Preston Sprinkle's Blog

September 3, 2017

My Nashville Statement

It is ironic and possibly prophetic that the Nashville Statement (NS) was published the very same day that I released a short film on LGBT people in the church titled Dear Church: I’m Gay. I think these two “statements” represent two brands of evangelical approaches to questions about faith, sexuality & gender. These two brands overlap quite a bit; they both agree that marriage is between a man and a woman and that all sexual relations outside this type of marriage covenant are sin. That’s a big overlap. However, there are many differences in tone, rhetoric, and how to go about this whole conversation. In some ways, the Nashville Statement brought these differences to light.


Let me dive in with some pros and cons regarding this statement after I make two quick caveats. First, I was not aware of the NS until about 3 days after it was published. I wasn’t asked to participate in its formation, nor did anyone on the list let me know that such a thing was happening. While I find some things positive with the statement, I have not and will not sign the NS. I’ll explain why below.


Second, everything I say below are my personal reflections and do not represent The Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender as a whole. At The Center, we want to foster healthy diversity within a historically Christian perspective on marriage and sexuality. I’ve told my board members and other collaborators that they are completely free to form their own thoughts on the NS. In fact, several people who have signed the NS have also endorsed me or The Center’s work, and I’m eternally grateful for their gracious remarks. In the near future, The Center will probably release a more formal statement of where we stand in relation to the NS. Until then, here are some personal thoughts. Let’s start with the positives.



I admire the authors’ passion to uphold a historically Christian view of marriage and gender. And again, I’m in agreement with the general conclusion about marriage expressed in the document. I would consider myself just as passionate about an orthodox view of marriage and gender as they are, and I do think that Christians who affirm same-sex marriage and deny the biological link between sex and gender are at odds with some very basic tenets of a Christian worldview. (I just don’t think this statement the best way to go about this whole discussion.)

I also value the wonderful contributions to the kingdom that many of the signers have made. Several people who signed the document have shaped my heart and thinking in ways that words cannot express. These names—friends, mentors, even heroes—have fueled my passion for the gospel more than they realize, even if I’ve arrived at some theological conclusions on other issues that they may not find as compelling as I do.

So, what problems do I have with this statement? Hang on, there are many.



When I first read this statement (and I’ve read it several times now) several flags flew up in my mind. Most of them were caution flags. A few of them were bright red. The red ones have to do with the relational benefit of the statement as a whole.


One frustration I have is this: the evangelical approach to the LGBT+ conversation has been profoundly impersonal and one-sided (lots of truth and very little grace). And this statement was—as statements usually are—impersonal and one-sided. “WE AFFIRM…WE DENY…” who talks like this anymore? What does this do for the 14-year-old kid in the youth group who’s contemplating suicide because for some for some unchosen reason, he doesn’t feel at home in his own body and daily wishes he had a female one? So he puts on a mask at school for fear of getting beat up, mocked, or tormented on social media. He’s terrified to tell anyone—especially his youth pastor who just signed off on the NS. (I seriously doubt too many youth pastors will sign this, though.) Where is he in this statement? Where is the pastor’s wife who’s attracted to women but could never tell her husband or anyone else? What does this statement do to create a church culture where she could tell her church and be gladly received into a community of beggars who have found bread at the foot of the cross?


I long for the day when gay people can come out to their small group and everyone would yawn. “You’re a sinner too? Welcome to the club. You want to grab my hand as we cling to the cross together?” Evangelicals have been very good at writing true statements about faith, sexuality & gender. We’ve generally failed at loving those who fall short of that truth.


In short, I’m not sure how helpful an impersonal statement is in a conversation that’s been so destructively impersonal. We need more conversations and authentic relationships; and we need less statements.


I was also unimpressed with the outdated and impersonal terms used throughout the statement—specifically, homosexual and transgenderism. Maybe it’s a minor point, but whenever I hear someone use these terms, it shows that they haven’t really kept up with the discussion, or they’ve only been listening to one side of it. The terms aren’t wrong; they’re just impersonal and outdated. It's like walking into an I.T. department and asking about the latest floppy disk.


What’s perhaps most troubling about this statement—the 14 articles—is what’s missing. I have several quibbles and some disagreements with what’s actually stated. We’ll get to those below. But I’m more troubled by what’s missing than what’s actually stated. For instance, nowhere does it say:

WE AFFIRM that evangelicalism has not treated LGBT+ people with kindness, compassion, and relational delight. Rather, we have cultivated a culture of isolation, fear, and turned a blind eye to dehumanizing rhetoric, relationships toward our brothers and sisters wrestling with their faith, sexuality or gender identity.WE AFFIRM that singling out LGBT+ people as particularly grievous sinners—while, for instance, a porn epidemic rages on in the church—is itself a horrifically hypocritical posture. And Jesus would have opened up the can on such pharisaical arrogance.WE AFFIRM that Christians everywhere should confront any form of bullying toward LGBT+ people. The Church should be on the front lines against injustices committed against LGBT+ people who are created in God’s image.WE DENY that gay or transgender jokes are acceptable Christian behavior and should be confronted by Christian leaders everywhere.WE AFFIRM that the conversation about faith, sexuality and gender is just that—a conversation, and a complex one that cannot be summed up in bullet point conclusions.WE AFFIRM that the evangelical aversion to singleness and it’s idolatry of marriage has created a horrible environment for the millions of single, gay, Christians pursuing celibacy in the church. One cannot flourish by just saying no to gay sex. We all must be able to say yes to love and intimacy, yet many (most? Almost all?) single, gay Christians have not experienced such intimacy and love in the church.WE REPENT from creating a heteronormative church culture that inevitably ostracizes Christians wrestling with their sexuality or gender identity.


And on and on I could go. The NS seems very one-sided to me. It fails to own up to the many—MANY—mistakes that theologically orthodox believers have made in this conversation.

And it’s those mistakes that’s the real problem. 83% of LGBT people were raised in the church and 51% left the church after they turned 18 years old. Do you know why? The reasons aren’t primarily theological; they are relational. Only 3% of LGBT people who left the church said they left because of the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. The main reasons why they left had to do with relational problems not theological ones. They were dehumanized, isolated, shunned, or simply kicked out of the church once it was discovered that they experienced same-gender love. So my question is this: Will the NS help or hinder these profound relational problems? I’ll let my reader decide.


Back to my problem with statements as a whole. I’m much more concerned about the biblical, theological, and scientific evidence that presumably led to the stated claims of the NS rather than the expressed conclusions. (I mean, is anyone really shocked that the architects and signers of this document believe these things? I’m surprised this statement made the news.) That is, I’m just as interested in why people believe what they do, not just what they believe. But the statement does not talk about evidence or research or arguments, only conclusions. And this omission is very important.


For example, I know that several of the signers have publicly argued that the biblical story of Sodom, where the entire male population of the ancient city tried to gang rape two angels, provides sound evidence that homosexuality is sin. I personally have never met a gay person who was oriented toward gang raping angelic beings. In any case, drawing a straight line from Sodom to a 13-year-old kid who experiences same-gender love is, I would argue, pastorally destructive and will shape the way you approach the LGBT+ conversation and, most importantly, LGBT+ people. None of this is explicitly expressed in the NS, but it forms the roots of the statement. Like any good gardener (or theologian), I’m deeply concerned about the roots.


I’m also concerned about the purpose of signing a document. Honestly, the whole enterprise of having people sign a document, which will presumably help ensure orthodoxy, is uninteresting to me. And it’s deeply uninteresting for a generation hungering for conversation, dialogue, authenticity, and nuance. Signing a document doesn’t ensure orthodoxy; never has, and never will—especially in the 21st century.


I’m perhaps most concerned with what statements like this do for the scandal of the evangelical mind—to quote Mark Noll’s insightful book (the content of which still rings true). Statements give short answers; they don’t engage deep questions. I fear that one of the main problems in evangelicalism isn’t that we don’t know how to give short answers—and the evidence for those answers is typically optional—but that we don’t know how to engage deep questions with clarity, thoughtfulness, and grace. I greatly fear that signing this statement will give people a false sense of security in their beliefs without doing the hard work of studying, thinking, listening, listening, listening, and learning.


That is, this statement won’t help you when your son says:

 “Mom, dad—I’m gay.”

“Well, son, you know, your mother and I have signed this statement about your ‘enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality’, and we want you to sign off on these 14 articles…”

We need to stop giving thin answers to thick questions. The LGBT+ conversation is saturated with thick questions.

There is much more I could say about the statement on a general level. But let me dive in to some of the specific articles.


The Articles

I can agree with Articles 1-3, though I would definitely word them differently. Since we have much to discuss with the other articles, let’s keep moving.


Article 4 is mostly true. Male and female differences are divinely ordained and not a result of the Fall. However, gender expression and conception is tied up with societal expectations which are fraught with sin. Many beliefs about what constitutes gender difference do not come straight from the Bible, but from culture—a culture that contains sinful structures. For instance, 21st century America, it’s expected that men—real men—love sports, don’t cry, and will use violence against one’s enemies. Many Christians have adopted this cultural expectation of gender, even though Jesus cried, didn’t play sports, and never used violence against his enemies. As my friend Nate Pyle has shown in his well-written book Man Enough, most of our expectations for maleness come from culture not from the Bible, and certainly not from Jesus, the perfect embodiment of true maleness. In short, article 4 is basically true but needs many more footnotes—one of the many problems that come from giving thin answers to thick questions.


Article 5 is more or less true, but again, suffers from abstract language and oversimplification. Before I agree with this article, I’d need to sit down with its authors over a beer (or probably a coke) and have a long talk about what they mean by “self-conception as male and female.” If my wife pursues a career or doesn’t want to have kids or is called to pastoral ministry, is she violating her “reproductive structures?” You laugh (some of you did, anyway) but I really need to know what they mean, since I believe so strongly in authorial intention. I’m worried that if some of the statement’s signers see my wife driving our car with me in the passenger seat, I might get confronted for failing to live out my biological reproductive system.


I believe that gender cannot be separated from biology. But what gender conception and expression looks like on the ground is quite complicated and requires a discussion not a statement.


Article 6 is straight forward and I obviously agree with it. It’s so straight forward that I’m wondering why it even needs to be stated. To include it as one of the top 14 articles on sexuality and gender, when many of the other articles seem to be polemically stated against an opposing view, feels a little odd. Does anyone really deny that intersex persons aren’t created in God’s image? Maybe I run in different theological circles, but I’ve literally never heard a single person say this. It’s like saying, “WE AFFIRM that Asian-Americans fully possess the image of God and can live joyful lives Him.” Well sure, but do we need to say this as if it’s questionable? Maybe in 1942, but now?


I see several problems with Article 7. What does “adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception” mean? There’s been a debate within evangelicalism about whether nonaffirming people who experience attraction to the same sex should identify as gay. There are many original signers of the NS that have taken a very hard line against ever adopting the term “gay Christian”—even if the person believes in a traditional view of marriage. Personally, I’ve sided with people like Wes Hill, Ron Belgau, Nate Collins, Greg Coles, and many others who passionately believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but who also feel that identifying as gay is not incompatible with the gospel. But picking a side here is not really the point. My deep concern is that the NS is drawing a very narrow circle here and excluding many evangelical sisters and brothers who are passionately pursuing Jesus and upholding a traditional view of marriage and sexuality, and yet have been excluded from the brand of evangelicalism demanded by this statement. (Yes, I carefully chose the word “demanded” because that’s what statements like this do; they demand adherence—not buts, brakes, footnotes, or fine-print.)


I’m also concerned once again about the ambiguity of “transgender self-conception.” I have so many questions about what this means—questions that statements like this aren’t designed to facilitate. Does “transgender self-conception” rule out women who prefer jeans over dresses? What does it mean for people who experience gender dysphoria? Does it just refer to those who publicly identify as transgender, or those who don’t resonate with cultural expectations of what maleness or femaleness look like? What if they experience a cross-gender self-conception but identify as gender queer? What if they identify as gender fluid and not transgender, but what they really mean is that they love art more than martial arts?


I could go on and on. For what it’s worth, I’ve spent many hours reading books and articles on gender, gender dysphoria, a transgender experience, the biology and sociology of sex and gender, and other related topics; and I’ve spent many hours talking with (and learning from) my transgender or gender-queer friends. All I can say is that this specific conversation is ten times more complicated than most people realize, and a thousand times more complicated than article 7 makes it out to be.


I pretty much agree with Article 8. I do wonder if the second part is suggesting that same sex attraction is sin—another debated issue within evangelicalism. I know that at least some of the architects hold to this position.


When I read Article 9, which uses the phrase “enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality,” I immediately thought: does this rule out the 60-70% of Christians who are addicted to porn? Certainly, this constitutes an “enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality.” I really hope the people rushing to sign this article aren’t just thinking about people other than themselves.  


Article 9 seems to reflect the American Psychological Association’s well-known definition of sexual orientation as: “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes.” Are the authors of the NS reducing same-sex orientation to “an enduring pattern of desire for sexuality immorality?” If so, I have significant problems with this, and so do many of my non-affirming gay Christian friends. Again, knowing that some of the primary architects of the NS hold to this view—that same-sex orientation can be reduced to a desire for immoral sex and is therefore a constant morally culpable sin—leads me to assume that article 9 is more or less making this claim. Which is one way to read Romans 1 and Matthew 5, I guess. I disagree with this interpretation for several reasons, but let’s have that conversation. This article shuts it down.


Article 10. I don’t like the way this article is worded. Anytime you “ism” somebody, you’re prone to simplify their existence. What do the authors mean by “approving of transgenderism?” Before I could ever sign off on this statement, I’d need to have a long conversation with the authors to figure out what they mean by this (rather clinical and impersonal) phrase. Transgenderism. I’d much rather talk about transgender people and their diverse experiences and claims.


Article 11 seems fine to me.


Article 12 sounds great; however, knowing some of the other statements about sexual orientation (noted above), I do wonder if the “sinful desires” that can be put to death include same-sex orientation—and again, some of the primary architects hold to this view. If this is what is meant, then this can only mean that if a Christian is still gay (or same-sex attracted), then they are living in sin and not letting God’s grace do its work. I personally find this to be theologically wrong, psychologically naïve, pastorally destructive, and ultimately leads down the dark alley of reparative therapy. And we all know how that goes.


Article 13. Whoa, okay, I really need some clarity about the phrase “self-conception.” What exactly do the authors expect from a person who has an accurate “self-conception” of themselves as male or female? Again, knowing the CBMW’s very conservative view on gender roles, this article raises tons of red flags in my mind. At the very least, I’m pretty sure no evangelical egalitarian could sign this.


Article 14 is a beautiful statement.



Again, I stand with the authors and signers of this statement in affirming and promoting the historically Christian view of marriage, sexual expression, and the basic connection between biological sex and gender identity. But I do believe that they’ve gone about this all wrong and it will tarnish the church’s already tarnished reputation with LGBT+ people. While we absolutely need to celebrate and promote Christianity’s historic view of marriage and sexual expression, I believe we need to do so much more thoughtfully and much more holistically—pounding the pulpit for truth and grace. And we always and everywhere need to humanize this conversation, cherishing and celebrating the humanity, dignity, and worth of LGBT+ people.


Here is a recent attempt to do this. This is my Nashville "Statement": 


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Published on September 03, 2017 16:26

February 13, 2017

The Meaning of Sex: Part 1

I know I’ve been blogging a lot about sex recently. I hope you don’t mind. But if you’re reading this, and therefore human, my guess is that you probably don’t mind at all. Sex and sexuality are rarely met with disinterest. Unfortunately, my recent geeking out over sex is more of a scholarly venture. You can Google elsewhere if you want the steamy stuff. (Actually, please don’t.)


While I know the passages and stories and laws about sex in the Bible, I’m more concerned with constructing (or recognizing) a coherent and distinctively Christian sexual ethic and placing it in conversation with the ethics of popular culture. (As you’ll see, at least some strands of modern, western Christianity has been duped by pop culture and have embraced an ethic that’s hardly distinguishable from secular Humanism. So I’m not using “pop culture” as a synonym for non-Christians, but to include dominant ways of thinking both inside and outside the church.) To this end, I’m thankful for Dennis Hollinger’s book, The Meaning of Sex, and I’m especially thankful for Baker Publishers for sending me a free copy. In exchange for an honest review, of course.


Dr. Hollinger is the president and a distinguished professor Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His book is evidence that he’s a thoughtful scholar with a pastoral heart. Solidly evangelical and widely researched, Hollinger brings a wealth of biblical, theological, and ethical reflection to this important topic.


What I found most helpful about Hollinger’s approach is his lengthy interaction (chs. 1-3) with different worldviews that go into ethical discussions about sex. He reaches all the way back to ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Epicurus and brings them into conversation with modern players in sexual ethics and sexuality like Kinsey, Singer, Hauerwas, and Foucault. Hollinger wants to “see if the ethical theories can provide help in finding our way in the contemporary moral maze” (p. 24).


I love this approach. We often focus too narrowly on the weather that we forget to step back and examine the climate. (Props to my friend Greg Thompson for the analogy.) We judge this sexual practice as legit, and condemn that sexual practice as sin, while failing to provide a coherent, meaningful, and distinctively Christian ethical framework to base it all on. Hollinger’s book helps us look at sexual ethics with a wide-angle lens.


I found chapter 2 (“Worldviews and Sex”) to be particularly enlightening. Hollinger summarizes the worldview of asceticism, naturalism, monism, and pluralism, adding an irenic yet forthright critique of each one. Naturalism in particular claims some of the early pioneers of what has become a rather accepted sexual ethic (or lack thereof) today. Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, Havelock Ellis, Albert Ellis, Michel Foucault, and Peter Singer all made influential strides in shaping contemporary thought. “Singer notes that in sexuality one by one the old taboos have fallen. The only taboo that is left is sex with animals” (p. 55), though “Singer hints that sex with animals, barring cruelty to the animal, might be justified, since we are essentially one with them” (p. 55). Other evolutionary biologists, such as Kinsey, David Barash, and Judith Lipton argue that “humans are essentially polygamous in their biological makeup and that monogamy is essentially an artifact of culture rather than nature” (p. 55). Or according to Lipton:


In attempting to maintain a social and sexual bond consisting exclusively of one man and one woman, aspiring monogamists are going against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biological has endowed most creatures, Homo sapiens included (citing on p. 55).


This reminds me of a recent article I came across in a law journal by a professor (Ann Tweedy) at Hamline University School of Law, who argues extensively that polyamory should be considered a sexual orientation. People have joked about this before. And some in the religious right use it as provocation toward LGBT+ activists. (Although remember when Dan Savage got hammered with criticism from polyamorous activists, when he said that polyamory was not a sexual orientation?) But I was shocked to see developments of this view reach back into the early work of some significant mid-20th century evolutionary biologists.


The part that struck me the most is how pervasive secular ways of thinking about sex, marriage, and sexual ethics are endorsed—unknowingly—by many Christians today. The Humanist Manifesto from 1973, for instance, says:


We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction…In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religious and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct…While we do not approve of exploitative, denigrate forms of sexual expression, neither do we seek to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” (p. 57-58).


Morality is based on human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational. Anything that’s between consensual adults is fine. This, of course, is the bedrock of the ethics of pop culture. But in my anecdotal experience in talking casually with many Christians about morality, I can’t see much difference between the ethics of the average pew sitter and secular Humanism. Or in the words of one pastor:


The popular claim that sexual expression should be limited absolutely to the boundaries of marriage or the bonded pair has no solid historical, philosophical or theological support. Sexual expression itself is limited only by the principles which delimit self-actualization. (Raymond Lawrence, an Episcopal priest, p. 59).


The primacy of individual freedom, the liberty of self-expression, and the pursuit of maximal pleasure are tempered only by consensuality.


American society is an individualistic culture that values the self with its drives for self-authenticity, self-gratification, and self-actualization. The self-affirming arguments borrow form the culture the very self-orientation that makes sex so central (p. 128).


This is all old news, of course. Even secular thinkers today realize that the cultural values that spring from the sexual revolution have not produced a flourishing society. When human autonomy reigns, destruction awaits.


But the biggest problem is that the American church has slowly absorbed this cultural narrative and has lost its prophetic voice. (Or at least a voice that compelling.) If it’s not this cultural narrative, it’s another cultural narrative. For the religious right, it’s the inability to recognize and weed out strands of misogyny, patriarchy, and a cultural view of masculinity—not to mention, the full-scale endorsement of Romanish patriotism, a strange addiction to military might, and a set of values that elevate the right to bear arms and build walls instead of loving our enemies and welcoming the other. For the left, it’s the deconstruction of a Christian sexual and marriage ethic, leaving in its place an ethic that exhibits very little—if any—protest to the values of pop culture. And we’re still waiting to see if, once the dust has settled and reconstruction has finished, this new ethic has the appearance of anything distinctively Christian.


Sorry for the rabbit trail. We’ll revisit Hollinger’s book in the next blog. 

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Published on February 13, 2017 11:11

February 6, 2017


he following post is written by Dr. Joey Dodson


As a father of five, I rejoiced every time one of my kids became potty trained. Whenever I would hear that marvelous sound of a toilet flushing, I would exult: “Praise God through whom all blessings flow!” There were, however, some post-potty obstacles. For example, one of my sons refused to wipe himself, and instead he would merely stand up and trumpet, “I need somebody to wipe me,” until someone came to clean his bottom. On the other hand, one child wiped way too much, so that I had to bolt to the bathroom to plunge the commode after every attempted flush. Then again, another kid could never remember to flush, and my youngest son is still terrified that the potty is going to flush automatically (He had a bad experience!).


Of all my children, my son “Cheetoh” (a nickname—I’ll save you the details) had the most peculiar potty habits. First of all, he could only poop if he took off every stitch of clothing. You could tell when he was in the bathroom when you saw a trail of clothes heading that direction. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for his second habit: he never shut the door. Buck-naked, he’d perch on that potty proudly like a gargoyle at Notre Dame. Needless to say, there were a number of times when guests got an eyeful of Cheetoh as they walked down the hall. His final habit really takes the cake though. One day as I was walking by and navigating through Cheetoh’s close strewn all over the floor, I peeked in to see him sitting naked on the toilet as usual. I took a double take, however, when I noticed that he was sitting on the potty backwards! I blurted: “Boy, what are you doing?!” To which he nonchalantly replied: “I’m reading my Bible, daddy.” And sure enough, upon closer inspection, I noticed that he had his little Children’s Bible open on the back of the toilet. “Oh, okay,” I murmured and then raced to tell my wife. She thought it was gross, but I thought it was brilliant.


I was reminded of that event this past week while I was studying Genesis 24. You may recall that in this chapter that Isaac had just lost his mom, and his dad, Abraham, was about to pass on as well. Abraham took initiative so that Isaac would not marry a Canaanite (the ancient version of a Miley Cyrus or a Kim Kardashian) by having his chief servant swear to get a wife for Isaac from the patriarch's people instead. Through a divine appointment and a marvelous answer to prayer, the servant was successful. He gets Isaac's future bride, loads her up on a camel, and takes her to meet Isaac.


Meanwhile back at the ranch, the biblical narrator tells us:


Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate (lāśûaḥ). . . (NIV, Gen 24:62–63).


The story goes on to say that while Isaac was “meditating”, Rebekah’s fiancé looked up and saw him.


How does this all relate to Cheetoh on the potty? Well, if you look at your English translation for verse 63, you'll likely see an asterisk beside the word "meditate." At the bottom, the editors admit that they do not really know what the original word, lāśûaḥ, really means. Hebrew scholars have offered at least twelve different options. One of them argues pretty persuasively that the word should mean (believe it or not!) "to poop" – as in Isaac was out in the field relieving himself.[1] Does the Bible mean to say that Isaac had gone outside the camp to answer nature's call? Since Rebecca first sees Isaac while he is doing this, I hope for Isaac's sake that "defecating" is not the definition. It would surely not be the first impression Isaac wanted to make. Nevertheless, this translation would indeed add a bit of comic relief to the story.[2] To be honest, though, I do think the English translators got it right. Isaac was likely meditating in the field. Of course, I guess in light of Cheetoh’s practice, Isaac could have been doing both! One action does not rule out the other.


To be sure, the bigger point of the story is not whether Isaac was meditating or defecating. Rather, what we are supposed to see in this story is that God is at work even when it may not look like it: especially when it may not look like it. In his grief, Isaac likely had no clue what the Lord was doing to bring him his bride. Likewise, many of us might not have the slightest idea of what God is about to bring around the corner. The question, then, is not "is God working", but "what are we doing while we are waiting for him to show his work." Are we meditating on what the Lord has said and done, or worse, are we simply "squatting" our life away?


As I read this story I cannot help but be reminded of another Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who when facing hard times went not into a field or to a toilet but to a garden. In the face of his most difficult trial, the Greek phrasing is absolutely clear, Jesus prayed: "Not my will but your will be done!" Therefore, I pray that in any suffering that we may be facing, we will meditate like Isaac, pray like Jesus and even read our Bibles like Cheetoh.



[1] See Gary A. Rendsburg, ‘lāśûaḥ in Genesis xxiv 63’, VT 45 (1995), pp. 558–60.

[2] To be honest, the Greek translation (ἀδολεσχῆσαι) of this Hebrew word (lāśûaḥ) is not much better. Both of these words only occur once in the Bible: right here in this verse. The Greek word can mean "to complain" as if Isaac was out in the field barking out bitter words to himself or to God. Finally, like the semantic range of the Hebrew word, it can mean – as most English translators take it – "to meditate."


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Published on February 06, 2017 02:53

January 26, 2017

The Sexuality of Singleness

In my last post, I reviewed part of Stan Grenz’s book on sexual ethics, focusing on the purpose and meaning of marriage and sex. I want to spend this blog looking at what I found to be one of his more fascinating sections—the sexuality of singleness.


Yes, you read that right. Sexuality and singleness in the same chapter. And his treatment did more than just trumpet the claim: “don’t do it unless you’re married.”  Grenz’s two chapters (9 and 10) on singleness talked a lot about the sexuality of singleness, even though he devotes little attention to not having sex outside of marriage.  


Overall, Grenz’s treatment was fantastic. He elevates singleness way more than most Christian marriage gurus do today, which makes me think: I bet Grenz has read the New Testament. Clearly, Paul would be confused at the contemporary church’s idolization of marriage, and Jesus and John the Baptist would also feel out of place, as they were ushered off to the single’s ministry during the second service. Grenz writes:


Contemporary conservative churches often…[center] attention on the nuclear family. Church growth programs, for example, focus on married person, for the church is generally seen as being built on families. As a result, the programming caters to the family, singleness is readily stigmatized, and single persons are relegated to the fringes of the church and its life. Singles’ groups, even those which receive church support, are often viewed as Christian mate-finding services (pg. 186).  

Grenz goes on to show that the “New Testament brought an important change in outlook toward singleness and the potential role of the single person in the economy of God” (pg. 189). Put frankly: “Paul clearly preferred the single life” (p. 188).


I often hear people assume that since we’re sexual beings, celibacy is an inhumane thing to “force” on someone. Unless, of course, they have the so-called “gift of singleness” (more on that below). Grenz shows that such a view assumes a rather thin view of sexuality, one that lacks biblical support and neuters the sexuality of Jesus, John the Baptist, and many other single saints throughout history. “Single persons, like all persons, are always sexual beings” (p. 190). Grenz explains (in a few different sections, which should be read together: pp. 20-21, 210, 219-222, 243) that sexuality is the dynamic behind all human bonding. For single people, this bonding “is of a different order than marital bonding” (p. 191), but it is not a lesser form of bonding and it’s nevertheless a byproduct of our sexuality. After all, “sexual desire” is not the same as “the desire for sex” (pp. 20-21).


Do you agree with that last line? Personally, I wasn’t sure. Immediately, I was like “yes!” But then my skeptical self kicked in and said, “wait a minute. That’s sounds kind of fishy…” I needed some explanation. Some teasing out of this teasing phrase. And Grenz delivered, though I’m wondering if he's proven the point:


“Sexual desire” refers to the need we all share to experience wholeness and intimacy through relationships with others. It relates to the dimension often called eros, the human longing to possess and be possessed by the object of one’s desire. Understood in this way, eros ought not be limited to genital sexual acts, but encompasses a broad range of human actions and desires, and it participates even in the religious dimension of life in the form of the desire to know and be known by God (p. 21).


Or in the words of the Vatican’s Declaration on Sexual Ethics: “Sex is seen as a force that permeates, influences, and affects every act of a person’s being at every moment of existence.” Or the Tenth General Convention of the American Lutheran Church (shout out to my Lutheran friends!):


Human sexuality includes all that we are as human beings. Sexuality at the very least is biological, psychological, cultural, social, and spiritual. It is a much of the mind as of the body, of the community as of the person. To be a person is to be a sexual being (p. 21).

All of this is what Grenz calls “affective sexuality” (he didn’t coin the phrase), which says that “All…relationships are sexual, insofar as our fundamental sexuality lies at the basis of the quest for community, which leads to the process of making and enjoying friendships” (p. 220).


I remember reading something by Wes Hill about this. Or perhaps it was in a conversation. Wes described his gay sexuality as much more than a desire for sex. Even friendships have a deep connection to sexuality. My friend Julie Rogers says: “Over the course of the 10,080 minutes that go by in a given week, very few of those minutes (if any at all) are likely comprised of sexual thoughts about other women.” Still, Julie says that her same-sex orientation shapes so much of the way she experiences life.


I don’t want to get sidetracked with LGBTQ related questions here, since that’s not where Grenz goes. The point Grenz was trying to make is that sexuality is much bigger than a desire for sex and therefore single people can live and flourish as sexual beings apart from marriage. One can express their sexuality—depending on how you define it—without ever having genital sex.


So what if you’re not called to singleness?*


I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be called to singleness. Like most Christian clichés, “called to singleness” has some roots in Scripture (1 Cor 7), but over time, it’s taken on many meanings not found in the text. When the Bible talks about calling and the single life, it’s all about living out your call as a Christian whether you are single or whether you are married (Paul’s point in 1 Cor 7). The “gift of celibacy” is not the desire or capacity to be celibate—humanly speaking, few single people can do this; Christianly speaking, anyone with the Spirit can. Rather, the gift of singleness is singleness itself.


How do you know if you are called to singleness? If you are single.


Until God calls you out of singleness into marriage, you are called to steward your singleness as a Christian to the glory of God. The term “gift” (charisma) is the same Greek word often translated as “spiritual gift” elsewhere, and Paul defines such gifts as “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good.” Or as Barry Danylak says: “A spiritual gift is not a talent or bestowment for one’s personal benefit but a divine enablement given for the mutual benefit of strengthening the substance and mission of the church” (Redeeming Singleness, 199).


Your singleness is God’s gift for the sake of your redeemed community and the mission of Christ.


The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Most of us will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward our marriage to the glory of God. But most of us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again.

But we won't actually be single. We'll be one with our Creator; married, if you will, to God. 


Human flourishing doesn’t depend on marriage and it certainly doesn’t depend on sex. Marriage brings with it its own temptations and trials, and sex within marriage often leads to pain (1/3 of women), frustration, and other problems that married people don't often admit. To think that marriage will end your loneliness and take care of your sexual frustrations is a myth. Many married people wish they weren’t (cf. divorce and adultery statistics) and the “majority of people struggling with sexual addictions and compulsive online habits are married men” (Grant, Divine Sex, 109). The fact is, we are relationally and sexually messed up. And only Jesus, not marriage, can fix that. Jesus—the one who was single and the embodiment of human flourishing and joy.


I don’t want to downplay the unique struggles that single people have. My single friends tell me about terrible bouts of loneliness and discouragement (though so do my married friends). And yes of course, married people experience a foretaste of heavenly delights (though so do my single friends). But however you slice it, suffering and joy are not antithetical in God’s kingdom. When God calls us to salvation, he calls us to partake in his Son’s suffering, so that we can also partake in the Son’s joy.





*The following section draws heavily from my book People to Be Loved, pp. 172-174

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Published on January 26, 2017 03:00

January 23, 2017

What Is a Christian Sexual Ethic?

As you may have gathered from my previous few blogs, I’m combing through various books on sexual ethics and related topics. The list of potential books is endless, and I’ve already read a decent number over the years, but I’m committed to reading through as many significant books on sexuality and gender as I can over the next few years.


In the last couple of months, I’ve read through Jonathan Grant’s Divine Sex, Dale Kuehne’s Sex and the iWorld, and Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics—the one I’ll interact with in this blog. I’m currently reading Christopher West’s Fill These Hearts, Dennis Hollinger’s The Meaning of Sex, and two other forthcoming books that aren’t public yet. There are several others that are waiting on deck including Rogers Brubaker’s Trans, Ryan Anderson’s Truth Overruled, Richard Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh (a 650 page beast!), Gabriele Kuby’s The Global Sexual Revolution, and Cynthia Westfall’s highly acclaimed Paul and Gender. And then I’m going to take a long nap before I fill my bookshelf with another stack of must-reads books on sex, sexuality, and gender. (My kids recently looked at my bookshelf and asked my wife, “Now…what does daddy do again?”)


So let’s look at Stan Grenz’s book Sexual Ethics. Overall, the book was very thorough, well researched, and informative. Translated, this means that it was a bit dry, academic, and filled with untweetably long sentences. Although the book is clear, I kept getting bogged down by redundancies, which were scattered throughout. Even though it was 250 pages, it could have been 190 with no loss in content. And—this isn’t a critique, but—you should know that the book was originally written in 1990 and updated just slightly in 1997. Needless to say, a lot has happened since then.


As far as the content, Grenz’s book is excellent. A must read, I’d say, for anyone wanting a thorough look at what a Christian sexual ethic looks like—or should look like. (Part of the problem might be the striking shortage of scholarly books devoted to sexual ethics.) Grenz looks at things like:

 The Nature of Human SexualityMale and Female as Sex DifferencesThe Meaning of MarriageThe Meaning of SexDivorceContraceptivesTechnology and Pregnancy EnhancementSinglenessHomosexuality

I was also going to say a brief word about his scintillating chapters on singleness, which were excellent. And I actually did say a word, but it turned out to be a 3-page word, which was anything but brief! So I turned it into a separate blog, which I’ll post next.


I want to focus this post on Grenz’s treatment of the meanings of marriage and sex, which he spends a few chapters unpacking (esp. chs. 3-4, with some bits scattered in chs. 1-2, and 11-12).


Most people today view marriage as a contract between two consenting people, who commit to loving each other until they fall out of love with each other, in which case they can break the contract and go about their way. When consent is the only rule, two adults can pretty much use marriage anyway they see fit.


Christianity presents a much more complex and multi-layered view of marriage. Like much of Christianity’s ethic, our view of marriage is countercultural and distinct—at least it should be. For Christianity, marriage is a lifelong covenant between two sexually different but equal persons. There is a subjective reality to their bond: they love each other, find each other attractive (physically, emotionally, spiritually), and agree to pursuing life together. But there’s also an objective reality that marriage represents; the stuff that God has designed marriage to be.


Grenz sums up this objective reality under 4 main purposes for marriage. Technically, Grenz talks about marriage in chapter 3 and sex in chapter 4. But there was so much overlap in these chapters—and a lot of redundancies that ensued—so I’ll combine his points on marriage and sex.


1.     Marriage as the Unitive Context for Sexual Expression


Though not “the only, nor the highest purpose of marriage,” marriage is the one human relationship where two people can have sex. The sex act within marriage is designed to “solidify the unity of male and female in marriage” (p. 84).


We’ll return to this again under point 4, but Grenz argues that the sex difference of male and female is necessary for marriage and sex. “As the unity of husband and wife is formed and expressed—that community of male and female which God intends to serve as a reflection of the divine nature—a picture is presented of the higher unity of the divine life” (p. 84). The “community of male and female is designed by God to be an expression of the divine community of love” (p. 84). Since God exists as a unity of difference, so also the coming together of male and female reflects this community of difference.


Grenz’s fullest expression of this unity theme comes on pages 236-237:


Sexual intercourse is intended to convey the union of two persons in their entirety as two sexual beings: the two becoming one. For this meaning to be fully expressed, the physical act itself must be one whereby the dialectic of sameness and difference is taken up into a union…The sex act, then, is more than the experience of sexual “climax.” Climax, therefore, ought not to be equated with the sex act…More crucial than the ability to attain climax, therefor, is the capability of the sex act to symbolize the uniting of supplementary sexual persons into a whole (pp. 236-237).


Just a side note, there were a few times where Grenz seemed to elevate marriage too high, as if to say that married couples are a fuller representation of God (see e.g. 84, 87, 89, 117). But when he got into the topic of singleness, he was quite clear that all humans, though incomplete as individuals, equally reflect God’s image (see p. 181). We are designed to live in community, and marriage is one unique and purposefully way to live in community. But it’s not the only way or even the best way (see my next blog).


By the way, I added the word “unitive” to Grenz’s original subtitle. (The original reads: “Marriage as the Context for Sexual Expression.”) But the stuff he says in that section, and in other sections that refer to it, captures the so-called “unitive meaning” of sex and marriage, which we read about in Catholic dogma (e.g. the 1987 Vatican statement, Donum vitae). Marriage as a context for sexual expression means more than a way to achieve a sanctified orgasm. Christians must ask: what’s the purpose of that? And according to Grenz, the sex act itself seals the “one flesh” unitive bond between sexually different persons.



2.     Marriage as Directed Toward Procreation and Child-Rearing


I’ve been wrestling quite a bit with the relationship between sex and procreation recently. As a low church Protestant, I wonder if we’ve too quickly embraced the very recent (historically speaking) separation of sex and procreation. For much of human history, and virtually all of Christian history, sex was viewed as intrinsically procreative. Not that every sex act results in procreation—most don’t. And not that every sexual relationship will result in procreation—infertility and sex in old age prove otherwise. But this doesn’t change the fact that the sex act as such is a procreative act. Dennis Hollinger says it like this:


Sex by its very nature is procreative in the sense that it leads to progeny…The fact that children are not born from every single act of sex simply means that sex is about more than procreation, but does nothing to nullify its generative dimension (The Meaning of Sex, 104).


Meanwhile, back at the Grenz farm, Christian marriage should always be open to procreation and therefore symbolizes the “expansive love of God, which likewise creates the other as its byproduct” (p. 90). The couple’s openness to new life “function[s] as a sign of the couple’s willingness to open their relationship beyond themselves” and therefore reflect the heart of God (p. 90). Grenz takes a very high view of sex and procreation; he understands sex to be procreative in nature, and therefore every (married) couple who engages in the act should always be open to new life. However, Grenz also argues for family planning and the use of contraceptives within the context of marriage:


Birth control is a valid option for married couples on the basis of the importance of responsible family planning in the midst of the contemporary situation. In a world in which the population is increasing rapidly and the cost of providing for children is escalating, it is not surprising that many couples are deciding to limit the size of their families (p. 153).


I suspect that Grenz was locked up in his ivory tower when he wrote this. I’m not sure how many husbands are throwing on a hood out of fear of over population. Most parents that I know use contraceptives because they don’t want to be inconvenienced by more kids—the sleepless nights, the stress, the responsibility, the roadblocks to success in the marketplace. In any case, I can’t say that Grenz argue his case very well here, especially since he argues quite thoroughly for the inherent procreative nature of sex throughout the rest of the book. But as a Protestant, I sure hope he’s right.



3.     Marriage as the Focus of Companionship


According to love flicks, most non-Christians, and most Christians in America, this is the primary and perhaps sole purpose of marriage. Find Mrs. or Mr. Right, the one you love to be with, and as long as you experience intense emotional feelings (which have recently been) called “falling in love,” then go for it! Grenz doesn’t deny that this is an aspect of marriage. But he does temper it a bit, and rightly so:


The predominance of this understanding of the meaning of marriage is partially due to the influence of nineteenth-century Romanticism. But its roots go deeper, including the Protestantism which has played such an important role in shaping the understanding of the Western world (p. 69).


I tend to agree. Companionship is great. It’s one of the purposes of marriage. But it is a recent phenomenon and we shouldn’t elevate it too highly. A marriage that’s founded on “falling in love” will get shipwrecked when the couple “falls out of love.” And if companionship is the loftiest value—soaring high above commitment, love, and sacrifice—then lack of companionship can just as easily send a marriage crashing into the rocks. There must be higher values that cause a marriage to reflect the divine union it’s designed to. Which brings us to the fourth purpose.


4.     Marriage as a Spiritual Metaphor


Grenz says this is the primary meaning of marriage. (Why’d you list it fourth, Stanley?) The spiritual metaphor is seen in two ways. First, marriage is a picture of the Trinitarian community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).


Just as the Trinity is a community of love, so also the marital relationship is to be characterized by love, thereby revealing the love inherent in God. Marriage accomplishes this in that the bonding that brings man and woman together incorporates a dialectic of sameness and difference not totally dissimilar to the dialectic present in the Trinity (p. 70).


Again, “the divine community is a dialectic between sameness and difference. God is a unity of three persons who share the one divine nature but who are distinct from each other. This aspect of the Trinitarian life of God is reflected in marriage itself” (p. 65). But, for the mathematicians among us: If marriage is between two people, then why does it represent three divine persons? This is where Grenz goes off on a lengthy and compelling argument for polygamy.


Just kidding. Actually, I don’t remember Grenz dealing with the “two representing three” problem. If he did, it obviously wasn’t very memorable. And I don’t think it really matters. The point of the metaphor is to correlate unity among difference. The numerical exactness isn’t vital for the metaphor to work. Plus, in the one place where the Bible most explicitly maps the Trinitarian metaphor onto male and female relations, Paul singles out the Father and the Son (1 Cor 11)—two equally but different divine persons.


Second, marriage isn’t just a picture of the Trinitarian community, but also God’s relationship to humanity. We see this in several OT (Jer 3; Hos 2) and NT (Eph 5) passages. “[M]arriage points to the spiritual bond that God desires to enjoy with humankind, a bond created proleptically by Christ’s bond with the church” (p. 63). This second aspect of the metaphor, of course, lays the foundation for Christianity’s relentless emphases on permanency in marriage. In as much as God’s love (an emotion and action) is directed toward us, so also married partners, a unity of differents, are to love one another as they represent the divine community and express hope and openness to the possibility of new life.




Far from being just an agreement between two consenting people as long as the fire stays lit, the Christian vision of marriage is far more complex and intricate. When a Christian couple gets married, there is much more going on than the subjective wash of emotions and the hope of endless, passionate, sanctified sex. In marriage, heaven and earth are joined at the hip as God’s image bearers make a profoundly theological declaration:


“I do.” 

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Published on January 23, 2017 14:29

January 9, 2017

My Discontent with Discontentment

The following post is written by Dr. Joey Dodson. He's my best friend, and he rocks. This post is brilliant: 


I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:11–13; NIV)


I am not content. I’m not even content with that sentence. I should’ve written: “I am discontent.” But that’s not really perfect either, since I’m not always discontent. Perhaps I needed to write: “I am almost never content.” Although why would I use two words, “almost never” when one simple adverb – such as “seldom” – would have sufficed? Let’s start over, then.


I am rarely content.

(Yeah, still not quite right.) 


Anyways, I guess on a positive note, I’m so bad with contentment that I’m not content with my discontent. I’m dissatisfied with my lack of satisfaction.


     As a biblical scholar, I probably should not say this, but I sometimes get a bit perturbed when I read Paul boast to his friends about how he has learned the secret of contentment. I’m sure it’s not, but it can come across in my mind as a humble brag:


“I’m content in all things. La da da da da!”  


I’m frustrated, of course, because I’m not in on the secret. I mean, why can’t I learn the hidden formula?


     Don’t get me wrong. I understand what Paul is saying. I can parse the bejesus out of that passage, discuss the first-century (Stoic) parallels to it, and recount its history of interpretation. I can deliberate on the aspect of its Greek verbs and the etymology of its juicy words. For instance, a fun fact is that the mu in the verb memuemai (translated “I have learned”) is the same mu in musterion (where we derive our word “mystery”). I get it. Paul has solved the great musterion. And to be sure, I too “know” the solution to the riddle. It is . . . “through Christ who strengthens me.” I understand that, to borrow from Philippians 3, the key to Christian contentment is knowing Christ sufficiently enough that everything else is cow-plop in comparison. Yet while I know the answer, I have to admit that I have not learned the lesson. Certainly I pursue the Lord, but I am discontent with how often and how passionately I do so.


     Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I dare to say that – though I have far to go and I only inch along – I am growing in contentment. While Paul’s testimony in Philippians has been crucial for my success in this area, his is not the only one that has helped me on this way. When I was living in beautiful Ammerbuch-Entringen, Deutschland, an old German man told me something one day that often comes back to me when I think of finding contentment. On my walk from my flat to the train, I struck up a conversation with the old veteran working in his yard. In the course of our conversation, with my dreadfully limited German vocabulary and thick southern Arkansas accent, I tried to ask him if he ever got tired of living in such a tiny village. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Nein, ich habe einen Garten gepflanzt,which translates (I think!): “No, I planted a garden.” In retrospect, I’m wondering if the old man just misunderstood what I asked, but I took his answer as a profound metaphor.[1] I understood it as him saying that he actually loved his tiny little village because he planted (pun intended) some meaning in it. Too often, I look beyond my tiny village, in search of meaning elsewhere, instead of discovering the meaning that’s growing up between my feet. Right there, right now, in the sacred space God has allotted me.


Nonetheless, between him and Paul, I’m realizing that although I do not have all that I have desired, I desired more than I deserved. And everything that I have now is –thanks be to God – bounteously more than I should have. So, here’s to pursuing Christ and planting “gardens” in 2017!



[1] Was he quoting Kipling?! See Rudyard Kipling’s “The Glory of the Garden”:


The Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye. . .


Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!


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Published on January 09, 2017 03:00

December 22, 2016

What Is True Friendship?

The following post is written by my friend Nick Roen. (He really is a friend, not just a fishing buddy...) 


The word “friend” is thrown around a lot these days.


In our culture, it is not uncommon to refer to a new acquaintance as “my friend so-and-so”, or to boast of one’s “friend count” on Facebook. Did we go fishing together once? Friend!


Of course, every friendship will not contain the same depth of relational intimacy or commitment. Casual friends are inevitable and can be good, joy-filled relationships. However, my concern is that we use the term “friend” so willy-nilly these days that we have become unable to imagine something richer. There is a level of deep, biblical friendship that I fear has become totally lost in our modern, transient, superficially intimate context.


More Than A Fishing Buddy

Take Proverbs 17:17 for example: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Couple this with Proverbs 18:24, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” and a different picture of friendship begins to emerge. This friend is someone who is there through thick and thin. More than a fishing buddy, he or she is someone who loves and serves and supports during the toughest circumstances of life.


Better yet, this biblical friendship implies self-sacrificial love. Contrary to the cultural impulse to discard a friend when it gets hard or messy, this relationship will cost something. It will cost time, energy, comfort, even our very selves. Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Indeed, this type of friendship language in the Bible is reserved for contexts of deep, self-sacrificial, loving commitment.


Friendship In A Covenantal Context

It should therefore come as no surprise that we see friendship appear in covenantal contexts throughout the Bible.


Perhaps the most thoroughly described friendship in all of Scripture is between Jonathan and David. Far from being romantic in nature (as some progressive scholars have suggested), nevertheless their love for one another was so strong that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). It was because of this deep love and even delight in one another (1 Samuel 19:1) that “Jonathan made a covenant with David” (1 Sam 18:3). Their love was so devoted and sacrificial that Jonathan gave up his right to his father’s throne and defended David’s life and Kingship (1 Samuel 20:13-16). Jonathan describes the ongoing effects of this covenant, saying, “The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever” (1 Samuel 20:42).


Or, as my friend Ron Belgau has helpfully pointed out, it is even more significant to note that Abraham and Moses—the chosen representatives through whom God ratified two of the most significant covenants in scripture— are both referred to explicitly as enjoying friendship with God (2 Chronicles 20:7, cf. James 2:23; Exodus 33:11). Similarly, when Jesus establishes the New Covenant in his blood during the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), he says to his Disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made know to you” (John 15:15, emphasis added).


Friend Of God In Christ

Within this framework, consider again Jesus’ words from John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Who are these friends for whom Jesus laid down his life? In John 10:14-15, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (emphasis added). In other words, every member of the New Covenant—those who belong to the fold of God and have been purchased by his blood (Luke 22:20, cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34)—can say, “I am a friend of God in Christ.”


Of course, friendship is not the only—or even most prominent—way the Bible describes our relationship with Jesus. In Ephesians 5, marriage is said to be a profound mystery, picturing the way the Church Universal relates to Christ as a bride to a groom. But as Ron again helpfully points out, “It is interesting to note, however, that the Bible never explicitly speaks of a particular person as ‘married’ to God…Instead, the Bible describes those who are closest to God as His friends.”


If we only consider our culturally superficial definition of friend, then friendship with God would hardly be worth noting. He’s simply someone with whom we enjoy a few laughs or an amusing anecdote. But if we consider the biblical scope, then friendship with God in Christ means the totality of every blessing and promise secured for us by Jesus’ blood (2 Corinthians 1:20). It means that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), that he will be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), that he will help us and uphold us with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10), and countless other promises found in scripture. He is truly a friend who loves at all times.


Simply A Given

So what does this mean for our earthly friendships? Well, at the very least, it means that we need to make room in our definition of friendship for this type of commitment. It won’t be every friend, and that’s okay. But are we able to work toward a small number of friendships that move past the cultural norm and become sites for self-sacrificial service and love?


Maggie Gallagher has spoken of two different types of relationships: Those that can be described as “You’re mine because I love you” and those that are more “I love you because you are mine.” By the first, she means relationships free from obligation. This is where much of our culture places the entire concept of friendship. The bond may seem strong, but when the love lessens or becomes difficult or inconvenient, we are free to walk away.


The other “I love you because you are mine” type of relationship is different. My friend Wes Hill describes it this way:


“Here, my love isn't the basis of our connection. It's the other way around: We are

bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn't mean I'll walk away.”


He goes on to wonder whether we have the ability to consider friendship in this light. Can our concept of “friend” contain a relationship that is simply a given, a deep commitment where we need not worry the other will up and leave when we become difficult to love? Perhaps then, we might get closer to a friend that “loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).


Perhaps then, we might more accurately mirror what it means to be a friend of God in Christ.

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Published on December 22, 2016 03:00

December 16, 2016

Sex and the iWorld

I just finished Dale Kuehne’s book Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationships Beyond an Age of Individualism and it was a fantastic and compelling read. Dr. Kuhne (Ph.D. Georgetown University) is a professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at St. Anselm college and has been a pastor for the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. I’ve known about Kuehne’s work for about a year now and recently enjoyed a very friendly conversation with him over Skype. I learned so many things about culture, ethics, and sexuality from Kuehne’s book—too many things to reveal in this blog. I want to keep this review to a single post, so let me jump right in and summarize the book and highlight a few key take aways.




Kuehne (pronounced “Keen”) examines three different types of societies, which he labels the tWorld (t = traditional), iWorld (i = individual), and rWorld (r = relational). Specifically, he looks at how these three different worlds understand sexuality, along with related topics like anthropology, identity, relationships, and morality as a whole. In short:


The tWorld views sexual morality in traditional terms. Its primary founders were Plato, Aristotle, and the early church fathers. Sex belongs within the context of marriage between a man and women for the purpose of procreation and strengthening the marital bond between two partners. Most relations in the tWorld are given not selected—you are born into a relational matrix of family, community, and even though marriage is a choice, it becomes a relationship of obligation once you commit to it. “Hence in the tWorld the key to relational fulfillment was not to find the people with whom we most wished to relate, but to love and engage with those we had been given” (p. 37).


The iWorld represents the world we now live in (esp. in the West). Friedrich Nitzsche and the influence of the sexual revolution are the primary founders. “The iWorld makes individual freedom its non-negotiable value” (p. 67). “Freedom of individual choice…is the highest ideal of the iWorld” (p. 72). The iWorld “is predicated on the foundational belief that the expansion of individual rights will leader to increased happiness and fulfillment (p. 67). The only guidelines—Kuehne calls them “taboos”—are: (1) “One may not criticize someone else’s life choices or behaviors,” (2) “One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others,” and (3) “one may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone without his or her consent” (p. 71 and throughout).


The rWorld is shaped by a Christian worldview and believes that intimacy and love are found in relationships—both relationships of choice and in relationships of obligation—regardless of whether these relationships are sexual. “The abundant life is a product of having an intimate love relationship with God and others, and sex has very little to do with it” (p. 161). In the rWorld, sex is a significant component of a marriage relationship, but a marriage relationship isn’t essential for human flourishing. The rWorld believes that “the sexual revolution” and the iWorld has “become so focused on finding happiness in sexuality and sensual or sensory experience that” it has missed “the love and intimacy for which our soul craves” (p. 163). “Unfettered sexual freedom can inhibit our ability to cultivate and enjoy love and intimacy” (p. 163). “In the rWorld, life is not spent searching for people to make us happy but is instead spent cultivating the relationships we already have” (p. 180).


Kuehne makes clear that the tWorld is not the same as the rWorld, even though there is some overlap. While the tWorld has many good things about it, it also devalued women, cultivated patriarchal marriages, and fostered societal systems of inequality. While Kuehne is very critical of the iWorld, he does admit some progress it has brought to society including equality among people and healthy tolerance for diverse cultures to exist together.


However, the rWorld is the best path for human flourishing and yet it stands diametrically opposed to the iWorld. “The aims of the two worlds are mutually exclusive” (p. 203). You cannot turn individual humans loose and expect this to produce a society where humans will mutually flourish.




There were so many thoughtful points made throughout the book—way too many to highlight. Here are two of the most salient ones that gave my highlighter a run for its money.


Sex and Human Flourishing


As stated above, even though the ethics of the iWorld assumes that sex and sexual fulfillment is essential to human flourishing, Kuehne argues that this is simply untrue. We’ve been conditioned to think and feel this way; the propaganda of our hypersexualized age is overwhelming and it would be the pinnacle of ignorance to think that human desires are unaffected by our cultural narrative. Like a fish that doesn’t know what “wet” feels like, we swim through a sea of sexual propaganda unaware of how profoundly our cultural narrative shapes our desires. (This, of course, was a major point in Jonathan Grant’s book Divine Sex.) The iWorld is telling us that a person who’s not having sex is not a fulfilled person.


As this reasoning goes, if sex is an essential aspect of human fulfillment, then if Christians, or anyone else, are missing out on sex, and if God wishes us to have the most fulfilling life possible, then that which stands in the way of this fulfillment—divorce, remarriage, or cohabitation—must not be wrong after all. (p. 160).


We’ve actually lost sight of ancient wisdom. “The notion that sex was an essential part of human happiness was not in the consciousness of people in that time and place. Sex was considered to be a drive, an appetite, and a necessary means of procreation” (p. 162). But sex wasn’t seen as essential to intimate relationships or human flourishing. Sex is an important aspect of marriage. It “will sometimes produce children” and “provide a bond for the marriage that is useful in holding a married couple together. But sex in itself will not be the catalyst for happiness or fulfillment because that is not its innate purpose” (p. 162). Therefore, the hypersexualizing of our culture actually prevents us from finding and experiencing true, lasting, love and intimacy.


Unfortunately, the evangelical church has bought into the cultural narrative unknowingly. “Contrary to some contemporary popular evangelical theology, the two great commandments are not to get married and have sex” (p. 162). The idolatry of marriage (and therefore sex) in evangelicalism is actually hindering human flourishing, especially for those who are made to feel like unfulfilled second class citizens in God’s kingdom because they aren’t married.


Discovering our True Identity


The second salient point of Kuehne’s book is scattered throughout but comes to fruition in the final chapter. It has to do with discovering our true identity. Kuehne argues that the iWorld has wrongly searched for human identity by looking within ourselves rather than outside ourselves. Instead of asking the question, “Who are we” the iWorld asks the question “Who am I” and gives the individual the keys to discovering who they are by looking within. “Self-discovery and authenticity, not birth and nature, become the new source of human identity” (p. 209). Instead of seeing human identity as “something we derive from a common nature”—we are humans created in God’s image and designed to live according to His will—we view it as “an individual’s quest for self-understanding” where “people are encouraged to look within to find their true self and live lives that authentically reflect who they discover themselves to be” (p. 209).


This is where the iWorld and rWorld fundamentally disagree.


The iWorld sees the formation of self-understanding as primarily an individualistic enterprise…The rWorld, however, believes that we come to know who we are only by first coming to know our true human nature through relating with god and other persons. Then we can make sense of our individual characteristics (p. 212).


After the individual comes to discover who they are by looking within, morality is dictated by living out who they really are. But this confuses the “is” and the “ought.” Even if you can discover who you are by looking within, this doesn’t in itself sanction the morality of living according to who you are, as David Hume used to say “You cannot derive an ought from an is!” (p. 160). Even if we rely on science to tell us who we are—common in the sexuality and gender debates—“Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us how we ought to act” (p. 52).




One of the most helpful points made in the book is that we are still living in a transition between the tWorld and iWorld (p. 45, cf. 207, 213-14). That is, even from a purely, secular perspective, no one knows whether the iWorld’s promises of human flourishing are empirically true. Does sexual freedom lead to societal flourishing? Does letting individuals discover and determine their own identity and morality lead to human flourishing? Do biblical guidelines about sexuality and gender hinder human flourishing or promote it? Does the iWorld’s expanded definition of marriage lead to greater societal flourishing or does it lead to more long-term harmful effects on families, children, and society as a whole? Should sex be separated from marriage and procreation? Does consensual divorce enhance human happiness?


Empirically, we cannot answer any of these questions yet, because we haven't lived in the iWorld's way of doing things long enough. All the iWorld offer at this point is some individuals who say “it works for me” or “I’m happy” or “I’m flourishing.” But it cannot say we are flourishing. And since the iWorld doesn’t possess a moral code outside the individual, it has no way to measure whether its way of living is actually good for the human community. Not yet, at least. We have to wait several generations to see if the iWorld’s way of doing things will lead to greater, lasting happiness among humans.


So far, the trajectory is not looking so good. If you look at where things are going—depression and suicide rates, loneliness and anxiety, addictions, sexual dysfunctions, children born out of wedlock, lack of sexual and relational fulfillment, the global destruction of pornography—things aren’t faring too well for the iWorld’s ability to deliver what it’s promised, even by its own standards.


Perhaps the Christian vision for human flourishing might be on to something. 

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Published on December 16, 2016 13:32

December 13, 2016

When Santa Claus Straight Knocked Out Arius

I’m not sure how it happened, but the modern picture of slightly inebriated jolly old St. Nick, with rosy red checks, ear to ear smile, and a belly like a bowl full of jelly and beer, couldn’t be further from the truth of who St. Nick really was.

St. Nicholas (AD 240-343) was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived through the brutal Diocletian persecutions of the early 4th century. While many Christians gave in to their torturers and denied Christ, Nicholas held strong to his confession. As a result, he was beaten, exiled, and ultimately thrown in prison, where he continued to be tortured. All the while, bishop Nicholas maintained his faith in his crucified Savior and lived to see the day when persecution of Christians was banned at the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

A decade later—and this is where it gets juicy—Nicholas was one of the bishops who attended the first ecumenical council at Nicea in AD 325. Emperor Constantine, newly converted (?), presided over the meeting, and several leaders were given the floor to expound on their theological views. Most notorious was Arius, who was famous for denying the deity of Christ. As Arius carried on, old St. Nick was more aggravated than jolly, as he squirmed irritably in his seat listening to Arius’s heresy. Nicholas was committed to (what would be) the orthodox position that Christ was fully human and fully divine—Nick spilt a few pints of blood for this conviction. So finally, Nicholas couldn’t take it. He got up from his seat, marched to the front where Arius was spouting off, reared back and straight socked Arius right in the face. He then danced around the floored Arius shouting: “Daaaang, you just got Kris Kringled, son!”

Okay, well, I’m not sure if this is exactly how Nick celebrated, but the rest is true as far as I can tell.

What I find fascinating is that our society has replaced Jesus with Santa, when all along the original St. Nick would be horrified at the spineless consumerism of the American Christmas, or holiday, season. Nicholas bled for Jesus. He was tortured for Jesus. And when Jesus’s name was being attacked,  he got into the ring for Jesus.

When we replace the birth of King Jesus with Santa Claus, we bring shame on both the King and his most feisty defender: St. Nick, aka Santa Claus, the dude who cold socked a bishop in the face for theological treason. 

So you better watch out this Christmas season. Don’t make the mistake of Arius and miss the real meaning of Christmas. St. Nick is making a list and checking it twice, and if your theology is not in order, you better watch your back, cause jolly old St. Nick may drop down your chimney and open up the can on you.

Merry Christmas, and let’s get ready to rumble!

For a brilliant retelling of this story, see


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Published on December 13, 2016 03:00

When Santa Claus Straight Knocked Out Bishop Arius

I’m not sure how it happened, but the modern picture of slightly inebriated jolly old St. Nick, with rosy red checks, ear to ear smile, and a belly like a bowl full of jelly and beer, couldn’t be further from the truth of who St. Nick really was.

St. Nicholas (AD 240-343) was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived through the brutal Diocletian persecutions of the early 4th century. While many Christians gave in to their torturers and denied Christ, Nicholas held strong to his confession. As a result, he was beaten, exiled, and ultimately thrown in prison, where he continued to be tortured. All the while, bishop Nicholas maintained his faith in his crucified Savior and lived to see the day when persecution of Christians was banned at the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

A decade later—and this is where it gets juicy—Nicholas was one of the bishops who attended the first ecumenical council at Nicea in AD 325. Emperor Constantine, newly converted (?), presided over the meeting, and several bishops were given the floor to expound on their theological views. Most notorious was bishop Arius, who was famous for denying the deity of Christ. As Arius carried on, old St. Nick was more aggravated than jolly, as he squirmed irritably in his seat listening to Arius’s heresy. Nicholas was committed to (what would be) the orthodox position that Christ was fully human and fully divine—Nick spilt a few pints of blood for this conviction. So finally, Nicholas couldn’t take it. He got up from his seat, marched to the front where Arius was spouting off, reared back and straight socked Arius right in the face. He then danced around the floored Arius shouting: “Daaaang, you just got Kris Kringled, son!”

Okay, well, I’m not sure if this is exactly how Nick celebrated, but the rest is true as far as I can tell.

What I find fascinating is that our society has replaced Jesus with Santa, when all along the original St. Nick would be horrified at the spineless consumerism of the American Christmas, or holiday, season. Nicholas bled for Jesus. He was tortured for Jesus. And when Jesus’s name was being attacked,  he got into the ring for Jesus.

When we replace the birth of King Jesus with Santa Claus, we bring shame on both the King and his most feisty defender: St. Nick, aka Santa Claus, the dude who cold socked a bishop in the face for theological treason. 

So you better watch out this Christmas season. Don’t make the mistake of Arius and miss the real meaning of Christmas. St. Nick is making a list and checking it twice, and if your theology is not in order, you better watch your back, cause jolly old St. Nick may drop down your chimney and open up the can on you.

Merry Christmas, and let’s get ready to rumble!

For a brilliant retelling of this story, see


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Published on December 13, 2016 03:00

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