It’s not a matter of if your church and pastor will face these kinds of questions. It’s a matter of when. Here’s a scenario: a same-sex couple or someone openly living in a same-sex relationship starts to attend your church. Maybe they’ve got a child from another relationship or a child conceived through IVF. Because your church practices infant baptism, they ask to have their child baptized. What do you do? I recently heard of a church that faced this exact situation. A lesbian couple who’d been attending asked to have their child baptized. The church had theological convictions about sex and marriage, as well as about how, in their theological tradition, infant baptism was offered based on the faith and obedience of parents. The pastor, however, chose to go through with the baptism, in order to “show love to the child and her parents.” Was this pastor right? Now let me be clear. This commentary isn’t about the correct theology of baptism. Many of you attend churches that practice what’s called believer’s baptism, unlike this particular church. My concern here is the argument the pastor made, especially given how quickly situations like this are becoming common. According to this pastor, love not only meant including those who are in unrepentant sin as members of the church, but also allowing them to partake in the sacraments. These sorts of situations are coming to a church near you. Baptist brothers and sisters, here’s one that you might face: If a gay couple wanted to join your church and take communion, would it be a loving thing to tell them yes? The answer is no. Let me explain. It’s not because a gay couple or their child are somehow too sinful or tainted to be forgiven. After all, baptism is a visual picture of Christ washing away our sins. Christ welcomes sinners to His table. If He only welcomed the righteous, none of us could participate, “no, not one.” But as Tim Keller often points out, the world is not divided into sinners and saints, but repentant and unrepentant sinners. The prerequisite for joining the family of God isn’t to clean yourself up, but to allow Jesus to clean you up. That means turning from sins, not clinging to them. Jesus Himself told the Pharisees He’d come to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance. He wasn’t saying the Pharisees were righteous, but that only those who knew they were sinners could receive the gift of repentance and forgiveness. Those who won’t repent, refuse the gift. As C. S. Lewis explains in “Mere Christianity,” repentance is not something God requires of us before He takes us back. “It is simply a description of what going back to Him is like.” Thus telling those who hold on to sin that they have the gift from God isn’t loving, because it isn’t true. The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians that those who eat and drink the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” eat and drink judgment on themselves. “But what about lying, gossip, or any of the other sins,” you might ask. Exactly. Unrepentant sin of any kind is a problem. But, of course, this requires a correct understanding of sin, of the church, and of Christ’s sacraments. To simply try to love people into the Kingdom without truth isn’t love at all, it’s sentimentality. The truth remains that homosexual acts are sinful. They twist God’s created design. All who come to Christ for cleansing must be willing to repent. And all who repent are embraced by Christ, and then ought to be embraced by the church, including at His table and in His sacraments. But only after repentance, not before. It may feel more loving to do what the pastor that I mentioned earlier did. We want the church to be a welcoming place where people can encounter Jesus. Every church should welcome sinners. (My church does it every time I walk through the door.) But truly loving people means telling the truth. Every single church today needs to be ready for these difficult situations. Again, it’s not a matter of if they’ll happen, but when.
When LGBT Families Come to Church
We Can’t Choose Between Truth and Love
September 10, 2018 • John Stonestreet
Could This Beauty Be for Us?
Natural Artistry Defies Darwinism • February 15, 2019 • John Stonestreet
The wings of a bird, the colors of a butterfly, and the patterns on a seashell defy the theory of Darwinian evolution. Many of us intuit, simply by looking at the splendor that permeates the natural world, that there must be some agent involved other than blind mutations or mere survival-of-the-fittest mechanisms. And now, it seems, some scientists are beginning to accept that intuition, finally admitting that beauty cannot be explained by the theory of evolution, at least as we know it. In a surprising article in The New York Times, Ferris Jabr writes about a small but growing band of scientists who argue that natural selection alone can’t account for the eye-popping artistry we see in nature. He cites Yale ornithologist Richard Prum, who argues in his book, “The Evolution of Beauty,” that the elaborate plumage and outrageous mating displays of many birds confer no obvious survival advantage. Instead, they often put these birds at a disadvantage, wasting precious energy and making them stand out to predators. By all the conventional rules of evolution, such costly adaptations should have disappeared long ago. Instead, says Prum, we find them all over nature, not only in birds, which play their wings like violins, but in beetles with high-fidelity, crystalline scales, fish with flags for tails, and a whole assortment of mammals sporting over-the-top headgear. Our world is bursting with unnecessary beauty that Jabr describes as “an affront to the rules of natural selection.” Now, the traditional explanation for aesthetically awe-inspiring traits is that they show off an animal’s fitness to potential mates. The parrot with the brightest plumage might have the healthiest immune system. The lion with the bushiest mane must be the most successful hunter. But more and more scientists are challenging this so-called “good genes” theory. Many natural ornaments, like the flamboyant tail of the peacock, put their owner in serious danger without necessarily signaling genetic fitness. Yet peahens (or the females) keep picking the fellahs with the biggest, brightest tails to sire their offspring. While many scientists insist that somehow a cumbersome caboose confers a survival benefit, Prum thinks that’s ridiculous. Animals are beautiful not because beauty is useful, he insists, but because…they like it! Through a process called “sexual selection,” Prum and other experts now believe animals shape their own evolution, choosing features in mates that strike their fancy, and exaggerating these over countless generations to produce colors, shapes, and behaviors that dazzle human observers. Now, maybe animals do like being beautiful, but that seems as much a forced theory as the one it replaced. I’m glad some Darwinists are recognizing that survival alone can’t account for the art gallery we call the natural world, but is it really a better option to look at that same art gallery and conclude that the paintings produced themselves? Well, here’s another option... Recently, Evolution News reported on a peer-reviewed study by scientists in Spain that suggests that just seeing natural designs improves human engineers’ creativity. The researchers created a program that “help[s] industrial designers find natural shapes that [are] both functional and aesthetically pleasing” by showing them the features of plants and animals. This is just the latest in an emerging field called “biomimetics,” which literally means “copying life.” The paper uses the term “design” no less than 130 times and “agency” over 140 times. Considering this, plus Jabr’s outstanding piece in the Times, it’s fair to wonder if we are “approaching the threshold of design acceptance in science.” I hope so. Faced with a natural world brimming with beauty and engineering, scientists should reconsider the dogma that all of this created itself. Instead, they should consider that the mind-boggling beauty we see around us was always intended for our eyes—designed by a master Engineer and Artist, to display His genius and glory through the language of beauty—in a language best understood not by peahens, but by people. As Andrew Peterson sings, could the beauty before us…be for us? I look forward to the day when science joins Christianity in saying “yes.”
Millennials and Evangelism
The Plague of Emotivism • February 14, 2019 • John Stonestreet
In 1957, the social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the stress that results from holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. According to Festinger, people will attempt to alleviate the stress by either changing their minds about one of the ideas or, more commonly, convincing themselves the ideas really aren’t contradictory. The latter usually results in an incoherent mess, something a recent Barna report amply demonstrates. The report, entitled “Reviving Evangelism,” found that virtually every practicing American Christian believes that “part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus.” Similarly, virtually all of them agree that “the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus.” This sounds like a solid foundation for “reviving evangelism,” doesn’t it? Yet, the same study found that “nearly half (47 percent) of practicing Christian millennials—churchgoers who consider religion an important part of their lives—believe that evangelism is wrong.” Specifically, they believe it’s “wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes they will one day share the same faith.” If you’re wondering how one can simultaneously believe that knowing Jesus is the best thing that could happen to a person and that telling that same person about Jesus is somehow wrong, you understand what cognitive dissonance means. Making matters even more, well, dissonant, is that the same group “is more likely than any other generation to say they are gifted at sharing their faith.” Nearly three quarters of them describe themselves that way. At this point, it’s tempting to talk about how participation trophies and self-affirmation statements have ruined the millennials. But the problem isn’t our misguided strategies of boosting this generation’s self-esteem. The problem is theological anemia. Specifically, it’s a failure of catechesis. Evangelizing like you mean it requires going against the cultural grain. As Barna president David Kinnaman told Christianity Today, “Cultivating deep, steady, resilient Christian conviction is difficult in a world of ‘you do you’ and ‘don’t criticize anyone else’s life choices’ and emotivism, the feelings-first priority that our culture makes a way of life.” Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested that emotivism is at the heart of our current post-truth culture, and turns all statements about the good and the true into mere claims of personal preference. Overall, the church has done a poor job of catechizing both ourselves and future generations against emotivism. In fact, as writer Samuel James argued, “The data here strongly suggests that Christian millennials are being catechized by their colleges, not churches.” Actually, I would argue that across our culture, emotivism is pushed on us way before college, and too often, it’s even pushed by churches when they talk about “knowing Jesus.” What is meant by “knowing Jesus” by so many Christians is closer to “I love Swiss Almond Vanilla ice cream” than it is what the Apostles meant by it. It indicates a strong preference, but not a life-altering conviction. The late biblical scholar Francis Martin used to tell his students “Christianity is a way of knowing, not a warm fuzzy.” By “way of knowing” he meant something akin to what we at the Colson Center mean by “worldview”: the truth about God, creation, and ourselves as ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s not to say our faith isn’t personal. Of course it is, but for the New Testament writers, “knowing” God and Jesus Christ whom He sent isn’t about making us feel good. It’s about being rescued from the dominion of darkness for the kingdom of Christ. When was the last time you heard Christianity described this starkly? If we can’t remember, then we ought not be surprised by the cognitive dissonance described by the Barna report.
The Cost of Skipping Children
Life Has No Price Tag • February 13, 2019 • John Stonestreet
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported late last year that Americans aren’t having enough babies to replace themselves. In fact, a record one in five American women will never have children, and those who do will, on average, never exceed two. As a result, the death rate is outpacing the birth rate, which means—except for immigration—the U.S. has joined many developed countries on the long, slow road of population decline. That’s bad news. Not having enough children as a society has costs that are hard to appreciate on the individual level. We know from examples like Japan and much of Europe that aging countries become economically top-heavy, especially those that promise extensive government services to the elderly. This results in runaway aging and population decline, and negatively impacts every sector of the economy except for maybe healthcare, depending on how you look at that one. It also places heavier and heavier burdens on the shoulders of an ever-shrinking workforce of young people, which leaves them even less likely to have kids. On a deeper level, young members of a graying society lose hope for the future, or stop planning for it altogether. In Japan, this hopelessness manifests as one of the highest rates of suicide among youth in the developed world. To be clear, the United States is not Japan, but as Jonathan Last writes in his book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting,” there’s no example in history of a shrinking society experiencing long-term prosperity. Given the impending demographic disaster, you might think this would be the wrong time to discourage people from having children. But some are doing just that. Citing numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the website Market Watch recently warned that the cost of raising children has grown an unbelievable 40 percent since the year 2000. According to those USDA estimates, the average American parent spends almost a quarter million dollars raising a single child, not including college expenses. This translates to huge figures for families who have four, five, or even more kids. If these numbers are correct, a minivan-sized family will spend something on the order of a million dollars just to get their children through high school. But I’m not buying those numbers, at least not totally. The USDA’s estimates don’t take into account things like shared living space, hand-me-down clothes, grandparents pitching in, or other common ways parents have learned to save money. Such outlandish estimates of the cost of kids are now cited in article after article, making the case that few Americans can really afford kids. CNBC joined in recently with a piece called “Here’s how much money you save when you don’t have kids.” To make matters worse, they cited a study purporting to show parents are less happy than non-parents. All of this bean-counting in the government and secular media comes at a moment when the thing we need most is babies. Even sadder, it coincides with one of the hardest pro-abortion legislative pushes we’ve seen in decades. Our culture is simply less welcoming to little lives than ever before. And yet those of us who have kids and those who desperately long and pray to have kids know how fundamentally skewed these cost-benefit analyses are, even if their math was better. Because children are priceless, and as my friend Dr. Ben Mitchell says, anytime you put a price tag on something priceless, you cheapen it. The question of whether kids are too expensive raises much bigger worldview questions, such as, “what’s the purpose of life?” and “what’s the good life?” Children aren’t a bucket list item, like paragliding or visiting Paris. It’s an others-centered way of living—a radical statement of hope for the future—a declaration that you and I are not the center of the universe, and that the here and now is not the only thing that matters. In a society already suffering from a birth dearth, the question isn’t whether we can afford to have kids. It’s whether we can afford not to.