How Have We Built?Thursday, May 28, 2020
Warren Buffett is fond of saying, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” In other words, any fool can run a business successfully during a financial boom. However, when the times aren’t so good, foolish risks will be exposed, along with the ones who took them.
The same is true spiritually. Indeed, this is the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. All of us who labor in the Lord’s church are building on the foundation that Paul, along with the other apostles and prophets, laid down. However, not all builders in the church build with equal wisdom and skill. Some are building for eternity; others are building without thought for the future.
When the fires of trial come, though, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed. Every faithful builder will endure, but the product of their labors might not. There are preachers and elders who will inherit eternal life but won’t bring any of those they taught and shepherded with them.
I think the present distress is just such a time of trial, and it will reveal how the workers in each congregation have been building. Most congregations in the United States are either still not assembling or resuming limited assemblies, and it remains unclear how all this will shake out. I’ve seen brethren speculating either gloomily (“Everybody will just start watching the livestream on Sunday morning and not bother to show up!”) or rosily, (“We’ll come back better and stronger then ever!”).
In reality, I think the answer is a great big, “It depends.” Some churches will lose many people; others will lose few to none. A common theme in those disparate results, though, will be the quality of the teaching and leadership the congregation has received before the crisis struck.
It starts with the greatest commandment. People who went to church pre-coronavirus because they loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength will be back after the coronavirus has run its course. Devotion to Christ doesn’t sit on the couch and watch YouTube if it has any other choice. On the other hand, people who went to church Sunday mornings because they were used to going might well not be back after they’ve gotten used to not going.
So too with the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. Congregations where the relationships between brethren are strong will continue to flourish because those relationships will pull everyone back. The aftermath of the epidemic will change our society in many ways, but people still will be drawn to warmth and kindness. On the other hand, congregations where the relationships between brethren are not warm and strong are going to suffer greatly. If you feel lonely when you go to church, you might as well feel lonely staying home.
How have we built? Have we taught our people to love God and love one another? Have we presented every other commandment as depending on those? Or instead, have we wasted our time on feel-good fluff and trivia? The stakes for having gotten this right are already high. The stakes for getting it right in the future are even higher.
School, Transgender, and Your KidsThursday, May 21, 2020
These days, it seems like many Christians are preoccupied with coronavirus conspiracies of various sorts. I have little to say about all that, except to observe that the conspiracy theorists must have much more faith in the competence of the human race than I do. I think, though, that we would be better served to pay less attention to the conspiracies and more attention to the daily efforts of those who are opposed to the cause of Christ.
Take, for instance, this report from the Alliance Defending Freedom. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ADF, it’s a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of conservative legal causes. It is a serious organization with serious deep pockets and serious lawyers. When the ADF says something, it’s not on the same level as russiatrollbotnews.com. This really is happening.
Essentially, a number of conservative parents who live in Madison, WI have filed suit against the Madison public-school district. They learned that the district has been engaged in a stealthy campaign to promote transgender ideology. From kindergarten on up, students are being taught that gender is a spectrum, rather than being biological and binary. Parents have not been notified about this. If a child decides that they are transgender, school employees are to help them transition without parental notice or consent. In order to make sure that Mom and Dad remain in the dark in such cases, district policy is to refer to transitioned Janey as un-transitioned Johnny in all communications with the home—to deceive parents.
In short, the Madison school district is attempting to substitute school input for parental input in one of the most consequential moral decisions a child can make. A month ago, I wrote about Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s desire to outlaw homeschooling. Among other things, she argued that public schooling was necessary to expose children to “ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.” Thanks to the Madison Metropolitan School District, we’ve got a concrete example of what such exposure looks like in practice.
Now, I don’t think this is likely to be a problem in rural middle Tennessee, where I live. There are many other places around the country where school districts also haven’t bought into progressive ideology. However, there are plenty of places where school districts have. It’s true that, from what I know of Madison, public policy there is likely to be progressive even by progressive standards. Nonetheless, even if your local progressive district hasn’t gotten there yet, MMSD gives us a pretty good idea of where it’s headed in future.
It used to be that public schools were (at least seen as) relatively neutral, benign educational establishments. You could send your kids off every day and trust that the school pretty much would stay in its lane and leave the moral instruction to you. Sadly, that conviction is becoming increasingly naïve.
As always, I leave decisions about how children should be educated to parents. You decide in good conscience what method is best for your kids, and I’ll respect that, whether you have chosen public school, private school, or homeschool.
However, I will say that parents who have chosen public school in blue districts need to be wary. Do not assume that worldview indoctrination is going to be preceded by waving banners and brass bands. Instead, you need to ask probing questions, both of your children and of their teachers, about what kinds of things are being taught. If you get answers you don’t like, you don’t necessarily have to yank your kids, but you do have to make sure that the predominant moral narrative in their lives is the Biblical one.
We live in a strange time. On a fundamental level, I can’t get my head around the idea that people believe that gender is a matter of preference rather than biology. It flat doesn’t compute for me, and I suspect that many other Christian parents are in the same boat. However, there are millions of folks out there who believe this with the same fervor with which we believe in the resurrection, and they will not hesitate to use any means available to proselytize. If we are not vigilant in this and related areas, we may end up regretting our failure for the rest of our lives.
Why I Switched to the CSBWednesday, May 20, 2020
English-speaking Christians are blessed with a plethora of good translations of the Bible. Of course, translation is an art, not a science. There are no perfect translations, nor will there ever be.
However, practically every translation that we’re likely to encounter is more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek texts we have than the Septuagint is to its Hebrew originals. If the Holy Spirit thought the Septuagint was good enough to incorporate into the New Testament, whatever we’ve got is good enough to get us to heaven!
Because we are so spoiled for choice, though, those of us who care about the Bible are likely to move from translation to translation, looking for one that is maybe a little bit more perfect than the rest. In my time as a preacher/Bible reviewer, I’ve preached and taught from at least 10 different translations, and at various times, I’ve used three translations (NASB, NKJV, and ESV) for my primary text.
A couple of months ago, though, I decided to try out a fourth translation for my every-day Bible—the Christian Standard Bible, or CSB. When I switched from NASB to ESV a few years ago, the CSB was a strong second-place finisher, and my occasional use of it ever since gradually swayed me to adopt it. Several factors played into this decision:
VOLUME QUALITY. My copy of the CSB is bound in edge-lined goatskin that Holman sent me as a promo copy in 2017 when they rolled the translation out. It’s true that I love edge-lined Bibles, and once you’ve gotten used to one, it’s tough to go back to paste-down.
However, it’s really the quality of the setting of the CSB that influenced me here. My CSB was set by 2K, a Danish shop that is world-famous for its Bible designs, and the quality shows. It’s better designed than the ESV I was using before. My CSB is prettier, easier to read, and has cross-references that are easier to use. As far as I’m concerned, anything that makes reading and studying the word more pleasant is well worth adopting!
STYLISTIC QUALITY. I love the English language and rejoice in good writing. As a result, I struggle to love translations that prioritize faithfulness to the words of the Greek (and sometimes even to Greek grammar) over making clear sense in English. Brethren often are fond of these translations (I think because they appear to remove human judgment from translation, though in truth they do not), but they often pose obstacles to our understanding. These obstacles can be surmounted in verse-by-verse study (as when the preacher reads a verse and then pauses to explain what it means in normal English), but they often make Bible reading difficult, especially for new Christians who don’t speak fluent NASB.
By contrast, the style of the CSB is accessible and lively. Instead of talking like Bible characters, speakers in the CSB sound like real people. For instance, in Luke 6:46 in the CSB, Jesus says, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and don’t do the things I say?”
The CSB also is full of aptly phrased renderings. Consider the difference between Ruth 2:12 in the NASB (“May the LORD reward your work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.”) and the CSB (“May the LORD reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”). The NASB undeniably sounds more Hebraic, with idioms like “your wages be full”, but it’s the CSB that sounds like good English. That’s important!
TEXTUAL FAITHFULNESS. It is, of course, possible for translators to take accessibility too far. Unlike most brethren, I’ve used the NLT extensively (I read the whole thing cover-to-cover a few years back), and though I like it for reading, I feel like the translators take too many liberties, especially in the New Testament, for the translation to be suitable for close study. When I’m reading from the NLT, there are a dozen places in the book of Romans alone where I stop and say, “Man; they sure booted that one!”
The translators of the CSB are much more careful. So far, at least, I feel that the translation sacrifices little in the way of nuance and faithfulness in exchange for great gains in style and clarity. Of course, there are CSB renderings that I don’t like, but there are renderings in every translation I don’t like. To this point, they are infelicities I can live with.
I also like the balance that the CSB has struck on gender equality. The translators generally render the Greek adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” (unless the context makes it clear that only males are under discussion), and they replace “how blessed is the man” in Psalm 1:1 with “how blessed is the one”. However, the pronoun throughout Psalm 1 is “he”, and the translators preserve the singular “son of man” in Psalm 8:4 (compare “human beings” in the NIV). It remains to be seen whether the upcoming 2020 revision of the NASB will fare as well.
I certainly don’t insist that every Christian out there needs to switch to the CSB Right This Minute. It almost certainly is true that the Bible you’re using right now is get-you-to-heaven good (though if you struggle to adhere to a Bible-reading program, consider that your choice of translation and setting may be at fault). However, for those who are looking for another Bible or simply are curious, the CSB is well worth checking out.
When the Tree Is DryTuesday, May 12, 2020
Like many, I’ve been devoting a lot of thought recently to the Ahmaud Arbery shooting. I suppose it’s possible that exculpatory evidence might emerge from somewhere, but the video (recorded by a friend of the shooters, incidentally) appears damning. Based on what we know right now, it seems that an innocent man was murdered because he was black.
Is this where we are, in the year of our Lord 2020? 20 years ago, I would have told you that racism was on its way out in the United States. As soon as the last of the old segregationist coots died, it would rightly be consigned to history’s trash heap. That’s not the way that things have gone. Instead, American society seems to be becoming more tribal with each day, with the members of each race growing increasingly suspicious and afraid of each other.
Tragically, for the past decade, all of this has played out against a backdrop of steadily increasing prosperity. For the past 10 years, crime has been way, way down from the levels of previous decades. Unemployment has been way, way down. And yet, even in the midst of peace and plenty, far too many ears have been open to the divisive whispers of Satan.
No, I don’t think that most white Americans, and certainly not most white Christians, would do what the McMichaels did. However, you don’t have to spend too much time reading comments on self-defense forums and YouTube videos before you run across some that are subtly, snidely racist. Honest question for those who concealed-carry: when you think about the unthinkable, when you imagine a situation in which you have to use your weapon to defend yourself, in your mind’s eye, is your assailant black?
I don’t know what the answer is for you, but I know what the answer is for many because of what they’ve said online. Note again that this fear has arisen in a time of prosperity and low crime rates.
In Luke 23, as Jesus is carrying His cross to Golgotha, He stops to converse with a group of women who are weeping at His impending death. He tells them that they should be weeping for themselves, not Him, because of the tragedy that is coming upon Jerusalem. In v. 31, He wraps up His discourse with a rhetorical question: “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (CSB)
Various translations are all over the map about how to render this text, but the point appears to be this: If the Romans are willing to do this to an innocent man now, what will they be willing to do in a time of rebellion and lawlessness? Forty years later, during the Great Jewish Revolt, the Romans answered the question. Crucify Jews on the hills around Jerusalem until they ran out of wood, that’s what.
Times have been good. They are not likely to be good in future, and recessions are hard for everybody. Lots of folks out of work. Alcohol and drug problems way up. Crime rates through the roof. Politicians with extreme solutions suddenly getting a serious hearing.
If Ahmaud Arbery happens when the tree is green, what is going to happen when it is dry?
None of us can change the course of our country by ourselves, but we can change our own course. We can honestly examine our own hearts for ugliness and hatred aimed at somebody who was created in the image of God. We can be real with ourselves about the suspicion and fear we nurture, whoever we are, whomever we fear. We can be people who show the love of Christ to everybody, because Christ loves everybody.
The days may be growing increasingly dark, but that’s when Christians are supposed to shine brightest.
The Root of BitternessWednesday, April 29, 2020
Most of us have had experience, invariably bad, with bitter people. Something has happened to them that they have continued to resent for years or decades, and they often take out their resentment on those who are closest to them. Frequently, we turn to Hebrews 12:15 for a Biblical condemnation of such behavior.
Because Hebrews 12:14 emphasizes the importance of pursuing peace with others, I think this is a correct reading of the text. It makes sense in context. However, the Hebrews writer is saying more here than we commonly credit.
The concept of a root of bitterness does not appear for the first time in Hebrews. Instead, the writer is paraphrasing Deuteronomy 29:18, which warns against those who are roots that bear poisonous and bitter fruit. However, in the context of Deuteronomy, such people aren’t quarrelsome and resentful. Instead, they are idolaters. They cause widespread trouble because they lead others away into idolatry.
At first glance, it appears that the Hebrews writer has missed the point of the quotation from Deuteronomy 29. However, given the great skill with which the writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!) uses the Old Testament through the rest of the book, this is extremely unlikely. Instead, he has left an additional lesson for those who are familiar with the Law of Moses too.
He wants us, in fact, to recognize that bitterness is a form of idolatry. After all, the New Testament frequently reminds us that idolatry does not necessarily involve worshiping a golden statue. In Colossians 3:3, Paul notes that greed is a form of idolatry. People who care about money and stuff more than anything else are bowing down to Mammon, whether they recognize it or not.
However, we can take the analysis one step further even than that. When we are greedy, it’s not really the money and the stuff that we value. It’s the way that they make us feel, and we prize that feeling so much that we are willing to abandon God and do evil in order to experience it. When it comes to covetousness, the idol we are worshiping is the self.
The same is true for bitterness. People who can’t move past a wrong that they have suffered are resentful because it is a wrong that they have suffered. Somebody has hurt them, or hurt somebody close to them, and that’s the unforgivable sin, because it is a wrong that has touched their precious, invaluable self. This is so great a violation of the way that they think things ought to be that they feel justified in mistreating the wrongdoer, or even in mistreating an innocent third party.
As a result, they repeatedly express the outrage they feel at their own injury by injuring others, often until the end of their lives. Even if people like this faithfully attend worship services, Jesus is not and cannot be the Lord of their hearts. He cannot be most important to them, because nothing is more important to them than they are.
They are their own miserable, spiteful idols.
When Jesus exhorts us to be merciful and forgiving, then, He does not merely do so because mercy and forgiveness are good. Instead, it is because being merciful and forgiving is a necessary part of subjecting ourselves to Him. When we place so much importance on ourselves that we refuse to forgive, we reveal that we have been defiled by the idol of selfishness in our hearts.