Monday, December 12, 2016

At Christmas, the self life or the selfless life

It is always a good thing to look to Christ and His Word when a person with a large following who has been given an evangelical platform begins to offer advice that doesn't quite sound like the selfless Savior. In fact, it’s indispensable. And it’s especially appropriate to do so during Advent.

Such was the need when Glennon Doyle Melton recently updated her nearly 650,000 Facebook followers about the changes in her life – divorce from her husband, with whom she shares three children, and a new love, female soccer great Abby Wambach. The news she shared, however, was not as significant as the mind-set she counseled her followers to adopt. In her post sharing her news, Melton said:
[I]t is my job as a leader not to concern myself too deeply about what you think and feel about me -- about the way I live my life. That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing -- that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are. I want you to refuse to betray yourself. Not just for you. For ALL OF US. Because what the world needs -- in order to grow, in order to relax, in order to find peace, in order to become brave -- is to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation.
This message from Melton -- a popular author and blogger who has been a speaker on the Women of Faith tour -- spread around the world as our church was nearing the close of a sermon series through the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The contrast between Christ’s expectation of His followers in that letter and Melton’s expectation of hers in her post is stark.

The call to humility and servanthood marks Philippians. The letter urges Jesus’ followers toward the opposite of self-focus, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-gratification.

On behalf of Christ, Paul urges the church to think of others as more important than themselves (Phil. 2:3) and to look out for the interests of others, not just their own (Phil. 2:4). Then he provides the supreme example: Christ put others before Himself by becoming a man and humbling Himself by going to the cross to die a humiliating, yet ultimately glorious, death (Phil. 2:5-8). He goes on to provide two examples of Christians who followed Jesus’ example to serve the interests of others.

What Paul described is the truly authentic life -- a life molded in conformity to the selfless Savior. That is the life all who previously were suffering as the walking dead have been rescued to live. We do not betray ourselves when we live for others. We live the authentic life for which we were created and re-created. And it results in true joy.

As we near Christmas, we are reminded anew that in becoming a man God the Son did not betray Himself. He gave Himself for the eternal benefit of others. And He now reigns as Lord of all. For Him, humiliation was the way to exaltation.

In this season and beyond, may we live by Jesus’ work and words. After all, it is He who said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The evangelical election audit: Grace in the saints

I was privileged to stand before the congregation of Covenant Community Church last Sunday on behalf of the elders and thank God for His grace and commend our fellow saints for their gracious interaction during the divisive and just-completed presidential election campaign.

Those who are part of our fellowship undoubtedly handled their ballots in a variety of ways, but our bond in Christ and our love for one another prevailed over our differences on election day. The presidential choices offered by the two major parties left evangelical Christians with no good choices, prompting widespread soul-searching on what to do.

What I didn't observe from our church during the general election season was:

1. Criticism of other Christians about their opinions or decisions.

2. Harsh rhetoric toward those who held different views.

3. Attempts to bind the consciences of other followers of Christ.

Regrettably, I did observe all of those from other Christians on social and other forms of media. That is not to say our thoughts about the decisions of others were always pure. But I never saw any such attitude reflected in words or actions among our fellowship. Nor is that to say, "Aren't we great?"

It is to say God is great, and He gave us abundant grace. He blessed us with love for and patience with one another. He blessed us with the ability to look out not only for our own interests but "for the interests of others" (Phil. 3:4b). He blessed us with the desire to understand our brothers and sisters. He blessed us with the willingness to withhold judgment and to not impose our perspective on others.

Thankfully, God is still making that grace available to us in our post-election lives. We still have much to learn from one another. We still need to show the world what God's love is like by pouring out love, grace and compassion on one another.

We will do this with grace and truth, because the Jesus who has created us as a church and binds us together as a church and indwells and holds onto each of us is the Jesus who is "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14b). While we extend grace to one another and those outside our band of brothers and sisters, we also will speak truth in love to one another and those on the outside.

As much as we ever have, we -- as the people of God delivered from death to life and darkness to light -- need to stand strongly for the dignity and sanctity of every human life as doctors continue to slay our yet born children, as the state promotes the killing of the elderly and disabled, as wickedly misguided forces rise to disparage people of color, and as too many Americans treat those outside their tribe with contempt. We need to stand for the free exercise of religion by all religious adherents and those with no religious belief -- while faithfully proclaiming the only gospel, the gospel of Jesus, that can bring them to God.

We were made for this time. Let us embrace it. Let us love everyone. Let us stand for truth. Let us serve one another. Let us trust and treasure Jesus more than ever.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The evangelical election audit: What of conscience?

Another observation regarding evangelical engagement in this presidential election should be obvious:

Some of us have not respected the freedom of conscience of each other.

Before I explain that comment and by way of clarification, the differences among evangelical Christians I am addressing in this series of posts are not about whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Evangelicals have been strongly pro-life for nearly 40 years. Hillary Clinton's support for both unfettered abortion rights and government funding of abortion eliminates her from consideration by the overwhelming majority of true evangelicals.

Instead, the debate among evangelicals in this election focuses on Donald Trump -- whether to vote for him, to vote for a third-party or write-in candidate, or not to vote. Regrettably, conscience has been ignored, even trampled, by some of us.

The #NeverTrump band has not been totally free of such behavior, but it is Trump supporters who especially have been guilty of this in recent weeks and months. The criticism by some Trump-supporting evangelicals of their brothers and sisters who are not committed to voting for the Republican nominee has been disappointing, even disheartening. Some have descended to snark and name-calling.

We are not talking about disagreements between evangelical camps over such critical matters as abortion, marriage and religious liberty. The division is over a problematic candidate, not defining issues. Those who refuse to vote for the GOP candidate are not less committed to the pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-religious freedom causes. Instead, they believe their consciences will not permit them to vote for Trump. For this, they have been scolded by some fellow evangelicals, who have, in essence, called on these dissenters to violate their consciences. This falls short of biblical teaching and Christian love.

The apostle Paul addresses matters of conscience in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. While he disagrees with some of his brothers and sisters, he doesn't seek to coerce them to violate their consciences. He doesn't criticize his fellow saints. He calls for love and understanding on both sides. The conscience of a Christian may change over time, but no Christ-follower should criticize another in the meantime or force him or her to make that change.

Paul writes, "But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Rom. 14:10).

Loving persuasion is good; judgmental coercion is not. May we be faithful to Scripture and to our Master's command to love one another. Let us prize conscience but -- even more -- one another.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The evangelical election audit: What about others?

An assessment of how evangelical Christians have handled this presidential election campaign should include this observation:

Some of us have not looked out for the interests of one another.

Considering others and their interests is addressed directly -- not uniquely -- by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians of Philippi. He urges these brothers and sisters to act with humility not only to "regard one another as more important than yourselves" but to "not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil. 2:3-4)

As in all elections, there are those whose interests we should look out for in 2016. The unborn are certainly among them. So are children who have been born. So are future citizens. So are the poor, orphans, disabled, enslaved and other vulnerable members of our society.

In the evangelical church, however, too many seemingly have failed to look out "for the interests of others" in their own blood-bought family.

Just this year, one of the candidates for the White House has retweeted messages from white supremacist groups. The same candidate has charged he could not receive a fair trial from a federal judge because the judge is of Mexican descent. These and other actions and rhetoric have elicited support for his campaign from white nationalists.

All of this has produced concern and opposition from African Americans and other minorities, including many who count themselves evangelicals. But it does not appear to have produced the kind of concern or empathy from some white evangelicals who are commanded to look out "for the interests of others."

It appears to me too many white evangelicals -- and any is too many -- have failed to consider the perspectives of their black and Hispanic fellow saints. Too many have failed to enter into the pain experienced by their minority brothers and sisters in response to Donald Trump's campaign. Too many have failed to express solidarity with their African-American and other minority partners in the gospel.

Instead, these white evangelicals, and their leaders, have announced and -- at least in some cases -- promoted support for Trump without expressing public disapproval of the racial insensitivity or animosity of his words and behavior. They have shown a tone deafness to the anguished cries of those to whom they are united eternally by the blood of Jesus.

Like my previous email in this blog series on the election, this is not primarily about whom you and I will vote for. This is about the name of Christ and the health, unity and witness of His church. Will we love and serve our brothers and sisters whose skin color and ethnicity is different by looking out for their interests and not just our own? Because in looking out for their interests, we also are looking out for the interests of the Lord Jesus and His church.

Photo by DonkeyHotey.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Rejoicing in Reformation Day

(This is a revision of a post from Oct. 31, 2012.)

Happy Reformation Day!

As evangelical Christians, we should rejoice in this day and what it represents. On Oct. 31, 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That event helped set off the Reformation, which continued for decades and still affects us today. We will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this history-changing event next year, God willing.

That reform came at great cost to Luther and many others, and we continue to benefit from their sacrifice and the truths they recovered, stood for and proclaimed. The issues that produced the Protestant and evangelical movements remain important today.

The truths of the Reformation are often summarized as the five solas. That word, sola, means “only” or “alone.” The five are: Scripture alone; Christ alone; grace alone; faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

The use of the word “alone” is important. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church did not deny Scripture had authority; it said Scripture was not the sole final authority.

As we think about the Reformation ignited by Luther on this date 499 years ago, let us remind ourselves of these truths:

-- Scripture alone is our final authority, not Scripture plus an individual, council, church, tradition, experience or document.

-- Christ alone is our mediator with God, not Christ plus any human righteousness or accomplishment.

-- Grace alone is the way of salvation, not grace plus any human work or method.

-- Faith alone is the means of justification, not faith plus any human merit or infusion of Christ’s righteousness.

-- The glory of God alone is the purpose of life, not His glory plus that of any other.

As those saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, may we hold onto these truths as we recognize our ongoing need for reformation in our own lives.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The evangelical election audit: Where is grace?

Two weeks from today, we will have a new president and a new Congress -- barring results that leave the election winners undetermined.

The pundits and many other Americans will likely be conducting postmortems already, and some of our fellow evangelical Christians may be providing similar examinations of our movement. There will be much for evangelicals to discuss, and lots of it will be painful.

Even before election day, here is the first of my observations as an evangelical about evangelicals and this presidential campaign:

Some of us have failed to extend grace to each other.

The division over Republican nominee Donald Trump has not always shown us at our best. Some on both sides have fallen short. The harshness in rhetoric toward others seemed to be more from the #NeverTrump band in the primaries. It appears to have switched to the Trump-supporting evangelicals since the GOP convention.

Passions still run high. Both sides are convinced of their positions. It is difficult in such situations not to lash out, convinced ours is the only possible way for a Christian to think.

But we can, and must, do better. We sin if we don't. Amid our disagreement over what to do in this election, we who were enemies of Christ before He made us His own should not treat one another as enemies. We are brothers and sisters through His blood. We may have a family disagreement, but we should give each other not only the benefit of the doubt but, as pastor/blogger Scotty Smith recently said, the benefit of grace.

It is not the unanimity of our votes but the love we have for one another that enables the world to see in the church what God is like (I John 4:11-12).

We have almost two weeks left. May we express our differences before Nov. 8 with the desire to understand and the devotion to love one another. And may we do so in every election hereafter.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The church and the police shootings of black men

Once again, the shooting deaths of black men by police -- available for all to see in videos online -- and ensuing protests against law enforcement have brought to the surface the longstanding divisiveness that marks black-white relations in the United States.

As the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are uniquely qualified to respond to this issue and promote both healing and unity. We should not miss this opportunity.

As His followers, we know a reality many others do not. We not only know from God's Word we -- and all other human beings -- are alike in being image bearers of God, but, as God's redeemed people, we also know we are united eternally to one another by the gospel of Jesus. Our paramount identity is in Him, not in anything else that characterizes us.

How should we respond to these ongoing shooting deaths of black men -- the latest being Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott and a man in El Cajon, Calif., who is so far unnamed? There are a number of ways we should respond, including seeking justice, but here are only four based on Rom. 12:

(1) We should lament their deaths, and we should lament with those who lament.

The taking of the life of any person made in God's image is a sobering act, especially when there is a question about whether it is done in self-defense. "[W]eep with those who weep," the apostle Paul wrote (Rom. 12:15). And as Southern Baptist, African-American pastor H.B. Charles has said, "The Bible exhorts us to weep with those who weep. It doesn't tell us to judge whether they should be weeping."

2. We should listen.

Paul wrote, "Do not be wise in your own estimation" (Rom. 12:16). Earlier in the verse, he instructed the Christians in Rome to "not be haughty in mind."

The perspectives on police shootings of African Americans can be vastly different between blacks and whites. We should not assume we have full knowledge. We should not presume our experience is normative. We should realize we likely have much to learn.

As white disciples of Jesus, we should recognize the experiences of our black brothers and sisters in this society can be starkly divergent from ours, especially in their interactions with police. We should ask them to share their perspectives. We should ask them to help us understand. We should be willing to have our judgments transformed.

3. We should love.

Our love for one another -- including across color and ethnic differences -- should be genuine. In Rom. 12:9, Paul calls for the church to love "without hypocrisy," then explains in the following verses what authentic love looks like:

-- Genuine love is holy. It hates evil, including racism at an individual or corporate level.

-- Genuine love is brotherly. It is like the love of family members for one another, because we are the eternal family of God.

-- Genuine love is honoring. It gives "preference to one another in honor," which means we lead the way in showing another's honor is more important than ours.

-- Genuine love is diligent. It does not delay in loving another but serves as our vocation, because it is.

-- Genuine love is trusting. It demonstrates faith in God, even while "persevering in tribulation."

-- Genuine love is serving. It humbly serves others as if their needs are ours.

4. We should leave revenge to God.

We should not seek to gain revenge -- against police or anyone else. Vengeance belongs only to God.

In not being "overcome with evil" (Rom. 12:21), we must not only avoid being overwhelmed by the evil of others, but as pastor John MacArthur says: "[W]e must not allow ourselves to be overcome by our own evil responses. Our own evil is infinitely more detrimental to us than is the evil done to us by others.”

As the church, may we live as a diverse community that resembles increasingly the humble, loving Lord who unites us.

Photo credit: Paul Taylor

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

'Bible-less Christianity' in America's churches

Kenneth Briggs, a longtime religion reporter and former religion editor of The New York Times, went on a two-year pilgrimage across America to track the Bible's status in public life. The result was his book The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America, which was released earlier this month.

He recently did an interview with Religion News Service in which he offered some insights that should be of interest to evangelical Christians. They certainly were to me. Here are the questions and answers that I consider particularly important, even foreboding, for those of us who count ourselves in the evangelical camp:

Q: In all your travels and all the the different places you went looking for the Bible, was there any place where you were expecting to see the Bible where it wasn’t?

A: In the mega-type churches – the churches that were really heavily loaded with the visual and the audio and the rest of the electronic stuff, the music – I was really stunned by what I saw as that alternative verson of Christianity being delivered through those means. I didn’t consider it biblical in the fullest sense. I thought it was highly stylized – the versions of Jesus, who Jesus was, being filtered through these videos – and, in some way, I found almost shocking in how they seemed to vary from the much fuller picture that exists in the New Testament. So I was surprised by that.

Q: You write in the book about the emergence of “Bible-less Christianity.” Can you talk about how you see that play out in American culture?

A: The background, of course, is that the Reformation gave at least a segment of Christians access to the Bible in a way that hadn’t happened before. Most of our history has been a rather Bible-less Christianity that was dictated or defined mostly by the hierarchical church, not by people who read the Bible. . . . We gained the freedom to approach it, and then in the current age, we have ceded that exploration to media, to entertainment forms, to prepackaged interpretations that are delivered in video, audio and pulpit forms so that there’s a substitute Bible that isn’t the Bible, per se, at the same time that people aren’t reading.

If it is true there is what Briggs describes as "Bible-less Christianity," we probably can expect Bible-less Christians. In essence, what his observation seems to indicate is: Bible-less churches are producing Bible-less Christianity and Bible-less Christians.

How can we expect Bible-less churches and Bible-less Christians to stand amidst the torrent of cultural pressure that is likely in the future to engulf all of us who claim the name of Jesus? Without Scripture, how will we have the solid foundation to fortify us? "Bible-less Christianity" is setting up many confessing saints for a disaster.

May God graciously grant a renewal in keeping with the church-transforming, world-changing Reformation of nearly 500 years ago. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of evangelical churches committed to basing their worship, preaching, teaching and the rest of church life on the Bible. That is the intention of Covenant Community Church. May we remain faithful by God's grace.

Photo from WELS net.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The church and the 2016 election

Americans will go to the polls two months from today. This will be the 17th presidential election in my lifetime, and none has seemed as vexing as this one.

Like most people, I have opinions on the election. I also have a plan for what I expect to do on Nov. 8. As a pastor, however, I don't believe there is any calling from God or wisdom in ministry that would lead me to believe I should endorse any candidate for any office. That would not be a wise use of the privilege God has given me in helping shepherd His people, and it could lead to the undermining of the gospel ministry that is most important to our church and me.

I don't believe, however, that means I should say nothing to the saints of Covenant Community Church in Fredericksburg, Va. My responsibility as a shepherd leads me to offer some thoughts on how we should think about this election. So what I say next is primarily for the people in our church, though I hope it will help others.

Here are three recommendations I offer:

1. Let's be honest with ourselves.

It seems to me evangelical Christians should acknowledge at least this: Neither of the major party nominees would be an acceptable option in a previous election in our lifetimes. The Democrats and Republicans have offered candidates who are deeply flawed in character and policy, if we can even discern what their ultimate policy will be. In addition, the Libertarian and Green parties have failed to offer evangelicals any meaningful encouragement in their nominees, especially when it comes to the issue of the sanctity of human life.

As a result, many evangelicals are dismayed about their choices. And they are expressing that dismay by voicing some unprecedented plans -- including not voting, writing in a name or voting for what they may describe as "the lesser of two evils" or maybe three or four. It seems many evangelicals have determined their vote will be based on whom they most strongly oppose. That's understandable. But before any of us go any further in publicly promoting a candidate, we should make sure we don't have blinders on regarding his or her faults -- faults that typically would disqualify a candidate in the eyes of many, if not most, evangelicals.

Let's be honest with ourselves.

2. Let's be sensitive to and gracious with one another.

I think I understand the dilemma many people will face when they enter the polling booth in November. My primary concern is how we handle the next two months, as well as those that follow the election. Will we think of the interests of others in the body of Christ and not just our own (Phil. 2:4)? Will we extend grace to our brothers and sisters who make different decisions than our own?

The name of Jesus, the integrity of the gospel message and the health of the church are far more important than who next fills the White House. It appears to me one of the most significant issues for white evangelicals in this election campaign is whether we will seek to look at it from the perspectives of our minority brothers and sisters. It appears some white evangelicals have made progress in recent years in learning from African-American saints about their experience. Yet, that progress might suffer a setback if white evangelicals aren't sensitive to their fellow saints regarding this election.

For instance, one major presidential candidate supports full abortion rights and government funding of abortion in a country in which black and Hispanic women have a disproportionately high number of abortions. The United States' population is 13 percent African American, but black women have 28 percent of the abortions. The American population is 18 percent Hispanic, but Hispanic women have 25 percent of the abortions. Another major nominee has retweeted during this campaign the messages of white supremacists and complained about a supposed inability to receive a fair trial from a judge with Mexican heritage.

Will white evangelicals decry the policies of the first candidate while ignoring the actions of the second? Will white evangelicals seek to understand how the latter candidate's rhetoric and actions affect black and Hispanic Americans, especially those who are their brothers and sisters?

Let's be sensitive to and gracious with those to whom we are united eternally through the blood of Jesus.

3. Let's be gospel aware with all others.

We should consider what our words -- often shared in social media -- and actions convey to those who are outside the family of God but are watching His children to see how they will live during this stressful time. Will our support of or opposition to a particular candidate reflect both the truth and grace of Christ? Will the way we express our support or opposition demonstrate our trust in the power of the gospel and the sovereignty of God?

For instance, what will the words and actions of evangelicals say to millennials and others about how we believe a society should treat the vulnerable, whether they are the unborn, the immigrant, the disabled, the ethnic minority or the religiously disenfranchised? How will we show we are concerned about both the policies and character of all candidates?

In all that we do, may we be aware of what the gospel effect on others might be. To gain a president of our choosing while losing the platform to share the gospel of Jesus would be a sorrowful tradeoff indeed.

May God graciously grant us humility, compassion and wisdom that the church of Jesus might come out of this time of testing more united than ever and more prepared than ever to be a faithful embassy of ambassadors for our one true King.

Photo by DonkeyHotey.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The church and the loss of truth

(I finished this post in the middle of last week but held it until now because of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers. This piece is not about that tragic subject, but I hope it proves helpful at this time of trial in our country.)

Hopefully, we, as Christ's followers, celebrated our country's independence last week with eyes wide open. Any celebration of America's birthday should be accompanied by the recognition the health of the republic, the dignity of its people and the governing ability of its office-holders are imperiled. Among all the many reasons we have for mourning America's decline is the loss of truth.

In May, The New York Times Magazine reported how Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor, successfully manufactured a narrative to sell the nuclear deal with Iran to mislead American lawmakers and citizens. Last Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey told the public what surely nearly everyone suspected was true after observing Hillary Clinton for 25 years in the spotlight -- the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee lied repeatedly about her handling of classified emails as secretary of State. Meanwhile, the other major party's presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, has offered little evidence he can be trusted -- especially when his campaign positions clash dramatically across time.

This deceit by American office-holders and politicians is not new. It just seems to be worse than before. Too many politicians and their supporters believe their positions and the power to enforce them are ultimate. Telling Americans the truth has little value. The result among the citizenry is cynicism and distrust. In this environment, what reason do we have to believe anything many of our leaders say? How will we recover the trust that is needed for this republic to survive and its citizens to thrive?

Into this void steps the church of Jesus. The loss of truth and trust in America underscores the reality of the church as a community of truth and trust.

As in other areas, the church should be a thriving counter-culture in a dying culture. While the reigning culture denigrates truth, the church is to honor, guard and promote truth. No matter the loss of truth in the country, truth must rule in the community of Christ. We have the truth -- centered in God's revelation of Himself in His written Word (John 17:17) and His living Word (John 14:6). We are to live like those who belong to the Truth and are controlled by the Truth.

As the church, we -- as individuals or a body -- are to:

-- Tell the truth, even when it is harmful to our reputations or difficult for our listeners.

-- Repent and ask for forgiveness when we fail to tell the truth, whether that means before an individual or a group.

-- Hold to, confess, preach and teach the truth, even when it conflicts with the culture's current thinking and might cost us greatly.

We can lovingly speak truth and live lives marked by truth. In doing so, we can provide an appealing aroma in a decaying culture. Undoubtedly, we will do it imperfectly. But in His perfections, God will graciously bring to our covenant community those in whom He has planted a desire for truth.

* -- Photo credit.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Christian and the pledge of allegiance

Should a Christian pledge allegiance to the flag?

Our church discussed this issue in a corporate gathering last July 5. Since we again are nearing America's birthday and the patriotic celebrations that go with it, now seems like a good time to tackle the question.

Before I explain why I think it is appropriate for a Christian to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and why I have the freedom to do so, here is a point I believe to be the most important one I will make: This is not an issue Christians should divide over.

If your conscience does not give you the freedom to pledge allegiance to the flag, then you should not do so. We are Christians first, not Americans. No Christian should violate his or her conscience. A child of God may gain understanding in the future that frees that disciple to do something he or she previously did not sense the freedom to do. But until that time, it is best for a believer not to go against conscience.

If a Christian is convinced it is right to pledge allegiance to the flag, he or she should not criticize or be judgmental toward the brother or sister who does not. Neither should the disciple who conscientiously objects to making the pledge find fault with the one who freely participates in the act.

For me, the freedom to pledge allegiance to the flag is based on one primary reality that leads to a secondary consideration. For clarification, I am speaking of my practice as an individual American citizen who is also a citizen of a greater nation -- the kingdom of God. As a pastor, I would not lead the church to pledge allegiance to the flag corporately nor do I consider it appropriate to display the flag in a worship center.

As an individual, I say the pledge of allegiance because:

1. The pledge is relative. It is not absolute. It is not ultimate. When I place my hand on my heart, look at the flag and say the pledge, I realize it is not my primary allegiance. I like what David Mathis, executive editor with Desiring God and a pastor, wrote in a blog post three years ago on July 4: "If we are in Christ, joined to him by faith, all other pledges of allegiance have been relativized, whatever our nation of origin or naturalization." I recognize the pledge to the flag does not usurp my commitment to Jesus. When I say the pledge, I am acknowledging I have responsibilities as a citizen of the United States and I am grateful for the God-given privilege of experiencing the benefits of living in this country. But I am not saying the flag or this country is my Sovereign Lord. Only Jesus is my Lord.

No commitment we make in our lives matches or surpasses that to Christ. As Christians, we sometimes make pledges other than the one we make to the flag.

When a Christian takes the military oath or the oath of office to Congress, he or she makes a pledge, including these words: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same." A Christian can make that pledge of allegiance without compromising his or her allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

When a Christian makes a marriage vow, he or she is making a pledge that is relative in some sense. If a person threatens to divorce a Christian husband or wife unless the spouse recants his or her confession of Christ, the follower of Jesus is left with no option but to affirm allegiance to Him as Lord. In so doing, the Christian demonstrates the covenant with Christ overrules the covenant of marriage.

2. The pledge can be missional. Since I believe I am free to pledge allegiance to the flag, not to do so could hinder my opportunity to befriend, serve and evangelize my unbelieving family, friends and other neighbors. I am a follower of Christ who believes the Bible is authoritative in life and Jesus is the only way to God and eternal life. Those beliefs already separate me from the beliefs of many, if not most, Americans. I am not looking for questionable ways to separate myself from others and possible ministry to them. I don't want to set up unnecessary barriers to friendship with and evangelism of my fellow citizens.

(Since this issue came up within our church in a gathering of the whole fellowship last year, I am making a request of the parents of Covenant Community Church: If your children were present and heard various opinions expressed on this topic, I would like you to consider reading this post to them that they might be aware of their pastor's perspective. Thank you for considering my request.)

* -- Photo credit

Friday, June 10, 2016

The transgender phenomenon: Six thoughts

I had already drafted a follow-up to my April 29 post on Target's newly announced transgender policy when a much larger earthquake on the cultural Richter scale hit. The seismic shock of the Obama administration's May 13 directive to elementary and secondary public schools, as well as colleges and universities, dislodged Target from the epicenter of concern over the latest development in the sexual revolution. Suddenly, the power of the federal government was fully behind the transgender movement.

I may yet post a follow-up on Target, but for now a general approach to the transgender phenomenon in American culture seems in order. Here are some thoughts I hope to remember, thoughts that are not comprehensive but I hope will be helpful to you:

1. The greatest offense is against God. Our immediate reaction may be to decry the privacy and safety threats to women and children -- and those concerns are legitimate. As Christians, our first concern, however, should be for the character of God. A person's rejection of his or her biological gender is a rejection of God's good design. From the beginning, the Bible makes clear God has made human beings "male and female." That creation passage in Gen. 1 says God saw all He had made as "very good." Binary gender identity is not a social construct. It is a divine one.

2. The transgender person is an image bearer of God. The person who identifies with a gender different than the sex he or she had at birth is not a freak or monster. God made that person in His image, as He has every other human being. As those who are committed to this vital truth, followers of Jesus are to treat the transgender person as a fellow image bearer. That reality calls for mercy, kindness, and love.

3. The number of transgender people will increase. Societal promotion and government approval can seemingly result only in greater acceptance by the general public. It should come as no surprise when preteens, teens and even adults decide they must live as a different sex after they think confusing thoughts or experience conflicting feelings. The encouragement to live as a different gender -- and Facebook has identified nearly 60 for its users -- will be felt increasingly.

4. The spread of transgenderism should come as no surprise. A culture engulfed by secularism and the sexual revolution, as ours is, should be expected to react with sexual confusion. We are sinners by nature, and sin's grip produces multiple expressions of that rebellion against God. The rise of transgenderism -- fomented by the shedding of sexual sanity -- is one of those expressions.

5. The church must teach the truth. Teaching the truth will be unpopular in a cultural regime that treasures self-autonomy in all things sexual, but it is the only way for the church to be faithful to our Lord and His commission. We must shepherd children and young people especially to reject the siren call of gender confusion by trusting in God's Word, His design and His provision for them.

6. The church must give the gospel. The gospel is the power of God, as the apostle Paul writes in Rom. 1, and we must trust its ability to deliver those who already have given ground to the lies of the world, the flesh and the devil. We have this power and the charge to share it with others, including the transgender family member, friend, neighbor and coworker. May we be found faithful.

(It seems important and helpful to acknowledge some people have disorders of sex development, or intersex conditions, in which their physical traits cannot be easily categorized as male or female. By some estimates, as many as one in 1,500 babies is born with an intersex condition.)

* -- Photo attribution

Friday, April 29, 2016

The transgender phenomenon: Targeting Target

Target's newly announced policy on use of its restrooms and fitting rooms has quickly become the hot-button issue among evangelical Christians. The retail giant's invitation to transgender people to use the room corresponding to their gender identity instead of their sex at birth has prompted a debate on how followers of Jesus should respond.

The American Family Association, as it is wont to do, called for a boycott. By April 29, more than one million people had signed on. Other evangelicals questioned such a tactic, writing blog posts to explain why they believe God's people should take a different approach.

My wife and I are no strangers to boycotts. We have wielded the boycott sword many times since the mid-1980s. For various reasons, we've boycotted Disney, Holiday Inn, all the major oil/gas companies except Exxon, all the national chain drug stores, two convenience store chains and one brand of ketchup. For years, we boycotted products made in China. The latter was a real challenge in the early and mid-1990s when we would try to find stuffed animals for our daughter.

We no longer default to the boycott position when a business announces policies that conflict with biblical standards of morality. We haven't ruled out the possibility of boycotting, but we have decided in recent years it is not typically the best way for us to be ambassadors for Christ in our community.

We shop at the Super Target near our home probably more than any other store. I visited that store one night last week to purchase a couple of items and to get the manager's name for an email or letter I intended to write. Instead, I visited with one of the executive team members. I didn't vilify her employer or threaten a boycott. During the conversation, I asked her if they expected the policy to result in a line of people waiting to use the family restroom, which can be locked. I also inquired about whether they planned to have a security guard posted outside the restrooms. This young lady did not act defensively but responded politely to my questions.

Linda and I haven't decided definitively what our response to Target will be in the long run. For now, I hope to continue the conversation with this Target team member and see what steps the store takes regarding this policy issued from headquarters.

My conclusion -- and recommendation to my evangelical brothers and sisters -- at this point is: We should allow room for Christian liberty on this one. Whatever a fellow believer/church member decides about the call to boycott Target, it is not an essential on which we should divide. And we should not cast recriminations at those who choose differently than us.

(To be continued)

* -- Photo attribution

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What I learned when my mother died

It was three months ago yesterday that our mother's body was lowered into the earth at a cemetery in Little Rock, Ark. The woman my brother and I called Mom for about six decades had entered the presence of Jesus three days earlier after more than 96 years of this life. The last 12 days of her earthly pilgrimage were spent in a hospital as her health declined and she awaited the call of her Savior. We -- my brother and sister-in-law, my wife and I, joined at times by our daughters -- shared those days and nights with Mom in her hospital room.

I'm finally taking time now to record some observations from those final days of her life and the days that followed. They are:

1. Life is fleeting. Even with a life of 96 years, Mom's earthly existence was "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away" (James 4:14). While we were in Arkansas, I looked at some photos of Mom my brother had found that I had never seen. She was a beautiful girl in her 20s in goofy poses with her girlfriends while she lived and worked in Washington, D.C., during World War II. In a breath, seven decades passed, and she was a shell of her once vibrant self, helplessly captive to her mortality.

2. Guidance is vital. Mom had an advanced medical directive to help guide us in case she was unable to express her desires for end-of-life care. Even then, it was not easy. We spent time praying, pondering, and discussing. God blessed my brother and me with wise counsel from his close friend, a physician who had gone through a similar experience with his mother, and a friend of mine who is a leading, evangelical medical ethicist. We believe God's guidance was affirmed in the days that followed our decision-making on Mom's treatment.

3. Hymn singing is helpful. Decades of singing old hymns bore fruit in that hospital room. We -- and sometimes I alone -- sang "Amazing Grace" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and others. I enjoy many modern songs, but the old ones we sang with the saints in worship for decades -- memorable in their lyrics and tunes -- were the ones we could remember at the bedside of a woman who loved them. I don't know if she could understand what we were singing, but we could. And that was important.

4. Going home is possible. The memorial service for Mom in Little Rock proved a surprising blessing -- for me at least. We gathered with Mom's longtime friends and fellow church members but also friends whom we had shared life with in that church family decades earlier. Some had taught and mentored us. Many had loved us. Some we had not seen in decades -- and likely will not see again in this life. Our gathering to honor Mom and to worship God turned into a gracious gift I did not expect: It turns out you can go home after all.

All of these are reminders of God's grace. Even in death, and sometimes especially in death, there is His grace.