Catholic but not Roman

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the ‘Reforming Catholic Confession’ calls Protestants to unity.

Five hundred years on, some observers are wondering whether the nail Luther used to post his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door was a harbinger of a final nail in the coffin of Protestantism. In light of the many divisions in the church in the wake of the Reformation, do we truly have cause to celebrate? Should we mourn? Should we shrug off our divisions as the price to pay for truth?

This anniversary year gives us the opportunity to honor the legacy of the Reformation. We do so best not by whitewashing its imperfections but by retrieving its unitive spirit—in particular, the Reformers’ original vision for catholic unity under biblical authority.

The rationale

Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, had something like this in mind when, in January, he sent an email to me and others who were using terms like “mere Protestant Christianity” and “Reformed catholicity.” Walls and Ken Collins had just written Roman but Not Catholic, arguing Protestants are catholic too by virtue of identifying with the one true church down through the centuries, as well as with its great tradition.

Evangelicals yearning for the ancient catholic faith need not cross the Tiber. Indeed, Roman-centricity falls short of true catholicity in suggesting that Protestant churches are defective, despite the Reformers’ affirmation of creedal Christianity. Protestant catholicity is bounded only by the supreme authority of Scripture: hence not Roman, but Reforming catholicity.

A Protestant is first and foremost “one who publicly professes” (from the Latin pro and testare). The solas are shouts of praise as well as protest. What protests the Reformers made served the positive purpose …

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Walking in Obedience to the Promptings of God’s Spirit and His Command to Love: Lessons from Burning Man

Many of the people at Burning Man are searching for something to satisfy them spiritually

Burning Man is an annual festival that draws over 70,000 people to the desert of Black Rock City, Nevada, during the week leading up to Labor Day. One of the core values of this community is radical self-expression, which includes things like amazing creativity and artwork, but which also includes radical freedom in the areas of drugs, sexuality, etc. Although it could be easy to see this as a godless event, many of the people who go to Burning Man are searching for something to satisfy them spiritually.

I went to Burning Man this year with a group of Christians who simply wanted to offer the powerful love of God to people who don’t know him yet. This year, like others, people at Burning Man were all over the map spiritually. But regardless of where they were coming from, we invited them to experience the love and goodness of God through our words of encouragement and the nuggets of truth that we shared. Our desire is that each person we talked with will eventually come to know the God who made them and loves them, even if for now we only get to be one piece of that process. Let me share three stories of my time there in the hopes that it would encourage all of us to play our own part in seeing others move closer to the God who loves them.

Loving Our Neighbors – Even If They’re Satanists

It didn’t take us long to figure out that our neighbors were part of a Satanist theme camp. I’m so thankful that I was with a group of Christians that walked both in great discernment and great boldness, knowing that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and so we can go anywhere with confidence because of his presence (Matt. 28:18).

Although I’m sure there were committed Satanists …

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Evangelism and the Marketplace: Four Stories of Evangelism on the Streets of Chicago

Evangelism professor talks to people while they’re waiting for the train

Once a month I go out with Wheaton College students to share the gospel on the streets of Chicago. Many are intimidated by this kind of sharing. While I prefer ‘friendship evangelism’ most of all, marketplace evangelism is also a worthy enterprise.

In fact, the Gospels and the Book of Acts are full of examples of Jesus and Paul encountering anyone they happened to meet, making the most of each situation. If you think of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4) or Paul in Athens sharing at the Agora (Acts 17), your memory will be jogged and you can discover many other examples. This kind of witness has its own perimeters and unique features, but it is surprisingly fun and often fruitful.

Last Friday, I was out with about 25 students and 3 of us went together. We prayed, telling Jesus we were available to talk with those to whom his Holy Spirit would direct us. We asked that he would lead us to people whose hearts he was preparing that we might make explicit what he was doing implicitly in their lives already.

My approach is simply to ask people in environments where they may be waiting for something or someone (train stations, bus stops, park benches, etc.). I simply explain we are out talking with people about Jesus and ask if we can speak with them for a while as they are waiting. Sometimes people say they are not interested, and we thank them and move on. My experience is that about 50% of those I approach in this matter are interested in talking. And it’s fun!

This past Friday, I went with Maddy and Amanda to the food court at Ogilvie Transportation Center and we had four deep and engaging evangelistic conversations.

Story 1: Jewish Background

First, we spoke with a Jewish guy who initially didn’t want …

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What to Make of Karl Barth’s Steadfast Adultery

Do the recent revelations discredit his theology?

I knew that Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, had a decades-long affair with his personal assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. But I didn’t know some of the details. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and the details were deeply disappointing.

As the author of the recently released Karl Barth: A Biography for Evangelicals, I was anxious to read the latest revelations about the relationship. I had briefly discussed it in the book, noting the pain it caused his wife, Nelly, especially when Barth not only admitted to his wife his love for Charlotte but also insisted that Charlotte move into the family home to help him with his workload. Based on the work of Barth scholar George Hunsinger, I tried to set the relationship in the context: A younger Barth had fallen in love with a woman his father forbade him from marrying; his marriage to Nelly was in some sense arranged. So Barth was an emotionally lonely man. But I concluded that even if it was merely emotional adultery:

Husbands of much lesser stature have recognized that when such a relationship sabotages the very integrity of one’s marriage and becomes a burden to the family, it may suggest a duty to sacrifice one’s desires for the sake of one’s vows.

Then I read “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum” by Christiane Tietz in Theology Today, which discusses recently released personal letters Barth wrote to von Kirschbaum from 1925–1935. I was stunned. It wasn’t merely that Barth had committed adultery or that a great theologian was shown to be not so great in his personal life. As church history shows time and again, sin is no respecter of persons, no matter how great.

No, …

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Christians Could Return to Middle East, Thanks to Trump (Deportations)

Emptied Arab churches prepare for a rare task: making room.

When Haitham Jazrawi started working at Kirkuk Presbyterian Church in Iraq in 1991, there were 72 families. Today, there are still 72 families—but only two of the originals remain. During his 26-year tenure as caretaker and then pastor, Jazrawi has seen a turnover of more than 300 families due to emigration.

Such an outward flow has been the norm in churches across the Middle East. In Iraq and Syria, countries ravaged by years of war and the terror of the Islamic State, roughly two-thirds of Christians have fled.

Among Jazrawi’s congregants, 50 percent are internally displaced from elsewhere in Iraq. “They come as refugees from inside our country,” said the Kirkuk pastor, “from the Nineveh Valley, from Nineveh, from other villages and cities.”

Soon, they may also come from outside of Iraq. With the Trump administration threatening to deport more than 1,400 Iraqis, hundreds of whom are Christians, a rare irony may present itself: the forced movement of Christians into the Middle East.

This summer, hundreds of Iraqis were behind bars in holding centers around the United States, slated for deportation to Iraq. The majority were Christians, and most were rounded up in Detroit in a massive June raid executed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Not only would they be breaking up families that have been here for decades,” said Nathan Kalasho, a local advocate for the detainees, “but they would be sending an already targeted minority to a country that no longer welcomes them.”

Pressured by politics, violence, and discrimination, the movement of Christians out of the Middle East is nothing new. But now a global surge in anti-immigrant sentiment puts Arab churches in …

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Shalom, Amigos: The Changing Faces of Christian Zionism

How Hispanic evangelicals hope to become Israel’s best friends.

When Tony Suarez lost his wife to cancer last year, the Passover song he learned at his first Seder meal only months before became his anthem.

Just as the Jewish people sing dayenu—“it would have been enough”—about God saving them from the plagues and leading them out of Israel, the Virginia pastor proclaimed that God’s faithfulness was enough, even without the miracle he had prayed for.

“That song meant everything,” said Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). “And we wouldn’t have known it if we hadn’t been in a synagogue.”

Suarez is helping to lead a movement among Latino evangelicals that aspires to change the face of Christian Zionism in America.

For the past few years, the NHCLC’s Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition (HILC) has brought Latino churches—some with blue-and-white Israeli flags in their sanctuaries and Hebrew songs in their worship sets—together with pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

The coalition has organized seminars, trips to the Holy Land, and sit-downs with Israeli politicians in order to make Hispanics “the most pro-Israel, pro-Jewish demographic.” With arms extended and flags waving, its members pray with their congregations for the peace of Jerusalem and the well-being of Israel.

In addition to events in places like New York, Florida, and Washington, DC, HILC leaders have also advocated across Latin America against anti-Semitism and for the Jewish state. For example, Orlando pastor Carlos Ortiz has joined advocates for Israel in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Nicaragua reestablished a diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state earlier this year after a seven-year …

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The Most Dangerous Thing Luther Did

And other facts about Bible translation that transformed the world.

At the very beginning of the Reformation, the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, the Bible Jerome had produced in Latin in A.D. 380. It included both a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, some additions to the Book of Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

This was not a book the general public was familiar with. It was not a book most individuals or families could own. There were pulpit Bibles usually chained to the pulpit; there were manuscripts of Bibles in monasteries; there were Bibles owned by kings and the socially elite. But the Bible was not a book possessed by many.

Furthermore, the Bible was not in the language of the people. Yes, the well-educated social elite could read Latin, but your average resident of England or France or Germany or Italy or Spain knew only snippets of Latin from the Mass. And indeed, often enough they garbled the snippets they knew. If you want to get a good feel for the poverty of biblical literacy in the general public in this era, read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 in Middle English. Confusion and misunderstandings of the Bible abound in Chaucer’s stories.

The Latin Vulgate may have been the Bible that gave Luther his revolutionary insights, but Luther quickly realized that if things were really going to change, it would not come just by debating theology with other learned souls. The Bible needed to be made available in the vernacular, in his case, German. In my view, the most dangerous thing Luther ever did was not nail the 95 Theses to a door. It was translating the Bible into ordinary German.

Luther’s ‘Heresy’

By 1522, Luther had translated …

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God Made Our Brains to Need Others

Both science and Scripture invite us to share our suffering.

As psychiatrist Curt Thompson has written, “To be human is to be vulnerable.” Suffering disinters vulnerability, illuminating a feature of our humanity we’d often rather ignore.

Some of us are forced to confront our vulnerability when tragedy strikes, when natural disasters hit, or when relationships crumble. For me, vulnerability crept up from within my own flesh and bone. Nearly nine years ago I became ill with a disease that would come to dominate my adult life. Everything turned out so different from what my 20-year-old self imagined. But in a life of changed plans, disappointments, and medical bills, the biggest surprise has been the joy.

I know it sounds strange. Chronic health conditions bring pain, suffering, and frustration—circumstances we feel powerless to control. My autoimmune disease continuously forces me into a position of vulnerability before others, allowing others to see the powerlessness I would rather keep hidden. In the exposure of learning to receive love in my most broken places, I have found the deepest joy.

Joy has come in unlikely venues, like the dingy cottage where my husband and I moved after placing his seminary education on hold to attend to my declining health. Due to joint pain, I struggled to walk across our home and do basic things like cook dinner or clean up the dishes. In the midst of my shame and humiliation, small acts of compassion stood out that much more.

One day a friend stopped by after she finished work to say hello. As she sat next to me on the couch, all I could do was weep. I was drowning in the sorrow of uncertainty, worried my life would never improve, but she wordlessly comforted me by coexisting with my suffering. By letting her see me undone, I realized …

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Bivocational Ministry as an Evangelism Opportunity

One-third of American pastors are bivocational.

One of the most vital yet understudied streams of church ministers is the bivocational pastor. This is that pastor who, either out of necessity or intentionality, works as both the pastor of a local church and in the secular marketplace.

Already, more than one-third of all American pastors are bivocational, and this number will probably grow.

Bivocational ministry offers a great opportunity for evangelism. Bivocational pastors are uniquely positioned to live out their pastoral calling as the lead missionary to their local community. As a well-equipped and gifted emissary of the gospel, these ministers can lead their congregations by demonstrating the power of evangelism to build the local church.

In a mission field that has rapidly become the most unchurched culture in its history, bivocational pastors are on the frontlines of gospel witness.

In focusing on how bivocational pastoring can facilitate effective evangelism, I will first argue that full-time ministry can potentially hamper cultural engagement. In light of these challenges, I will outline the role of bivocational pastors in leading the church into a season of fruitful evangelism.

The Challenge of Pastoral Evangelism

Evangelism is the work of testifying to the world of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ with the aim of converting those who aren’t trusting in Christ to repentance. This, of course, demands that we actually engage those individuals and communities we are trying to reach with the good news.

For most people, the proximity that we find in a work environment is an important outlet for evangelism.

Ironically, despite their call to lead in evangelism, church pastors are limited in this respect. Even as full-time pastors may desire to reach those who don’t …

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Willow Creek Chooses Co-Ed Pastors to Succeed Bill Hybels

Megachurch becomes biggest in America to appoint a female lead pastor.

Since “no one person can replace” Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels, the influential megachurch has named two people: its current executive pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter.

Hybels announced on Saturday that the pair will succeed him as lead pastors when he steps down in October 2018.

The historic transition will make Willow Creek one of the largest churches in America with a woman in the lead pastor position, as well as the only major evangelical megachurch with male-female lead pastors who aren’t married.

“When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’” said Hybels, speaking from Willow Creek’s central campus in South Barrington, Illinois, one of seven locations in the Chicago region that draw a collective total of 25,000 worshippers each weekend. “And because this is a deeply held value in our church, we said, ‘No problem.’”

Larson will be lead pastor, overseeing Willow Creek’s 400-person staff and $77 million budget, and Carter will be lead teaching pastor, continuing to preach most weeks.

The news comes amid Willow Creek’s six-year succession plan for the megachurch, which was founded in 1975 and has grown to rank among the 10 biggest in America. The 65-year-old pastor joins a wave of greying leaders who have opted to go public with their leadership transition, as Hybels first disclosed at the church’s 2012 Global Leadership Summit.

“We know that no one person can replace Bill,” Larson said in an interview on the Unseminary podcast last year. “That has led Willow to talk about moving to more of a team approach …

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