Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Being pregnant outside of marriage is not a sin" -- A response

Hey DP,

This was very interesting to me. I found some truths in it, but question some of it. Let me know what you think.


Hey Friend,

This article was interesting. It reminds me of something an ex-girlfriend of mine said once about her pregnancy by her boyfriend: “I am happy! Every child is a gift from God!” Here are my thoughts in blue:

We tend to use words like “unwanted” for a pregnancy that is unplanned. But every baby is wanted by God. He/she is knitted together in a womb, and Jesus has died for that child. We should not use “unwanted” and “unplanned” interchangeably.

This paragraph is confused. When a parent says the child is “unwanted” it has nothing to do with whether or not the child is wanted by another human or by God. When a person says a child is “unwanted,” it is typically short-hand for “unwanted by the parent(s),” not “unwanted by every being who exists.” The point is, a child can very much be unwanted by a parent while simultaneously wanted by other humans and by God. A parent can most certainly use "unwanted" and "unplanned" interchangeably.

When we see this circumstance in someone’s life, we can only imagine how their life will drastically change going forward. Any plans they had before now take a back seat, and the child now takes priority. As single people, we can really get caught up in ourselves, and many times our priority is us. We see anything that keeps us from us as a burden. So when we see this happening to someone else, we tend to take pity on them and treat them as such.

Perhaps it’s because a person without children is only focused on “ourselves.” Perhaps that person is focused on the homeless, or orphans, or maintaining a job to pay for expenses. And in any case, yes: a person can feel disappointed when their priorities are changed, regardless of why they are changed. Feelings are not unhealthy, no matter the cause of the feelings.

God’s Design: His Masterpiece
In Genesis, God created Man in his own image, and in this God says that man is his “masterpiece.”   So God, the creator of the Universe, who formed stars, planets, galaxies—all the marvelous things we see—formed man. And in the middle of all this creation, He stops to take a second look at man, and He says … “this … is … my masterpiece.” God then says that man should not be alone, so he creates a suitable helper and then commands them to “be fruitful and multiply.”

I kinda’ get the point, but the author is wrong at several points: (1) God never created “Man” in His own image, God created male and female in His image (Gen 1:26-27); (2) God never says that “man is his ‘masterpiece’; (3) God didn’t stop “in the middle of all this creation” to say that man is His “masterpiece”—the creation of humankind was the final act of creation before resting.

So that is God’s design for a family: A man and a woman come together as one flesh, and through that He says this is His design for man and woman to have children.

No, God didn’t say that was His design. This is the author’s interpretation of the narrative.

But if we aren’t careful we will communicate that the unplanned child is unwanted and therefore bad. Although having sex before marriage is sin, the pregnancy before marriage isn’t sin.

And then… woah!! Out of nowhere the author’s drum is pulled out and hit yet again. What does the creation of humankind and the command to Adam and Eve have anything to do with “communicating that the unplanned child is unwanted and therefore bad”? Nothing at all. Not to mention, even though it is not made explicit in the text, almost certainly what is implied in the text is that Adam and Eve are the basis of Jewish marriage. In the ancient world, once a man and woman got married, the man went to the woman’s house (which was her father’s) to have sex and eventually moved her back to his home. It was immoral throughout Judaism to have sex outside of marriage. Always. This means that any child born outside of marriage was treated with contempt and the mother was treated as “damaged goods.” Such women would hardly, if ever, have found a man to marry the rest of her life.

God wants our hearts; He wants us to come out of where we are and come running right back into relationship with him. And whatever we’ve done, He’s going to use it for good. That’s the good news of “… all things work together for good …” (Romans 8:28).

Now we’re way off subject. I don’t know where this pervasive Christianese anecdote comes from (= “God wants our hearts”) but it sure doesn’t mean what people think it means. In my experience, and I think here too, it means, “God wants us to feel loving feelings toward Him or intend well.” God wants our hearts, minds, thoughts, bodies, and behavior. He wants it all. And “wanting our heart” is often used as an excuse to do whatever you want to do as long as “you give God your heart.” That is biblical nonsense. You can’t “give God your heart” if you haven’t given Him your complete devotion and habits too. This means keeping your pants zipped up.

The second sentence is quite disturbing. The author is saying, “it doesn’t matter what you do because God will use it for good.” This is a very disturbing consquentialist ethic that asserts that if the consequence/end is good, the means doesn’t matter. Surely this is nonsense to any Christian. Why not just murder? Rape? Pillage? Gossip? Lie? Kill babies? If in the end, it doesn’t matter because God will use it for “the good,” why not go ahead? Paul’s point in Romans 8 (i.e., the actual, historical point) certainly doesn’t allow us to go ahead and do whatever because everything works out for good. Does the author think that Paul, the Jew, would have said Rom. 8:28 about the Holocaust had he lived that long to see it? My Lord…

God wants his best for you.
So yes, if you are having sex before marriage, you are going against what the Lord has designed sex to be for. But all of that is redeemable. God uses very strong messages to get our attention, and the correct approach to this is to understand that God wants His best for you and that He wants you to come away from that lifestyle because He has something much better in store for you.

Three points: (1) Yes, God can “redeem” us and our sins. (2) I don’t know what “very strong message” the author means here, so I don’t know what to say about it. (3) God wants the “best for you” only and always within His Kingdom. Whenever people leave this saying un-nuanced like this author has, it always implies that God is some genie-wish-granter or cosmic Santa Claus who just has some picky ways of doing things. "But,…in the end…He just wants the best for us" (which usually implies that we’re happy—notice the final line of “much better in store for you.”) If this is implied, this is nonsense. What is “much better in store for you” could be living a life of celibacy, or selling all your possessions and giving them to the poor, or leaving all of your friends and family because they only tempt you to sin, or committing to twelve years of advanced degrees so that you can teach medicine…etc. In other words, the way God makes things “redeemable” is by having us do it His way. And a byproduct of that, of course, is that it’s “better for us.” But who cares if it’s better for us? He’s the King.

This is a time of rejoicing!
“Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3).
We need to remember that a pregnancy is a time of rejoicing, not mourning. If a single female tells you that she is pregnant, congratulate her and tell her you’re happy for her. Right now she needs the encouragement and support of anyone she comes in contact with. Spark dialogue and ask how things have been going and how you can help.
If you are in this situation, I encourage you to become a part a support group at your local church or look for organizations such as Embrace Grace.

Again, Psalm 127:3 was written by and for Jews who were married when they had kids. As far as I know the literature, there is no verse that says this sentiment for Jewish women who were unmarried.

Again, the author's back to telling people how they can feel. Pregnancy might cause terrible grief. So what? Let women and men feel what they want to feel. Support them in their feelings and don’t tell them how to feel.

Maybe that single mom does need encouragement. Perhaps she does need a support group (and Lord knows I’m a huge proponent of support groups!). In addition, perhaps she needs some truth about what God wants in sexuality. Perhaps the best way to prohibit more children out of wedlock is to tell her about the way God designed sex to be used in His Kingdom.

It seems to me that this author has several things confused to wrap up:

First, the act of having sex outside of marriage is absolutely, clearly a sin. Jesus said there are two options for sexuality: within heterosexual marriage or none at all (read Matthew 19). And if a person is pregnant and unmarried, it means that two people have sinned. This better cause deep sorrow and grief. It better lead to confession and repentance.

Second, now that the consequence of that sin is growing in the mother, the child should never, ever, ever be punished for the sins of the parents. Murdering a child (= abortion) because the parents sinned (either through willful sinning or because the father was a rapist) is absolutely immoral. Plans should be made to take care of the child through any means necessary (that are legal and Christian).

What about the child? Is the child just a “sin baby?” No. Of course not. The child—from the millisecond s/he became a zygote—is a human. All humans have value given by God. The child born out of marriage should be treated with the exact same care and love as every other child who is born within marriage.

Can a woman be sad about the pregnancy? Of course! The parents can grieve the sinful error of sex outside of marriage. The parents can grieve that all of their previous plans have now changed to some degree. Sure. That would make anyone sad. I could be just as sad if someone gave me a really nice house and car as a gift that I must immediately take care of, support, and provide for the next eighteen years. It’s an awesome gift! But now my whole life just got changed. (I know it’s an imperfect analogy: giving me a house/car is not a child, and the gift giving is not sinful. The point of the analogy is that I’m given something really great that requires my immediate attention and changes my plans. This would cause me some degree of sorrow because of the changed plans and requirements placed upon me.)

Can I be happy about the child? Yes. I can be happy about the child but not happy about the way the child was conceived. (Another analogy: I can be happy that I received an inheritance, but not happy that my parents had to die so that I could receive the inheritance.)

Do I have to grieve this fact forever? Of course not. Grieve it, confess it, and move on. It’s time to be a Christian parent. 

That's my view anyway.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"What does God think about marijuana?" A conversation with a friend

I've been thinking a lot lately with the culture and trend changes in society about God's opinion of marijuana usage. It seems it's popularity is on the rise due to celebrity promotion and individual state legalization…. My curious question is, again, how does God feel about this?              

There are certain factors of morality versus illegality that I have considered. For example, women didn't always have the right to vote, it was illegal but it was not immoral. That law has since changed. Can we say the same for marijuana?         

Does consuming marijuana equate the likes of caffeine which is Americas most abused substance? Since our bodies are temples, if you have a yoga instructor, vegetarian who smokes everyday is that person taking better care of themselves than someone who works a desk job and eats McDonalds everyday?

Hey Friend!

This reminds me of something I wrote a while back concerning drinking. You might find it helpful:

First, the following is what I think about non-medicinal uses of marijuana. (I once knew a woman with brain cancer who said only marijuana could give her release from the migraines that almost made her unconscious.)

Second, while I’ve hardly been around marijuana myself, I know several people who have smoked it (several of whom who were/are addicted). So, I’ve talked about this issue on other occasions. It’s a very needed topic in the church today! So, I appreciate your question. Also, I appreciate your desire to have the “same opinion as God’s.”

Well, unfortunately, I don’t know the mind of God on this issue as far as I can tell. Yet, I do have my opinion based on my reading of the New Testament.

I appreciate your analogies of the yoga instructor and smoking, etc. In other words, it seems you’re implying we Christians should be consistent with our ethical decisions. If that’s what you’re implying, I utterly concur. (By the way, it seems to  me that Paul’s reference to our bodies being “the Temple of the Holy Spirit” is referencing sexual purity in 1 Cor 6, not about what we eat and drink.)

I also appreciate your distinction between illegal and immoral. You’ll see below that I don’t mention legality because I concur with you. I think that is irrelevant in this discussion.

The blog I referenced above will give more details, but here is a snapshot of my views:
·    Smoking/injecting any drug, drinking alcohol, eating sugar/fat, it seems to me, is not inherently sinful/immoral (there is no Scripture that says otherwise; and considering alcohol, we know that Jesus drank a much-diluted wine). It is no more immoral than eating dirt or smoking tree bark. It’s simply consuming something that occurs naturally on this planet.

·     What IS spoken of much in the Bible is the need to practice “self-control” (esp. 1 Co. 7:5, 9; 1 Co. 9:25; Gal. 5:23; 1 Tim. 2:9, 15; 2 Tim. 1:7; 2 Tim. 3:3; 2 Pet. 1:6f). How else are we to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors if we’re drunk or high? (And it seems to me this moral commandment doesn’t include losing some self-control when I take medications for a particular ailment--like getting really sleepy or “loopy.” These are side effects of medicinal treatment and (typically) for a short period of time.)

·     It was important to Jesus and Paul that we never practice any behavior that causes another person to sin (e.g., Mark 9:42 and Rom 14:21). Of course, the same is true with my own temptation to sin. It’s assumed throughout the Bible that we should flee temptation to sin.

·     Finally, when it doubt about an ethical stance, I ask the question, “Would I do this with Jesus? Would Jesus do this if He were with me in the flesh? Would He have done this with the first disciples?”

So, when I put these things together, here is my view: If smoking marijuana (a) doesn’t lead to any lack of self-control at any point, (b) if it doesn’t influence any other person to lose self-control/sin, (c) if it doesn’t influence me to sin in some other way, (d) if I can imagine Jesus smoking marijuana with His disciples during His earthly ministry, then it is permissible.

In my view, and I don’t know this exhaustively since I’ve not smoked it before, but I can’t imagine keep full control of myself while being high (which violates the moral imperative to retain “self-control”); nor can I imagine Jesus and the disciples lighting up during His ministry.

If a person were able to maintain self-control, not be influenced to sin, not influence others to sin, and after prayer/reflection/study is convinced that Jesus would smoke it too, then it would seem permissible. I personally don't smoke it because I'm genuinely concerned about all of those issues. I've never seen or heard of anyone not violating all of these criteria (though that person might exist in the world). And, in the absence of a clear biblical mandate, I’d rather “play it safe.” Moreover, I’d rather spend my money on other things.

That’s my view!

Happy Advent,


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why people don't go to church (audio)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why People Don't Go to Church

In my experience, there is often a profound confusion among church leaders about why people don’t, or do, go to church. Here are some necessary points of clarity.

First, God designed humans with primal, basic needs. This was the main thesis of much of Abraham Maslow’s work several decades ago. You need to embrace this fact. Really. This is the most important fact of this essay. Understand this: people—you and me—Christians and non-Christians—are constantly making choices in life because it meets at least one need.

Why don’t people come to your church? Because you don’t meet their needs.

Why do people stay in your church? Because you are meeting their needs.

I absolutely guarantee it.

How do I know it? Because that’s how humans are wired by God. I didn’t design humans; I didn’t make this up.

What is so shocking is how overwhelmingly oblivious church leaders can be concerning this fact of human behavior. We humans make choices every single day to get our needs met.

Ask yourself: Have you accepted reality that people make decisions to get their needs met?

Second, there are needs people know they have and needs they don’t know they have. And it is crucial to understand both. For example, my son doesn’t know he has a need to study hard now in fifth grade so that he will do well in high school and university (even though I’ve told him that several times). My son doesn’t know that’s a need, of course, because he can’t grasp the future as a child.

He has this need; he’s just not aware of this need.

He is aware that he has other needs, like eating, sleeping, drinking, etc.

The same is true of those who go to church. We can tell non-Christians all day long until our nose bleeds that they “have a need to know Jesus and be forgiven and join our incredible community of believers…” The only problem is, they don’t care. In general, they are not aware of that need. They really don’t care about those supposed needs.

Maybe you’re still in denial about this. But you need to accept it…and fast. Previous generations held a general sense of morality and doing the “right thing.” In general, the younger generations in our country (at least) do not believe in universal morality. They do not fear judgment from God. They don’t believe in God. They’re not living in guilt or shame. They deliberately hang out with other people who behave like they do, feel complete social acceptance, and continue to behave how they want. They are not guilt-ridden. They are not seeking grace. They are not looking for “religion.” (I just heard a few days ago—again!—how this person “hated religion.”)

And just like my son and his homework, we can tell people they have needs all day long. It doesn’t mean they are really aware, and really feel, those needs. Why does my son do his homework? Because I can discipline him if he doesn’t. He respects my authority. He’s afraid of being grounded. I guarantee you it’s not because he feels a deep need to prepare for his adulthood. And we have no authority over the non-Christian like that. You can threaten them hell…but that only works for a small minority of people. (Not to mention how absurd that “marketing campaign” would be!) When we threaten people with a “you’ll be sorry if you don’t!” message to get them to our churches, you’ll just scare them off and aver their attitude toward the Church they already have.

Ask yourself: Are you aware that the people who come to your church have needs they are aware of and needs they are not aware of? What are you doing to address those needs in each category? Are you desperately trying to convince them of their needs? How’s that working?

Third, you could (a) list several needs that are common to every human, and (b) list certain needs that particular generations have. Let’s think about both points:

(a) What are some common human needs? This is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is so helpful (even if you might nuance each category differently).

Maslow never used a pyramid. Yet, the pyramid picture is helpful because it reminds us of how fewer and fewer people achieve the “higher order” needs.

(b) And while there are numerous needs common to all people, there are also specific needs to different generations. And, I know…I know…of course, generalities and stereotypes exist whenever we talk about what an entire generation of people think or feel. So, I’m aware that not every single person fits these categories. Yet, these categories are still helpful. (Here is a helpful overview:

Here’s some quick examples for church work:

Those born before the 70s and 80s (called “The Silent” generation and then the “Baby Boomer” generation) have the needs
·        To build institutions that last (which means they love buildings and pews and chairs and rooms)
·        To leave a “legacy” (which means they love placards and bricks with their names on it; and to tell younger generations about what they’ve built)
·        To follow social etiquette established by their parents and authority figures (which means they can feel very guilty if they break the “rules” within the church, like “not running” or “not wearing your Sunday-best clothes” or “not being completely quiet and still during the sermon”)
·        To feel safe by establishing stability, traditions, and patterns
·        To be identified by their involvement in a peer group (especially peer groups that are respected—the more “institutionalized” the better)
·        To be certain in what they believe and a sense of having it “figured out”

Those born during and after the 1980s (called Generation X, then Y, then Z) have the needs
·        To question the usefulness and integrity of institutions (which means they have no loyalty in maintaining or paying for the very institutions their parents and grandparents built—seen any empty church buildings lately?)
·        To be involved in “causes” that help (like orphans, endangered animals, widows, AIDS victims, homeless, etc.) regardless if those causes are related to a church at all because it gives them a purpose and meaning in life (and because it’s “cool” to support causes)
·        To be accepted just as they are (which means they really, really disdain any hint of judgment or condemnation)
·        To be adaptable to the culture at large (This is crucial! They are more influenced by social media and Hollywood than churches or institutions; being “uncool” or not modern is very embarrassing)
·        To experience things (i.e., more feeling than simply thinking about, which is why they are more open to charismatic traditions; for more see
·        To express their individuality, even if they do have some need to be in a peer group (which also means they are supremely confident that they can “find God” or meaning/purpose apart from the Church; they believe they can do “spirituality” all on their own)
·        To doubt what they believe/not have it all figured out
(For statistical proof of what I’m saying, see; also read the book, Generation iY)

(**If you didn’t already, now you see why the generations squabble over the style of worship? Each side approaches the issue with different needs to be met and judges anyone else who doesn’t see it their way. You could say the same about paying the bills on the building, the color of the carpet, whether or not your preacher wears a tie, and on and on the generational battles rage. The real sad part of the battles is this: every generation dies off. Is your church headed for complete closure in 10, 20, or 50 years because of your refusal to adapt at all to the different generational needs?)

Ask yourself: Could you list common human needs? Have you ever gone over them with your staff? Volunteers? Are you aware that the different generations in your church, while they have commonalities in their needs, also have radically different needs that are effecting the direction of your church? Are you aware that the needs of your people significantly affect the kind of people they accept into the church? Does your church’s vision represent those needs? Does every single sermon explicitly address those needs at some point?

Fourth, people might come to your church to meet certain needs; but they might stay in your church to meet other needs. This distinction matters much (at minimum in the way you market your church!)

Much could be said about this, but here’s a quick example. Using point #3 above…

Younger generations chiefly come to a church because they were invited by someone who was “cool” or “normal,” or they were seeking out meaning/purpose/God (all related to them), or they wanted to join a cause associated with the church. (This means they do not usually come because of a sense of social obligation, because they want to leave a legacy, because they have such a positive view of the church or Christians, etc..)

They will be intrigued by their visit if they feel (1) safe/not judged (i.,e., accepted as they are; not expected to change their clothes or whatever to be accepted; they will call this “friendly” if you ask them); (2) entertained by their experience (i.e., their senses are tantalized by modern visual images and logos, modern-sounding music, etc.); and (3) hear a message from a preacher that sounds inviting, speaks of meaning and purpose, and addresses their real-world issues they face every day (like divorce, relationships, money, job struggles, etc.). They need to understand how God, the Bible, the Church interacts with their daily routines and with real issues in the world. (For statistical proof of what I’m saying, see

If all of those things happen, and finally, they make some honest-to-God, authentic relationships with people, they’ll stay. Once they get involved in the church, they will discover their sin and need for forgiveness. All the while, their generational needs never go away. They have just come to realize all the other needs they have that are only met within Christianity (like the need to receive forgiveness, the need to worship God, the need to receive moral accountability, etc.).

So, in general, why do people join a church? Because it meets certain needs they feel they have.

So, in general, why do people not join church? Because they do not believe the church will meet their needs. (It doesn’t matter if they can articulate their needs! They have them whether or not they can articulate them.) To say it once more: to outside people, churches are just irrelevant. They get their needs met in other ways.


If you’re stuck in a church that continues to squabble about whether or not they call it “Sunday School” or whether or not the music is a “rock concert,” then your situation is dim indeed. It might mean that your church, and perhaps its leaders, are unaware of the role needs play in the church's life. Worse still, it might mean that your church has become irrelevant.

What is your church doing to address the needs of your people?

What are your needs? How are you getting them met at church?

Here is this blog in audio form:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Did Mary stay a virgin?" A conversation with a friend


I have recently been doing some reading on the history of the early Christian Church. Most of my understanding of early church history has come from reading the new testament. It had always been my understanding that Mary was a virgin only until after Jesus was born, and then Joseph consummated their marriage and they had other sons and daughters (Matthew 13:55-56). I have recently read some interesting theories that I had not heard before. One theory is that Joseph had a previous wife that had died before he married Mary and that he already had children through this previous wife. My problem with this is that it seems to be pure speculation with no scriptural evidence to back it up. The other theory is that Jesus brothers and sisters that are mentioned are actually cousins of Jesus (through Cleopas the brother of Joseph), and when the scriptures say "brother" this really means a very close relative. The catholic apologist use the reference from the gospel of John when Jesus asks John to take care of his mother; their argument is that if Mary had other sons that they would have taken care of her and their wouldn't have been a reason to ask one of Jesus' close disciples to take care of her.

I have also read that this idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary dates all the way back to the time of Constantine and that early Church leaders like Jerome and Eusebius promoted the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. I also read that early on denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary was considered a form of heresy. Some sources say that even early protestant leaders, like Luther and John Wesley, still believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

I was curious what your thoughts on this matter were. Take your time. I'm not expecting a quick response here. I'm sure you could come close to writing a book on this subject if you wanted to. 


Hey Friend,

I’ll respond in blue.

I have recently been doing some reading on the history of the early Christian Church. Most of my understanding of early church history has come from reading the new testament. It had always been my understanding that Mary was a virgin only until after Jesus was born, and then Joseph consummated their marriage and they had other sons and daughters (Matthew 13:55-56). This is certainly the predominate view among all Protestants. I have recently read some interesting theories that I had not heard before. One theory is that Joseph had a previous wife that had died before he married Mary and that he already had children through this previous wife. My problem with this is that it seems to be pure speculation with no scriptural evidence to back it up. I concur with you. It’s certainly possible. There is just no evidence for it at all. The other theory is that Jesus brothers and sisters that are mentioned are actually cousins of Jesus (through Cleopas the brother of Joseph), and when the scriptures say "brother" this really means a very close relative. Yep, this is the standard Catholic view. The term for “brother” and the term for “cousin” are different terms in Greek (and Old Testament analogies are irrelevant because they are not in Greek). The Greek terms are not ambiguous. Now, there apparently is some (scant) evidence that ancient authors weren’t always strict in their usage. So, again, it is possible. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of instances of those Greek terms are the “plain” meanings of “brother” and “cousin.” And every time those terms are used in the Gospels, it sure seems like the natural readings are most appropriate: Jesus had brothers and sisters (e.g., Mk 6:3). The catholic apologist use the reference from the gospel of John when Jesus asks John to take care of his mother; their argument is that if Mary had other sons that they would have taken care of her and their wouldn't have been a reason to ask one of Jesus' close disciples to take care of her. Again, that’s not true. Jesus’s ministry was not the typical “Jewish” way of things. He was adamant that kingdom allegiance always outweighed family allegiance (e.g., Mk 3:33-35; Matt 8:22). It is not compelling to me to presume that “if Jesus had siblings then they would have…”anything. Again, it’s possible; I just don’t find their suggestion persuasive. (BTW: John was almost certainly considered very special in the Johannine community from which the Gospel was written. Most scholars argue that John includes Jesus’s statement here to emphasize John’s respect in the community.)

I have also read that this idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary dates all the way back to the time of Constantine and that early Church leaders like Jerome and Eusebius promoted the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. That is correct; it is a very early belief. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and many other argued/assumed that Mary stayed a virgin. A few leaders disagreed (like Bonosus, bishop of Sardica or Naissus; or Helvidius in Rome). I also read that early on denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary was considered a form of heresy. That is correct, by many leaders and councils. Some sources say that even early protestant leaders, like Luther and John Wesley, still believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. As far as I understand, that is correct. But…of course they did. J Especially Wesley, who was Anglican (and Anglicans are closely related to Roman Catholics in theology; this is why Methodists baptize children, call baptism and communion a “sacrament,” etc.).

Really, it’s possible they’re right. I just don’t find any of their arguments compelling. While I’m sure there are Catholics who find their arguments compelling, it seems to me that the majority of them are making these arguments because of a deeply-held history of believing that virginity is much more Christian than marriage (modern views of sex in Catholicism vary; I’m referencing the view held for centuries in Roman Catholicism). This is an ancient idea (in fact, there are numerous ancient writings we know of by church leaders praising/cajoling/convincing their congregations--singles and married--to remain celibate. Why? Because they believed that virgins spent more time with the Lord (e.g., 1 Cor 7:34) and because (they thought) sex made one lust, which was a sin. And there’s “no way” that Mary would lust. Unfortunately, Jesus never suggested that celibacy was more “Christian” than marriage. He seemed quite ambivalent to the whole thing (Matt 19:3-12).

At the end of the day, I still find this verse convincing enough:
Isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren't his sisters here with us?" (Mar 6:3 NET)

My thoughts! (And I’m aware Roman Catholics will disagree! J)

I also forgot to mention Gal. 1:19, when Paul mentions who he saw in Jerusalem… “except James, the brother of our Lord.” = εἰ μὴ Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου.

Every single NT scholar on the planet that I know of concurs with me that this doesn’t mean James was Jesus’s “cousin” or “buddy” or “close relative.” We believe the Greek term’s most basic use is right: James is Jesus’s brother. And James is considered an “Apostle” because he saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 15:7). This doesn’t mean he was part of The Twelve.

For more on this issue, click here to listen for a little bit to Mark Goodacre, a NT scholar.


Monday, September 22, 2014

How to preach the perfect sermon every single time

“Who does he think he is?! There is no ‘perfect’ sermon! Only God determines that. And besides, who does he think he is?!”

If that’s what you’re thinking, then maybe I can’t convince you. But, here’s to trying.

I’ve sat through and studied thousands of Christian sermons, speeches, and talks. I’ve given hundreds myself. I’ve had a Master’s-level class on how to prepare and deliver a sermon. I’ve studied how people in the New Testament delivered sermons during my three degrees. I’ve sat under great preachers and horrible preachers. I’m learned from them all.

Through all of that, what I come back to over and over again are some basic “Movements” and “Features” that make really outstanding sermons. One might call them “perfect.” Why? Because they do exactly what a Christian sermon is supposed to do (which is different from a lecture or inspirational talk).

The perfect sermon has three “Movements”: (1) exegesis (= ancient context), (2) hermeneutics (= modern application), (3) homework. These Movements guarantee you're preaching a biblical sermon and not a "motivational speech."

Then there are three “Features”: simplicity, modern analogies and stories, repeat the main points. These three Features help guarantee they'll grasp and remember your points. It's about how the brain works. I’ll briefly explain each.

Movement #1
Exegesis is the close, systematic study of the biblical text which is (typically) greatly concerned with the historical and narrative contexts.

I cannot overstate this case enough. If you, the preacher, have not explained what was “going on back then” so that I know why in the world that biblical text was spoken/written, then you have failed the listener horribly. Look, I don’t care how much you say you believe in the “authority of Scripture” or “inspiration.” Whatever your definition of this phrase or term means, it certainly means that God spoke to and through the original author of the text to an audience that would actually benefit from what God said. When you ignore what God was saying to them, then it screams out to me that you don’t care what God’s original intent was. I love how Professors Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee say it: “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” Abso-stinkin’-lutely. 

This is called “exegesis.” It doesn’t matter if one person in your entire audience knows the term, “exegesis.” What does matter is whether or not you help the listener understand what God was saying to the original audience in their ancient contexts.

You get good at exegesis by getting a Masters and/or PhD in biblical studies, biblical languages, or the like. Also, you get good at it by reading the right commentaries. The right ones actually care about what was going on “back then.” If your commentary doesn’t spend a significant amount of time on ancient context, donate that commentary to a homeless shelter. For example, you should be using commentaries like Sacra Pagina or Smyth & Helwys or numerous independent commentaries by reputable scholars (e.g., NT Wright, Ben Witherington, III, etc.). You should also be using supplemental books like Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. You don't need to use sixteen commentaries for your sermon. But, you should be using at least three to four on every sermon.

To say it again: your sermon must explain to the audience what was going on back then, how ancient people thought, and what the point of the book/letter/gospel/etc. was in the first place. Don’t read one word or one phrase or one sentence and then preach for 30 mins. This is a really horrible way to preach. It teaches your people that verses are completely irrelevant to what comes before and after. It teaches them to pick the texts they want to read. It makes the Bible a big pile of random “favorite verses” to put on Facebook with no historical grounding at all. (I wrote some blogs on common mis-uses of biblical texts that you can read here and here. They are worth your time!)

Your people need to time travel. That's what exegesis does. And typically, I do this first, before I actually read the text. Paint the picture. Explain the terms and concepts. Help them know what to look for like an ancient person would have done. Then read the text. Through the years, above all else, people praise me the most on this “movement.” “Dr. Pendergrass, the text came alive! I never read it that way before, you know, in context!”

You’re welcome.

Movement #2
Hermeneutics can be used to mean broadly, “biblical interpretation.” Here, I mean it in its specific use as the process by which we apply a biblical text to a modern situation. This process answers the question, “why in the world does this text matter to me right now in my world?” If you want to nail Movement #2 you should ask the question, "how does this point meet their need?" You're looking for accurate, biblical application that actually meets a real need your audience has. You can rant for three hours about the danger of idol worship. No one cares. What they care about are their needs. They have needs to feel accepted, to be forgiven, to have a purpose in life, to handle their stress, to process their grief, etc. So, make your application address their needs and you've scored!

Of the three “Movements” I hear the most in sermons by others, it’s this one. And it’s usually wrong. Why? Because they skipped Movement #1. They have no idea what the text meant so they don’t know how to apply it.

This is a huge topic. You need to read texts like How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth or get a graduate degree in biblical studies to learn good hermeneutic skills. The Church doesn’t have one way to do this. We Christians disagree. What Christians did in the first several centuries of the church is not the same as what all Christians do in modern times. Moreover, Orthodox Christians in Russia and Roman Catholics in New York and Joel Osteen (bleh!) all use different “methods.”

Whatever. Here are some typical criteria modern, Christian, Western scholars use in applying the biblical text:
·     Promises to individuals and nations are promises to individuals and nations. That’s it. For example, stop applying promises to Abraham and Sarah to all people at all times. Stop applying God’s promises to the entire nation of Israel, like “If my people will just pray and humble themselves…” to any other nation in the history of the world. God wasn’t talking to America. We didn’t exist back then. Promises to individuals and nations are promises just to them and only them. They do not apply to any other person or nation. We can learn about God's character in these instances, but we should not apply promises that do not apply to us.
·       When a commandment is given to specific person, it applies if and only if the exact same situation fits the modern person. For example, when God says to stop eating pork, it applies today if we’re Jews living in Israel under the Mosaic covenant. When Israel takes up 10-30% of the nation’s produce and resources to collect at the Temple (= “the tithe”), it applies today is we’re Jews living in Israel under the authority of the Jewish Temple.
·   When a commandment is given to broader audience, it applies if and only if the commandment fits our modern context. For example, when Jesus commands that “anyone who wants to be His disciple” must deny themselves and pick their crosses, that applies to “anyone who wants to be His disciple.” When Jesus commands the group of people to sit down so that they can eat loaves and fishes, modern Christians are not supposed to travel to Galilee and eat there each day. Just follow commonsense.
·      In general, we should be looking for application that involves God, His character, and what He wants from us. This means that whatever the application is, it must sound just like something Jesus would have said during His ministry. This includes “denying our wills” and “picking up our crosses” and “loving God and neighbor” and “seeking the Kingdom first” etc. If your preacher talks about how the application is that God wants you to be rich, blessed, wealthy, promoted, etc. etc., then your preacher has failed miserably and has missed the point of the text. The teaching of Jesus is the main criterion of application. Always ask of your hermeneutics (= application), would Jesus say this kind of thing from the cross?

Again, Movement #1 really helps you here. Also, to see both of these movements at work really well, use John Walton’s book, The Bible Story Handbook as often as you possibly can. He nails it perfectly.

Movement #3
Homework is straight forward. Give them some examples of how to apply what they learned in Movement #2. I have learned this indefatigable fact: people are not good at “connecting the dots.” They can nod and shout and cry at Movement #2 (“Amen! That’s right! I can trust God because He’s trustworthy!”), then have no idea whatsoever to put that fact into practice at work, home, Kroger, the gym, or wherever. They just can’t. You, the perfect preacher, will help them. Connect the dots for them.

So, this Movement is where you give them real world, practical steps to take. Maybe it’s real world reflections they should make this week, or deliberate conversations with people, or practical steps to loving their neighbors, or feeding the homeless, or talking about Jesus, or defending their faith. Real world. Practical. Explain it simply. Then, the following week, ask them how it went.

You’ll know you’re giving good homework when you say something like, “Here are some ideas to make our application really stick this week.” Or, “Here are some things I want you to do tomorrow morning that will help you apply what we’ve explored this morning.” Write something down. Text a person right now. Commit to doing something. Sign up on your way out. Something tactile and real.

OK. That’s the three main Movements of a perfect sermon.

I have three main Features a perfect sermon displays. These Features are applied as necessary within the sermon, no matter what Movement you’re in.

1.      Keep it simple.
Really. I know it’s frustrating to study for 15 hours on historical context and only say ten minutes worth. Oh well. That’s the way it works. If your sermon has more than 2 or 3 major points, you’re wasting your time. I don’t care how world-shattering it is. Most people will simply not remember everything you said. Here’s a tip: prepare your own PowerPoint pages or write the main points down on your notes. If you can’t say, “The main point(s) I want you to really understand and put to use this week is/are…” then you’re sermon is too big. People will simply not remember all of your clever points, no matter how many times you can come with a “B” sound in your 32-point sermon. Keep it simple.

Again, keep all the Movements simple. Every single thing you say in Movement #1 (ancient context) must lead directly to Movements #2 and #3. Don’t quote random Hebrew words. Who gives a rip! Only bring up ancient issues and language issues if it makes a difference to Movements #2 and #3. This keeps it simple. Don’t put all this on the PowerPoint. Only put the main historical points you really want them to get. A sentence or two will suffice. You can say more words, but you need to only display the main, simple points.

2.      Use modern analogies and stories.
As often as you can, draw some kind of analogy or modern story that helps the person “connect the dots.” You can’t talk about Canaanite gods or ancient cosmology without throwing your people some kind of bone. Of course, this is where I hear some of the most ludicrous examples of preachers trying to make analogies. Unless you’re naturally good at analogies, you need to read some books on how to make them or books on logic. Get the analogies right. Really. If they’re not right, then don’t say them. If you doubt yourself, tell your analogy to a really smart person and see if it works. It needs to actually be a great comparison or story of the point you’re making in the Movement. Being accurate is vitally important!

Why do we need modern examples? Because it’s how the brain works; it’s neuroscience. Here’s why:

The brain has the hardest time learning information for which it has no comparison. It has the easiest time learning something when it is associated with something you already know. So, giving modern analogies is incredibly important for their brains to learn the information. They can associate what you’re telling them with something they already know. They will not be resistant to hearing it if they can already relate. This is why modern analogies and stories are so important (especially in Movements #1 and #2).

Also, whenever possible, the analogy or story needs to invoke a strong emotion. 

The reason why evoking strong emotions is so important is because brain studies demonstrate that the mechanism in your brain that determines if the knowledge is stored short-term or long-term is based largely on the emotion connected with the knowledge. The greater the emotional impact, the greater chance your brain will store that information long-term.

So, give people modern examples and stories of your point(s) that they can relate to something they already know. And do your best to make it emotional. They’ll remember it longer.

**What about using props? They can be helpful, but also distracting. I know of a large church that builds huge, elaborate props on stage (like huge piles of dirt so that a biker can ramp 40 feet). This screams of gimmick and terrible preaching. Use props and pictures and video clips and audio clips as often as you can, but only when they directly serve to elucidate the Movement you're in. Use the prop or video clip and then explain how/why it helps us, then move on. (Most preachers I know build their entire sermon series based off some some story, prop, or gimmick they want to use. Absurd. Do the real work of preparing a solid, biblically-based sermon. Leave the gimmicks to inspirational speakers.)

3.      Repeat the main points over and over.
That’s it. Repeat it over and over. Once is not enough. Twice is not. Three times is getting closer. Why is repetition so important? Again, it’s because it’s how the brain works. Very few people memorize what you tell them the only time you say it. Say it over and over and over again during your sermon. It’s much more likely they’ll remember it.

Depending on the biblical text, I spend roughly 10 mins on each Movement. But, that does depend on the text. Also, really fight the temptation to be "fresh," or get convinced the Spirit "just gave you a word." Please don't try to be novel each time you preach the same text. It's OK for Scripture to stay the main authority. God can use the same text with the same point to the same audience and change the world. Stay faithful to the Movements and let the Spirit do His work. Don't ever think God needs novelty (which, in turn, is how so many church legends get started).

Notice how I didn’t say that you need to get your people all hyper; or they need to scream; or they need to cry; or they need to shout, “Jesus!” every few seconds; or they need to dance; etc. These might happen. Sure. But they simply cannot be anywhere close to your main criteria of a perfect sermon.

Three Movements: ancient context, modern application, homework. These three Movements are what distinguishes "positive thinking" and "motivational talks" (like Joel) from actual sermons.

Three Features: simplicity, modern analogies and stories, repeat the main points. These three Features are tips that help your people grasp and remember the earth-shattering points of your sermon.

The perfect sermon.

A wonderful video explaining the fine tuning of the universe

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Can homosexuals be Christians?" A conversation with a friend.

Hello pastor David i have  questions to ask you. Now as Christians we do not agree nor believe in homosexuality. (1) However can homosexuals be Christians? (2) if god made us in his image why does homosexuality exist? (3) can you be born gay?

(4) if we should love our people as we love yourself should we love homosexual people as well? (5) why are fellow Christians so hard on homosexuals but we are suppose to love every?

I am curious about these questions because as a Christian i want to know how to act tore homosexuals. I know i shouldn't condemn them but what should i do? Or how should i act around them?

Hey brother!

These are great questions and evoke intense anger, frustration, and fear for a lot of people. I can't stand to think of all the homosexuals who have been hurt and killed out of stupid hate acts. So, I don’t talk about this lightly. I’ll just respond to each one in order if that’s cool.

(1) However can homosexuals be Christians? Yes. You said that “we do not agree nor believe in homosexuality,” which is true if nuanced: the Christian view according to the New Testament is that homosexual behavior is sinful. So, attraction is irrelevant ethically-speaking; the ethical issue only concerns behavior. (My desire to lie is not the same as actually lying.) Christians can most certainly be attracted to the same gender. This is no different from any personal preference. Our attractions to chocolate, pizza, or a particular gender are not ethical. Can you be a Christian if you actively participate in and embrace homosexual behavior? No. (I give verses below). The fundamental tenet of being a disciple of Jesus is denying our wills and picking up our crosses to live according to the Kingdom of God (Mk 8:34). What you have to "deny" and I have to "deny" depends on the person. No matter: we all have attractions to deny.

Now, some Christians have argued that it’s only because of the sinful state of humans that a person would even want to do what is sinful. Perhaps they’re right. In any case, what’s much more clear is that the behavior is the issue, not the attraction.

This is a very huge point to articulate well: The average non-Christian makes no distinction between attraction and behavior. Really based on the ground-breaking Kinsey Reports (1950s) which stated that if humans do it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone, then it’s “only natural” to act out sexually however you want. And I would completely concur with them if I shared their worldview: If there is no God, then there is no higher design to human behavior, so it doesn’t matter what you do. Moreover, it is commonplace among many secular psychologists to suggest that if you don’t act out sexually how you feel so inclined, it is unhealthy for you; it damages you. Both of these views (that there is no distinction between attraction and behavior, and it’s unhealthy if you don’t act on your impulses) is clearly unchristian. 

**We must constantly remember that in nearly every single conversation you ever have with a gay person, that person will almost certainly assume that their inclination means they must act on it. They join disposition with behavior. This is huge distinction with the Christian worldview. (The truth is, this emphasis upon "only doing what comes naturally" only holds for certain acts of sexuality. You’ll find few non-Christians who suggest that if a person has an attraction toward his baby sister that he should certainly proceed in having sex with her (no matter how much they say they love each other). Pedophiles are kept in separate regions of prisons because they are routinely beaten and killed. It seems even the worst criminals believe that “attraction” doesn’t mean you “give in.”)

(2) if god made us in his image why does homosexuality exist? Idols/images in the ancient world were used to represent the god’s authority in that region. Being made in the “image of God” (Gen 1:26) only means one particular thing in context: humans represent God’s authority to rule over animals, plants, and the Earth. This is profound in the ancient world. Other creation stories said that humans were created to serve their gods as slaves. Not so among ancient Hebrews. So, this text has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

(3) can you be born gay? I think you mean by “born gay” that a person has a genetic disposition. If so, it’s certainly possible. There doesn’t seem to be a “gay gene” (no evidence of that exists at this point). However, certainly our brain produces various chemicals and hormones that affect our attractions. That, mixed with all kinds of social influences, no doubt affect our orientation (straight and gay). So, I don’t think it’s unlikely that our genetic make-up greatly affects our attractions. Again, they don’t determine our behavior, just our attractions.

(4) if we should love our people as we love yourself should we love homosexual people as well? Great question: YES! YES! Jesus didn’t say to love our heterosexual neighbor as ourselves. He said to love our neighbor (Mk 12:29-31). What did Jesus mean? To care for their good as much as we care for our own good. Care about shelter? Help them find it. Care about food? Help them find it. Care about healthy relationships? Help them find it. And so on. This goes for our enemies (Matt 5:44), gays, murderers, gossips, etc. If we only attempt to “love” people who don’t sin, or even don’t have inclinations!, then we won’t be loving anyone! Nor will anyone love you and me.

(5) why are fellow Christians so hard on homosexuals but we are suppose to love every? Another great question. I think it’s for two reasons:

(a) Certain Christians are simply keenly aware that homosexual behavior isn’t what God designed the human machine to do, and they get “worked up” about it. This can happen when we think about those who murder, lie, cheat, steal, whatever.

(b) Mainly, I think, it’s just easy to do so. Humans tend to pick on people who are easily definable. It’s one reason why it was easy for the Nazis to pick on the Jews. As soon as we can label a “group” as the “bad guy,” it gets the focus off of our sins. It helps us to change the spotlight.

One really sad thing about this fact is that the Bible doesn’t pick on homosexuals. While there is certainly a constant theme against that behavior (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Matt 19:3-12; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:8-10), that behavior is most certainly NOT considered one of the “biggies.” All sins are not on the same level of severity or influence as is made clear from multiple passages, like Jesus speaking vehemently against blaspheming (Mk 3:29) or causing a “little one” to sin (Matt 18:6). While all sins matter—yes!—Christians should remember which sins are actually emphasized in the New Testament. Again, notice what kinds of things are considered sinful in the repeated lists: Mark 7:21-22; Rom. 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor 6:9-10; 12:20-21; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 4:31; 5:3-5; Col. 3:5; 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Titus 3:3; James 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:1; 4:3; 4:15; Rev. 9:21; 21:8; 22:15.

I am curious about these questions because as a Christian i want to know how to act tore homosexuals. I know i shouldn't condemn them but what should i do? Or how should i act around them? Treat them as you want to be treated (Matt 7:12). Really, it’s that simple. Love them (= care for their good) as you love yourself (Mk 12:31). Lead by example. Pray for them. There is absolutely no room whatsoever for making fun of them, insulting them, hurting them, making jokes on their behalf, or any other insulting, demeaning, or devaluing behavior. If they ask you what you believe, then tell them the truth with gentleness (Gal 6:1). If a gay person lives out that lifestyle and embraces homosexual behavior, then you will disagree with them, yes. But, it sure is difficult to get that wood chip in their eye when you and I have our own planks to deal with (Matt 7:3)! Leave their behavior and what God does with them up to God. God designed us and only God will judge us in the end. So, get busy loving them, speaking the truth in love when needed, and leave the fate of their souls up to the One who owns us all: God.

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