What's Next Now that Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal?

I'm on vacation this week, but have been emailed, texted and asked by friends and family what I believe is next for the evangelical church in America now that same-sex marriage is legal. Now, I'm not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but you really don't have to be in order to see some possible next steps as the cultural shift becomes even more mainstream.

The Next Battle

CNN has posted a story titled "The Next Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage" and in this article, highlight some of the items that came to my mind initially.

While polls show that a majority of religious Americans now support same-sex marriage, many prominent groups -- such as the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- do not. Leaders from those groups pledged on Friday to seek legal means to shield their beliefs from state interference. (CNN)

The term "battle" is being used more frequently and while there is a battle going on, my concern is that believers will tend to identify the wrong enemy. In truth, a battle has been going on since before the beginning of the human story. This battle is not new. It began before the Garden of Eden and continues with the same goal in mind. 

In this stage of the "battle" some of the items that American believers have held dear for centuries are at risk. To believe that gaining the legal right to marry is the end-game in this cultural shift would be short-sighted.

Religious Liberty At Stake

I am not living in fear, but am facing the reality before us. Religious liberty, regardless what was weakly stated by Justice Kennedy . . .

"It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned."

. . .will be affected and likely lost in some cases. There is no way, based on what has been experienced recently, that churches and religious groups who hold to what is now called the "traditional marriage" of one man (born a man) to one woman (born a woman) will not be denounced and challenged legally. This is the next step and will happen.

Tax Exempt Status Will End

When asked what will happen next by a family member, I answered, "The church's tax-exempt status in the US will be removed within five years." This has been the threat of anti-church groups for years and unfortunately, many churches sit idly by when social upheaval and injustice takes place until the tax-exempt status is challenged.

I believe this may well be inevitable.

Amazingly, this op-ed hit Time's website this morning declaring that now is the time to remove the tax-exempt status.

So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe). But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good. And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need. But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share. (Time)

LGBT Rights Will Continue to Trend

433540_80103081The rainbow flag is seemingly emblazoned everywhere now and #LoveWins is trending on Twitter (with a rainbow heart automatically added, so be careful to use this hashtag unless you're making a pro-same-sex marriage statement.) Corporations are jumping onboard the trending theme, likely for business purposes rather than simply a statement endorsing so-called equal rights. 

Generational Divide Will Widen

Many parents are discovering that their children hold differing views on this issue than they do. This is not true in all cases, and the point could be made that parents and teenagers have differed on religious, political and social views for decades. Nevertheless, this is the "issue of the day" and the reality is the familial divide here is present.

More Teenagers & Young Adults Will "Come Out"

It's trendy. It's safer. Everyone is doing it.

At least that is how it seems.

Teenagers and college students in my community are celebrating, as the LGBT community among young people and collegians here represents a higher percentage than other communities. It may make news when a professional basketball or football player comes out as gay, but most of our high school athletes know of a teammate who identifies as such. This is not out of the ordinary and is often celebrated.

Some parents are struggling how to relate to a child who now has "come out of the closet." Other parents are not struggling, but celebrating. 

The times, they are a'changing.

Christian parents are working through these issues as well. The presumption that because a child grew up in the church, attended Sunday School and went on mission trips with the youth group does not preclude them from struggling with same-sex attraction and even acting on those urges. Believe me, the church is not immune to these issues.

For pastors to believe that the SSA (same sex attraction) issues are just for people outside their churches is foolish and short-sighted at best. Why would the Enemy spend all his energy and strategy on attacking those already distanced from God and His church? Of course, he seeks to steal, kill and destroy and attempts these things within the family of God.

Churches Will Be Sued Over Weddings

Our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) does not and will not host (as long as I am pastor) same-sex weddings or celebrations. Our pastors will not preside over such ceremonies. 

I believe many churches will find themselves in court over this. In fact, this issue will be the one that removes the tax-exempt status and other religious liberties we have experienced for years.

I also believe that some pastors will preside over weddings, believing them to be heterosexual, only to discover after the fact that one of the spouses was transgender. Mark my words, this will happen. It will change how we direct pre-marital counseling. Pastors will now have to ask, "So, were you born the gender you now are?" before moving forward with wedding plans.

Churches Must Respond, Not React

In no way should a church condone homosexual behavior, nor affirm it as a "third way" or "how God has made some people." Any attempt to affirm that which God has declared unholy is wrong, whether it's homosexuality or any other sin (and there is no grading of sin here - just staying on topic.)

It must be admitted that for years, we (the church) have not responded very well. It appears that fear was a motivator and that led to emotions that were viewed and anger and hatred. Somewhere in the midst of this, young people in the church struggling with this sin heard "We hate you! There's no place for you here! You are an abomination!" and a generation has been lost.

Therefore, the church must be prepared to counsel people and family members with love. This may change how some church events are structured. No longer should churches room four guys together in a hotel on a mission trip. The same is true for girls. These will be addressed as the desire to continue allow students struggling with sin issues to attend camps and events, in that we desire them to hear and experience God in a way that will bring them rescue and clarity. Yet, this will not be easy. It really never has been.

As we lovingly seek to present the unchanging Gospel of Christ to a lost, separated and dying world, we discover that God is not shocked by the latest polling numbers, Supreme Court rulings and corporate and community political correctness. We also discover that God, with his grace and mercy that is overwhelming, continues to draw people to Himself, offering the free gift of salvation and hope.

What About "Gay Christians?"

Whenever an adjective is added as a descriptor to the name "Christian" the title is stripped of it's glory and weakened. When a descriptor is one that is clearly identified as sin (yes, I know some differ with me on that, but I'll stick to that statement) in the Word of God, the name Christian becomes irrelevant. For me, it would be the same as declaring oneself an "Adulterous Christian," or "Thieving Christian" or "Idolatrous Christian" and owning the adjective as a proud descriptor of identity.

So, are there Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction? Absolutely. Are they really saved? No doubt. Just like there are Christians. . .real Christians who struggle with gluttony (the idol of food) or adultery or pornography. It is the blood of Christ and the grace of God that removes our sinful identifiers upon our repentance. 

The battle is real and when the name Christian is weakened, a victory is perceived.

Do Not Fear

Rest assured, fear is one of the greatest tactics of the enemy.

Do not fear what may come, but renew your minds on the things of God. Your children may celebrate and announce their affirmation of this trending lifestyle. Your son or daughter may even come out of the closet. Your co-worker may now introduce you to his/her spouse of the same gender. You will be invited to a same-sex wedding. (My recommendation - do not attend, even if it's family and you love them. Your presence shows affirmation.)

But, do not fear.

Remember Paul's instruction to Timothy and know this is God's for you and me as well. . .

"For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)

Love does win. . .and it's not the world's version.

I love what Curt Hamner has said, "Rescuing a drowning culture is never easy, but if anyone has a foot in the dry shore to send out a lifeline, it is the church."

Amen.

_____________________

For some potentially helpful resources, in this area, check out our LGBT page on our online bookstore


Another Flag Flies High In Celebration of Today's SCOTUS Ruling. Now What?

Over the past week, in the aftermath of the tragic murders in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been much debate over the public display of a flag that holds much history and essentially creates  division in our nation. Politicians and pundits as well as religious leaders and concerned citizens have made statements and decrees about the flag and what it represents. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have taken to the blogosphere and the internet to state their case. Businesses have removed any items with the emblem upon it. My thirty-year-old high school yearbooks now seem offensive. (Our mascot was the Rebel and a certain battle flag was displayed throughout our school.)

Eddie Gilley, the Baptist Collegiate Ministries Director at the University of Florida, wrote a poignant article about this. You can read it here.

Another Controversial Flag

543733_19791065There is another flag that also creates division in our nation. This one, however, is not receiving the same level of ire and mandates.

This flag is also being hoisted on flagpoles owned by government entities. The rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community and the public statement of "pride" during official gatherings and ceremonies is being waved highly today in Washington DC and in other communities throughout our nation. 

Today will be marked as a key date in our nation. For some, it will be a day to celebrate annually. For others, it will be a day of annual lamentation.  

The 5-4 Supreme Court Ruling

For months this day has been anticipated. Futurists stated that it was inevitable. The church has been positioning for a response, while others have prepared celebrations. The court has effectively instituted a redefinition of the 14th amendment with today's ruling that says states must allow same-sex marriage.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in writing for the majority stated, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were."

Each of the four justices opposed to the ruling wrote their own dissents.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision a "threat to American democracy."

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent stated, "If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today's decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."

Now What?

Once the ruling was announced, the news media and pseudo-news media began pushing stories out regarding the decision and its ramifications. Those in support of the decision are celebrated as loving and accepting and progressive.

Those in opposition to the ruling are categorized as haters, wrong-minded, sexually prejudiced and "on the wrong side of history." 

This is no surprise and yet, today we live in a different America than we did just 24 hours ago.

I have received numerous text messages, questions on social media and through email and from friends and acquaintances regarding this announcement. 

The first thing we should do is that which we have been doing (or at least should have been doing) - PRAY.

We know that prayer is needed. We know this intellectually, but for many prayer has been anemic for years and when it is little more than a blessing over a meal or a request to heal all the sick people and "be with" everyone we know, there is need for true prayer.

Pray for guidance and discernment. 

Pray for peace in the midst of the cultural shift.

Pray for the love of God to reign within us so that while not affirming sin, we may truly love those with whom we disagree and especially those who live opposed to the Gospel.

The Challenge to Come

While many who self-identify as LGBT have no desire to become a poster-child for same-sex marriage or public fights, there are some who promote the #LoveWins theme but are overwhelmed with hate and hurt. Some will seek to be married in the local church buildings and churches will have to make decisions  that will likely draw legal action.

There will be some churches (and already are) who will gladly open their doors and will even officiate same-sex weddings.

There are also many, like our church and those under my leadership, who will refuse to host such a wedding or perform a ceremony. Whether a church's by-laws declares their right to refusal, the lawsuits will inevitably come. It is in these days that capitulation will happen in many "churches." This is unfortunate.

We Never Were Culturally Accepted

Today's ruling is shocking to many. There is a false belief that Christianity (true biblical Christianity) was at one time culturally accepted as the norm and highly regarded. I do not discount that history affirms a more accepted morality as proposed by the Bible was more common in the past, but the reality is that the world has been opposed to the Gospel since the day that the Enemy tempted Eve and Adam. Today's ruling is a reminder of this truth.

Panic is not the response needed. Knee-jerk reactions are not needed, either. The church may get smaller as the culture slide continues, but we have always known that this is a narrow road we travel and the broader influence for the Gospel always comes from a narrower footprint.

So, we pray. We pray for God's name to be hallowed and for His Kingdom to come, here as well as in heaven. We pray that we will hear his voice and follow His commands. We pray for those far from God to be broken to the point where they respond to the lure of the Gospel. 

That is our hope, not the Judicial, Legislative or Executive branches of our government or any other entity.

So, I'm now a conscientious objector to a ruling put into place today. The 14th Amendment has been redefined and I lament the reality of what this means.

There's Another Flag

So church, stand firm. Stay focused. Remember the mission.

We stand under another flag or banner and it's not the one that is pledged at Vacation Bible School, but one named Jehovah Nissi.

And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner. Exodus 17:15 (ESV)

The Lord is our banner. 

Let's pledge our continued allegiance to Him.


The Most Amazing Story from the Charleston Shooting #PrayForCharleston

CHARLESTON FB TIMELINE

What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday evening was shocking, terrible, troubling and a reminder to all that evil is real and our Enemy's desire to "steal, kill and destroy" is not just a memory verse, but a strategy still being implemented.

Christ-followers of all backgrounds and skin tones grieve with those of the Emanuel AME Church and the surrounding Charleston community. This local church hurts and so do we.

The stories of what happened that evening have been reported through numerous media outlets. Churches and believers have stated solidarity with the church as they should. The alleged (the word used since the killer has yet to go to trial) murderer, Dylann Roof has been arrested and many stories are now coming out regarding his past, his possible manifesto and his history of racial hatred. He is no doubt a troubled young man and to call the act evil is no overstatement.

Other stories are now flooding the media. Stories regarding the Confederate Battle Flag that flies at the South Carolina statehouse and others about gun control, racial violence and youthful angst fill news sites and are the opening stories on television.

The Most Amazing Story

In the midst of all this, a video of victims family members confronting Roof may be the most amazing. Many have viewed this and have voiced their unbelief. They ask, "How could they say things like that?" They, and many in our nation, just cannot fathom being able to voice that which family members are saying, especially only a few days following the event.

Judge their words for yourself. Watch the video below.

 

This is amazing.

This is what the Gospel does.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV) 

Let's continue praying for those at Emanuel, the families of the victims and the entire community of Charleston. The Enemy will not find victory here.


The Southern Baptist Convention - A Family Gathered for a Big Story #SBC15

I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.

FAMILY MEETING

I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.

A "REALITY SHOW" 

Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)

Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.

On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.

As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)

While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."

This is true.

Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.

More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage

The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.

The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.

However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.

Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering

These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.

  • Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but  have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
  • Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly. 
  • James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
  • Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
  • The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
  • Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
  • Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.

The Two Most Impactful Moments

The Prayer Gathering

Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.

I stayed.

I knew I needed to do so.

The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.) 

One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.

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I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer. 

We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.) 

We prayed. 

We sang.

We prayed as we sang.

And we believe.

We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.

We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.

Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning. 

The Missionary Commissioning Service

Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!" 

I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.

I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must. 

They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.

It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport. 

At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?

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Why Come To These Gatherings?

In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.

This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.

We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.

That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.


Identity is Bestowed, Not Manufactured - Jenner, Dolezal & Other Posers Like Me

We all seek validation. There's no one who is immune to this desire. Validation comes from many sources. Unfortunately, many of the sources we often go to for such validation as a man, a woman or even as a good Christian person, are flawed. Because we often seek validation from sources other than the only One who can offer a pure and holy version, we find ourselves performing or behaving in certain ways just to hear "Good job" with the hopes that this form of validation will suffice.

But it never does.

As human beings, both men and women, we have been created in the image of God. This is foundational in understanding the power of identity and validation. Our story starts with God, is about God and ends with God. 

"Identity is not something that falls on us out of the sky. For better or for worse, identity is bestowed. We are who we are in relation to others." - John Eldredge & Brent Curtis

We (humanity) have struggled with our identity and proper validation since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden when the liar offered this thought to Eve and Adam - "The God you love. . .he's holding out on you. You cannot trust him."

That lie has permeated our existence ever since. 

The enemy isn't creative, and therefore, uses the very same strategies over and over and over again. Solomon was right in so many levels when he declared there to be "nothing new under the sun."

Jenner dolezalWhen Bruce Jenner revealed his transformation into Caitlyn a couple of weeks ago, the response was incredible. He is not the first man to declare himself dissatisfied with his gender. He is not the first man to make changes needed to be identified as a woman. He is just the one to do so in this age of the "perfect storm" of gender identification, celebrity worship, sexual "tolerance" and political activism.

Now, in a story that many would say is unrelated, Rachel Dolezal, the President of the NAACP's Spokane chapter has apparently been "outed" as white. The issue is not so much that Dolezal is white, but that she has presented and promoted herself as a mixed-race, black woman for years.

While Jenner's life details have been made available for the public since the 1970s, Dolezal has been known only to a small demographic. No more. Her story is now the lead story on most news and entertainment networks. (I smell a Lifetime movie in the making.)

It Is The Same Story

So, how are Jenner and Dolezal connected? They likely have never met. The Huffington Post and other media outlets are doing all they can to ensure these two stories are not connected. Their personal stories are vastly different. . . yet, the same.

Their stories are stories of identity. They are stories of validation sought. 

How do I know? I know because this is my story, too. No, I'm not a black man living as a white man. Neither am I a woman living as a man (or a man desiring to live like a woman.) I, like these two have sought validation for years. I seek identity.

Just like you do.

Jasmine Holmes recently wrote of this on a blog post for Desiring God She stated:

The gospel shows us not only the root of our dissatisfaction with our place in the world — the sin that separates us from our Father (Isaiah 59:2) — but also the cure for that bitter root (1 Corinthians 15:57). We were created in God’s image, for his glory (Genesis 1:26). That image includes male and female, as well as the beautiful display of diversity that we see in all four corners of the world.

It's an old revival cliche, but it's true. We all have a "God-shaped void within us that can only be filled by Him." Another way to say it is this, "We all seek to hear our Father say 'Well done. You matter to me. I love you.'" The Father has stated this so clearly through the gospel. Jesus is God's validation to us. Yet, we often cannot, or do not, hear that declaration.

The Same Old Lies

The enemy is strategic. He's still throwing the lies toward humanity, "You can't trust God. He's holding out on you." When we believe that, we cannot hear the truth. And we seek to fill the gaps with whatever we can.

We seek validation.

We seek identity.

Since God alone can offer these, when we miss him, we create our own identity. We become satisfied with weak validation. We become posers.

When Mitzi Miller, former editor for Jet & Ebony magazines, was interviewed about the Dolezal story for National Journal, she made this profound statement:

It’s ridiculous and ironic. Again, I go back to the suspicion that something was really messed up in her life and she had to find a way to cope. Adopting another identity and creating a life out of it was her answer.

As you know, most news stories remain front-and-center for about two days, then everyone just goes about their lives, until the next story comes up to create headlines and social media trends. Yet, those who are part of the story will not be able to just turn the page. How this one ends is yet to be determined, but Miller honed in on the real issue, I believe.

It is not about race.

It is not about gender.

It is about identity.

It is about missing the validation from the author of the story.

Your Validation

As the Father spoke of the Son at his baptism - "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," so we long to hear that validation as children of God. We can through Christ. It is not easy to hear that still, small voice in the midst of the screaming culture, but it is there.

God's validation of us is not the same as his affirmation of our actions. Sin grieves the heart of God and we carry that burden, but thanks be to God that we have been redeemed through Christ and no longer are identified by our sin. (Now, that previous statement is for children of God - those who have surrendered to Him and now have the right to call him Father.) So many Christians struggle with this. Even in the world of church and religion, we often pose - seeking validation from pastors, other Christians or church members or maybe denominational leaders. 

We must be careful to remain focused. Christianity is not simply behavior modification. It is heart transformation. 

So, when you hear these stories of confused people seeking to "find themselves" or attempting to change things in their lives to enable them to live as the person their mind identifies them as, pray for them and remember. . .we have all been there.  The poser lives, but doesn't have to.

That's the beauty of the gospel - life in exchange for death. Authentic identity in exchange for the masquerade. Validation in exchange for accusation.

Identity is bestowed. Our true identity is bestowed by the Father. . .and he does not make mistakes.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12 (ESV)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (ESV)


The Problem With Gender Neutral Bibles & Gender Neutrality in the Church

Years ago I led our church through a doctrinal study over the distinctives that define us as Baptists. In an age where denominational labels tend to offend or in some cases are avoided at all cost, there is value in knowing and understanding the doctrinal pinnings of one's church. This study led us through our doctrinal statement, known as The Baptist Faith & Message (2000.)

Article I of our statement of faith reveals our understanding of the inspiration and value of the Bible. The article expresses this as follows:

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

 As we dug into this teaching on the value of Scripture, it becomes confusing to some, especially in the English-speaking world, as to which version of the Bible should be used. There are some who believe the only valid version to be read, studied and preached is the Authorized King James Version. While I am not one to discount the value of the tried and true KJV, primarily because I grew up, like many of you, reading and memorizing passages from this version. It's a beautiful version and yet, it is often hard to follow due to the changing vocabulary and different meanings of English words from the 1600s to now. As an American with friends from Great Britain, I find that phrases we use have vastly different meanings to them, and vice versa. 

Some have asked why there are so many modern English translations. The simple answer relates to money. Each publishing house tends to own the rights to its own modern translation. Therefore, since Biblica owns the rights to the very popular New International Version, it stands to reason that Broadman & Holman would rather own it's own version for publication, as would Crossway and other publishing houses.

Yet, it is more than a business decision. Sometimes, there are decisions made by translators that seem less connected to history or the oldest documentation and more to swaying with the cultural shifts of the day. 

A movement has continued to grow that seeks to delete all masculine references to God throughout Scripture. On the surface, this may seem to be insignificant.

"It's more inclusive," some would say.

"It's less offensive to those who have difficult relationships with men, especially their earthly fathers," is declared by others.

So, in this age where gender and sexuality are the unavoidable subjects through the media and the amoral revolution continues to occur, I find myself going back to a previous teaching on the value of Scripture and the use of non-gender neutral versions. (The original post from January 2011 may be read here.)

A number of churches are also intentionally moving away from using gender-specific terms. This was printed in a church's bulletin recently and ended up on Twitter. I wish I could say I am surprised, but this is little more than the next step down a slippery slope.

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Why Does Gender in the Bible Matter?

It is my assertion and belief that gender matters in life and therefore within the Bible. Regarding Bible translations, it matters at a deeper level than most realize. 

In an article posted a number of years ago by Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress and The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (full posting here,) the writer touches on some of the most common translation questions and issues:

In Greek the word aner usually has the sense of husband or man (male human being).3 Until recently, English translations included the male semantic component in translation. But the new gender-inclusive translations show some changes.

In Acts 1:21 Peter discusses the replacement of Judas: "Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men (aner) who have been with us…" (New International Version [NIV] 1984). But in the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI 1996) and in the New Living Translation (NLT 1996) "men" becomes "one of those" (NIVI) or "someone else" (NLT). The change is theologically significant because it no longer conveys in English the Greek evidence that Peter did not think that a woman could be an apostle. In Acts 20:30 Paul warns the elders at Ephesus about false teachers: "Even from your own number men (aner) will arise and distort the truth…" (NIV). Indirectly Paul indicates that the elders were all men. This theologically significant detail drops out in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1993), NIVI, and NLT.

The common thread in the verses above is that they all involved situations where males were examples of larger principles. This is not to denigrate females, for both male and female are made in God's image, unique and special. It was, however, descriptive of the role of the men within the early church.

Another translation issue revolves around the Hebrew word 'ish.

Consider the translation of 'ish. It almost always means "man." It can be used in idiomatic constructions with the sense "each one" (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:3, Job 42:11). The main problem is that gender-inclusive translations eliminate male marking in other passages where they have no lexicographical warrant.

Consider Psalm 1:1, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers" (NIV). NRSV, NIVI, and NLT change it to read, "Blessed are those who…," or a similar phrasing. The change from singular to plural produces a description that is "less specific…, less easy to visualize." Moreover, with the singular, the reader tends to picture a single man standing against a multitude of wicked people, sinners, and mockers.

After reading Psalm 1, sensitive readers know that it offers the "man" as a representative, an ideal, for men and women. The principle applies to many. But the starting point is the picture of one, and that one is male. The semantic component as well as grammatical gender is present for the original readers.

The gender-inclusive translations simply eliminate this semantic component. They contain a formulation that expresses the general principle of equity, and that is part of the point. But they drop one aspect of the meaning, by not expressing the subtle interplay between a male representative on the one hand, and a general principle applying to both men and women on the other.

The writer speaks of the more traditional usage of the word man to describe the entirety of the human race. This, now is not considered politically correct or tolerant.

The biggest issue in removing gender from Scripture is the elimination of the word he.

How do we treat generic "he" in English? Matthew 16:24-26 says, "Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?'" (NIV)

The verses contain several occurrences of generic "he," referring back to "anyone." Some people find this usage distasteful, so the NIVI eliminates it: "Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?" Singulars are converted to plurals, third person "he" becomes second person "you."

Meaning Is Warped

The arguments for eliminating gender is both explicit and implicit. There's no neutral ground in this movement for neutrality. The most dangerous issue is when the meaning of Scripture is warped from poor translators. Though some declare that "all translation is interpretation" the end result is the justification of already held beliefs when seeking affirmation. In other words, it fuels the fire of those who are set on their beliefs, and then seeking to find a verse or passage that affirms their already held beliefs. If the verse is taken out of context, so be it.We've seen this done numerous times. If the verse is mistranslated, all the better. Why? Because the truth in these cases is not that Truth is sought, but justification. This is a dangerous slide.

John 14:23 in the NIV reads, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." The NRSV reads, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

The NRSV substitutes plurals for the generic singulars found in Greek and in the NIV. But this results in an unintended ambiguity in the product. The last clause, "make our home with them," has a plurality of people, "them," combined with a single dwelling place, "our home." Conceivably, it might mean that the Father and the Son make a home with each person. But it might also mean that the Father and the Son make a single home with the plurality of people together. That is, they come and dwell with the church corporately. This latter interpretation is closer to the surface or more "obvious" than the first, since it responds to the difference between the singular "our home" and the plural "them." Such a thought of corporate dwelling is genuinely biblical (see 1 Cor. 3:10-15, Eph. 2:22). But it is not the thought found in the Greek text of John 14:23. Both the Greek and the NIV picture the Father and the Son making a dwelling with each person, not with the church corporately.

Gender neutral Bibles weaken the Word. They represent poor scholarship at a minimum and the conformation to cultural sensitivities. Do the masculine pronouns really matter? I believe they do, but not because men are better than women or that we are insensitive to the plight of those who have had terrible experiences with men in their lives. They matter because they signify the deconstruction of God's Word which will inevitably end for some with a Bible that looks like Swiss cheese, with holes throughout and passages that only align with our previously understood realities.

The introduction of mainstream gender-neutral Bibles was little more than a foreshadowing of removing gender tags within the church (for some.) The cultural influence within the church is immense and while "neutral" may be the stated goal, "neutered" is the end result of a church that abandons the truth of God's Word.

RELATED: Interview with Dr. Mohler Regarding the Need for Christian Counter-Culture

 

Listing of Gender-Neutral English Bible Translations (Not a complete listing)

  • New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
  • New American Bible (1986)
  • New Century Version (1987)
  • Revised English Bible (1989)
  • New Revised Standard Version (1990)
  • Good News Bible, 2nd Edition (1992)
  • Contemporary English Version (1995)
  • New Living Translation (1996)
  • Today's New International Version - TNIV (2002)

 


What Florida Baptist's New Executive Director/Treasurer Needs

The information in this posting will likely only seem to matter to those in the state of Florida who are cooperating churches in the Florida Baptist Convention. However, I believe the implications of what is happening in the Florida Baptist Convention (part of the Southern Baptist Convention for my friends outside my denominational tribe) are far reaching and will catalyze change among other Baptist entities and even some groups other than Southern Baptists.

Tommy_greenLast week, our State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I serve on this Board) voted unanimously to call Dr. J. Thomas (Tommy) Green, III as our new Executive Director-Treasurer (EDT) of the Florida Baptist Convention. If those titles seem confusing, suffice to say that Dr. Green will be the new leader of our state convention.

Dr. Green fills the seat vacated by Dr. John Sullivan, who retired after many years of faithful service to God and Florida Baptists. 

Since Dr. Sullivan's announced retirement last year, the search committee that was formed has prayed and worked diligently to discover the man God was calling for this vital role. Over those weeks, numerous discussions have taken place between pastors, State Convention employees, and denominational leaders throughout the convention and some have shared their views via blogs and news articles. 

Now, the day has come and Dr. Green will shift from his long-time leadership as pastor of First Baptist Church of Brandon to EDT. He is known and respected by many in our state, as evidenced by the unanimous call and the encouraging words being shared in different places.

There Will Be No Honeymoon

When a pastor begins serving in a new church, especially when it is a legacy church, there is most often a "honeymoon period" where the excitement is high and anticipation is great. These are good days and a time for adjustment, new leadership models and visionary exposition. However, when a leader steps into a new position and he is already known well (as is the case when an associate pastor is called to be lead pastor in a local congregation. . .or so I hear) there really is no "honeymoon." This is not a bad thing, but a reality of being known.

Dr. Green is known by all in the state convention and by many pastors throughout our state. Now that he is our new EDT, he is known by even more. His tenure at FBC Brandon was fruitful and God-centered. He has served in state elected positions numerous times and has been a solid voice for the Gospel and mission engagement throughout his community, the state and beyond. 

A Bold Vision

There are terms we like as Southern Baptists. One is "bold" (anyone remember "Bold Mission Thrust"?) and another is "vision" (for without it, the people are unrestrained or perish, depending on your English Bible translation of choice.) Nevertheless, when Dr. Green was interviewed for the EDT position, he came with a plan and vision. It was more than a PowerPoint presentation. It was more than handouts with graphs. It was a prayer-covered vision that will drive our state convention forward in ways that have rarely been considered in the past. 

With no disrespect to the plans implemented by past generations, the reality is that denominational work in this century looks differently. Whether voted upon or not, it is reality. The day when 90 percent of all Southern Baptist Churches looked identical within their buildings (same hymnal, same order of worship, same offering envelopes, same schedule, same bulletins, etc.) is gone. The joy is that while worship styles have changed, schedules have morphed and church meeting spaces have become more varied over the last few decades, the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to change lives and we, His church, are privileged to be the avenue of choice by a sovereign God for sharing this truth.

Five years ago, the Florida Baptist State Convention voted to implement a financial shift relating to Cooperative Program gifts. The proposed 50-50 shift was deemed radical in that for the first time in our history, half of all receipts given to CP through Florida Baptist churches would go to the SBC while the remaining 50 percent would stay in the state. For the average church member, this was a foreign concept in that he/she likely had no idea how the funds were distributed. In most cases, many church members have no understanding of the Cooperative Program and how SBC churches cooperate for missions and ministry. I found this the case when a former member of my congregation accused me of having the Cooperative Program as my personal slush fund for gifting church planters and missionaries. I never had a slush fund before, but found it interesting that CP could be that fund. Nevertheless, that discussion is a posting for another day, but suffice to say, I was surprised at how few church members truly understood the CP. It was eye-opening and as pastor, I have to own that failure in communication and training.

After five years of moving incrementally toward 50/50, we are still not there and Dr Green has pledged to stop "kicking that can down the road" and with the ending of what has been deemed "shared ministry receipts" with the North American Mission Board (essentially, funds sent to NAMB and then returned to Florida to fund missions and pay staff) this assertion that we will be at this level of giving and generosity in our next budget is . . . well, bold.

More Generous Than 50/50

As Dr. Green was sharing of his vision for the state convention, he dropped a bomb in our State Board meeting that very few saw coming. He has committed to lead not to just be at 50/50 in next year's budget, but to be at 51/49.

What does this mean? It means that Florida will be the first state convention that will give away more funding than it keeps in state. 

It's just one percent, right? Yes, but when you're speaking of millions of dollars, that one percent is significant. It's not just a symbolic shift, though there is much symbolism of generosity here, it is a tangible shift that will essentially change how we are staffed and how we function as a state convention.

One search committee member shared wisdom when he shared with the Board to not take this lightly. This man is fully on board with Dr. Green's plan, but his warning of change was well heeded. This is not just an idea. It is a plan and it will be implemented. Therefore, when change comes in future months, there should be no one saying "I never saw this coming."

Barbara Denman, writing for the Florida Baptist Convention and shared through our state news agency, The Florida Baptist Witness, shared the following from Dr. Green. . .

Adding that “strategy drives the vision,” Green pledged to go beyond an even 50/50 split of Cooperative Program funds between the national Southern Baptist Convention and the Florida Baptist Convention.

“I am proposing to you and will immediately begin the process with our State Convention team and with all of those who are part of the budget process to move us, not to a 50/50 budget, but to move us to a budget that sends more than we keep, to send 51 percent forward and to keep 49 percent in the state of Florida,” he said.

“We would be the first state convention” since the Great Commission Resurgence adopted by the SBC, Green said, “in a historic move and decision that stepped up and said, ‘We believe in reaching the nations for Christ.’ ”

To accomplish this, Green said his budget proposal will remove shared ministry receipts or negotiated funds from the Cooperative Program budget to represent a “true” 51-49 percent split.

“It may be that God would take a decision made by a state convention to demonstrate generosity in a way that has never been demonstrated before and [would] erupt an explosion of His grace and His glory.”

The ramifications of this shift are real. Employees at the state level know this. Pastors and State Board members understand this as well. Perhaps this shift alone is enough to validate my "no honeymoon" statement. Regardless, there is much hope in this shift. 

It's More than a Money Issue

Dr. Green's vision is much deeper than a financial adjustment. His platform of growth features a strategy that will decentralize the hub of state work, regionalize staff and personalize mission with Directors of Mission and Pastors. He reemphasized an often stated truth that "churches plant churches" and as we seek to penetrate the darkness of our state and the world, a denominational focus on encouraging and equipping churches to replicate was received positively.

The People Need a Vision

I am proud to say that I stood in affirmation of Dr. Green's selection as the new EDT. I heard his vision and talked with him over dinner last week briefly about the shifts to happen. It will not be easy. He knows that. Some are declaring that this change will bring many millennial pastors into or back into the fold of the Florida Baptist Convention. I'm not too sure about that. I do know this, millennials (and older guys like me) are drawn to be a part of stories bigger than self. There is a desire to be involved and engaged in causes that make Kingdom differences. A vision alone will not change anything, but an absence of a plan is a plan for nothing and I am encouraged that Dr. Green has his eyes wide open and is seeking to move forward.

Some will cheer for the changes. Others will jeer. 

There was a call for unity at our meeting, but the truth is that unity is a choice of the individual. We must be unified for the Gospel's sake, willing to change methods as needed to ensure we are faithful to the calling and the season which God has given.

What Dr. Green Needs

Dr. Green needs our prayers and support. . .in that order. Prayer for clarity to ensure that he is hearing and discerning the voice of God. Prayer for his wife Karen, who as a pastor's wife has no doubt hurt with Tommy over the years and celebrated with him as well. This journey will be exciting and an adventure, but also painful at times and she needs our prayers as well as Tommy. Prayer that he'll abandon his fandom of the University of Alabama (Okay, just kidding.)

Support is needed as we journey forward. Dr. Green's plan will likely change as he moves through the new position. However, the basics as he laid out will likely not change much. In these areas, unless God reveals a better way, support (not blind support - even Dr. Green would push against that) is needed by pastors, staffers and Florida Baptist churches.

Someone told me last week that he doesn't see Florida Baptists as trailblazers nor as very influential. I differ with that assertion and truly believe that what happens in Florida will have a ripple effect throughout our denomination. My prayer is that it is a positive, godly, Gospel-centric ripple. I know that's Dr. Green's prayer as well. 

There has been much change in our denomination over the past few years. Agencies, state conventions, associations and even local churches are seeking God's direction in how to remain salt and light in a culture that is speeding away from the Gospel. Yet, we know that God has not abandoned his church. He has not moved to "Plan B" for there is no such thing. These are challenging days, but I believe the best is yet to come.

To Dr. Tommy Green - be bold, be focused, be holy. We're in this together.


Should Christians Be Cremated?

As a pastor I have the honorable task of walking with families through grief at the times of death. Funerals and memorial services are commonplace in a church with diverse ages in it's congregation. As I meet with family members to plan these services, I am asked often about the biblical view of cremation. This end-of-life option is considered more and more and those who follow Christ are seeking to know if this is a good or even acceptable option.

What Does the Bible Say?

The Bible gives no specific teaching about cremation. There are a few instances that many often reference when seeking biblical evidence one way or the other regarding this practice. Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines and their bodies mutilated. The people of Israel then decided to cremate their bodies and bury their ashes (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Another story focuses upon Achan and his family who were cremated, but in this case after being executed for sinning against Israel (Joshua 7:25). 

Cremation was practiced throughout the known world during biblical times, but not commonly by the Israelites or the New Testament believers. The cultural norm for these people at this time was burial in a cave, tomb or in ground. In many cases, the bodies would decompose and the remains were then placed in an ossuary (bone box) and buried in the tomb. This would have been the case with Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was buried. At the time of Christ's burial, it was a new, unused tomb and therefore no ossuaries in the back area of other family members of Joseph.

Ultimately, there are no scriptural commands against cremation.

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Cremation & the Church

For centuries, the majority of Christians have opposed the practice of cremation. There are various reasons given for such opposition. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans practiced cremation in that they believed in the immortality of the soul, but saw no value in the body. Hindus, even today, practice cremation as part of their belief in reincarnation. Of course, not all non-Christian religious groups cremated. The Egyptians went to the other extreme of mummifying the bodies of their dead and constructing elaborate tombs for the rich.

Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote about the practice of cremation for Christianity Today back in 2002 (Read full article here.) He addressed the concerns early Christians had regarding the practice:

Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.

Early martyrs were often burned at the stake, as we know. In the days of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals, burial was an option that separated Christians from the world, at least in theory.

But what about today? George continues. . .

But what about today? The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation. But that has changed dramatically. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2000 it was 25.5 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of "place" in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.

While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Since 1963 the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation while "earnestly recommending" burial as the preferred mode of disposal. Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.

It is clear why many believers struggle in feeling comfortable with cremation. What we know, as stated above, is that any buried body will eventually decompose. Therefore, cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice for Christians. It does speed up the natural process of decomposition through oxidation. We know the children of God, the believers in Christ, will one day be resurrected. A new body will be given to each child of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Throughout history, believers have died in various ways and have been buried in the ground, in caves, at sea and cremated. We know that God will have no problem whatsoever in the creation and redemption of His children's new bodies, so the state of the remains of the dead is unimportant.

In Michael Wittmer's book Becoming Worldly Saints, he speaks of the spiritual bodies and the resurrection. His points are well formed:

Whenever I speak on death and resurrection, someone usually asks whether it is okay to use cremation. I say it depends. We're not making God's job impossibly difficult when we choose cremation, because we know he will resurrect millions of people who have died in fires, been digested by animals, or decomposed all the way to nothing. It depends on our motive. We might choose cremation to honor the person. The proper way to dispose of an old flag is not to throw it in the trash but to burn it. Just so, we might cremate our loved one as the ultimate sign of respect. We might do it to save space (as is common in China) or money (as is common in West Michigan), and this is fine, too.

However, we should never choose cremation because we think the body of our loved one is unimportant. Their dead body is not merely the shell that once housed their true self. This is a Platonic, pagan view that I have argued against in this book. That body in the casket matters to enough to God that he has centered the entire Christian hope upon its resurrection. That body is a vital part of our loved one, and we should handle it as those who plan to see it again.

We should also keep the ashes of our loved one together. When we scatter them across their favorite lake or patch of grass, we are unwisely depicting a pantheistic worldview in which humans are one with nature. We're not. We are uniquely made in the image of God, and we must preserve that honor even in death. When we place their urn in a cemetery or columbarium, we treat our beloved with the dignity that humans deserve. Ant that place becomes resurrection ground.

What We Must Focus Upon

Ultimately, what we as believers must focus upon, even in the midst of grieving the loss of loved ones is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day our new bodies will be fashioned as Christ's resurrected body was. It is an eternal transformation and leads us to a deeper understanding why Solomon said it is good to go to a house of mourning at times (Ecclesiastes 7:2).


Jenner Breaks the Internet. How the Church Should Respond

While I'm not sure if the internet really breaks, it is evident that a few celebrities have attempted to do so through the creation of trending stories, personal revelations or photographs that either push the boundaries of decency or are so compelling that not looking at them is very difficult.

Vanity Fair cover
Cover of Vanity Fair. Photo by Annie Leibovitz. Click for Vanity Fair site.

The latest "broken internet" attempt landed today in the image of Vanity Fair's cover featuring Bruce Jenner, now going by Caitlyn Jenner. Of course, now the young, single mom who has been on Twitter since 2013 named Caitlyn Jenner is likely getting a ton of hits online.

Bruce's "coming out" as Caitlyn is trending and the vast majority of tweets and comments speak of "her" bravery and the fact that anyone who speaks negatively (or what is perceived as negatively) against Bruce/Caitlyn will be publicly shamed (or at least through social media.)

Like many of you, I remember Bruce as the Olympic athlete who was featured on the Wheaties box for years. I remember his attempts at acting. I even watched him star in "Can't Stop the Music" with The Village People when it was edited and aired on one of our local television channels. I was too young to understand the gender jokes and had no idea that The Village People were gay men dressed as masculine stereotypes targeting the gay disco audience. Apparently, the innocence of youth just led me to believe these were singing action figures. By the way, the movie was terrible.

After years of Jenner basically disappearing from pop culture, only to be thrust back into the limelight and the front pages through the reality show featuring his family, he now is once again the most popular celebrity in the nation. His personal story of gender identity and coming out as transgender led to almost 17 million viewers and a Twitter storm of support.

How the Church Should Respond

I sit here in upstate New York today, in a city that began celebrating it's annual Pride Week. Rainbow flags adorn just about every light post and flagpole in the city as celebrations and parades are planned each day. The week is sponsored by a local bank and corporations are taking advantage of the organized celebrations in order to reveal their acceptance of diversity and. . .well, ultimately, to make some money and earn good PR in a community that is very open and tolerant.*

The question of "How the church should respond?" leads to varied answers. Some say that the only right answer is to affirm everyone. Some state that the church has no need to respond and should just keep silent. Others respond with hatred and anger (which, by the way, is not the recommended or preferred response.) Still others seek to discover how to remain firmly grounded on the teachings of God's Word, show love truly and yet not affirm that which is deemed as outside God's design.

Dr Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission penned a winsome article on this very subject not long ago. His full posting can be read here, but here are some poignant highlights that churches and believers should take to heart. . .

First of all, we should avoid the temptation to laugh at these suffering souls. We do not see our transgendered neighbors as freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women and are seeking a solution to that in self-display or in surgery or in pumping their bodies with the other sex’s hormones. In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.

But neither should we fall for the cultural narrative behind the transgender turn. This narrative is rooted in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with the idea that the “real” self is separate from who one is as an embodied, material being. Body parts and chromosomal patterns are dispensable since the self is radically disconnected from the body, the psychic from the material.

The old Gnostic heresy is joined with contemporary expressive individualism—the idea that I must be true to whomever I perceive my “real me” to be on the inside in order to be “authentic.” This is what leads, in other news of the week, some parents to “transition” the gender identity of their child at ages as early as four years old.

The connection to Gnostic beliefs is important to note. The Gnostics are not a newly formed group and neither is Gnostic ideology. This false belief system was strong during the days of Paul and the New Testament church. It was and is a false gospel of self-focus that strips away the truth of God's Word and replaces it with a cheap imitation.

The Hope for Jenner

While many are celebrating his "bravery" in revealing his "true identity" the fact of the matter is that the only hope for Jenner is the only hope for you and for me as well. The hope for life, for joy, for the fullness of identity as God's image-bearers is not found in making changes and behavioral or even physical modifications on our own in order to discover our "true selves." Our hope is solely in Christ. That's the simple message of the Gospel and yet, it is clear why the Enemy attempts to discredit that.

Dr. Moore states it this way:

The hope for Bruce Jenner, and for others like him, is not to alter the body with surgery or to flood their systems with hormones. The answer is to realize that all of us are born alienated from what we were created to be. We don’t need to fix what happened in our first birth; we need a new birth altogether.

The church's message to Jenner, and to everyone else on the planet is that Jesus Christ is real. He is the only way. He is the truth and life.

When it comes to gender, though some now argue that there are up to six genders (due to chromosome mutation and intersex people), there are truly only two created genders - male and female. God has created each gender in His image. Males given a masculine heart and females a feminine one. Both are eternally valuable to God and He has designed and wired us for His glory.

We should stand for God’s good design, including around what Jesus says has been true “from the beginning”—that we are created male and female, not as self-willed designations but as part of God’s creative act (Mk. 10:6). - Dr. Russell Moore

The Questions for the Church

Are we willing to love without affirming?

Are we willing to suffer with those who are suffering?

Are we willing to seek God through the challenges of culture and life?

Are we willing to NOT compromise our biblical convictions?

We must be more concerned about broken lives than breaking the internet. 

Tweet: We must be more concerned about broken lives than breaking the internet.  @davidtark

We must stay focused on the One that can heal the brokenness.

_______________

*Just for clarification, tolerance is now seemingly a one-way street. In other words, those who wave the banner of tolerance affirm that reality only when it agrees with pre-conceived positions. Therefore, there is no tolerance for opposing views. . . which, by definition makes this version of "tolerance" intolerant. 


Boy Scouts Likely to Lift Their Ban on Gay Troop Leaders

Two years ago our church rescinded our charter with the North Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America due to sweeping policy changes within the organization regarding acceptance of gay leaders. The decision to rescind our charter was not an easy one in that Troop 20 had been part of our church for decades. Nevertheless, due to our convictions regarding affirmation of what we deem to be an unbiblical stance (BTW - a reminder is needed here - affirmation and love are not synonyms) we felt obligated to make the decision we did. 

Our story was shared in a previous posting here and in an article featured in the Florida Times-Union here

BSA-665x385The reason this story remains relevant is based on the speech by BSA President Dr. Robert M. Gates presented at the recent 2015 National Annual Meeting.

The Boy Scouts have dramatically changed their stance on gay affirmation over the past couple of decades. At one point, they had won a Supreme Court challenge to their policies of only having heterosexual leaders and boys in the organization. Then, in 2013, they amended their membership options to allow boys who identify as gay to participate in Scouting all the while stating that they would continue to bar openly gay adults from leadership positions. As this was being stated, I thought to myself, "It's only a matter of time. They will change that policy as well. They will feel they have to do so." 

That day has come. 

 

(Begin at the 8:40 mark to hear statements regarding this issue.)

“Our oath calls upon us to do our duty to God and our country,” Gates stated. “The country is changing, and we are increasingly at odds with the legal landscape at both the state and federal levels. And, as a movement, we find ourselves with a policy more than a few of our church sponsors reject—thus placing scouting between a boy and his church.”

I am not writing this post to bash the Scouts or to bash those who identify as LGBT. There is no value in either type of article.

However, I find this disconcerting for Scouting and for the boys who find such value in the program. Will Scouting fail in the United States? I doubt it. There will still be thousands of boys earning badges and learning valuable life lessons. Will some Troop partners (mostly churches) rescind their charter? Yes, some will, but not most. If a great exodus of churches were to happen for this cause, it would have occurred in 2013.

What will happen is that regardless how this is spun, Scouting will be seen as an organization that effectively capitulated on foundational beliefs and legacy in order to stand firmly upon political correctness in order to simply exist.

Existing alone is not laudable.  

Joe Carter has written on this in an excellent posting on The Gospel Coalition's blog. Here's a sampling:

This is an attitude (based on Gates' statements) that has infected many faith-based and religious organizations—and even entire Christian denominations. Like Gates, many religious leaders simply lack the courage to stand up to internally destructive dissidents for fear of losing the broader organization. And it will continue to get worse. Rather than standing for principle and staying true to their integrity, many Christian leaders will follow Gates example and cave in to the pressure to condone ungodly behaviors in order to preserve the “mission.” They will abandon their integrity in a misguided attempt to preserve an organization that is rotting from within.

Carter's full article may be read here.

While there are other groups that have developed as a response to the decisions of the Boy Scouts' leadership, there are still thousands of boys and families involved in Scouting. The tradition is strong and I have discovered that the local groups tend to disavow many of these controversial decisions being made in the Texas headquarters. This creates a very difficult situation for the local leadership.

Therefore, I am compelled to pray for them. I am praying for the boys and parents and the leadership. While our church cannot and will not partner with the BSA due to these actions, we have not rescinded our prayer and love for them.

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. James 1:6 (ESV)