Religious Liberty and the Gospel

91cer-paj4lReligious liberty has become a major topic of discussion in this current political cycle. There are worries about presidential candidates or potential Supreme Court justices who may scale back the freedoms that have been enjoyed by Americans for more than two centuries. However, not everyone understands the full extent to which religious liberty should be applied.

Many people consider religious liberty to mean the freedom to worship at whichever house of worship you choose. However, the free exercise of religion extends to all aspects of life, especially the right to share your beliefs with others. In the second edition of First Freedom (which becomes available on Oct 15), I write:

With the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” adherents to all faiths were guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion. As a result, religious groups were free to take to the highways and byways to proclaim what they believed. The right to religious liberty ensured that Christians and others would have the freedom to gather for worship, change their religious beliefs, and proselytize. However, such freedom is a delicate balance. No one religious tradition can be privileged over another. The predominant religion of one generation may be the minority in the next.

The religious liberty we enjoy today is much like the unique features of the Roman Empire that aided the spread of the gospel in the first century. The network of roads between major commercial cities, the common Greek language spoken throughout the empire, and the relative peace brought by Roman military dominance assisted the early believers in taking the message of Christ throughout the empire.

Today’s political landscape is vastly different from first century Rome, but the religious nature of society is similar. We live in a syncretistic culture where people pick and choose what they want to believe. While this may seem like a detriment to the overall religious health of our American culture, it can also serve as an aid in sharing the gospel. Christianity should not be privileged in an environment of religious liberty, but I believe it can win the day in the marketplace of ideas when we take the opportunity to proclaim its truth.

In the closing paragraphs of my chapter in First Freedom, I note:

Religious liberty does not give Christianity a privileged position in the culture. In theory this freedom puts all religions (or even the lack of religion) on equal footing. Consider this for a moment. The next time Mormon missionaries knock on your door and try to convince you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restoration of the true church and that you need to be baptized in their church in order to enjoy the benefits of salvation, remember that they are exercising religious liberty. The next time that the Muslim community decides to build a mosque in your neighborhood (or even next door to your church), remember they are exercising religious liberty. Since religious liberty guarantees us the right to exercise our faith freely, the government cannot coerce what we believe to be false religions to give up their beliefs or plans for worship. Thus, religious liberty ought to motivate us to share the gospel. In a country where religious liberty is currently protected, we should take advantage of this freedom and reason with others, persuading them to hear and receive the gospel.

This is the unique connection between religious liberty and the gospel. May we not take for granted our liberty and fail to share the truth with a lost and dying world.

If you want to read more about religious liberty, let me encourage you to pick up a copy of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty from Amazon or any other book retailer starting October 15. To see more about the book and contributors, visit the page of one of the editors, Jason G. Duesing.

Is There Such a Thing as a Christian Prenuptial Agreement?

PrenuptialAbout six weeks ago, I was contacted by Patricia Hartman asking me to read and review her book The Christian Prenuptial Agreement. She had read an earlier post in which I had disagreed with Dave Ramsey’s premise for prenuptial agreements. She sent me a copy of the book, challenging me to read it and change my mind on the issue. As part of the agreement for receiving the free book, I agreed to write a post about the book—positive or negative. So here it is. As you will see below, the author has offered some interesting ideas, but her book has not swayed my opinion that prenuptial agreements are unbiblical.

Hartman approaches the task of writing her book from a very practical standpoint. She is a forensic CPA aiding clients who are going through divorce. Also having experienced “losses when [her] ex-husband had left [her] years earlier” (7), it is clear that she wants her readers to avoid the struggles and pain that she and her clients have experienced. There is no doubt in my mind that Hartman wants to protect marriage, but it appears that her personal experience is driving her conclusions.

The author places a great deal of importance upon the prenuptial agreement. She notes:

Your Christian prenup may be the very document that holds your marriage together when life gets tough. (8)

Your prenup has the ability to release an amazing power and energy into your marriage. (35)

Your prenup gives you the opportunity to thwart Satan’s attempts to derail your marriage and is your greatest insurance policy against his attacks. (58)

Unfortunately, I believe this trust in the prenuptial agreement is misplaced. She has elevated the prenuptial agreement to the place of a covenant and fails to distinguish the practical effects of what she calls a “Christian” prenuptial agreement from the effects of a secular one.

A Biblical Mandate?

Is the prenuptial agreement a biblical mandate? Hartman states:

Based upon God’s revelations in Scripture, Christians have a duty to write a prenuptial agreement to acknowledge their vows and covenants that follow God’s laws and precepts, rejecting the counter-Christian laws and culture as a witness to the glory of God. We have a duty to right the wrongs that exist or may be imposed by the government. Further, God recorded His covenants as a witness to His commitment and love for us in His Word. In the same way, we have a duty to record our covenant agreements as a witness to our commitment and our commitment and our love for one another. (25)

Building on the idea that talk is cheap and most couples do not understand the implications of their verbal vows (235–236), Hartman argues that couples ought to have a prenuptial agreement that includes their vows. In addition, she claims that God’s covenants are written and we should follow suit with marriage.

By contrast, most of the covenants recorded by Moses, God’s “first official scribe” (23), were verbal covenants in force for generations before Moses ever wrote the Pentateuch. The first explicit covenant in Scripture—God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:1–17—was a verbal covenant that was binding hundreds of years before Moses ever recorded the words. In fact, most covenants were not written in the Old Testament until long after they were established. To apply the standards of the OT covenants to marriage today, one need only express the covenant verbally, and it is binding. Sure, there are advantages to recording one’s vows, but there is no biblical mandate to have a legal document drafted by separate attorneys and signed before a covenant is biblically established.

A Lack of Trust

Hartman correctly notes that trust is a major issue for prenuptial agreements. She writes, “One of the most common objections to prenups is that they imply a lack of trust. That is indeed true for a secular prenup, but if we truly grasp the depravity of man, should we trust our fiancé?” (45). She goes on to explain that our sinfulness makes it difficult for someone to trust us. Since God is the only one we can trust fully, she believes that a prenuptial agreement reminds us that God is the only one we trust.

The problem with this perspective is that the prenuptial agreement effectively places trust in the legal process in case of problems. It does not point to trust in God but trust in the courts. When surveying the sample Christian prenuptial agreement in the book, the vast majority of it describes remedies for the court in case of separation or divorce. This does not put trust in God’s provisions; instead, it trusts the court and the prenuptial agreement to make provision for the parties in case of marriage failure.

The sample prenuptial agreement is actually the most intriguing part of the book for the issue of trust. Besides a testimony section, vows, and some references to Scripture, most of it looks much like a secular prenuptial agreement. It spends three pages addressing provisions for divorce, another page on separation, and significant portions on how much each spouse is going to work, how finances will be handled, and how to divide the estate upon death.

The section on divorce opens by saying, “The parties agree not to use violation of the terms of this agreement as a basis for filing divorce” (264); however, it immediately proceeds to discuss the grounds on which divorce can be filed and how the process will play out. Despite a critique of the lack of trust in secular prenuptial agreements, the Christian version offers little more in the way of trust.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

The final area of critique for the Christian prenuptial agreement presented by Hartman is an overwhelming focus on details. There are a host of issues that most engaged and newly married couples do not yet grasp about marriage. Pre-marital counseling can certainly help them see some of these issues in advance; however, Hartman’s book provides a list of details to be discussed (and many included in the prenuptial agreement) that could be overwhelming to a couple. Included in the prenuptial agreement are decisions about how much each spouse will work, investment goals, how to educate children, and the sale of property owned before marriage. In addition to some of these details in the prenuptial agreement, the author directs engaged couples to make decisions on issues such as how to use vacation time, how often to have sexual intercourse, whether to give children allowances, and what types of food to keep in the house. These are details that often come up over time in a marriage, but are not of the utmost importance to a successful marriage. Many of the decisions related to these issues could change a number of times just in the first few years of marriage.

With such a focus on the minutiae, I fear that Hartman has lost the larger picture of marriage. The covenant of marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. When we first come to faith in Christ, we do not have a full picture of all the details. As we grow in our faith, we recognize the sacrifice of this covenant relationship and how it impacts every aspect of our lives.

Helpful Hints

Up to this point, my discussion of the book has been rather critical; however, I want to close with a few positive points about the work. First, there are a number of questions and exercises in the book that are beneficial for pre-martial counseling. In addition to some standard discussions of faith, finances, and in-laws, I found her suggestion to discuss medical history quite helpful. Most young couples do not even think about family medical history, but a tragedy could make such information very useful to a spouse.

Second, I appreciate Hartman’s desire to end the cycle of divorce. While I do not agree that a Christian prenuptial agreement is the solution, I can appreciate her heart for seeing marriages thrive.

Third, her discussion of God’s desires for married couples in chapter 6 was encouraging. Apart from just a couple minor disagreements, I believe she clearly articulated the biblical expectations for men and women in marriage. She is to be commended for her focus on these theological matters.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I stand where I have stood for years on the issue of prenuptial agreements—they do not accurately depict the biblical vision of marriage. When a man and woman come together in marriage, they reflect the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church. In giving himself for the church, Christ gave up everything. The church then submits herself to Christ. This is the model of marriage found in Ephesians 5:22–33. As Christians we are called to depict this relationship in our marriages. Even as sinners, we are called to holiness. Our faith in Christ is enough to unleash the power of marriage. No legal document is necessary to protect God’s design for marriage.

I close with this admonition for those who may face difficulties in marriage and wonder what to do.

If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

Christ had everything to lose entering into a “marriage” with the church. He knew we would be unfaithful, but “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” When all hope seems lost, trust in the fact that Christ remains faithful—that is the motivation you need to unleash the power of marriage.

Book Review: God and the Gay Christian

*The following book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Southwestern Journal of Theology. Published here with permission of the editor.

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. By Matthew Vines. New York: Convergent, 2014. 213 pages. Hardcover, $22.99.

Same-sex marriage, gay rights, and alternative sexual lifestyles seem to dominate the public consciousness today. From professional sports players coming out as gay to judges overturning marriage laws to allow same-sex marriage, the conversation regarding homosexuality is constantly around us. In most of these instances, the conversation pits Christianity against a secular worldview hoping to affirm homosexual identity. However, a highly anticipated book recently changed the focus of the conversation from “Christians against the world” to an in-house discussion among self-proclaimed evangelicals. In God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines attempts to reform the historic teaching of Christianity on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Vines proposes that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (3). In order to support his thesis, the author sets out to debunk the traditional interpretation of the six main biblical passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality. In addition, he seeks to show that celibacy for the person struggling with homosexual desires is a damaging state that undermines their expression of the image of God. Finally, he desires to show that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are on par with traditional heterosexual marriage and should be supported by the church.

In order to make his argument, Vines works from a few key assumptions. First, he assumes that suffering is inherently evil. In his opening chapter, Vines draws on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:15–20 regarding a tree and its fruit. He compares any pain or suffering brought to homosexuals through the condemnation of their sexual activities to be bad fruit brought forth by a bad tree. By contrast, he considers the affirmation of homosexual activity to be good fruit produced by a good tree.

Vines’ second assumption is that Scripture and its authors know nothing of sexual orientation. As a result, none of the traditional interpretations of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 are valid for contemporary discussions of sexuality. He believes that modern understandings of sexuality as immutable and unchosen dismiss any interpretation that condemns homosexual behavior for any reason other than gross excess.

The author also assumes that biological difference and role complementarity have nothing to do with marriage and sexuality. Vines believes that Scripture does not speak of biological difference as valid for sexual expression. He also holds that any discussion of role complementarity is grounded in a cultural hierarchy that understands women to be less than fully valuable. As a result, he builds a vision of sexual expression and marriage on commitment and covenant-keeping.

Using these assumptions, Vines builds his case that Christian teachings need to be modified in order to support same-sex relationships. In modifying these teachings, Vines embarks on a dangerous hermeneutical path that leaves some questions unanswered and creates some problems that he does not foresee.

First, Vines elevates his personal experience above Scripture as a source of authority. This is not a critique of which he is unaware. In fact, he says he was confronted by a church member early on with this exact critique (13). Even though he claims not to do so, he in fact affirms this very thing. He states, “I had a second reason for losing confidence in the belief that same-sex relationships are sinful: it no longer made sense to me” (12). His own experience of trying to affirm his lifestyle with the text of Scripture led him on a journey to reinterpret the Bible in light of his own experience. We see this throughout the book from his basic desire to have same-sex relationships no longer be called a sin to his condemnation of expecting celibacy from Christians who struggle with same-sex desires. His personal experience and desires do not fit that biblical expectation, so he believes it must be wrong.

Second, Vines fails to defend his position that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are equal to marriage. The biggest failure in his argument is that he does not explain why such relationships have to be monogamous. He dismisses the idea of the potentiality for procreation as a key aspect of marriage (137–141); thus, he can no longer claim any natural extension of parenting as a reason to limit marriage to only two people. He considers the key element of marriage to be covenant-keeping, yet he fails to provide an argument why this would limit marriage to two people. As a result, he assumes marriage is monogamous but provides no real reason for such a limitation. His choice of monogamy is arbitrary in light of his definition of marriage.

Finally, Vines neglects to realize that his claims regarding homosexuality open the door for misunderstanding the Christ-Church relationship. While discussing the text of Ephesians 5 and its implications for marriage, Vines argues that the authority and submission structure in the text is built on ancient patriarchy. He notes the connection to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 as evidence that we can no longer justify role complementarity since we do not affirm the institution of slavery. However, there are two serious failings of his argumentation. First, he ignores the fact that parents and children are also mentioned in Ephesians 6. The authority of parents over children, and the subsequent submission of children to parents, would also have to be overturned by Vines’ argumentation; however, he does not even mention those verses. In addition, Vines’ argumentation requires elevating the church to be equal with Christ. In doing so, one steps into the realm of heresy since Scripture states that the church is in submission to Christ. Vines’ cultural hermeneutic fails to protect against this logical conclusion to his own argument.

While this book has been highly touted by a number of pastors and theologians, the arguments fall short of making a biblical case. Instead, Vines sets out to make Scripture align with his own desires rather than conforming himself to the truth of Scripture (Romans 12:2).

Good Reading: Founding Virtues and Class Divisions in America

I have been reading a book that was recommended to me on a number of occasions because of my interest in marriage, family, and culture. The book is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. I am about two-thirds of the way through the book, but I have come across a few interesting nuggets that I would like to share.

Without going into the entire premise of the book, I need to set the stage. Murray tracks the changes in “White America” (excluding all minorities) to see if such changes reflect similar changes in the minority populations. While much sociological research typically compares minority populations to whites with the understanding that a white majority is a fairly static baseline, Murray seeks to demonstrate the vast changes in white America that have taken place in the last 50 years.

The second section of his book addresses four “founding virtues” that he deems critical to the American experiment for the first 185 years of the nation’s existence. These virtues are marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. Let me share a few of his observations on these virtues, specifically as they relate to “white America.”

Marriage

It’s even worse than it looks. The pessimistic title of this section springs from my belief that families with children are the core around which American communities must be organized–must, because families with children have always been, and still are, the engine that makes American communities work–and from my conclusion that the family in Fishtown [bottom 30% in education, bottom 50% in income, typically blue-collar or low-skill white collar jobs, working class] is approaching a point of no return.

Industriousness

In 1960, 81 percent of Fishtown households had someone working at least 40 hours per week, with Belmont [upper 20% in education, affluent, white-collar jobs, upper-middle class] at 90percent. by 2008, Belmont had barely changed at all, at 87 percent, while Fishtown had dropped to 60 percent. And that was before the 2008 recession began. As of March 2010, Belmont was still at 87 percent. Fishtown was down to 53 percent.

Honesty

I am not arguing that people of integrity never declare bankruptcy. Rather, I am arguing that there are always temptations to get into debt and always patches in life where finances become dicey. In a nation where integrity is strong, the effects of temptations and of rough patches are damped down. That trendline . . . showing a quadrupling of personal bankruptcies over a period that included one of the most prosperous decades in American history, looks suspiciously like a decline in personal integrity.

Religiosity

Many Americans still feel that they are supposed to be religious, and so they tend to tell interviewers that they profess a religion even if they haven’t attended a worship service for years. They also tend to tell interviewers that they attend worship services more often than they actually do. In the GSS, about a third of all whites who say they profess a religion also acknowledge that they attend no more than once a year. It seems reasonable to assume that, for practical purposes, these people are as little involved in religious activity as those who profess no religion. . . . If we think in terms of disengagement from religion, Fishtown led the way, and the divergence was significant. In the first half of the 1970s, about 10 percentage points separated Belmont from Fishtown. Over the next three decades, disengagement increased in Belmont to 41 percent in the last half of the 2000s. In Fishtown, the religiously disengaged became a majority amounting to 59 percent.

So far, Murray’s book is an interesting read. The impact of these societal trends on the church is also an intriguing question. Do you think they are having an impact?

Book Review: The Liberal Arts A Student’s Guide

Gene C. Fant, Jr., The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 121 pages; $11.99.

In his new book, Gene Fant makes the case that a liberal arts education can play a significant part in shaping the Christian community for both the marketplace and the mission field. In an age when many people are moving away from liberal arts to specialization in education, Fant seeks to recover the importance of the liberal arts. He states:

An emphasis on liberal learning is of critical importance to our era, as we seek to engage our culture with the great Christian intellectual tradition that continues to provide a fertile culture for thought and action.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book comes when Fant demonstrates the connection between faith and several of the core disciplines of a liberal arts education. He connects mathematics, science, literature, and aesthetics to their theological foundations and demonstrates how each provide a link to God through general revelation.

Fant also makes some predictions regarding the nature of education in the future particularly as it relates to the traditional church-related vocational enterprises. He predicts:

Fewer “career” missionaries with theological degrees from seminaries will be commissioned by denominational agencies; rather engineers and chemists will take positions with corporations that will position them in regions where there is little gospel platform. Full-time church employees who supervise inner-city ministries will become rarer; instead, teachers and social workers will target urban areas as places to build careers so that they may serve populations with particular challenges that may be remediated by the gospel. Business leaders and entrepreneurs will find ways to generate profits in ways that reflect their Christian principles and will fund philanthropic activities through these funds. Church planters will target unreached areas, armed with both theological education and practical platforms, where they will run coffee shops, manage arts agencies, and coach athletics while building relationships that may lead to spiritual transformations in the context of local church fellowships. A liberal arts education will be critical to developing skill sets necessary for success in these kinds of ventures.

Crucial to the success of these “new ventures” will be the integration of theology into the various disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum.

Fant’s ideas and conclusions are worth your time to read. He offers plenty of material to think about related to the current state and future of the liberal arts education. Take some time, pick up the book, and read what he has to say.

New Book from Gene Fant: The Liberal Arts A Student’s Guide

I just got a new book in the mail today, and I am looking forward to reading it. The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide by Gene C. Fant Jr. just came out from Crossway. Gene Fant was my British Literature professor at Mississippi College and has continued to have a huge influence on my life as a friend and mentor. He currently teaches literature and serves as VP for Academic Administration at Union University in Jackson, TN. I hope to give some thoughts on the book when I have an opportunity to read it. The book is available on Amazon and other retailers.

Dug Down Deep Book Review

Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths That Last. By Joshua Harris. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011. 271 pages. Softcover, $14.99.

Joshua Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, has re-released a slightly updated version of his 2010 book, Dug Down Deep. The 2011 version includes a study guide for personal or group study. Harris is the author of several other books, including I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl, Not Even a Hint, and Why Church Matters. In this volume, Harris explores some of the foundational truths of Christianity while interweaving his own story of life and growing in faith.

The book begins with Harris’ personal story of coming to faith and realizing that doctrine and orthodoxy matter. He notes, “The irony of my story—and I suppose it often works this way—is that the very things I needed, even longed for in my relationship with God, were wrapped up in the very things I was sure could do me no good. I didn’t understand that seemingly worn-out words as theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy were the pathway to the mysterious, awe-filled experience of truly knowing the living Jesus Christ” (16).

After telling about his own journey, Harris discusses the basic doctrines of the Christian faith in a systematic, yet easily readable, fashion. He covers topics such as the Bible, Christology, the Atonement, Redemption, Sanctification, Pneumatology, and the Church. However, he does so with creative titles (“God With a Bellybutton” for Christology and “Changed, Changing, To Be Changed” for Sanctification) and plenty of stories to keep the reader’s attention. While he certainly does not go to the depths and length of discussion that classic systematic theologians (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson) have in their books, Harris covers the basics and gives ample introductions to these doctrines. He also demonstrates the importance of these doctrines for the Christian life. It is obvious, and noted by one of the book’s endorsements, that Harris was aiming for something in the vein of J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. While this book will most likely never become an enduring classic like Packer’s, it does have the same readability and concern for doctrine that I found as a college student first reading Packer.

The weakness of the book stems from the intention of the project. Harris is light on some details of doctrine and heavy on personal stories, but this is the product of trying to reach the type of crowd that is uncertain of why they should study doctrine. This becomes extremely evident in his discussion of the Holy Spirit. After admitting to charismatic tendencies in his own theology, Harris states, “In case you’re feeling nervous about where I’m headed, let me assure you that I’m no longer interested in shocking people when it comes to discussing the Holy Spirit. In fact, I’m going to do my best to skirt the controversial issues associated with him” (176). For a surface discussion of theological ideas, this approach is probably fine; however, those interested in deeper discussions of theology will probably be a little disappointed.

The final chapter of the book is a much-needed admonition to all who discuss theology. The title of the chapter is “Humble Orthodoxy,” and Harris sets out to warn his readers from growing prideful in their new-found knowledge of doctrine. He writes, “Genuine orthodoxy—the heart of which is the death of God’s Son for undeserving sinners—is the most humbling, human-pride-smashing message in the world. And if we truly know the gospel of grace, it will create in us a heart of humility and grace toward others” (225). As a seminary professor who sees students go through various stages of pride and humility during their days in formal theological education (as I myself did), I wish everyone would take heed of the words in this chapter.

At the end of the day, Harris’ book is a worthwhile read. I approach some of these doctrines with slightly different interpretations (especially his discussion of the Holy Spirit), but the book serves as a good resource for why theology is important in everyday life, not just in the classroom.