Another Letter to a New Pastor

26 October 2021

I wrote this several years ago to a friend who was being promoted from deacon to priest. May it be an encouragement, especially to my bivocational brothers. As always, names, places, and such have been altered to protect identities.

Dear Walter, 

I don’t know if you recall it, but in the charge to you at your diaconal ordination, you were told that that when your time in the diaconate is through, and the time comes to engage in the ministry of the Word and prayer, it is an obsession that deserves a man’s full-time attention. So the Twelve Apostles judged it, and speaking from my 7 years of experience as a full-time laborer in the Word, I agree: this testimony is true. 

It is not, however, the whole truth.

There was another apostle, born out of due time, who—although possessed of a right to full-time support in his ministry of the Word—had a different obsession: to take the Word wherever God called him, whether that would provide him with a living or not. In that mission, he was sometimes supported; many times he made tents instead of making a living from his ministry. Paul’s bivocational life was a matter of economic necessity, but it also had a pastoral effect. Paul challenged the Thessalonians, who had a problem with laziness, to follow his example. He reminded them that when he was with them he ate no one’s food free of charge, and earned his keep with his own hands. Paul could not have made that point so solidly, had he been in “full-time ministry” (as we call it) during his stay in that city. We don’t know whether Paul’s bivocational life in Thessalonike was a deliberate pastoral choice or a providential necessity, but in either case, God used it for the good of the Thessalonians. 

And so I write to you on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood to offer you this reminder of Paul’s life, taught to us by the Scriptures and attested by my own experience. I have served as a full-time seminary professor and pastor. I have also found myself selling fabric, painting houses, installing bathtubs, driving busses, hawking curriculum like a Lebanese rug merchant, and more, in order to finance my ministry.

So I speak—from a certain perspective—-as a ministerial failure. There is an upwardly mobile, slick corps of professionals that fill the full time salaried spots in our churches. I spent 7 of the 14 years of my ministry in those exalted ranks. Of late, I have fallen from them, and do not appear to be in any danger of recovering. 

You may find yourself called to serve in that corps of polished professionals. I’ve been there, have many faithful friends there, and am happy to affirm that there’s plenty of good work to do there. If God calls you to it, then serve there without shame. But on the occasion of your ordination to the priesthood, I want to remind you—for whatever my unsolicited counsel may be worth—that such a calling is by no means inevitable. 

You may be called to the “failure” that was Paul’s life, and if you are, you must leap into your calling without shame. That might be relatively easy at the beginning, but as time wears on, you will begin to see the costs of your expensive ministry hobby. I want you to know, from someone further down that path, that it is worth it. God will provide. I do not understand His ways, and I yell at Him sometimes. I have had sleepless nights when I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent, or afford a desperately needed dental operation for Kimberly. It has not been easy, not by any stretch. But it has been good. God is good; all His ways are good. He will carry you when, by every earthly calculation, you should fall down. 

What sustains me in my service now is not the memory of the “glory years” when I was a paid, full-time worker in the Word, or some hope of getting back to that station eventually. What sustains me now is the character that was formed in me long before I was ever ordained, during my years as the hands and feet of Christ serving the Body in whatever capacity was needed. 

By the time they ordained me, I knew I wasn’t getting a coveted appointment to an indoor job with no heavy lifting. I was getting a license to serve, as I had always served — only more so. It might not be fitting to leave the ministry of the Word and prayer to serve tables, but it is sometimes necessary. You might have every right to make a living from the ministry, but in God’s providence, you might not have the ability to do so. In the context of the American church, you will be made to feel like a second-class citizen for that, and you will be tempted to scratch and claw for a “better” post with better pay. 

But no. Labor in the calling God has given you, secure in the knowledge that if you have to pay your own way, you are not the first. God will care for you, and your treasure is invested in heaven, which holds up surprisingly well when the bottom falls out of the earthly markets.

I wish you every success in your ministry. May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path, and may the blessing of God Almighty—-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—abide in you and rest upon you always. 

Blessings, 

Tim Nichols


Letter to a New Pastor

21 October 2021

Some years ago, a friend of mine stepped reluctantly into pastoral ministry. I wrote this letter on that occasion; perhaps it will be an encouragement to you, too. (Names and other identifying information have, of course, been altered.)

Dear Jack, 

Congratulations again on rising reluctantly to the role of pastor. I thought at the time of the announcement to set down a few thoughts for you, and as is characteristic for me, it took a while to think through what I actually wanted to say. 

It turns out that, upon reflection, most of what I would ordinarily say simply doesn’t need saying. You have always struck me as an intelligent, godly man, and I have every confidence in your ability to rise to your responsibilities with grace and good sense. So I’m going to restrict myself to commending a few oft-neglected spiritual disciplines I have found particularly helpful in pastoral work. These took me a long time to learn, and would have saved me a lot of suffering if I’d learned them sooner. Perhaps I’ll be able to save you some time and anguish.

If you are the sort of shepherd you should be, Jack, people will love you…until they don’t. We are in the trouble business, and one of the features of our work is that people lie about us. You will be lied about, outrageously. You will be surprised at who believes the lies. (And at who doesn’t — not all the surprises will be bad!) It will hurt — especially the first time, but the truth is that I’m not used to it yet, and maybe I never will be. 

You will be tempted to indulge a wide set of variations on the theme “Why me?” Things like “I was helping her!” “I’ve never done anything to him; why is he doing this?” “What are they even hoping to gain from this?” To the extent that these voices represent how you really feel, pour them out to God — He always meets us where we are. To that end, I commend to you the regular reading of the Psalter. Your prayer book [The Book of Common Prayer] has a schedule that will take you through the Psalter in a month, and I would suggest that you keep to it for at least a year. The Psalter teaches us to pray in extremis like nothing else can, and trust me, my friend, you’re going to need the practice.

However, keep in mind that all the variations on “Why me?” are also a temptation to feel sorry for yourself. Exorcise them with St. Symeon’s rejoinder to all self-pity: “The Son of God was tortured to death on a tree, and you want justice?” Remember who you are following; a servant is no better than his Master.

When you are slandered, and you will be, remember Jesus’ instructions: “Happy are you when they castigate and persecute you, and say all manner of evil things against you falsely for My sake — rejoice and be very glad, because your reward in heaven is great — in the same way they also persecuted the prophets before you.” When you’re keeping that kind of exalted company, celebration is in order, and I am afraid that we often hurt ourselves by failing to take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Accept the discipline of rejoicing: go out and buy a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan (or your comparable drink of choice), have a few friends over, and celebrate. Drink your whisky, and get happy. Jesus said to. And besides, celebration is a weapon against which the enemy of your soul has no defense — nothing squelches self-pity and bitterness quite like unfettered joy

It may help to realize that most of the people who attack you won’t have anything against you personally. You’re just in the way, means to an end, and a year or two after the incident, they won’t have any particular feelings about you one way or the other — however much damage they might have done you. On rarer occasions, you may acquire an actual enemy — someone who will continue to go out of their way to hurt you as opportunities arise. I have accumulated five such enemies over the years, and I have accepted two disciplines into my life regarding them. Both have done me a world of good, and I commend them to you. First, pray regularly for God to bless your enemies. We are Christians, and that’s what we do — but it’s alarmingly easy to let six months go by in which you have not blessed your enemies, so it’s wise to be intentional about it. Second, a couple times a year, take an inventory of your enemies, and ask yourself if there’s something you might do to bring peace that you have not yet done. In my experience, if I’ve been conducting myself well to start with, the answer is usually no — but I change, they change, and circumstances change; every once in a while, something comes up. Being cursed, we bless — so keep an eye out for opportunities. God may well send you one, and it would be a shame to miss it.

My final encouragement to you requires a little biblical background. Please bear with me; I am still enough of a seminary professor to insist on setting this up properly. In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out the fivefold ministry — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. We often think of these as spiritual gifts, and content ourselves with having a sense of which of these big-box categories we belong in. Knowing our place in the fivefold ministry can certainly be instructive, as far as it goes, but Paul is actually teaching us something far subtler. In chapter 3, he describes his own ministry: “To me, the ‘leaster’ of all the saints this grace was given: that I should proclaim among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….” Paul is not just an apostle, although he is that. The grace of God given to Paul is to be the apostle to the Gentiles — not just a gifting, but a specific calling. Paul then explains early in chapter 4, “To each one of us grace was given….” It is not just the rock stars like Paul who have a specific calling. We all do.

So you are a pastor, clearly. But of what sort? To whom? To what purpose? As God shows you answers to these questions, attend to them. They are the grace given to you — and the grace given to you will be unique to you, just as the grace given to Paul was unique to him.

Therefore, my last piece of unsolicited advice is to hold all advice lightly. We are all of one Author and we are all one volume, as Donne wisely said, but the fact remains that the Spirit blows all our scattered leaves to some very different places before He brings us all back to be bound into the Book of Life together on the last day. The Good Shepherd Himself is your teacher, and He does not train us all to be the same kind of pastor.

When I reflect on the men and women who trained me, and the “best practices” they taught me for being a pastor…well. I break many of those rules, often. I’m not at all what they hoped I would be, and it’s not because I didn’t want to be. The truth is, I would have been content to be just like them, and if God had let me be in charge of my career, that’s what would have happened. But God had other plans, and so I’m afraid I’m the black sheep of my nondenominational, cessationist Bible church tribe these days, which has had the happy effect of thoroughly mortifying my pride and ambition. An early Puritan described this as “learning to live in the high mountain air of public calumny.” It encourages me to know that however weird my path may be, others have passed this way long before me. 

The point, my friend, is not that you should be like me. God led me along a path that was perfect for me, and in the process he shaped me into something quite unexpected, something for which my friends and mentors could not have prepared me, and which I would not willingly have chosen. But it’s good, and He didn’t put me out there alone. Others have gone before me — and wherever He takes you, others will have gone before you, too.

He will undoubtedly lead you along the best path for you, however different that might be from what others envision for you. Trust His heart for you and choose your models according to the grace given to you. You may serve in one church fulfilling your expected role for decades, and be exactly the shepherd God is calling you to be. You may find yourself forced to step widely out of bounds in order to fulfill the grace given to you. The one path is no better than the other, and the ease or difficulty is never the point — the only thing that matters is Who you’re following. Stick by the Shepherd; His heart is always for your blessing, and all His ways are good. 

I have no doubt that your pastoral service will be a deep blessing to many. For what my private wishes are worth, I hope God keeps you here so I can see your ministry flourish for myself. In my experience, we all at times profit from reaching outside our customary circles, especially when things are tough. If you should feel a need, please call on me; I would be honored to hold you up in prayer. I can’t promise you sage counsel — although you’re welcome to it if I happen to have any lying about — but I will pray with you and for you. And I’ll buy the first round of drinks, so that’s something. 

If there is any other way I can serve you, please don’t hesitate to ask; your church and her people remain very dear to me.

May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path.

Your fellow servant, 

Tim Nichols


Can We Understand the World?

5 October 2021

Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?

See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?

But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.

Modern man has just forgotten how.

Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.

Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.

Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.

With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.

Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.

The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.

We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.

Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.


No One Dared Join Them

2 October 2021

You can find my latest essay “No One Dared Join Them” over at Theopolis.


Precisely Personal

21 September 2021

It’s been a good while since I wrote anything about the Free Grace Food Fight — for a long while, there didn’t seem to be much to say. Of late, I had occasion to interact with a GES ally, and found that the discourse has (and in some ways, hasn’t) shifted. The current presentation, according to him, looks something like this:


If these 3 things are true of a person then that person is saved no matter what misconception he may have or hold…

  1. The right vehicle for reception of the gift of God: faith
  2. In the right Person: Jesus of Nazareth
  3. For the purpose of receiving the benefit of His offer: eternal life.

If it’s the correct condition – faith – in the right Person – Jesus of Nazareth – for the benefit He offers – eternal life – then this man is saved no matter what misconceptions about reality he may have. Period.

This person has, with the divine needed precision, fulfilled the condition to receive everlasting life.


Compared to that simple and precise formulation, I’m told, my own position is imprecise and will lead people to doubt. I see two problems here.

First, the precision they think they have is largely an illusion. It looks pretty clean: three well-formed, carefully worded statements, and that’s that. All neoclassically bright and shiny; what could be the problem? The problem is that in order for those statements to convey the precise meaning they have in mind, the terms have to be defined. Chiefly: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Without a definition there, the statements don’t mean much, and once we start defining who exactly we mean by “Jesus of Nazareth,” we’ll find that the position is a bit more complicated than they’re letting on.

Second, my position only looks imprecise from that vantage point because they’ve committed a serious category error. I actually agree that the Bible has specified precisely what is required to receive eternal life. It’s right there in John 3:16: believe in Him.

The difference between us is that they think “believe in Him” is imprecise shorthand, and their three propositions define it more precisely. I do not agree. That position requires an unstated (and insupportable) premise: that faith is always and only assent to certain specific propositions. If that is the case, then we can quibble over the exact content of the propositions (and boy, have we!), but something like their position absolutely must be true.

However, the unstated premise is flawed. Faith is a fundamentally personal interaction that can be truly described in propositions but is not reducible to them. You trust in Jesus to save you; that’s all. What if you stole a candy bar or committed a murder? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. What if you flunked a soteriology exam? Trust in Jesus; He’s got it. Even if it was that really short exam from Evangelism Explosion? Yes, even then. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you. What if I somehow trust Him wrong? He’s already planned for that. Trust in Jesus; He’s got you.

There is no precise mechanism. There is no mechanism at all. There is a Person, arms outstretched, ready to rescue anyone who calls to Him for help. “Believe in Him” means precisely what it says: trust in this Person, and He will save you. It is as simple as that.

In nearly 20 years of pastoral practice and nearly 40 years of evangelism, I do not find this message to be grounds for a lack of assurance.


Sinning in All Directions

14 September 2021

In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”

For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?

What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.

In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.

That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.

And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.


But Is It Mine To Take?

7 September 2021

“In Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Let’s scrape off the Sunday School language for a minute and ask what that means in the real world.  A “treasure” is something well worth having.  Biblically speaking, “wisdom” is skill — it can be skill at a trade, skill at interpersonal relationships, skill at anything.  “Knowledge” is understanding of facts, but biblically it also includes understanding and intimacy with the facts — grasping how they relate to one another.  So “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” means all the skills worth having and all the things worth knowing — and all of them are hidden in Christ.  Every last one.

So what are we to do when we find a pagan claiming that these particular treasures of wisdom and knowledge right here belong to his idols?

Refuse to believe him, of course.  But does that mean that the pagan really doesn’t have treasures of wisdom and knowledge, even though he thinks he does?  That will be the case sometimes,  but often enough he’s got the real thing, courtesy of common grace, and the devil is lying to him about where it came from.  After all, the Canaanites were not living in make-believe houses and harvesting pretend grapes to make imagined wine.  They had the real thing — all gifts from the loving hand of a gracious God, which the devil was only too happy to claim for his own, with the Canaanites’ complicity.

Faced with that situation, the task of God’s people is obvious enough — take those good things back, and return them to their lawful role in service to the Creator.  The devil is not Abraham, and he may not claim territory everywhere he leaves his cloven hoofprints.  It all belongs to Yahweh, every last bit, and we will be taking it back in Yahweh’s name.  This is as true in the New Covenant as it was under the Old: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ….”  

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, and we look forward to a day when everybody knows it, and the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like water covers the sea.  This is God’s will, and while we wait to see it come to full fruition, we pray for little pieces of it to invade here and now — “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

That’s the long view, the answer in principle.  However, just because the whole thing belongs to God does not mean we are fit to take it all back right this minute.  Abraham’s family wasn’t ready to inhabit the land during Abraham’s lifetime — hence the centuries-long delay.  Even at Kadesh Barnea, Israel wasn’t ready.  Still filled with fear, they believed the ten spies instead of Joshua and Caleb.  God told them that He would respect their wishes and give the land to their children instead, and then, predictably, they decided they would try to take it after all.  God warned them that He would not go with them, not now, but they tried anyway, and a bunch of them died in the attempt. 

When they finally went in with Joshua, even then God told them that He would drive out the peoples of the land gradually before them, lest the land be overgrown and overrun with wild beasts.  The conquest has its cataclysmic moments like the destruction of Jericho, but it is a process, and the process was always meant to be directed by divine guidance.  It’s God’s territory, and we have to retake it on His timetable, in His way.  

The question is not simply, “Is this God’s?”  The question is, “Is God giving this to me?”  “Is it mine to take?”

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. We all encounter enemy strongholds — in our own lives, in our communities, in the world we live in.  Where are some of the enemy strongholds that you encounter?
  2. God gives us His armor because He means for us to be active in warfare.  Is there a stronghold that God wants you to assault?  
  3. If God gives you a target, don’t assume He wants you to go charging up that hill immediately.  Ask how God wants you to go about it.

Everywhere He Left His Cloven Hoofprints

31 August 2021

When Israel came up from Egypt and went into the Promised Land, they took up residence in a land formerly owned by thoroughgoing pagans.  God’s people lived in houses built by pagans, cultivated fields cleared by pagans, and harvested orchards and vineyards planted by pagans.  Moreover, all these things were dedicated to pagan gods by the previous inhabitants, a fact which seems to have caused Israel no concern at all.

Israel was able to take all these ‘pagan’ things from their previous pagan owners with a clear conscience for the best of all possible reasons:  God told them to go and take the Land.  For some people, it seems odd that God didn’t have them raze everything and start over from scratch, so that they would owe absolutely nothing to the pagans who had held the territory before them.  God had other ideas.

That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God.  As Solomon put it several centuries later, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22).  That transfer of inheritance from the wicked Canaanites to righteous Israel came with strict instructions not to get caught up in the various abominations of the peoples of the land, especially their many idolatries.  In fact, although they were allowed to take over the fields, houses, cities and so on, there was one thing Israel was required to destroy absolutely: “You shall burn the carved images of their gods with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to Yahweh your God, nor shall you bring an abomination into your house, lest you be doomed to destruction like it.  You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing” (Deut. 7:25-26).

Burn the idols; don’t even go through the ashes looking for the gold that melted off.  Don’t bring that junk into your house if you don’t want to be destroyed along with it.  It isn’t worth it — set it on fire and walk away.

In order to grasp the lesson here, we have to understand the nature of Canaanite religion.  In the ancient world, there was no separation between religion and the rest of life.  The hearths would be dedicated to the appropriate goddess; the potter’s shop would have been blessed in the name of the patron god of the trade; fertility rites were performed in the farmers’ fields every spring to guarantee a good harvest; every house, in fact, would have its household gods.  Yahweh did not tell Israel to destroy everything that had been consecrated in the name of some pagan deity — they would have had to destroy the very dirt under their feet!  Rather, He told them to destroy the idols themselves, and take everything else as a gift from Him.

What gave Yahweh the right to offer an Israelite family a house devoted to a pagan deity, as if it were His to give?  It really was His to give.  The very heavens and earth are His; there is nothing that He cannot give as a gift.  

In fact, the land was already theirs, because He had already given it to them in principle, centuries earlier.  More than four hundred years before, their father Abraham had walked through Canaan, and God told Him, “Everywhere the sole of your foot touches, I will give you and your descendants.”  The land belonged to Israel for the service of Yahweh, but in the intervening centuries pagans had taken up residence.  With the pagans came idols, and as Paul later told the Corinthians, “An idol is a demon.”  After Abraham, the devil walked the land, claiming it for his own everywhere he left his cloven hoofprints.

But he is the father of lies, and his claims of ownership were lies, too.

***

Discussion

  1. During their centuries-long task of retaking pagan territory, Israel failed often.  What were the temptations that troubled them?  How might those same temptations trouble us today?
  2. Do you think it’s really possible to take back “enemy territory” and remain faithful to God?
  3. If so, what areas do you see that are “enemy territory” and need to be taken back?  Is there a particular area that you feel called to retake?

Is Secular Safe?

24 August 2021

We have largely succeeded at sanitizing the public square of overt religious references, such that an American Christian can go about his daily life and not be assailed by assertions of Islamic faith, or reminders of religious Daoism, or Hindu deities. In this largely sanitized space lies a subtle temptation.

The temptation is to think that there is a “plain vanilla” way to engage life where one’s religion really doesn’t matter.  You can get the basics of life down, no matter what your religious thoughts might happen to be, and then add in your religion like a condiment on a hamburger.  Some people like ketchup; some people like cheese; in Australia they serve it with a slice of beet (for real!)  Takes all kinds….

This secular approach has a certain amount of street-level credibility.  You change the oil on a Camry the same way whether you’re an atheist, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian.  It’s not as if you turn the nut to the right if you’re Jewish and to the left if you’re Muslim, right?

That’s true as far as it goes, but we need to ask why Muslims and Jews both have to turn the nut the same way.  Why is it that everybody has to change the oil the same way no matter what religion they are?  Why is the world the same for everybody?

Because there is some way of understanding the world that really does go all the way down, and everybody has to bend to it.  The question is, what is it?

When we secularize the public spaces in the name of “neutrality,” we are not in fact being neutral.  We are behaving as if physical reality is all there is, and religion is a fun idea you can layer on top of “real” reality if it helps you somehow.  We are acting as if that is the understanding of the world that goes all the way down.

But it isn’t.

Faced with a secular environment, whether it is in in a gym, a karate dojo, or as mundane a setting as a grocery store, American Christians feel as if there is nothing wrong.  We have forgotten the exhortation that Paul gave us: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

We are Christians; we seek to live in such a way that every part of our lives is in submission to the Lordship of Christ.  We acknowledge no secular practice of anything at all.

***

Prayer Exercises

  1. It is easy for us to fall prey to a secular world-and-life view because expressions of it are all around us, and after a while we begin to believe it.  Ask God to reveal any areas of your life where you have begun to believe this lie.  Wait in silence to see what He will reveal to you.
  2. In any area that comes to your attention, confess the lie you have begun to believe, and ask God to show you the truth in that area of your life.  Wait to see what He will say to you, but also remain attentive over the coming weeks.  The answer may come in the form of a thought, an interaction with another person, an event, or something else.  Be willing to listen and see what God will do.
  3. Ask God to show you any strongholds in your own life, or in your community’s life, that need to be pulled down, any thoughts that need to be brought into subjection to Christ.

Cops AND Robbers

17 August 2021

When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.

I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.

It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.

It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.

Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.

So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.

Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.

The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.

This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.

For further information, read Policing for Profit.