because they are few, those who are opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity often discount them because they are few in number. This is fallacious thinking. Just because something is only mentioned explicitly a few times in the Bible does not diminish its significance. Sometimes those opposed to the teaching of Jesus’ divinity also attempt to downplay the significance of Jesus being referred to as the Son of God. Some will say, for instance, that all believers are referred to as God’s children, as are angels and that doesn’t make all believers and every angel God. But this line of reasoning neglects to do justice to the fact that Jesus is described as the Son of God in a singularly unique sense. John 3:16 of course calls him the “only begotten Son” (KJV). And Hebrews 1 clearly distinguishes him from angels who are said to worship him (v. 6). Matthew 11:27 testifies to the unique relationship between Jesus the Son and the Father, as does Luke 10:22.

 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Luke 10:22

John’s gospel reveals this unique relationship much more explicitly throughout culminating in Thomas’ confession of Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). At any rate, limiting the “proof” for Jesus’ divinity to specific verses where he is referred to as God is misleading. It is prudent to consider all that Jesus shares with God the Father.

Jesus shares so much more than the authority to forgive sins and authority over natural forces. He also shares divine titles including but not limited to God and Lord, as we have already seen. The most common title that Jesus shares with Yahweh of Israel’s Scriptures is “Lord” (Greek – kurios). Kurios is the Greek translation of Yahweh, the name of the God of Israel, in the Septuagint. Some argue that this is just a title of respect offered to Jesus because of his role as the messiah-king. Kurios is used for human authority figures like Abraham and David as well. But, as with any word, context determines the meaning of any given use.

When Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord as cited above, he obviously paired that title with the title of God (Greek – theos) applying both to Jesus. Some still might argue that he applied those to Jesus in a lesser sense, although what is said of Jesus in John 1 and elsewhere in John (see 8:58; 10:30 and the context of each) would work against that line of reasoning. Nevertheless, Hebrews 1 also applies both the title God and Lord to Jesus. In Hebrews though those titles are applied to Jesus in a context where the entirety of Psalm 102:25-27, which refers to the “Lord” as the unchanging Creator (cf. Heb 13:8), is applied to him as well.

Jesus also shares other divine titles such as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17; 22:13), which is how Yahweh refers to himself in Isaiah 44:6. In Isaiah 45:23 Yahweh says “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” The apostle Paul readily applies very similar language to Jesus in Philippians 2:10-11, after saying that Jesus has been given “the name that is above every name” (v. 9). Paul says that not only will every knee bow at the name of Jesus, but every tongue will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The way Paul attributes the title/name Lord to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8:6, which echoes Deuteronomy 6:4, indicates that he means much more than Jesus is a lord. He means Jesus is the Lord, who shares in much more than the titles and name of God. Jesus receives the same allegiance that Yahweh in the context of the Isaiah passages cited above reserves exclusively for himself.

“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  1 Corinthians 8:6

This level of allegiance for Jesus would be idolatry unless Jesus is more than a mere mortal creature. See how that same verse also indicates that Jesus shares in the creative power of God the Father. Jesus work in creating the cosmos is indicated in other places in the New Testament too (Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3, 10). Yet Jesus shares even more with God the Father.

Jesus shares the role of God as the Shepherd of God’s people who seeks after the lost and heals the wounded (Ezk 34:11-12). He shares in God’s role as the Savior of his people (Is 43:11). Jesus also shares God’s role as the final judge of the nations (Mth 25). Moreover, he shares God’s role as the one who sends the Holy Spirit to empower his people. Like God the Father, Jesus receives the prayers and the praises of God’s people (Acts 7:59-60; Rev 5). Additionally, Jesus declares that he along with God the Father is to be the object of the faith of God’s people (Jn 14:1), and he, without hesitation, receives worship that belongs to God alone (Mth 28:17; cf. Mth 4:8-10) and likewise shares in the glory that belongs to God alone (Jn 17:1-5; cf. Rev 4-5). As with the word of Yahweh, Jesus boldly claims that his words likewise will never pass away (Is 40:8; Mth 24:35). Moreover, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15 which clearly echoes Dt 6:5ff). Like Yahweh promised his abiding presence to Israel, so too Jesus promises his abiding presence to his disciples (Dt 31:6; Matt 28:20).

The problem really isn’t that the New Testament is murky in terms of Jesus’ divine identity. Even the Old Testament hinted that God himself would come to save his people. See Ezekiel 34 where God says emphatically, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out”(v. 11) in contrast with the corrupt human leaders whom he had appointed to shepherd his people (cf. Jn 10; Matt 15:24, 18:11; Lk 19:10). Ezekiel 34:23-24 does indicate that God would does this through the coming messiah figure, there referred to as his “servant David.” Would this figure, though, be merely a man through whom God would work like the kings and prophets before? Or would this figure be more than a mere mortal, in some way sharing God’s divine identity?

Malachi, echoing Isaiah says, “Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me (God). And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; …” Isaiah 35:4 says, “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Isaiah 40:3-5, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all partially quote and apply to John the Baptist as the forerunner who was preparing the way for Jesus. Take a look at the full quote from Isaiah.

 “A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:3-5

There were hints throughout the prophets that in some way God himself was going to come to save his people, shepherd them, and reign as king over them (see Zech 14). How exactly would he do this? The New Testament indicates that God did this in Jesus, not by indwelling the body of a mere man, but by becoming human himself. God didn’t do this through simply indwelling the body of another, but by creating his own human body, soul, and spirit. As John put it, the divine eternal word who shared in the work of creation became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1-14). As Matthew (1:20) and Luke (1:35) put it, the human Jesus was not the byproduct of the ordinary sexual union of a man and a woman, but the creative work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of  the virgin, Mary.

What was murky in the Old Testament becomes clear in the light of the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christ God really did show up to save and shepherd his people. The promised human messiah king was in the same person the Lord of all.

The issue really isn’t that the Bible is unclear on the divine identity of Christ, although, indeed, the incarnation and the revelation of God in Scripture presents us with mind-boggling paradoxes. One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Two natures, divine and human, in one person? These are certainly things beyond full human comprehension. But the Bible does declare that there is but one God, and that the Father, the Son (the Word) and the Holy Spirit are each distinct persons with subject/object relationships who are each God by nature. The Trinity is the Church’s best effort to faithfully hold together all of these things revealed about the One True God in Scripture. And what I’ve shared here barely even scratches the surface of the multitudinous, often subtle, sometimes overt, ways that Scripture reveals the divine identity of Jesus, especially as the New Testament is properly read with the Old Testament background firmly in mind. After all, Jesus insisted that Israel’s Scriptures were all about him (Jn 5:39). As Richard Hays put it:

“The more deeply we probe the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.” Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels p. 363

Still there will be many who will object. In some cases there are unitarians who insist that the church has really just misinterpreted the Bible. I used to be one of them. In reality they start with what seems more reasonable to them, and then bend Scripture to fit a unitarian framework. In most cases they make arguments against a docetic modalism while thinking they are making arguments against the Trinity. They do this by pitting Jesus’ human nature against his divine nature in an either/or fashion. They also conflate the person of the Son with the person of the Father. If Jesus was God, they ask, then who did he pray to? This is an honest question. I just had a 7th grade confirmation student ask the same thing because he was genuinely confused. But as a human Jesus certainly prayed to God the Father. Again he was both human and divine. Moreover, as the divine Son who is a distinct person from the Father, he could also direct communication and love to the Father, as also the Father communicated and expressed love to the Son (Mk 1:11). Admittedly these are difficult things to grasp. Ultimately, it requires humility and faith to believe what we can’t fully comprehend.

In other cases, there have been rationalists like the deist Thomas Jefferson, who recognize that the Bible really does teach that Jesus is God. They just reject these claims as legend. They accept Jesus as a great moral, very mortal teacher, perhaps, but nothing more. They know the Bible teaches these things, they just don’t believe they are true. There are many progressive Christians today who usually accept that the Bible teaches the divinity of Christ, but would interpret those teachings as a metaphor for Jesus’ attainment of the highest level of God-consciousness or something of that sort, probably conceived of within the framework of a deistic, pantheistic, or possibly even an atheistic worldview.

In the case of Islam, which is staunchly unitarian, the Quran presents mixed messages. On the one hand there are passages in the Quran that indicate that Christians have simply misinterpreted the Bible (Surah 3:78). There are appeals for Christians to just read the Gospel to see the truth that Jesus is not the divine Son of God (Surah 5:46-47). On the other hand, there are Muslim apologists who insist that the text of the Bible itself has been changed to be misleading, based on other verses in the Quran (there is no evidence of this, by the way). In either case there is a flat out rejection of the belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God or that God is a Trinity. In case of the later, however, the author of the Quran seemed to think the Christian Trinity consisted of Jesus, Mary, and God (Surah 5:116).

 Who is this Jesus? As hard as it may be to believe, the Bible reveals Jesus to be the fully human embodiment of the God revealed in the Old Testament – fully human and fully divine. Therefore Jesus deserves all the glory and honor that he rightfully shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, a glory that Yahweh declared he would never share with any other (Is 42:8; cf. Jn 5:23; Jn 17:1-5; Rev 4-5).