Church leaders & believing our own hype

Churches and denominations are often guilty of talking themselves up in unrealistic ways. In certain charismatic and Pentecostal churches, for example, there is the perception that their calmer brethren are devoid of the Spirit. In the non-denominational church that I grew up in we seemed to think that the big Anglican church down the road was where our lukewarm members would defect to if they tired of our zeal and wanted to be anonymous.

One of the long-standing fictions that has befouled the denomination in which I now serve (and which in some measure is most likely true of every church) is that we are “getting it right” in a way that other churches are not. We have the Spirit (unlike the mainline churches). We have the Spirit without performative excesses (unlike the charismatics). We teach the Bible faithfully and well (and people only don’t flock to come hear us because we don’t tell itching ears what they want to hear).

All of us (I guess) believe our way is right, or else surely we’d do things another way, and so such prejudices are part of being human. Fortunately, many of our leaders have been self-critical enough to oppose such silly rhetoric.

Nevertheless, there is a fiction that our leaders might need to recognise in themselves, and that I think is universal enough to be worth raising more generally. For all our talk of servant leadership, it seems as though we actually have some difficulty coping with positions of authority, especially when a leader is clearly gifted in certain areas, and when God has used such leaders in the past. It can become difficult for such people to relinquish control or to acknowledge that God might gift and use others (even in their own congregation) without their help or permission.

I am prompted to bring it up because I discovered an interesting formulation of the problem in a book I am now reading about the prophet Samuel by an author named Marti Steussy.

Steussy is asking the question whether Samuel the prophet perhaps isn’t entirely blameless in the conflicts with Saul, and whether he isn’t motivated a little bit by the rejection of his own leadership and a desire to see Saul fail? (I think I probably disagree with her suggestions in this case, but nevertheless, the question is good. Whether one sees it in Samuel or not, it is certainly true that all of Israel’s leaders were deeply mixed characters, and it is appropriate to ask whether they are behaving rightly at any given point.) About the possibility that Samuel is over-stepping in his old age, Steussy writes:

“I have heard yet another kind of reaction to Samuel from students whose church traditions accord extremely high respect and authority to the pastor. A handful of such students have told me that Samuel reminds them of pastors they have known… These mentors were powerful, well-loved leaders who had earned respect by years of wise advice and courageous leadership. But eventually their leadership would be challenged, and the results could be ugly. The pastors seemed unable to accept that others might responsibly differ in their assessments of where the church should go. Too quickly, sometimes, the pastors equated questioning of their own programs with disobedience to God… Sometimes they used their power not only to resist but to punish those who, in their view, stepped out of line… Always they were hurt and confused by what they perceived as the ungratefulness of their congregations.” (Samuel and his God, p. 6)

Now I am not disputing that there is a legitimate problem when members of a congregation become divisive and oppose the pastor in ungodly ways. However, it is surely necessary to acknowledge that there is equally a possibility for leaders to become too convinced of their own centrality to what goes on in a congregation? Surely leaders can assert their leadership in ways that are arrogant or divisive or controlling?

Batman at the end of The Dark Knight preferred to die a hero rather than to live long enough to become the villain, and my concern is that leaders all run the risk of neglecting the wisdom of this idea. Countries often become enslaved to their old liberators, and church leaders too can become guilty of believing their own hype.

As wrong as Israel’s request for a king might have been, Samuel had raised wicked sons and intended to hand the reins over to them. When the people resisted that idea, he took it to be that they were rejecting his leadership. God had to re-align his thinking even on that point. Samuel’s leadership was only ever a proxy of God’s own rule—it was God they were rejecting.

The Apostle Paul, on the other hand (himself not a blameless character), was able to view opposition to his ministry with remarkable humility. When other preachers were trying to raise their own profile and add to his misery in prison—genuine selfishness on their part—what was Paul’s response? At least the gospel is being preached! (Php. 1:18)

Similarly, Christian leaders need to take extreme care that they cultivate humility and a deep sense of the precarious responsibility that they exercise. We who hold some position of leadership need to acknowledge with Paul that our achievements are losses (Php. 3:7) and that our only responsibility is the advance of the gospel. We might be called shepherds of the flock, but we are not owners. In another real sense, we are sheep ourselves. Whatever role you might think you have, it is Christ who is the head, and he demands that we recognise that our place in the body is limited and partial. The minister needs the church more than the church needs the minister: “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1Co 12:14), and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Co 12:7). Ministers do not lead a dumb flock; on the contrary, the point of good leadership is to facilitate the exercise of everyone’s gifts.

All Christians, but our leaders most especially, need to consciously and regularly remove ourselves from any thoughts that we are central to God’s plan. We are to remember that whatever gifts we have are lent to us, and they are to be humbly exercised for the gospel, for the many, and for the common good.

If it takes deep humility to become a Christian, how much more does it take to lead other Christians? May God help us all to give humility pride-of-place among the virtues.


Ricky Gervais and Begging the Question

I have had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with begging the question lately, the most recent being a suggested video from YouTube featuring Ricky Gervais.


I chose this version of the video both because it was the one that YouTube initially recommended and because its headline writer is so heart-warmingly excited about how much they agree with Gervais


Begging the Question

Begging the question is quite difficult to understand firstly because it is popularly misused when we want to say “raising the question” or “failing to answer the question”, and secondly because it uses archaic language to tag what is already a reasonably confusing idea. For all that, it is nevertheless an argument fallacy that is shockingly common.

One is begging the question when one’s argument requires the desired conclusion to be true for the argument itself to work; in other words, one is ‘begging’ one’s hearer to accept as true the very thing that one is trying to prove (the ‘question’). Like I said, it is quite confusing.

It is not unlike the classic loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” While it requires a yes/no answer, both options are incriminating. You either have beaten your wife, or you still are. The way that the question is phrased pushes you to admit guilt. In a similar way, begging the question also requires the hearer to accept something undesirable as a fact, and that ‘something’ is the very conclusion that is under dispute.

For example, I have come across a ‘proof for God’s existence’ that has as one of its premises that the Bible is inspired; thereafter, it follows that the Bible claims that God exists, and therefore God must exist. It is a slightly better argument when not abbreviated like this, but to use inspiration as a premise for this argument begs the question because inspiration (when used of the Bible) is the idea that God is ultimately its author. In other words, the premise depends on God existing; it doesn’t prove that God exists.

How Does Ricky Beg the Question?

One of the early arguments in the linked video is that if religion were not spoken about at all to children, then we’d see a ‘different pattern’ in society; i.e. people mostly only believe religious ideas because they are inculcated very early on and with the same level of unquestionable authority as “don’t touch the fire” or “don’t go near the wolf”.

At about 1m30s, he says,

“If [religion] is given that same level of credence and truth, you’re never going to get over it. It’s going to be a lot harder to undo that.”

On one level, I agree with him. Religion, in general, has often survived because of fear and indoctrination. As I am someone who finds only one religion credible, I would also agree with him that most religious teaching needs to be ‘got over’.

It is unfortunate that Christendom at points in history most certainly used fear and coercion to keep up the numbers (and some Christians continue to do this ), though I would argue this approach is opposed to Christian theology. In fact, the movement that had to rescue Christianity from Christendom (i.e. the Reformation) claimed their gospel as a message of liberation and freedom, over against the fear and manipulation of the church. In other words, (although this is very reductionistic) the most prominent and violent Christian conflict in history was waged in order to free Christian theology from authoritarian Imperial control.

But as an argument for atheism, I think that Gervais is (among other things) begging the question. Why? Because we can only agree with him that it is bad to teach children about God if God is a myth that we’ve invented (as the question at 0m30s claims). In other words, if the atheists are correct and there is no God, then yes, it is unfortunate that myths are propagated as truth. However, if there is a God, then one would be doing massive harm by raising children as though there isn’t, because the assumptions that underpin naturalism are equally hard to undo.

Christianity ultimately depends on the resurrection of Christ having been an historical event. There is good evidence for it, but how you process that evidence depends in large measure on unprovable presuppositions that you bring with you. If it is possible that there is a God who cares about the world, then there is nothing impossible about the idea of a resurrection that was the ultimate demonstration of that love for the world. If, on the other hand, you would say with the likes of Hume and Dawkins that a lie is always overwhelmingly more likely than a miracle, then what evidence for the resurrection would ever persuade you?

We’re all responsible for training our children in how to make sense of the world. It is unavoidable and it is never neutral. As with all the other circumstances of their birth and upbringing, what we give them will either prove to be a blessing or a curse. As I experience following Jesus to be an uncoerced and unqualified good, I have no fear in recommending it to my children. If it proves to be a mirage in this desert, then pity my hope if you like.

Ricky is concerned that religion is bullied into kids, and I agree that this is bad. Ricky would rather that kids be given the opportunity to choose without coercion, and again I agree that this is good. We even both seem to agree that teaching kids to think is good. But I disagree with him that atheists have a monopoly on that.

Grudem’s Strange Support for Trump

I frequently urge our theology students here in Cape Town to be willing to disagree with the celebrated commentators and theologians whom they read, because our natural state is to revere those scholars who have major published works and who have become household names, and defer to them as authorities instead of testing what they say.

It was surprising (on one level) to see one such celebrated scholar coming out in support of Donald Trump this week. Wayne Grudem is well known here for his accessible Systematic Theology, and for partnering with John Piper on the less-good Biblical Manhood and Womanhood stuff. But he has ably demonstrated his human fallibility by radically over-correcting the anti-Trump sentiment that he detects among some of his peers. His article featured on Town Hall is an attempt at an ethical argument in favour of Trump, but it is deeply disappointing on several levels.

I must say up front that I am not American, not particularly knowledgeable about politics or economics, and I do not have much expertise when it comes to speaking about Trump or Clinton. And disdain for Trump is in no way to be read as support for Hillary. Right at the start of the primaries I joked at how ridiculous it would be if the Americans had to choose between these two arch-demons, and now a year later or so (and one Brexit under the belt), here we are. Democracy this year keeps delivering the theatre of the absurd.

Christian or Republican? Pick one

As an outsider to American culture, I feel I am at least well placed to see what is harder to recognise from the inside, and one seemingly regular problem in the States, and a pervasive one in Grudem’s article, is the unfortunate confusion of Republicanism and Christianity.

For example, Grudem speaks as though it is Christian duty to support big business over big government, to affirm that government spending on healthcare is bad and that government spending on America’s big military is good. These are big Republican issues, but they seem to me to be preferences and not Christian issues.

It seems to me that Christians can support (well enough) several of the positions of either party as being compatible with their Christian faith. The Republicans can’t, it seems to me, keep claiming that all their preferences are the Christian ones, just because they are policies that are broadly thought of as conservative. And it is certainly true that Christians need to be Christians first and party-members second—it is not an article of the faith to be on the right wing.


The second issue concerns freedom. His slippery-slope argument that Hillary would install ‘liberal activist judges’, who would then curtail freedom of speech and religion, promote more odious abortions laws etc.—if true—was the most persuasive reason for voting Trump (though Hillarophobia is still not an argument that Trump is a good candidate). He provided several anecdotes of tendencies in American society to vilify anyone for holding to religious or moral convictions that have recently become unpopular. If that is a fair assessment, it is worrying.

But his column is also angling for ‘Christian’ government (headed by Trump! Can you imagine that?) so that there can be prayer in schools, or on the football field before games, Grudem specifically adds, and other explicit government-backed promotions of Christianity in public.

I am confused as to why it is the government’s job to promote one religion to a people that clearly are not of homogeneous views on the matter. It’s all very well for Grudem when it is a ‘Christian’ party that stands to inherit the throne, but how would he feel if it were a Muslim party? Would he be advocating the government’s role in promoting respect for the name of God then, or would he be talking up the importance of pluralism and government sticking to secular policy and not meddling with religious freedom?

By all means advocate that Christians should be allowed to be Christian in public, but making non-Christians observe prayer times etc. seems like a wrong turn to me. That’s not religious freedom. It’s religious constraint of which you happen to approve.

Trump’s Promises

Perhaps the worst thing about Grudem’s article is its disingenuity. He is happy, it seems, to parrot Trump’s ludicrous campaign promises as though they were fait accompli, and to paint Clinton’s campaign as though she were Jezebel herself.

Trump is full of big promises and talks eagerly about the wonderful end product (America will be great again!), but has no political experience and rarely will be drawn on how he intends to reach these idyllic goals. And when he is, lest we forget, the solutions tend to be one part racism and one part nonsense. Ban all Muslims from the US. Build a wall on the Mexican border.

For an ethicist, Grudem is remarkably uncritical about this. In fact, he specifically approves of the idea that acts of terror and immigration policies are connected (“Trump has repeatedly promised that he will finally secure our borders, an urgent need to protect the nation from ever more terrorists and drug smugglers.”), and says things like this:

“Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.”

Trump doesn’t seem tough to me, he seems insecure, but even granting this, how does one ‘get tough’ with China or Putin in constructive ways? Getting ‘tough’ with Al Qaida led to expensive and unpopular wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and rather than resolving the tense anti-American atmosphere in the Middle East, we now have yet another anti-West group in Isis. But Grudem remains convinced that Trump knows the answer; the answer is to defeat them:

“Trump has pledged to aggressively attack and utterly defeat ISIS”.

That’s it. No plan (but for another implied ‘big push’); just a declaration of the nearly impossible end result.


The fact that Trump’s policies often represent a convenient about-turn on what he has claimed in the past, and the idea that he was motivated to run because of his concern for America’s poor, and not because he was mercilessly humiliated at more than one White House correspondent’s dinner, these are things for which Grudem also gives Trump a free pass.

Trump’s character

Grudem is aware that Trump is a man of weak character. He concedes:

“He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”

What I find odd is that, as a Christian, Grudem can see these as matters of little consequence. Leaving aside that marital unfaithfulness was enough evidence for Republicans that Mr Clinton was unfit for office, the Bible is witheringly critical of people who are proud and lovers of money. Pride and avarice are not uncommon in politicians, but Trump is the eager epitome of each of these things. This is a man who refuses to forget that the editor of Vanity Fair called him a “Short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988. Pride is not a small problem; it is a crippling danger in leadership, which is why it is telling that the greatest biblical leaders, especially Moses and Jesus (cf. Num. 12:3), were characterised as humble, and the wicked kings and Pharaohs are proud. The Bible repeatedly says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Grudem fails to mention how often Trump has been caught out as a liar, and he fails to mention dishonest and exploitative business ventures such as Trump University in which he made clear promises about the quality of the programmes on offer that were never kept.

To call him a “good candidate with flaws” is a galling whitewash. Speaking of whitewashing…

“On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against him are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made.”

Mr Grudem, if he says bigoted things in unguarded moments, it pretty much means he’s a bigot.

Clear argument fallacies

And finally, the reasons given why Trump is good in spite of all appearances to the contrary are often remarkably devoid of critical thinking. Grudem says:

“Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.”

Dave Barry answered this one several years ago:


A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. Or as Jesus put it: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Someone who is able to be pleasant to those to whom he has an interest in being pleasant is not a remarkable person. It is the person who is able to be kind and generous to those who are opposed to them who is genuinely praiseworthy. Trump is clearly and publicly not that guy.

Grudem also says,

“These American citizens recognize that Trump has built a business career on listening to experts, solving problems, and getting things done. They realize that Trump didn’t earn $4 billion by being stupid, and their instinct says that he might be exactly the right person to solve some of the biggest problems in a nation that has for too long been headed in the wrong direction and stuck in political gridlock.”

I am again surprised that Grudem confuses being rich with having virtue and competence. Apart from anything else, Trump  earned $4b by inheriting it from his dad, if I am not mistaken. But even if he is good at making money, there is no reason to expect that it is a transferable skill, or that Trump is reliable in other areas. Convincing a fellow capitalist that you can make them lots of money and convincing Iran not to build nukes have very little in common. (Also, if riches and problem solving make Trump a good candidate, why not Pablo Escobar?)

As for the comment about political gridlock, that problem seems to me to be the result of the long-standing refusal of Republicans and Democrats to work together, largely, it seems, because the rhetoric that one side uses of the other (as this column typifies) is routinely full of prejudiced, fallacious views of the other’s position. I expected that Grudem would show his opponents the charity of representing them fairly, but he uses the same polarising, us-and-them tactics that he thinks Donald Trump will fix.

The only way that Trump will fix political gridlock, and this really is a reason to vote for him, is that surely this time Republicans and Democrats together will be united in undermining their president. Already some Republican leaders have admitted that they will vote Democrat, because sometimes the party has to come second.

Grudem argues in his column that some Republican Christians “may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing.” He is incorrect that not voting is the same as doing nothing. Not voting can also be a statement that the system that produced Donald Trump as a viable candidate is terminally ill. It is a statement of protest against the prejudicial propaganda that delights more in spoiling the opponent than listening to them and that has led to the political gridlock that he mentions.

It is disappointing that Grudem has encouraged Christian support for Trump, not because Christians should rather support Hillary, but because Christians should represent integrity and love for their enemies, and they can’t do that by supporting a ‘Christian’ candidate of patently anti-Christian character, and they can’t do that by perpetuating the divisive rhetoric that has led to the sorry state of affairs that America seems to be in. In my opinion, an article about the Christian vote in the upcoming election should rather be characterised by mourning and much searching of heart.



I have subsequently been linked to an article that fittingly does just that. It is well worth reading:

Purpose-Driven Preaching

Re-posted from the GWC blog.

I must confess – I have been known to be a boring preacher. Often being boring is not a matter of preparation or expertise, or style of delivery. Often we bore people because we fail to consider purpose.

What characterises a bore? Imagine you’re at a social occasion—perhaps a dinner or a dance. What is this bore doing? The bore would not be sitting with me, watching others dance and wondering “What does this all mean?” The bore is not fiddling with his or her phone or reading a book or otherwise failing to be exciting. Invariably, he or she is talking—talking too much while everyone else wonders, “Why are you telling me this?

I still recall sitting with a distant relative and being told about the size and value-for-money of a pie he had bought and how long it took him to eat it—he told this story for about half an hour.

In our circles we pride ourselves in the quality of our preaching—how rigorously we are schooled in the Bible and how faithfully we present the word of God—but I suspect some of us preachers are at risk of having too much in common with the average bore. Of course, talking too much is not the issue—preaching is, if nothing else, the act of talking while a group of people (often against their will) sits and listens. What we may share in common, though, is the question we provoke in the minds of our listeners: “What is your point?”

Preaching instruction often focuses heavily on shaping the content that our prospective preachers will present—whether by finding the supposed ‘main idea’ of the text, or by mastering a basic three-point structure, or by stating, illustrating and applying each point. These are helpful guides for rookies, but not the only essentials to preaching.

Alternatively, preaching training might emulate a Toastmasters group in emphasising the delivery of the message—as if varying tone and pace, making eye contact, waving your arms, or mastering Powerpoint will engage the audience. It helps, but above all it is content that matters. If the audience is superficially entertained, you might have helped them avoid boredom, but the nagging dissatisfaction of not knowing why will remain—“Why are you telling me this?

I have borrowed Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose-Driven’ trademark (at least until the cease-and-desist order) to address what I think is a chief shortcoming in much of today’s preaching—it lacks awareness of purpose. There are too many outstanding ‘why?’ questions. I don’t know why the preacher is saying what he’s saying; I’m not sure that heknows why he’s saying what he’s saying (except perhaps that it has to do with the text); and I’m not sure that the preacher knows why the author of the text is saying what he’s saying.

Cool Hand Luke

A key difference between good preaching and boring preaching is to recognise that a sermon is a piece of communication. Ordinary communication is always purpose-driven: we have something we wish to tell a certain hearer for a certain reason, and we select what we say accordingly. And unlike at church, if we take too long, we’ll be told to get to the point. Communication aims to achieve a certain purpose in the hearer—and so communication is only as effective as the ability of the hearer to receive it. In preaching, it doesn’t matter how good your preparation in your study is, if you do not accommodate the message to the level and needs of your audience, the message will pass them by.

There is ultimately no difference between excellent exegesis that no one heard and a terrible exposition of the text that no one heard. In either case, no one heard it.

We often spend too much time re-saying things that are in the text, just because they are in the text. This is to forget that preaching is an act of communication, and that communication is ultimately listener-focused. The listener becomes bored not because the Bible is boring, but because he or she doesn’t know why you’re repeating what it says. Why are you telling me this?

By contrast, being listener-focused means:

  • understanding your audience well enough to know why they ought to listen to the message—if you haven’t found something about the text that you absolutely have to tell them, perhaps you should look again or pick a new text;
  • making sure that your audience understands why they ought to listen—sermons should self-consciously persuade the audience of the importance of the message; and
  • applying the text (i.e. teasing out the implications for the listener, or showing how the text confronts us all and demands change) is as important as the content itself.

Preaching is an act of communication: it is about taking a message from God given millennia ago, and communicating it (by God’s help) powerfully and prophetically to your own audience. This demands that we know why the original author said what he did to his people, and that we know why we’re saying what we’re saying to ours. Being ‘faithful to the text’ is only half the job of preaching; being faithful as a preacher means making sure that the text is heard.

If you’ve chosen what to say with a sense of purpose, and if you convince your hearer of that purpose, you’ll inspire less boredom and more people.

Some Advice for Preachers

1. Make sure to answer more ‘Why?’ questions than ‘What?’ questions. Your message should be an act of persuasion—you should be addressing the will of your hearer with God’s word.

2. About whatever you choose to say, you must be able to answer the question, “Why is this important?” And the answer should not be “For your information” (at least not too often).

3. Don’t let application be an afterthought, and don’t let it be shallow. Spend more time on it than you think you should, and spend more time in the study generating ideas about how the text might address different groups in your congregation or people in various stages of life.

4. Vague, boring application is often the result of vague, generalised understanding of the text. Preaching only the ‘main point’ (if it is used as an excuse to dispense with the detail) leads to the same repetitive generalisations emerging week-by-week. The unique contribution(s) of each text are as important as its ‘big point’, especially in application. Understand texts in detail, even if your resultant sermons remain simple (in fact, simplicity is born of depth of understanding).

5. When applying the text, be specific and concrete rather than generalised and abstract. For example, don’t only tell people that God hates idolatry (so don’t put anything else in God’s place). Almost everybody will say that God is the most important thing in their life—until you delve into how much they trust their money, or defend their reputation, or in practice prefer their leisure.

Californian ‘Pastor’ on Florida Massacre

In the news today, a Californian ‘pastor’ found his biggest ever audience after his message about the attack on the gay club in Florida went global.

In his message, he called for ‘normal people’ to stand up against wickedness—a call that I think I ought to answer.

He also claimed that the uproar about his message is an attack on free speech, but this is incorrect. Free speech encourages the testing of ideas in the market of public opinion; it is the same free speech that allows him to say such things that also allows the rest of us to respond with vitriol and abhorrence—a response to which I think I would like to add.

The substance of his message is that Romans 1 identifies homosexuals as wicked and deserving of death, and thus we should not mourn at the death of 50 ‘sodomites’, but should see it as ‘great’. We should rather mourn that someone didn’t ‘finish the job’.

Somehow he also manages to claim that the Bible says that all homosexuals are predators and pedophiles, which it doesn’t, and he encourages his listeners to find the verse where Paul says that the wicked ‘receive in themselves the due penalty for their perversion’, and next to it write ‘AIDS’.

You can watch the nauseating highlights package here.

There is so much wrong with what that man says that I imagine that most of us think it is self-evident from a Christian perspective. Yet this is an occasion on which I think it should not go without saying. So let me make a few corrections first of the theory:

  • None of what that man says is ‘the word of God’, as he claims. Preachers throw that phrase around far too much. The Bible may well be the word of God, but interpretation of it is the word of man. Stop pinning the idiotic mess of an interpretation that you’ve made on God.
  • Homosexuality may well be a sin, according to the Bible, but look more carefully at what Romans 1 is saying. Paul gives dual realms in which rebellion against God leads to debasement: the first is bodily (1:24) and the example given is of homosexuality (for reasons not worth going into now). The second realm is in the mind (1:28) and note what expressions of debasement it leads to: the full gamut from murder to gossip, slander and disobedience to one’s parents. It is the end of these people that is death (1:32).

So according to the argument of the text that this ‘pastor’ claims to be using, sin is idolatry (the rejection of God for substitutes); it expresses itself in various ways, including covetousness and gossip; and everyone who sins has a death penalty over them. So if we’re to rejoice at the death of the homosexual, then we must rejoice also at the death of the nice gossipy old lady who sits in church every week.

And indeed, if slander is among these crimes worthy of death, what must be done with the man who slanders homosexuals by claiming that they are all predators and pedophiles?

Let’s take further issue with the manner of that man’s sermon. Leaving aside his slander, how is it that one can read the Bible and still be arrogant towards those who sin? Has he not realised (if he has indeed been forgiven) the magnitude of his own debt from which he has been released? Perhaps God will spare him that penalty of death, but does he deserve it any less?

Oddly, in spite of choosing a text from this section, he has failed to understand the overall (and very obvious) point of Romans 1-3, namely, that there is no one who is righteous before God, but that everyone is under the penalty of death—even the self-righteous law-keeper who delights in condemning the sins of the outsider (Romans 2:1-24).

Listen to what Paul says about homosexuality elsewhere:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

It’s all very well railing on the ‘sinner’ deserving death, but if Christianity is about one thing, it’s about seeing oneself in that hopeless position, not railing on the outsider.

In fact, Paul makes this explicit just a chapter earlier. It is often said that Christians should not judge, but Paul disagrees. We should judge, he says. Only we should judge those within the church. Observe:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of [Christian] if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. (1Corinthians 5:11-13a)

I wish Christians would put this verse on a fridge-magnet. Why do we never hear  fiery evangelical sermons on this subject? Perhaps Verity Baptist Church can consider this passage for their next sermon series? The sinner that the church should be interested in judging and expelling is this revolting pastor. God will determine what is to be done to those on the outside.

Homosexuality is regarded as a sin in the Bible, but the same Bible tells us to love the sinner and mourn for those who die far from God. Anyone who thinks that God approves of their hate best beware:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)


Response to Brad Trout on Baptism

TW Cover FinalBradley Trout very kindly reviewed my book on baptism, Troubled Waters, from a Baptist perspective, and his responses are certainly very heartening. You can read it here. He was subsequently kind enough to clear up some of my minor misreadings of his post in private. What follows is my response to him, and many thanks to him for his time and generosity.

Troubled Waters argues that the two major ways of understanding baptism—what we’ve labelled believer’s baptism and paedobaptism—are incompatible all the way down to their foundations, and so it is at the foundational level that discussion needs to be had, otherwise we will continue to talk past one another. Brad’s review was appreciative of this approach, and agrees that it does offer a way forward for the discussion.

Perhaps the main point of difference between our two baptism traditions is over what baptism does. Obviously, if we don’t agree on what it does, it is pointless to go on to ask whether the children of believers can also be baptised (because that question depends on the answer to the first)—and yet most discussions of baptism fail even to consider the first question.

Perhaps this question gets glossed over because on one level, both sides agree about what baptism does—it is a sign of regeneration (that is, the gift of the Spirit by which one is ‘born again’), and it initiates a person into the Christian church.

However, when one looks more closely, the agreement that we seem to have is perhaps not as complete as one would like.

Firstly, the sign: baptism is a sign of regeneration, but believers baptists tend to see it as a sign that the individual baptismal candidate has become regenerate (or is at least claiming to be regenerate). Paedobaptists rather think of it as a sign that may be fulfilled only in the future. Think of it like this: imagine you reach a fork in the road, and there is a sign that reads ‘New York’ (for the sake of argument) pointing down one path. It may not tell you how far down the road New York is, but this is the New York road.  The paedobaptist believes that the sign of baptism may be of this kind—pointing to a road (and the destination is simply ‘this way’). If you can recognise that a sign is able to function like this—marking a change in direction rather than a destination—you are closer to understanding how paedobaptists typically understand baptism and regeneration.

Why do paedobaptists try to make this seemingly odd distinction? It is because of the second point of disagreement: the way in which baptism joins one to the church. The camps disagree over whether baptism:

  • recognises a person’s wish to become a follower of Christ and bonds them to the visible church community (as paedobaptists typically believe); or
  • celebrates a person’s regeneration and marks their entry into the true church (as believer’s baptists typically believe—see for example Troubled Waters, pp. 65-66).

Paedobaptists do not believe that it is possible to know at what point someone is regenerated, and so baptism can’t function as the sign of the destination; it functions as the sign that points in the correct direction.

This long preface is an attempt to explain why Brad and I disagree about baptism, in spite of our many areas of agreement.

Brad is a slightly unusual case, because he sees himself as a visible-church Baptist. As such, he chiefly disagrees with my book’s characterisation of believer’s baptists. Troubled Waters says that the believer’s-baptist view sees baptism as for the born-again only, and that they must examine candidates to see if their profession is credible. For Brad, it is enough that someone claims to believe and that there are no obvious impediments to that claim. Brad says:

“[Believer’s baptists] recognize that we can’t [test for regeneration] with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church).”

Although Brad sees his form of baptism as being into the visible church, his assumptions seem to me still to operate within a true-church paradigm. What I mean is, he still sees the sign as pointing to the individual’s regeneration (the true-church view); he merely agrees that we can’t be fully sure that that has happened for someone else, and so we need to take their word for it.

Let’s look at how these views differ.

True Church vs Visible Church

Look at the diagram of the true-church view below:


In the true-church paradigm, there are really only two categories: those who are regenerate Christians and those who aren’t. Baptism should take place shortly after someone has converted, and so someone’s personal declaration of faith is all-important. Under this paradigm, baptising babies is clearly illegitimate, because before they are reasonably self-aware they are not capable of declaring faith or being regenerate. This is why believer’s baptists accuse paedobaptists of baptising non-Christians when they baptise infants:

“Baptists are… men and women who do not wish to confuse the church with the world… Baptism stands at the door of the church; a church that opens to receive believers and closes to exclude unbelievers. Once a Christian community begins to welcome the unbeliever, the half-believer and the infant incapable of belief within its actual membership, that community will begin to lose its spiritual zeal and evangelical experience.” (Bridge & Phypers, quoted in Troubled Waters, p. 113f)

Brad shows vestiges of this binary view (Christian / non-Christian) when he says [emphasis mine]:

“Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing.”

“Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field [in the parable of the wheat and the weeds] does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?”

In Brad’s view—it seems to me—the church may in practice consist also of impostors, but at least in theory and in what we aim for it to be, it should consist of true Christians. As Brad said to me privately, baptism as a sign should point to a reality: salvation.

But look at the visible-church view (as it is understood in Troubled Waters) below:


In this paradigm, it is acknowledged that there is a true church made up of the regenerate, and anyone who is unregenerate is on the outside, but it is also acknowledged that the identity of this community is known only to God. How do we know when salvation takes place? Is it possible for baptism to signify an individual’s salvation if we don’t know when it takes place?

So in the visible-church view (or my preferred term—in discipleship baptism), we don’t see baptism as celebrating salvation (the unseen changing of the heart); we see it as formalising the commitment to follow Christ (the changing of the mind).  The sign does indeed signify salvation (‘this way’), but in its function, it marks that observable transition from outsider to disciple. The individual’s profession of faith is still important, but the thing that the church is looking for from the candidate is personal commitment to take up their cross and follow Christ—that the person wishes to be on the road to salvation (wherever the definitive salvation event actually takes place for that person).

In discipleship baptism, it is recognised that a person’s actual spiritual state before God is unknowable except to God, and so it affirms what can be known about a person’s status from the outside; namely:

  • Their profession—we can know whether they claim to follow (to be disciples) or not;
  • Their fruit—we can know when their behaviour matches or doesn’t match their profession (see Matthew 7:20; but bear in mind, the very next verse (7:21) implies that some church superstars will be strangers to Christ at the End; so even fruit is not an infallible indicator); and
  • Their perseverance—we can know whether they persevere or leave (As 1 John 2:19 says: “[Antichrists] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” According to John here, being in the church or out the church is as sure a sign as we have that someone belongs or not).

As I tried to demonstrate in the book, the latter two criteria are the best indicators that someone is truly Christian, but neither of these is available at the start of one’s walk. Baptism therefore seems not to be for marking salvation but only the personal commitment to be on the road.

The discipleship-baptism paradigm is not resigned to a church made up of Christian and non-Christian (the ‘shoulder shrug’)—this paradigm is merely taking seriously that we have no view of someone’s true status.  And discipleship baptism does play a role in keeping the church pure by being the ‘contract’ on which church discipline is based—when a disciple behaves as a non-Christian, the church is able to call a person to account for the promises made at baptism.

It’s not that regeneration is irrelevant to discipleship baptism; it is just that regeneration is God’s work within the church—at some point along the road and not uniformly at its beginning. Discipleship baptism understands the rite in terms of what can be known about a candidate at the start of the Christian walk—that they are professing to follow Christ and must be held accountable to the terms of that profession. It makes baptism as a rite more significant, because rather than merely celebrating a conversion that hopefully proves genuine, baptism actually does something—it enters a person into the church. And when someone leaves the church and the faith, they are not proving their baptism false; they are revoking it.

So we would merely wish that both traditions could unite in using baptism to mark the beginning of the road, which is what it seems to be for in the New Testament.

So what about children?

The biggest sticking point, then, and the main expression of our division over baptism, is the matter of the children of believers. As mentioned above, Baptist heavyweights Grudem and Ware insist that infants cannot be baptised, because babies are incapable of profession of faith, and incapable of being individually regenerate.

However, if we are correct that baptism signifies simply the entry to the visible church and the personal commitment to follow Christ, then the stakes are significantly lower. Neither camp seems to contest that the children of believers belong in the visible church—in other words, neither camp sees it as strange for children to attend church meetings, nor treats them as outsiders to the faith. Paul, for example, addresses children with instructions in his epistles, which implies a form of discipleship. Because kids follow their parents into the church and because they are held accountable to the terms of Christian discipleship, they should be baptised as disciples and thus be held accountable (in an age-appropriate way).

Or one could approach the matter from a different direction—what is lost if one baptises children as disciples when it really ought to be only for adults? We haven’t in baptism declared them to be regenerate; only followers whom we believe will become regenerate by grace if they persevere along the road of discipleship. The only thing that is lost, really, is that they are robbed of an occasion on which they can personally declare that they wish to be members in their own right. (And there is nothing stopping us making a ceremony for that purpose if we feel its loss.)


In conclusion, the believer’s baptist need not be cynical about discipleship baptism, as though it makes the church impure, or represents the entry of ‘non-Christians’ into the church, or represents indifference to the holiness of the community. None of those things is implied.

The point is that scripture and reason both point to baptism as a rite for disciples, and if we can agree on that, we are still free to determine by our own conscience whether or not infants can be default disciples (by virtue of their obedience to Christian parents), or if discipleship needs to be consciously chosen. At least we’ll be able to acknowledge that very little of consequence is at stake in that discussion, and we’ll be able to unite without conflict under the gospel.

Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at and other major retailers.

A Bridge over Troubled Waters?

Brad Trout

Brad Trout

By Bradley Trout

Pastor Bradley Trout is one of the elders at Mountain View Baptist Church in Lakeside, CT. In this post, he reviews and critiques Troubled Waters from a Baptist perspective. Many thanks to him for taking the time to engage with the book. Read more from Brad at Subtle Manifesto. Did the book persuade him to change any of his views? My responses will follow in a later post.

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“Troubled Waters” is an apt description of the centuries-long baptism debate in which people have argued, heaped ridicule, and even killed each other over the issue of whether or not to baptize babies. Jordan’s book attempts to bridge these troubled waters (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel); does it succeed?

A Voyage over Troubled Waters

The main section of Troubled Waters (TW) gets going with a discussion about where baptism originated. Here it is argued that baptism is a sign of cleansing, with the purpose of signalling initiation into the church (chapter 4). Chapters 5 and 6 form the heart of the book’s approach. Chapter 5 shows that the promises made to Abraham are also foundational to the new covenant and that circumcision was a sign of righteousness by faith. This means that there is a precedent for the inclusion of infants into biblical covenants. Chapter 6 – possibly the most important chapter of the book – looks at the nature of the church. While both believers’ baptists (BB) and paedobaptists (PB) agree that baptism makes a person part of the church, they differ on what kind of church is being referred to: the visible church (i.e., those who claim to be Christians) or the invisible church (i.e., those who are really regenerate Christians). Here we get to the essence of the difference in approach between the two major baptism camps:

The groups disagree about which of these two kinds of church baptism is used for. Paedobaptists see baptism as initiation into the visible church. Believers’ baptists see it as an initiation into the true church. (p. 63)

The issue, then, is whether or not the NT expects us to be able to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65). Yet this key issue is often ignored in the discussion over the nature of baptism.

This leads to what is perhaps the book’s central argument: The NT is pessimistic about our ability to ascertain whether or not people are regenerate and actually discourages us from trying to do so. Instead of thinking, therefore, about who is and isn’t regenerate, we should think in the categories of who is a disciple (considered as one inside the church community) and who isn’t (considered as one outside the church community). This means that the purpose of baptism is to initiate disciples into the visible church, not to initiate the regenerate into the true church (pp. 63-78).

Chapter 8 fills in what this means for children. Children are included in the (visible) church because they follow their parents as their parents follow Christ and are therefore also disciples.  This is why the NT treats children as part of the church of disciples. So, in short, TW presents a case for discipleship baptism – the view that anyone associated with the church community, whether by choice or birth, should receive the sign of entry into that community. Progress could be made, Jordan suggests, by recognizing that the issue lies in whether baptism is for the visible church or the true church. The waters have remained troubled for failing to locate the discussion on this point.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

I really appreciated the tone of this book. Anyone who has been traumatized by reading Jay Adams’ rather vitriolic Meaning and Mode of Baptism may experience a measure of healing as they read TW. The work is even-handed, generous, and sincere in its attempt to lay out the issues as fairly and accurately as possible. This is rather unusual for a book about baptism – a topic renowned for polarisation. It is therefore refreshing to read things like this:

These days, we have generally got past the desire to kill those who disagree with our positions on baptism, but we have not entirely left behind the nastiness that has for so long characterised this debate (p. 10).

Kudos to Jordan for the call to generosity in this discussion, and then for exemplifying it throughout TW.

Baptized into what church?

I want to focus this review on what I think is the nub of the issue, as TW presents it.  At the heart of the argument is what PB’s and BB’s believe about the relationship between baptism and the church. According to TW, PB’s baptize in order initiate someone into the visible church, whereas BB’s baptize in order to initiate people into the invisible church.

So, PB’s do not see baptism as necessarily correlating with regeneration – it is for all who call themselves Christians. But the corollary of the BB position on the church, TW suggests, is the need to ascertain who the true church are before giving them the sign of entry:

Believers’ baptists aim to determine with as much certainty as possible that the person seeking baptism is actually born again and therefore a member of the true church (p. 64).

But is this true? I know I don’t speak for all BB’s, but I’ve never been part of any inquisition into who is of the ‘true’ church and who is not. We simply recognize, as do our PB brothers and sisters, that people need to profess Christ and live lives in keeping with that profession. TW quotes Grudem and Ware to illustrate the Baptist position that those who enter the church should be regenerate, and that baptism should be given only to those who both profess faith in Christ and produce fruit.

But is there a logical connection between saying “those who receive baptism should be truly regenerate” and saying “we need to seriously examine everyone to see if they’re truly regenerate”? TW seems to assume that the latter statement flows from the former. However, BB’s recognize that we can’t do this with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church). In the years I have worked as a Baptist minister I have never gone through any lengthy process to find out if the applicant is ‘really saved.’ Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing. So, is this not a non sequitur?

This leads to a discussion of what the Bible suggests (note: not says), and here TW is at its least compelling. At issue is whether the NT expects us to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65) – an issue not often dealt with in discussions about baptism. If it could be demonstrated, TW argues, that the church does not need to identify regenerate believers, but only baptize people into the visible church, then the arguments against infant baptism dissipate. This is clearly a very important point for Jordan:

The thing that persuades me most entirely that believers’ baptism is not a coherent explanation of the Bible’s teaching is this: not only does the New Testament give us no support for the idea that baptism initiates people into the true church, but it gives us repeated warnings that the attempt to do so is dangerous. (p. 66)

Space forbids a detailed discussion of the relevant Bible passages. Suffice it to say that for TW, Matthew 7:21-23 (“not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’…”), the parables of the sower (Matt. 13:20-22), the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), and the example of Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-25) demonstrate that it is neither easy nor desirable to try to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. It can be known only after a time of trial whether a disciple is in fact a true believer (p. 75). In response, we could point out the following:

  1. If my observation above – about BB’s seeing little need to determine accurately who the regenerate are – is correct, then it is not necessary to demonstrate something BB’s don’t in fact do.
  2. None of these passages is dealing with what ought to be the case (ought we to find out who the regenerate are?); they are dealing with what is the case (there are both the regenerate and unregenerate in the church). Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?
  3. It is premature to look at the parables as pictures of the church. For example, Matthew 13 follows the conflict stories of the preceding chapters. It addresses the question: if the kingdom is indeed here, why has it been met with such hostility? To move from this point to the question of the nature of the visible/invisible church is anachronistic.
  4. Finally, one could certainly make a biblical case for the need to test regeneration, at least to some extent. In the passage right before Matthew 7:21-23, we are invited to test people by their fruit (7:15-20). This call is echoed elsewhere in the NT (Gal. 5:19-25), and when considered along with several passages suggesting we check or work out our salvation (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:5; Phil. 2:12; 2 Peter 1:10), an NT case for not being gung-ho about handing out baptism to any self-identifying Christian can certainly be made.  In any case, as a friend of mine points out, the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t ask whether candidates (who ae able to answer for themselves) have attached themselves to a local church, but whether they have repented and believed (i.e., what BB churches also do). Does not the presence of such tests among PB’s vitiate the argument against such tests?

Less Troubled Waters

So do we have a bridge over troubled waters? Yes and no. “Yes,” if we are referring to progress in where this discussion should take place. TW has given focus to an important question often neglected in this discussion: is baptism for the visible or invisible church? This is the first time I have been forced to think through this, and doubtless there is much more to say on the exegetical level, dabbled in above. “Yes,” furthermore, when it comes to setting the tone for this conversation. This is a fair and generous book, in which the author appears to genuinely wish to think carefully through the matter, as opposed to simply holding the party line. I hope our discussions on baptism continue in this vein.

But does the bridge lead to infant baptism? We must answer “no.” From a BB perspective it remains problematic to take a sign that implies entry into the new covenant promises of God and to apply it to those who are evidently not yet partakers in that covenant. If baptism signifies our union with Christ, as Romans 6:3-4 suggests, it makes little sense to give it to any except those whose faith has united them to Christ. Surely baptism should celebrate being in Christ before being in the church?

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Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at and other major retailers.