Women in the Diaconate: A Tradition Across the Ages

More fruit from my doctoral research! I hope you enjoy. God Bless, Julian.

Introduction

This literature review will show, beginning in the Patristic era and moving into the Reformation and Modern eras, the important role that deaconesses have often played in the pastoral and liturgical work of the Christian Church. Careful attention will be given to the type of work these deaconesses performed as well as how they were viewed within the respective communions and traditions that utilized a female diaconate.

The Deaconess Tradition in the Patristic Era

Aided by helpful documentary surveys such as Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek’s Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, as well as many other sources, we see that the practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was widespread in the Christian East[1] during the Patristic era, though probably not elsewhere in the Church.[2] Patristics scholars Madigan, Osiek[3], and Corrado Marucci[4] note that we must distinguish in the records of the Fathers (as they seem to have done themselves) between the “widows” of the Church who though supported by the Church and performing pastoral work on behalf of the Church, were not ordained in the same fashion as women belonging to the order of deaconesses. Madigan and Osiek are gently critical of older scholars that tended to conflate these two distinct categories of women in ministry.

Marucci notes that Clement of Alexandria and Origen both mention in their writings the existence of women in the diaconate,[5] even though the practice was probably never common in their locale.[6] Furthermore, Pietro Sorci notes that both the Didascalia Apostolorum (an anonymous work belonging to the genre of church orders probably written in the 230s) and the Apostolic Constitutions (a similar work written sometime in the 380s) mention in some detail the ordination rite for deaconesses.[7] Most of the literature on deaconesses in the Patristics era generally focuses on 1) the ordination rites for deaconesses, 2) the types of ministry they performed, and 3) what was their relationship to the other orders of ordained ministry (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon.)

Drawing on evidence from the Apostolic Constitutions  and the disciplinary canons of the Council of Chalcedon (451) Marucci notes that deaconesses were indeed ordained and considered a part of the clergy.[8] Furthermore, the Byzantine Church in particular has preserved a rite of ordination for deaconesses.[9] Patristics scholar Cipriano Vagaggini draws on much of the same evidence and echoes the conclusions of Marucci and argues that women were clearly ordained to the diaconate in the Christian East and were considered clergy.[10]

Vagaggini also explains in some detail the Byzantine rite of ordination for deaconesses. Drawing on text from the Apostolic Constitutions, he notes that deaconesses were ordained in the Church building (as opposed to lectors and subdeacons who were ordained outside of the Church building) via the laying on of hands by the presiding bishop. This ceremony would be conducted in the presence of the presbyters, deacons, and other deaconesses. The presiding bishop would then recite a proscribed prayer of blessing over the deaconess inviting the Holy Spirit to empower her ministry.[11] Marucci[12] and Vagaggini[13] generally agree that the ordination rite for deacons and deaconesses was quite similar.

As to the types of ministry performed by deaconesses the literature is reasonably united. Pietro Sorci reports that although the duties of deaconesses varied by region somewhat, most deaconesses in the Christian East would have anointed women prior to and immediately after baptism, catechized women prior to and after baptism, and aided ill women in the Church. Sorci mentions other tasks deaconesses may have performed that some scholars do not mention such as serving the elements of the Eucharist to women and children in extreme circumstances and even being a spokesperson for the bishop from time to time.[14] Corrado Marucci mostly echoes the claims of Sorci only diverging from him somewhat by noting that most likely deaconesses would have only served the elements of the Eucharist to sick women during Easter time. With Sorci and Marucci, Vagagginni reports that deaconesses would have anointed female candidates for baptism, catechized females, and provided support to ill women. He is less certain about whether they carried the elements of the Eucharist to women and children.[15]

There is less scholarly consensus as to the relationship of deaconesses to the other orders of ordained ministry during the Patristic era. Corrado Marucci notes while older scholarship tended to see the Patristic Church placing, in terms of prestige and honor, the office of deaconess between the “major orders” (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon) and the “minor orders” (e.g. subdeacon, lector, cantor and so forth,) most scholars now think that the office of the deaconess was basically equivalent to that of the deacon at least in the Byzantine Church. However, deaconesses could perform far fewer ministerial functions than deacons and fell under their authority.[16] They could not preach nor teach publicly, they did not assist at the altar when the Eucharist was celebrated, nor could they baptize.

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective, Cipriano Vagaggini notes that there was little consensus in the Patristic era as to where deaconesses should be placed in the respective orders of ministry with some sources placing them between the “major” and “minor” orders (or even below the “minor” order of subdeacon in some cases) and other sources giving them more honor.[17]

Both Marucci and Vagaggini mention that in the Didascalia Apostolorum vivid Trinitarian language is used to describe the respective orders of ministry with the bishops in some sense representing God the Father, the presbyters God the Son, and the deacons and deaconesses God the Holy Spirit.[18] For the Church Fathers, just as the Holy Spirit always exercises it’s ministry in such a way as to point to and glorify the Son, so does the deacon or deaconess in regards to the presbyter.

Thus, if we know quite a great deal about the deaconess tradition in the Patristic era and its’ relative vibrancy in the Christian East, why does this tradition gradually disappear from the historical record? In answer to this question the literature is united. Sorci notes, with Marucci and Vagaggini concurring, that one of the most important duties of deaconesses was the anointing of adult female baptismal candidates and thus as infant baptism became more common, with adult baptismal candidates becoming simultaneously less common, the deaconess tradition gradually lost much of its’ necessity in the Christian East.[19]

The Deaconess tradition in the Reformation Era

It has already been noted that the deaconess tradition was never widespread in the Western Church. However, during the Reformation era (1517-1648) this tradition saw a small revival. Reformation scholar Kenneth J. Stewart notes that John Calvin, more so than any other magisterial reformer, voiced support for a female diaconate.[20] Furthermore, Calvin thought that the deaconess tradition was of Apostolic origin. Calvin conceived of a female diaconate working closely under the authority of male deacons and dispensing aid to needy families in the local church.[21] Stewart does note that the deaconess tradition was ultimately never revived in Calvin’s Geneva nor in the other Reformed Churches until much later. He also finds it curious that this aspect of Calvin’s thought on church order has not received very much scholarly attention, even in Reformed circles.[22]

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective to Stewart, Baptist Scholar Charles W. Deweese notes that in Calvin’s ecclesiastical system he only recognized four offices in the Church, that is, pastors, doctors (teachers), elders, and deacons. In his schema, deaconesses are not mentioned. Furthermore, in a commentary on 1st Timothy, Calvin concludes that the term “deaconess” was a reference to the wives of clergymen. However, Deweese does note that Calvin did think that the wives of clergymen would be highly involved in their ministries and may even minister to the needy on behalf of their husbands.[23] Perhaps Stewart and Deweese’s respective views on Calvin and the deaconess tradition need not be pitted against one another. By synthesizing their respective views, we could surmise that Calvin conceived of women in the diaconate, most of them wives of clergymen, not ordained in the same fashion as a deacon, and working under the close supervision of a clergymen.

If we accept that the Reformation ended with the ratification of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (as most scholars do) then the Baptist tradition is to be accepted alongside the Reformed and Lutheran traditions as a genuine, if second generation, Reformation tradition. Charles W. Deweese notes that the deaconess tradition was revived in the Baptist tradition very early in the 1600s. Indeed, some of the earliest Baptist leaders such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys voiced support for women in the diaconate. Deweese notes that several early Baptist confessional documents explicitly state that the Church has the power to “ordain” both male and female deacons. Somewhat confusingly, these early Baptist documents often use the terms widows, deacons, and deaconesses interchangeably.[24] Deweese is noncommittal as to whether early Baptist congregations appointed very many deaconesses, though support for the existence of deaconesses undoubtedly developed very early in the Baptist tradition.

Remarkably, relatively little scholarly attention has been given to the development of the deaconess tradition during the Reformation. Many scholars who study women’s issues and the Reformation have appraised the Reformation’s contribution to women’s empowerment as at best a mixed one because the most common outlet for female religious expression during the Medieval period, that is, the convent, declined during the Reformation era.[25] Other scholars such as Kirsi Stjerna[26] and Beth Allison Barr[27] have pointed out that the rediscovery of doctrines such as the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons during the Reformation probably did create some space for women to minister publicly, at least in later eras. However, most of the scholarship on women’s issues and the Reformation has ignored the (admittedly) small revival of the deaconess tradition that that did take place then. Only Barr alludes to how certain “Reformation doctrines” (e.g. the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons) may have created space for the latter mass revival of the deaconess tradition in the Protestant churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[28]

The Deaconess Tradition in the Modern Era

During the modern era, the deaconess movement would be most noticeably revived in the Methodist tradition as well as in the various “Holiness” groups that broke from the Methodist tradition. However, the literature also reflects that some Pietist communities revived the deaconess tradition as well. Martin Marty has called “Halle Pietism” his “favorite” strain of Pietism due to its’ emphasis on social justice and it’s revival of a female diaconate.[29] The literature also reflects that the Moravian Pietists began appointing and ordaining deaconesses in the 1730s and 40s.[30] Moravian deaconesses probably performed a very wide range of duties including dispensing relief to the poor, assisting the priest at worship services including during communion, and maybe even preaching under extraordinary circumstances.[31] Despite the evidence of deaconesses playing at least some role in Hallensian and Moravian Pietism, the literature has given this aspect of the Pietist story rather scant attention. Certainly, more research needs to be conducted in this area to flesh out the story of Pietism.

Emilie G. Briggs, writing in 1913, reports that the deaconess movement became more widespread in Europe largely through the work of Theodore Fliedner, a German Lutheran Clergyman, who in 1836 founded the “League of Kaiserswerth,” an order for deaconesses.[32] Briggs reports that the “League” expanded and chapters were founded in other parts of Europe. These deaconesses were largely ministers of mercy and provided relief to the poor. They were not ordained in the same sense as deacons, presbyters, or bishops, and they worked closely under the leadership of a male clergyman.[33]

Briggs notes that the “League” inspired a revival of the deaconess movement in the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland in the mid-1800s with deaconesses in these traditions largely doing the same kind of work as their continental counterparts. However, she does note that in the Church of Scotland deaconesses were regularly “ordained” at the “kirk-session,” thus enjoying more honor than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. However, the ordination of the deaconess was not regarded as on par with that of a deacon.[34]

Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Benjamin L. Hartley notes that Methodist missionaries to Germany and India were inspired to create deaconess movements of their own. Hartley notes that the inspiration to revive a female diaconate within a Methodist context was largely due to their missionaries reportedly losing some of their female converts to the Lutherans of Germany and India due to the Lutheran Church already having an established female diaconate.[35]

Briggs also reports that the deaconess movement was transplanted to the United State in the mid-1800s with Lutherans, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists and others all establishing deaconess orders. She notes that the Wesleyan/Methodist movement has perhaps embraced the deaconess movement most visibly and widely.[36] Furthermore, their deaconesses often performed the most varied work as they nursed the sick, taught, and even preached in some circumstances.[37]

Further Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Priscilla Pope-Levinson notes that while social work in largely urban environments was an important part of the work of Methodist deaconesses in late 1800s and early 1900s, many Methodist deaconesses were also very actively involved in evangelism.[38] Levinson emphasizes the evangelistic work that Methodist deaconesses performed far more than Briggs does. Levinson notes that the revival and later expansion of the Methodist deaconess movement is largely due to two women named Jane Bancroft Robinson (1847-1932) and Lucy Rider Meyer (1849-1922) who, though often at odds with one another, both helped carve out space for the Methodist deaconess movement to grow and flourish. These women founded schools to train deaconesses. Institutions such as the “Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions” as well as the “New England Deaconess Training School” produced many highly trained deaconesses and inspired the founding of many more deaconess schools and academies.[39]

Pope-Levinson notes that deaconesses in the Methodist Church engaged not only in private evangelism but public evangelism as well, frequently leading revivals and even pastoring small churches on occasion.[40] Laceye Warner concurs with the judgement of Pope-Levinson and notes that women “deaconess-evangelists” frequently led revival meetings and movements in the Methodist Church in both Britain and America[41] There was a conservative backlash within the Methodist Church in America against deaconesses moving outside of their traditional purview (e.g. providing relief to the poor) though they were largely unsuccessful in curbing the rapidly expanding duties of deaconesses in the Methodist Church in late 1800s and early 1900s.[42]

Echoing the claims of Emilie G. Briggs, though relying on far more archival data, Barbara B. Troxell notes that although most of the major Protestant denominations in America revived the deaconess tradition in the late 1800s, the Methodist movement embraced it the most wholeheartedly and allowed their deaconesses to perform the widest range of duties. She reports that out of 2000 deaconesses serving in America at the turn of the century, 1200 of them were Methodists.[43] She also notes that other Wesleyan groups such as the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association created deaconess orders in the early twentieth century.[44] With Pope-Levinson, Troxell emphasizes the important role of Lucy Rider Meyer in reviving the deaconess movement in the Methodist tradition.[45]

Many of the various “Holiness” offshoots of the more mainstream Wesleyan tradition also embraced a female diaconate. According to theologian and historian Paul L. King, my own tribe, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, licensed and ordained women as deaconesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Deaconesses in the early Christian and Missionary Alliance often served on church staffs and were occasionally leaders in inner city missions.[46] Deaconess in the Christian and Missionary Alliance engaged in youth ministry, evangelism to women and children, mercy ministries, and occasionally public “Gospel preaching.”[47] King does note that while deaconesses were typically not allowed to administer the ordinances of communion and baptism, they sometimes did so in the absence of a male clergyperson.[48]

Conclusion

When the literature on this subject is carefully consulted, we see quite clearly that deaconesses played a significant role in the pastoral ministry of the Eastern Christian Churches during the Patristic era (100-451.)We know in some detail as least one of the ordination rites (The Byzantine rite) that was used for deaconesses in the Christian East, as well as the kind of pastoral and liturgical work they typically performed. The deaconess tradition does not seem to have been widespread in the Western Church nor in Egypt. Only during the Reformation would voices like John Calvin, Thomas Helwys, and John Smyth give support to the appointment of deaconesses. However, it does not seem that their support for deaconesses immediately resulted in a widespread revival of the practice. Moving into the modern period, some Protestant groups such as the Pietists of Halle, the Moravians, and later the Methodist and Holiness Churches spawned vibrant deaconess movements of their own employing them to do a variety of pastoral work such as mercy ministries, women and children’s ministries, teaching, and in some cases public preaching.

Notes

[1] Pietro Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 59-86. Sorci’s article demonstrates well how widespread the deaconess tradition was in the Christian East by showing its’ presence in the Byzantine, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian Churches.

[2] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.) 1-2

[3] Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, 2-4.

[4] Corrado Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 42.

[5] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[6] See Ugo Zanetti, “Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 136-140.

[7] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 66.

[8] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 43-47.

[9] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 46.

[10] Cipriano Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 96-103.

[11] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 103-107.

[12] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 48.

[13] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 106.

[14] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[15] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 90-120.

[16] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 51-55.

[17] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 112-114.

[18] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[19] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[20] Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.) 230.

[21] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[22] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[23] Charles W. Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005.) 21-22.

[24] Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, 27-29.

[25] Fleur Houston, “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women,” Feminist Theology 26, no.1 (2017): 19.

[26] Kirsi Stjerna, “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation,” Ecumenical Review 69, no.2 (2017)

[27] Beth Allison Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” Fides et Historia 48, no.2 (2016): 85.

[28] Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” 88.

[29] Martin Marty, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

[30] Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.) 182.

[31] Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership, 183.

[32] Emilie G. Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess” The Biblical World 41 (1913): 382.

[33] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess,” 383-384.

[34] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 385.

[35] Benjamin L. Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182.

[36] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386-390.

[37] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386.

[38] Priscilla Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 108-114.

[39] Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History,196-197.

[40] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 114-116.

[41] Laceye Warner, “Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176.

[42] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 115-116.

[43] Barbara B. Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 120.

[44] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 120-121.

[45] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 121.

[46] Paul L. King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance (Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.) 74.

[47] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 74.

[48] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 232.

Bibliography

Barr, Beth Allison. “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howard’s ‘Discriminating Sifter’” Fides et Historia 48, no. 2 (2016): 80-88.

Briggs, Emilie G. “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses” The Biblical World 41, (1913): 382-390.

Deweese, Charles W. Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service. Macon: Mercer University, 2005.

Hartley, Benjamin L. “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182-197.

Houston, Fleur “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women.” Feminist Theology 26, no. 1 (2017): 19-33.

King, Paul L. Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.

Madigan, Kevin and Carolyn Osiek. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Marty, Martin, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

Marucci, Corrado.“History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 40-58. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Muir, Elizabeth Gillan. A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Pope-Levinson, Priscilla. “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 101-116.

Sorci, Pietro.“The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 59-86. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Stewart, Kenneth J. Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.

Stjerna, Kirsi “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation.” Ecumenical Review 69, no. 2 (2017): 201-2014.

Troxell, Barbara B. “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 119-130.

Vagaggine, Cipriano.“The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 90-120. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Warner, Laceye.“Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176-190.

Zanetti, Ugo.“Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 136-139. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

 

 

The Christian As Historian

According to many historians of a secular bent, a Christian’s religious convictions should play little to no role in their work as a historian. In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden notes that the academy sees the “Christian historian” in much the same way they see the historian who happens to be a bridge player. It is just fine to be a Christian or a bridge player, but these “extracurricular” activities ought to have no role in your work as a historian.[1] Furthermore, historian Jay Green notes that within the academy there is a profound bent towards thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” which tends to view religious phenomena skeptically, even dismissively.[2] Within such a thoroughly secularized milieu is there any “room” for the Christian historian to bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way? It is my contention that there is a way to accomplish this and I will attempt to sketch out very briefly what this might look like.

If we are to have an intellectually robust understanding of what it means to be both a Christian and a historian, a logical place to begin would be discussing the concept of historical study as a “vocation.” In his book, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green notes that the term “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare” which means “to call.”[3] Green suggests that the Christian historian can view their work in a spiritually richer way by realizing their work is not simply a means of providing for oneself, but rather a genuine, holy, and vital calling from God. Green further develops this line of thinking and suggests that perhaps one of the greatest blessings of the Reformation was the expansion of the concept of “vocation.” In the Medieval Catholic tradition, the concept of “vocation” or “calling” was closely tied to pursuing church related work while ordinary labor was often seen as morally neutral. The Reformers and their descendants eschewed this strong bifurcation between “holy” and merely “secular” work. To them, all work had “eternal and divinely appointed worth.”[4]

So, if all work (including historical work) has “worth” as 1 Corinthians 7:20 would seem to teach, what does it look like for a Christian historian to “live out” their “calling” in a way that brings God glory. Historian Douglas A. Sweeney sees the historian’s calling as essentially one of service to both their academic peers as well as their students.[5] Seeing their work in this light, the Christian historian should strive to be the best historian they can be. They should seek to serve their respective guilds by making healthy contributions to the field. They should do careful, balanced research that strives for objectivity, even if this is ultimately only an unattainable ideal.[6] The Christian historian must actively look for ways to serve their students, the church, and even the voices of the past. Christian historians should apply the golden rule to the historical sources they survey by interpreting them in the way we would want our words to be interpreted: In context and on their own terms.

Armed with a robust theology of vocation, the Christian historian can view their work in a more enriching and motivating light. They realize they there is a call on their lives to work for the betterment of society and to the glory of God. The Christian historian is uniquely motivated to search for the beautiful and true.[7] Can the historian working out of purely naturalistic and secular motivations boast of such an enriching and rewarding view of their work?

Now that we have established how the Christian historian’s motivations may differ from that of his more secularly inclined counterpart, we must explore whether the methodologies they espouse will look any different. On many points the Christian historian and their secularly inclined counterpart will probably espouse very similar methodologies. Both will display an appreciation for objectivity, careful and rigorous analysis of primary and relevant secondary sources, and (hopefully) modesty about their conclusions.[8]

However, the conclusion cannot be avoided that large swathes of the academy remain enamored with reductionist views of history that tend to rest on a deeply flawed “empiricist” epistemology.[9] This methodology insists that only things proven by observation can be considered factual. Historians of a Marxist bent have embraced such a method and have tended to boil down all religious phenomena to underlying issues of economics, class, and race.[10] Religion’s role in history has often been trivialized in modern historiography.

Within such a milieu, the Christian historian can offer a perspective that seeks to correct this “flattening” of the human experience. Fortunately, historians working in the recent past such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden, and Mark Noll have offered such correctives in the largely secularized academy. These scholars, and many more, have sought to show that religion should be seen as the defining and vital force in people’s lives that it truly is. Quoting Catholic historian Philip Gleason, Jay Green suggests that religion has shaped history just as much and perhaps even more than “ethnicity, race, class, gender, or power.”[11] Thus, it could be argued that the Christian historian can take a broader, fuller, richer view of history that truly does justice to the complexity of the human experience. To ignore the effect religion has had on humanity in the past is to write truncated history.

Now, taking religion seriously in historical investigation is one thing, but can the Christian historian expand their method even further? Can the Christian historian posit divine causation or influence behind the events of history? Perhaps before we can answer such a question it would be wise to mark off what is almost certainly “out of bounds” methodologically for the serious Christian historian.

In his book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, John Fea documents well the problems associated with writing so called “providential history.” This kind of history seeks to show definitively God’s “mind” and “will” behind history. This method has flourished amongst those who wish to prove that the United States was founded as a uniquely and explicitly Christian nation. Unfortunately, this methodology tends to distort the historical record in favor of its’ predetermined interpretive paradigm and presumes to know too much about the mind and will of God. Fea suggests that the Christian historian must practice restraint in their craft. When positing the divine will behind history they must season their conclusions with words such as “perhaps,” “maybe” or “might.”[12]

Nevertheless, many notable Christian academics believe that there is a responsible way to posit God’s “breaking into history” whilst avoiding the egregious errors of providential history. Historian Mark Noll has suggested enlisting the “missiologists” to help decipher God’s activity in the past.[13] Furthermore, C. Stephen Evans has convincingly argued that historical texts replete with miracle accounts should not a priori be dismissed as unreliable and without historical value.[14]

Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion; Thus, it is unsurprising that many Christian scholars have stepped up to defend its’ most central historical claims with the Resurrection of Jesus receiving focus.[15] Can the Christian historian legitimately seek to demonstrate the historical veracity of miracles? I believe they can if they are willing to jump into metaphysical discussions and demonstrate that belief in the possibility of miracles is at least as, if not more reasonable than saying that miracles demonstrably cannot occur as naturalism would have us believe. The Christian historian will need to be cautious when investigating the veracity of supernatural phenomena in history. Nevertheless, I believe that the Christian historian can investigate miracle claims responsibly. Furthermore, I believe we can affirm with Wolfhart Pannenberg that the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity’s central miracle, has “good historical foundation.”[16]

In conclusion, the Christian historian can bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way. They may recognize that their work as historians is a “holy calling” imbued with eternal worth. Furthermore, they are uniquely positioned to take the phenomenon of religion in history seriously and thus achieve a broader and fuller understanding of the human experience. Finally, The Christian historian may be able to “glimpse” God’s working in history. However, exercising thoroughgoing caution in such investigations cannot be overstated.

Footnotes

[1] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 20.

[2] Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 12-13.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 151-154.

[5] Douglas A. Sweeney, “On The Vocation Of Historians To The Priesthood of Believers: A Plea to Christians in the Academy,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, ed. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 300.

[6] James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) 46-50.

[7] D.H. Williams, “Protestantism and the Vocation of Higher Education,” in Revisiting the Idea of Vocation: Theological Explorations, ed. John C. Haughey, S.J. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 162.

[8] Bradley and Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources, 146-148.

[9] Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 29-31.

[10] Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions, 12-17.

[11] Ibid, 33.

[12] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 64-84.

[13] Mark A. Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 120-123.

[14] C. Stephen Evans, “Critical Historical Judgement and Biblical Faith,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 41-68.

[15] See Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

[16] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 91.

Bibliography

Bradley, James E., and Richard A. Muller. Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.

Fea, John., Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historians Vocation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Fea, John. Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Green, Jay D. Christian Historiography – Five Rival Versions. Baylor University Press, 2015.

Haughey, John C. Revisiting the Idea of Vocation Theological Explorations. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

Wells, Ronald. History and the Christian Historian. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.

 

Faith in a time of “Social Distancing”

Although I am not yet thirty, and thus my memory and experiences are somewhat limited, I can honestly say that I have never seen something grind our world to a halt quite like the Coronavirus has. Schools and Universities have closed for a time and moved their classes online, cruises, conventions and festivals have been canceled, even Churches have moved their services online to try and halt the spread of the Coronavirus. Understandably, many people are scared, a few are blase, and some are even panicking (just try and find toilet paper of all things at your local supermarket!)

How are we as Christians to respond to the Coronovirus pandemic? How can we be salt and light when we are being encouraged to forego normal social contact? I have a few suggestions.

1. Don’t Panic. 

2 Timothy 1:7 tells us “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV) As Christians, we should not be blase about a virus that has the real potential to endanger the lives of many people (especially the elderly.) However, we must also not give in to fear that makes us irrational. We must not give in to an “every man for himself” kind of attitude where we greedily hoard resources. God makes it clear in this passage that he will help us act with courage and rationality even when we face very scary circumstances such as global pandemics like this one.

2. Find a trusted source for information about the Coronavirus, such as the Center for Disease Control, and listen to what they have to say. 

Practicing very good hygiene and “social distancing” (ie forgoing normal social contact) as the CDC is recommending is actually a very good way for us to show love to our neighbors as the Scriptures so clearly command (Mark 12:30-31.) By practicing social distancing, we can slow the spread of the virus, better protect the elderly and more susceptible, and help prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed. I am proud to serve as the pastor of a Church that has many medical professionals as members. I can’t think of a better way to show them love than to help them do their jobs with as minimal stress as possible. Furthermore, we need to love the elderly and more susceptible enough to be inconvenienced for a while.

3. Find creative ways to minister to others.

Even though local churches may have to forego normal services for a while, I encourage all churches to use social media platforms to share sermons, scripture, and words of encouragement. We can be a source of hope on social media when many people are giving into fear. When the lost see Christians responding to this crisis with rationality, confidence, and hope, they may begin to realize that there is something to the Christian faith. Furthermore, we can call, text, or email the elderly and more susceptible just to check on them, encourage them, and see if they are ok. This crisis gives us an opportunity to be the Church! Let’s be the Church!

4. Pray.

During this time, we need to pray that God will allow us as Christians to respond to this crisis with love, rationality, hope, and confidence so that we can better glorify our Savior. We need to pray for the infected that God will heal them. We need to pray that God will give leaders in the political, medical, and scientific realms supernatural wisdom during this time as they seek to find solutions to this problem. We must also pray for the many people whos’ livelihoods will be hurt by this pandemic. There will be challenging days ahead for these people, we must pray for them and help them in any way that we can. We must continually be in prayer during this time for as the Scriptures say in James 5:15-16 “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (NIV)

John Wesley: Pietist Theologian

John Wesley has been quoted as saying that doctrine is but a “slender part” of true religion. judging by this statement, especially in isolation, one might assume that Wesley was a doctrinal indifferentist. However, upon further investigation we find that this could not be further from the truth. Wesley was not indifferent when it came to the task of articulating Christian doctrine.  We see this in his numerous tracts and sermons that deal with lofty concepts of Christian theology such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, the means of grace, original sin, prevenient grace and so forth.

To understand this statement of Wesley’s, we must understand him as fundamentally a pietist theologian. John Wesley was strongly influenced by pietist thought through the writings of Johan Arndt as well as by the Moravians whom he met on his voyage to Savannah, and with whom he spent much time with in England and Germany. The pietists communicated to Wesley, through both personal correspondence and their writings, that the Christian life did not consist solely of affirming certain theological propositions, heartfelt relationship with Jesus of Nazareth was necessary for a robust Christian life as well. Christianity consisted of both illumination and transformation. That is, transformation of the individual who though once isolated and alienated from God could now enjoy deep fellowship with God, who could grow into real, scriptural holiness and truly be more like Jesus!

Wesley understood this reality all too well. Prior to his “Aldersgate” experience, Wesley was more than ready to affirm the doctrines affirmed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Wesley had plenty of good theology and yet his spiritual life was empty, he had no real relationship with Jesus, he had not yet come to recognize Christ as his “personal” Savior. Wesley could affirm many truths about Christ but only when he had a real relationship with Christ did he finally experience spiritual peace.

I think the experience of Wesley, and the other pietists, provide us with valuable lessons for today. Good theology is important no doubt, and without good theology we will not have good spirituality. However, rational assent to scriptural truths (though extremely important) is not the whole of the Christian life, it is but a part. Our task as Christians today is to balance the rational and relational aspects of the Christian life. If we drop but one we will have a truncated and perhaps even counterfeit Christianity. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the scriptures I am convinced that we can balance these two aspects of the Christian faith quite well and present a robust version of the Christian faith that speaks well to both the head, and the heart, of the people we have the opportunity to minister to.

 

 

 

Always be prepared to give an answer

1 Peter 3:15  has for the past several years been one of my favorite verses in the Bible. This verse states “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)” This verse commands us to be bold (and yet polite) witnesses to Jesus’ saving power at work in our lives. It commands us to be prepared to share our faith in a reasonable and winsome way whenever the opportunity arises. 

I am also convinced that this verse endorses the project of “Christian Apologetics.” Christian Apologetics is often a confusing term to many Christians. Often it is thought to connote “apologizing” for being a Christian. This could not be further from the truth. The word “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word “Apologia” which simply means to make a defense. Thus, the term Christian Apologetics could be reasonably defined as “Defending the core doctrines of the Christian faith.”

Christian Apologetics as practiced by people such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, Nabeel Qureshi, and others, typically focuses on how belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. Furthermore, these Apologists will try to show that the Resurrection of Jesus is supported by the historical evidence we have available. Fundamentally, the task of the Christian Apologist is to demonstrate that Christianity better corresponds to reality than any other worldview.

The work of Christian Apologists (especially the work of William Lane Craig and Nabeel Qureshi) was very helpful to me a couple of years ago when I questioned the truth of the Christian faith. Their work helped show me that the Christian faith is reasonable and can withstand the most challenging questions of the skeptics.

Unfortunately, many Christian people have a very negative view of Christian Apologetics. Sadly, I think this is sometimes due to a misunderstanding of the word “faith.” Many are convinced that having true and authentic “faith” means believing something wholeheartedly without evidence. Demanding that what we believe be reasonable is for some Christians a sign that the person asking for evidence has a weak and inauthentic faith. However, God has not asked for us to believe in him without evidence. Rather, Romans 1 demonstrates that God has revealed himself to us in nature and John 1 tells us that he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Apologist is to show that these truths are reasonable and can be supported by the evidence. Faith is not believing “what you know ain’t so,” nor is it believing something without evidence. Finally, it is not belief based on emotion or sentimentality. Faith is placing our trust in God’s revelation of himself because it is reasonable and best corresponds to reality.

I am convinced that more Christians in the western world will need to embrace the project of Christian Apologetics in the coming years if we want to be effective in sharing our faith. Answers soaked in emotion and sentimentality will do little to sway the hearts and minds of people in the information age. Yes, we need to share our personal testimonies of how Christ saved us, we need to share how comforting Christianity is to the human heart and soul, but we must also demonstrate that Christian faith is reasonable. I see no other way to win people to Christ in the 21st century. Indeed, I am glad that when I had questions and doubts, someone was there to show me that my worldview was reasonable, without it, I doubt I would be a Christian today. Thus, whenever you are tempted to dismiss the task of Christian Apologetics remember that there are many people like me who continue to walk with Jesus largely due to the work of those that defend the Christian faith.

 

Why Pietism?

Recently I published an article on my blog about the renewal movement called “Pietism” that grew out of German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s. Lately I have been immersing myself in the writings of the great leaders of the Pietist movement such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Herman Franke. Furthermore, I have been reading the work of modern scholars of the Pietist movement such as Roger Olson, Dale Brown, F. Ernest Stoeffler, and Christian Collins-Winn. With so much of my time being spent on this enterprise, and with it being the probable subject of my doctoral dissertation (God willing, I will begin doctoral studies this fall), my wife understandably asked me “why are you so interested in studying Pietism?”

Pietism in not a well-known term amongst Evangelical Christians even though it might be the most influential renewal movement of the Protestant tradition. Pietism as a movement emphasized the necessity of conversion, the importance of individual as well as small group Bible Study, and that authentic Christianity was more than mere mental assent to core Christian doctrines. The Pietists firmly believed that Christianity was a “heart” and not just a “head” faith. The Pietists were also people of great social concern. Something of a rallying cry of theirs was that they existed for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good.”

Pietism as an ethos has influenced Lutheranism as well as the Anabaptist movement in Christianity. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren in the United States has been especially influenced by Pietism. The Evangelical Covenant Church (one of the fastest growing Protestant denominations in the United States) is a distinctly Pietistic denomination. John and Charles Wesley were profoundly influenced by the Moravians who were a Pietistic people. It is hard to find a Protestant tradition that has been entirely untouched by the Pietist tradition. It is remarkable that it is so little known when it’s influence has been so wide.

“Why am I studying Pietism?” I study Pietism in part because it brought revival to German Lutheranism when it was desperately needed. Mainstream German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s had become a stale and arid thing. The Pietists did much to revive German Lutheranism. The Pietists cared for thousands of orphans, printed millions of Bibles, and sent out many effective missionaries all over the world. The idea that they lived for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good” was more than just a slogan, it was a way of life.

I also study Pietism for greater self-understanding. Pietist ideas have deeply influenced Evangelicalism and I want to know more about this trans-denominational movement that has deeply shaped what I believe and how I live my life. Finally, I believe Pietism may contain valuable insights for renewal in Evangelicalism today. The Evangelical Church in the United States needs renewal. We need to mobilize for the 21st century and reach the one-third of the world that still has not heard the Gospel. Who better to draw inspiration from than the Pietists? Pietistic Lutherans were some of the first to send missionaries to the native peoples of Greenland and Canada. Pietists missionaries were the first people to translate the Bible into Tamil. A language spoken by many people in India.

In short, I believe that the Pietists can show Evangelicals what it truly means to live a life for “God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.” Is there a more authentically Christian way of life than this? Is any other kind of life even worth living?

“Love so amazing, so divine”

Playing music has often been one of my favorite ways to wind down after a long day and today was no exception. This particular evening I found myself at my piano playing odds and ends of various Gospel songs and hymns. After a few minutes of this I began to play through, and sing, the old hymn “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” This has always been one of my favorite hymns both melodically and lyrically and perhaps not incidentally, one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the piano. I have probably played this song hundreds, if not thousands, of times over my life. This time however, the final lyrics touched me more deeply than usual. If you are unfamiliar with the lyrics this is how they go. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Simple, but powerful lyrics they are.

As I began to reflect on the truth of these lyrics I was reminded of the power of the Gospel. The Gospel is fundamentally a story about God’s sacrifice. Indeed, the Gospel is the greatest picture of sacrificial love that people have ever been privy to. Despite our rebellion God did not abandon us, God loved us, God became human for us, God shed his blood on the cross for us and God even tasted death for us. “Love so amazing, so divine” indeed.

Love of this nature simply demands a response as the old song goes. If one thinks deeply on what Jesus, the God-man, gave up for us so that we might be redeemed, we will necessarily be moved. If Jesus really gave his life for us so that we might be reconnected with a holy God, then neutrality is no longer a viable response to such a display of sacrificial love. It most certainly “demands my soul, my life, my all.”

This kind of sacrificial love demands that I give “my soul” to him and trust him as Savior and Lord. If there is anyone I can trust my destiny with, it is Jesus. He gave his life for me, and he has conquered death through his resurrection. Thus, I can be confident that I too will experience resurrection.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my life.” Easy-believism or a fire-insurance mentality about my relationship with Jesus simply will not do. Jesus’s example of self-sacrifice demands that I serve him and serve others. There is enough selfishness in this world, there are too many people who live as if the world exists only to bring them pleasure. Many are fine with attaining pleasure at other people’s expense. I don’t want to continue this trend.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my all.” Jesus was willing to give his all on the cross. He not only shed his blood and gave his life, but he was willing to suffer separation from his heavenly Father by becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This kind of love demands that I give every part of who I am to the cause of Christ without reservation. I must be willing to sacrifice comfort, reputation, wealth, and even my own will for the cause of Christ. This is a great and difficult calling, but a necessary one considering what Jesus has done for us.

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” As I close with the writing of this reflection, these lyrics remain deeply imprinted into my mind. I am reminded that the Christian call is a call to death, death to oneself that is. It is a call to sacrifice, but as Jesus’s example shows, sacrifice can bring about beautiful results. This week I will consciously try to live by these lyrics and give “my life” and “my all” to Jesus. It is the very least I can do.

On Pietists and Preaching

Lately I have been doing a lot of research on the historical movement within Christianity known as Pietism. Pietism was a movement that grew out of German Lutheranism during the 1600s and 1700s. Pietism was essentially a revival movement that taught that renewal would only be achieved in the church when both the clergy and the laity more deeply engrossed themselves in the Holy Scriptures and moved beyond a mere “head knowledge” of the Christian faith and embraced the teachings of Christianity in their “hearts.”

Pietism as an ethos deeply influenced the Anabaptist movement as well as John and Charles Wesley and the broader Methodist movement they founded. Indeed, even today, Pietism’s influence can be felt in modern Evangelicalism even if it is rarely acknowledged or recognized.

Perhaps the greatest manifesto of early Pietism was a book entitled Pia Desideria or “Pious Desires” by Philipp Jakob Spener. Spener was a Lutheran clergyman who, though devoted to the Lutheran Church, nevertheless found that his native church was severely lacking in many areas. Interestingly, a problem that Spener found especially troubling within his native church was the poor state of the clergy.

It was not that the clergy were not well educated enough. Indeed, the average Lutheran clergyman had received rigorous training in Biblical languages, systematic theology, and logical reasoning, yet for all this training and knowledge, the preaching of many a Lutheran clergyman during Spener’s day was dull and ineffective.

Sermons had become highly academic affairs where pastors would wax eloquent over the most minor of theological matters. They would often lapse into long soliloquys in foreign languages the common people had no hope of understanding. Sermons were often seen as opportunities for the pastor to show off their rhetorical prowess with little thought given to whether the sermon would be of any practical value to the laity. Sermons were primarily informational and rarely transformational.

Whenever I read church history, I read with an eye to discover wisdom for the modern church. There is “nothing new under the sun” and a careful reading of the church’s past can give us insight for how to deal with the problems of today. As a preacher myself, Spener’s critique of the preaching of his time got me to thinking. How does the preaching of the modern Evangelical church compare to that of the Lutheran church of Spener’s time? Do I repeat many of the errors of Spener’s time when I get behind the pulpit?

I must confess that I too have been guilty of simply wanting to show off what I know when I preach. I study hard and work diligently at being a competent speaker. I am proud of my work ethic and I am passionate about teaching theology. Sometimes pride creeps in. I’m convinced that when this happens, I am not as effective as I could be. It becomes about me rather than pointing people to Jesus Christ and that is never good.

Furthermore, I have personally experienced preaching that was seemingly just about dispensing information to the congregation. It was like listening to a seminary lecture only far less interesting. Worse still, I have experienced preachers that were warped with pride by their intelligence, education, and rhetorical prowess. I remember one in particular who would not cease reminding everyone that he had four degrees including one from a prestigious research university. Fellow preachers, if we are guilty of this sin of pride in our education and abilities then we need to repent. We have an important job to do. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed! We can’t get in the way!

Now, I do not want anyone to think that I am teaching against seminary education or intellectually engaging preaching. I believe very strongly in both of these things and frequently in Evangelicalism we have the very opposite problem. Preaching in many Evangelical churches is often an emotionally charged spectacle, but a doctrinal mess with little to no good content. Indeed, an anti-intellectual strain runs deeply within Evangelicalism and it’s preaching, and it negatively affects our witness. This is not the kind of preaching I am advocating for.

Spener and the Pietists thought that preaching was vitally important. If revival and renewal were to take place in their time, better preaching was required. As preachers we must daily seek to preach more effectively by presenting sermons that while thoughtful and theologically sound, are also deeply practical. We need to preach sermons that provide for our people practical instruction in righteousness. We need sermons that point people to Jesus rather than our prowess and abilities. We need to be conscious of where our people are spiritually and intellectually so that we can gradually and carefully grow them into mature and theologically informed Christians.

I understand that this balancing act of the informational and the practical will not always be easy, but it is something we must strive for. I want my preaching to be effective and powerful, I want it to be transformational. When my eulogy is spoken, I want it to be said that my preaching pointed people to Jesus Christ rather than my meager abilities.

The West must remember it’s Judeo-Christian history

Recently I was reading through the May/June 2018 edition of the Foreign Policy magazine Foreign Affairs. Although my professional background is in the pastorate and not in statecraft, I have always felt that every servant of the church should have a firm grasp of the current issues of our day. I am particularly interested in how theology, politics, and foreign policy intersect. I suspect that many people who work in the field of foreign policy might be surprised at how much their assumptions have been shaped by philosophies whose underpinnings are grounded in ancient Western theological concepts. Indeed, most people who work in the foreign policy establishment of the western world would affirm that people have certain human rights and that government policy should take into account the well-being of the people they serve. The Western foreign policy establishment tends to assume that people have human rights because all people have worth and dignity. This belief in turn stems from the Judeo-Christian principle that all people are made in the “image of God” and thus their lives have objective value and worth. Many people in modern Western culture fail to recognize the Judeo-Christian foundation of much of our thought, but it’s influence is undeniable.

In the May/June 2018 edition of Foreign Affairs, scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa argue that the era of democratic ascendancy is over and that the world will increasingly be dominated by wealthy autocracies. Indeed, they note that the total wealth of autocracies already outweighs that of democracies. Their premise is a simple one, when the western democracies enjoyed unprecedented wealth and good governance it was no suprise that they dominated world affairs. It is also not surprising that much of the developing world aspired to follow their example. Now democratic societies increasingly suffer from inneffective governance and a lack of unity. Some are witnessing profound domestic strife. Government institutions are ineffective and show signs of marked strain. Many Western democracies are plagued by slow economic growth. On the other hand, many autocratic governments have embraced the economic models of the West while rejecting it’s societal distinctives. Have societies like China proven that economic freedom and autocracy can coexist, and even thrive together? Is their system the wave of the future? Should the West embrace such a way of life?

Some have argued that wealthy autocracies are the way of the future. They have also argued that autocracies are now proving that they can provide a high standard of living to their people without the problems often associated with unruly democracies. However, we must then ask the question, should a society be judged solely upon it’s ability to provide economic prosperity to it’s people? Even if autocracies prove they can produce more wealth than democratic ones, should we accept such a way of life for this reason alone? I am convinced that if Western democracies want to rediscover their vitality and provide a compelling vision for the world they must rediscover their heritage. They must demonstrate that life is not simply about accumulating things. Is life really worth living if you are supremely wealthy but can’t practice your religous beliefs without fear of reprisal? Autocracies may indeed be demonstrating that they can provide a high standard of living for their people, but they do so at a high cost to the human soul.

People in the West must demonstrate that there is a difference between a good society and merely an efficient society. It is time for the West to demonstrate that it’s values are not mere social constructs but are in fact grounded in the mind and heart of a benevolent creator God. Furthermore, due to their grounding in God, they are not merely “Western” ideas but are for all people. Only then will the West have a truly robust and consistent response to autocracies who can provide great economic benefits to their people, but often ignore their God-given human rights. Western democracies have their flaws to be sure. We often exhibit moral blindspots when it comes to abortion, euthansia, and issues related to cloning. However, it is also undeniable that Western ideals have proven beneficial to the world many times over. The West’s emphasis on human rights, which have lead to improvements in education, healthcare, and poverty reduction the world over, are to be celebrated. The West must remember that what we believe about the divine affects how we see everything else. The resources for a Western renaissance are available but we must look to our past. We must remember the spiritual underpinnings that made us great. We must remember that people deserve to be treated a certain way because they are made in the image of a loving God. Only then will the West truly regain it’s greatness and moral influence.

 

 

Has America lost it’s love for children?

Recently I read a rather troubling article in the New York Times that states that U.S. birthrates have continued to decline to record lows for two years in a row. You can read the full article here at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/us/fertility-rate-decline-united-states.html . Why is this a problem? Well for one, the article noted that it is only due to immigration that the United States’s population is continuing to grow. Praise God for immigration! Second, with fewer children being born the challenge of replacing older people in the workforce and caring for elderly parents and grandparents only becomes more accute. Finally, looking at the problem from a spiritual perspective I have to wonder if the decline in U.S. birthrates is indicative of a deeper and more profound moral problem. Has America lost it’s love for children?

Now it should be noted that the article suggests that some women are opting to have children later in life to focus on their careers. They want a family, they are simply delaying starting one. If this is correct then we could see birthrates rise in the next couple of years as these people attain their career goals and start having children. Then again, how many of us have said we would do something in the next couple of years only to find that tomorrow never comes? Let me just say that I am not against women having careers. Indeed, my wife Allison is beginning graduate school in the Fall of 2018 to pursue her goal of becoming a Liscensed Professional Counselor (and make twice what I do to boot!) I believe that women have a lot to contribute to our society and are better suited to many professions than men are. So my concern is not with women having careers at all.

My concern is that when you take into account the multiple realities of abortion on demand, absentee fathers, and continual declines in birthrates, have we reached a place in America where having children is simply not all that important anymore? Are children a nuisance, a burden to many Americans? Is this part of the reason that Toys R Us will be closing it’s doors soon? (Sure the high prices probably did’nt help either.) Psalm 127:3 tells us that “Children are a reward from the Lord (NLT)” but have many Americans lost sight of this and exchanged one of life’s greatest rewards for lesser joys? Finally, as Christians what is our responsiblity as we face this challenge in our culture? What do we do to demonstrate in a loving, winsome, and persuasive way that children are one of life’s greatest blessings? What do you think?