How to Avoid the Folly of the Pharisees

The real mistake made by Jesus’ classic adversaries might surprise you.

You’ve probably heard someone say at some point “Don’t be such a Pharisee.” Typically these words are uttered when someone is being overly scrupulous in “rule keeping” in the Christian life. If there’s one type of person in the New Testament that you don’t want to be compared to, surely it’s the Pharisees. Though one could consider the question of the Pharisees from a variety of perspectives, let’s look at how Jesus responds to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Pharisees frequently oppose Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus is often critiqued by the Pharisees, and he in turn reproaches them for their errant ways. He strongly warns his disciples not to follow their teaching. But what exactly was the Pharisees’ problem? Was it that they were too concerned with following God’s law? Or was it something else?

Contrary to what you may have heard, Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees for giving too much attention to God’s law. Jesus never denigrates or downplays the law of God. Where it looks like he might be (Sabbath controversies, for example), Jesus is instead critiquing misunderstandings and misappropriations of God’s law.

Far from critiquing the Pharisees for focusing too assiduously on God’s law, Jesus critiques them for not being concerned enough with God’s written law. They didn’t give it too much attention; they gave it too little attention.

Listening to the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’s interest in paying careful attention to the law is evident in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it may be the most well-known of all Jesus’ teaching, it’s also some of the most difficult to understand. Is Jesus teaching that God’s law is impossible to keep? Is he teaching Christian perfectionism? The answer is neither.

In the Sermon on the Mount …

Continue reading…

Planting Pastors in the New America: A Case for Civic Advocacy Training

In today’s urban ministry climate, people are not content to settle for “lip service” anymore.

I was at the National Latino Evangelical Association a few weeks ago. After I spoke, I was on a panel with several Latino leaders. One of them was Dr. Elizabeth Rios. She is writing her dissertation (for her second doctorate!) on involving church planters in training for engaging in civic advocacy. I asked her to share some of what she learned with you!

If you’ve been anywhere near the pulse of the evangelical church in America in the last few years, you know that there has been a push to plant more churches. You may also be aware that there are organizations and networks that have been started to discover, develop, and deploy church planters, increasingly in cities and urban centers.

Increasing urbanization and multiethnic diversity have made planting churches in major cities a pressing necessity. Subsequently, we’ve seen an increase in church planter conferences, seminars, and trainings that address, at some level, the many skills planters need to be successful, especially those seeking to plant in urban areas.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem is that we are not necessarily in rural Kansas anymore.

Planting a church and pastoring in urban centers have changed because America has changed. In today’s urban ministry climate, people are not content to settle for “lip service” anymore. Too many times, they exhibit no real evidence of genuine concern for sustainable change in the community.

The reality is that we are living in a time when a church’s work and presence outside the walls matter to people just as much as the worship services. And let me be clear: I’m talking about more than a backpack drive or the monthly soup kitchen outreach. While these things are good, they just won’t …

Continue reading…

Will Trump Sanctions Help Andrew Brunson More Than They Hurt Turkish Christians?

Religious freedom advocates consider if the need of the one outweighs the needs of the many.

Governments are supposed to take care of their citizens. For Andrew Brunson, an American detained in Turkey for almost two years, it may be his best hope.

Charged with threatening national security because of alleged ties to terrorist groups, the pastor for two decades of an evangelical church in Izmir (biblical Symrna) faces 35 years in prison.

“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until pastor Andrew Brunson is free,” said Vice President Mike Pence last month at the US State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

The day before, Turkey had moved the pastor from prison to house arrest shortly after Brunson’s daughter recounted his plight before the ministerial’s global audience. But his return to his Izmir home wasn’t enough.

Less than a week later, on August 1 the US Treasury Department froze the assets of the Turkish ministers of interior and justice.

“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”

Turkey responded by sanctioning the corresponding American cabinet members.

Then dramatically on August 10, Trump announced the doubling of tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel.

The Turkish lira—already falling since May when President Recep Erdoğan announced de facto control over monetary policy—immediately plummeted another 16 percent against the dollar, hitting record lows.

And while Turkey …

Continue reading…

Richard Stearns: ‘Every Day Is a Celebration’

After 20 years of tackling the “hole in our gospel,” World Vision’s most recent president is fine retiring from World Vision with some tasks unfinished.

You’ve grown World Vision US from $350 million to $1 billion over your two decades as president and CEO. Today 40,000 international staff serve children in 100 countries, and you just visited Rwanda to launch a five-year plan to make it the first developing nation with universal access to clean water. Why retire now?

I believe that everything has a season. Like Moses with the staff in his hand, I brought what I had to offer World Vision and made it available to the Lord. I’ve had a wonderful season here, but I don’t want to be that guy the board is whispering about: “When’s the old boy going to leave? Isn’t it about time?” I’m 67. It’s time for World Vision to have a fresh vision and a new leader who has new things to offer.

When World Vision first courted you, you said it was looking for a leader who was “part CEO, part Mother Teresa, and part Indiana Jones.” Is that who you’ve become?

I think to some extent [yes]. The Mother Teresa part is you got to have a big heart for the poor and a passion for the least of these. The CEO part is it’s a billion-dollar organization, and it’s more complex today than when I started. And the Indiana Jones part is sometimes you find yourself in places like South Sudan surrounded by AK-47s. You’ve got to have a certain amount of adventuresome-ness in your bones to do that travel and enter into the world’s heartbreak.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

AIDS, refugees, and WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] have all been major passions of mine. When tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 2000s, my marketing VP said, “We’re a G-rated ministry, and this is an R-rated issue. …

Continue reading…

How Fiction Fueled Madeleine L’Engle’s Faith

How does a lonely kid understand that she’s loved by God? An author’s childhood holds the answer.

Story, at its heart, is one of the primary modes in which God speaks to us, which means it’s one of the main vehicles for God’s truth. It’s also formative truth: The best, most ennobling stories have the power to shape our actions and play a vital role in moral and spiritual formation. “Rather than taking the child away from the real world,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, “such stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy.”

In other words, our faith is formed not just by propositional truths but also by the narratives of Scripture, the tales of Christian history, the great works of fiction, and other art forms. L’Engle’s own childhood was steeped in story and offers us a model for the power of moral imagination on the life of faith.

In writing about her growing up years, L’Engle claimed that “the greatest gift my mother gave me, besides her love, was story. She was a wonderful storyteller, especially about her childhood in the South. . . . ‘Tell me a story,’ I would beg, and my mother would take me in imagination back to her world so different from mine.”

Before leaving for the opera, her mother would pause at bedtime and give L’Engle a bit of herself, a memory to treasure. Those stories significantly shaped her sense of family identity and sometimes later resurfaced, fictionalized, in her novels. As a child, they helped her feel less alone.

At boarding school she was miserable and even “psychologically abused” by inept and cruel teachers, which is why, “possibly as a defense against the troubled, everyday world of my childhood, for nourishment I learned …

Continue reading…

Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness

A microbiologist reflects on the problem of evil in human diseases.

It’s been two years since Christian missionaries and aid workers in Zika-infested areas wrestled with whether to stay or go after the virus triggered an international public health emergency. Last week, the CDC released a new report indicating for the first time what happens as babies exposed to the Zika virus grow older—they may face problems when none presented at birth.

Seeing the most vulnerable in our society suffering so cruelly can raise questions about God’s goodness. Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, a microbiologist and scholar at Reasons to Believe, began thinking about these issues in graduate school.

In the 30 years since, Roberts’s work at the National Institute of Health testing the SARS virus on older mice contributed to an understanding of the pathology of the disease and how it affects older humans. As a postdoctorate scholar at Yale University, Roberts worked on proof of concept vaccines that used the same vector now being used to manufacture the Ebola vaccine.

CT recently asked her to explain how her work affected her view of God and his creation.

What are viruses? Where do viruses come from?

The first virus was discovered in the late 1800s, and it was a virus that infected tobacco plants, the tobacco mosaic virus. The word virus basically referred to a poisonous entity.

Viruses aren’t really living. (Bacteria are actually living cells.) There’s a little bit of debate in the field about whether they’re alive or not, but living things can utilize nutrients for energy and produce waste. Viruses can’t do any of those things. All viruses share the characteristic that they cannot make more virus outside of a living cell.

Where did viruses originate? No one knows. …

Continue reading…

The Healing of Willow Creek

Misguided loyalty harmed this historic congregation. True loyalty can redeem it.

In light of the resignation of its pastoral staff and elder board, it’s time to rally around Willow Creek Community Church with support and prayers. With those resignations, and the repentance they suggest, Willow has an opportunity to enter into a new fruitful season of ministry.

Let’s ponder what has happened in the last few months and why, because a simplistic reading of the events will only tempt Willow—and any Christian institution in a similar crisis—to react in such a way that the fruitful season will wither away all too quickly. Many women have come forward and said Bill Hybels has abused his power and sexually harassed female colleagues. The current leadership, pastors and elder board, have failed early to take seriously the accusations being brought forth. We are wise to try our best to grasp the moral and psychological complexities of what has taken place, so deep redemption can take place.

Rediscovering True Loyalty

Given the number of troubling testimonies about Hybels’s behavior, it’s easy to forget we’re still dealing with allegations and not proven fact. Many are of the opinion—me included—that he is guilty. Hybels, however, continues to deny many of the most serious allegations. It’s not merely an American thing but is also required of Christian charity: The accused are entitled to their day in court. For independent churches in Willow’s situation, that court is the sort of independent investigation that Willow has at long last commissioned. An independent investigation will hopefully be able to bring to light the full truth of the matter. The choice of the organization to investigate, as well as its work, are certainly matters to keep in prayer. …

Continue reading…

Onward Christian Superheroes

Two of Netflix’s Marvel heroes arise out of their respective Christian cultures.

Blind lawyer Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox) sits in the confession booth at a New York City Roman Catholic church describing his family history—that is, his and his boxer father’s violent natures, where they “let the devil in” and people get hurt. But instead of confessing past sins, Matt says, “I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”

Later that night, dressed in black and a ski mask completely covering his eyes, he attacks criminals engaged in human trafficking, the first of many bloody (though non-lethal) encounters to follow.

With Marvel Studio’s incredible box office success now having earned over $3 billion for 2018 alone for three films—Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp—it might be possible to overlook the presence of more grounded superhero series in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), on Netflix. Superhero mythologies tend toward outright fantasies, with often cosmic levels of power providing conflict for the stories (see Infinity War). But some of these Netflix series—in particular, Daredevil and Luke Cage—take a different path, getting their down-to-earth dilemmas and moral themes from another place: their protagonists’ faith backgrounds.

Just as Phil Vischer promised we’d never see a VeggieTales installment featuring Jesus as a vegetable—it would violate the essential conceit of the stories to feature the Son of God in an animated vegetable world—it’s hard to include Christian themes when a genre tends to work by displacing real-world conflict and psychology into fantastic scenarios featuring super soldiers, …

Continue reading…

Mattresses, Experiences, and Instagramming Your Worship Service

What place does social media have in our worship services?

When was the last time you bought a mattress? Did you walk around a showroom and awkwardly lie down on several of them? Did you close your eyes, try to get comfortable, and imagine what it would be like to sleep on it day after day? Did you then pay too much, and wait too long for it to be delivered to your house?

No wonder the mattress industry was ripe for disruption. In the same way that Amazon disrupted brick and mortar retail, Uber disrupted the Taxi industry, and smart phones disrupted camera, calculator, and flashlight sales, Casper has done the same for mattresses.

Casper, an online mattress retailer, has been so effective at upending a $29 Billion industry that other companies have quickly followed suit. And just last month, they took things to the next level by building their first brick and mortar store—except, at this one, you can’t buy a mattress.

You buy a nap instead.

Instead of designing their store like other mattress retailers, such as Mattress Firm, The Brick, or Ikea, they decided to create an experience where the mattress was secondary. It’s called the Dreamery in New York City. Here’s how they describe it on their website: “At Casper, we want everyone to sleep better and live better. So we created The Dreamery, a magical place in NYC where you can rest and recharge whenever you want. Because when you snooze, you win.”

Here’s how it works:

  1. Book a nap session: Choose a 45-minute time slot whenever you could use a boost. Walk-ins are welcome, too.
  2. Get some rest: Wind down in the lounge, change into pajamas, and lie down in your own Casper Nook—a perfectly private, quiet pod with an outrageously comfortable bed.
  3. Feel recharged: Embrace your post-nap pep. Freshen up and enjoy a coffee before taking on the rest of your day (or night).

Continue reading…

John Piper Changed ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’ Experts Weigh In.

Reformed tweaks to Methodist hit raise the question: Should hymns keep the theological orientation of their authors?

The worship team at The Gospel Coalition’s recent women’s conference selected “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to conclude speaker John Piper’s remarks. But the prolific preacher and writer was concerned that the lyrics didn’t thematically match his sermon. So, he wrote two additional verses:

I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.

I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.

Piper is well known for his Reformed convictions, including the “Christian hedonism” reflected in the new lyrics. But the author of this famous hymn, Thomas Chisholm, was a Methodist, which means that he most likely held Wesleyan-Arminian views like his denominational fathers, John and Charles Wesley (though a third co-founder, George Whitefield, led a Calvinist minority within the movement).

In 2018, a scholarly “vetting team” of the United Methodist Church gave “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” the green light for its theological content, based on the “criteria of adherence to Wesleyan theology, appropriate use of language for God and humanity, and singability.” (The team is tasked with reviewing the CCLI Top 100 because most of its worship songs come from “artists whose theological traditions are not generally Wesleyan-Arminian” and instead are “charismatic, Pentecostal, Calvinist, or neo-Calvinist.”) While the hymn was among the 40 out of 100 top songs deemed to have “few if any obstacles …

Continue reading…