Losing the Faith in One Generation

7 And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. . . 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.

Judges 2:7-12 (ESV)

ParentingGertrude Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals among the Victorians traces the abandonment of Christianity by certain descendants of the evangelical Clapham Sect, whose members included Henry Thornton and Hannah More. Indeed, so far did their offspring move from Christ that within two generations, Thornton’s great-grandson and More’s goddaughter’s great-nephew, E. M. Forster was a member of the socially dissolute Bloomsbury Set, which included Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.

Israel knew all about the failure to pass on God’s ways across several generations. Having brought the people into the promised land of Canaan, led them through many victories, and set a good example of trust in God, Joshua died when he was 110 years old (v. 8). After his death, other contemporaries lived on for a while, but then they too died out (v. 10a). God’s people served God faithfully as long as these eye-witnesses of God’s goodness to Israel preserved the memory of God’s greatness (v. 7). But when Joshua’s generation died out, their descendants lacked that personal knowledge of God and promptly forgot all that the Lord had done for their nation (v. 10b).

The new generation’s ignorance led them into idolatry that kindled God’s anger against them (v. 11-12), beginning a cycle repeated throughout Judges (cf. 2:14-19). Somehow Joshua’s generation failed to keep the record of all that God had done for them alive. They had forgotten that the first responsibility of parents after loving God is to store God’s word in their hearts and pass it on to their children (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-19). Hence, the parents’ failure to pass on to their children a testimony to the reality of God’s grace and power (cf. Joel 1:3) resulted in a “generational gap.”

If God’s people do not constantly ponder and pass on the good news of salvation, their children’s faith will last no longer than the morning dew. The Bible contains no guarantee that salvation automatically transfers from parent to child, a fact that should sober even Christ’s most faithful servants. Certainly, a mother or father’s life of holiness and biblical instruction are means by which boys and girls come to know the Lord. But family religion alone is not enough. One becomes a Christian by faith and grows as a Christian only through a deeply personal walk with Jesus, and a life that is hidden in God. It is a lesson so obvious that it is easy to forget. And it most definitely is a leading reason why Europe—once a thoroughly Christian continent—now copes with the emptiness of secularism’s spectre and countless young people who embrace no belief save nihilism.

Parents and pastors know within their own families and churches how easily people presume to live on their parents’ spiritual capital. While the Clapham evangelicals are praiseworthy for their gospel stand on many social ills in Victorian England, not least child labor and the slave trade, their descendants stand as reminders that Christ cannot be received by osmosis.

When Was Jesus Born?

Almost universally today, Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Why do Christians celebrate on this day and is it a good idea to do so?

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospels is there any clear indication of the time of year Jesus was born. Perhaps the most specific time marker in Scripture is the statement in Luke 2:2 that Jesus was born during a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But we don’t know precisely what year that census occurred, much less what month. Furthermore, the few other clues that are there do not necessarily point toward a December date. For example, some have suggested that the presence of the shepherds sleeping with their flocks at night is unlikely to have occurred in December, since, even in Palestine, it is a cold time of year. In fact, for roughly three hundred years after Jesus was born no one celebrated His birth on December 25. When some Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, first began trying to figure out the date of His birth much later, they tended to put it sometime in the spring, not the winter, but even then it there was no consensus on the right date.

When, then, did Christians begin celebrating Christmas on December 25? The answer is we don’t know exactly, though it was definitely sometime in the fourth century and in the city of Rome. The earliest records we have for a celebration on December 25 date from this time and come from the imperial capital. From Rome the celebration gradually spread eastward throughout the Roman Empire. Evidence that it was a recent innovation is that in the year 386 the renowned preacher John Chrysostom pointed out in a Christmas sermon that the festival of Christmas was less than ten years old in Antioch, but had already become very popular. The celebration must have deeply resonated with already existing Christian devotion, for it spread further until it reached the furthest corners of the Christian Church.

Some have attempted to argue that the Christian festival of Christmas on December 25 has pagan roots because the birthday of Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) was celebrated on the same day. This charge is true insofar as Sol Invictus was indeed celebrated on this day. However, the truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know whether the birth of Jesus or the birth of Sol Invictus was the earlier celebration, since the first clear evidence for both celebrations comes from the same time period. The first calendar to record Jesus’ birth as December 25 dates from the year 354, and it likewise preserves the first clear reference to the celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus on the same day. We likely will never know whether the Christians borrowed from the pagans or vice versa, but in the end it matters little for Christian theology and worship.

So does it matter what day you celebrate Christmas or even if you celebrate it at all? Well, in one sense the answer is no, since Christians seem to have gotten by perfectly fine for the first three hundred years without knowing or being too concerned about when Jesus was born. However, in another sense, celebrating Jesus’ birth serves the important purpose of sanctifying the calendar. In classical Rome the year was full of festivals, nearly all of which were tied to the worship of pagan gods. When Christians began trying to reshape the imagination of believers throughout the Empire, they realized that they had to come up with their own calendar to mark the important points in the year. Celebrations such as Christmas on December 25, Epiphany on January 6, and Lent in the spring were intended to remind Christians that the most important events in all of human history had occurred in the 33-year span of Jesus’ life. Henceforth, even the calendar would become an instrument for proclaiming the good news of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. And that is a message that never grows old, but deserves to be retold with each new year.

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Note: This article was originally published on the BibleMesh Blog on December 13, 2012.

The Compromised Church of Balaam

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.

Revelation 2:14 (ESV)

Patriotism and nationalism can quickly slide into idolatry. Throughout history, emperors and dictators, from the Caesars to Napoleon, have demanded they be worshipped. Today, many ruthless states demand unthinking devotion and allegiance from their citizens. Those who resist are brutalized or executed. In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of the nations. When the Church turns its nation’s culture into an idol or adopts a “my country right or wrong attitude,” God goes to war against the Church.

PulpitThe church in Pergamum lapsed into such cultural idolatry. Pergamum was proud of its civil religion. They erected the first temple to worship Augustus Caesar in Asia Minor (“Satan’s throne” in v. 13). Imperial worship included animal sacrifice to honor the supposedly-divine Caesar, as well as such Greek deities, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and Dionysus. Sexual intercourse accompanied these pagan rituals. Apparently, the Christians in Pergamum joined in the activities, revealing the decline in courage since the days of Antipas, the faithful witness who became a martyr because of his faith (v. 13).

Christ refers to this cultural compromise as the work of Balaam, the ancient, pagan prophet who led Israel astray to serve Baal and engage in sexually immoral practices with the Moabites (v. 14; Num. 25:1-3, 31:8). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus observed that Balaam knew that if he could corrupt Israel’s morals, God would surely judge them. The church compromised their worship and sexual ethics by living and abiding by the customs of their pagan neighbors. Deluded and confused, they thought they could view God and Caesar as relative equals. By the sword of His mouth—His Word—Jesus promised a battle against those inside the church, namely the Nicolaitans, who preached harmony with compromise and wickedness (vv. 15-16).

In certain quarters today, the Church has reached a concord with Balaam’s spiritual descendents. Sexual immorality runs rampant in both pulpit and pew. Self-described tolerant Christians and denominations countenance pagan ritual alongside the worship of the one true God—most notably in “interfaith” gatherings. Others confuse national identity with vital Christianity when in fact all earthly kingdoms will recede and collapse before the kingdom of our God and Christ (Rev. 11:15). When forced to choose, will the Church deny its cultural Caesars or the Lord Jesus Christ? As the opening words of the letter to the church at Pergamum states, Christ bears the “sharp two-edged sword.” Churches which toy with the idolatry of Balaam are forewarned.

The Bureaucratic Beast

8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 (ESV)

capitalAnyone inclined to romanticize government needs only to spend a few hours at the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), obtaining a driver’s license—first one line and then another, a form here, a test there, a photo here, and a check there. The veteran knows to bring outside reading material, for there is usually plenty of time to work through a book or a magazine or two while sitting on a hard plastic chair, if a chair is to be found at all. Somewhere in the process, the licensee is tempted to wonder if things would be this slow if it were handled by a commercial enterprise seeking to build customer loyalty and to earn a profit.

The writer of Ecclesiastes feels our pain. In verse 8, he explains how the needs of people can get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. As each layer of administration asserts its prerogatives, inserts its requirements, and takes its due, the humble citizen finds his life more complicated and his prosperity (and even survival) more problematic. In trying to satisfy the officials’ ideals, he suffers at the point of his own actualities.

Scarcely a day passes without the local newspaper reporting a citizen’s grievance against the government—whether over multiple tax audits, interminable road construction, falling test scores in public schools, or erratic postal delivery. The affluent can usually find a way to cope, but the poor, blue-collar worker is often stuck. When the city temporarily closes his subway stop, he may not have money for a cab or a payment for a reliable car, so his job is in jeopardy. How disappointing it is to hear that the station repairs could have been done earlier and without interrupted service if only a legislator had not held funds hostage until he gained a special dispensation for park improvement in his district.

Someone who cares for righteousness and justice may be tempted to despise government itself, counting it something of an “anti-Christ,” unsavory for church-going saints. But the writer of Ecclesiastes is quick to add that rulers are beneficial (v. 9). If a farmer is tempted to be bitter over environmental accounting or marketing regulations, he needs to consider the alternative. Without government, there would be no security for his boundaries, no roads for transporting his produce, and no system of monetary exchange. He would be reduced to bartering and sleepless nights sitting watch over his property.

Of course, a Christian may complain over government’s missteps, but there is no place for believers to dismiss the state itself. Unless the Church wants to get into the business of bridge construction, neighborhood crime patrols, currency printing, inter-state commerce regulation, establishment of safety standards for the genetic engineering of hardier crops, oversight of pesticides, and the licensure of drivers, then she should pay the state due respect.

Government can be a pain, but that pain is nothing compared to the suffering that comes with anarchy. This is why the Church should not only intercede for her officials, she should also give thanks for the very existence of officials, as hard as that might be after a trip to the DMV.

Personas

David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

(2 Samuel 12:19-20)

Politicians, jurists, administrators, psychology professionals, and the public at large are trying to sort out what it means to be a “transgender person,” and, naturally, the focus falls upon the term “transgender,” its denotations and connotations.[i] But essential insights rest upon the less exotic but richer term, “person,” and David’s response to the death of an infant son is instructive in this connection.

personasThe word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning “mask” and referring to the role one plays in a drama.[ii] The two notions—“mask” and “personhood”—seem to clash, for, as we hear it, to be a person is a good thing but to don a mask is the stuff of “hypocrisy” (based on the Greek for “speaking from under cover”). Hence expressions like, “Let’s lay aside our masks, get real, and be authentic.” But there is a deeper and admirable sense of persona, one which informs our appreciation for personhood. It concerns the roles, the behaviors, we select as our own, congruent with our character.

In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba, whose husband’s death David had facilitated. Nathan announced God’s judgment that the child would die. In response, David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them” (vv. 16 and 17). He was a broken and humiliated man, and his pleas were sincere. But when God said “No,” the king got back to work. He may have felt like moping or pouting, but he got up, cleaned up, and moved on. Such were the choices he made, the personas he assumed.

The Bible is full of persona shifts: Nebuchadnezzar’s loss and gain of sanity in Daniel 4; Peter’s transitions from defender to coward to apostle in the Gospels; Demas’s forsaking Paul in 1 Timothy 4. In each case, the subject chose to “play a different dramatic role,” to engage the world differently. Everyone does this to some extent, and properly so, whether adopting a pastoral tone at the hospital bedside, cheering wildly at a football game, speaking deferentially to the traffic cop, shushing the kids when mom is trying to field a phone call, or exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on the plane.

This is not phoniness, but rather an outworking of values, commitments, and priorities. Indeed, the “authentic” person who just goes with his moods and tendencies, gushing, whining, or muttering out whatever he feels at the moment, is childishly random, not maturely ordered. In contrast, consider the Greek or Roman actor who, in turn, assumes different personas in the course of the play, all in the service of the story being told. He doesn’t simply grab whatever mask he feels like wearing to “do his own thing.” Similarly, individuals exercise their personhood in service to a narrative. At best, it centers on responsible stewardship of life under the reign of a righteous and loving God. At worst, it ignores God and enthrones unholy, toxic agendas. That is a choice one makes.

Today, it is popular to say that one must play this or that (allegedly) hard-wired sexual role in a particular cultural drama—for instance, a transgender part in the great hedonistic/liberation narrative. But neither roles nor plays are inescapable. Both human reason (as in Xerxes’ discovery that Mordecai rather than Haman was honorable in Esther 6 and 7) and spiritual quickening (as in the case of Lydia, whose heart was “opened” in Acts 16) can effect a revolution in perspective and behavior, and it is the task of the church to commend both of these God-given avenues to human flourishing.

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Endnotes

[i] For instance, the American Psychological Association takes pains to delineate the variety of ways in which “transgender persons” identify themselves—for instance, “genderqueer,” “androgynous,” or “two-spirit.”  See “Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression,” http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx (accessed September 3, 2016).

[ii] See, for example, these masks used in a modern rendering of Plautus’s Roman comedy, Bacchides, http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/featured-project/roman-comedy-in-performance (accessed July 29, 2016).

How to Minister amid Transgenderism

Transgender_symbolVirginia pastor John Pouchot ministered in evangelical congregations for more than a decade before he first encountered a family dealing with transgenderism in 2013. After Pouchot led a man to faith in Christ, his extended family began attending church and Pouchot learned the man’s high school-aged niece wanted to be a boy. Despite counseling the girl’s parents to the contrary, she underwent hormone therapy and began presenting as a boy. The experience left Pouchot convinced pastors like him will encounter transgenderism—and its root condition of gender dysphoria—with increasing frequency in the years to come and must be prepared to respond.[1]

Christians trained to counsel those struggling with gender confusion agree with Pouchot’s assessment and have offered suggestions for pastors and laypeople seeking to make a difference among those who do not feel at home with their God-given gender. In at least some cases, the following actions should be undertaken in conjunction with help from a trained, Christian mental health professional.

  1. Recognize the difference between struggling with gender dysphoria and identifying with the opposite gender. Gender dysphoria is the technical term for the condition of not feeling at home in one’s body in terms of gender. One response to gender dysphoria is to present as the opposite gender, but that is not the only response. As with same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria is often an unwanted feeling that is battled by those who experience it.[2]
  2. Listen. Often, simply talking to those struggling with gender identity and listening to their stories will begin a restoration. As North Carolina professor and counseling pastor Brad Hambrick put it, “Not having an immediate next answer may feel a little frail and helpless to the pastor.” But “that is the kind of [response] that [can lead a struggling person to] say, ‘You get me.’”[3]
  3. Help struggling people manage their dysphoria “in the least invasive way possible.”[4] In many cases, this is as simple as compassionately befriending a teenager until he or she “outgrows” feelings of gender dysphoria—as 70-80% of children reporting “transgender feelings” do. In no case, is so-called gender reassignment surgery appropriate. Not only is such surgery a sinful rejection of God’s good gift of gender, secular researchers have concluded it tends not to alleviate mental distress. A Swedish study found that a decade following gender reassignment surgery, “the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties,” including a twentyfold increase in suicide rate.[5]
  4. Urge individuals who have identified as the opposite gender to admit their sin and ask God for forgiveness. While experiencing unwanted feelings is not a sin, responding to them by shunning the Lord’s providential gender assignment is (cf. Genesis 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). Without a doubt, turning from transgenderism often involves dealing with past emotional wounds and complex medical realities. But such actions should come in addition to confession, not in lieu of it.
  5. Help those who have identified as the opposite gender transition back to their God-given gender as much as possible. At minimum, this will involve dressing as the appropriate gender and ceasing hormone therapy. For those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery, it likely will mean concealing surgical alterations as much as possible. When financial and medical conditions permit, some types of surgery may be reversed. The transition also will involve deciding whether marriage or chaste singleness is the most appropriate path forward.[6]

This list is not exhaustive. And as with many struggles, the road to healing can be difficult, with sinful temptations from the past reemerging from time to time. Yet Christian therapists have reported “huge success” in battling gender dysphoria, including a success rate of nearly 80% for transgender people who want to change.[7]

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Endnotes

[1] David Roach, “Transgenderism Is Growing Ministry Focus,” Baptist Press, May 4, 2016, http://www.bpnews.net/46796/transgenderism-is-growing-ministry-focus (accessed August 1, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Yarhouse, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” Christianity Today, June 8, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/understanding-transgender-gender-dysphoria.html?start=5 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[5] Paul McHugh, “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[6] Roach, “Transgenderism is Growing Ministry Focus.”

[7] Bob [last name omitted intentionally], “Steps for Healing,” Help for Families Website, n. d., http://help4families.com/steps-toward-healing (accessed August 1, 2016).