jasonbwatson

July 7, 2014

“Abandoning the battle for the Bible”

A few months ago the board of trustees at Bryan College in Tennessee decided that it would insist that all of its faculty members adhere to a clarification to its statement of faith that makes clear that God created Adam and Eve in specific acts of creation–not through starting a process from which Adam and Eve eventually evolved.

According to a May article on insidehighered.com, this clarification has been deemed by many to be “too narrow” and has resulted in the departure of at least two faculty members, a vote of no confidence in the school’s president by the faculty and a variety of student protests.

The article explains that the Bryan College statement of faith previously included this statement on Adam and Eve: “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death[.]” Now I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty clear to me. Then again, I believe the Bible means an actual 24-hour day when it describes the days of creation in Genesis. Apparently a number of those who claimed that they agreed with this statement in the past do not agree, since they have been squawking ever since the school made this clarification: “We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

The article also quotes some talking points presented at the faculty meeting prior to the no confidence vote by Phil Lestmann, a Bryan professor mathematics and head of its natural sciences division, in which Lestmann claimed that the clarification “pretend[s] that a very complex issue is really very simple and straightforward” and “possibly put[s] the college into too small a scientific or theological box.” Therein, of course, we find parts of the problem. The issue in fact is “very simple and straightforward” when you believe the Bible means what it says. Only by reinterpreting it or by trying to make the Bible (God’s Word) fit with science (man’s interpretation or understanding) does any complexity come into the matter. Speaking for myself, a “small…theological box” is exactly where I would want to be, and want my school to be, assuming that box is the one claiming the Word of God to be inerrant. After all, Jesus Himself created a “theological box” that could not be any smaller–when He said “no man comes to the Father but by Me” he was not leaving any room for discussion.

Apparently the student government at Bryan has objected to the clarification because the school’s charter says that its statement of faith cannot be changed. An open letter from the student government appearing in a February issue of the school’s newspaper said, “We believe that it is unjust that professors who gained tenure, published research, and served faithfully under this old statement of faith will be either fired or be forced to choose between violating their consciences or providing for their families.”

I would suggest that what is unfair is the very need for the clarification in the first place. After all, fiat means “an authoritative decree, sanction, or order” or “an arbitrary decree or pronouncement, especially by a person or group of persons having absolute authority to enforce it.” The original statement of faith asserts “the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God.” To suggest that fiat, act of creation and was created allow for some understanding other than that being made clear in the recent clarification is simply absurd. The reality is that Bryan has apparently been lax in enforcing its own statement of faith until this recent clarification and some faculty members have not felt troubled by the fact that they were annually signing a statement of faith with which they did not really agree. If someone consistently drives ten miles over the speed limit without getting a ticket he cannot then cry foul when a law enforcement officer finally does pull him over and issue the ticket. Getting away with something in the past is no justification for eliminating consequences for it in the future.

In the May 3 issue of WORLD Marvin Olasky, with whom I do not always agree, made a poignant and powerful statement about the importance of this issue. “Many Christian liberal arts colleges assert that their goal is to teach students how to think and not what to think. That is laudable in most areas, but should it mean that colleges do not care if students graduate with the belief that the Bible is merely a book compiling man’s fallible teaching rather than God-inspired wisdom?” Olasky asks. He answers his own question thusly: “In such an environment, a Christian college that proclaims it will just throw out to students a variety of theories and let them decide, is abandoning the battle for the Bible.” Olasky is exactly right, and his point is precisely why it is so imperative that Bryan College, as well as other Christian colleges, Christian schools and churches establish clear and accurate statement of faith and insist wholeheartedly that they are adhered to; anything else is a surrender to man’s reinterpretation and is inconsistent with Scripture.

March 27, 2014

Corrective Lenses

In case you have not heard, World Vision has announced that it is reversing its decision on hiring homosexuals in same-sex marriages. Apparently the decision was made at a World Vision board meeting held within a few hours of my last post (a few hours before I posted, I might add–I am not suggesting any correlation between the two events!) This decision marks a quick turnaround by the parachurch ministry since the announcement that it would allow such hirings came just two days earlier.

WORLD Magazine news editor Jamie Dean broke the story of the reversal on Wednesday afternoon, saying that Columbia Theological Seminary president Stephen Hayner, who is a World Vision board member, responded to an e-mail inquiry from WORLD with this statement: “The Board of World Vision is just concluding a meeting and will be releasing a statement shortly reversing the decision that was made. It was never the intention of the Board to undermine our firm commitment to the authority of the Scripture.”

Approximately an hour and a half later Dean posted an update on the story, including the World Vision statement. The statement, issued over the names of World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns and World Vision U.S. board chairman Jim Beré, begins this way:

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its recent decision to change our national employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

It is encouraging to see that the board acted so quickly to reverse this decision and to acknowledge that a mistake was made. At the same time, it still troubles me that a board of such intelligent individuals would have made the decision in first place, somehow believing that the decision was not undermining Scripture.

The statement continues, “We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority. We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent.” Therein lies the problem. I repeat, how could this board of intelligent and accomplished individuals honestly believe that its decision was not a “reversal of a strong commitment to Biblical authority”? When a decision is made to allow accept something that the Bible clearly and unequivocally states is wrong there is no explanation for it other than a reversal.

“We are asking for your continued support. We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead,” the statement says. This, too, is encouraging, but begs yet another question; specifically, why was this “wise counsel” not sought before the decision was made? If somehow (and, in my opinion, inexplicably) the World Vision board truly was not sure how the announcement of the policy change would go over among the evangelical community why would they not have sought this insight and counsel before announcing their decision? The furor and backlash that poured forth in the few days between the announcement of the decision and its reversal could have been avoided completely. Yes, it is good to learn from one’s mistakes, but it is also good to avoid mistakes when common sense or, at the very least, a minimum amount of thoughtful reasoning would have prevented it in the first place. Stearns acknowledged as much according to a report from Religion News Service, stating, “We hadn’t vetted this issue with people who could’ve given us really valuable input at the beginning. In retrospect, I can see why this was so controversial for many of our supporters and partners around the country. If I could have a do over, it would’ve been that I would’ve done more consultation with Christian leaders.”

No doubt the possibility that contributions to World Vision would see a sudden drop was at least part of the reason why this decision was so quickly reversed. The Assemblies of God had already encouraged its members to consider dropping their support of World Vision and no doubt many other individuals and churches had or would have soon made similar recommendations. Ryan Reed tweeted on Wednesday, “My wife works for WV. In today’s staff meeting Stearns announced that so far 2,000 kids dropped.” If true, that figure would have equated a drop in World Vision donations of $840,000 since the monthly child sponsorships are $35. That was within two days of the announcement; no doubt the decrease would have ended up being considerably greater.

Richard Stearns did acknowledge in talking to reporters that the initial decision reflected poor judgement; “We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking them to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.” Still, Stearns also stated, “What we found was we created more division instead of more unity, and that was not the intent of the board or myself.” If that is an attempt to explain their poor judgment it really does not help since, I say again, it confounds understanding to imagine the World Vision board honestly believing that their decision would increase unity. In light of these events I believe that the World Vision U.S. board needs to seriously evaluate Stearns and itself in order to figure out how such an egregious lapse of responsibility could have happened in the first place; there may well need to be some changes made in order to prevent it happening again.

Russell Moore tweeted soon after the announcement, “World Vision has done the right thing. Now, let’s all work for a holistic gospel presence, addressing both temporal and eternal needs.” I think he speaks for many when he states that World Vision did the right thing. Jim Daly of Focus on the Family also released a statement. It says, in part, “I believe the Board of World Vision had the best of intentions when they cited a desire for ‘unity’ in making their original decision. But however well-intentioned, nothing is more important than adherence and faithfulness to the clear teachings of Christ. No matter how hard culture tugs, we cannot relinquish God’s truth.” Frankly, Daly gives the WV board more credit than I do; they may have had the best intentions in pursuing unity in some sense but it certainly was not, in my mind, a unity around biblical truth–and that should be preeminent.

Daly goes on to say that World Vision ought not suffer from this blunder. “I pray that Christians will now respond likewise with a spirit of grace and humility. World Vision does not deserve to be harmed by this incident. The security and fate of too many children are at stake to hold a grudge and punish them by withholding support.” He’s right about the children who are served by World Vision. They had no say in the decision of the World Vision board and they will be the ones who suffer if the World Vision contributions take a hit–and they should not be victims of poor decision making by the board. At the same time, there are many ways to help disadvantaged children around the world and sponsorship through World Vision is but one such way. My belief is that it would only be prudent for Christians who desire to help children in poverty to evaluate their options are to take the position and history of the organization into consideration when deciding where and how to give–and that consideration needs to include this decision and reversal by World Vision.

Of course the outcry that resulted after Monday’s announcement will now reverberate from the other side of the spectrum as World Vision will receive condemnation from those on the political and evangelical left who believe that support for the ministry should now be questioned because they have reversed their decision to embrace those in homosexual marriages. Read through the comments on the story of the reversal on the NPR web site and you will find plenty of comments like this one: “‘World Vision has a yearly operating budget of about $1 billion.’ According to Charity Navigator, $174 million comes from government grants. We should put a stop to that nonsense. … Why should any government be supporting organizations that discriminate?” It’s a no-win situation for World Vision–but one of their own making.

Bottom line, I am thrilled that World Vision has acted swiftly to reverse their decision. They recognized that their vision was blurred and they applied the corrective lenses of Scripture. I am still troubled by the poor judgment that the initial decision reflects and I would personally think carefully and give prayerful consideration to supporting World Vision financially. But I would absolutely continue to find ways to support children in need around the world if that was what I felt the Lord leading me to do.

March 4, 2014

The beauty and wonder of marriage

In light of all of the attention the push for homosexual marriage has been getting of late it is not a bad idea to focus a bit on “traditional” marriage–marriage between a man and a woman, as God designed it. A month or so ago Joel Belz wrote about this in his regular WORLD Magazine column. After attending a wedding at the start of the year he realized that as important as taking a stand against homosexual marriage may be, even more important is taking a stand for marriage. “With all the media and political emphasis on legalizing homosexual marriages, it’s way too easy to get diverted by that grisly debate and to forget that the top challenge for Christians is to nurture and then display the wonders of marriage the way God made it to be.”

Yesterday I learned that a colleague of mine was engaged over the weekend. She was excited to tell everyone, to show off her ring…to announce to the world that she has found the one person she wants to spend the rest of her life with. This fascination, excitement and wonder is what the God-designed marriage relationship is all about; this is the attitude we should demonstrate when we get engaged, when we celebrate a year of marriage and when we celebrate fifty years of marriage.

Belz’s point is an excellent reminder–because I suspect most of us do not often consciously think about encouraging and exhibiting a godly marriage as being a Christian responsibility. Sure, we hear it preached and when we do attend weddings we no doubt think about the future and our hopes for the new couple, but like Belz I suspect that most of us think more about opposing gay marriage than modeling godly marriage.

Belz writes that he offered some advice to the newlyweds whose ceremony prompted him thinking. He says he told them that “conventional wisdom” of the past generations has taught that while “marriage is OK” it has also taught that no would should “expect too much from it.” That’s sad but true. The culture in which we live in the United States has bred a certain amount of casualness toward marriage. On the one hand its fine to enjoy what used to be reserved for marriage–living together, sexual relations, even having children together–without getting married. On the other hand, if you do get married and later find it just doesn’t work, just get a divorce. Marriage doesn’t need to be a drudgery and it doesn’t need to be difficult. If the going gets tough just go your separate ways and get going.

The reality, of course, is that marriage is tough. There are times when things do not go as planned. There are conflicts that emerge when two people spend most of their time together and interweave every aspect of their lives. There are physical changes that were not envisioned, there are interests and hobbies that change, there are extended family issues, there are money problems…I could go on and on. None of that “on and on” however is reason to not get married and none of it is reason to get “unmarried.”

“Sometimes…there’s so much emphasis on the grim side of things,” Belz writes, “that we’ve lost seeing marriage in the glorious context God intended it. … In our grown-up desire to ‘get real,’ we’ve let Satan so disfigure and discolor our ideal picture of marriage that we’ve come to settle for way too little.” Marriage was ordained by God. He designed it beautifully and it is a beautiful relationship. So beautiful is it, in fact, that the Bible uses the marriage of a man and woman as an illustration of the relationship between God and the church. In other words, when God wanted to communicate to human beings how much He loves them and the kind of relationship He desires to have with believers and the Church, there was no better example He could give than the marriage relationship as He designed it.

If we take to heart this idea of marriage it will fundamentally transform our approach to marriage. It will change the way married individuals relate to each other, it will change the way other people view our marriages, it will restore the wonder of marriage that little children experience when attending marriages in their childhood. In other words, it will restore the idea that marriage is a truly magnificent relationship designed by God as a gift for His most significant creation, His only creation created in His own image.

Marriage is not easy–not by any means. Indeed, Belz writes, marriage is “an expression of the gospel itself, where both partners constantly and willingly die for each other.” A marriage as God designed it “involves daily dying to ourselves so that we can live generously toward our mate.” These are not concepts embraced by the culture in which we live. The world teaches living for self, doing whatever makes you happy. The Bible doesn’t teach that. Die to self is as opposite from “just do it” as you can get. The fact that marriage is not easy, though, makes it all the more beautiful. After all, the growing and daily-dying process of a godly marriage “enhances intimacy” Belz says, and indeed it does.

Like Belz, I want to adopt the “word and deed approach to teaching the art of marriage,” both “modeling and explaining” how beautiful marriage is and how it works. If enough of us are willing to adopt this approach we just might succeed in presenting a concept of marriage that the world might actually aspire to, in restoring the wonder and beauty of marriage as God designed it.

January 15, 2014

Out of Order

The January 11 issue of WORLD Magazine includes an article by Warren Cole Smith entitled “Going Public.” The article is about the American Bible Society (ABS) and “years of troubles” that “suddenly came into the public spotlight” when ABS fired CEO Doug Birdsall in October 2013. Interestingly, WORLD headlined the section containing this article “2013 News of the Year.” Apparently that means that WORLD considers this story to be one of the most important, if not the most important, news events of the past year.

I am actually not going to delve into most of the “years of troubles” that the article describes because, in my opinion, that was not the most important thing, or perhaps even the most troubling thing, about the article. What troubles me is the way in which WORLD has depicted the ABS as being completely in the wrong and at fault in the matter of Birdsall’s dismissal when, based on the information provided in the WORLD article, it would seem that the dismissal was entirely justified.

Smith writes that the ABS board brought Birdsall in early in 2013, and that he brought along “impeccable evangelical credentials and a reputation for moving fast and for revitalizing large organizations.” A few lines later Smith reports than Birsdall met with “influential leaders” in April 2013 about his plans for ABS. The ABS building in New York City apparently has some extensive problems and bringing it up to New York building code standards is slated to cost some $20 million. Per Smith, Birdsall told his influential gathering about “his plans for a $300 million center for Manhattan’s growing evangelical church,” a project that would replace the current 12-story ABS building.

The proposed 30-story building would include “an Omni hotel, ABS expansion space, and room for special events and other ministries to work.” Bob Rowling, a billionaire Dallas developer whose TRT Holdings own the Omni Hotel chain, committed to finance the plan. (That is a major conflict of interest right there, but that is not even the biggest problem). Smith goes on to say that Birdsall “moved forward on other fronts. He went through an informal process of grading ABS board members with an A, B, or C. Board members who received an A were, in Birdsall’s opinion, in a position to lead and mentor others. Board members with a B were those who could be excellent contributors but who had areas in need of development. Those with a C should not have their terms renewed. Birdsall placed about a third of the board members in each category.”

Smith then reports that when the ABS board chairman found out about Birdsall’s “assessment process and his plans for the building, he saw it as insubordination. The board fired Birdsall in October.” Now, I do not have any independent information or further details of the sequence of events beyond what Smith reported, but the manner in which his article was written certainly seems to imply that Birdsall came up with this plan for the ABS building and presented it to “influential leaders” in a matter of only a few months, and apparently without having the plan approved by the ABS board, perhaps without even presenting it to the board. If that is not insubordination I do not know what is. Someone with the impeccable credentials Birdsall was supposed to have brought to the table would certainly know that he had no authority to devise and promote such a plan without board knowledge or approval. Furthermore, if any CEO is going to be so brazen as to rank the board for whom he works he better be very careful with what he does with said rankings. Having served three boards as a CEO I am of course well aware of the fact that CEO’s often have opinions about which board members are more or less effective, but ranking them the way Birdsall did, within months of taking over the leadership position, was foolish, particularly if he shared that ranking with anyone other than the board. Even if he did share it with the board, or board chair, only, how it was presented would make a tremendous difference in how it was received.

Earlier in the same issue of WORLD Marvin Olasky wrote that ABS and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities “chewed up and spat out presidents” during 2013. He said that ABS, the CCCU and other Christian ministries that closed in 2013, were “beakers containing more toxic chemicals” rather than “beacons of light.” Yet, he concludes that section of his essay claiming that WORLD is “not out to find scandals that finish off organizations with a loud bang. More often we’re called to report on small storm clouds that together create gloomy skies like those many of our readers see.” Perhaps Olasky, Smith and others at WORLD are not out to “finish off” the ABS, but the tenor of their reporting makes it clear that they feel Birdsall was right and the ABS board was wrong.

I wonder if WORLD CEO Kevin Martin would feel the same way if Olasky, WORLD Editor in Chief, tried something similar. It seems to me that Birsdall’s actions as CEO of ABS were out of order. It seems that WORLD‘s coverage of the situation is, too.

November 7, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 3)

As I indicated at the end of the last post, all of the hullabaloo over the Common Core State Standards is really over a much deeper issue than these standards. One of these issues is one that was around long before CCSS, and if Common Core is going to alert people to it then that is a good thing. The second and third are problems with the government, not with the Common Core, though most people seem not to understand the difference. Perhaps I can shed some light…

First, the problem that has been around since long before Common Core is the issue of local control of public schools in general and textbook selection in particular. Public schools do not operate as agents of the federal government–or at least they ought not. Public schools are under the auspices of the various state departments of education and under the authority of local school boards. Most public schools have committees that deal with textbook adoption, and these committees often include educators as well as community members. Of course school boards are almost always elected bodies, with members of the community serving on the boards and deciding who the board members are. What anyone who takes the time to truly study what Common Core is (and is not) will discover is that individual states have adopted the Common Core; the federal government neither designed the CCSS nor forced them on anyone. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the CCSS does not assign or dictate textbooks. Even in the English standards, the CCSS provide a recommended reading list, or what the CCSS call Text Exemplars. There is no mandatory reading dictated by the CCSS. There have been concerns raised by various people about some of the titles included on the reading lists. I consider that debate to be healthy. At the same time, the fact that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the recommended texts does not mean that the entire CCSS is evil. After all, the recommended reading lists also include O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” among many other worthwhile titles. And again, the decision as to which titles will be read is to be made by the state, the school or the teacher, depending on how the particular system works–not by the CCSS. Bottom line, people who care about their children and the education being offered in public schools need to take every opportunity to be involved in the decision making process.

The second problem–the first of two with the government–is the federal government’s use of money to essentially bribe states into adopting the CCSS and the refusal of most states to even consider rejecting money. This is an issue that is much larger than the CCSS and would require much more space for me to address than you really want me to spend right now, so I will try to keep it brief and restricted to the CCSS. The CCSS were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers–not the federal government. Respected leaders and experts in mathematics and English were involved in the development of the standards, and feedback was provided by literally thousands of individuals, including teachers and parents. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia expressed approval of the standards as they were being developed and reviewed. So where did the federal government come in? The 2009 stimulus package included $4.35 billion in education funding through the Race to the Top education program developed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The funding would be available to states that adopted some standardized (i.e., common) guidelines and benchmarks for student learning. Only the CCSS met the guidelines and benchmarks the Race to the Top program designated, so states were faced with (1) adopting the CCSS to receive their slice of the pie, (2) developing their own standards that would meet the Race to the Top guidelines, or (3) saying “no thank you” to the federal dollars. To my knowledge no state has yet attempted option number 2, and rarely are states willing to pursue option number 3, especially when money for education is such a hot topic already.

A number of individuals have cried foul over the federal government’s use of monetary incentives to push the adoption of the CCSS, but it is nothing new and is certainly not unique to Common Core. Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project has suggested that federal involvement in education violates the Constitution because education is not within the domain of the federal government but power shifts that way when states choose to accept federal funds. But again, no one is forcing states to accept federal dollars, the federal government does have the authority to offer financial incentives, and it has done so for decades and in various areas in which the federal government does not have authority on its own. If people are unhappy about this there is a built-in remedy for it called the ballot box. Common Core is an example of the “problem” but is not the problem itself.

The third problem–and the second one that involves the government–is the way in which questions about CCSS have been handled. For example, a couple of weeks ago Focus on the Family e-blasted an article called “Common-Core Chaos.” The article started with this question: “Are you tired of hearing the message that ‘we know better than you what’s best for your kids’ from liberal media pundits and overzealous government officials?” The article went on to describe the way in which Robert Small, a parent in Maryland, was “shut down” when questioning the adoption of Common Core at a public meeting for parents. According to the Focus on the Family article Small was then “shoved and dragged out of the meeting by a security officer. Once outside the doors, he was handcuffed and slapped with criminal charges carrying thousands of dollars in fines.” Apparently his charges were later dropped. “But still,” the Focus article continued, “the spectacle of a parent being manhandled for simply trying to express a relevant viewpoint was disturbing.” I absolutely agree. But again, the Common Core standards did not drag this man out of a meeting. The CCSS are simply standards that were lawfully developed and lawfully adopted. The problem that Focus on the Family needs to be focusing on is the way in which governments have responded when questioned. If Focus has issues with CCSS then by all means it should address them, but it needs to distinguish between problems with the standards and problems with the individuals handling questions about the standards.

Unfortunately Glenn Beck, his lieutenant David Barton, and other conservative talking heads are misrepresenting the facts about Common Core State Standards. Last summer Barton, filling in for Beck on The Blaze, said that CCSS wants to make every student the same. The reality is, though, that assertion cannot be supported with any actual evidence from the CCSS. In that same broadcast Barton, after highlighting some of the questions students were expected to be able to answer after completing 8th grade in 1895, said, “See, back then, students were actually required to use their brain.” The implication, of course, is that the CCSS do not want students to use their brains. There is nothing that could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the key areas of focus in the CCSS is reasoning and evidence. Compare these statements from teachers who have familiarized themselves with the CCSS and teach in schools that have adopted them with the assertions made by Barton… Andrew Jones, a Christian school English teacher in Indiana, told WORLD Magazine, “In a world that is telling kids that they make their own meaning, it’s encouraging to see Core standards encouraging methods like, ‘Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says.'” Lane Walker, a Christian who teaches in a public school near St. Louis, says of the CCSS math standards, “There’s a huge difference between getting kids to memorize a formula and getting them to understand a formula,” and the CCSS emphasize understanding. The same show on The Blaze where Barton made the wisecrack mentioned above featured a spot accusing the CCSS of wanting to eliminate instruction in cursive handwriting. As opposed to that line of thinking as I am, it is not original to the CCSS; there have been folks advocating that for years.

Again, I could keep going, but I will not. I should perhaps even point out that I serve in a non-public school, so we are not even required to adopt the CCSS. I am not spending all this time and effort to defend the CCSS themselves. Rather, what irritates me is the spin, the misrepresentation and the outright lies. Should there be a rigorous and vigorous debate over education in America? Absolutely. But the Common Core State Standards are not, in and of themselves, the real issue. Demand that your leaders learn and speak the truth, and seek the truth yourself! Be informed, be knowledgeable…and do not swallow hook, line and sinker anything anyone says…including me!

November 1, 2013

Sacrificing the Truth

The September 21, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine includes the second part of an excellent interview with John Piper who, earlier this year, stepped down after 33 years of being the preaching pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. One of the things I admire greatly about Piper is how clearly he delivers his message and how unwavering he is in doing so; he does not beat around the bush or hedge his position or sound wishy-washy. When he is convinced of the biblical perspective on any issue he presents it and holds to it without apology. Whether you are familiar with Piper or not, his comments about the future of America are poignant and relevant. Some of what he says I have stated in this space before, but his words are worth repeating.

When asked what he thinks the United States will be like in ten or twenty years Piper responds that he is not optimistic, though he also believes that God could “move like a tornado through this land” and cause a spiritual coming-to-our-senses. More specifically, Piper says America needs to admit, “‘We’ve been insane.’ It’s insane to kill babies. it’s insane to define marriage as two men having long-term sex with each other.”

If we do not come to that realization, Piper says, we will have serious consequences facing our nation. “We are going to wake up after this marriage fiasco in 10, 15, or 20 years, and the fruit of it will be absolutely devastating for children, for all the legal implications we haven’t thought of, for thousands of people who tried their best to manage their undesired same-sex orientation and didn’t get any help from the leaders of their land. Who knows what will follow in terms of polygamy and other kinds of sex once you have said a woman who wants a baby not to exist has the right to make it not exist, and you have the right to call ‘marriage’ whatever you want to call it. Then there are no philosophical roadblocks to taking lives at lots of other times and calling lots of other things marriage.”

Piper is right on target here; as I have stated before, the legalization of abortion and the legalization of same sex marriage are but initial steps onto an extremely slippery slope. Where does that slope end? We do not know. As a nation we have begun removing the guard rails that were there to protect us from plunging over a cliff into a chasm of chaos and lawlessness. We do not know how far the fall will be, how many times we may “bounce” on the way down, how many bones will be broken or whether or not we will still be alive when we hit the bottom. And if we do survive the plunge, we have no idea if we will be able to climb out of that chasm.

Christians need to realize that silence in the face of this guard rail removal is both cowardly and dangerous. The reality is, the issues of abortion and marriage are not just “religious issues.” How one defines these things must not be dependent on which church one attends (if any). These are matters of national survival. Taking a stand for the truth is not going to be popular, but we must remain undaunted. In response to being questioned about so-called political correctness Piper said, “Political correctness means there is a way to talk that will prove least offensive to the cultural elite, or whoever you happen to be talking to with the authority and power to shut you down. … Therefore I abominate political correctness. I abominate calculating your words so that you get acceptance by sacrificing the truth.”

October 30, 2013

Forget About the Joneses

I am not saying anything original when I say that despite the increased connectivity of the age in which we live most people are in fact more disconnected than they were in the past. With the technology that we have today many people are able to be in instant contact with almost anyone almost anywhere in the world. There are tremendous advantages to this, of course. My family can talk to my sister-in-law in Ukraine via Skype and both see and hear her for free. I can chat online or via text message with anyone instantly. Indeed, I can post my rambling thoughts on this blog and anyone around the world can read them within nanoseconds of me clicking “Publish.” There is nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is, though, this increased connectivity via technology has led to decreased connectivity via actual person-to-person in-person interaction. Many people spend far more time e-mailing, texting, talking, tweeting and Facebooking than they do talking face to face.

Another serious part of the disconnect is the separation from reality. When our interaction with others is restricted to what we and others choose to post, text or tweet it is going to be skewed. This filtered reality goes both ways, of course. Some people are much more willing to say something through the intermediary of technology than they would ever be face to face. This usually means a willingness to say things that are offensive, derogatory or hurtful. Children, teens and adults alike seem empowered by technology–emboldened to peck out words on their keyboards or phones and click a button launching those words into cyberspace that they would never have the courage to deliver in person.

At the same time, this filtered reality also leads to people presenting an image that is not entirely accurate. It is more like an airbrushed or Photoshopped version of reality. While some people put anything and everything “out there” for the world to see, the tendency is to post, share, tweet and text that which is “the best.” Technology becomes a personal spin machine or public relations bureau. We tell the world when our children make the honor roll but not when they get sent to the principal’s office. We show everyone our new car but we tend to keep mum about backing into the lamppost across the street. We announce our birdies and hide our double-bogeys, highlight our home runs and keep silent about our strikeouts.

This filtered reality can have a deleterious effect when we are overexposed to it or fail to interact with it while also keeping a firm grip on actual reality. In fact, researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study in which they asked Facebook users, through a series of online questionnaires over two weeks, how they felt about life. The study showed that using Facebook tended to result in a decrease in self-satisfaction and a decline in happiness.

U-M social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article about the study, said, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result—it undermines it.” The complete article appears in PLOS ONE. According to Michigan News, the U-M News Service, the study also found “no evidence that interacting directly with other people via phone or face-to-face negatively influenced well-being. Instead, they found that direct interactions with other people led people to feel better over time.”

Why might the filtered-reality interaction lead to diminished satisfaction and happiness? In the words of one individual quoted by Daniel James Devine in the September 21, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine, “Facebook is like looking at a highlights reel, and then comparing it to the real thing. Comparison is the thief of joy.” In a Facebook-centric world people accumulate friends and then spend hours exposing themselves only to the filtered-reality of those friends’ Facebook personas.

Facebook can be great. So can texting, e-mailing, tweeting, blogging and more. Be very careful, though, to keep a clear head during your filtered social interactions. Do not be fooled by the “highlight reels” your “friends” are sharing–that is not the extent of their lives. Even if it were, comparison and envy is a sure-fire route to sadness and depression. Forget about the Joneses…your happiness should never come from comparing yourself to others.

October 24, 2013

Religious Liberty

As promised, I also want to address the third letter submitted to the WORLD Magazine Mailbag. In this letter an individual from Delaware wrote, “Our grassroots policy organization is promoting religious liberty in public schools at an upcoming conference,” and mentioned that the information in the magazine would be helpful to the organization as they “invite public school parents, teachers, and administrators to move ‘from fear to freedom’ regarding Christian expression at school.”

I do not know what organization this individual is a part of, so I cannot address specifically the efforts of the organization or even speak specifically to what they are trying to accomplish, but this letter highlights, in my mind, both positives and negatives. Perhaps a better way of putting that would be to say both reasons to get excited and reasons to proceed with caution. Allow me to elaborate….

First, the reason to be excited. Religious liberty, and the expression of religious liberty, is a constitutionally-protected right of American citizens. There have certainly been efforts to curtail liberties, if not outright deny them, and that violates the very principles on which this country was founded. In that regard, any efforts to protect and defend religious liberty and encourage those in arenas where it may be restricted to stand up for their rights is a good thing.

Here is the reason for caution, though. The individual who wrote to WORLD stated that the organization would be encouraging Christian expression at school. Super; I have no problem with that. However, I think it is very important that we carefully think through the full ramifications of what we are asking for when we take such action. The Constitution does not protect only Christian religious liberty. Many people, myself included, have bemoaned the consequences of our nation’s straying from the morals that seemed far more prevalent in every area of society not all that long ago. Many have pointed out the negative cultural changes that seem to have coincided with the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools. Many, therefore, have advocated the return of prayer and Bible reading to the public schools.

Here is where we must think through exactly what that would mean. If all religious liberty is protected, there is no way to pursue the return of only Christian prayer and Bible reading to the schools. If all religious liberty is protected, the expression of religious liberty in public schools cannot be restricted to what I may believe or I may want–or what any one individual, group or denomination may want. Religious liberty for all means just that. The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.” That means Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists and Agnostics among many others.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty includes this statement on its web site: “Dedicated to protecting the free expression of all faiths. Our clients have included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.” The Becket Fund includes a cross in its logo, but, whatever else you may think of it, it recognizes that true religious freedom for Christians must also include religious freedom for other religions, as well.

Am I saying that there is no place for prayer or Bible reading in public schools? Not necessarily. But I am saying that those who desire to see those things returned to public schools need to remember that true religious liberty would then also mean that other religious sacred texts must be able to be read and/or taught in the public schools, as well. If you really want the Bible back in public schools make sure you want the Talmud and the Quran, too.

The Alliance Defending Freedom states on its web site, “Throughout our history, America has been a land defined by religious faith and freedom. Religious freedom is our first and most fundamental, God-given right deemed so precious that our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the U.S. Constitution.” I agree with that statement. Their web site goes on, however, to state this: “For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other radical anti-Christian groups have been on a mission to eliminate public expression of our nation’s faith and heritage.” I only partly agree with this. Whether we want to admit it or not, we must recognize that our nation does not have a faith. There is no national faith or national religion in the United States. Fleeing state-sponsored churches was no small part of the impetus for many of America’s earliest settlers. Where many people get hung up is on the idea that their way is the right way. When it comes to biblical Christianity, of course, it is the right way. It is the right way (the only way) to heaven, it is the only understanding of the one true God, it is the only way to receive forgiveness of sins. However, it is not the only religion. And if we stop and think about it carefully, I do not think any of us really want a national religion.

So what is my point in all of this? What does this have to do with my ongoing discussion of education in America? Basically it is this: anyone who wants their children to be educated in an environment that embraces a biblical worldview and allows, encourages or even requires Bible reading and prayer needs to homeschool their children or enroll them in a solid Christian school. There is simply no other way to make that happen.

October 11, 2013

Sabotaging the Lighthouse

As I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is considerable disagreement among Christians over the way in which Christian parents should respond to the reality of public school education. These differences of opinion are clear in the first three letters printed in the Mailbag section of the October 19, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine. All three are in response to the September 7 issue of WORLD, their “Back to School” issue.

The first letter, from a gentleman in California, says, “The questions and issues listed on your Sept. 7 cover are vital ones that I fear too many, even Christian parents, are unaware of. Do we understand scientism? Do we discern that all schools teach secular humanism in the state systems?” Without coming right out and saying so he certainly seems to be of the opinion that the public school is not a safe environment for Christian children because of the worldview that is presented.

The second letter, however, refutes any assertion that Christians should abandon the public schools. “My husband is a minister and I teach in the public school system,” writes a lady from Missouri. “Our four children thrived in public schools because we taught them Christian values. Things have gotten bad, but if Christians continue to withdraw, schools will only get worse. My children and I are missionaries every day.” This is perhaps the most common objection I hear from Christian parents who do not want to remove their children from public schools. As I have indicated before, I believe each parent is ultimately charged by God with raising their own children and I cannot clearly know God’s will for anyone else, so I am not going to suggest that everyone who holds to this position is wrong. I will suggest, however, that the number of Christian children who are “missionaries” in the public schools pales in comparison to the number of public schools that are missionaries to the Christian students that attend them. By that, I mean that more often than not I think the school influences the students more than the students influence the school.

I heard Cal Thomas address this issue a few years ago. At that time he stated that ninety percent of Christian children go to public schools. I am not sure where he got that figure, but I suspect it is not far off. One of the things he said about the assertion made by the wife and mother in Missouri that the influence of public schools can be countered by teaching them Christian values at home stuck with me. He said, “You wouldn’t send your children off with a healthy breakfast and be unconcerned if they ate lead paint for lunch.” The same, he said, is true intellectually, spiritually and morally when students go to public schools. I would have to agree; after all, students are almost certainly getting more direct instruction from their schools than they are from their parents; even the best case scenario might be only fifty-fifty. So why would Christian parents concerned about the development of their students knowingly and willingly send their children to an environment in which much of what they learn, or at least the perspective from which they learn it, is in opposition to what the parents believe and the Bible teaches?

To the point of being missionaries or ambassadors in the public school setting, I think there is a tremendous amount of merit to that argument for Christian adults working in public schools. I think the weight of that argument diminishes exponentially when talking about children. It is not coincidental that the United States does not send children or teenagers as ambassadors to other nations. I realize that is not a perfect example, and yes, children and teens can absolutely be salt and light in the world. Truth be told, I was probably more bold about sharing my faith with strangers as a child than I am now, much to my own dismay. This argument is flawed, though, because children and teens are still having their faith, their worldview and their understanding shaped. They are still extremely susceptible to influences and their minds are still quite pliable.

I have always considered lighthouses to be a terrific metaphor for Christians and the role that Christians are to have in the world. A lighthouse was a carefully constructed building. The bricks needed to be placed correctly and secured carefully in order to build the structure up high enough for its light to be seen from a distance. It also needed to be strong enough to support the staircase that wrapped its way around the inside of the light tower so that the keeper could make his regular trips up and down the stairs. If the tower fell, the light would be useless. If the stairs collapsed and the keeper could not light the light (in the days before automation) the light would be useless. In other words, the light itself only had any value if the lighthouse itself was securely constructed. There might be a perfectly goof Fresnel lens sitting on top of the lighthouse, or sitting on the ground next to a lighthouse being constructed, but without the properly constructed light and usable stairs within the tower the light would be worthless.

The same is true of Christians. The light the we have is perfect and good and complete, because the light that we have is the Gospel message, the truth of God’s Word. But if our towers are faulty, if we cannot or do not light the light, the light in our towers is worthless.

No one charged with the task of constructing a lighthouse would spend mornings, evenings and weekends constructing the tower and knowingly and willingly allow another person or group of people to spend six to eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, sabotaging the tower he was building. Imagine how long it would take to construct that lighthouse! Think of the adage two steps forward, one step backward. Even worse, think of one step forward, two steps backward. The one charged with building the tower would have to spend so much time repairing and fixing what he had already done that he would seldom if ever make progress in building the tower higher. Getting to the point where the lighthouse was complete and the light could accomplish its purpose would take an extremely long time! This is exactly what happens when Christian students go to public schools. They have a light to show to the world, but it is seldom visible because the world is continually sabotaging their tower by attacking and undermining their faith and their worldview.

I always find it particularly troubling when parents send their children to Christian school for elementary and perhaps even junior high school and then send them off to public school for their high school years. More often than not this is due to the athletic, music and other co-curricular activities that public schools offer than many Christian schools cannot (or not at the same level). Sometimes it is also because parents question whether or not the academic in the Christian school are as rigorous as those in the public schools. Regardless of the reason, I find the decision incredibly uninformed. Teenagers are perhaps more susceptible to the influence of others than any other humans. They are already trying to figure out who they are and what they think. They are already prone to question authority and what they have been raised to do, think and believe. Why in the world would a Christian parent insert their child into an environment where they are surrounded by the influences of the world at exactly that age? Quite simply, I don’t get it.

I mentioned three letters published in WORLD. I will talk about the point made in the third one next time.

June 4, 2013

Who We Are

WORLD Magazine columnist Janie B. Cheaney is a good writer. I enjoy reading her columns, and I often find them to be well thought out and even thought-provoking. I have also found, however, that I seem to disagree with her at least as often as not. Such is the case again with her column entitled “The heart of the matter” in the June 1, 2013 issue. The subtitle of her column is “Homosexuals and the rest of us sinners are who we are, and that is the problem.” Unfortunately, Cheaney’s premise is wrong, and she makes several assertions throughout her column that are wrong.

Cheaney begins her piece with a quick rundown of some of the more prominent conservatives to have endorsed same-sex marriage. But then she starts the second paragraph with this: “So-called gay rights (for lack of a better term) is the third great civil-rights movement of the last 60 years, and the most vexed. Here’s why: Racism challenged society, feminism challenged the family, but sexual identity challenges our very being.”

I have argued in this space on numerous previous occasions that gay rights is not a civil rights issue, and I was disappointed to say the least that Cheaney has jumped on board with those who say that it is. And the reason that it is not is because the conclusion of Cheaney’s explanation is exactly wrong. Sexual identity does not challenge our “very being.” Our “very being” is that we are human beings created in the image of God. If you want to go further than that we are male and female human beings. But that is the extent of our “very being.” The identities that have been created in recent years, neatly summed up in the letters “LGBTQ” are man-made labels to describe chosen behaviors and preferences, but they are not identities. Cheaney calls them “a range of identities with unfixed borders,” but that is wrong. The unfixed borders part of the statement may be accurate; after all, the Q stands for, depending on who you ask or where you look, “queer” or “questioning,” but means, in either instance, someone who is uncertain of which label fits them.

Still, labels is all they are, not identities. For one thing, identities do not change; the very beginning of the definition of “identity” is “the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions.” They are further not identities because those behaviors abbreviated by LGBTQ describe personal preferences and possibly personal behaviors, but not who a person is. The same is just as true of a heterosexual as a homosexual, by the way. Heterosexuality is defined as, “sexual feeling or behavior directed toward a person or persons of the opposite sex.” Neither feelings nor behaviors are identities. I am certainly not identifiable by my feelings–and thank God for that, by the way! Nor am I identified by my behaviors. You may be able to learn a lot about me by what I do, but none of those things are me. Many labels can be applied accurately to me–husband, father, son, brother, teacher, friend, fan, reader, writer, colleague, employee, and on and on I could go. But if you took away each and every one of those things you would not eliminate me; I would still exist if none of those labels were still applicable, and therefore none of those things are my identity.

Cheaney uses a man named Christopher Yuan as an example of her point. Of Yuan she writes, “His identity was inseparable from his sexuality, and by his early twenties he knew he couldn’t change it. He was and always would be gay.” Therein lies the problem, though; his sexuality is separable from his identity.

Cheaney goes on to explain that sin is a matter of who we are. She writes, “‘This is who I am’ unwittingly bears the human soul. Sin is not primarily a matter of what we do but who we are. We are liars, idolators, adulterers, hypocrites, perverts. That is why we lie (to ourselves especially), worship the creature rather than the Creator, stray from our true lover, pretend righteousness we don’t have, and misuse God’s gifts to our own selfish ends. But most of those sins can be hidden, even within the church. The homosexual’s peculiar burden is that his sin can’t be hidden.”

Let’s take that apart a bit. First of all, yes, we are sinners–all of us. Scripture makes it clear that every human is a sinner, and that every human is born a sinner. Sinner, therefore, could accurately be included as part of our identities. And while Scripture also makes it clear that to be guilty of any part of the law is to be guilty of all, that does not mean that every person has actually committed each act. James 2 makes it clear that when we break God’s law in any way we are guilty of it all. James 2:10-11 reads, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (ESV). That does not mean, though, that if I have committed adultery I might as well also commit murder. It does not mean that if I have lied I might as well also steal. It simply means that it does not matter which of God’s laws I break, by breaking them I fall short of the glory of God and am therefore unworthy to spend eternity in His presence (Romans 3:23).

However–and this is a very important however–the fact that I am a sinner does not mean I have free license to sin. By God’s grace my sins have been forgiven, and with the leading of the Holy Spirit and my yielding to Him I do not have to live a life of sin. Paul makes it very clear that just because God’s grace enables the forgiveness of sins does not give me freedom to sin (Romans 6). So yes, some sins can be hidden, and some much more easily than others, but the fact that we are born sinners does not mean we have to sin continually, and certainly does not mean that we should sin.

So, to my second point, Cheaney says that homosexuality cannot be hidden. I disagree. If homosexuality is a feeling, it can definitely be hidden. People hide their feelings all the time. If homosexuality is an action it can be both hidden and avoided. Plenty of people throughout history have engaged in homosexual activity and hidden it, I am sure. But the real point is that no one has to engage in homosexual behavior! As I have stated repeatedly, even if I were convinced that people are “born homosexual” (I am not) they still have the choice to practice homosexuality. And this is why gay rights is not a civil rights issue. People can not choose or change the color of their skin, and people cannot choose their gender, either (though with the “technology” available these days they can have it medically changed).

At the end of her column Cheaney quotes Yuan as coming to realization that the Bible does condemn homosexuality as a sin, and that God called him to be holy. “My identity was not ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or even ‘heterosexual,’ for that matter. But my identity as a child of the living God must be in Jesus Christ alone,” she quoted Yuan. And in that regard Yuan is quite right. The problem is that she prefaced that by writing that God “was not calling him to be straight, but to be holy.” The problem is, one cannot be holy and be a practicing homosexual. If the Bible says homosexuality is a sin (it does) and the Bible says that Christians are to be holy because God is holy (it does) one cannot then argue that it is possible to be both holy and homosexual (it isn’t). Am I saying all homosexuals will go to hell? No, I’m not. Homosexuality is a sin, but God forgives the sins of those who ask, homosexuals included.

My point, though, is that Cheaney is wrong about homosexuality or heterosexuality being anyone’s identity. It simply is not. I also disagree wholeheartedly that homosexual is what anyone “just is.” Who we all are is fallen human beings, created in the image of God but born in sin and therefore ineligible for eternal life. My identity now, praise the Lord, is a sinner saved by grace. And that is a identity anyone can have who is willing to call on the name of the Lord.

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