Thursday, September 30, 2021

Historical Theology: Church and State


Question: According to Scripture and Christian tradition, what is the appropriate relationship between church & state? Is it best for governments to be non-affiliated with any religion, while giving freedom of religion to all? Or is it better to aim for a “Christian nation”? Also, how should Christians act toward a government that is hostile to their faith? And, depending on what kind of government exists, should Christians seek to serve in political office? Should they serve in the military?
Of the three possibilities listed above (secular government, Christian government, and anti-Christian government), most nations in our world today, including our own, aim to be in the first category. Here in the US, we are in the odd position of being a country that has a distinctly Christian tradition while also holding to a non-religious government that allows freedom of religion for all. Thus, Christians often feel threatened on both sides: if we’re told that we can’t say prayers at school, we feel betrayed by a government that used to have strong Christian roots; however, if it were suggested that schools start using Christian prayers as well as Muslim and Buddhist prayers, we would feel just as uneasy about that. Even after 2000 years of Christian history, it’s hard to find a balance on this issue that feels right. Early Christians faced the same dilemma.
Church & State in the New Testament
- One of the difficulties when facing this question is that the NT only really deals with the third and final possibility—an anti-Christian government, which is what they were facing at the time. The NT gives no direct guidance on how to balance church & state under secular governments, nor even whether it would be a good idea to try to build a “Christian nation.” What it does say is simply to submit to the authorities (except where they transgress the law of God—Romans 13:1-5; Acts 5:29), to pay taxes and give respect to leaders (Rom. 13:6-7), and to pray for one’s rulers (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Church and State in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries
- From the end of the NT period until the early 300s AD, Christianity flourished quietly. It grew mostly by word-of-mouth and the holy living of Christians, and it did this under an environment that was largely anti-Christian. The Roman Empire was extremely tolerant of other religions, with one exception: religions (like Christianity) that refused to acknowledge the validity of the other cults. (Jews mostly got a pass from the Romans because their religion was an old and deeply-rooted tradition.) Christians suffered severe bursts of persecution, especially in the 250s and early 300s. Those Christians living in Persia suffered a persecution in the 300s even more severe than anything that happened under the Romans.
The Constantinian Revolution (313 AD)
- Just a few short years after the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian, an unforeseen change happened: one of the rivals for the imperial throne, Constantine, received a dream on the eve of a battle in which he was told to paint the symbol of the Christian cross on his soldiers’ shields: “Conquer in this sign.” He did so, and won a resounding victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine quickly pledged himself as a worshipper of Christ, and proceeded to declare religious tolerance for all Christians. As emperor, he became an active patron of Christianity, granting bishops massive grants to build churches and calling ecumenical councils (such as Nicea in 325) to resolve theological disputes. Christianity quickly became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and, a few generations later, it became the official religion, having completely displaced Greco-Roman paganism.
The Reaction of the 4th and 5th Centuries
- A few Christians watched these developments with caution. First, it was troubling how easily Constantine was able to bring imperial power to bear on church disputes. Later emperors would abuse this power, lobbying heavily for their own favorite theological positions. Second, many were not convinced that the wealth and safety that came from being the official church were a good thing for Christians—believers tended to become lax. Third, there was the question of whether Christians themselves should serve in government positions, when the teaching of the NT indicated that Christianity was a kingdom apart from the kingdoms of the world. Based on these concerns, a number of Christians began renouncing wealth and living lives of voluntary poverty, and others refused to serve in the military for fear that doing so would force them to break Christ’s command to love their enemies.
“The Two Swords”
- As time went on, a pattern developed in the middle ages favoring the alliance of powerful governments with the church. This was known as the doctrine of the two swords, taken from the disciples’ exchange with Christ in Luke 22:38. But there were troubling things about life as a “Christian nation”—on the one hand, the governments, being run by fallible humans, were constantly doing non-Christian things (like conquests, massacres, extortion, persecution of other religions, etc.), and on the other, the power and privilege that went with being a church official in such a position often led to severe laxity among clergy.
The Protestant (Anabaptist) Reaction
- By the 16th century, at least one major wing of the new Protestant churches—the Anabaptists—were questioning this union of church and state. They believed that the use of force which was inherent in government made the union of the two sides a mistake. In their eyes, the Constantinian revolution had been “the fall of the church.” They believed they as Christians were citizens of a separate kingdom, and, as a church of peace, that they ought not to serve as soldiers. Their influence helped to lead to the early Baptist position, one of the first groups in the world to promote “the separation of church and state.”
Reflection Questions
- This question is still good food for thought: Does being a soldier mean that you are breaking Christ’s command to love your enemies?
- Given the history of Christianity as a whole, do we really want America to be a “Christian nation” in anything but a majority-religion sense? Already, our way of talking about America as “Christian” has given Muslims a terrible misconception of how Christians live.
- Have we really taken to heart the NT picture of Christianity not just as a faith-choice, but as whole “kingdom” of its own here on earth, with its own distinct loyalties and values?
(Painting by Anthony Van Dyck, "Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by Saint Ambrose to Enter Milan Cathedral," Inset photo by Son of Groucho, statue of Constantine at York Minster, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Photo of the Week

Blest Jesus! when my soaring thoughts o’er all Thy graces rove,
How is my soul in transport lost in wonder, joy, and love!
Where’er I look, my wondering eyes unnumbered blessings see;
But what is life, with all its bliss, if once compared to Thee?

- from a hymn by Ottiwell Heginbotham

Monday, September 27, 2021

Quote of the Week

"Live, while you live," the Epicure would say,
"And seize the pleasures of the present day."
"Live, while you live," the sacred preacher cries,
"And give to God each moment as it flies."
Lord, in my views, let both united be;
I live in pleasure, when I live to Thee.

- Philip Doddridge

Friday, September 24, 2021

An Encouragement to Pray & Work for the Kingdom

Just a few thoughts that I hope might serve as an encouragement to prayer: I ran across some news a few days ago that showed me how God has been working to answer some prayers that I prayed seventeen years ago. Sometimes it takes years for prayers to be answered and for Kingdom-seeds to grow, but remember in the meantime that none of those labors are in vain. Nearly two decades ago, I went to do mission service in Sudan, which at that time was under a violent Islamist regime that was fighting genocidal wars against Christians and indigenous peoples in the south and west of the country. I was there to help launch the development of some basic linguistic tools for Sudanese Arabic, which, it was hoped, would enable other programs and missionaries to come in and do their work. While I was living there in Khartoum, I walked through the city and prayed every day for God to change that country dramatically for the sake of the gospel. I didn't see any immediate results of those prayers. But now, nearly two decades later, I can look back and see a Sudan where the Islamist regime has fallen, where its wars against its own people have largely ended, and where Christians can, at least for now, worship openly instead of in secret. All those things are breathtaking answers to prayer, and dramatic changes from the Sudan I knew. But there's more: earlier this week, I ran across this article, which says that Sudanese Arabic is now being used as a Bible-translation "hub language" to provide Scripture for 80 unreached people groups in that country--and it's a pretty good bet that they're using some of the very linguistic tools that I helped to develop back in 2004. It's hard to fully explain just what a delight this is for me--more than any of the books I've written or academic projects I've done, this work for Sudan is close to my heart, and to see that my work and my prayers are being used as part of something extraordinary--it feels almost unbelievable. But friends, unbelievable things are what happen when we pray and work for the Kingdom. We may not see the answers immediately, but that doesn't mean that God isn't moving behind the scenes. What seeds are you planting right now, in prayer and in work, that God might use to raise a harvest in the years to come?

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Historical Theology: How the Early Church Read the Bible


Question: What is the best way to interpret the Bible? As a literal, historical account of God’s relationship with his people? As an allegory, in which the Holy Spirit put hidden and symbolic meanings into the text? Or some combination of these two?

While we evangelical Christians usually opt for the first option (a literal, historical reading which prefers to look for the clear message of the author to the original audience), much of the early church preferred the allegorical method. They accepted the historical significance of the Bible stories as true, but saw that as simply a surface element—the deeper meaning was allegorical. So, for instance, while they believed that the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, they thought that the text as a whole was intended by God to point towards an allegorical meaning: salvation through the waters (i.e., baptism).

New Testament uses of the Old Testament

In the NT itself, OT passages are usually treated under the literal-historical method. However, in some instances, they are also interpreted as allegories in the primary sense—Jesus seems to treat the Jonah story as an allegorical foreshadowing of the resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41), Paul treats the story of Hagar and Ishmael in this way (Gal. 4:21-31), and Peter treats Noah’s flood as a symbol of baptism (1 Pet. 3:18-22).

Allegory in the Early Church

Driven by a NT that not only treated the OT as allegory, but also included allegorical texts itself (such as Revelation), the earliest Christians took the allegorical method to its extreme. They wrote their own allegories, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, and began allegorizing the OT Law (the early document Epistle of Barnabas, for example, tries to turn the Jewish dietary laws into a symbolic, moral warning against associating with the wrong kinds of people).

Origen and the Alexandrian School

By the 3rd century, the rules for interpretation of Scripture (“hermeneutics”) became increasingly clarified. The great scholar and theologian Origen (184-254 AD) laid the groundwork for an understanding of three senses of Scripture, levels of meaning that have been divinely structured into the text:

   1.) Literal: The plain, historical meaning of the text

   2.) Moral: Principles on how to live a good life

   3.) Spiritual: Hidden meanings that teach about Christ, the Church, or the Christian life. For Origen, this was the primary meaning of Scripture, often only discerned through allegorical interpretation.

   Example: the story of the brass serpent in Numbers 21 can be read in three different ways, all complementary: as a story of something that happened to Israel during its wanderings (literal), as a lesson illustrating the importance of obedience (moral), and as a parable of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross (spiritual/allegorical). Note that the most important meaning, in the eyes of the NT and the early church, is the spiritual one, but that’s one that you can’t find explicitly in the text of Numbers 21—it only comes out from a Christian, Spirit-inspired reading.

The Antiochene School

After Origen’s method was picked up by the dominant school of theology of Alexandria, some obvious abuses started to appear. People started applying the allegorical method anywhere they wanted, and it often degenerated into people making up fanciful symbols that correlated to every nitpicked aspect of a text. For example, some interpreters pulled apart the parable of the Good Samaritan and made it an allegory—thus the beaten man represented the state of fallen mankind, the priest and Levite represented the ineffective efforts of human morality and religion, the Samaritan represented the unexpected grace of God revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, the donkey represented the Holy Spirit, the inn was the church, etc., etc. Clearly, as creative as this is, it’s mostly made-up. So a rival school of interpretation developed at Antioch, and they emphasized a return to a more cautious, literal-historical method.

Lectio Divina: the devotional practice of exploring the Bible’s layers of meaning

“Lectio Divina” (holy reading) is a devotional practice of reading Scripture, developed by early medieval monks, and it helps to open our hearts and minds to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to say through a text.

     Step 1 – Read: After preparing yourself through prayer, simply read through the passage. Don’t try to assign a meaning to it yet.

     Step 2 – Meditate: Read it through a second time, now inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the words of the passage. Pause and linger over the words as you go, ponder the phrases that jump out at you.

     Step 3 – Pray: Take the message that you heard the Holy Spirit speaking to you, and use it to begin praying—for example, asking God to make that revealed message a regular part of your life.

     Step 4 – Contemplate: With the Scripture passage still in front of you, spend a few more minutes just in silence, focusing your mind and heart on God’s presence with you. Let go of all your words and desires, all the thoughts that crowd your head, and just rest in his presence.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Quote of the Week


"Little and small matters are the first steps and natural beginnings of great perfection."

- William Law, from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Monday, September 13, 2021

Official Book Release Announcement!

I'm not going to be doing my regular schedule of blog posts this week, as I'll be working on some book launch activities. That's right, my new book is officially available! You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher's website ( It's a devotional memoir of a trip to the Holy Land, with lots of reflections on the life of Christ. Some of you may have read my earlier draft which was posted on this blog, but the book represents a significantly expanded version. If you happen to order it, please consider leaving a review or rating on Amazon, since I'm told this really helps to get the book into more hands. You can click the cover image below to be taken to the book's Amazon page:


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

Be with me, and prepare me for all the smiles of prosperity, the frowns of adversity, the losses of substance, the death of friends, the days of darkness, the changes of life, and the last great change of all. May I find Your grace sufficient for all my needs.

- a prayer from the Puritan tradition

Friday, September 10, 2021

A New (Old) Book

As I announced a few weeks ago, I'm working on releasing some out-of-print and hard-to-access books through self-publishing avenues. I'm happy to announce that Flora Searles' 1900 novel, The Scarlet Ribbon, is back in print for the first time in more than a century! As you can see from the picture here, I'm using a different imprint for this book, called "Attic Shelf Classics." I'll be employing the ACS imprint to bring back some lost novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including a few by yet another Second Baptist Church author.

This particular book, however, holds a special place for me, since Flora Searles was my great-great-(great?)-aunt. In addition to this, her one work of fiction, she was also a published poet. The novel is an interesting read, rather typical for its day, but with some interesting characters and a plot that includes just about equal shares of drama, romance, and mystery. This volume is a reprint of the 1900 edition, and it's now available in both paperback and ebook (Kindle) forms. Feel free to check it out if you like!

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Historical Theology: The Spirituality of the Desert

Question: How should we respond to some of the idealistic commands in the New Testament, such as those which tell us to sell what we have and give to the poor (Luke 12:33) or to “pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17)? 

- Beginning in the 3rd century AD (and perhaps even earlier), a number of Christians decided to try to carry these commands out to their fullest degree possible. They sold all their possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor, often keeping only a single tunic and a reed mat for themselves. They went out to live in the desert wildernesses of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, practicing subsistence farming or, more often, living off the meager food that passersby would leave for them. They devoted their entire lives to the practice of prayer, even rationing their sleeping-time so they could have more time to pray. Along the way they discovered that, even in solitude, they had to wrestle against all the same sins and temptations they faced before. They developed a rich spiritual tradition about how to deal with these inner temptations and to train one’s soul on the path to virtue. These Christians were known as the desert fathers (Abbas) and desert mothers (Ammas).

- Continual Prayer

- To achieve continual prayer, these early desert monks used many different varieties of prayer. Some of it would be the sort of prayers we are familiar with—spoken or silent prayers which intend to relate a verbal request to God. But they also used more meditative types of prayer: frequent repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer or liturgical prayers, or the repetition of a single request, like the famous “Jesus Prayer”: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Such prayers helped them maintain “continual prayer” even while they had to be engaged in other necessary activities.) Many times they would use silent, wordless prayers of contemplation—simply focusing one’s heart and mind on the person of God himself and resting in his presence. But their favorite means of prayer, above any other, was the repetition of the Biblical psalms. Some of these monks would pray through the entire cycle of 150 psalms each day.

- Self-Renunciation
- The idea behind this view of the Christian life is that the main hurdle Christians must overcome is themselves. Because we are so caught up in our own inner lives—our sense of self-importance, known to the Christian tradition as the sin of “pride”—we must take great lengths to train ourselves to understand that the Christian life isn’t really about our own pleasures, desires, and dreams. It’s about giving those things up and allowing ourselves to be shaped by God’s character instead.

- Fasting and Bodily Discipline

- In order to meet the goal of self-renunciation, the desert monks practiced a rigorous mode of fasting. While a few of them regularly practiced total fasts, the more common practice was a moderate (but still difficult) one—they ate plain food, like bread and vegetables, but only enough to take the edge off their hunger, not enough to sate the appetite. To take it even farther, some would restrict not only food but sleep—rising to say prayers at midnight, and again at about 3 AM. A few extreme radicals in this sort of spirituality even restricted their freedom of movement by spending years at a time living on top of stone pillars in the desert.

- Spiritual Warfare
- The desert monks regularly made a point of struggling against the demonic forces arrayed against them. They felt that their goal was not simply to overcome temptations for the sake of their own souls; they felt that they were waging war on Satan. Every victory they achieved in their own lives was a victory the enemy, and a further advance of the Kingdom of God. They also believed that their constancy in prayer helped loosen the enemy’s hold on Christians everywhere: in a sense, they believed that their solitary prayers were the practice of missions.

- Growth in Virtue
- The Christian life is not just about overcoming the sin nature (that is, not just about solving present problems); it’s also about growing in virtue (attaining new heights of character that weren’t even possible before). The disciplines of prayer and fasting used by the desert monks proved to be fruitful means for gaining new heights of patience, humility, and contentment in any circumstances. The witness of Christian tradition is that these virtues are treasures so rich and deep that they are worth all the work it takes to win them.

- Try out some new forms of prayer, and employ them regularly.
- Try fasting occasionally—if giving up food is not an option to you, try fasting from other things that dominate your time and attention—TV, social media, etc.
- Take some time to reflect on your own spiritual weak spots—temptations you struggle with, or virtue you haven’t yet mastered—and put together a “rule of life” to help you address those concerns.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Photo of the Week

Let me walk by Thy side, O my Savior,
Let me live in Thy presence divine;
Let me work, let me pray, let me listen,
Lose my will, precious Savior, in Thine.

- from a hymn by Viana Butler McCown

Monday, September 06, 2021

Quote of the Week




"Bread is food for the body, and holiness is food for the soul."

- Evagrius of Pontus, from On Prayer

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

Save me, Lord, for oh! thou art
All the hope of all my heart.
- adapted from Psalm 16:1 of the Sidney Psalter, 16th century

Friday, September 03, 2021

An Amusing Take on Ministry

I love pastoral ministry, and I really love the people in my church. But as any pastor would tell you, no matter how much you love the ministry and the people, there are always seasons where one feels the weight of walking with folks through the problems and issues and hassles of life. (For many pastors, this season of Covid has been one of those times.) This is generally referred to as "compassion fatigue," a regular feature in the lives of pastors, counselors, and social workers of all kinds.

Anyway, this is all just a preamble to introduce the marvelously piquant title of a pastoral book I just found. A few weeks ago, I was in a pastor's meeting where the icebreaker question was, "If you were going to write a book about your reflections on ministry after your retirement, what would it be called?" I didn't think of this title at the time, but now I wish I had, since it strikes just that chord of dry humor and sympathy with the complex burdens of ministry that I think the other pastors would have really enjoyed:

Yes, this is a real book. I suspect the interesting title, with its apparent sideswipe at having to deal with those problematic laypeople, is likely the result of an unfortunate translation rather than of actual intent. But I find it marvelous nonetheless. Apparently there were enough problems from these people that it filled up not just one book, but four successive volumes published under this title! (Please note, I haven't read this book, and I have every reason to believe that it is deep and rich in theological and pastoral substance, as it comes from the pen of one of the truly great saints of our age, the late Coptic pope Shenouda III). 

"So many years with the problems of people"--titles can't be copyrighted, you know, so maybe I'll just tuck this away in my back pocket for when I write my pastoral memoirs someday...

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Historical Theology: Evangelism in the Early Church


-        Question: In what ways should we be a witness to those around us? And what is the appropriate motivation behind witnessing?

-   The early church gives us some perspective because, although they agreed with us that Christians are meant to be witnesses, their answers to these two questions focused on different themes than the answers we give.

-   While we focus on God’s love for every individual person as one of our main motivations for witnessing, the early church focused not simply on winning individual people to salvation, but on manifesting the victory of Christ in the world

-   This is an extension of what is known as Christus Victor theology, which focuses on a particular theme of what Christ did for us on the cross. To put it in context, we generally give priority to a system of theology known as Substitutionary/Penal Atonement—that when Christ died on the cross, what he was doing was taking on himself the sins that should have fallen on us instead (Romans 3:23-25). While the early church wouldn’t have disagreed with that, they put their focus instead on a different theme of Christ’s death—that on the cross, he triumphed over the powers of sin, Satan, and death (Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14). Note that both of these themes are present in the New Testament; it’s just a question of which one you choose to emphasize in the way you present the Gospel. Since the early church emphasized the Christus Victor model, their attempts at witnessing were less about convincing people that they were sinners who needed to be forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice, and more about demonstrating to the world that Christ had won and that his Kingdom was taking over the world. By gaining new converts, the early Christians were participating in the onward march of Christ’s triumphant reign.

-        How to be a Witness

-   Evangelical Christians nowadays think about “witnessing” as primarily involving the act of telling another person directly about Jesus in one-on-one conversation. No doubt the early church did their fair share of this as well, but, once again, they focused on different areas of “witnessing” as more foundational.

-   Means #1: Living out the values of the radical new Kingdom of Christ

-  The primary means of witnessing was simply the witness of example—in the context of the Roman Empire, the morals of the New Testament made Christians stand out. Unlike their pagan neighbors, Christians were well-known for saving abandoned babies and tending the sick during times of plague.

-   Means #2: Martyrdom & Persecution

-  Martyr literally means “witness.” One of the main ways that new converts were attracted to the faith were by watching the way that Christians bore up under persecution, and even while being executed for their faith.  In the New Testament, Christians are regularly told to expect persecution and even rejoice in being persecuted (Matt. 5:11-12; James 1:2-3). Early church history is full of examples of Christians showing radical courage and devotion while facing death by burning or wild animals, and many of those in the audience were converted.

-   Means #3: Power Encounters

-  Some of the clergy were involved in a much more direct means of evangelization. And, since their message was that Christ had won the victory, they wanted to demonstrate this fact. Sometimes this was done by way of miraculous healings (especially of those afflicted by evil spirits)—very similar to the apostolic pattern of evangelization shown in the book of Acts. More often, though, they wanted to show that the pagan gods’ power had been vanquished by Christ; this could be shown by impressive demonstrations like idol-smashing or the chopping down of sacred trees. This may sound disrespectful or overly forceful to us, but to the pagan audience it was a powerful and irrefutable proof that the power of the old gods was gone.

-        Applications for Today’s Christians

   1.) We can check our attitudes in the light of the early church’s way of looking at the world. Do we have the unshakable feeling that we are on the winning side, that nothing—not persecution, not secularism, not drugs, not militant Islam, not anything in the world—can stand against the power of Christ and his church? If not, we need to re-examine what we believe in the light of the New Testament promises.

   2.) Instead of beating ourselves up for not being door-to-door evangelists, we can start by focusing on the kind of witness that the New Testament exhorts us to: living a life of fervent, passionate holiness. When we do that, people sit up and notice.

   3.) We need to remember that persecution is the normal state of affairs for the Christian church, and that our current situation of blessing and political freedom is abnormal. We need to make sure that we are walking so closely with Christ that if we were ever called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice for our faith, we would face up to the challenge as well as the early church did. And in the meantime, we need to remember, pray for, and support our brothers and sisters in Christ who are currently undergoing persecution.