About David Roach

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee, and a contributor to both BibleMesh and Kairos Journal. He holds a philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University and earned his PhD in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His writings have appeared in academic journals and various Southern Baptist denominational publications.

How Should We Cope with Burdens at Christmastime?

If the nativity scenes in your house are like the ones in mine, there’s no hint that the characters experienced difficulty or pain surrounding the birth of Jesus. Shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph all admire the Christ child in the warm glow of a cozy stable, smiles on their faces. Of course, Christmas did bring warmth and joy to these characters. But have you also considered the difficulty and strain they experienced surrounding Christ’s birth? Thinking about their circumstances reminds us that for God’s people, great burden and great blessing often coincide.

Take Mary. The angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth announcing that she was “favored” by God (Luke 1:28). But her circumstances probably didn’t make her feel favored. When she became pregnant by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, friends and family surely cast dispersion on her, believing her baby was the result of sexual immorality and not a miracle. That’s what Joseph, her godly husband-to-be, thought until an angel told him differently (Matthew 1:19). For Mary, God’s favor led to stigma and having her plans for family life turned upside down.1

The situation was similar for Joseph. He planned to take Mary as his wife then build a family. God’s miraculous intervention was so jarring that his first thought was to divorce Mary before the angel explained. After Jesus was born, Joseph continued to experience hardship and interruption. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus, Joseph had to uproot his family and relocate to Egypt until Herod’s death.

The wise men weren’t exempt from burden either. In addition to the long journey required to find Jesus (they likely came from Babylonia, Persia, or even the Far East), protecting Him meant defying a king who wasn’t afraid to murder his enemies (Matthew 2:1-18).

What about the shepherds? When angels appeared to them in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, they were “filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). Then they had to leave their source of livelihood in the middle of the night to go worship Jesus (Luke 2:8-20), presumably an unsettling prospect for conscientious keepers of sheep.

Of course, the characters in the Christmas story experienced joy and blessing upon seeing Jesus. In that sense, warm nativity scenes are completely accurate. Scripture gives us no hint that they grumbled about the difficulties surrounding their trip to Bethlehem. Still, each of them had to endure burdens in order to trust God and honor His Son.

BusyChristmasThis should comfort believers who find themselves burdened at Christmastime. After all, the holiday season, despite its joys, is a time when people feel lonely, depressed, overwhelmed by consumerism, and weighted down in myriad other ways. When facing such struggles, we should consider the example of Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds. They too were burdened. But amid their burdens, they experienced the greatest blessing they would ever know by taking time to focus on Jesus.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the same when he found himself spending Christmas in prison for defying the Nazi regime during World War II. In a letter to his fiancée, he explained why he expected “an exceptionally good Christmas.”

“I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents,” he wrote, “but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious . . . The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.” This Christmas know that you’re not alone in your trials. But amid them, take time to appreciate the greatest blessing imaginable: friendship with Jesus and assurance of His eternal love.

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1 Content of this paragraph and the inspiration for this entire post are drawn from a sermon preached by Hershael York at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, December 15, 2013.
2 This article was originally posted on the BibleMesh Blog on December 23, 2013.

The Reformation’s Far-Reaching Implications

The most important reason to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is its recovery of the doctrine that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Yet the Reformers recognized that bedrock doctrine had implications cutting across every facet of life. Their application of Scripture to life and culture continues to serve as a model for followers of Jesus. Amid your Reformation Day celebration, consider the following:

The Reformers modeled public courage. Luther famously refused to recant his writings before the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating at the risk of his life, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Though Luther managed to avoid martyrdom, others bravely defended Protestant doctrine to their death. The martyrs included men and women, pastors and laypeople, old and young who believed standing for Christ was more important than life.

The Reformers modeled love for the local church. They weren’t standing for theology in the abstract. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and company loved, served, and fought for people who filled the pews in specific local churches—warts and all. As such, the Reformers are a powerful example for Christians tempted to hop from one church to another in search of the perfect spiritual experience. As Calvin wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:2, the person who seeks a church with “perfect purity” must “necessarily in the end withdraw from all others, and look upon himself as the only saint in the world, or set up a peculiar sect in company with a few hypocrites.”

The Reformers modeled love for the family. Focused on biblical teaching, they rejected the Catholic Church’s requirement of clerical celibacy and re-elevated marriage and child rearing as noble tasks of the believer. Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora and Calvin’s to Idelette de Bure both stand among church history’s most tender unions. That’s why Calvin wrote upon Idelette’s death, “Mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life.”

The Reformers engaged the culture. Their Gospel had implications for the public square, and they were not afraid to state those implications. Calvin and Martin Bucer both explicitly condemned elective abortion while Luther extolled the dignity of unborn children and childbearing. Reformers additionally wrote on the role of government, public virtue, and education among other public square topics. Calvin dedicated much of his adult life to establishing a culture in Geneva that honored God’s standards.(Admittedly he and Zwingli did not embrace contemporary understandings of religious liberty; witness the execution of the non-Trinitarian Michael Sevetus in Geneva and the Anabaptist Felix Manz in Zurich.)

The Reformers recovered expository preaching. In 1519, Zwingli broke from the standard practice of preaching according to the church calendar and launched a six-year series of expository sermons through the entire New Testament. Calvin likewise preached through books of the Bible, covering most them over the course of his ministry. So committed to sequential exposition was Calvin that following a three-year exile from Geneva, he resumed preaching in 1541 from the exact point in the Psalms at which he left off.

The list could continue of ways the Reformers applied their doctrine to everyday life. The underlying point is that Reformation doctrine cannot be partitioned off as affecting only a narrow slice of existence. Luther and company recognized biblical truth has far-reaching implications—a vision the church desperately needs to embrace five centuries later.

Evangelism: Empowered But Not Easy

It’s not uncommon to hear claims that sharing the Gospel is easy and that any follower of Jesus can lead nonbelievers to faith with relative ease, given the right method. Such claims aren’t entirely without merit. Evangelism is simpler than it’s portrayed at times, and any believer can do it. Yet examples from Scripture demonstrate it can be far from easy:

  • For Moses, faithfully sharing God’s Word meant standing eye to eye with a tyrannical pharaoh, declaring Yahweh’s identity, and calling the Egyptian leader to repent of his wickedness (Exodus 7-12).
  • Daniel called King Nebuchadnezzar to repent and follow the Lord (Daniel 4:27) even though the Babylonian monarch had demonstrated a willingness to execute followers of Yahweh when their actions appeared to undermine his authority (Daniel 3:1-30).
  • Stephen was stoned to death for preaching the Gospel to Jewish leaders (Acts 7:1-60).
  • For the apostle Paul, preaching the Gospel led to 39 lashes on five occasions; three beatings with rods; stoning; three shipwrecks; “danger from rivers . . . robbers . . . [his] own people [and] Gentiles”; “toil and hardship”; sleepless nights; hunger and thirst; and “cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Eventually, he was executed for his bold witness.
  • For preaching the message of Christ, Peter was arrested by Jewish leaders (Acts 4), arrested by King Herod (Acts 12:1-5), and eventually executed as Jesus had predicted (John 21:18-19).
  • The apostle John was arrested and beaten by the Jewish leaders as a younger man (Acts 4) and exiled to the island of Patmos in his old age (Revelation 1:9).

Even in giving the Great Commission, Jesus implied the difficulty of the task at hand by telling His followers, “All authority has been given to me” and commanding them to “remember” that He would go with them in the work of disciple-making (Matthew 28:18-20, CSB). It was a task possible only through Christ’s authority and with His personal presence. As Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan put it, merely “operating by technique, method and programming” without accompanying “reliance on the Spirit” will not yield “lasting, spiritual fruit.”[1]

That’s why the promise of the Great Commission is an essential companion of the command to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” Overcoming the obstacles of fear, doubt, and opposition is possible only when we rely on the Spirit and grace of God. Paul said he “worked” at evangelism and church planting, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). On another occasion, Paul said he “proclaimed” Christ, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29).

As it was in the Old and New Testaments, calling nonbelievers to follow the Lord can be difficult today. Yet when we remember Christ’s personal presence and, by faith, rely on His authority in our witness, we will find that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

[1] Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, 3rd edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 88.

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).

The Bible and Sports

olympicsWhen you tune in to the Olympics, do you realize that the Bible has shaped what you’re watching? It’s a little known fact that in the 19th century, Christian principles, informed by Scripture, helped shift the West’s attention from cruel sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting to mass spectator sports like rugby, soccer, cricket, and tennis. A result of this development is the popularity of the modern Olympic Games. As one British historian put it, the rise of spectator sports together with the widespread establishment of new public parks and sports grounds “contributed to the emancipation of the body and mind of millions.”

The evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries created a new social and sporting ethic based on the idea that vigorous outdoor recreation was not only vital to the mental and physical health of Britain’s growing urban population, but that it also provided an opportunity for improving moral and social attitudes by developing an ethos of “team spirit” and “sportsmanship.” Sports, it was argued, could be used as a vehicle for inculcating self-discipline, combating personal selfishness, and transcending class divisions. Influenced by these ideas, Christians were actively involved in the development of sports both as patrons and players.

By the 1800s, a new attitude about sports emerged as part of a worldview that came to be known as “muscular Christianity”—popularized by British Christian writers Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and Thomas Hughes (1822-1896). Hughes wrote in his novel Tom Brown at Oxford that “a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth.” Clearly this was an attitude drawn from the Bible, for Hughes echoes  1 Corinthians 9:27 (“But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway”) and Genesis 1:28 (where God told man to “subdue” the earth). Additionally, protecting the weak and advancing righteousness are themes scattered across the Old the New Testaments.

Buttressed by a biblical understanding of recreation, sports like soccer, cricket, rugby, and golf took off in the UK. Following Britain’s example, muscular Christianity spread to other countries, appearing in the US, for instance, first in the private schools and then in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where it led to the invention of basketball and volleyball.

Modern sports may not have attained their honorable and prominent status in society if not for a group of British Christians who took their Bibles in hand as they thought about athletic competition. Yet sad to say, few who watch or participate in sports around the world today realize how much they owe to Scripture’s influence.

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Note: A version of this article was originally published in Kairos Journal and posted on the BibleMesh blog in August 2012.

Transgenderism in the Ancient World

As Clement looked around his cosmopolitan city, the open displays of transgenderism broke his heart. Grown men wore bleach-blonde feminine hairstyles, donned see-through women’s clothing, smelled of perfume, and had their bodies shaved in public salons where passersby could observe the spectacle. Though males biologically, these men “detest[ed] the bloom of manliness,” as Clement put it.[1]

world_missionsClement might well have lived in 21st-century London, Amsterdam, New York, or Los Angeles. But he didn’t. Clement was a theologian along the Egyptian coast during the second century AD, and his experience was not atypical. Though the term “transgenderism” was not coined until the 1960s,[2] the phenomenon has existed for millennia—individuals who feel drawn to present themselves as the opposite gender. At times such behavior in the ancient world was coupled with homosexual acts, and at other times it was practiced by those who would be described as bisexual today.[3] Yet from ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek and Roman Empires, instances of gender confusion are well documented.

During Old Testament times, the Mesopotamian text Erra and Ishum described men “who changed their masculinity into femininity” as part of worshiping the fertility goddess Ishtar.[4] In the intertestamental period, the Greek playwright Aristophanes dubbed one character in his play Women at Thesmophoria a “man-woman”—presumably reflective of people he had encountered in real life—and noted, “What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? What relation has a mirror to a sword? And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man?”

By the first century AD, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Egypt, could point to “men-women” who “altered the impression of their natural manly appearance into the resemblance of a woman” and were “willingly driven into the appearance and treatment of licentious women.”[5] The first- and second-century Roman satirist Juvenal spoke of “the effeminate,” who “in their homes put long fillets [hair ribbons] round their brows” and “swathe themselves with necklaces.” Some used “damp soot” as eye makeup and tied up “long locks” in hairnets.[6] Priests of the Roman cult of Cybele were initiated through a ceremony involving self-castration.[7]

The second-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus remarked to one young man, “Are you a man or a woman? A man. Then adorn yourself as a man, not as a woman.” He added that a “man to be seen who would rather be a woman” is “a scandalous show.”[8] Clement of Alexandria’s prescription for such behavior was representative of many Christian, Jewish, and pagan writers of his time: It “must be driven as far as possible from our society.”[9]

In light of these ancient sources, contemporary followers of Jesus should not be fooled by claims that transgenderism marks the advancement of society or the culmination of movements to celebrate diversity. Of course, some might turn this around and argue that being ancient makes the practice normative. Yet such an argument falls short logically and biblically, for murder and slavery were also ancient practices, and few would claim they are morally legitimate. Far from demonstrating the moral virtue of transgenderism, its ancient roots underscore the reality that with sin, there is truly nothing new under the sun. Since Old Testament times, some men and women have responded sinfully to a psychological struggle related to their gender. Just as in Clement of Alexandra’s day, Christians today should grieve over the spiritual and emotional brokenness of these people and compassionately invite them to repent and experience the renewing grace of Christ.

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Endnotes

[1] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.16, 21. Quoted in S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 290-91.

[2] See John F. Oliven, Sexual Hygiene and Pathology (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965), 514.

[3] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.

[4] Erra and Ishum IV. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 234.

[5] Philo, Special Laws 1.325. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 286.

[6] Juvenal, Satire II, lines 82-99. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.

[7] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.

[8] Epictetus, Discourses 3.1. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 290.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.19. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.