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Grounded in the Gospel: On the Urgent Need to Restore Catechesis to Evangelicalism

How Vince Lombardi’s emphasis on the fundamentals can help Christian discipleship in our churches

Do you know what you believe as a Christian?

Growing up in a mainline Protestant denomination, I heard very little about what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It was not until my teenage experience in an evangelical youth ministry, that I learned about that.

However, I did go through a process called “confirmation,” in order to become a full member of the Episcopal Church. In those classes, I was required to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed. I never made the connection between memorizing a bunch of words and actually becoming or being a Christian. For years thereafter, I tended to dismiss such rudimentary training as meaningless, a rote memorization process, with an emphasis on doctrine over and against pure devotion to Christ.

But I have since rethought that negative assessment. Granted, my training as a youth was rather incomplete, but at least it was something. Even though many liberal Protestants undermine such training, by rejecting classic doctrines of the Christian faith, at least such training was there, in the liberal Protestant tradition. Even in other traditions, such as in Roman Catholicism, there has been a revival in recent decades to emphasize educating, not just children, but adults as well, in basic rudiments of the Christian faith. In order to become an adult member of the Roman Catholic Church, you are required to attend several months of classes, known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Some of these classes can last a year, or more!

Now, compare that to what you typically find in an evangelical Protestant church (of course, there are exceptions here). Let us say that you come to a new church, and you make it through the first few weeks of visits. You might be asked to consider joining a small group Bible study. Some might be encouraged to become a “member” of that church. But what is involved with that? In many cases, the process to become a member is quite easy: Just share your testimony, read the statement of faith (assuming there is one), and talk to the church leaders, to see if you might have any questions about that statement of faith. Sign on the dotted line, and you are in. In just a matter of weeks. Easy-peazy.

A Brief History of Catechesis in the Church

Compare that to what was typical in the early years of the Christian movement, the period of explosive growth in Christianity from about the 2nd to the 5th centuries. Candidates for Christian baptism would often go through an instructional process, that could last up to three years, before a newly professed believer would be accepted for baptism. This instructional process has been called catechesis, which originally meant “oral instruction” in the faith. Such rigorous catechesis was necessary because so many of those early believers came from very diverse backgrounds, and often lacked basic knowledge of the Bible.

During the Middle Ages, the practice of catechesis tended to fall out of favor. After all, nearly “everyone” in those days professed to be a Christian. Having Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire made that pretty easy. But by the time we get to the Protestant Reformation, the need for catechesis was so overwhelming, it could not be ignored. In a letter to a Protestant colleague in England, in 1548, the great French/Swiss reformer John Calvin remarked, “Believe me, Monseigneur, the Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” Different catechesis traditions were developed, to train up believers in the faith, such as the Heidelberg Catechism and later, the Westminster Catechism. The success of the Protestant evangelical movement, led by a comparatively small consortium of Reformer intellectuals and pastors, like Luther and Calvin, was fueled by the consistent application of catechesis methods, to train the congregational masses.

But as J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett (a former student of Packer’s) write in Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, the practice of catechesis in Protestant evangelical churches has suffered a serious decline over the past century. Part of the reason why catechesis has dropped off the radar, for many evangelical churches, is due to conflicting catechesis methods and teachings.

Different catechesis content has been associated with “denominationalism.” So, because nearly every denomination has their own “pet doctrines,” that they like to promote, the reaction in some interdenominational or non-denominational settings is to reject the whole project of catechesis altogether, and try to keep everybody from arguing with one another all of the time. We avoid doctrinal disputation, because it might come across as sounding “unloving.”

In place of catechesis, many evangelical churches have simply substituted in the telling of Bible stories, especially in teaching children, as a supposedly safe way of avoiding doctrinal controversy.  The sad irony about this is that the Christian faith has witnessed its greatest decline during this same time period, when catechesis has fallen out of favor. It is as though the contemporary evangelical church has come close to the theological shallowness of the late medieval church, that precipitated the crisis of the Protestant Reformation, in the early 16th century.

History has an odd way of repeating itself.

I know of pastors who metaphorically wring their hands, wrestling with the fact that so many church members are not out there sharing their faith, and serving for Christ in their community. Some pastors assume that their church membership knows a lot, but that they do not do much with their faith. Perhaps if folks join small groups, or get involved in various other activities in the church, they might be compelled to put their faith in action more.

Not every pastor’s grief is like this, but it is a common narrative, in some circles. I share the same concern, but I do not buy into the narrative that assumes that church members know a lot, but just are not doing enough. Rather, we have it backwards. Christian are not doing enough, because they do not know why they believe what they believe.

I should clarify here. It is very tempting then to think that the lack of knowing why Christians believe certain things is the fundamental problem. The area of knowing why you believe what you believe is the task of apologetics. We need to do better at this, surely. But apologetics is not the fundamental problem. A more fundamental problem is that many Christians in our churches simply do not know what they believe… or at least, the experience of learning to know what they believe is uneven, in many churches today. Correcting the problem of helping Christians to know what they believe is the task of catechesis.

Some churches have great education programs, but not everyone participates in such programs. Many Christians are involved in great small groups, where they are being challenged to grow more and more in their faith. But many other Christians have no such small group experience, or they are involved in small groups that really do not help them go deeper in their faith. In other words, the catechesis experience in many contemporary evangelical churches is uneven, at best.

So, what is the answer then? To put it bluntly, churches need to commit themselves to the process of training Christians, across all ages and categories of church involvement, in the rudiments of the faith, on a continual basis. Or, at the very least, some type of catechesis training is necessary for becoming church members. Great sermons, great small groups, and great Christian education classes (like Sunday School) will surely help, but a more fundamental approach is necessary.

How Vince Lombardi Can Help the Church Get Her Priorities Straight

An analogy might help here. What made the Green Bay Packers, of the early 1960s, one of the greatest teams in the history of American professional football? It all came down to how their coach, Vince Lombardi, emphasized the fundamentals. In the summer of 1961, Lombardi had just coached a group of seasoned veterans, to nearly win the championship, which they had just narrowly lost. But Lombardi would not assume that his experienced players knew everything. He started at the beginning, with the fundamentals.  He famously gathered his team together, for training camp, and held up a pigskin in his right hand and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

A few of the players snickered at Lombardi. After all, they all knew what football was all about. They were all professional football players! But Lombardi persisted, and he emphasized the basics of blocking and tackling. By the end of the season, the Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0, to win the championship. Lombardi would go onto lead the Green Bay Packers in a long stream of championship victories, throughout the 1960s.

The analogy should be clear. We should not assume that church members know what they believe. Instead, as part of the membership process and/or even something incorporated into the foundational practices of the church, evangelical churches should institute a catechesis, to help believers better understand the basics of the faith.

A Couple of Objections to Catechesis

Let me address a few important objections to the practice of catechesis. First, some do not like the idea of catechesis because it sounds like doing something in a ritualistic fashion. Some Protestants might take this a step further and complain that catechesis sounds a bit “too Catholic.” But simply reciting a question and answer does not necessarily imply saying something purely for the sake of memorizing it. Rather it is meant to stimulate thinking: When I say that I am a Christian, what does that exactly entail? When I say I believe in Jesus, what does that really mean? To ponder the depths of our faith is meant to ground us in a Gospel way of thinking. As to the complaint of it being “too Catholic,” we should bear in mind the possibility that this is an area where Roman Catholics have much to teach those Protestants, who have an aversion to contemplating sound doctrine.

Secondly, some do not like using a catechism as it tends to focus on telling people what to think as opposed to how to think. That is a good point, but catechesis need not be used that way. Instead, a better use of a catechism would be to create a springboard to further discussion. Most catechisms aim at being pithy and simple, mainly to make them more acceptable for use with children. But pithy and simple need not discourage more thoughtful reflection. Instead, a good catechism should include resources, such as passages of Scripture, that can be looked up to see how well the catechism lines up with what the Bible actually says. No catechism is 100% perfect. But if they lead the Christian to have a greater knowledge and confidence in what they believe, then the effort of learning a catechism becomes worth it.

Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett, make a compelling case for retrieving catechesis, for today’s evangelical churches.

Practical Suggestions for Catechesis in the Church

There are three practical suggestions to make here, to move forward in the area of catechisis. First, it would be to read Packer and Parrett’s Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way. J. I. Packer is one of the great statesmen of the contemporary evangelical movement.  In the Grounded in the Gospel, one of Packers’ last books, written in 2010, Packer along with Parrett, lay out the need for evangelical churches to revive the practice of catechesis, and offer some help in trying to navigate what that would look like in the everyday life of the church.

I find it significant, that in the waning years of Packer’s life, now that he is essentially blind, and no longer able to read and write books, that he would, after looking back on decades of service to the church, challenge evangelical churches to reconsider catechesis, as the means by which a local church, over the long haul, can reinvigorate its ministry and outreach into their community. In Grounded in the Gospel, the chapter on the history of how catechesis was conducted by the early church, as well as during the early years of the Reformation, makes the book particularly challenging and helpful.

Secondly, here might be a good way to help churches out, when going through the process of becoming a member of a church: Require that prospective members obtain a sponsor. The early church adopted the practice of having a baptized, mature Christian adopt a prospective candidate for baptism, as a type of sponsor. The advantage of having a sponsor is two-fold: (1) It is less burdensome for those reviewing candidates for membership, such as elders and/or pastors in the church, to always be responsible for every aspect of catechesis. Having another church member vouch for a membership candidate’s testimony, and their knowledge of basic Christian doctrine, helps to distribute the load in the catechesis process. (2) It is less intimidating, when a church membership candidate comes before a group of elders/pastors, to have a friend and sponsor accompany them, if they so request. Having a sponsor should not necessarily assume a long term commitment. But it can help the prospective new member become more integrated into the warmth and life of the community.

Thirdly, what would be a good example of catechesis, for the contemporary evangelical church? Specifically, what about a catechesis for an interdenominational church, where confessional differences, over non-essential matters of the faith, are honored and respected? I would suggest a good look at the New City Catechism, developed by Redeemer Presbyterian Church, under the sound leadership of Pastor Timothy Keller. Keller started one of the most dynamic and growing churches in New York City, and he and others took some older catechisms and modified them for contemporary use, which can be incorporated into growing churches.

There are several things I really like about the New City Catechism. First, the catechism is broken down into 52 question and answer sections, which could easily be inserted into a weekly worship service, with the cycle to be repeated every year. Read a question, and its answer, as a congregation, and that is it. A pastor friend of mine uses the New City Catechism in their weekly worship services, and each Q&A lesson only lasts a couple of minutes.

That may not seem like a significantly impactful chunk of time, per service, but that is the point. A lot of churches are hesitant to add something new into the weekly worship service, because of other priorities. But inserting a 2-3 minute segment into the weekly worship service, dedicated to catechesis for the whole church, adults and children, is a reasonable way of approaching catechesis, without becoming unnecessarily burdensome. However, the long term benefit is what should be aimed for, for if you do these 2-3 minute segments every week, year after year, you are reinforcing a model of Christian instruction, that should pay off, over the long haul, with an increased vision for Christian discipleship, throughout the whole congregation.

The other thing I like about the New City Catechism is that there are excellent resources available to go deeper, for each Q&A section. The Gospel Coalition has audio resources, including a “children’s mode,” a shortened, even simpler version of the catechism, which is very useful. Furthermore, Kathy Keller, wife of Timothy Keller, has an excellent introduction. Want videos? The New City Catechism website has them as well.

What is there not to like about the New City Catechism? Well, for some, a few things … perhaps. As a minor point, the name “New City” has an urban flavor to it that might not ring well for non-urbanites. But more substantially, the New City Catechism is a trimmed down, more ecumenically appealing version of the Westminster or Heidelberg Catechisms. In other words, there is at least a modest emphasis on certain Reformed teachings, in the New City Catechism, that may rub some evangelicals the wrong way.

But such criticism misses the point of what something like the New City Catechism is meant to achieve. Instead of being a mechanism that stops conversation, the aim is quite the opposite. Rather, it is an invitation to further discussion and inquiry. There is enough breadth in many of the answers, involving possibly controversial topics, that it is only natural for catechism readers to begin to ask questions, which hopefully will encourage them to spend more time in Scripture, to dig out out more nuanced, detailed answers, that simply can not be summed up in a pithy Q&A collection like this.

For example, in question 25, “Does Christ’s Death Mean All Our Sins Can Be Forgiven?,” the language of “imputation” is used in the answer, which might puzzle those who favor more the “New Perspective on Paul” (assuming someone even knows what that is!!). But there need not be an either/or dichotomy here, as indicated by how the answer is framed: “Yes, because Christ’s death on the cross fully paid the penalty for our sin, God graciously imputes Christ’s righteousness to us as if it were our own and will remember our sins no more.”  That peculiar word “imputes” is used here, but it is not expansively defined. The answer does not dig into the more technical aspect of imputing Christ’s active obedience vs. His passive obedience. Rather, the answer offers an invitation to further discussion, without straying from orthodox belief (SIDE NOTE: Grounded in the Gospel has a very balanced discussion of this particular “hot” theological topic, in our day, and its relationship to catechesis).

Here is one more example: In question 28, “What Happens After Death to Those Not United to Christ by Faith?,” the answer attempts to summarize various Scriptural ideas about hell. Christians today wrestle with the nature of hell; for example, is it a place of conscious eternal torment, or a place where the wicked will be eventually annihilated? A short answer might not seem nuanced enough. But the language of the answer creates a sense of wonder: “At the day of judgment they will receive the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them. They will be cast out from the favorable presence of God, into hell, to be justly and grievously punished, forever.” How are all of these various phrases tied together? What does each one mean, in particular? Again, here is an opportunity to dig into the various Scripture passages referenced by the question, which serves as an invitation for further discussion.

On the other side, long time users of catechism many not like the New City Catechism, as it may not be Reformed enough for them. Sticking with something like the Heidelberg Catechism, would probably be better. London pastor Andrew Wilson, one of my favorite Bible teachers, blogged through the 52 weeks of the Heidelberg Catechism a few years ago, and I find his short reflections exceedingly helpful. Each one can be read in just a couple of minutes each. (Wilson wisely omits the sadly controversial question 80, that was inserted after the catechism was originally devised).

But the target audience for something like the New City Catechism is for those Christians who have no clue as to what catechesis even is. Of course, a church can simply branch out and develop their own catechism, that fits the needs of their particular congregation.

The downside to doing this is that you are pretty much trying to reinvent the wheel. Tim Keller’s church planting efforts show that the New City Catechism, which has been around for almost a decade, is an effective, low-impact tool for training a congregation in the basics of the Christian faith. Whether or not a church uses an already defined catechism, or creates their own, the point is that every church should have a means of instructing their membership, on the basics of the faith.

Making the Long Term Investment in Catechesis, For the Health of the Church

Implementing some type of catechism is desperately needed in our churches today. It is not just for children. It is for adults, too. At the very least, catechesis needs to be an integral part for becoming a member of a local church. The process of catechesis is designed to address systemic issues in the educational efforts of a local church, where basic knowledge of the Christian faith is typically not uniformly present, across the whole church body. Read Packer and Parrett’s Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way. Spend some time going through the New City Catechism.

The irony here is that our increasingly post-Christian world is looking a whole lot like the world of the early church, in those critical first few centuries. Religious pluralism is just as rampant today as it was in the period of the early church. The misunderstanding of Christianity, and even moments of persecution of Christians, mark our world today, just as it did in the early church world. However, today’s evangelical church has not picked up on the critical lesson of the importance of catechesis. We do not necessarily need a full three years of catechism training for receiving baptism, as the early church frequently did. But we do need something.

One final thought: some Christians are hesitant about catechesis, because they fear that an emphasis on doctrine will undercut our love for one another. But a word from the Apostle Paul should remind us that sound doctrine and genuine, loving Christian fellowship go hand in hand, as we go about “abounding in thanksgiving“:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught (edidachthēte: sharing the same root as catechesis), abounding in thanksgiving (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV).

Take a lesson from Coach Vince Lombardi.

What is your church doing in the area of catechesis?


Should Christians Always Exercise Their “Freedom in Christ?”

Many Christians today insist that because we have freedom in Christ, we have the freedom to do any number of things, such as drinking alcohol. But there are times where the exercise of such freedom fails to seek “the good of our neighbor.”

Followers of Jesus possess tremendous freedom, because of the Gospel. The problem comes in determining if and when exercising that freedom might cause harm to others, or foster unnecessary division in the church.

The issue was driven home to me more than a few years ago, when I served in youth ministry. Some adult friends of mine invited me to go to a sports bar/restaurant, nearby a local college campus. My friends wanted to know if I would like to split a pitcher of beer.

Though I am close to being a teetotaler, I have never been super strict about it. After all, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. I figured, the Gospel gives me tremendous freedom in Christ. The Bible forbids drunkenness, but there is no direct prohibition against alcohol in general. There is effectively nothing wrong with sharing a pitcher of beer, with a bunch of friends, in a public restaurant. So, I was in!

No sooner had the pitcher of beer arrived at our table, that one of the guys in my youth group showed up and said, “Hi!” It turned out that this restaurant was frequented by a few of the underaged guys in my youth group. I quickly noticed that he took one glance at the pitcher of beer, and another glance at me with a cup of beer in my hand. After exchanging some small talk, he made a fast exit.

I realized that I had made a mistake.

There were a number of guys like him in the youth group, who came from families where alcohol abuse was a serious problem. I had no such history in my family, nor in my immediate sphere of friends. But for this teenager, the potential threat of fallout from alcohol abuse was just around the corner.

The faith stability of this particular guy, who saw me that night, troubled me. He had shown interest in deep spiritual matters, but I could sense that he was confused about the conflicting messages he was hearing around him, among his peers, his family, and in the youth group. I could tell that the wheels were churning in his head, as he watched me take a sip of my cheap beer (It was not even that good!  I could have had a decent micro-brew instead!).

I kept running through my mind what I should say to that young guy, the next time I saw him: I could mention that I am normally a teetotaler. I could launch into a speech about the importance of responsible drinking. I could tell him that Jesus turned water into wine.

But I never had that chance.

I never saw that kid come back to the youth group again.

Alas, I really enjoy the freedom I have in Christ. But that incident was a wake-up call for me. Sometimes, the exercise of my freedom does not benefit others. In fact, it stands a good chance of needlessly harming relationships.

Paul’s Approach to “Disputable Matters,” and Christian Freedom, in Corinth

The Apostle Paul faced a similar problem at the church in Corinth. Food that was often used for pagan rituals could also be found in the marketplace as leftovers, to be taken home and shared at meals with neighbors and friends. Paul opposed the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols, as part of a ritual ceremony. But when it came to sharing a meal with an unbelieving friend, where such food might be present, this was a “disputable matter,” among Christians in the Corinthian church.

Many of the Corinthian Christians had a Gentile background, and probably saw nothing wrong with eating such food. But others might have reacted differently. Some probably rejected the eating of such food, out of principle, to set themselves apart from the culture. Others probably wrestled with this, having had a pagan background, whereby they could be easily led back into their former pagan ways of living and thinking. Others were perhaps from a strict Jewish background, whereby any hint of eating such food would have been forbidden, as a sign of giving into idolatry.

So, what was Paul’s response?

‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.’ (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV)

In this particular passage, Paul begins by quoting those in Corinth, who championed the cause of Christian liberty. “All things are lawful,” they would say. There was no hint of legalism in the Church at Corinth. I could even imagine some of them saying that they were led by the “Holy Spirit” to exercise their freedom, in all of its fullness.

But Paul issues a gentle yet firm warning. Yes, there is Christian liberty, but not all things are helpful…. not all things build up, and edify your fellow believer. He continues with some practical advice, that are broken down here into four paragraphs:

FIRST: ‘Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

SECOND: If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his.

THIRD: For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

FOURTH: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.’ (1 Corinthians 10:25-33 ESV)

In the first paragraph, Paul acknowledges the case for freedom. He encourages the Corinthians to go easy on themselves and with others, and not lead up to some unnecessary offense. After all, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” so everything created by God is good indeed. Therefore, we can be thankful that we have the freedom to eat whatever God provides for us. 

But as the second paragraph shows, Paul considers the case of a believer being invited to dinner, but the unbelieving host tests to see if idolatry really matters to that believer. Paul instructs that if you are informed that “this has been offered in sacrifice,” then the believing guest should refrain from participation in the meal. The main concern is not about the conscience of the guest invited to the meal, but rather, about the conscience of the one serving the food.

The third paragraph, starting as “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?…,” is sometimes confusing, as it seems like it might be contradicting what Paul just said, in the second paragraph. But many commentators suggest that Paul is recalling what he said at the first paragraph of the passage above, namely that God has given freedom to the believer. Paul affirms that yes, indeed, the believer has been given freedom in Christ. He does not want to see his teaching in the second paragraph misconstrued as a denial of Christian freedom.

Nevertheless, Paul remains undeterred in making his point in the fourth and final paragraph. Paul ties up everything he stated by reminding the believer that we should “do all to the glory of God,” and avoid making unnecessary offense to others. “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” The exercise of that very freedom should not be thought of as an excuse for harming others.

Paul’s case study is very specific. But the application of the central principle, ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor,’ has sweeping ramifications. In seeking the “good of his neighbor,” Paul has in mind not only relations with those outside of the church, but also relations within the church, when it comes to those “disputable matters,” that can so easily divide us.

Some Christians have thought that Romans 14 is the only passage that discusses “disputable matters” in the church. But both passages, the section from 1 Corinthians 10 highlighted here and Romans 14 both deal with the controversy over eating food sacrificed to idols, despite framing the argument slightly differently in each passage.

Actually, Paul goes more into depth here, within the larger context of 1 Corinthians 8-10, to make his point about “disputable matters.” Paul’s overall argument is that while he felt that he surely had the right to do any number of things, the exercise of such a right was not absolute. Paul was conscious of his actions, and he kept his sense of “entitlement,” as a follower of Jesus in check, less the exercise of his freedoms might become a stumbling block to others. There was a tension that Paul had to live with, as the Gentiles surely felt offended by a number of the beliefs and practices of the Jews, and the Jews likewise were offended by certain Gentile particularities. Paul summarized it like this:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some..’ (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 ESV)

No one likes to think of themselves as being “weak,” but identifying who is the “weak” and who is the “strong” is not the issue. His point is about not putting an unnecessary stumbling block in the path of someone else’s faith journey.

Applying Paul’s Teaching About Christian Freedom

This teaching can be very difficult. For the legalist, Paul’s notion of freedom might come across as too loosey-goosey. But for the anti-legalist, Paul might come across as being too concerned with offending others.

However, these are both wrong-headed ways of understanding Paul. Paul’s main concern is two-fold: (1) He wants to avoid unnecessary division within the church. The Corinthian believers were divided enough as it was. Likewise, Paul encourages us neither to abuse our freedoms, at the expense of others, nor to place heavy burdens on others, that are too difficult to bear. (2) Paul also wants to clear out any and all obstacles for the furtherance of the Gospel, when reaching out to non-believers. Or, to put it another way, we can not make demands on the consciences of others, but we can make demands on a Christian’s charity towards others.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.(Romans 14:1 NIV, photo credit: Anglicans Ablaze)

It is not always clear as to what counts as a “disputable matter.” Most Christians would put the issue of drinking alcohol in this category. Others would put doctrinally volatile issues, like the freedom to exercise charismatic gifts, and the freedom of having women serving as elders in a local church, in this list, too. Others may not. Nevertheless, the principle that Paul lays down shows us how we are to handle “disputable matters,” whatever they are, when they arise.

Such “disputable matters,” like the issues faced in the church at Corinth, have the potential to sadly divide Christians today in our churches. Furthermore, those outside of the church make note of when Christians divide amongst themselves, and are generally not impressed when this happens.  Granted, we need not fear all division, as sometimes division does happen among believers, when the Word of God is compromised.

But not all division in churches is inevitable, nor is all such division particularly helpful and edifying. Taking a closer look at how the Apostle Paul handles such matters, by acknowledging the freedom we have in Christ, while yet cautioning the exercise of such freedom, is the wisest path to follow. God calls us to hold back on our freedoms, when such restraint is called for, for the sake of the good of our neighbors. Those neighbors include our unbelieving friends, as well as believers in our fellowship.

This topic addresses broader issues of conscience.  What is a Christian conscience, anyway? For an excellent study on the matter, I would recommend Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, a book reviewed here on Veracity.

Happy Juneteenth!

In this time of racial unrest, where genuine, peaceful efforts at positive reform get intermingled with violence and ideologically-driven “critical theory” gone mad, it is difficult to parse through what Christians can actively support, versus those things we should reject. However, today marks an emerging holiday celebration that we can all get behind: Juneteenth.

On June 19, 1865, Unions troops led by Major General Gordon Granger, entered Galveston, Texas, to officially deliver and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation had been first declared in January, 1863, but the Civil War delayed efforts to effectively announce that enslaved persons throughout the “slave states” had been freed. Now that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox a few months earlier, the way was now clear to more peacefully correct the injustice endured by countless African Americans.

It is important to remember, though, that Juneteenth was but one step towards racial reconciliation. When the Emancipation Proclamation was first made, in 1863, it ironically did not apply to Union-held territories in the South, at that time during the war. For example, in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia, the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed slaves living in James City County, in Confederate territory, but it did not free slaves living in York County, which was then in Union territory. Therefore, slaves living south of Duke of Gloucestor Street, in James City County, were free, but slaves living north of Duke of Gloucestor Street, in York County, were technically not! It was not until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, later in December of 1865, that slavery was officially ended everywhere in the United States, without exception.

In a way, the incompleteness of what Juneteenth accomplished underscores the fact that official proclamation might be one thing, but the reality on the ground can be something else altogether. Considering that America is still undergoing race related trials over 150 years after the end of the Civil War confirms this fact. The ramifications of racial-based slavery, that many Christians were complicit in, supported by the acceptance of some really bad misinterpretation of the Bible, has had far reaching effects beyond questions about race, that plague us today. We as Christians would do well in continuing to remember Juneteenth.

On my bike ride today, I rode near the Charles City County, Virginia courthouse. Charles City County is one of the oldest communities, founded by the English in the early 17th century. It is also home to several stately plantations, that dot along the James River, a few of which are open to visitation today. These plantations were supported by hundreds of African American slaves, whose descendants make up the majority population in the county. Below is a photograph I took of the Confederate war memorial, with the newer courthouse building in the background. Below that is another photograph, taken only a few hundred feet from the courthouse, where Isaac Brandon, an African American with a wife and eight children, was awaiting trial, after being charged with assaulting a white woman. Brandon was taken from the jail and lynched by a white mob, in 1892, on a tree, on this hillside. No one from the mob was ever charged or arrested for their activities.

Studies in Words, by C. S. Lewis

The great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, by all accounts, was a brilliant philologist, an expert in language, particularly as he related to the study of medieval literature. His remarkable Studies in Words, is a collection of essays examining the history of how words develop and change in language.

I am a software engineer by trade, and I am not surely not the best writer (just pick through the proof-reading errors I make in more than a few of my blog posts!). But I got interested in philology by following some of the big theological debates, that bring out divisions among Christians, as well as by thinking about the power and use of symbols in popular culture today. A lot of people will pick a side on a particular debate, based largely on how particular words are defined, in that debate. Without fail, those on the other side of the debate, will pick that side, based largely on different definitions of those same particular words!

Half the battle, when it comes to theological and cultural discussion, comes down to trying to determine the exact meaning of certain words. Such meanings of words can change very easily, which explains why a lot of theological and cultural debates generate more heat than light.

In this post, I am simply jotting down notes, or otherwise quoting Lewis (or other reviewers of Studies in Words), to help illuminate the problem with words. As I write this post in June, 2020, the American culture is convulsed by protests, and even rioting, over racially-biased, police brutality. I hear calls for “defund the police.” What do people mean by that, “defund the police?” Well, it depends on you talk to, and it seems like everyone has a different understanding of what that even looks like. We need the wisdom of C.S. Lewis now, more than ever.

C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis’ Studies in Words makes for a great study in understanding the development of words and their meanings.

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George Floyd, Robert E. Lee, and the Danger of Forgetting History

Events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd, a victim of police brutality, have triggered a massive wave of protests across America, and across the world. Even more despairing, extremists on both the far right and far left have taken advantage of the situation, igniting hatred by attempting to hijack the protest movement, through senseless acts of violence, that only makes the situation worse for the poorest among us. The misinformation, often relayed through irresponsible use of social media, and media in general, has generated confusion in the process, leading to some misguided response by law enforcement. We live in desperate times.

Even in my home state, the crisis has reached a boiling point in nearby Richmond, Virginia, the home of the Confederacy. As marchers have descended on Richmond, there have been long-standing calls for the removal of confederate statues along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue, a prominent feature of the Richmond landscape. The most significant of these statues is that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, dressed in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler.

Virginia Governor Northam announced today that he will seek removal of that statue.

There are mixed thoughts here. On the one hand, the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative has itself hijacked the story of Robert E. Lee, thus serving a particular version of history, that has fueled unchecked racist-oriented police brutality for decades. THIS MUST STOP. On the other hand, by removing the statue we are endangering our collective memories, by threatening to silence the story about Lee that needs to be told and re-told. If God can chasten and change a man like Robert E. Lee, God can change the heart of anyone.

Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy, defending his native Virginia, but like many in his day, he was conflicted about slavery. He came to the conclusion that God, in his providential way, would judge him personally, regarding the outcome of the war. When defeat of the Confederacy became imminent, Lee concluded that God had judged against him, and that upon to returning to Richmond, he should take off the military uniform and work for peace and reconciliation. He spent the remainder of his life in civilian attire, promoting the restoration of college education in the American South.

Might I suggest that Governor Northam consider replacing Lee’s military statue with a different statue of Lee in civilian clothing, as Lee, the Chastened Soldier turned Educator?  Inaccurate and incomplete knowledge and ignorance of history has impoverished our communities, particularly in our churches. In our efforts to rectify the wrongs of history, let us not forget the lessons that such history teaches us.

I have included some links below to previous Veracity posts, that tell the story more fully:

Here, we learn about the last time Robert E. Lee wore his Confederate uniform, and put it away forever:

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