Cultural Commentaries

An Inauguration Day Prayer

361px-donald_trump_president-elect_portraitToday is Inauguration Day. It is the day that the most powerful country in the world transfers power from one leader to the next. In many respects, this is unique to the American experiment. The outgoing President and the incoming President, who hold starkly different views on policy and governance, stood side-by-side at the front door of the White House this morning in a symbolic gesture of the transfer of power.

While Donald Trump is just the sixth President in my lifetime, he is already the most controversial of them all, and he hasn’t even taken office yet. That being said, we still have a biblical obligation to pray for President Trump. It does not matter if you think he is Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar, Lincoln or Nero. Scripture gives us a mandate to pray for our leaders. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Submit ourselves to the governing authorities. By most historical accounts, Paul penned his epistle to the church in Rome during the reign of Nero. Nero was no friend of Christians. In fact, he persecuted Christians after falsely accusing them of setting fire to Rome. Yet, Paul still told the believers in Rome “to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). In light of these instruction, we should start our prayers for the President with an acknowledgement of our own submission to those whom God has placed in authority over us.
  2. Pray for his heart. There have been many conflicting reports regarding Mr. Trump’s spiritual status. At the end of the day, only God knows his heart; therefore, we should pray for his heart that he would be saved (if he is not) and worship God. In Psalm 2:10-11 we read, “Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” We see this warning from the psalmist that kings and judges should worship the Lord. We need to pray that God would have the President’s heart, and that his life would be an expression of worship.
  3. Give thanks to God for our President. It is often hard to give thanks for people with whom we disagree. Considering the drastic contrast between Presidents Obama and Trump, it is likely that you either disagree strongly with the outgoing President or the incoming President, or perhaps both. No matter the case, we are instructed to give thanks to God for our leaders. Paul admonished Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We should give thanks to God for Mr. Trump because he is our duly-elected President. He is the leader of our nation, just as the king was in Paul’s day. As we give thanks to God for our leaders, we should also live as good citizens. The result of this combination is that we would be able to lead peaceful lives.
  4. Pray for peace and welfare. There is no doubt that their days in exile were the lowest point for the people of Judah. In the midst of that exile, Jeremiah sent the exiles a letter with an interesting statement from the Lord. He wrote, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). For both President Obama and now President Trump, there have been some who have called for us to pray for their failure. On one hand, there are certainly policies that we hope do not succeed, but overall, we should pray for peace and welfare under their leadership. By most accounts, peace and welfare would be a success. The Lord instructed the exiles to seek the welfare of the land of their exile because it would result in their own welfare. We should also pray for the welfare of our nation under the leadership of our next President.

These points of prayer for our new President can also be applied to any leader. We should also pray for our Congressional representatives, governors, statehouse officials, mayors, city council members, and others. Inauguration Day reminds us of the presidency, but all leaders deserve our prayers. Would you join me in lifting up our President in prayer similar to what is below?

Dear Father, I come to you today, on Inauguration Day in my country, to pray for our leaders as you have instructed us. First, I pray for a submissive spirit on my own part to those you have placed in authority, specifically President Trump. May I be a good citizen of my country who submits to the ordinances of government in keeping with the ordinances of God. May I honor those to whom honor is due. Second, I pray for the heart of Donald Trump. I do not know his spiritual condition, but I ask you to draw him to yourself. If he does not know you personally, then I pray for his salvation and that he would worship you in spirit and in truth. Third, I give you thanks for President Trump and the other leaders of our country, states, and cities. You have granted authority to our government, and these are the leaders you have ordained for this time. Finally, may their leadership result in the peace and welfare of our nation so that we may also find welfare and live tranquilly in godliness and dignity. Lord, thank you for hearing my prayer, and help me to bring these leaders before you in prayer regularly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Debt and the Seminarian

student-loan-debtEvery spring semester I have the opportunity to speak to our Spiritual Formation students (mostly first-year master’s students) about stewardship. In that discussion, I explain to them that stewardship is about managing resources that belong to someone else. From a spiritual standpoint, God owns everything, and he has entrusted some of those resources—money, time, talents, etc.—to us to use for his Kingdom. Although I attempt to reinforce to my students that stewardship involves much more than money, I spend a significant amount of time talking to them about money and specifically the impact of debt on the ministry. For some of these students, it is the first time they have ever been confronted with how debt could impact their future.

I was reminded of this today as I read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about student loan debt repayment. Here are some highlights:

  • “Many more students have defaulted on or failed to pay back their college loans than the U.S. government previously believed.”
  • “The new analysis shows that at more than 1,000 colleges and trade schools, or about a quarter of the total, at least half the students had defaulted or failed to pay down at least $1 on their debt within seven years.”
  • “No college saw its repayment rate improve under the revision, and some schools saw their seven-year repayment rates fall by as much as 29 percentage points.”[1]

In my experience teaching stewardship and working in financial aid in the seminary setting, student loan debt is one of the most crushing debts that seminarians face. While my seminary does not participate in any federal loan programs, many students still enter seminary carrying debt from their undergraduate programs. A recent study reported that 68% of graduates from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt. The average amount of debt per borrower was over $30,000.[2]

If a seminary student enters with this level of debt, he is most likely to defer that loan until he completes 3-4 years of seminary. Over that time, that loan will have accrued interest, and it is possible that he may have even taken on further debt in the form of credit cards, vehicle loans, or medical expenses. Once he graduates from seminary, he may be in debt well over $40,000.

Now let’s couple that debt with a relatively low wage for pastors when compared to careers with similar education levels. According to LifeWay, the average full-time senior pastor of a Southern Baptist church with 75-99 in attendance is $46,981 per year.[3] For the typical seminary student, a salary over $40,000 may sound fantastic. But we have to remember that ordained ministers are considered self-employed by the IRS, so nearly 15% of that salary will be allocated for self-employment taxes (approximately $7,000). Then, the typical seminary student living on campus does not pay market rates for housing, so his overall housing expense goes up. Compound that with other expenses of moving and setting up a home, and the typical seminarian may find it difficult to make payments on his student loans. Then he will become one of the statistics mentioned in the WSJ article.

Helping students avoid the traps of bad debt is one of the goals in my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class at Southwestern Seminary. I don’t want students to question whether or not they can “afford” to accept a call to a church. I want them to be free to go where God calls them because they have been wise stewards of God’s money that he has entrusted to them.

In Proverbs 22:7 we read, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” I want my students avoid the slavery of debt and to serve God without the albatross of debt hanging around their necks.

If you’re a student at SWBTS, it’s not too late to sign up. The class meets on Mondays at noon, and I’d love to see you there.

[1] Andrea Fuller, “Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than Believed,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2017.

[2]Project on Student Debt,” The Institute for College Access & Success, 2016.

[3]Compensation by Average Attendance of Church: Senior Pastor Full-Time,” LifeWay, 2016.

Politics and Ministry

240px-2016_presidential_election_ballotOver the past several weeks, I have been asked more about politics than I can ever remember. The situation with the current presidential election has created as much discussion as the Bush-Gore fiasco of 2000. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, we have sought to be a voice of reason during the contentious election cycle. As part of that reasonable voice, I have participated in two discussions over the last week about politics and its implications for ministry.

Today I spent about half an hour discussing politics and ministry on Facebook Live as part of Southwestern’s “Ask the Expert” series. Despite the obvious failings of this “expert,” it was a fun experience with some good questions. You can find the video below.

Last Thursday I was part of a panel discussion with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS, and Rep. Matt Krause, Texas State Representative from District 93. We had a wide ranging discussion about law, politics, church, and religious liberty. The video from that discussion will be available on the Seminary’s YouTube channel in the coming days.

 

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.

Theological Matters: A 9/11 Prayer for Our Nation

national_park_service_9-11_statue_of_liberty_and_wtc_fire

Virtually every generation has one of those moments where they will forever remember what was happening when a tragedy struck. My grandparents’ generation had Pearl Harbor. My parents’ generation had the assassination of JFK. My generation has Sept. 11, 2001.

I will never forget where I was when I heard about the tragedy of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center towers in New York. After finishing a morning class in seminary, I heard rumblings of something terrible going on. I walked to my office at the student center to find out that a plane had struck a building in New York. We quickly set up a television feed in the seating area of the building, and I stood there staring at the screen for the rest of the day. I watched as the buildings crumbled to the ground. I was numb.

In the face of these once-in-a-generation tragedies, Americans have often sought peace in a return to religious roots. Church attendance increases for a period of time. Political leaders invoke the name of God to bring calm to the situation. For a moment, it seems as if the spiritual headway made during the aftermath of tragedy may lead to another Great Awakening.

Now, 15 years after the tragedy that has defined the memories of my generation, the hopes of a new Great Awakening seem a fading dream. The current state of American culture feels more like Babylon than Jerusalem. Christians may identify more with exile than with home at this point. What should Christians do on this anniversary of 9/11? How should we feel about the state of America today?

*Read the rest of my post at Theological Matters.