On “Virginity,” Women, and Worth

Let me tell you a story, and a couple of brief anecdotes.

A girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager was from a pretty observant Christian family — mostly Catholic but not exclusively so. She’d been raised to value virginity, and was very proud of the fact that she was a virgin despite the pressure she felt from her circle of rich, popular, athletic friends. And she used to regale us with stories of how she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a friend’s to study, and instead go to her boyfriend’s house and spend all day skinny dipping with him… etc. She also had strong views about the circumstances around re-pledging one’s virginity — apparently you could have intercourse exactly once and then repent, and God would accept you as a virgin again, but after that, if you had intercourse again, it “counted;” you were officially defiled at that point, and probably shouldn’t wear white at your wedding.

I have friends who are virgins by some variation of the technical definition, but who’ve fooled around with dozens of people, who’ve struggled with pornography addictions, or whose sexual fantasies dominated their thoughts. I also have friends who aren’t virgins by any of the most common understandings of the term, because they were raped or molested or sexually abused.

And speaking of how we define virginity, I read a news story a few weeks ago about Quebec barring doctors from performing “virginity checks” on girls as part of their annual physicals. It struck me, once again, how much our culture’s language of sexuality aims its force at women — a “prude” is usually a woman, but so is a “slut.” Physiologically, too, we too often attach the concept of virginity to intact hymens — body parts men don’t even possess!

Christians have an obligation to be more biblical than that, to refuse to put an unfair burden on women (who are substantially more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men) or on men (who are much more likely to feel cultural pressure to be sexually active and to use pornography than women are) in the way we talk about God’s purposes for human sexuality.

I think it’s long past time we quit talking about the ideal for Christians’ sexuality in terms of “virginity.” What, honestly, does the word “virgin” mean if it can be applied to a person like my summer-camp friend above and a person who’s never been so much as kissed, but not to a person who has been sexually victimized? What purpose does it serve to hold up virginity as the standard, if not to confuse the “experienced,” alienate the abused, and stir up pride in the hearts of the “inexperienced”?

To those who might object that “virginity” is just shorthand for “sexual purity,” is there any real sense in which a pornography addict is sexually pure simply because he or she hasn’t had intercourse? Is there any sense in which a sexually victimized person is not sexually pure simply because sex acts have been forced on him or her? It’s ludicrous to think that God’s design for human sexuality can be summed up with a word that frankly isn’t used all that frequently in Scripture.

So once again I’m going to propose that we speak of chastity rather than virginity or even sexual purity. Virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a choice, an ongoing, daily decision to live one’s life in a way that embraces God’s design for sex and sexuality. Virginity, for most people — those who marry as well as many who don’t — is temporary. Chastity is a permanent lifestyle that continues into marriage, because it encompasses all godly expressions of sexuality. It’s just as accurate to speak of a chaste single person, a chaste husband or wife, a chaste person separated from his spouse, a chaste divorced woman, a chaste widow or widower.

Chastity is about a life, a choice, a path of dedication. Right now, as a woman who is not married, chastity is a way for me to witness to the ultimacy of Christ, over and above romantic or sexual love. My life, by God’s grace, can become a picture of the future God has for all his people. If the Lord purposes marriage for me, that path of chastity simply continues as my life becomes a picture of the church’s love for Christ.

Our bodies matter to God, it’s true. He made them, down to the minutest detail. But for those of us who have been made new in Christ, what we do with all of our lives in these bodies matters, not just a few parts. Let’s stop categorizing one another based on what we have done, or what has been done to us, with just a few of those parts, and begin to encourage each other to walk now in a way that honors God.


Deep Wounds and Hello Kitty Bandaids

Hello Kitty bandaids work better than normal ones; this is scientific fact, indisputable. Ask my nieces. Given the choice between a plain beige bandaid and a Hello Kitty one, they will choose the Hello Kitty one 100 times out of 100. They’re medical miracles. They dry up tears, stop pain, and return a three-year-old to normal play mode as quick as a wink.

They also don’t work on a deep wound.

Everyone knows this when it comes to physical injuries. Your child slices her arm open, and you’re rushing for the car keys, not the bandaids, Hello Kitty or otherwise. Worse, your child is diagnosed with some chronic disease or illness, and you know that no amount of licenced products are going to help.

But reveal a struggle with depression, or anxiety, or panic attacks, or dark, spiraling despair, and suddenly the same people who would advise a 911 call and some prompt medical attention, or long-term medical treatment, are handing out bandaid answers like you just skinned your knee.

Today I read of a husband’s agony as he watched his wife struggle with post-partum depression. The comments section was character bandaids galore: make sure she’s getting enough B vitamins! one commenter insisted. Don’t forget to make confession of sin part of your daily life, said another. No, no, don’t use the Hulk bandaids, no one likes those. Have these bandaids instead!

All I can say to that is… don’t.

Just… don’t do that.

Friends, sin is not always, or predictably, the cause of suffering. Jesus rebuked the pharisees for thinking that a man’s blindness resulted from his sin or that of his parents. Suffering does not always seem to have a purpose; sometimes it doesn’t seem to have a cause, or a reason, or an origin. It’s not always taken away when we pray (2 Cor 12), or even when we treat it medically (Luke 8).

But for the Christian, suffering is always part of the hard providence of God, never escaping his notice or care, never catching him off guard. Satan himself must seek God’s permission to trouble us, and his power is always limited — how much more must the suffering we experience be controlled and limited by a loving and watchful Father!

True suffering defies and confounds tidy, pat answers. If the tools with which we approach it don’t go beyond a range of bandaids with superheros and cartoon characters splashed across them, we will have no comfort to offer those who desperately need it.

Bragging and Complaining

I said the other day to a friend that it seems like we often don’t know how to rejoice, we only know how to brag, and we don’t know how to mourn, we only know how to complain. And we don’t know how to respond to rejoicing or mourning — we respond to them like they’re bragging or complaining.

Just stuff I’ve been thinking about.

International Women’s Day and Casual Misogyny

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today in class we were talking about NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and how she (or rather, the popular portrayal of her) is an embarrassment to women everywhere because, although she’s ostensibly famous for her sport, she’s a) not as great at it as her fame would suggest, and b) far more famous for taking her clothes off and being a spokesmodel in skanky ads. We talked about how offensive it is to both men and women to depict women as empty-headed, easily-controllable imaginary objects just sitting there for male consumption, and I said something about how it turns them into these infantilized child-women, whereupon a student piped up with, “That sounds like a really bad superhero. Infantilized Child-Woman to the rescue!”

So we came up with a whole scenario for Infantilized Child-Woman, who goes around “rescuing” women from intelligent, deep conversations that aren’t about men, and turning them into flirtatious bobble-heads with one flick of her ruffled costume, and who foils male criminals by strutting around seductively until the cops arrive. Her arch-nemesis is Intensely Nerdy Boy, on whom her powers are useless because he prefers the smart girls he meets at ComicCon, and his secret weapon is a Fandom Gun, which makes everyone he shoots it at so involved in a fan community that they stop paying attention to Infantilized Child-Woman. Muahahaha!

I’ve been thinking about this today, a paraphrase of something I saw browsing just now on my lunch break: we need to stop thinking of sexism as part of an identity — i.e., so-and-so is a sexist therefore a wife-beater, a rapist, a woman-hater, etc. — and start thinking of it in terms of actions. Anyone can casually devalue women, and we, both men and women, do it all the time. So many things, from using pornography (i.e. consuming women’s degradation) to implying that women shouldn’t complain about discrimination (because we can, like, vote now and stuff), are sexist, and no amount of, “But I love women/am a woman!” negates that.

We might rightly roll our eyes at the antediluvian attitude that a woman’s place is always in the home and preferably in the kitchen. We might, I hope, get involved with charities that help free women from sex work. But it’s easier to let slide that sort of casual, condescending misogyny that applauds Danica Patrick equally for taking her clothes off and finishing 40th in some race, because it’s so subtle and so ubiquitous. It’s the kind of sexism that we need to be most careful of because it’s the easiest to slip into, the easiest to absorb from women’s magazines and sitcoms, and, I think, the toughest to eliminate.

But we have an obligation to value women, to treat them with the dignity they intrinsically have as image-bearers of God, creations whose absence prompted God to call something “not good” for the first time ever. Christians must strive never to be open to the charge of denigrating or diminishing that value, however casually or incidentally.

Eschatology (Gulp) Matters, Part Two

(Important side note before we get started: how you approach a couple of key passages tends to make a big difference in where you land. If you approach apocalyptic literature in the same way that you do a narrative passage — like narrative, but future tense — you’ll probably land in one of the first two views. If you approach it more like you would the Bible’s wisdom literature or even prophecy — filled with imagery and metaphorical language — you’re much more likely to end up in one of the latter two categories.)

OK, so let’s just do a quick overview of the four main views, in very broad strokes (and for all of these, I’m indebted to this site and particularly this one, which includes some outstanding simplified outlines of these views — if you’re a visual learner like me, you’ll want to click through to see them):

1. Dispensational pre-millennialism. This fairly recently-developed view is based on the idea that Daniel 9 and Revelation 20 are to be read as strictly chronological accounts of entirely future events. Things on Earth will grow increasingly dire, then God’s people will be raptured just before a time of great persecution when a human ruler, the Anti-Christ, will have control over the whole Earth. Jesus will return and reign from Jerusalem for a thousand chronological years, after which the Judgment will take place and all God’s people will be then taken together into glory. People who hold to this view tend to be very watchful for Christ’s imminent return as well as world events that line up with prophetic or apocalyptic passages of Scripture.

2. Historic pre-millennialism. While this view shares some of the chronology of the first view, it tends to see some of the events described in Revelation as unfolding in history, not necessarily in a way that obviously links them to the impending return of Christ. People who hold to this position believe that the return of Christ may be in the very-distant future, and hold that the millennium may or may not constitute one thousand actual years. It’s called “historic” because it has been held in some form since the late second and early third centuries, whereas the Dispensationalist version has only been around since the 19th century.

3. Post-millennialism. Post-millennialists believe that the millennium is best understood as a future period (not a literal thousand years, but a long time) of Christ’s special reign over the earth from heaven, marked by a steady increase of the influence of the Gospel until the entire world has been Christianized. When the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God through Christ, Jesus will return in glory to judge and to bring all of God’s people into glory with him. This view particularly focuses on the prophecies given to Abraham about all nations being blessed through him, and the passages throughout the Old Testament that refer to the growing and spreading of the knowledge of the Lord in the last days. Daniel and Revelation are seen in light of their original audience (the Exiles and the first-century Christians, respectively), and most, if not all, of the events of the apocalyptic passages of Scripture are thought to have already taken place — i.e. that they are immediately applicable to their hearers and are meant to encourage us by extension, rather than give us a timeline of future events.

4. Amillennialism. Amillenialists believe that Christ ushered in the millennium at his ascension into Heaven, and that we are now living in it. They tend to focus on the tension in the New Testament between “the Kingdom is at hand/among you” and “now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face,” as well as the narrative of the constant expansion of the Gospel to all nations, beginning in Acts. They differ with Post-millennialists on the role of the Church in this “already/not yet” age: where Post-mills see a time when the Church is completely triumphant on Earth before the return of Christ, Amills believe that the Church will continue to be persecuted and suffer until Christ’s return, though there may be times of greater or lesser success as the Gospel continues to go forth to the nations.

Now. That’s a lot. I never realized that there were other views besides the first two until fairly recently, and though I don’t think the first two are untenable, per se, in studying the Scriptures I found myself leaning toward a pretty settled Amillennial position… though with occasional jaunts into Postmillennialism depending on how much Douglas Wilson I happen to be reading and how much the sun is shining and how well things tend to be going in my own life. Personally, I am automatically… not suspicious perhaps, but not really excited to latch onto any view on any Christian doctrine that 1800 years’ worth of really smart believers never thought of, but I don’t think this issue is important enough to argue about too much, so even if you’re firmly committed to the first view, that’s fine. Christians can know absolutely nothing about this issue except to say, “Yup, I believe Jesus is coming back,” and they will be A-OK, and they can disagree with each other about it without breaking fellowship. (I mean honestly, imagine Jesus standing in the room next to you right now: is he cool with you being cold or dismissive or, God forbid, divisive toward your brothers and sisters over the timing of his return? I’m guessing not.)

The bottom line with all this is, the passages of Scripture that talk about persecution or that address eschatology are almost always followed up with an exhortation to the reader to do a couple of things: 1) cling to Jesus, and 2) get off your toches and tell people about Jesus. So whether you think that the Bible teaches that Christ’s return is just around the corner or many thousands of years into the future, whether you see in its pages a literal and eventual thousand-year reign or a time we’re already in, your mission, Christian, is clear: teach your children, your neighbors, your friends, your family about the Gospel. Live it out in your relationships. Don’t spend your time searching charts or pooh-poohing them. Act like you really, truly have been radically transformed by a Victorious and Conquering King who will one day return, on whatever timeline the Father in his good wisdom chooses.

My Throat Is Hoarse

And it has nothing to do with this cold.

We had community group for the first time in almost TWO MONTHS tonight, and it was great. We talked and laughed and then split up into guys and girls and talked and laughed SO MUCH MORE. I miss these people when we’re apart.

Community, when you’re a Christian, is essential. We’re not called to live this life alone. We have to have people in our lives encouraging us and kicking our tails now and then, sharing our joy and sorrow and our success and failure. It’s a must. But what a blessing to get to walk through life with people I genuinely enjoy and love.

You Know What I Wish?

I wish that churches would have parties instead of “outreach events.”

I wish that unbelievers could walk into a church’s football party or Christmas open house or Trunk-or-Treat or summer BBQ and not have to be nervous that they’d have to stop talking to their friends, set down their refreshments, and go into the sanctuary and listen to a “message.”

I wish that every event didn’t have to be baptized or Jesus-ified to be considered church-appropriate.

And I wish that those changes would result from a deep conviction that the proclamation of the Gospel is a task for every Christian, not just for church leadership and pastors; that alienating unbelievers with uncomfortable bait-and-switch drive-by evangelism does more harm than good; and that loving our neighbors actually involves developing a relationship with them, not just programming three worship songs and a twenty-minute devotional in the middle of a Harvest Party.

I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Tebow

Although it’s not Tebow per se, just the tendency of Christians to latch on to ANYTHING that links our faith or values with success. Tebow, yes, but also any public figure who claims the name of Christ. Archaeological findings. Christian music that gets secular accolades. Family-friendly movies. TV shows that use God’s name as a blessing rather than a curse word. Books where the main characters don’t sleep together (but, interestingly, not books where the hero lays down his life for his friends). If it’s successful and seems to line up with our faith or values, we are ALL OVER THAT. And if anybody dares to criticize or question, they get piled on, post haste.

I have seen people, when questioned about the wisdom of letting teenage girls read a book about a young woman whose identity is so wrapped up in a potentially-dangerous man’s opinion of her, act like the foundations of Christian morality are being attacked. I have deleted hundreds of emails forwarded by well-intentioned brothers and sisters claiming that some massive atheist movement is trying to get Touched By An Angel or Seventh Heaven taken off the air, as though those shows’ insipid pseudo-gospel is the key to the salvation of thousands of pagan cable subscribers, or trying to persuade me to boycott this or that book whose author is supposedly a Satanist or Wiccan or whatever (never mind the fact that these things could be debunked with one thirty-second Snopes search). I have watched, incredulous, when a comments section explodes with vitriol below an article that dares to question the artistic merit of Fireproof or the Left Behind movies.

When the so-called “James Ossuary” was discovered several years ago, I remember some Christians acting completely triumphant, as though this archaeological find was the key to people finally recognizing the truth of Christianity. And then when the thing was proven to be a phoney a few months later, those same Christians were crushed. When George W. talked about Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worshipping the same God, many of the Christians who had voted for him because of his faith rushed to make excuses or to agree.

What’s the problem here?

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine a Christian (we’ll call him “A” just for the heck of it) who feels guilty because he’s never led a single coworker to Christ. The last time A got a guilty conscience, he invited all of them to screenings of Fireproof, but no one came. He feels pretty shaky about his ability to convince people that the Scriptures are true, because it seems like every time there’s another archaeological finding in the newspaper, three months later it’s proven to be a fake. A’s really worried that the whole country is going to hell in a handbasket, because it seems like atheism is getting more and more popular, immorality is rampant, and his email inbox is full of forwards from friends about the dangers of certain video games, movies, and books. He feels unsettled, always searching for the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to proving that Christianity is true.

Whenever A encounters people who have criticisms of Tim Tebow or Stephen Baldwin or other Christian celebrities, or who roll their eyes about Fireproof or Courageous, he’s frustrated and wonders why people are so nit-picky — I mean, so what if Tebow’s not the best quarterback in the world! At least he’s a Christian! And so what if Courageousisn’t Oscar material! It’s got a great message! Isn’t that what really matters? A really wants his brothers and sisters in Christ to be unashamed of the Gospel, but it seems like “Christian” behavior gets a lot of flak and he wonders where to draw the line. “Tebowing” in the hallways of a public school might not seem all that effective, but surely it must be good if it’s pointing to Jesus!

He just doesn’t know what to do with Christians who disagree with him about that kind of stuff, so he often finds himself in confrontations — even sometimes ending friendships with people he once loved and respected, so he feels increasingly alone in the world. In fact, A recently found out that a friend changed his views on what he thinks is an important issue, and A was incredibly grieved and hurt, and finds himself struggling to relate to his former friend. Sure, it’s not like his former friend renounced Christ, but how can he fellowship with someone with such different views on such an important issue?

Now, imagine a Christian (“B”) who is bold but thoughtful in the way he shares his faith with his coworkers. He has spiritual conversations with them but is never pushy, and has brought a few friends to church and had the chance to share the Gospel with some others. Whenever archaeological findings seem to support the biblical account, B smiles to himself and thanks God, but doesn’t worry if those findings are overturned, because he knows that God’s truth will ultimately be revealed, just maybe not on his timetable. He doesn’t get too caught up in the latest popular book or movie, Christian or not — he sees popular culture of all kinds as something to be discerning about, not something to either accept thoughtlessly or reject thoughtlessly. He watches good movies and listens to good music when they tell the truth about God’s world whether they have a Christian label or not, and he prays and hopes that more Christian artists will make great art, not just “Christian” art.

When a public figure professes Christ, B prays for that person’s faith and testimony, but doesn’t freak out when people criticize, because he knows that Christianity doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t Christians. He doesn’t get too concerned about books, movies, shows, or music that are supposedly going to “destroy young people” or whatever, because he remembers that God’s people have managed to survive Pharaoh, Cyrus, and Nero, to say nothing of Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight. B exercises discernment — and teaches those he mentors to do the same — about the latest craze, receiving the good with gratitude to God, and rejecting the wicked or worthless.

B recognizes that believers can differ on matters of conscience and still fellowship with one another — he has different personal convictions than some of his friends but wouldn’t dream of trying to impose his conscience on his friends. When he finds out that brothers and sisters disagree with his views on pop culture or politics or other issues of conscience, he humbles himself and is willing to be proven wrong, especially when the disagreement is with someone he trusts and knows to be a solid, mature believer. When he found out that a friend changed his views on an important but non-salvation-related issue, B was curious, but assumed that, since his friend was a believer and therefore had the Holy Spirit, he’d thought the issue through and prayed about it before changing his mind. B and his friend had a few conversations about it, and although B stuck with his own views, he was convinced that his friend had made the change with a good conscience before God and happily continued hanging out with him. On the other hand, a friend of B’s read a book espousing a dangerous, anti-gospel doctrine, and B knew this wasn’t just a “conscience issue.” So he talked through the book’s issues carefully with his friend, and they read it together, with B prayerfully helping his friend see the errors the author was promoting, without breaking fellowship.

What’s the difference between these two hypothetical Christians? Theology.

More about this tomorrow. Meanwhile… which Christian would you rather be like?

Some Thoughts and Questions on the Lord’s Supper, Ordination, and the Sacraments of the Church

A few days ago, I posted the following thought on Facebook: “You know what I miss about Sojourn when I’m away? Communion every week. I’d love to know why churches only do it once a month or even quarterly (!!!) — there has to be SOME rationale, right? Thoughts? Did I just sleep through that part of my church history classes?”

Twenty-five comments later (I only wish my blog posts could get so much traction!), the thing that stuck out the most to me wasn’t the reason for the infrequency of communion in some churches. It was a totally different — yet not completely unrelated — theological point. A friend from college mentioned Methodist circuit riders, who were often lay ministers and who, therefore, weren’t allowed to administer the Lord’s Supper, leading to the practice of monthly or quarterly communion. Another friend mentioned that his church couldn’t share the Meal on the rare occasions that their ordained teaching elder is out of town.

My immediate question was why? Why does a meal ordained by Jesus himself also need an ordained pastor/elder to make it legitimate? And then that question made me chuckle a bit as I reflected on the fact that, though some churches who partake only quarterly began doing so at least in part to avoid a Romanist ritualism, almost nothing, in my mind, is more Roman than requiring the presence of an ordained minister to “perform” the sacraments.

Now, for heaven’s sake don’t hear me accusing my dear Methodist or Presbyterian brethren of quasi-Popery! It just got me wondering. My own church doesn’t allow, for example, community groups to celebrate the Lord’s supper in their small weeknight gatherings. Many, many faithful, gospel-teaching churches would, I’m sure, have similar proscriptions. My question is: why? Do we have any indication that, in the apostolic church, someone “official” was required to be present at Christian gatherings to administer the sacraments? Isn’t the very name — the authority and command — of Jesus what makes them valid in the first place?

These questions aren’t merely rhetorical; I would genuinely love to hear the thoughts of those who are committed to these sorts of positions. Why should a group of covenanted believers be prevented from baptizing a new convert or celebrating the Lord’s supper as part of a celebratory meal without the presence of an ordained minister? Why does ordination matter, anyway? What purpose does it serve, and what justification does it have historically?

Happy Epiphany

The Feast Of, that is.

Epiphany is one of the traditional “Great Feasts” of the church. Don’t get stressed out that I’m crossing the Tiber — or worse yet the Bosphorus. But Christians have celebrated it since at least the fourth century, associating it with the arrival of the Magi, and, thus, Jesus’ first appearance to Gentiles. This Gentile is mighty glad of that, and happy to commemorate such a beautiful and significant date in the Church’s calendar.

“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” Romans 10:12

I’m Really Over The Word “Helpful”

Talk about overused. Anyway, that mild irritation aside, I want to mention one hopefully brief quibble about a not-so-helpful way (married) pastors and (married) women’s ministry leaders — and even, crazily, some unmarried folks — often talk about marriage. I don’t even think it’s intentional, more reflexive than anything, but I think it’s biblically inaccurate and misleading.

How many of us have heard some version of this from the pulpit, in a Bible study, or at a conference? “Marriage is absolutely the furnace of sanctification! I now know how selfish, how inward-focused, how prideful I was before I got married, and let me tell you, I had never experienced the kind of sanctification I experienced that first year. Friends, there is nothing in your life that can prepare you for it, and there’s nothing else like it to make you more Christlike.” For the sake of brevity, let me throw down a few bullet points explaining why I think teaching like this, well-intentioned though it may be, needs to be retired, STAT.

  • it implies that single people are selfish, inward-focused, and prideful just because of their marital status.
  • on the flip side of that, it implies that marriage is the key to becoming selfless, others-focused, and humble.
  • it sets marriage up as a big, terrifying leap that people take in part because they’re blind to the consequences and results.
  • it paints sanctification as the result of circumstances rather than as a work to which God himself is committed because of our salvation.
  • it can imply that unmarried people aren’t being sanctified to the degree married people are, and thereby reinforces the idea that unmarried folks are the JV squad of Christianity.
  • particularly for men, it can be one more confirmation that all that’s expected of single dudes is spiritual slackerdom and perpetual adolescence, and that they’re off the hook for serving, leading and teaching until they start checking the “Married” box on the census form.
  • particularly for women, it can reinforce the totally false view that women are spiritually superior to men (no pressure!), and it can be incredibly alienating. How does any of that apply to me, the unmarried woman, Married Pastor With Five Kids?

OK, now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not looking for offense, I’m not trying to get my feelings hurt, I’m not calling anyone out. In fact, I’m totally not offended by this kind of stuff. I know people can’t help but speak from their experiences, but I also don’t want people in church leadership to stay stuck in those experiences, unable to speak to anyone outside their stage of life. So here you go, friends.

Guidelines for the Guidlines (Part 1)

1. Modesty is not primarily about women helping their brothers in their fight against lust.

Lust is a problem. It is. And Christian women ought to be concerned for the purity of their brothers. But the claim that modesty is about keeping men from sinning? That’s shallow at best, and misleading at worst. After all, one of the most oft-cited passages about modesty (1 Tim. 2:9-10) has nothing to do with provocative clothes, but rather with gaudy, showy clothes.

2. Modesty is primarily about all believers desiring to point away from self and toward Christ, killing their desire for recognition, and removing stumbling blocks from the communication of the Gospel.

Godly, Christ-centered humility, service, and selflessness are the heart of modesty.

3. Modesty includes speech, attitude, and comportment first, and dress only secondarily or by extension.

Remember, the Gospel is communicated with words, so speech matters, and words are always accompanied by nonverbal communication, so attitude and comportment matter. Modest dress is an extension of a humble, servant-hearted, selfless desire to point to Christ with our words and actions.


I said a couple months ago on Facebook that I think one of the causes of a lot of controversy in the church is a difference of opinion about the meaning (and application) of the word “reverence.” What I mean by this is, every denomination reads the same Bible, you know? And yet we have some denominations whose normal Sunday worship experience looks like a dance party while others’ looks like an evening in the first-century catacombs — and everything in between.

I think you can chalk a lot of those differences up to personality. Some people are naturally drawn to mellow, even subdued worship gatherings, while others are naturally drawn to boisterous, expressive ones. And then I think what happens is that the boisterous folks emphasize that they’re bringing the loud praise and shouts of joy commanded in Scripture, and the subdued folks emphasize that they’re demonstrating the awe and silence a Holy God requires. And then the criticisms begin. Loud Church criticizes Quiet Church for treating God like he hasn’t drawn near to us, like he hasn’t commanded “loud, clashing cymbals,” and for acting as though we haven’t been set free from an incredible burden, as though we have no cause to celebrate. Quiet Church accuses Loud Church of being casual and presumptuous with God, treating his presence like a rock concert, acting like worshiping God isn’t a heavy and sober responsibility. Each thinks the other is being irreverent — Quiet Church by denying joyful expression and Loud Church by ignoring God’s holiness.

But the thing is, they’re both right. Lots of churches on the hymns-only, piano/organ, liturgical, traditional end of the spectrum could stand a swift kick in the Somber Pants, in the direction of loud, expressive joy and delight in their Rescuing God. And lots of churches on the worship-band, rock-and-roll, contemporary end of the spectrum need to seriously dial down the mood swings and the key changes, and remember that they’re singing to the holy God of the universe every week, not their girlfriend.

In heaven, we’ll get this balance right, but in the meantime I think it’s healthy for us to consider how we can (within our own traditions, obviously) move toward more expression or more awareness of God’s grandeur in our worship gatherings.

Lent, Day 14: Doctrinal Discernment, Part 1

So. In the field of psychology, there’s this phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance.” In simple terms, cognitive dissonance is when someone holds two contradictory ideas simultaneously without recognizing the contradiction. It’s a mental block, of sorts, that keeps us from noticing or properly evaluating logical incongruities in our own belief systems.

Now, every human post-Fall has been subject to cognitive dissonance, but I think it’s a particular problem in postmodern society. Throw in a slipshod or nonexistent education in the field of logic, and the vigorously pluralistic message preached from every media outlet in the West, and you’ve got a steaming hot, high-octane cup of Doctrinal Issues, Man, just waiting to give you the jitters.

And boy, are we ever jittery about it.

For those of you who don’t know about this brouhaha with Rob Bell in the last month, first, welcome to the internet, and second, let me give you a quick rundown. Since Bell appeared on the scene several years ago with his wildly popular Nooma videos, he’s come across as a basically likeable, incredibly compelling brother with some distressingly squishy positions on a few doctrines, and the typical Evangelical response to him has been equal parts brow-furrowing and eye-rolling, with the occasional rebuke thrown in.

But a few weeks ago, he released a promo video for his new book. And that’s when the proverbial excrement hit the air-conditioning, to borrow Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase. As is typical for Bell, he asked a very provocative series of questions that led a lot of people to believe that he had embraced Universalism. The release of the book a couple weeks later basically served to confirm that suspicion.  (If you want more detail about that business, the Google search bar is right up there at the top of the page; knock yourself out.)

But between the release of the video and now, no real consensus has emerged on how to refer to and think of him and other Universalists. Do we embrace a sort of agnosticism about their salvation? Do we think of them as unsaved, and seek to evangelize accordingly? Do we affirm their salvation and correct their doctrinal errors from inside the family, so to speak?

In other words, is it possible that a person can hold a heterodox position on this sort of issue and still be saved? Can a person’s doctrine be as orthodox as St. Paul’s, with one massive, glaring exception?

Can cognitive dissonance save us?

Stop It. Just Stop It.

OK, I have officially had enough.

Back in September, Tullian Tchividjian‘s church made the move to one service, from their previous format of one “traditional” and one “contemporary” service.  He wrote an initial post about their kickoff week and a little of the background behind their decision.  At the end of the post, what he didn’t write but might as well have was “Cue Psalms-only, Western-musical-tradition-obsessed, Regulative Principal types: pontificate away, fellas.”

Here are just a few of the many comments that made me want to throw stuff at my computer:

I foresee a time, probably when the current minister of music retires, when the two services will be blended. My hope is that Jesus will return before that happens.

Even the best expressions of blended worship represent a level of compromise

I’m having difficulty understanding why churches insist on dumbing down something intended primarily for God so that we aren’t challenged by it.

Granted, classical music is not as appreciated in today’s society as it has been in the past, but then again, neither is the Gospel.

Hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past” ministered to me and soothed the hurt I felt inside. Trading all that for the moaning and twitching of contemporary worship, the loud praise band and flashing lights, is a thought too horrific to contemplate.

Can we please just take a second (after we’ve all picked our jaws up off the floor) to evaluate the assumptions behind these claims?

1. Modern styled music is something to be dreaded, avoided, and pushed back.
2. The choice of music and style is primarily about my felt needs (oh, the irony).
3. Our only choices are the lovely, rich, comforting old hymns and an overwrought seeker-sensitive rock concert style (complete with “moaning and twitching”?!?).
4. If a long-standing traditional style is denigrated or underappreciated, that’s a theological issue akin to people’s rejection of the Gospel.
5. The culture is changing, so we have to reject change by holding our ground with traditional styles of music.
6. Anything other than a Western classical style represents “dumbing down” of worship.
7. The goal of modern styles of music is that we won’t be challenged by worship.

Seriously, people.  Stop it.  Stop making arguments against your brothers and sisters in Christ based entirely on logical fallacies.*  Stop claiming some special knowledge about how public worship gatherings are supposed to look.  Stop insisting that Western classical musical from 400 to 150 years ago is the pinnacle of all human achievement.  It’s not just silly, it’s xenophobic and exclusionary.  (Notice that I didn’t say that using Western classical music, or even preferring it, is xenophobic and exclusionary — insisting on its superiority [even its spiritual superiority] over all other types of music is.)

We sing theologically rich songs at Sojourn, songs that are full of Scriptural truth. We often sing hymns — in fact, I would guess that a majority of our songs have a hymn structure (i.e., a particular meter in each verse). Four of the five songs we did this past week were hymns.  Two were traditional hymns, two were written more recently.  One of the modern hymns was based on a Puritan prayer from the outstanding Valley of Vision.  We sing a fair number of Psalms (I can think of a dozen or so) and are always up for singing more.  Why, then, do people continue to insist that, because we use guitars and drums, we’re contributing to theological shallowness in the church?

Church music ministers need to be students of their culture and their congregation as well as of the Scriptures.  And, furthermore, it’s absolutely possible to obey the commands of the Scriptures without having to use only piano and organ or orchestral arrangements or Western classical style (thank God — if not, boy, would overseas missionaries be in trouble).  It’s even possible to adhere to the Regulative Principle and still — gasp! — use guitars.  Maybe piano, organ, and classical style are what’s best for your particular congregation.  But why then does everyone else have to agree that it’s better?

If we want to talk about what styles of music best carry theological content in a coherent way, I’m happy to have that conversation (and no, I don’t think all musical styles are equally suited for public worship, just on a practical level, but I also think that particular knife cuts both ways).  If we want to talk about reverence and decency, I’m up for that too.  Attitudes toward our collective history?  Yeah, definitely, let’s talk about that.

But if folks are going to approach this conversation with an attitude of snobbery towards everyone who doesn’t have their “special knowledge” about the superiority of the Western classical tradition, a traditional hymnnodic structure, and the Fill-In-The-Blank Psalter… Well, I’ll just turn off my computer and have a little chat with the doorknob instead, thanks.  😉

*In that list, you’ll see a false dilemma (either good thing A or hideously unimaginable thing B must be true), a package deal fallacy (modern music goes together with shallow content and theological inferiority, therefore if you use modern music you’re embracing shallow content and theological inferiority), an appeal to fear (this thing is so dreadful that I hope Jesus comes back before it happens, an appeal to emotion (hymns are comforting; if you want to get rid of hymns you are getting rid of my comfort waaaaaaah), cherrypicking (here is the worst example of how churches can do this, never mind all the good examples), confirmation bias (I believe it will be like X, therefore I will experience as X), tons of bare assertion fallacy (NO IT’S THIS WAY DON’T ARGUE IT IS SO!), and plenty of equivocation (what exactly do these folks mean by “traditional” or “classical” or “hymns” or “contemporary” or “modern”?).

What’s Up With Those Old Guys?

The brilliant Mikey Lynch posted (AGES ago now) a couple musings on a post at The Sola Panel (har har) about the younger generation’s responsibility in engaging the older generation. As I pondered his ponderings, I was reminded of what has been happening in the SBC over the last few years.

For those of you who don’t know, the SBC went through a pretty dramatic and trying time in the 1990s. The denomination as a whole had really slipped doctrinally — the seminaries were getting increasingly liberal (and not in a good way but in a “the Bible? Meh.” kinda way), the missionary zeal that had characterized the SBC for generations was getting lost, and the whole thing was generally not going in a good direction. So a group of bold, courageous men decided that they were going to do whatever they could to put conservative leaders in positions of influence in order to steer the ship around, so to speak. Did they do everything with perfectly pure motives and methods? No. But the upshot of the whole “conservative resurgence” as it came to be known was a recapturing of the centrality of the Gospel and of the historical foundations of the SBC.

But that was almost two decades ago. So what’s a veteran of the conservative resurgence to do? In too many cases, it seems, the answer to that is sitting around nursing war wounds, talking about “kids these days” and generally being grumpy. Which wouldn’t be worth wasting bandwidth on, except that many of them are still in those positions of leadership they worked so hard to get in pre-resurgence days! Their grumpiness can’t just be laughed off — it’s grumpiness with the power and influence to, for example, de-fund church plants that don’t have such a hard line about alcohol as many SBC churches do. Or to carpet-bomb an entire state with anti-Calvinist propaganda dvds. Or to fire a trustee of the International Mission Board for not toeing the party line.

What’s up with that?

Anyhoodles, the SP article and following discussion, as well as the discussion on Mikey’s blog, are enlightening and interesting. Check ’em out.

Single Women in the Church

Craig wrote a little paragraph a few days ago asking how the church can do a better job ministering to “older” (meaning 30+) single women. 71 comments later (as of this posting), there have been some dynamite suggestions and some brutally honest critiques as well. I would highly recommend reading the entire thread — especially if you’re in church ministry of any kind. It’s very revealing of the pain and struggles unmarried women go through, and amazingly gracious and balanced despite its length. This one has so far defied Godwin’s Law.

Abstinence or Chastity?

Ever since the oh-so-wise and ultra-experienced new mom Bristol Palin expressed her opinion about “abstinence” being “unrealistic,” the Christian blog world has been abuzz, with bloggers tsk-tsking, scolding, pontificating, and hand-wringing by turns.

I’ll be the first to admit that the abstinence movement (the stalwart True Love Waits and various smaller efforts) has been a joke and a general failure. A Slate.com article from a while back (one of many on the subject) called such programs a success on a sociological level, in that they motivated participants to delay sexual intercourse by around eighteen months, on average. Wow! Eighteen whole months! What a triumph…

“Joke” might sound like a bit of a strong word. It is. But in the words of Inigo Montoya, “Lemme splain. No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”

Abstinence is a stupid term. Abstaining is something teetotalers do, something Sylvester Graham touted. However fancy the packaging, the word “abstinence” still feels punitive. It’s the absence of something. And as any dieter will tell you, when you feel deprived, you’re that much more likely to splash out by having an appetizer AND a rich dessert AND a glass of wine.

But a proper view of human sexuality is not supposed to feel like eating celery sticks at the Food and Wine Classic. Sexuality is woven into the created order. It’s got a whole book of the Bible dedicated to it. It’s supposed to be honored and protected. It’s meant to be celebrated by the community of faith. It’s part of our identity as image-bearers of God.

Do you see why it’s completely insufficient to say merely that true love (whatever that means) “waits”?

Waits for what? Waits how? Waits why?

I think we need to completely remove the idea of “abstinence” from our discourse — particularly the discourse we aim at young people — and put in its place the idea of chastity. Chastity is both broader and narrower in its focus than “abstinence.” To abstain is to do without something — in this case, sexual intimacy. To be chaste is to view sexuality and sexual intimacy as something godly, valuable, and noble, to be experienced freely and joyfully in the right context, and to be directed toward that context. It’s not a “don’t.” While abstinence is necessarily temporary, chastity is to be practiced throughout the Christian life.

(As a side note, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians say, “I was sexually pure until I got married.” Hold up! If you’ve only ever been intimate with your spouse, you are STILL sexually pure. I believe this rather amusing and revealing malapropism stems from the idea that sexual purity is for the virgin but not the wife — still perpetuating the old stereotype that sexual intimacy is a malum in se rather than an evil only when misused.)

I signed a True Love Waits pledge as a young teen, and I even wore a promise ring for a while until I misplaced the darn thing (sorry, Dad!). But I did so alongside dozens of friends who went on to forget those foundationless and hastily-written promises, which sounded so meaningful at age fourteen but somehow wore thin over time.

The truth is, we have failed to give young people a compelling reason to direct their sexuality toward marriage. At the same time, we’ve encouraged them to put off marriage, making even compelling reasons ring hollow! We’ve hinted that sex is dirty and sinful. We’ve told them No, No, No, No, and that’s the end of it. We’ve told them they have to conquer the beast of temptation alone. We’ve spoken in hushed and shocked tones of fallen women and p orn addicts and all manner of other sexual sinners, driving the struggling and fainting heart into isolation.

Worst of all, we’ve failed to put before them the blinding glory of Christ and the plan of the Almighty God of the universe for human relationships. We’ve failed to tell them of the provision of Christ for our every need, and for the precious gift of the Holy Spirit who comforts us in our distress and guides us into all truth.

Given all these failures, is abstinence unrealistic for most young people? Of course.

But chastity, grace, and the glory of God? That’s a message well worth our time to tell.

Seriously? (and a few random notes)

Whoa. I just scrolled down through this page and realized I’ve written almost nothing of theological significance in the last several weeks. Zoinks. It’s probably one of two things: either I am a hopeless sinner blinded the trivialities of daily life, or I spend every day talking about God’s precious word and his sovereignty in human history, teaching third, fourth, and eighth graders about this beautiful, broken world God will one day redeem, and by the time I get home, I’m all theologied out. Or maybe both.

So… there’s a sizable kerfluffle in the blog world over the issue of whether or not Christians should celebrate a particular holiday with supposedly pagan roots. A holiday whose celebration, detractors claim, sends Christians inevitably down an idolatrous spiral of demon-worship. A holiday whose practices are outlawed by chapter and verse in Jeremiah. Pagan worship! Outright idolatry! Animism!

Well, good heavens, you might say! What is this pernicious, godless event that we’ve thoughtlessly allowed into our homes, welcoming with it the very blackest forms of paganism?

It’s not Halloween. It’s Christmas.

No, seriously.

Apparently, Jeremiah 10:2-4 condemns the practice of putting up and decorating Christmas trees. Leaving aside the kinda comical levels of anachronism we’ve got here, let’s not be hasty. Judge for yourself:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

OK. So what we have here is… God telling the people not to put up Christmas trees? Huh. Weird.

Because it seems to me that what’s actually happening is that Jeremiah the prophet is warning Judah that their sin is fixin’ to bring down God’s wrath and judgment, and this passage is part of God’s case against them. It just so happens that last week’s Bible lesson at school was “The Ministry of Jeremiah.” So tell me, third and fourth graders, what was the main sin of Judah that caused God to send judgment on them?


And why is idolatry not only sinful but also stupid? Because, as Isaiah says, idolaters take a log, carve half of it into a statue they bow down to, and throw the other half onto the fire to make their dinner. Because, Jeremiah reminds them, the idols are mute, they’re nothing, they can’t even move from place to place but have to be carried (10:5). Condemnation of Christmas trees? Ummmm… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that that’s NOT a responsible exegesis of this passage.

There are more legs to their argument (the only birthdays mentioned in the Scriptures are those of pagans whom God struck down so we have no business celebrating Jesus’ birthday, Yule celebrates demonic pagan deities and harkens back to weird druidy times, etc.), and I could pick each one apart, but I just can’t… be bothered. It’s all so silly! Surely there are other things we could focus on, right?

(Incidentally, this is a great example of what one blog I recently read called “The Arithmetic Method” of theology. Thought-provoking article. Check it out.)

So, here are a couple things you could focus on if you felt like it:

1. Listen up, Church. (I’m about to get fired up here, so watch out!) Stop letting Joel and Victoria Osteen off the hook. Stop justifying their heresy. Stop nurturing the notion that they’re merely addled — like that sweet but dim-witted cousin everybody loves while being slightly embarassed about — and get it in your head that they are preaching a different Gospel. Go read Galatians 1:8. (Go ahead, I’ll wait…) The Osteens are inviting a curse on themselves. Stay far, far away from their “ministry” and, if you love your brothers and sisters in Christ, warn them about it too.

2. Open iTunes (or the legal online music acquisition apparatus of your choice) and download the following albums immediately: Shai Linne’s Storiez, Flame’s Our World Redeemed, and LeCrae’s Rebel. Then revel and rejoice in the work God is doing through these warriors of the faith and their bold Gospel preaching.

Theology Matters

If you’re not already reading Bob Kauflin’s blog, Worship Matters, get your butt over there. It is, hands down, the best online resource out there for worship leaders, church musicians, and pew-sitters. I absolutely cannot recommend it highly enough. Not only does he provide incredibly pertinent, godly counsel to his brothers and sisters in worship ministry but he also, as part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, makes videos, notes, chord charts, mp3s, and all manner of other resources available for free, following the (totally awesome) trend among Reformed-types to give everything away.

In a recent post, Bob discusses why theology matters to Christian musicians. I only wish every worship leader in every Christian church in America could read it! Check out an excerpt:

[W]hy theology should matter to Christian musicians.

1. You’re already a theologian.
Every Christian, musical or otherwise, is already a theologian. The question is, are you a good theologian or a bad one? We’re good theologians if what we say and think about God lines up with what Scripture says and affirms. We’re bad theologians if our view of God is vague, or if we think God doesn’t really mind sin, or is we see Jesus as a good example and not a Savior, or if we our god is too small to overcome evil or too big to care about us.

2. God reveals himself primarily through words, not music.
Because we’ve encountered God profoundly during times of musical worship, we can wrongly start assuming that words restrict the Spirit, while music enables us to experience God in fresh and powerful ways. If God had wanted us to know him primarily through music, the Bible would be a soundtrack, not a book. Music affects and helps us in many ways, but it doesn’t replace truth about God. By itself, music can never help us understand the meaning of God’s self-existence, the nature of the Incarnation, or Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Simply put, truth outlasts tunes.

3. Being good theologians makes us better musicians.

  • Theology teaches us what music is meant to do.
  • Theology teaches us that worship is more than music.
  • Theology teaches us that Jesus is better than music.

Dude. Good stuff. Check it out.