Without Compromise, Saint Francis Preaches to the Sultan

In 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, Saint Francis of Assisi crossed unarmed into the enemy camp in order to preach the gospel to Sultan al-Kamil, the Muslim ruler of Egypt and Saladin’s nephew. In his hagiographic account of this incident, Bonaventure relates the following:

St. FrancisWhen [Francis and his companion] proceeded farther, the Saracen sentries fell upon them like wolves swiftly overtaking sheep, savagely seized the servants of God and cruelly and contemptuously dragged them away, insulting them, beating them and putting them in chains…When that ruler inquired by whom, why and how they had been sent and how they got there, Francis, Christ’s servant, answered with an intrepid heart that he had been sent not by man but by the Most High God in order to point out to him and his people the way of salvation and to announce the Gospel of truth.1

Francis was neither naïve nor mad. He knew very well what he was getting into. Contrary to the excessively tender image of him propounded by Hollywood and supported by popular piety, he was a knight of Christ and a seasoned soldier with crusade combat experience before his conversion. This feature is often overlooked in attempts to portray him as a syrupy environmentalist.

On this, his third attempt at converting the Muslims,2 he once again knew that his life was at stake, and he was prepared to sacrifice it. According to Bonaventure and earlier biographers, the sultan was so overwhelmed by Francis’s courage that he invited him to stay longer. Francis said he was not interested in the sultan’s favors, but only in his conversion. The saint even offered to undergo ordeal by fire, similar to the one Elijah went through in 1 Kings 18:17-40, in order to convince the sultan of the truth of Christianity.

While approving of the saint’s determination, the sultan replied that his acceptance of Christianity would cause a military uprising and was, therefore, a political impossibility. He repeatedly offered Francis gifts and alms for the poor, but the saint refused to accept them and returned to Italy.

This story is an eloquent testimony to the inspired boldness of the Christian saints. It also provides a stirring example of integrity in the face of an offered bribe, this time in the form of compromising hospitality. Furthermore, the incident is a prophetic condemnation of the use of violence to advance the cause of a religion—whether through crusades or terrorism. In the midst of a bloody warfare and in the time when forced conversions were a sad reality, St. Francis manifested the power of Christ, which “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

 

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Endnotes

1 Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis, 9.8, in Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of God, The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1978), 269.
2 Ibid., 9.7.

Steady, Gradual Growth—Vance Havner (1901-1986)

Vance Havner was a beloved and influential American preacher, known particularly for his pithy, insightful quotes. Of him, Billy Graham once said, “I do not know of any man in my generation who has stirred revival fires in the hearts of so many people throughout the nation as has Vance Havner . . .”1

The following quote, taken from a collection designed for daily devotion, brings Havner’s sharp mind to bear on the problem of spasmodic discipleship. And though he was known as a revival preacher, whose meetings were marked by dramatic spiritual encounters with the Lord, it was his conviction that sanctification comes typically in orderly fashion.

We do not grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ by leaps and bounds but some try. They bounce from one mountain peak of Christian experience to another. Every year or so they make a new start, turn a new leaf, have a new thrill. Children do not grow by suddenly gaining a few inches or adding a few pounds now and then. They grow gradually, daily, by food, rest, and exercise. Christian growth comes the same way by feeding on the Word, resting in the Lord, and exercising unto godliness. It has been said that nothing is more detrimental to Christian experience than too many Christian “experiences.”2

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1 See Vance Havner Website, http://www.vancehavner.com (accessed March 31, 2010).
2 Vance Havner, The Vance Havner Devotional Treasury: Daily Meditations for a Year (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 49.
 

Ella Broadus Robertson and the Art of Motherhood

In 1930 when Ella Broadus Robertson published The Fine Art of Motherhood, she was already an accomplished speaker and author. The daughter of the famous preacher and professor John Broadus and wife to the world-renowned New Testament linguist A. T. Robertson, she sought to counter the rising tide of feminism by encouraging women with practical, biblical wisdom.

Ella lived in a time of great change for women. Suffragettes stormed the White House in July 1917. The police had no patience for this display of female aggression. They arrested several women and sent them off to a workhouse. The tide, however, had shifted. America had become convinced that women, who so ably served the cause of war, deserved the right to vote, and a few years later, on August 26, 1920, the nation secured it with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.1 Not all changes were positive. In 1928 feminist author Charlotte Haldane secularized the women’s movement. In Motherhood and Its Enemies she argued mothers need political not biblical guidance.2 She advocated equality unchecked by Scripture.

motherchildernIn this new century, women wanted female leadership. Haldane provided it. Thankfully, so did Ella Robertson. In most of her works she devoted herself to serving families. In 1911, she published The Heart of the Bible, a collection of readings through the Old and New Testaments “for young people, parents and teachers.” Robertson wanted children to read and understand Scripture, and she approached this edition with the belief that “every part of the Bible is to be read in the light of the Bible as a whole.”3

The Art of Motherhood (1917) is based on talks she gave in summer conferences throughout the country. Robertson exhorted mothers to entrust their children to God. She spoke of Augustine’s mother, Monica, who diligently prayed for her young son while he lived in sin.4 She challenged mothers to trust in the Lord even when death takes a child: “[S]ome of the deepest truths have been struck out of the rock by hearts in anguish.” She spoke from experience, having herself lost a child.5 Furthermore, she offered advice on discipline. Children ought to obey, but not out of terror: “[A] child learns, as we learn, to trust the wisdom and love of the one who commands.”6 She encouraged mothers with the reminder that parenting is divine business.

In The Ministry of Women (1921), she challenged women to think about the changing world. She opened by referencing the historic ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment: “Since woman has become a citizen, it seems more and more manifest that her best public service will still be done as woman.”7 Gender equality was the national mood, and Robertson thought biblically about the matter. She pointed women to the examples of Rebekah and Elizabeth. She noted that Zelophehad’s daughters were “pioneers of woman’s rights” because they asked and received a portion of the inheritance of Israel though their father had no sons (Num. 27:6-8).8 She asked probing questions: “Is our suffrage going to usher in a golden age?” “What reforms should women most concern themselves about?” “What did we learn from doing war work?” The questions spurred discussion and indicated that Robertson wanted wives and mothers to think carefully about their roles in the modern age.

Ella Robertson urged women to realize their valuable place in both the family and society. She believed God used women, wives, and mothers to change the world. In her last book she exhorted her readers to stand firm against the onslaught of world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Women have a precious role to play in supporting the family and protecting and promoting the gospel.9

Today’s Charlotte Haldanes would have mothers believe the best they can do is stay in the workforce to foster independence and secure a healthy pension.10 God created women to embrace larger goals. Whether working at home or in the marketplace, He calls them to make an even longer-term investment in the family, the Church, and the spiritual well-being of the world.

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Endnotes:

1 Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999), 658-659.

2 Charlotte Haldane, Motherhood and Its Enemies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1928), 250-251.

3 The Heart of the Bible, ed., Ella Broadus Robertson (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1911), v.

4 Ella Broadus Robertson, The Fine Art of Motherhood (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1917), 50.

5 Bernice O. Skaggs, “Archibald Thomas Robertson,” 194?. Manuscript available in The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Archives.

6 Robertson, Art of Motherhood, 117.

7 Ella Broadus Robertson, The Ministry of Women (Oklahoma City: Messenger Book House, 1921), 5.

8 Ibid., 92-93.

9 Ella Broadus Robertson, These Things Remain (Nashville: Broadman, 1941).

10 Individual Retirement Account. See Leslie Bennetts, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? (New York: Voice, 2007).

God’s Counsel for Dark Days

WorryChristians experience sadness, burdensome circumstances, and even depression—a state of mind in which every aspect of life seems negative and dark. Though some may deny this reality, the Bible shows that seasons of difficulty have troubled God’s people since the Fall. Sadness and depression should never be embraced by Christians, since Scripture teaches that Jesus came to give life “abundantly” (John 10:10) and that the fruit of the Holy Spirit includes joy and peace (Galatians 5:22). Still, we’re not alone when we experience dark times. From Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan to Martin Luther and Richard Baxter, great saints have endured great heaviness in their souls. Fortunately, the Bible contains abundant counsel on sadness, trying circumstances, and depression. Consider the following:

Difficult circumstances can be God’s tool to refine us. Believers only experience trials God has deemed necessary to our spiritual development (1 Peter 1:6-7). Keep believing God’s promises, and your trial eventually will yield to a season of joy—even if you have to wait for it until you reach heaven.

Troubling thoughts may stem from Satan’s attacks. After all, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Though the devil cannot control believers, he can suggest frightening, perverse, disturbing, or painful thoughts. When Christians sense that troubling thoughts have been thrust upon them by an unseen evil force, we should resist Satan with prayer and trust in Christ (James 4:7).

Feelings of weight or burden can be God’s discipline for sin (Hebrews 12:5-11). Non-believers may disobey God without feeling the stress of guilt, but the Lord loves His children too much to permit unchecked rebellion. If you have sinned, repent and God will “restore” to you “the joy of [His] salvation” (Psalm 51:12).

Depression can be the result of a medical or psychological problem. At times, physiological factors can cause life to seem overwhelmingly negative and dark. In such instances, medical help is the appropriate remedy. Indeed, Scripture speaks of taking medication for physical ailments (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:23).

Despair can stem from laziness and lethargy. Proverbs speaks of laziness’ leading to weariness and unsatisfied desires (Proverbs 21:25; 26:15), so be diligent in every aspect of life.

Material needs or stressful circumstances can produce deep anxiety. God’s prescription for these stresses is reasonable thinking, thankfulness for our blessings, and replacing worried brooding with prayer (Philippians 4:5-7).

Seasons of needless burden can be produced by a weak conscience that falsely condemns. If you feel the weight of guilt but believe you haven’t sinned, trust God’s promises of forgiveness and salvation over your finicky feelings. “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).

Of course, these aren’t the only causes of dark seasons in life, but considering these penetrating diagnoses from Scripture often leads to relief for Christians who find themselves saying with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Whether the remedy comes from medicine, believing God’s promises, or gaining proper perspective on our trials, heeding the Bible’s advice can lead the burdened Christian to also say with the psalmist, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

The Church Fathers’ High View of Marriage

Athens MarriageTwo votes at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) underscored the Church Fathers’ devotion to marriage. The first vote maintained clerical marriage relationships, the second defended surviving spouses’ remarriage. Though the latter was a clear indication of their esteem for the institution, in that they provided for widows and widowers who yearned for a new mate, it was actually a moderating vote. So high was the Church’s regard for a couple’s original vows that such prominent figures as Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras argued that the bond outlasted death itself. In the end, their stricture was not adopted, but the very fact of its consideration showed the group was quite serious about marital vows. As one patristic scholar, Willy Rordorf, put it, “Concerning the conception of marriage as a total union of the couple implying a fidelity without reserve, there is unanimous agreement between the New Testament and the Early Church.”

It may seem strange that the Council of Nicaea, known for affirming the divinity of Christ, also dealt with such matters. But, this is not so surprising given the context. According to Roman law (which applied throughout the empire) marriage was a private contract like any other contract—dissolvable by one or both parties. Consequently, divorce was not difficult to obtain. So church leaders took a counter-cultural stance, at odds even with practice within their congregations. When Chrysostom preached on divorce, he noted that some members of his congregation “hung their heads in shame,” and Ambrose found it necessary to instruct his readers not to make use of the government’s divorce laws. In fact (and likely with the empire’s toleration in mind), the Fathers were steadfast in their defense of marriage, which they saw both as a sacrament (symbolic of Christ’s relationship with the Church) and as a means of witnessing to God’s steadfast love for humanity.

The Fathers did disagree on the implications of adultery for remarriage and wrestled over interpretation of Matthew 19:9—“whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (ESV). Some, such as Augustine, prohibited remarriage under any circumstances, and others, such as Chrysostom, allowed for it when a spouse was the victim of adultery. The Shepherd of Hermas took the stricter stance: If a husband finds that his wife has committed adultery and she is unrepentant—he must “dismiss her” and not remarry. But Tertullian claimed exceptions: “Permanent is the marriage which is not rightly dissolved; to marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. . . . Divorce, therefore, when justly deserved, has even in Christ a defender.” In granting the marriage bond could be “rightly dissolved,” Tertullian suggested “the correlative right to remarry.”

Of course, this disagreement mirrors contemporary debates within the Church. Not surprisingly, those who reject remarriage—without exception—will point to the early Church’s strong defense of marriage. But defenders of a biblical permission to remarry—under certain circumstances—caution us that the Fathers did not speak with one voice on this issue.

How then are the Fathers to be understood? At the very least, they were staunch advocates of marriage in a civil society and culture in which the covenant of marriage could sometimes be seen as a little more than another legal contract—not unlike today. The early Church grappled with the biblical text, applying it to every aspect of their lives—from their doctrine of Christ to their doctrine of marriage. Since we live in a culture willing to throw out marriage, embrace divorce, and assume remarriage—in all circumstances—the Fathers may be worth another look.