We Actually Don’t Need a Trinitarian Revival

Attempts to teach a ‘better’ understanding of the Trinity may do more harm than good.

Rumors of the death of Trinitarianism, even rumors of its dearth, have been grossly exaggerated.

This is not to ignore the problems, failures, errors, and weaknesses that sometimes attend it. We don’t need to suppress any evidence in order to reject the drastic diagnosis. When I look around churches and the theological scene today, I see areas of weakness and suggestions for how evangelical Christians in particular can enter into our Trinitarian birthright more fully, more fluently, and more fruitfully. But I have never been able to embrace the idea that the state of the doctrine of the Trinity in contemporary Christian life is so threatened that drastic action is necessary.

The everything-you-know-is-wrong diagnosis fails to distinguish between primary and secondary Trinitarianism. The distinction is a very helpful one. Primary Trinitarianism (the term seems to have been coined by Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson) is the underlying reality of the presence and work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Anyone who is born of the Spirit and testifies that the Father so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son (John 3:14–16) is fluently speaking primary Trinitarianism. That person is giving an account of the triune structure of salvation history itself in the Bible’s own language.

If they were to theologize on top of that, they would begin speaking secondary Trinitarianism. In short order they would bring forth words like Trinity, three, persons, and essence; helpful terms that are just a step or two from Scripture itself. As the need arose, they would pursue questions about how the three persons are one God, and how their temporal appearances in salvation history related to …

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The Greatest Threat to the Church Isn’t Islam—It’s Us

A leading Nigerian theologian believes the real danger to Christianity in Africa is in the church.

A good pickpocket works with a partner who will distract the “mark” while the pickpocket steals his wallet, camera, or passport. Sometimes the distraction will be an unwanted conversation, an aggressive sales pitch, or an “accidental” collision in a crowded area—at which point the pickpocket does his work. Right now, Christians are being swindled.

We hear a lot about the threat of radical fundamentalist Islam. Some believe there is an “Islamization agenda” at work that is trying to undermine traditional institutions and replace them with a new Islamic order. To be sure, many horrible acts have been committed under the banner of radical Islam, and there is a real danger. But the truth is this: Overblown fears about a supposed “Islamization agenda” may actually be distracting Christians from the true threat that is stealing away the authentic witness and authority of Christianity.

The Islamization Agenda

Like in many other countries in Africa, the belief in an Islamization agenda is potent, alive, and well in Nigeria. Since the early 1980s, Nigerian Christians have been deeply concerned about the possibility of a secret plan to conform the country to the dictates of Islam.

The seed of this idea goes back to the jihad led by Usman dan Fodio in 1804. His goal was to “dip the Qur’an into the Atlantic Ocean,” meaning that he intended to impose Islam upon the entire nation of Nigeria. Although he died without realizing his vision, dan Fodio left a legacy that the Muslim umma (community) in Nigeria has continued to pursue. Many Nigerian Christians believe that any time a Muslim is president of Nigeria, the Muslims will use that as a platform to pursue their agenda …

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Church-Planting Metrics: Measure What’s Important (Part One)

Measure outcomes, not activities.

A few years ago I was part of a breakout group at a church planting roundtable where we discussed the question, “What is church?” The group was comprised of international and regional directors of church planting organizations. About fifteen minutes into the discussion it became apparent that very few of the leaders had a working definition of church that was common to their entire organization. Taken together, these leaders represented hundreds of church planters.

I began to wonder how church planters could be sent to the field without a clear concept of what they are commissioned to do. Would that be acceptable in any other setting? How successful would car manufacturers be if their leaders told factory workers, “Make cars!” and did not provide them with detailed specifications of what they were to build? Absurd! Yet it seemed like that was exactly what many church planting organizations had done.

When church planters don’t have a working definition of church, they are left with important questions they can’t answer:

  • How do they know when they’ve finished the job?
  • How do they give credible progress reports to supporters when there is no clear definition of what they are progressing toward?
  • How do they know that what they are doing today is getting them to the goal?
  • How do they decide where best to use their resources?
  • Furthermore, from an organizational perspective, if leaders have not defined the end goal clearly, can they truly know whether the day-to-day activities of their church planters are actually fulfilling the organization’s mission?

This article presents a method for developing a measurement instrument that can guide leaders to define the end goal (i.e., “church”) …

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ICE Deports Christian Who Fled Persecution Back to Indonesia

Man who sought asylum in New Jersey church caught up in 100-day surge in non-criminal arrests.

Four years ago, eight Indonesian Christians living in a New Jersey church received some encouraging news: despite overstaying their visas for more than a decade, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would not be deporting them.

This year, ICE changed its mind.

Four of the men attended an annual check-in meeting with ICE officials in Newark in March, and authorities asked them to return with their passports in May. But when the men returned last week, this time joined by a lawyer, they were arrested and sent to an immigration detention center.

Yesterday, one was deported back to Indonesia.

“His attorney got a call at 10 a.m. that his stay of removal was denied,” stated Seth Kaper-Dale, Arino Massie’s pastor.

Almost two hours later, Kaper-Dale heard from Massie. “Arino called to say, ‘Pastor, I’m already on the plane. I’m headed for Japan. Thanks for all the efforts of the community. Tell the community I love them. Tell my son I love him,’” Kaper-Dale told about three dozen people gathered for a rally Thursday.

Massie and the three other men, who are still being held, are part of a 40-percent surge in ICE arrests in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. This includes 100 arrests a day of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record.

The same day the Indonesian men were arrested, the first Christian governor of Jakarta was jailed for blasphemy, just weeks after losing a gubernatorial reelection bid. The world’s most populous Muslim country was visited last month by Vice President Mike Pence, who praised its “tradition of modern Islam.”

But Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate country is not as accurate as it once was. CT reported in …

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The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict

How the former FBI director’s interest in Reinhold Niebuhr shaped his approach to political power.

Two months before he was fired, FBI director James Comey inadvertently revealed something about his theological leanings that may have pointed to his inevitable fallout with President Donald Trump.

In March, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg followed a string of clues to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of a user named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who she believed to be Comey. Many of the user’s tweets had to do with the FBI, including one linking to a report about a meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and a Russian emissary. But what tipped off this particular account was its user name.

While a student at the College of William and Mary, Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr. The Protestant theologian seems to have left an impression, judging from Comey’s references to him in public speeches and from this apparent pseudonym. Within a few days of Feinberg’s article, the owner shut the accounts down, though not before sending one last tweet that seemed to confirm the identification: a link to FBIjobs.gov—perhaps a job offer to Feinberg—and a quote from the movie Anchorman: “Actually I’m not even mad. That’s Amazing.”

Together with my colleague Sylvester Johnson, I published a book about the FBI and religion a few weeks before Feinberg outed Comey’s social media accounts. Our book traces the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities and addresses the beliefs of some of its leaders and agents. I realized that Comey and Niebuhr were a part of the story we were trying to tell.

Niebuhr’s moral pragmatism

As Gene Zubovich notes, politicians caught trying to balance moral idealism and clear-eyed realism often look to Niebuhr, …

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How to Love Your Ideological Enemy

If hospitality is a model for discipleship, then we need both open doors and clear boundaries.

#AmplifyWomen is a two-month-long series running on CT Women, designed to generate a new conversation about women’s leadership and discipleship. Last week we heard from Sharon Hodde Miller on how sharing your platform with others is an act of stewardship, and this week, Karen Swallow Prior invites us to practice “hospitable orthodoxy” in divisive times.

I often receive messages from people who hold to historic church teachings but are increasingly uncertain about how to share these beliefs openly in a cultural climate that’s increasingly hostile to them. One woman, for example, wrote that she wants to “maintain the message of Christ’s love and grace mingled with the truth that is so important not to withhold” but finds it hard to do so among diverse friends. Another shared that she hesitates more and more to speak out for fear of being seen as “negative and hateful.”

Truth be told, I feel these struggles myself on most days. It is not easy, for example, to tell someone I love dearly that I cannot attend his wedding because my love for him compels me not to pretend marriage is something other than what God created it to be. Nor is it easy in a world so defined by a gnostic dichotomy between spiritual and physical to insist that the Incarnation and the Resurrection—God becoming man and dwelling among us, dying on the cross and rising from the dead—are facts as true as the law of gravity.

Yet, the Bible exhorts Christians to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We are obligated to emulate the example of Jesus, who balanced in beautiful harmony the demands of both love and truth. Those of us concerned with not abandoning truth as we speak in love find …

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The Precarious Task of Praying with Presidents in a Media Age

With the whole world watching, spiritual advisers face new challenges.

President Harry Truman was furious. Billy Graham had revealed the content of their private conversation to the media, going so far as to perform a “reenactment” of their prayer time on the White House lawn at the media’s request. It was the first time Truman had invited Graham to the White House, and it would be the last.

Earlier that day, Truman had sought Graham’s counsel on calming public hysteria around the Korean War effort. The meeting had gone well, according to Graham. They even discussed creating a National Day of Prayer, something Truman would implement two years later. But Graham’s unpolished enthusiasm and lack of experience with public officials cost him the ear of the President that Friday in 1950 and almost cost him his reputation altogether.

Calling the evangelist a fake, the President harshly reprimanded him. “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the newspaper,” Truman said of Graham. He did not speak to him again for years after that.

Graham’s meeting with Truman was the first of many encounters with American leaders over a span of more than 50 years. His blazing misstep with Truman, however, was a hard lesson he never forgot: When the world is watching, trust between a president and his spiritual advisors becomes even more fragile.

Billy Graham’s Mutual Respect

For Graham, presidential relationships were grounded in mutual respect. After his mishap with Truman, he never shared the details of private meetings he held with public leaders.

Though he did publicly call out President Lyndon B. Johnson on a position during one of his Crusade meetings (as Graham details in his autobiography), they became close during Johnson’s time in office. …

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Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?

New Testament scholar and apologist Michael Licona’s new book argues that ancient literary devices are the answer—and that’s a good thing for Christians.

Though Michael Licona became a Christian at a young age, he experienced strong doubts while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at Liberty University. That led him to explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in his PhD work, and to engage in public debates with leading skeptics and atheists. Driven by a desire to follow the evidence wherever it led, Licona understood that journey might lead him away from Christianity.

In 2010, Licona released his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which showed that the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than any competing explanations, such as the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his followers or by his enemies, or that the disciples simply experienced hallucinations of the resurrected Jesus.

Licona, formerly apologetics coordinator at the North American Missions Board, is now teaching at Houston Baptist University and has founded RisenJesus.com. He recently released a new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press).

What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up as a Christian?

My parents were Catholic and split up when I was five. My mom remarried and we started attending a Presbyterian church. When I was very young, I was obsessed with getting to heaven. I was always asking, “How do I get to heaven, Mom?” And she said, “You just have to do more good than bad.” So, I was constantly thinking, Where am I on that scale?

When I was ten years old, the Presbyterian church had a combined youth group event and they brought this Christian magician in. He did magic to illustrate the message of the gospel. …

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Even in Canada, Conservative Churches Are Growing

Mainline churches with evangelical leanings outpace their liberal counterparts, study says.

Amid the decades-long decline in mainline Protestantism in North America, researchers in Canada recently found an “elusive sample” of congregations whose growth has bucked the trend.

The key characteristic these exceptional Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches had in common? Evangelical theology.

With fewer evangelicals and more secular surroundings than their brethren in the United States, Canada’s mainline denominations collectively lost half of their members over the past 50 years. Last year, a team of sociologists suggested that conservative theological beliefs—including emphasis on Scripture as the “actual word of God” and belief in the power of prayer—may be the saving grace keeping attendance up at 9 of 22 Ontario churches studied.

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” said David Millard Haskell, the study’s lead author. “But if we are talking solely about which belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The mainline congregations that kept growing by at least 2 percent a year emphasized markers typically associated with evangelical beliefs. For example, such churches described evangelism as the main mission of their church, were more committed to personal spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, and saw Scripture as a singular authority.

Haskell’s study was one of the most popular papers published in the Review of Religious Research last year. His findings among Canadian churches echo trends that researchers in the US have been tracking …

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Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It? (Part Two)

TEAM missionaries research teamwork.

Read Teams in Mission: Are They Worth It?, Part One (Disappointments with the Team; Restoring the Team).

Be a Real Team

In global missions practice, team is a nebulous and often misused term. Lewis asks an important question: “While the idea is admirable, what is the difference between a team and a group?” (2015, 415). In interviews with regional directors, country leaders, and teams around the world, I sought to identify a common definition for team. There were almost as many definitions as there were interviews, but the most common way to define team was this: any group of missionaries who happen to live in the same location is a team.

However, there is a critical difference between a group of missionaries who happen to live and do ministry in the same place, and a team of missionaries who work together. The difference is a common goal. It’s the failure to grasp the significance of this difference that leads to the failure of most teams.

We need to abandon the convenient notion that a team is any group of workers who happen to live near each other. What is a team? A team is group of people with a common goal that compels its members to work together. Notice the two elements that are missing from so many teams—the common goal and working together.

It’s possible to have a common goal that doesn’t compel people to work together. For example, a goal such as “to reach our city for Christ” may be too broad to stimulate teamwork. “To reach the city,” I might hand out Bibles. You might teach English. And our colleague might lead a prayer ministry. All are valuable activities, and contribute towards reaching the city. But we are not working together. We are not a team.

A real …

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