What We Mean When We Say ‘Orthodox Christianity’

James K.A. Smith wants to focus on the creeds, not sexuality. But there’s more to it than that.

Is affirming same-sex sexual relationships as righteous before God a heresy? Even if you believe it’s un-Biblical, are heresy and orthodoxy even the right categories for addressing the problem?

Over the weekend, philosopher and Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith argued that recent use of the words orthodoxy and heresy in debates about sexual ethics surrounding same-sex marriage is a selective and illegitimate expansion of the terms. Instead, we should reserve the language of orthodoxy and heresy for those beliefs which are “conciliar,” and “rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the Church (Nicaea, Chalcedon)” because they refer to the fundamental truths of God’s triunity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, and so forth.

In contrast to this ideal, Smith says these terms have been reduced from this creedal basis to a single issue: “a particular view of sexuality and marriage.” He deems this development, “recent, innovative, and narrow,” symptomatic of a modern tendency to reduce Christianity to its morality. Indeed, unless we’re careful, the term orthodox will simply become the adjective we append to any issue we personally find important, thereby writing off “swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy” and closing down conversation in the church.

Predictably, this argument set off some discussion on the internet. Notable entries include Alastair Roberts’s argument that Smith has truncated the notion of creedal orthodoxy, and Alan Jacobs’s defense of Smith against Roberts and other critics, which Smith himself has commended. No doubt more entries will come.

Before proceeding with my own judgments, …

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Thankfulness Protects Against PTSD

In the aftermath of tragedy, gratitude helps us grow.

I can still remember with perfect clarity the moment I read the news about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I was out for a walk with my young daughter. I felt physically sick to my stomach and immediately began weeping, thinking of all those families that had just lost a little one like mine. It feels as though the past 10 to 15 years have been full of one tragedy after another—whether terrorist attacks or acts of violence, it’s hard to make sense of it all. But is there another way?

Some psychology research suggests that this rise in traumatic events can actually lead to a surprising reaction: gratitude.

Gratitude, of course, will not be our first response. It’s impossible not to go through pain, confusion and anger when you hear about these tragedies, and even more so if you experience it firsthand. This response is called Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), but there is also a second psychological concept called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Post-Traumatic Growth happens in the season after the trauma, when some people start to feel thankful to be alive, thankful that the trauma wasn’t even worse, and grateful for the chance to learn more about themselves.

In a fascinating study, researchers Julie Vieselmeyer and colleagues followed up with 359 students and faculty that were present on campus or somewhere nearby during the Seattle Pacific University shooting of 2014. They wanted to discover whether gratitude can actually protect someone from the detrimental effects of witnessing trauma.

Participants took a survey four months after the shooting occurred. Researchers asked them questions about how close (physically and emotionally) they were to the shooting, and the kinds of post-trauma symptoms they …

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The Fight for Social Justice Starts Within

Only a vibrant inner life can sustain the activist’s soul.

A little over a decade ago, no emblem of young Christians’ blooming justice activism flashed brighter than Invisible Children. It was born in 2004, shortly after Jason Russell and two other recent college graduates returned to the United States from Uganda with burning hearts and miles of amateur film footage.

The trio produced a shoestring documentary baring the pain of Uganda’s civil war. Within three years, tens of thousands of activists were participating in the group’s “night commutes” to raise awareness of Uganda’s child soldiers. In 2012, Invisible Children launched another video, Kony 2012, which struck hard at warlord Joseph Kony and pressed for stronger government efforts to capture him. Time magazine declared it the most viral video in history, garnering 100 million views in the first week after release.

But the stunning rise was short-lived. In Uganda, Kony proved tenacious. In the United States, stress and the glare of the public eye sent co-founder Russell into a tailspin. Ten days after the video’s release, another video went viral—this one of Russell’s public mental breakdown on the streets of San Diego. In December 2014, BuzzFeed announced “The End Of Invisible Children.” The pronouncement was premature—the organization is still active today—but many advocates parted ways.

Looking back on the battle that he and millions of supporters had waged against a single African war criminal, Russell concluded bluntly, “I feel like Kony won.”

An All-Too-Common Story

Russell’s story is dramatic, but he is hardly alone. His is merely the amplified tale of countless other advocates, activists, social workers, and nonprofit founders. …

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Missions Sunday: The Missing Key to the Refugee Crisis: Christian Hospitality towards Muslims (Part Two)

A biblical view of hospitality can offer a corrective to the current view of refugees.

Read The Missing Key to the Refugee Crisis: Christian Hospitality towards Muslims, Part One (The Calling of Levi: Jesus Invites the Marginalized; Levi’s Feast: The Challenge of Hospitality to the Marginalized; Jesus Reveals His Motive; Jesus and the Samaritans: Enemies among the Marginalized).

The Early Church: Embracing Marginalized Enemies

Acts 8:4-25 gives a vastly different account of the Samaritans; Phillip proclaimed the gospel to the Samaritans and many came to faith. As a result, the Jerusalem Church sent Peter and John as representatives to investigate. They sent the same John who earlier wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan community for their inhospitable behavior towards Jesus (Luke 9:52–55). Yet John probably felt a different attitude as he set out for Samaria with Peter (Bruce 1988, Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 6306-6307).

When Peter and John arrived, they witnessed the work of the Spirit of God among the Samaritans. Instead of calling judgment upon them, they extended their hands and prayed for them. As a result, the Samaritans experience an outpouring of the Spirit: “Suddenly the Spirit of God is poured out and their lives too and they will never be the same” (Barrett 1994, 412).

Convinced of God’s work among these Samaritans, Luke pointed out the impact of their change. While Peter and John were on their return journey to Jerusalem, they were “preaching the gospel in many other Samaritan villages” (Acts 8:25). This time, they were not asking for judgment by fire on more Samaritan villages (Luke 9:51–55).

The Spirit of Jesus changed John and Peter’s hearts. Other Samaritan villages welcomed them and they bore witness to what Christ had …

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‘They Call Us Monsters’ Offers a More Compassionate Brand of Juvenile Justice

Ben Lear’s directorial debut humanizes the debate about adult prison sentences for juvenile offenders.

When children commit the most heinous of crimes, it challenges our sense of justice and probes the limits of our worldview. Ben Lear’s bold documentary They Call Us Monsters, now streaming on Netflix, suggests that how we respond to these young offenders may also be the ultimate test of our humanity—and a proving ground for the power of grace.

Like many films that deal with such fraught issues as incarceration, They Call Us Monsters begins with a history lesson. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, a perceived rise in youth violence and juvenile delinquency led many observers to blame a lax justice system for “losing control of” young offenders. By the early 1990s, ostensibly “tough on crime” policies gained broad political traction, and many states adopted laws that automatically transfer certain juvenile cases to the adult court system. There, children could face much harsher penalties than those allowed in juvenile court.

The film’s provocative opening newsreel includes a 1994 press interview in which then-Representative Newt Gingrich curtly expresses the prevailing attitude behind such laws: “There are no violent offenses that are juvenile,” he says. “You rape somebody, you’re an adult. You shoot somebody, you’re an adult.”

Such inflexible rhetoric resonated loudly in the late 1990s, and the movement to punish rather than rehabilitate juvenile offenders intensified during the early 2000s and persists even today in many states. But now the tides are beginning to turn. There’s a growing consensus that mass incarceration is a failed experiment, and new findings in developmental psychology have prompted some former “tough on crime” …

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How God Keeps it Together

When our life unravels, He holds the threads.

Nothing is simple about navigating our overlapping identities in contemporary life. In any given situation, we find ourselves torn between our public and private selves, our roles at home or at work, the different sides of our personalities. To be a responsible parent, we have to put our laissez-faire self to death. To be a good spouse, we may sacrifice some of our drive and ambition to succeed at work. As a responsible employee, we may not be the ever-present friend we once were.

The Crown, Netflix’s recent miniseries about Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, highlights this universal reality in the unique life of the royals. Upon receiving news of the death of King George VI, Elizabeth’s grandmother, the Queen Mother Mary, references the royal practice of exchanging one’s surname for the last name “Regina,” which simply means “queen.”

“While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else, Elizabeth Mountbatten, for she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina,” the Queen Mother counsels her granddaughter. “The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another, but the crown must win. Must always win.”

Elizabeth learns what this means in the crisis surrounding Princess Margaret’s ill-fated love affair with the divorced Captain Peter Townsend. Initially, Elizabeth promises to help her sister get married no matter the scandal. She realizes only later that to do so would violate her royal duties as the head of the Church of England. In that agonizing moment, Elizabeth can be a promise-keeping sister or a faithful queen—not both. And the crown must always win.

But what of the infinite God who pictures …

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Interview: The ‘Prophets’ and ‘Apostles’ Leading the Quiet Revolution in American Religion

A Christian movement characterized by multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism.

A quiet revolution is taking place in America religion, say Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, authors of The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape.

Largely behind the scenes, a group of mostly self-proclaimed “apostles,” leading ministries from North Carolina to Southern California, has attracted millions of followers with promises of direct access to God through signs and wonders.

Their movement, which Christerson and Flory called “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” Christianity, has become one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the United States. Apostles like Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, and Ché Ahn claim millions of followers. They’re also aided by an army of fellow ministers who fall under their “spiritual covering.”

Many of these apostles run megachurches, including Bethel Church in Redding California, HRock Church in Pasadena, and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. But their real power lies in their innovative approach to selling faith. They’ve combined multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism to connect directly with millions of spiritual customers. That allows them to reap millions in donations, conference fees, and book and DVD sales. And because these INC apostles claim to get direction straight from God, they operate with almost no oversight.

Nashville-based religion writer Bob Smietana spoke with Christerson (professor of sociology at Biola University) and Flory (senior director of research and evaluation at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California) about …

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The Freedom and Chaos of Sola Scriptura

Historian Mark Noll helps unravel the uses and misuses of ‘the Bible alone.’

It’s been a hallmark of Protestantism for 500 years, but what do we mean when we base our faith on “the Bible alone”? Is it even possible to read the Bible without being influenced by the social and theological contexts in which one is immersed? Hasn’t this doctrine, more than any other Reformation doctrine, been responsible for the fragmentation of the church?

To help unravel such questions, editor in chief Mark Galli interviewed a scholar who has given much thought to the place of Scripture in the church’s life: Mark Noll, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, as well as an essay in Protestantism After 500 Years entitled, “Chaotic Coherence: Sola Scriptura and the Twentieth-Century Spread of Christianity.”

Though the idea of sola scriptura predates Martin Luther, when did the idea surface in his life?

It came in controversies with people defending indulgences and unquestioned obedience to the pope. In these disputes he appealed directly to the Bible—as with his dramatic statement to the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms in 1521: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He took his stand on Scripture alone.

The tension came when other Protestants asserted, “Well, the Bible alone clearly teaches that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, this is a symbolic supper.” That’s when Luther said, “No, that’s not right. You have to read the passages about the Lord’s Supper in connection with all the other passages and the best interpretations of past theologians.”

And so hermeneutical debates (controversies over interpretation) …

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Man Shall Not Live on the New Testament Alone

No less than Jesus in the wilderness, we need every word that comes from the mouth of God.

What do Christians do with the Old Testament, with its weird laws, brutal violence, and unpredictable God? Some are confused by it, some are afraid of it, and some simply ignore it. Our confusion, fear, and avoidance of the Old Testament has led to a severe problem. Like a doctor examining a patient, Brent Strawn examines our Old Testament habits and makes a dire diagnosis that supplies the title of his new book: The Old Testament is Dying.

Strawn’s analysis is divided into three sections. The first two focus on the problem (Part 1: “The Old Testament as a Dying Language” and Part 2: “Signs of Morbidity”), while the final section offers a solution (Part 3: “Path to Recovery”). Strawn’s grave assessment should cause great concern to any who believe, along with Paul the apostle, that all Scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16). But his suggested treatment should be a source of great hope.

A Disappearing Language

Strawn bases his diagnosis on empirical data from a 2010 Pew Forum survey (inspired by Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t). In addition, he draws on patterns of Old Testament usage in popular sermons, hymns, and songs, and in the Revised Common Lectionary (a daily Bible-reading plan used by certain Protestant denominations). Despite widespread claims of religiosity among the US population, Strawn’s evidence strongly suggests that most American Christians are relatively ignorant of basic truths about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament—and that trends in sermons and worship are contributing to the problem. For the most part, the Old Testament is …

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Why Christians Are Abandoning the Orphanage

A new focus on the family is changing how Christians care for abandoned and neglected children.

One night in 2001, a prostitute in eastern Ukraine propositioned a preacher.

Peter Dudnik turned her down and told her he worked at Good News Church. She asked him to take her 11-year-old son, Sergey, to the church’s orphanage.

Good News’ ministry to orphans was well known; two years earlier, Dudnik had found four street children sniffing glue at a train station. Good News began serving them meals, and the number of children grew from 40 to 60, and on into the hundreds.

One rainy evening, several of the children begged to stay the night. Church workers decided to let them sleep on the tables where they had eaten. And from that grew the You Shall Be Found Orphanage.

Over time, however, children who left the orphanage at age 18 weren’t faring well. Without the support of a family, they fell into drugs, prostitution, and suicide. The church asked God what to do, and he gave them Malachi 4:6: “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

Good News began efforts to strengthen biological families, accepting children only as a last resort. It also worked to remove any parental rights over abandoned children, enabling them to be moved into foster care or adopted. With the church’s encouragement, families from churches in and around their city have adopted more than 100 children. (Dudnik and his wife, Tamara, adopted Sergey.)

What happened at Good News is a microcosm of the worldwide shift in orphan care.

After horrifying reports of neglect and abuse in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and ’90s, governments in the West began to veer away from institutional housing.

“I was running a large orphanage in Dallas in the early ’90s,” …

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