Explain what Valuing that Lives are Changed in Relationships Means at Three Levels

For a church to thrive, it must value relationships. That’s where meaningful life change happens. These three pictures show how lives are changed in relationships.

Level 1: Wearing the same shirts

Imagine showing up to The Big House and seeing 50,000 other people dressed in maize and blue shirts, just like you. Immediate connection. The shared shirt brings you into something bigger than yourself: a relationship.

The starting point for changing lives is making connections.

Level 2: Learning to swim

Swimming is easy, once you’ve learned how. Since your body more or less floats anyway, the art of swimming is learning to relax into the support of the water rather than fight to stay on top. Gaining this comfortable familiarity requires time wading in the shallows, then venturing out into the deeps.

Lives are changed in relationship as people build comfortable familiarity. This comfortable familiarity allows people to take off their masks, to be more open and honest with each other about their strengths and weaknesses–and the odd ways those are intertwined.

Level 3: Sheep yoked together

A friend with a sheep farm occasionally had rams that wouldn’t stop fighting. The solution? Tie them together with a very short strap. The result? After being forced to do everything together–eat, sleep, play, walk, etc.–they became fast friends.

The deepest change comes in lives that are bound together by a lasting relational connection. Lives are deeply shaped by sticking together and sticking it out.

Want a thriving church? How are you moving from shirts to sheep?

Explain What Valuing Biblical Truth Means at Three Levels

Level 1: Beginner – Signs

Biblical truth is like a sign. Road signs give an important piece of information to guide you about the right way to act at the moment: STOP, turn right, get on the off ramp, etc. Signs are extremely useful.

Just like road signs, biblical truth gives important information to guide you about the right way to act in the moment. Some famous signs in the Bible: the 10 Commandments, Jesus’ Great Commandments, and the Golden Rule. Valuing biblical truth begins with following the signs.

Level 2: Intermediate – GPS

Signs are helpful, but only when you already know where you are going. You could drive around a roundabout forever and never violate a sign…and never get anywhere. Enter the GPS. It tells you how to get from where you are to where you are going. The big picture is essential for successful travel.

Just like a GPS, biblical truth gives the big picture of where life should go. Valuing biblical truth deepens through learning the big picture to make sense of life.

Level 3: Advanced – Conversation Partner

A GPS is great for guiding your journey from A to B. It helps with the “how.” But it doesn’t do much with the “who,” as in, “who are you?” For that, you need a conversation partner. A skilled conversationalist draws out who you are.

Biblical truth is a skilled conversationalist that draws you toward grace, again and again. Valuing biblical truth means engaging the conversation.

biblical truth 3 levels

1 Peter 4:5-6 – what about proclaiming the gospel to the dead?

Jesus harrowing hell

There are some passages of scripture that encourage endless speculation. What are we to make of 1 Peter 4:5-6:

They will face a reckoning before[a] Jesus Christ[b] who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. Now it was for this very purpose[c] that the gospel was preached to those who are now dead,[d] so that though[e] they were judged in the flesh[f] by human standards[g] they may live spiritually[h] by God’s standards.[i] (NET)

Here are a few thoughts on this passage.

There are lots of details to debate in this passage. But here’s the big picture: the dead in Christ have eternal hope; the dead outside of Christ…not so much.

Wrappings matter

two kids opening a Christmas present

Kids are experts at the hermeneutics of presentation.

Wait, what? Come again. English please.

OK. Let’s say that a little differently. Kids are experts at determining how good a gift will be based on its size, shape, and the type of wrapping paper it is in. There. The hermeneutics of presentation. Rare is the Christmas morning where parents have to say, “Timmy, stop opening up all the cards and reading them and start opening up the big presents.”

We have to teach proverbs like ‘beauty is only skin deep’ and ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because we automatically treat beauty as skin deep and judge our books by their covers. Kids are experts at sizing up how valuable the contents of a package will be based on the way it is wrapped. Part of maturing is learning how to see through the wrappings and judge with greater clarity. Said differently, part of maturing is learning to read the way that wrapping paper guides you and choosing to accept or reject the message it sends.

And that’s a wrap

The importance of wrapping doesn’t go away when Christmas gifts turn from wrapped packages to cards with cash. The importance of wrapping hangs with us our entire lives. The ‘wrapping’ gives us cues all throughout life about what is on the inside…and how we should interact with it.

Interpreting through the wrapping is evident in why we make (largely) unconscious judgments about peoples’ competency and character based on what they wear.

Interpreting through the wrapping is evident in Ford vs. Chevy battles. Or the John Deere vs. … wait, does anybody else make tractors even worth buying? Although it is difficult to independently find any consistent, real advantage in one over the other, try convincing someone who has learned that the running yellow deer is a symbol of the unmatchable quality of whatever machine it is emblazoned on. Brands matter. And they are essentially wrapping paper helping you interpret the contents inside.

Get the point? We are always interpreting the contents by the wrapping.

The ‘Trump’ Bible

On Good Friday morning, I read in the news about Donald Trump endorsing the God Bless the USA Bible. This Bible—a KJV, for those interested (since the KJV text is in public domain no modern publisher needs convincing to undertake the potential risk in this endeavor)—not only contains the Bible, but many core texts that have become associated with patriotism:

  • Handwritten chorus to “God Bless The USA” by Lee Greenwood
  • The US Constitution
  • The Bill of Rights
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Pledge of Allegiance

And all of this wrapped inside a cover with the American flag emblazoned on the cover, proudly sporting the phrase, “GOD BLESS THE USA.”

Others can debate the potential motives for Donald Trump to ‘endorse’ a Bible. And they should.

I’ll tell you that when I read about this, I had two feelings: (1) bewilderment and (2) a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Have we really gone there?

You are free to think and feel many things about the current political climate and candidates of our country. As a pastor writing this, I invite you to think for a few brief minutes about interpreting the wrapping paper. Because everything is wrapped up to help us interpret it. Including the GOD BLESS THE USA Bible.

When you mix politics and religion…

Is there anything wrong with publishing a Bible that has several important American legal texts and a cult-favorite song attached to it? Is there anything inherently wrong with putting an American flag on the cover of a Bible? Or the words GOD BLESS THE USA featured prominently below the title HOLY BIBLE?

I invite you to consider that the answer is yes. There is something wrong. Wrapping paper matters for how we understand what is on its inside. Framing the Bible within a particular version of the trappings of American patriotism—a flag, the God bless the USA slogan, and American legal documents—sends a message about how to understand what is wrapped up on the inside. The very idea that a potential president stands in a position to endorse the Bible is itself offensive. What possibly is lacking in the Scriptures themselves, and in their long history within our culture, that Donald Trump feels he can add to with a word of endorsement?

When you mix politics and religion you get…politics. And Jesus had some cutting guidance for us regarding politics.

God and Caesar

When Jesus was asked about paying taxes, remember what he said?

18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:18-21 ESV)

A simple lesson from this: there are concerns in following God that are bigger than the concerns of the state. In terms of wrapping paper, the bigger wrapping of life should be “rendering to God the things that are God’s,” not “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” It is instructive that the religious leaders hadn’t thought of this when they came up to Jesus with a question they viewed as a trap. The allure of political wins in the moment tends to obscure what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.

At this moment of high political conflict, I invite us all to reflect on this key point. What you do with voting and advocating in politics has many strands of influence and many motives. Make sure one of those—and a deeply important one—is asking the question, “Whose kingdom is this advancing, God’s, or man’s?” It is hard to imagine how wrapping up the Holy Bible in the trappings of American patriotism at this juncture of American history is aimed at advancing God’s kingdom.

If there is anything true about the current moment in American politics it is that it inspires passionate feelings. Whatever passionate feelings you have in this moment, I invite you to consider this. Are the interests of God’s kingdom advanced by such an overtly political wrapping paper?

Wrappings send a message: Are you listening?

The God Bless the USA Bible is not troubling because of the Bible. Nor is it troubling because of the American patriotic and governmental texts. It is concerning because it wraps the Bible up in the trappings of American politics as though the politics are the more important reality. That sends a message. All wrapping sends a message.

Just ask kids at Christmas time.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Some patterns for prayer

neon sign praying hands on black background

So, you’re excited about off the cuff prayer and scripted prayer, but how to get going? Here are a few proven helps in prayer to try out, both scripted prayers, and some model prayers to guide your praying well.

Some scripted prayer

First, as with most areas of knowledge, the internet has opened up immense archives of scripted prayers to peruse. Probably too many. I’ll point you to two that I have used with profit:

  • A little book called The Valley of Vision (ask me about it, if you would like to check it out)
  • The prayers of the Daily Office in The Book of Common Prayer (this link will take you to the prayers and readings for each day, called “The Daily Office”). Check out an app which brings it right to your phone: Daily Prayer.

These are both helpful sources of model prayers. I’m sure there are tons more out there, but I know these are good.

Scripted prayers can be helpful in expanding your understanding of what to pray for or how to pray. Let’s turn our attention now to prayer models which allow you to take advantage of the strengths of both off the cuff and scripted prayer.

On using prayer models

There’s a saying in academia that goes like this, “All models are wrong; some models are useful.” The saying refers to models like what weather forecasters use. They are tools we use to make sense of complicated data or experiences. While we like to roast weather forecasters, the reality is that we often rely a great deal on the ability of weather models to predict likely weather outcomes. I make my plans for tomorrow based on the weather forecast given today. And they do a pretty good job much of the time. We use them because they are useful. Not because they are perfect.

Model prayers have a similar function. The three model prayers I will share in brief provide a way to guide prayer time. To keep it focused. To direct our priorities in prayer to places that we can often overlook. Model prayer are a pattern to follow much like signs along a hiking trail—they keep you moving along in the right direction.

Here are three patterns to follow: the Lord’s Prayer, ACTS, and the praying hand.

the Lord’s Prayer

When Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, his response was a prayer. We call that prayer “The Lord’s Prayer” today. It can be found in Matthew 6:9-13 (the most famous version) or Luke 11:2-4 (the less famous but still good version). Prayer practices in Jesus’ day often involved repeating set prayers. That was very likely what the disciples were asking Jesus about: what is the set prayer your followers should pray? As such, we do well to still repeat this prayer today.

But the prayer also works as a framework. We can organize our own approach to God around the key themes which Jesus included in the model prayer he gives his followers.

Take each of the sections of the Lord’s Prayer to guide areas of life that require focus in prayer:

  • Dear Father, you are _____
  • Your kingdom come, your will be done in _____
  • Give us _____
  • Forgive us for _____
  • and help us to forgive _____
  • Protect us from temptation and evil in _____

It doesn’t cover everything worth praying for, but it guides our thoughts and feelings through an organized set of priorities worthy of prayer.

ACTS

Another well-known pattern prayer, the acronym ACTS, leads through key parts of our spiritual life before God:

  • Adoration (spend time worshiping God) – Wow God, you are…
  • Confession (repent of sins and ask for forgiveness) – I’m sorry for…
  • Thanksgiving (thank God for what He has done) – Thank you for…
  • Supplication (asking for help) – Please help…

This pattern is especially helpful in reminding you to spend time adoring/praising God and confessing sins, not just saying, “Here is what I want to happen.”

the praying hand

The praying hand, our final model, is one that I only learned about recently. But I have come to find in it a dear friend. Use your fingers to remind you of key areas that deserve prayer:

  • Thumb: pray for those who are closest to you (the thumb is closest)
  • Index/pointer: pray for those who teach and heal you (this finger is used for teaching)
  • Middle: Pray for those who lead (this finger is tallest)
  • Ring: Pray for those who are weak/sick (this finger is the weakest)
  • Pinky: Pray for your own needs

A particular strength of this pattern is that it combats self-only focused prayers. We work through the needs of others in prayer before getting to our own. That is a beautiful practice of loving neighbor as self.

Follow the pattern prayers

Models work because they are simple, memorable, and effective. These three model prayers (there are many more) fit the bill. Use them well.

Compassion that reaches beyond the boundary

Jesus touches a man with leprosoy

Jesus was compassionate. That is not exactly news to most people. But to the fact that Jesus was compassionate, we must add another piece of information: Jesus’ compassion teaches about the nature of God. In Jesus’ acts of compassion, we see that God reaches outside the boundaries to enable outsiders to come in. Consider briefly with me Jesus healing a leper.

impure made pure

In Mark 1:40-45, we read about Jesus cleansing a man with a skin disease. According to the laws in Leviticus 13, Jesus probably shouldn’t have been hanging around with a leper. But he did. In fact, he did even more than just hang around with him:

40 Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. 41 Moved with indignation, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” 42 The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. (NET)

Jesus touched him. According to all of the social conventions and the Torah on which they were based—some more rightly than others—Jesus shouldn’t do that. To be a ‘leper’ meant the man had a skin disease which rendered him ritually impure.

Note: the word leprosy in the Bible is not referring to the skin disease which we today call leprosy, or, more technically, Hansen’s disease. It refers to a variety of skin conditions of uncertain nature that resulted in rashes, spots, etc.

Ritual impurity worked a lot like COVID lockdown guidelines—touch someone who was sick and you had to go into quarantine, too, until you could prove you weren’t sick. Avoiding ritual impurity was an important consideration in Jesus’ day and place. Jesus sets this all aside and touches the man.

Why does Jesus do this?

following the model of God

Jesus follows the model of how God deals with a rebellious people who are ritually (and morally) cut off from him. We see this model many places in the Old Testament, but an especially poignant instance occurs at Mt. Sinai.

While Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Law, the people decide to through their own impromptu religious orgy. In this act, they violate the provisions of the covenant God is making with them. Thus, if God were driven by legal technicalities, he would walk away from them and never come back. Instead, the sin becomes the backdrop for God’s self-revealing action.

In Exodus 34:27 we read:

27 The Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” (NET)

This verse sounds interesting, but once we remember it is after the golden calf rebellion, it takes a profound meaning. Despite God’s people breaking their nascent covenant with God, he reconnects with them. In his compassion, he reaches beyond the terms of the covenant they broke and takes hold of them again.

We learn about God by what he does, and what he does is reach out with compassion beyond the boundaries.

the cleaning touch

The model of God’s action in Exodus is not lost on Jesus. God made the people fit for relationship even though they had made themselves unfit. He crossed through a boundary and brought them back.

In a small, symbolic way, Jesus does this same thing. He steps across the boundary of clean/unclean and brings the leprous man back. His command, “Be clean!” effects the opposite of what is expected. In the purity system, when a clean person touched an unclean person, it was always the uncleanness that was contagious. Jesus acts with the finger of God to bring restorative cleanness to the man with a touch.

We learn about God by what he does. One compassionate touch from Jesus has so much to teach us about a God who crosses boarders and boundaries to bring people home.

How, then, shall we pray?

neon sign praying hands on black background

Few questions have the power to make a church gathering awkward more quickly than asking people about their prayer life. Yet it is a deeply important part of life for the follower of Jesus. A new year is a fair time to ask an ever-important question: how, then, shall we pray? There are two approaches to prayer that you should utilize which can yield benefits in your prayer life (and life in general): off the cuff prayer and scripted prayer.

“Off the cuff” prayer

Off the cuff prayer, or more fancily, extemporaneous prayer, is what we call  a prayer that is made up on the spot. In my experience, people in the Baptist and Baptist-like circles of Christian practice consider extemporaneous prayer to be the gold standard. Off the cuff prayer has a unique power to unleash passion, but without proper attention it also can easily end in dull routine and limited prayers.

raw and passionate prayer

Probably the best feature of extemporaneous prayer is that it connects to the actual thoughts and feelings of the moment. Since it is much like talking, it allows us to freely bring our thoughts and concerns to the throne of God, with all the angst and joy we feel right now. This conversational aspect of off the cuff prayer often results in it feeling more real, more authentic, and more connected to our lives. All good things.

the problem of routine and blinders

But for all its strengths, extemporaneous prayer has some weakness to guard against. Two important weaknesses are dull routine and prayer-blinders.

dull routine

A prayer routine is when you end up saying the same old things about the same old things. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Nothing saps the savor from prayer quite like a dull routine. Off the cuff prayer can easily degrade from connected conversation to stale patterns and cliches. Let’s face it, the depth and breadth of extemporaneous prayer is largely limited by your creativity. While we have periodic flashes of creative brilliance, most of life is spent in the humdrum murk of the mundane. Stagnant prayers tend to result in a stagnant prayer life.

Alongside the danger of the dreaded dull routine, off-the-cuff prayer can also be crippled by prayer-blinders.

prayer-blinders

Envision the Mackinaw Island horses. They all wear the same, stylish headgear: blinders. Blinders serve to narrow the horses’ immense range of vision, so they can only focus on what is ahead. For horses pulling wagons in busy streets, blinders are useful. But for the follower of God in prayer, blinders hinder spiritual depth and breadth.

Mackinaw Island horse wearing blinders

Prayer driven only by the needs and thoughts of the moment tends toward spiritual narrowness. It is relatively easy to pray for my needs; after all, I am always acutely aware of them. But what about the needs of others in your church? The one struggling with the recent death of a loved one or the couple at a loss in parenting their child, and so many others. They are on the periphery of your life. Without some  sort of guidance you probably won’t get around to praying for them. Not to mention even further removed issues like church unity, gospel effectiveness, the spiritual health of denominational leaders, the effectiveness of community leaders, or even the perseverance of the church around the world.

All these topics, and more, deserve prayer. But when our prayers are blown about by our daily concerns, they tend to never arrive anywhere but where the wind blows.

Scripted or rote prayer.

Opposite to off the cuff prayer, the other main model involves praying from a script. Scripted prayer, aka rote prayer, is praying via reading or reciting from memory. Think reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Scripted prayers can be either self-written or composed by others. Periodically using prayers written by others can sharpen the way you pray and broaden your awareness of what is worth praying for. This makes  scripted prayers useful for learning how to pray. Scripted prayer, though, also suffers from the pitfall of a different sort of dull routine.

deep and wide prayer

Scripted prayer is like marinated meat. The longer it soaks, the more flavorful the result. Off the cuff prayer is limited by the creative spark of the moment. Scripted prayer soaks in the flavors of reflective thought. As such, scripted prayers—at least those done well—tend to have greater breadth and depth of concern, rigor, and beauty.  A prayer that has time to soak gains the strength to move beyond immediate, personal needs and embrace God’s words and intentions to us.

lasting prayer

Since it is written down or memorized, scripted prayer gains a further strength: repeatability. While many from non-liturgical church backgrounds fear repetition, the fact is that those things which we repeat shape us. Skill and expertise emerge through practice over time. Scripted prayers can shape our lives and shape our prayer sensibilities in powerful ways over the years.

the pitfall of dull routine

Dull routine is the chief drawback of scripted prayers. While repetition shapes our lives, it can also become background noise. How often do we go through the routine of taking a step without giving any conscious attention to what we are doing? A prayer life that is reduced to sub-conscious prayer is a tragedy.

Aside from monotonous repetition, scripted prayers can also become stale when they fail to excite the emotions. Prayers that feel foreign in your mouth don’t taste good, thus they are never savored. Remember your favorite B movie. One quality of B movies, aside from poorly written scripts and deeply underfunded effects, is that the actors sound like they are saying lines. The words don’t quite fit in their mouths. Praying foreign prayers is not helpful.

The best of both worlds

How then shall we pray? I hope it is clear that both off the cuff and scripted prayers are valuable. Scripted prayer tends to be strong in all the ways that off the cuff prayer is weak, and weak in all the ways that off the cuff prayer is strong. As such, there is great wisdom in incorporating both into a life of prayer. The two approaches can feed into one another in lovely ways as you build a more robust prayer life.

In the next post, I’ll give a few patterns that are worthwhile guides for praying.


Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

“Train up a child” and Proverbs 22:6: What is “the way he should go”?

two paths diverge

Can you guarantee that your children will be followers of Jesus when they grow up? Putting the word “guarantee” with any claim about how children will turn out once they grow up seems foolish. But some well-meaning people have taught that there is a biblical guarantee. And it is found in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).

While this verse sounds promising, it is premature to claim it as a promise that if you keep your kids in church and raise them up in a Christian environment, they will become followers of Jesus. The key problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the nature of proverbs as teaching tools. Accounting for the proverbial nature and the big aim of biblical wisdom literature, we can find a hopeful promise in Proverbs 22:6 about child-rearing, but one that falls far short of a guarantee that Christian parents will have Christian kids if they just try hard enough. Instead, the promise has to do with the way of wisdom.

Proverbs 22.6: Raise up a child in the way he should go – two main interpretations

There are two main ways I have heard this passage interpreted: (1) if you raise up your child in a Christian manner, they will remain Christian for life and (2) you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

Appreciate how different these two understandings are.

The key to this passage is making sense of what “the way he should go/his way” means.

The Way he should go…

The Hebrew expression in question is literally “on the mouth of his road/way.” The images of a mouth and a way/road work together to give the following idea: a child put on the proper path at the beginning will keep walking that path, even when they are older. So, what is this way?

The way of wisdom.

As one commentator perceptively notes, in Proverbs there are only two ways: “the way of the wise and the righteous or the way of the fool and the wicked” (African Bible Commentary, 803). Only one of these is the way a child should go.

Proverbs and Wisdom

Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Wisdom in the bible is a far-ranging concept. It discusses practical skills associated with understanding and successful living. But we must never mistake Proverbs—or biblical wisdom—with modern day self-help tools. A couple OT scholars describe it well:

“Wisdom is not primarily interested in relating a list of theological truths, an account of history or a picture of the future. Wisdom is about the ways of things—how they are meant to exist and work.”

Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, 23.

Wisdom is a way of life concerned with finding the grooves of the patterns God has woven into creation and following them.

The grounding conviction of biblical wisdom is that there is a God who has created a world that works in certain patterns. Wisdom is the pursuit of understanding these patterns of relationship: (1) how things in the world relate to each other, (2) how people relate to things in the world, (3) how people relate to each other, and (4) how God’s nature and purposes guide all these relationships into predictable patterns.

Don’t miss that God is central to biblical wisdom.

The way of wisdom

Since Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, we should understand Proverbs 22:6 as part of biblical wisdom. In a book concerned with passing on wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7), it is best to understand “the way he should go” to mean “the way of wisdom.”

This way of wisdom includes lots of practical insight into how the world works in general and is grounded in the conviction that God, the Creator, has made the world and people in it to work a certain way.

Aim for the right way, and you might just get it

Practically speaking, to say, “raise up your child in the way he should go” is to say “in the way of wisdom.” This proverb is less than a promise that if you take your kids to church and teach them the Bible they will become a Christian and more than saying you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

As parents, we should respect the individuality of each child and temper our approaches to suit them. But their self-will will always lead them into the way of folly, that is, the way of sin. The biblical antidote to the way of folly is the way of wisdom.

As we teach our children the way of wisdom, we put them in the best place possible to see that wisdom flows from and towards God. We put them on the path that can lead them to Jesus. But there are no guarantees they will walk it.

You can be sure, though that if you don’t make the effort to show your children how to walk on the way of wisdom, they will probably never find it on their own.

Single in Christ, or just Single?

This last week someone raised an important question regarding singleness. In a past sermon on singleness, I called singleness a sort of spiritually elite category a couple time. Someone raised an important concern with such language to me. Given the history of the church, isn’t it problematic to elevate singleness as a spiritual category? After all, for much of church history the celibate priests, monks, and nuns were viewed as more spiritually significant than other people. Does calling singleness a spiritually elite state fall into the trap which the Reformation helped rescue us from?

This is a worthwhile question to consider. I’ll freely grant that spiritually elite may not be the best title to describe singleness. However, such a title does force a conversation for our time that is different than the historical concerns of the Reformation. Namely, the rise of singleness divorced from spiritual significance. Ponder with me this modern state of singleness.

Singleness in church history

It is always beneficial to be aware of the past. Up until the Reformation, it was self-evident to most people that the family of God consisted of two categories of unequal worth: the celibate clergy and the profane laity. The church taught—and people largely believed—that the single Christian clergy members had greater spiritual significance than the laity.

While it’s not completely clear how this situation developed, it started early in church history. Various strands of Greek philosophy and related religious expressions taught that material reality (i.e., bodies) was inherently bad and that spiritual reality was inherently good. Thus, avoiding certain aspects of creaturely reality—like sexual relations—was good. These very influential philosophies, combined with a few passages from Scripture, buttressed up the view that single church leaders and religious “professionals” were of greater value to God than the married laity.

Singleness in churches today

Spiritually elite may not be the best title for the singleness, but both Paul and Jesus do present singleness as a difficult state that has spiritual benefits. However, it is a pathway in life that won’t be easy or readily fit for most people. This teaching is most clear in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes things like:

  • 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
  • 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
  • 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

There is a lot to chew through in 1 Corinthians 7. But this much is clear: Paul presents singleness as a spiritually advantageous state.

Note very carefully that I’m talking about spiritual advantages not spiritual worth. Nowhere does the text tell us that being single is of more value to God than being married, spiritually or otherwise. In fact, the Bible tends to assume that marriage is the default pattern for humanity. But there are (potentially) spiritual advantageous to singleness.

Which leads to the key point for today: when it comes to singleness, the modern world doesn’t seem to be much like the ancient world.

Single in Christ ≠ plain single

The modern phenomenon of high rates of singleness outside and inside the church has very little to do with this the picture painted by both Paul and Jesus. Instead of men and women foregoing sexual relations in order to further devote themselves to Jesus, we see marriage rates plummeting in society, and also plummeting amongst those who follow Jesus. We see widespread practice of (and increasing acceptance of) premarital and extramarital sexual relations and pornography use among followers of Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (NIV). The data, both largescale and personal, suggests that many young adult followers of Jesus do indeed burn with passion, but increasingly don’t turn to marriage.

There’s a wealth of reasons and sociological explanations for all of this. Our chief interest is to illustrate that for many followers of Jesus today, singleness is quite different from what Paul and Jesus envisioned. Their teaching was a challenge in their day when marriage was normal and sexual immorality ran rampant. And it is still a challenge today when marriage seems to be faltering and sexual immorality still runs rampant.

In addition to the change in single life, we should not miss another way that our time and place is different from the past life of the church.

Single as normal, not a vocation

There are many single followers of Jesus who talk and write about the vocation of singleness as a way to make sense of their position in life. That is well and good. But I have yet to see someone stand up and argue that the best move in the spiritual life for everyone is to reject marriage and any forms of sexual relations. But, if you must get married, make sure you keep sexual relations to a minimum to avoid the taint of lust. We tend to see this view as self-evidently wrong. But that is essentially what St. Augustine taught about sexual relations. And he was by no means unique on the topic among early church leaders.

In my view, the greater threat to the church at this point is not the re-emergence of the teaching (among Protestants) that God prefers you to be single over married. The greater threat is that we will simply adopt the cultural slide towards a casual singleness. A singleness that is not spiritually engaged. A singleness that has little regard for God’s intended patterns of sexual relations. The greater threat to the church is acquiescence to the cultural norms of today, rather than those of 2,000 years ago.

Most people today assume that sexual relations are necessary for a flourishing life, finding it comedic and/or sad for an adult to not be sexually active. The boundaries of marriage are deemed irrelevant for pursuing such sexual relations. And increasingly, people in the church are in agreement with that.

Single in Christ

While spiritually elite may be bad language, something is required to reassert a biblical picture of singleness. Followers of Jesus can learn to pursue spiritual devotion to Jesus within singleness. And don’t get me wrong, a great many singles in fact do this. But the social norms and behavioral patterns of modern singleness are very far removed from a pursuit of godliness. To the degree that our version of singleness within the church looks like the rampant social singleness around us, to that degree we have lost the vision of what single in Christ means.

And that is where I end. Single in Christ. That is a name better than sons and daughters. And that is a name that is better, but far harder, than single in contemporary America.

Sexual relations within marriage

married couple kissing in cornfield

What role should sexual relations play in marriage? Since marriage is the God-ordained arena for giving of yourself in a sexual relationship, how is this supposed to work out? First Corinthians 7:2-5 guides us to the heart of the matter: those married in Christ should have robust sexual relations that are mutually beneficial, helping both husband and wife to navigate the tricky waters of sexual immorality.

Sexual relations in marriage

The husband and wife are supposed to “fulfill their marital duty” to each other (1 Corinthians 7:3). Notice that this frames sexual relations within marriage as a duty each spouse owes to the other. The use of the phrase “deprive one another” in verse 5 also displays sexual relations as a mutual duty. After all, if it wasn’t yours to begin with, then you can’t be deprived. If only all duties in life had such potential for pleasure…

Of the much that could be said regarding the duty of delight within marriage, I want to highlight two issues. First, this teaching on sexual relations is surprisingly equal in its attention to the sexual desires of both the man and woman. Second, we must be careful to not misrepresent the power that marital sexual relations have in helping each spouse remain sexually pure.

It takes two…

It is refreshing to notice that Scripture here provides a relatively balanced picture of human sexuality. Often in discussions of sex throughout history, women get overlooked (or ignored, or minimized, or misrepresented, etc.). When we read these verses in 1 Corinthians, notice that women’s sexual desires receive as much attention as men’s.

That is very different from a common sexual script we hear today, the common male-dominated picture where men try to take what they want from reluctant women who put out as a means to meet some other goal. In contrast to this lopsided, male-dominated view of sexual activity, 1 Corinthians calls for spouses to jointly work out patterns of life that result in a mutually beneficial sexual relationship.

Of course, the particulars of working out such a relationship are complicated. Each couple needs to figure out their own balance of give and take. This requires exploring, trial and error, and communication. For example, one spouse may find it uncaring to be approached for sex after they had a bad day; another may desire that.

Sexual relations need to stand in balance with all the other rights and responsibilities of life. But they are a right and responsibility. The biblical ideal commits a husband and wife to the project of knowing one another in deep ways such that their sexual relationship is a blessing to each.

Communicate. Couples tend to follow a simple pattern doomed to fail. They don’t talk about their sexual desires and pleasures with each other. Then they are frustrated when things are out of balance. It is hard to forge a mutually beneficial sexual relationship when both parties are always guessing in the dark. Spouses, to pursue the biblical ideal of 1 Corinthians 7 requires talking to each other about the status of your sexual relationship.

Sexual relations are not a rescue project

While recognizing the beauty—or at least beautiful potential—of sexual relations in marriage, there is an important limitation. This limitation has to do with how sexual relations in marriage relate to sexual immorality (that’s porneia).

There is a long-running idea in certain Christian circles about sexual relations in marriage. It goes something like this: girls need to remain sexually pure and modest until marriage where they can then rescue the boys from their sinful sexual longings. While this is a crass and simplistic way to put it, the basic idea is clear. On the one hand, yes, when a man and woman marry they should direct their sexual longings at one another. The problem, though, is that this simplified message under-estimates the destructive power of sexual immorality. It is also wrong to the degree that it puts pressure on women to guard the sexual morality of men, but not really vice versa.

According to 1 Corinthians 7:2, people should get married “because of sexual immorality.” That is, marriage is a guard against being herded down wrong paths by sexual desires. Based on this verse, many Christians have conveyed the idea to young people that getting married fixes “sexual immorality” issues. If you just wait until marriage, then everything will work out great and sexual immorality will blissfully disappear. This often well-intentioned advice, though, is wrong.

The problem is that this will never work if one (or both) of the parties in a marriage come in already devoted to sexual immorality. And, let’s face it, sexual immorality is one of the key idols of our time. We are primed, trained, and encouraged to devote ourselves to it.

God does not give the wife—it’s usually the wife, but the reverse holds true—the job of rescuing her husband out of the clutches of sexual immorality through sexual performance in marriage.

Sexual relations within marriage are not a pathway to rescue anyone from sexual bondage. They are more like a pleasure garden to tend together. But if one or both spouses have a tornado of sexual immorality raging inside, the pleasure garden has no chance to grow and bloom. Pornography, habitual masturbation, and/or affairs will destroy the garden.

Worship of sexual immorality will not be defeated by sexual relations with a spouse, no matter how often or enthusiastic they be. Rescue requires far deeper work of grace and self-repair.

On gardening

Sexual relations in marriage should rank among the most pleasant and fulfilling duties a spouse ever has. This beautiful duty calls for spouses to know one another and aim at fulfilling one another’s needs and desires. There is no place in this vision for tyrants, demands, or power struggles. Instead, spouses get to tend with each other a pleasure garden that is theirs and theirs alone.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash