What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

(Part 1 of ?)

The King's Table

It’s been four years since my wife and I first felt the Lord calling us to plant a church. More than that, we believed God was giving us a vision for a different kind of church … something ancient and modern at the same time … focused on discipleship … oriented in the neighborhood … small … and intentionally resisting professionalism, consumerism, and a few other “isms” that have become (in my opinion) somewhat toxic in the Western Church in our day. We, like many, believe the Church needs renewal … while still being the bride of Christ, whom He deeply loves. So, we felt drawn to some ancient-modern, New-Testament-y ways of thinking about the church that are catching fire all over the world in one form or another. Everywhere I look, people are asking: What if we left some of the traditions behind and just tried to focus on Jesus, His Kingdom, and the community of people God has placed around us? Rightly so!

And we thought: what if we could bring that kind of thinking to a tiny corner of Southern Illinois, where I grew up, where my aging parents still live, where there is very little EFCA presence (our denomination), and where hopelessness seems to be in ample supply?

So it was that we started recruiting friends and family and fellow churchmen, handing out books we felt had been insightful and convicting, and asking people to pray about possibly joining us on this mission. In the end, two families signed up, and on June 22, 2020, my family moved from the NW suburbs of Chicago to Fairview Heights, IL (just east of St Louis), eager to get started on an audacious mission we felt was from the Lord. By this time, one of our partner families had already moved to the area, and the other would move several months later (and even live with us for a couple months while they found a home of their own). And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was then in full swing.

It was only 3 days after we moved into our new home that serious problems started to surface. Relational tension and trauma-induced stress from the pandemic had already been mounting for months at that point, and that unfortunate trend was only the beginning. Things went from bad to worse until, right at about the 2nd anniversary of our move to the St Louis area, we officially dissolved the legal entity of the church we had tried to plant.

To say the least, it was a wild and extremely difficult ride. To be blunt, the whole thing was heartbreaking. But God is so good and so gracious … and looking back on the whole experience, I believe He had a completely different plan all along … for all of us. I believe God’s intention was to mature us … painfully … to do work in all of us that desperately needed to be done but that He couldn’t do without humbling and humiliating us first … without exposing some needs we weren’t even aware of when we were reading Francis Chan and dreaming about an ancient-modern home church network in the neighborhood.

I’m writing this to dwell a little on some of the lessons I believe God has taught and is teaching me. I don’t know if I have any brilliant answers, and I for sure am not done learning these lessons, but lately the Lord has been compelling me to write. So, let’s take a look at a few thoughts together that feel pretty important to consider for anyone considering church planting. I’m sure this will turn out to be more than one volume, but this can at least be the first installment…

  1. Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him
  2. Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down
  3. Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate
  4. Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others
  5. Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing
  6. Wrap Up

Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him

Prayer -- Seek the Lord continually

God is always the point of what’s happening … not just in the “religious” sphere of the church or church planting, but always, in all things. It’s always His goals and His dreams that are going to be realized. In all things, He is sovereignly at work doing more than we can imagine, exceedingly beyond what we can understand or ask Him for (Rom 8:28; Eph 3:20-21). So, the plans, the ideas, the innovation must come from Him, or they could just as easily be against the flow of what He’s doing. That means prayer … no, really, a LOT of prayer. Not ritualistic or perfunctory prayer, but “I want to know what you’re doing so I can keep up” prayer. And “if you don’t show up, this will all fall apart” prayer. And listening. James 1:19 listening (“quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” listening). It means not charging ahead. It means holding “great ideas” and “lofty goals” and “the mission” with an open hand.

Maybe the most important thing I learned in this whole effort is that I think too highly of myself. Well, I mean, I learned it again. Sigh. We did a great job of praying for guidance up front: What kind of church? Where? How? Who? But, now I wish that we’d spent longer dwelling on even these questions … extending those early days of seeking … taking more time to sit with Father and listen to His heart. But once I felt like I had my marching orders from the King, I came charging down to Southern Illinois confident in my ability to execute the plan. Where I really failed was in not remaining in a posture of dependance, humbly asking the Lord every single moment where He wanted to go and what He wanted me to do. I thought He had told me what to do with the next 10 years, and I tried to go do it, largely on my own. In truth, God tells us where He wants to go for the next 10 minutes … in this conversation or in that meeting … or maybe over the next day or two. God doesn’t issue many long-term strategic directives. He walks with us … or at least tries to. It’s our job to depend on Him fully while we do whatever He brings us into, and then stop and ask Him what’s next.

The Takeaway: We are the beloved children of the King. BUT, we are not His competent, adult children. We’re not anything like His peers. We’re (extremely dependent) toddlers. My role in this world isn’t to perform well the tasks He’s given me, it’s to stay by His side as He walks through His world executing His plans. To strike out on my own is to act like I’m an orphan – fatherless – when the Christian life is almost entirely about dependent union with the Father … being with, waiting on, and working with Him.

Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I do not get involved with things
too great or too wondrous for me.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.

Psalm 131 (CSB)

Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down

Walking -- Be with God in His things

Because I thought I was bearing the responsibility of getting it all right (it’s on me!), I raced around crazy, trying to do “enough” to achieve ambitious, kingdom-oriented goals. There was so much work to do, I believed, and I was the one God had sent to do it. Why wasn’t everyone else working as hard or running on all cylinders the way I felt I was? Why weren’t they pulling their weight? Don’t they sense the urgency?! Don’t the know our neighbors are all dying in their sins?! Don’t they love God like I do?!

We only think like that when we believe we’re the ones in control … with the power to move mountains. But that’s not true. Almighty God is never out of control, and I’m never truly in it. And if any mountains are going to be moved, it’ll be because God is using me to move them. It’s God’s plan and God’s wisdom and God’s strength, so it’s His work to do. It’s His power that matters, not mine.

And here’s the deal… God moves really really REALLY! slow … at least, by my still-thinking-way-too-highly-of-myself standards. I imagine Thanksgiving dinner can be cooked in the microwave in 30 seconds, because I don’t really know anything about cooking. The God of History is the gourmet chef, and it turns out “Thanksgiving feast” isn’t the same as “microwave burrito.” Who knew?! Unlike me, the Lord God actually knows what it takes and has the skill and patience to prepare an epic meal full of hundred-year-old recipes and mouth-watering delights. And it takes days to prepare, hours to eat, hours to recover in naps and belly-rubbing, and still more hours to clean up. My life, my son’s journey of faith, the redemption story of my neighbors, the trajectory of my church … none of these are TV dinners, they’re gourmet meals of epic proportions. We’ve gotta let the One who knows what He’s doing prepare them the way He knows is best. Someday, I will stand in His presence looking back on history and declare that His ways are perfect. And on that day, I promise you’ll agree.

The Takeaway: If I really believe that God is in control and sovereignly, perfectly at work in this world, then I’ll slow down to His pace, learn to rest (which means “learning to trust Him and His ways”), and focus my energies on being with Him, rather than pouring all my energy into solving problems and executing tasks.

Come, see the works of the Lord,
who [acts miraculously and unstoppably] on the earth.
He [does the impossible in pursuit of peace].
“Stop fighting, and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”
The Lord of Armies is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46:8-11 (CSB)

PS – Of course, following the Lord and being on mission for Him will often involve making plans, defining tasks and executing well, but there’s a difference between God’s tasks executed by God’s power working through a human being on God’s time table and the tasks I think are God’s tasks (but that really I created as the 123rd and 124th step in a super high-level task I feel He gave me a year ago) executed by my power on my timetable as I ask God with increasing desperation to make sure it all works out. See the difference?

Another Takeaway (or maybe the same one, said another way): Seek the Lord every day. Let Him direct. Let Him bear the weight of the decisions and the plan. Ask Him what His priority and agenda are for the day, put on His yoke, and fall in step with Him … whether it makes sense or not … comfortable or scary … easy or hard … whether it costs a little or a lot …

You get the idea.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (CSB)

Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate

Discipleship -- Starts with being someone God wants to replicate

I was definitely focused on making disciples, but not focused enough on being a disciple myself … on submitting my own broken, sinful, ambitious, arrogant, overly-opinionated character to Jesus to be transformed into His likeness (Romans 12:1-2).

Jesus was (and is!) magnetic. Everyone (who had the eyes to see that trying to rule the universe themselves wasn’t going to work) wanted to be with Jesus, to know Jesus, to be loved by Jesus. Broken people flocked to Him!

I wanted broken people to flock to Jesus. Great goal. Godly goal. Kingdom goal. Well done, Jeff. But what I missed was that the most important variable in whether or not I will draw people to Jesus is whether or not I personally was drawing near to Jesus … and becoming more like Him. Our church didn’t need more clever ideas about how to reach the neighbors, it needed more renewal, restoration, regeneration and revival in the hearts of people who were already a part of it … beginning with me.

The Takeaway: If God transforms you into someone who’s increasingly, everyday a little more like Jesus, then people will want to be around you (or they’ll hate you because you threaten their idols), just like they wanted to be with (or hated) Jesus. That’s the goal!

Being a disciple, leading to transformation, necessarily precedes being a disciple-maker.

“My prayer is … that all of [my followers] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus, about us, in John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others

Soul care -- Learning to nurture the deepest parts of who you are

Living in this world is hard. It wears you down. And none of the technology, relentless notifications, social media, so-called “news”, or extra-loud my-way-or-the-highway options pounding us senseless every day is making that any better. It’s getting worse. We have more comfort, more access to information, more “time-saving” gadgets of convenience than our grandparents could have even dreamed of, but life isn’t getting any better. Why?

Because all that stuff is hard on the soul. All our nonstop connectedness. All the vitriol in the media. All the expectations we place on ourselves and others. All our attempts to build paradise with our own two hands. None of that is the way it was meant to be. Said another way, your soul wasn’t made to function in that kind of environment. Neither was mine. And I didn’t understand that.

So, when setting out to plant a church, I set out to execute on that worthy, noble, Jesus-centric goal just like I set out to manage an IT project or develop a new line of business for a startup or whatever else I’d done in the past (by the strength of my right arm!)… I had received orders from the Lord, and I believed I was strong enough to just get’er’done. And I even had a team of eager beavers so spiritual that they were willing to move to a totally new place to work on the project with me. Surely, all it would take to succeed would be the favor of God and a lot of really hard, really clever work … right?


More than clever strategies and diligent labor – not that those things are unimportant – I needed more time with Jesus, more silence, more margin, more rest, more learning how to honor and listen to my emotions. I needed less on my calendar, and fewer demands on myself and others. And I needed to care for my soul – even at the most basic level of learning to be kind to myself (and others). I needed grace, not the pressure of performance. I needed more nights alone in the wilderness, not more speaking engagements or neighborhood events.

Then, on top of everything, COVID happened. That was traumatic. For everyone. And my already weary soul – from all the years of powering up, throwing down, long hours, busy calendars and the twin, devastating expectations of self-made success and comfort – wasn’t able to bear the load. What the people around me needed was a man who knew how to bring all the stresses and pressures of life (even COVID pandemic life) to Jesus and invite Him into them. They needed someone who knew how to just sit with them in the pain and confusion, and be filled by Jesus, not by great plans and positive energy and expectation. And I needed that from them too. And if we’d have done that… If we’d just sat together, like Job’s friends did in the early days, gazing at Jesus, the Spirit of God might have come and overflowed from me to them and from them to others … like pools that cascade into other pools that cascade into other pools. And we might have had a shot at being a church.

The Takeaway: If you think God has given you an important mission, then the primary need isn’t for activity for God, it is for time with God. If others are involved (and they always are), then their primary need is that you lead them to Jesus, not to mission or ministry.

So, again…

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing

Human being -- Way more of who you are than human doing

Speaking of trading the soul-crushing frenetic pace of modern life for Jesus’ light burden and easy yoke… Counseling in the aftermath of our failed church plant is teaching me a whole new way to live.

A year ago, I would have said that being and doing go together, and wouldn’t have questioned the implication of having only one way of “being” … which is “doing.” But I’m learning that “doing” isn’t the only way to navigate life. There is a “being” that doesn’t involve “doing.”

Confusing? Sorry. It was for me too until recently. Let me try to explain…

Somewhere along the line, as I was growing up, I seem to have deeply committed to “achievement” as the tool I would use to attack life. Yes, that fits with my personality, but it’s more than that… I found myself a big-ole’ hammer and so, for my whole life, everything that comes at me looks like a nail. No matter what happens to me, I think, “What do I have to do to deal with this?” What action is required of me? How do I solve this problem? How do I achieve my way into / out of / through this circumstance, bending it to my will and channeling it into “success” or “accomplishment” or whatever word indicates that the ball is heading down the field toward the goal and (if I’m honest) that I’m going to get the credit?

But what if not everything is a task to be done, a goal to be accomplished, or a success to be achieved? What if something happened, and I didn’t do anything? What if I just sat with Jesus and experienced the fact that something just happened to us … with Him? If someone expresses fear, maybe I could just sit with them in it and try to empathize. If someone is angry, maybe I could just listen and not respond. If I’m sad or hurt, maybe I could just sit in those feelings … and invite Jesus to sit with me. What if the best thing to “do” isn’t to “do” anything about those things, but just “be” in them? What if that were enough for Jesus? What if I didn’t need to have a plan or a goal or a solution or a revised project plan? What if I entered that circumstance knowing I was already deeply and truly loved, and required no accomplishment to gain that acceptance? What if I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone?

I’m hoping to find out.

The Takeaway: There’s a lot of “doing” in life, but we are human beings, not human doings. Who you are is more than what you do. It is from being with Jesus that strength and resilience and “success” is derived, not from my actions. The power of God is in the presence of God. Yes, ministry involves doing things for Jesus. And that will involve solid plans and hard work. But if we want to be fully human, then they must come from and come after being with Jesus.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

John 15:5-8 (NIV)

Wrap Up

Well, friend, thanks for sticking with me through all that. That’s it for now, but I have a long-and-growing list of other lessons I’d like to share, so I’m fairly certain I’ll be back with a sequel. Until then, I’d like to close with a prayer I’m sitting in often at the feet of John Eldredge. When he reads it, it’s almost always from the New Living Translation, so that’s how I’ll share it here. This is the Apostle Paul’s prayer for us … me and you both … and it’s my prayer for us too. And the King of Heaven… it’s His prayer for us as well. And if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

Rest with me in this, and we’ll talk again soon…

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from His glorious, unlimited resources He will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to Him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:14ff (NLT)
Posted in News, Politics and Culture, Real Life, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Time-Tested Orthodoxy and the Early Ecumenical Councils


The Complexity of Theology

Theology is complex, because God Himself is complex. We do not and we cannot fully understand God’s nature because we are nothing like Him and He is completely beyond us. We are small and dependent on the world around us, while God is vast and immeasurable. He stands outside of space and time, cannot be measured by anything in the physical universe, and is fundamentally beyond the reach of our finite minds. We are able to comprehend Him at all only because He chooses to reveal Himself to us. We are the characters in a story God has written. We can only know about the Author of the story because He makes Himself known to us. Indeed, our God is just that amazing in that He wrote Himself into the story of Creation by becoming a character Himself. That’s what it means for Jesus to be “incarnate” … to “pitch his tent among us” (John 1:14). This Jesus was at the same time a man from Nazareth in the 1st century AD and the eternal divine Son of God, equal in every way to the Father (see John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1).

Seek to know God, not “figure God out”

Over time, many have tried to “figure God out” by attempting to simplify the complexities or resolve the tensions encountered in the study of theology. Theology is simply a compound Greek term for the discourse (logos) about God (Theos); Theos + logos = theology. But every time someone claims to “figure God out,” it’s because they are oversimplifying and trying to make God fit in a box they’ve created for Him. That, of course, never works.

It’s easy to misunderstand the profound complexity in God’s nature in our struggle to relate to Him, because we subconsciously think of God as mostly like us, when He’s not like us at all. God is not the greatest being in a category of beings that includes grasshoppers, dogs, dolphins and humans, such that He is the greatest being on the spectrum with a bunch of lesser beings. That’s the wrong (and horribly misleading) way to think about God. Instead, God is in a category all by Himself. Nothing anywhere, in any context is at all like Him. Every other being in the universe, including angels and human beings, are of the same type: “created, finite being.” God alone is of the type: “uncreated (eternal), infinite being.” Every tool we have to understand God is also created, is locked within our limited, creaturely experience with us, and is therefore totally inadequate to describe or measure or define God. The only tool that “works” is God’s self-disclosure to us (the holy Scriptures), and even that has to be done in language and via analogy that we would understand. In fact, John Calvin said that God uses “baby talk” so that we would have a hope of understanding anything He says to us. And every time human beings have gotten it into their heads that God’s “baby talk” is the full language of the divine, presuming that we are mature enough to sit at the adult table (so to speak) with God, it has ended badly. When we try to drag God down out of His heavenly shroud of mystery, totally-other-ness and unresolvable tension, it always leads to heresy (wrong theology).

Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun”

What’s fascinating is that pretty much every heretical view of God has been tried and failed. Even 2,100 years after Jesus walked among us, people are still regularly thinking they have come up with some new revolutionary idea about God. But you might be surprised to discover that most of these theories were already taught all the way back in the first few centuries of the church, and after careful consideration by a then-much-smaller and far-more-unified church (not saying much when comparing to today), were rightly identified as wrong understanding.

Common Wrong Beliefs about God

The most significant and frequent sources of this kind of oversimplification and misunderstanding surround the church’s thinking about two concepts:

  1. The Trinity – the reality that God is one God (of one kind or essence) but is three Persons
  2. (Brace yourself for technical theological word) The hypostatic union – the reality that Jesus is only one Person, but has two natures (fully God and fully human)

Neither of these concepts is explicitly stated in the bible. You cannot look up a specific chapter and verse that make concise statements like I just did. In fact, it took the church centuries to formulate these statements so succinctly. However, both these concepts are everywhere in Scripture. There are literally dozens of ways in which each of these concepts is implied. So in the early days, the church burned a lot of calories carefully considering and documenting exactly what impact the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus did to the existing Jewish understanding of monotheism. Followers of Jesus poured over the Scriptures trying to understand the full breadth and depth of what it is really teaching us, putting together all the implications of what one can clearly read in the Old Testament (the teaching of the prophets) and what would come to be known as the New Testament (the teaching of the apostles), and formulating systematic statements like the two I’ve made above.

Because well-meaning students of theology can easily arrive at any number of heretical (wrong) conclusions by simply trying to resolve tensions (even seeming paradoxes) in our understanding of God, or simplify how we relate to Him, or even give more weight to our human reason or instincts than they deserve, a few heresies have come up often in history. They all have funny names that are hard to remember, so I thought it would be useful to create a reference for easy access and recall.


In the early 4th century AD, a leader in the church in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius (c. 256-336) declared that Jesus must have been created by God because He was a man. This led to an enormous debate about Jesus’ deity which was resolved at the 1st ecumenical (entire church speaking with one unified voice) council at Nicaea in AD 325. The reality is that Jesus was not created by God. He is at the same time the eternal God who created the universe (fully divine) and a human being just like you and me (fully human). Any attempt to resolve this tension leads to a wrong understanding of who Jesus is.

Read more about Arianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Macedoniansim was a fourth-century heresy that denied the full divinity or personality of the Holy Spirit. This idea was popularized by a former bishop of Constantinople, a semi-Arian named Macedonius. According to this heresy, the Holy Spirit was a created being, subject to the Father and Son in something of a servant role. This error was addressed and soundly refuted at the 2nd ecumenical council at Constantinople in AD 381. The reality is that the Holy Spirit is a person (not a thing) who is fully equal, eternal, divine and of the same essence and substance as God the Father and God the Son.

Read more about Macedonianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Nestorius (c. AD 386–451) was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the early 5th century AD. Nestorianism wrongly emphasized the disunity of the human and divine natures of Christ. According to the Nestorians, Christ essentially exists as two persons sharing one body. His divine and human natures are completely distinct and separate. This sparked great controversary, of course, which was resolved at the 3rd ecumenical council at Ephesus in AD 431. The reality is that Jesus has two natures in one unified person. He is both fully God (sharing the divine nature with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit) and fully human (sharing human nature with all of us), but in a single, whole, complete, undivided person.

Read more about Nestorianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.


Pelagianism is the unbiblical teaching that Adam’s sin did not affect future generations of humanity. According to Pelagius (c. AD 360-420), Adam’s sin was solely his own, and Adam’s descendants (us) do not inherit a sinful nature. Pelagius wrongly believed that since God creates every human soul directly, every human soul starts out in innocence, free from sin and basically good. This heresy was repudiated at the 4th ecumenical council at Chalcedon in AD 451. The reality is that Adam’s sin poisoned the entirety of human nature, so we are all born sinful, separated from God, and desperately in need of a savior.

Read more about Pelagianism: GotQuestions? or Britannica.

Reference of the First Four Ecumenical Councils

The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325)

  • Repudiated Arianism, which wrongly believed that Jesus was a created being. Nicaea affirmed that Jesus is “homoousios with the Father” (of the same substance or essence as God the Father)
  • Adopted the original Nicene Creed
  • And, btw, established the date for celebrating Easter, which is a cool fun fact.

The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381)

  • Repudiated Arianism (again; this time, it would stick)
  • Repudiated Macedonianism, which wrongly denied full personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit, understanding the Spirit to be a “He” (Person) not an “it” (not a “force” as in Star Wars) and paving the way for understanding Him to the 3rd (full) member of the Trinity
  • Constantinople clearly affirmed that Jesus is “begotten of the Father before all time”
  • Revised the Nicene Creed to speak more directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. When the Nicene Creed is recited, it’s typically this modified version. Read both the original Nicene creed and the 381 updates.
  • Here’s another link to a helpful article about the creed and its meaning: The Essentials of Christianity

The Council of Ephesus (AD 431)

  • Repudiated Nestorianism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus is two distinct Persons, one divine and one human, each with its own separate nature. In truth, Jesus has two natures (divine and human) but (Read more: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nestorianism)
  • Affirmed that Mary was Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “one who gives birth to God”). Nestorianism claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was only a man (so Mary had given birth to a mere human), and that the Divine Logos (the eternal Son of God) was a separate person who was only loosely joined with Jesus the human being. This is false. Mary did in fact “give birth to God” because Jesus is both fully God and fully man. (Read more)
  • Repudiated Pelagianism, which wrongly claimed that people are born good and that both sin and righteousness are simple choices. His followers took this a step further to claim that there is no original sin. Augustine of Hippo famously championed the campaign against this wrong understanding of human nature and sin, giving us the doctrine Luther would later refer to as “the bondage of the will.”
  • Reaffirmed the 381 Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451)

  • Repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus was not fully human. They “explained” the incarnation by claiming that Jesus’ human personhood was “overcome” by his divine nature, making him more of a “phantasm” than a human being. Instead, we understand Jesus to be a full human being and fully God (two natures) at the same time in one Person. (Read more)
  • Adopted the Chalcedonian Creed, which described the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, both human and divine, in one Person. (Link to the creed)

Looking for more information?

For more information about the ecumenical councils of the church:

Posted in Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Dogmatic Rank and the Quest for Christian Maturity

Archery: woman aiming at target

All theology is important,
but not all theology is of the same importance.

Words to live by! I’m not sure who originally said them in that exact form. But when I search on the phrase, two of the first three hits on Google are: 1) an excerpt from the classic Mere Christianity by CS Lewis and 3) an article from the Gospel Coalition. It’s not surprising that these would all be bound up together, given my love of all three: this guiding principle for theological study, CS Lewis (my hero!), and the TGC, which is closely linked in my mind with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I’ve been hanging out these last few years getting an M.Div. But wherever it came from, I’ve been itching to write about it since the earliest days in my seminary career. The time has finally come.

Failure to study theologian with discernment has created more problems than anyone could enumerate. And although correcting that bad trend can’t possibly be in the scope of a single blog post, I want to at least talk about one of the critical ingredients in doing theology well. For lack of a coherent, disciplined, repeatable system for classifying theological topics and discerning their importance and meaning, a great many have ended up defaulting to unhealthy and unhelpful extremes in their views of God. In this post, I hope (summarizing the work of giants who came before me) to describe a better way.

A Tale of Two Theologians

First, the world is full of lazy and lawless theologians, who treat all theology as somewhat unimportant. Typically, this is because they don’t want to do the hard work of thinking through difficult concepts and their implications. Or, it’s because they are desperate to protect a favorite and familiar sin that would be threatened by a serious study of Scripture that might lead to conviction and the call of God to obedience.

Lazy TheologianThis position leads to a church that ceases to be a church, because anyone can wander in and flop down on the couch believing whatever suits their fancy or proclivities. This allows people to subscribe to a “choose your own adventure” kind of religion, that doesn’t take Jesus seriously at all. Tragically, many fool themselves into thinking that somehow they are part of God’s Kingdom even though they do not actually attempt to know God for who He really is or take seriously the need to obey His word (Rom 1:21-25; Jas 2:14-26).

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the legalistic theologian, who attempts to treat all theology as maximally important. Of course, it’s impossible to live like this in a logically-consistent way. So, this person invariably ends up treating as very important the theological concepts they feel they’ve mastered or that make them look superior, and relegate areas in which they struggle to be far less important. In other words, they emphasize their strengths and others’ weaknesses. This lets them — justifiably in their own minds — stand in judgment over everyone around them. This person is invariably ready to do battle about things that Jesus would likely find unimportant (the kind of music on Sunday morning, the way children’s ministry is organized, the color of the new paint in the sanctuary, etc.) while ignoring the things nearest to Jesus’ heart (unity in His church, caring for the poor, sharing the gospel with our neighbors, etc).

PhariseeThis position leads to disunity and the “foolish and useless arguments” against which Paul passionately warns us (2 Tim 2:22-26; Titus 3:1-11). It leads to a church full of Pharisees, who can end up believing they are right on every issue that matters and that the only way others can be real Christians is to come around to their views on their favorite issues. And it results in the fracturing of churches that is absolutely antithetical to the unity to which we have been called (Eph 4:1-6; 1 Cor 12:12-27) and which Jesus desires for His church (John 17:20-23). Oddly enough, this too is a kind of “choose your own adventure” religion.

If we accept the premise that these are ends of a spectrum, and if both these paths end up in the same place of personal-preference-as-ruling-authority, then I think it’s safe to re-affirmed that extremes are unhelpful and unhealthy and we need to forge a middle way.

A System of Dogmatic Rank

In order to do that, we must put some kind of system in place to discern differences between the really important stuff and the concepts and positions which are debatable or even optional. We need a method “to correctly teach the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To this end, theologians have long preferred a hierarchical categorization scheme that labels issues by their “dogmatic rank.” Though there are many nuanced variations of this system, I subscribe to a very simple three-tiered version, as follows…

Rank 1: Essentials

First, there are issues — such as the identify of Jesus of Nazareth or the nature of the Trinity or the reality of sin — that separate Christians from non-Christians. To believe certain things about these issues either makes you a Christian, or not. If you give someone a test about these things, there’s one right answer and a ton of wrong ones. These are issues of 1st dogmatic rank.

Rank 2: Convictions

Then, there are beliefs which are less important and do not determine whether or not a person belongs to Jesus. These may include one’s approach to baptism, for example, or models of church government, or some of the details around how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, etc. Having agreed that these are not issues that categorically separate Christians from non-Christians, every Christian must decide for herself the relative importance of these issues in her own life. If a Christian develops a strong enough conviction about a given issue, then he might only want to be a part of a church with others who are of like mind.

For example, many disagree on whether or not women have a biblical warrant to serve as pastors or elders in the Church. Some feel they do (a position called “egalitarianism“), and others feel the Scriptures expressly forbid women from serving as pastors and elders (called “complementarianism“). Churches tend to take one or the other of these two positions, and those of like mind gather in one church or the other. One who feels that disagreement on such an issue is important enough to divide fellowship in this way has determined that issue to be of 2nd dogmatic rank in her own theological matrix.

Remember those who disagree here are all still saved, all still love the Lord, and are all still family (brothers and sisters in Christ). But there is a separation between them.

Rank 3: Preferences

If it doesn’t define what it means to be a Christian and it’s not important enough to break fellowship over, then the issue is 3rd rank. This is the “everything else” category. These are personal preferences on which we may disagree, but we still go to church together and do ministry side-by-side. We just see something differently … and are totally okay with that. Some, picking up on Paul’s language in Romans 14:1, call these lesser issues “disputable matters.” I like this term.

So, in summary:

  1. Essentials: You must believe this to be a Christian (e.g. Jesus is fully God and fully man and the only way to the Father). These differences separate Christians from non-Christians.
  2. Convictions: We’re both Christians, but this issue is so important to me that I’m only willing attend a church where we all agree on it. These differences separate us within the body of Christ.
  3. Preferences: We’re both Christians and we might disagree, but we get along great, enjoy fellowship together and serve the Lord side-by-side. These differences don’t really separate us.

So, now we can categorize ideas; so what?!

From my perspective, there is a defined set of 1st rank issues on which all Christians, by definition, must agree in order to in fact be Christ-followers. These are defined by the proper interpretation of Scripture and summarized well in the historic creeds of the Church (e.g. the Nicene Creed or 1 Cor 15:3-8). I also think the EFCA statement of faith does a particularly good job focusing on issues of first importance.

Beyond these essentials, I content that the children of God should strive to identify as few issues to be “rank 2” as possible. If it’s not an essential, then the mature, gracious, unity-minded Christ-follower should endeavor to relegate as many issues as possible to the status of personal preferences … which do not divide churches, cause arguments, or birth new denominations. In my opinion, Christians should be able to amicably disagree on a ton of lesser issues while remaining united on as many fronts as possible.

Dogmatic Rank Sets

This is not to say that convictions are somehow bad or unimportant. In fact, they’re vital. And there are times when division is necessary. Every Christian should know what they believe and why and on which hills they’re prepared to take a stand. But we live in a culture that has elevated personal preference to godhood, and therefore either tries to ignore theology all together (the lazy and lawless theologian) or makes everything but the brand of the kitchen sink a matter of deep, intractable conviction (the legalistic theologian). Too many Americans live our lives like we configure our Facebook profiles: demanding that every interaction, news feed, political view, friend group, etc meet an increasingly-exacting definition of “right for me.” Despite all the talk about “tolerance,” many seem anything but tolerant with those who don’t share their  perspectives. We seem to have lost our ability, as a society, to disagree respectfully, let alone lovingly. Many of us seem to prefer to scream at each other on social media. This is fundamentally antithetical to the mature Christian life, which should value love and unity and self-denial and cross bearing over rights, preferences and comfort (see Mark 8:34, 1 Cor 6:1-11 and 1 Pet 2:21-25 just to get started). Christians must espouse and live out counter-cultural lives with regard to these things, if we intend to honor Christ with our theological convictions.

It doesn’t help you grow to surround yourself only with people exactly like you or listen only to those who reenforce your pre-existing opinions.

It doesn’t reflect Christian maturity to demand that everyone in your church see every theological issue the same way you do.

On the essentials, yes, be exacting. Demand clarity and consensus. Accept no compromise or substitutes. But on everything else, let’s work harder — against the tide of our culture — to develop habits of compassion, empathy and love. Who knows, we might even learn something from one another.

How do I discern which issues are essentials?

It takes a lot of humility and grace to lay down our pet issues and agree to disagree on the non-essentials as friends and ministry partners. But we also can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need a way to identify the essentials on which we will not compromise, so that we don’t end up making too many things a matter of considered (or not) opinion.

It won’t surprise you that I have a few suggestions.

Study the Scriptures

How to Read the Bible for all its WorthFirst, read How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, and then apply the timeless principles it teaches to study the daylights out of the Scriptures. Learn what it really says. Become an expert at biblical interpretation. You don’t need a fancy degree; you need time and intentionality — and there’s nothing more important to give time and intentionality to than the study of the word of God.

Adopt a Formal Method of Discernment

Second, develop a plan. Use the same approach or method every time you try to answer the “What dogmatic rank should I assign to this topic?” question. I commend to you the EFCA’s six principles / questions for evaluating theological significance. You don’t have to use them, but you need to use something. And they’re really good. Perhaps at least take this a starting point.

Consider, concerning any given issue, its…

  1. Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
  2. Connection to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
  3. Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
  4. Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
  5. Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine or practice in the Church of both the past and present?
  6. Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine or practice to us today?

(Read more from TGC)

Put Accountability Structures in Place

Lastly, I recommend a simple three-prong model for discernment in general that I think every Christian should use to hear and understand God’s voice well. It focuses on accountability, attempting to minimize “hearing from God” by any one means in isolation.

DiscernmentWhat we learn in God’s word we test in prayer and with the people of God throughout history to make sure that we are interpreting it rightly. What we hear from God’s people, we test by God’s word and in prayer. And what we hear in prayer, we test by God’s word and with God’s people [1]. And over all this, we trust the Spirit to reveal and illuminate truth to us, to be our Teacher and our Guide (John 14:26).


I hope this was a helpful (if perhaps long-winded) excursion into the principle of dogmatic rank.

A.W. Tozer said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Don’t be lazy or lawless or legalistic when you think about God. Major on the majors. Focus on what’s essential, and learn to love radically in the face of everything that isn’t. In this way, we obey Jesus and glorify Him.


[1] Relying on God’s people means three things that every Christian should rush to do:

  1. Join a church that is deeply committed Biblical authority and taking Jesus seriously
  2. Get in a small group where you are transparent and speak truth in love to each other
  3. Read dead guys, who loved the Lord in their day and can speak into your life

Image credit:
– Woman aiming at target: thegearhunt.com
– Lazy guy with Cheetos: infoworld.com
– Pharisee: geeksjourney.com
– How to Read the Bible for all its Worth: amazon.com
– Dogmatic rank and discernment models / images: mine
Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Seeing Jesus Changes Everything: Word Pictures in Revelation’s Prologue

Jesus Among the Lampstands 1


Submitted to Dr. Dana Harris in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6253 Interpreting Johannine Literature at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


The last book of the Bible is “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” written “to show God’s servants what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). It is not designed as a chronology of future events, but as a fleeting glimpse of the end of the story. In it, you can flip to the last page of the book of cosmic history and see that God wins. He keeps His promises. No matter what kind of fear or uncertainty or injustice faces us in the world today, no one who puts their hope in the Lord will be put to shame (Ps 25; 1 Pet 3:13-16). It is the testimony of Jesus, the Messiah (Rev 1:2), who told the Apostle John to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1:11). These seven churches represent the Church universal in all of history, particularly those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. It is with these in mind that I write this brief reflection.

In His revelation in general and this prologue (Rev 1:1-20) in particular, Jesus paints a number of vivid word pictures of Himself, designed to give confidence and comfort to the hurting (and to unsettle and motivate the complacent). While space does not permit me to treat every image presented in this passage, I will touch on seven selected images to highlight their value in encouraging those who are afflicted and oppressed because of their faith in Jesus. And I think it’s very appropriate, as Christmas approaches, to take a long look at Jesus, the way He revealed Himself to us, rather than the way our cultural image of Him has evolved over the centuries.

1) Jesus, the Faithful Witness

Truth in DictionaryFirst, Jesus is “the faithful Witness” (Rev 1:5a). Those suffering for the cause of Christ can be assured that Jesus sees their pain and intercedes for them before the Father (Rom 8:31-35; Heb 7:25). He will personally bear witness to their faith and suffering, and His testimony is faithful and true (c.f. Rev 19:11). When He proclaims that they belong to Him, it is the final, faithful and unassailable word. This should assure those struggling with pain or fear or uncertainty that God will ensure justice and reward those who are His. They may be obscure or feel alone, but God sees them, and will remember them. In the end, He will be proven faithful.

2) Jesus, the Firstborn from the Dead

Resurrection Empty TombJesus is also “the firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5b), alive forever, and “holding the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). What awaits those whom God has chosen is resurrection into a glorified life directly in the presence of the Lord. Of all the messages of Revelation, the most important is that God wins, and as a result, He will dwell with His people forever (Rev 21:3). The seemingly insurmountable barriers of sin and death to our true communion with God has been forever conquered, not by our blood (which would be just recompense for our evil ways), but by the blood of the spotless Lamb, who was slain on our behalf (c.f. Rev 5:6-10). No matter how bad things get in this world (and they are bad!), a glorious future awaits the children of God. As the firstborn from the dead — not just the first to be resurrected to this new life, but the rightful heir to all its glorious benefits —, we know that Jesus has the authority in Himself to grant us life (John 5:26). Because He lives, we too shall live, and someday soon, we will be like Him, seeing Him as He truly is (1 John 3:2). The persecuted Christian – in John’s time or ours – can embrace this blessed hope for the future.

3) Jesus, the Ruler of the kings of the earth

Royal Crown and SceptorNext, Jesus is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5c). Caesar may be king for a day, but Jesus is the eternal King. Empire may appear to have the power now, but in fact, even what little it has will soon be taken away from it (Matt 13:12). Christians who are hunted by the authorities of this world can look forward to the final judgment by ultimate Authority, who will set everything right. Jesus will reign in power, bringing justice, peace, stable government and firm-but-loving rule to the people of God. The images of the golden sash (Rev 1:13), white hair (1:14), and bronze feet (1:15) all speak to Jesus’ kingly power and authority. And certainly, His divine sovereignty is clearly demonstrated in statements like, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8) and “I am the First and the Last” (1:17). Jesus is the just, all-powerful King who will conquer and supplant the corrupt and abusive authorities of this world. This too should bring us great hope, and help the oppressed to persevere.

4) Jesus is Coming Back Soon

Fourth, Jesus is coming back for us. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). Behold, “He is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7; c.f. Isa 19:1; Dan 7:13), and every eye will see Him. There will be no confusion or contest or subtlety when Jesus returns. None who belong to Him will remain in hiding or continue to suffer, for when He comes for us, He will make all things new (Rev 21:5), establish justice, and finally bring rest to the people of God (Heb 4:1-11).

5) Jesus Stands Among His People

Jesus Among the Lampstands 2

Even now, fifthly, Jesus stands “among the lampstands, one like a Son of Man” (Rev 1:12). This depicts not only that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (Rev 21:16), prophesied by Daniel (7:13), but that He is present even now among His people. Christians persecuted in this world are not far away from Jesus, because Jesus stands in the midst of the Church in every time and place. We have far more than some vague hope to someday be reunited with Him. Rather, Jesus restates in this passage His promise that He is always with His people, even to the close of the age (Matt 28:20). To those who know Him, it is a matter of great comfort to know that Jesus is always present, always walking through dark valleys with us, and having already gone before us to face every horror there is to face in this world. He has conquered, and therefore, we too shall conquer. And in the meantime, He is with us.

6) Jesus, the Sovereign Head of the Church

Jesus is “the one with seven stars in his right hand” (Rev 1:16a). This is the sixth image. Not only does Jesus walk among the churches, but He holds them in His right hand. Holding the churches gives a sense of His greatness and power and protective care. He not only knows us, but has the power to nurture, support and protect us. Also, in the use of “the right hand,” we see again Jesus’ sovereign, kingly authority. He not only desires to ensure that all things will work together for our good (Rom 8:28), but He is strong enough to achieve His purpose (Ps 135:5-7; Isa 55:10-11). It should be a great comfort to know that Jesus is not only present, but powerful. Even when suffering, we can rely on His protective care, not from pain or unmet expectations or even physical death, but from the one thing that we should truly fear: separation from Him. And as long as He holds us, no one can snatch us out of His hands (John 10:28-30).

7) Jesus, the One Wielding the Sharp, Double-edged Sword

Sharp, Double-Edged SwordFinally, “a sharp double-edged sword comes from [Jesus’] mouth” (Rev 1:16b). The Lord is a warrior (Exod 15:3), who created the world by His word (Ps 33:9), and who will judge the world, destroy evil and recreate it with His word in the final hour (Rev 12:11; 20:11ff; 21:3-7). The word of God is often depicted as a sword (Heb 4:12-13; Eph 6:17), demonstrating that it is powerful and effective for achieving God’s purposes, which are to conquer evil and to reconcile everything He created to Himself, especially us. So, the one who feels molested by evil can rest in the knowledge that God’s word will conquer it (Col 2:15; Eph 6:10-20). The one who lacks wisdom can experience in God’s word a light to their feet and a lamp to their path (Ps 119:105; Jas 1:5). And the one who feels uncertain about the future can know from God’s word how the story ends: “To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). This is particularly good news for the one living under the boot of earthly empire. Someday, God’s word declares, all the empires of the earth will become the footstool of the One who wields — He who is Himself — the Word of God (Heb 10:12-13; Ps 110:1; Rev 11:15).


One of God’s key purposes for the book of Revelation is to bring comfort and hope to the hurting and persecuted (while afflicting those have grown comfortable and complacent). This theme runs throughout the book, as we watch the drama of redemption unfold and the curtain fall on the final act of human history. But even in the letter’s prologue, we see at least seven comforting images of the Messiah, Jesus. He is the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He is returning soon, in power, yet even now He walks among His churches, supporting and nurturing them. And with absolute power, by the word of His mouth, He is preparing to destroy every power and earthly authority that would raise itself against the Most High God.

Thus, the persecuted and suffering Christiana can experience in Revelation a profound and renewed sense of comfort, as can any Christian preparing his heart to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, who is in fact our Lord and King. And so we say with the Spirit and the bride, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Come!” (Rev 22:17, 20).

Jesus Returns

Image credit:
1) Jesus among the lamp stands — Pintrest
2) Truth – Alchonaa
3) Empty Tomb – International Bible Society
4) Second lamp stands image – Pintrest
5) Sharp Double-edged sword – Quora
6) Jesus returning – Woodland Baptist Church
Posted in Bible Stories, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prophet Jonah and the Surprising Grace of God

Jonah slide

I lead one of the medium-sized Community Groups at my church (Life Bridge Community Church). We are currently in a series working through the Old Testament book of Jonah, and I have been asked to make some of the materials I’ve covered in our group available online. So, I thought the best place to do that would be here. It’s the first time I’m trying something like this, so we’ll see how it goes. Please feel free to your comments below.

Jonah is an unusual prophet. He is unique in his mission, sent by God to a pagan Gentile nation to declare their destruction, so that God can turn them from their sin and show His glory and grace in this surprising context. We see anger and bitterness and conflict in Jonah, and his potential to represent all of us. But in his story, we also see God’s gracious and loving character brilliantly on display, as well as a number of typological moments that point to Jesus.

Week 1: God’s Foolish and Disobedient Prophet

Slides: 2018-08-05 LIFT – Jonah 1:1-3 (with introduction to the text)

Jonah is a prophet of Yahweh who lived and prophesied in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II in the early 8th century BC. He is a “latter, minor prophet” in Israel’s history. We know little about him, really, except for the amazing story told in the 29th book of the Old Testament, which you can find about 2/3 of the way through the Bible (maybe 50 pages before Matthew 1:1).

Jonah is the only prophet in Scripture called by God to prophesy to a Gentile nation. He is sent to Nineveh, an important city in the Assyrian empire — just a few decades after Jonah’s adventure, Assyria, with Nineveh as its new capital city, will invade and destroy the kingdom of Israel — to declare that God is painfully aware of their wickedness and pronounce His judgment upon them.

Shockingly, though, Jonah “flees from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3) and tries to escape to Tarshish, a well-known port city on the other side of the known world. This would be like living in Kentucky, and when God sends you to Washington DC, you start hitchhiking to Seattle to get out of your assignment. It’s ridiculous, but Jonah does it anyway. Why? Because he knows God, who is gracious and compassionate and quick to forgive, and he hates the Ninevites, whom he feels are not worthy of God’s love. He knows that if He goes to Nineveh and tells them God is about to destroy them, that they will repent and God will spare them. He’s so disgusted by that idea, that he runs away. He would rather die than see God’s grace poured out on such wicked people.


  • Fleeing from the presence of the Lord = Telling God “no”

Week 2: Jonah’s Sovereign and Personal God

Slides: 2018-08-12 LIFT – Jonah 1:4-9 (CSB Manuscript)

Jonah may have talked himself into thinking that he can get away from God, but of course he can’t. Jonah hitches a ride of a ship sailing across the Mediterranean, and God appoints a great storm which tosses the boat around like a rubber ducky in God’s bathtub. Everyone’s life is threatened, but while the experienced pagan sailors fight to save the ship (and their lives), Jonah pouts and eventually just goes to sleep below deck.

In this drama, we are given a front row seat to what it means to lack Christian maturity. Jonah tells God “no,” which is what “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” really means, and won’t even lend a hand to help those whom his unfaithfulness has put in jeopardy. We too face this choice. Will we be faithful and obedient to God’s command? We are called, increasingly, to say “yes” to God, whatever He asks, both quickly and joyfully.

Looking at God’s leading role in the story, we learn that:

  • God is personal – He relates to Jonah and even the sailors, by His personal name, Yahweh.
  • God is sovereign – His fundamentally controls nature (v4), because He created it (v9).
  • God is to be taken seriously – How could Jonah really think he could get away with telling God “no” and running away?

Amazingly, this sovereign, personal, all-powerful God is committed to pouring out grace. He abounds in hesed (saving covenantal faithfulness). He sovereignly orchestrates every aspect of this story to His redemptive ends. He saves the sailors from destruction, He saves Jonah from drowning, and we will see that He is relentlessly determined to save the Ninevites — even Gentiles benefit from God’s grace; through His people Israel, and ultimately His Messiah, all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3) —, and through this story and its preservation across the millennia, His grace extends even to us.


  • Christian maturity means, increasingly, telling God “yes,” quickly and joyfully
  • God is always doing something something greater than we understand (or would do)

Week 3: A Demonstration of the Fear of the Lord

Slides: 2018-08-19 LIFT – Jonah 1:7-16 (CSB Manuscript)

In stark contrast to Jonah, when faced with imminent death from a raging storm, the sailors’ first instinct is to pray. Jonah doesn’t want to pray, because, ironically, he knows exactly what’s going on. It seems like he’d rather die (and take everyone else with him) than to obey the Lord. As the sailors’ fear mounts and hope begins to dwindle, they cast lots to determine who’s to blame for this catastrophe … hoping that a way out will present itself. Of course, God sovereignly directs the lot to fall to Jonah.

So, the sailors interrogate him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and who are your people?” (Jon 1:8). Jonah responds with a declaration of allegiance and ownership, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jon 1:9)

That’s ironic! Though Jonah is the one person on the ship who actually knows the Lord and should rightly belong to Him, he’s the one who acts the least like it. Ultimately, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, knowing that this will direct God’s anger away from them. Only Jonah needs to die. But faced with an opportunity to take a life to save their own, the sailors hesitate. They are afraid of further angering Yahweh. The reality is that pagan sailors demonstrate a better-developed fear of the Lord than Yahweh’s own prophet.

Jonah knows a lot about the Lord, but fears Him only a little.
The Sailors know only a little about the Lord, but fear Him a lot.

It’s scandalous and disheartening, and a cautionary tale. It’s possible to know a lot about God or look good in the right circles or even have a position of influence in the Church, but none of that matters compared to right worship … the right exercise of religion. The question is: Do you fear the Lord?


  • Faith is not a matter of knowledge or position only, but of trust and obedience

Week 4: God’s Perpetual Movement toward Redemption

Slides: 2018-08-26 LIFT – Jonah 1:17-2:10 (CSB Manuscript)

Knowing their lives depend on it, and having prayed to ask God not to hold it against them, eventually the sailors throw Jonah overboard. In a squall in the middle of Mediterranean, this is of course a death sentence. But God “appoints” (keyword in Jonah) a great fish to save him. It swallows Jonah whole, and God facilitates a three-day time out for Jonah in the belly of the beast … waiting for Jonah to come to his senses.

Why three days? At least in part, this is to establish typologically “the sign of Jonah”…

An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look — something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-42; c.f. Luke 11:29-32)

Jonah’s story exists, because Jesus’ story exists. Isn’t it amazing how God is always orchestrating and superintending and redirecting  history to point to His Son, Jesus? Throughout all of history, the Father is facilitating through Him the redemption of humankind and the restoration of all things. From you to your pet chinchilla, from your prize daffodils to the physics governing the least significant chunk of rock in a remote galaxy, the plan of the Father and the work of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit is for the renewal of all things. Hallelujah!

In the belly of great fish, Jonah finally decides to pray. His prayer is all about salvation. In a watery grave of almost certain death, God made a (totally unexpected) way to save him. That’s always the way God works. There is always a way out, always a way of salvation.

Anyone who looks to God’s temple (1 Kings 8:22-53) …
Anyone who believes in Jesus (John 3:14-16) …
Anyone who calls upon the Lord (Rom 1:13) …

… will be saved!

Jonah ends his prayer with a beautiful statement of acknowledgement of God’s grace and sovereignty and (I think) Jonah’s resignation…

Those who cherish worthless idols abandon
your hesed for them,
but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.”


  • God intentionally orders history to point to Jesus
  • God always makes a way of salvation
  • Those who cherish worthless idols abandon the hesed God intends for them

Week 5: Jonah Comes to Nineveh; Grace Comes with Him

Slides: 2018-09-02 LIFT – Jonah 3:1-5
Additional Reading: Brief Exegetical Analysis of Jonah 3

Jonah’s prayer, at first blush, looks pretty contrite. But is it really? Notice what he doesn’t say… That God was right and he was wrong, or that he’s onboard with God’s plan to extend grace to the Ninevites. God might have a heart for the lost, but Jonah doesn’t. He’s thankful that he didn’t drown, and he acknowledges that God saved him, and he’s thankful. But Jonah’s heart is fundamentally focused on club membership … He’s for Israel, not for filthy Gentiles like the Ninevites. So, his prayer is one of resignation and the (still disheartened?) acknowledge that God has the right to do what He wants to do. Jonah, for his part though, doesn’t have to like it.

So, after getting barfed onto a beach somewhere, when God summons Jonah a second time and commands him to proclaim judgment upon Nineveh, Jonah arises and goes to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command (Jon 3:1-3; a classic prophetic formula). Hopefully after a shower. Once there, Jonah immediately begins to preach, and the people immediately repent … literally in sackcloth and ashes.


  • What God has made clean, do not call impure. (Acts 10:15)

Week 6: Nineveh Repents; God Relents

Slides: 2018-09-09 LIFT – Jonah 3:6-10

“When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh…” (Jon 3:6ff)

It wasn’t just a few people that responded to Jonah’s (evidently very simple, maybe even a bit residually-hesitant) preaching. But “from the greatest of them to the least,” the people of Nineveh turned from their wicked ways and called out to God. So did the king and his nobles. And as a result, a decree went out to all the land demanding fasting and prayer, sackcloth and ashes, and repentance from wrongdoing. Even animals were included in the king’s decree, signifying just how seriously he’s taking their sin and their need for repentance. This is the only time in Scripture we see a bunch of Gentiles in sackcloth and ashes.

“Who know?!” the king says, “God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3:9). Translation: “We deserve judgment and destruction, and God, the righteous Judge, may very well visit it upon us. But who knows? Perhaps He’s so gracious that He will actually spare us.”

God saw their actions ​— ​that they had turned from their evil ways ​— ​so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it.” (Jon 3:10)

We are all the king of Nineveh. We are all wicked and deserve death. We all must take our sin so seriously that we would tear off royal robes and involve even our animals in demonstrating the fruit of repentance. And because Jesus took the penalty for our sin and imputed to us His righteousness, if we turn from our wicked ways, God will relent from the disaster He had threatened us with. And He will not do it.

If that doesn’t get you fired up, then your wood’s wet.


  • The speed of the leader is the speed of the team
  • God’s law and our sin must be taken seriously
  • God’s grace must be taken even more seriously
  • Talk is cheap; God’s “hears” your repentance by in your heart and your life

Week 7: Jonah’s Temper Tantrum

Slides: 2018-09-16 LIFT – Jonah 4 1-4
Additional Reading: Brief Exegetical Analysis of Jonah 4

You would think that God’s choice not to destroy the city would be cause for rejoicing … and it is, for everyone but Jonah. Instead, Jonah storms out of town, flops down on top of a hill and fumes. This time, his bad attitude comes complete with a full-tilt whiny temper tantrum…

“See, Lord, isn’t this exactly what I said would happen before we came out here? This is exactly why I tried to run away. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in hesed, and one who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon 4:2-3 paraphrased)

In other words, Jonah’s “worst fears” have been realized. God took pity on a giant group of sinful Gentiles, and when they turned to Him, He forgave their sin. Now, Jonah’s kinda hacked off. That whole prayer-in-the-fish thing was nice and all, but it’s pretty clear he was cherishing a barely-concealed hope that maybe God would get all Sodom-and-Gomorra on the wicked Ninevites after all. Alas, it was not meant to be. Instead of fire and brimstone, they get grace. [Insert Jonah’s exasperated curses here.]

The result? Yet again, Jonah waxes fatalistic, “Just kill me, God! If you’re going to save Gentiles too, I’d rather not be alive to see it.” How sad!

Essentially, Jonah is accusing God of injustice. And that takes us from sad to scary-wrong! And the takeaway is obvious, who are “those people” for you? Who are the ones that “don’t deserve” God’s hesed?

In truth, nobody but Jesus deserves anything good from God. The rest of us wretched sinners are all on the grace plan — right alongside the Ninevites, and Jonah for that matter — assuming we’re contrite enough to throw ourselves on the mercy of the Sovereign Judge. It’s not club membership that saves you, but the grace of God poured out in the blood of the Messiah Jesus. Clearly, Jonah has yet to learn that.


  • Nobody deserves God’s hesed, except Jesus
  • God pours out His hesed on the children of Abraham (Gal 3:27-29) — not Abraham’s biological descendants, but those whom God chooses (Exod 33:19) and who choose Him by faith (John 3:14; Rom 1:13)

Week 8: Is it Right for you to be Angry?

Slides: 2018-09-23 LIFT – Jonah 4:5ff

God has saved Nineveh, extending lavish, totally-undeserved grace to a people not His own, who have for centuries done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord. As a result, Jonah is really, really angry! He stomps out of the city, flops down on top of a hill, and broods. And it continues to go downhill from there.

God shows Jonah kindness too, by miraculously growing up a plant to shelter Jonah from the sun. And this turns Jonah’s attitude around. We might be tempted to be happy for him now that he’s finally found some happiness, until we think about how perverse that is. Jonah doesn’t give a whit about all the people in Nineveh who could have gone straight to hell; instead, he’s all energized over a plant dedicated to preventing his personal sunburn. Selfish to the core is our friend Jonah, wouldn’t you say … and demanding, and unmerciful, and filled with angry judgment. He’s all the things God isn’t, as He flings mercy around everywhere in our story.

So, the Lord — as He often does — turns this into a teachable moment. As quickly as He appointed a plant to keep the sun off Jonah, He appoints a worm to kill the plant and a hot, oppressive desert wind to beat on Jonah and make him miserable. And it works. Again, Jonah careens into the pits. “If you’re going to take away my plant and sit out here in the hot sun and sandy wind, then I’d rather just die. I renew my request for death. And btw, I’m still angry with you for showing grace to those wicked people, God!” Wow, if that were the heart of God, the human race would never have made it out of the Garden of Eden.

God’s response ends the book. He asks a critical question that the writer of Jonah just leave hanging in the air. God asks,

You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals? (Jon 4:10-11)

Doesn’t God have the right to care about people? Shouldn’t we be filled with joy when He brings salvation, even to those people? Who are those people to you? People of other colors or races or cultures or even faiths? People who have done terrible evil? Aren’t they people too? Shouldn’t our hearts be for God to heal and restore them as He has healed and restored us? Because if my heart is like Jonah’s heart — superior and judgmental and clearly believing that my club membership has earned me a spot at the front of God’s line — then I might be shocked to find out someday that I have never really known the Lord. And that should be the most terrifying thought any of us has ever had.


  • The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in hesed, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exod 34:6-7)
  • God does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 135:6)
  • God has the right to do whatever He pleases  (Rom 9:14-24; Isa 45:9-12)
  • God’s children have a heart for the things of God; if we want to be known by Jesus we must, by the Spirit’s power and also by God’s amazing grace, be transformed to become more like Jesus (Rom 8:1-11, 12:1-2; Matt 7:21-23, 25:31ff)

Image credit:
1) Jonah header image – ThoughtCo
Posted in Bible Stories, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul, the Institution of Slavery, and the Cross-shaped Life



Submitted to Dr. Joshua Jipp in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6252 Interpreting Paul and General Epistles at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Whether as a paper or a blog post, this writing is a woefully inadequate starting point for discussion on these issues. Both as I typed it originally and as I have been repurposing it now for republication as a blog post, I have felt its weight and how little I know about this difficult subject. I fear, as I throw this out onto the net for anyone to read, that it could be interpreted as somehow dismissive or unfeeling. I certainly hope not. In no way do I think the answers to these questions are easy or that I have them all figured out, but I think it’s important not to shy away from the discussion. So, thank you for reading my humble contribution to it. As I write, I fall back on the hope of God’s promise that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).


Slavery in 18th and 19th century America – along with the wickedness which spawned both the institution and related prejudices that exist even to our day – was and is a great injustice. It violates God’s character and defiles His image in human beings. The Apostle Paul has received no end of criticism from scholars, pastors and laypeople alike, reading passages like Philemon 1-25 and Col 3:18-4:1, who feel that Paul is signaling tacit approval of these institutions and patterns of human interaction that have caused so much suffering for so many. I believe, however, that these critics are misreading Paul. Or, at the very least, they are attempting to hijack the focus of his letters, asking him to answer questions he was not intending to answer when he wrote them.

Note: The NT book of Philemon is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a slaveowner in Colossae named Philemon. Paul is sending one of his slaves, Onesimus, back to Philemon with this letter. Onesimus had come to Christ through Paul’s ministry and was serving Paul in prison. Now, Paul is asking Philemon (also a Christian) to welcome Onesimus back as a brother (rather than a slave), because they both belong to the Lord.

The Scriptures, like any text, are to be read in light of the intention of their authors. This is a well-understood, well-defended biblical hermeneutic. We seek, as we study the bible, to understand what an author like Paul is doing with what he is saying – the so-called “world in front of the text,” or its “transhistorical intention.”[1] As such, I contend that Paul is doing something entirely different than his critics are demanding of him.

In this brief paper, I will attempt to demonstrate this fact, and describe the theology I believe Paul intends for us to adopt as a result of reading these passages. Finally, I will apply that Christological perspective specifically to the related topics of slavery and justice.

Fix Your Eyes on Things Above

Christians are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). We belong to another world. We are not to be conformed to the standards of this world, but to be transformed into new patterns of thinking and acting (Rom 12:2). We are called by God to fix our eyes on heavenly things (Col 3:2).

The Apostle Paul, following his dramatic face-to-face meeting with the risen Messiah, was absolutely consumed with this other-worldly perspective. His entire post-conversion life was oriented around principles and patterns of thinking that defied earthly custom. He had, instead, the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). When he planted churches and subsequently wrote letters to them, Paul communicated on every page the idea that we are to imitate the Messiah, Jesus, not the world around us. Consequently, understanding any of his letters must center on this truth.

Interpreting Philemon

The purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example, is to challenge Philemon’s perspective on human relationships in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He expects Philemon to function differently as a redeemed citizen of the Messiah’s kingdom. All the old divisions and hierarchies are no longer in play. There is no longer slave nor free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). The earthly status Philemon possesses as a slave owner is of no more consequence to Paul than his own status as a well-born, highly-educated Jewish Pharisee (Phil 3:4-8). Similarly, and no less shockingly, Onesimus’ earthly status as a slave is also irrelevant. What matters to Paul is that he, Philemon and Onesimus are all children of God and brothers in Christ (Phlm 16).

So, Paul isn’t writing about the institution of slavery in this letter per se – either to condone or condemn it. Rather, he is communicating the implications of the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus on human relationships, specifically in this case between Philemon and Onesimus. Although Roman culture may prescribe various patterns of relating that the world around them would readily embrace, Paul expects Philemon to look beyond / rise above them, and welcome Onesimus the way that Christ welcomed Philemon, not in the way any worldly institution (be it formalized slavery or any other) would dictate their interactions with one another. The only consideration Paul gives to earthly roles or titles or rights or privileges in his letter is to set the example of laying them aside for the sake of love (Phlm 8-9). To read Philemon as a Pauline critique for or against the institution of slavery is to miss Paul’s broader point: the ground is eminently level at the foot of the cross.

Interpreting Colossians 3:18-4:1

Similarly, in Colossians, Paul gives instructions to the various members of a typical Roman household on how to relate to one another in light of their rebirth in Christ. This list of so-called “household codes” specifically covers relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Again, Paul is not writing this letter to critique Roman social customs or family structures or the institution of slavery. His purpose is to teach the Colossians how to relate to one another. It dishonors the Lord for a slave – our modern equivalent might be a corporate employee or household servant – to do just enough to look good, but rather to labor as if they are working directly for God Himself, to please Him. Rather than looking to earthly wages (which would be zero in the case of a slave) as compensation for our work, we are to see God Himself as our benefactor. He will surely pay us extravagantly either as a reward for doing right or as a condemnation for doing wrong. Again, Paul calls us to look beyond earthly customs and institutions, and to fix our eyes on heaven – to understand the world around us in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

Paul’s Theology and the Centrality of the Gospel

But why stop there? Why does Paul not go on a rant about the inherent injustice and unfairness of slavery? Why not order Philemon to free all his slaves (surely, Onesimus wasn’t the only one), because to do otherwise is to fail to seek justice? Or, for that matter, why not give us, in Colossians, a treatise on the evils of patriarchal society, with all its misogynistic woes, and call for a new activist movement to be launched in Colossae to seek equality for women? Etc.

Avoiding Eisegesis

First of all, we can’t project our cultural values or the problems we discern in our modern society onto Paul and his writings. Slavery (not to mention the other cultural morays that form the backdrop of texts like Philemon or Colossians) in 1st century Asia Minor simply wasn’t the same institution as it was in 19th century America, or as Paul’s 21st century critics see it today. “Freedom” didn’t mean the same thing either. For the average Roman, a free person was still a servant of the emperor / empire. And for Paul, “freedom” meant freedom from sin for the sake of serving one another (Gal 5:13) and becoming a slave to righteousness (Rom 6:15-18). Nor did anyone in Paul’s world value (or it might be better to say worship) individualism and independence the way we do today. In fact, many slaves in Paul’s day would never want to be freed, because they knew that would mean a lack of provision (food) and protection. To be sure, 1st century slavery was wrought with injustice and pain, but it wasn’t remotely the same injustice and pain we remember as we look back at 19th century America.

In sum, we have to be very careful not to expect Paul to speak directly into a situation that wouldn’t exist for 2,000 years at the time of his writing. Instead, we must develop theology to apply to today’s world and culture, as we study God’s word, which is infallible “in all that it affirms”[2] not “to answer every question we think to ask.” If we discern the world in front of the text – what Paul is intentionally affirming; what he’s trying to accomplish with what he’s writing – then we can apply it to our situation today, unencumbered by an unwarranted disappointment in (or judgment of) Paul for failing to address it directly to our modern situation in our preferred terms.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

So, what is Paul affirming? His focus is entirely on the gospel: the reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and session of God’s Messiah, and its implications for individual and community life. To Paul, everything else is merely context for this amazingly good news. When in prison, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:12-14). When confronted by self-serving preachers, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:15-18). Flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, homeless, danger abounding, etc (2 Cor 11:23-28), and Paul is asking that we pray for his boldness to declare the gospel (Eph 6:19-20). Paul met with every form of injustice there was, but we never see him engaging in feverish activism for anything except the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think this is why Paul encourages people to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor 7:20). Paul views all of life – every decision, every role, every status – according to how it would affect the spread of the gospel message. It’s as if social institutions were unimportant to him, because he was laser-focused on Jesus. So, if you are unmarried, stop worrying about how to change your state for the better (as society would define it), and focus on how you can best serve Christ by loving others as a single person. If you are a husband or wife, then the same calling applies: how can you be the best husband or the best wife possible for Jesus and His Kingdom (so Col 3:19)? And if you are a slave, Paul applies the same thinking as well. Focus on the gospel. Be the church. Honor God in all you do, wherever you are. Be about the work of the Lord and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Bloom where you’re planted.

The Cruciform Life: Your Needs Over My Rights

No matter which of his letters we consider, we simply cannot conclude a conversation about Paul’s theology without talking about sacrificial love — “cruciform” love; love in the shape of the cross. This is perhaps the most prominent and important theme in Paul’s regenerate life, and therefore in his apostolic writing: imitating Christ in sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Paul firmly believes that, in so doing, he is fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Throughout the New Testament, we see him setting aside his rights for the sake of someone else’s needs. This pattern is so widespread that bible scholars have given it a formulaic descriptor: “although x, not y, but z.”[3] In both the Philemon (e.g. vv8-9) and Colossians passages mentioned, this mindset permeates Paul’s behavior and his expectation of those who would read his letters and imitate him as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1).

Inferring a Position on Slavery from Paul’s Christology

So, what does Paul’s theology in general – and his Christology in particular – tell us about his view of slavery? First, we know that Paul expects the follower of Christ to actually follow Christ’s example (Phil 2:5-11), becoming the servant of all (1 Cor 12:25; c.f. Mark 9:35). Even without talking about the image of God and the dignity of human life, we must understand this to preclude any Christian’s belief that they could own or enslave another human being. To be a Christian (a little Christ), one must seek to love her neighbor as herself (Rom 13:9; c.f. Mark 12:31), to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), to see each other as family, not property (Phlm 16), and so on. Slave ownership, whether in 19th century America or 1st century Colossae, does not and cannot exemplify these principles. So therefore, it would not meet Paul’s expectation of a godly cross-shaped life. It is an oxymoron for a Christian to condone slavery.

We also know that Paul intends every Christ-follower to be a slave to God, a slave to righteousness – a state of mind antithetical to being enslaved by or conformed to this world or the things of this world (Rom 6:15ff). This clearly implies that one who owns slaves (e.g. Philemon) and one who is owned as a slave (e.g. Onesimus) should both consider themselves slaves to God (Eph 6:8-9). But as I’ve described, this has little if anything to do with one’s seeking to escape from his or her current station in life as defined in this-worldly terms. Paul is concerned with matters of the heart and spirit, not matters of social station or status. In Paul’s mind, we must seek (and cooperate with the Spirit in attaining) freedom from any snare that would entangle us spiritually, whether we are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, etc. He is remarkably unfocused – one might even say disinterested – in the earthly context in which seeking that freedom (living the Christian life) occurs. Paul’s attitude toward his imprisonment in Philippians (1:12-14) is a helpful model for us in this regard. He does not seek his freedom; rather, he sees his imprisonment as yet the latest context in which he will continue to run the race (1 Cor 9:24ff) and complete his mission to preach the word in any circumstance (2 Tim 4:1-2).


Slavery is a great evil. It violates the image of God in human beings, goes against the grain of God’s character, and is at odds with the Christian life, as demonstrated and commanded by the Messiah, Jesus, and His apostle, Paul. However, it stands alongside a great many other social evils in this world, none of which were truly Paul’s focus when he wrote the epistles which now comprise most of the New Testament. Instead, like Jesus, Paul taught consistently about the shape and attitude of the heart – the inner life that overflows into outer behavior. Any sensible interpretation and application of Paul’s instruction to throw off worldly living and put on Christ (e.g. Eph 4:17ff) or his demonstrated life of cruciform love (e.g. Rom 15:1-7) must include a disdain for the institution of slavery and an eager willingness to undermine it as a legitimate human institution. The godly life of the follower of Jesus cannot include participation in or indifference toward slavery and all its works. It is therefore unnecessary in my view for Paul to make explicit demands on Philemon to free Onesimus or on the Colossian church to rise up as activists against slavery. Paul has instead called them (and us) to a much higher standard than that (which includes but far exceeds a godly contempt for slavery): to live the cross-shaped life of a follower of the Messiah, Jesus.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 43–48.
[2] “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” Dallas Theological Seminary, accessed March 16, 2018. http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
[3] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, Second Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 538.


Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. Second Ed. 1 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.

Kuruvilla, Abraham. Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013.

Image credit:
1) Slaves in cotton field – The Daily Beast
Posted in News, Politics and Culture, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment