All posts by Nic Gibson

Senior Pastor at HPC

Pastoral Letter on Public and Private Fears in a Polarized State

For High Point Church, those interested in the Christian teachings on life under the State, and for those whom are citizens of another kingdom, the City of God.  

Christian Scripture is not only the word of God and a record of his revealing actions; it is also a chronicle of human behavior, demonstrating our nature and propensities in this world. It contains many faithful narratives about human states and people, the tumult and chaos of nations, as well as rare examples of the increase of justice and prosperity. God has given us plenty of teaching on how we can live in virtue and without fear—and thus in freedom—in any state on earth, regardless of its leader and government, or our status in it.  

It should be clear to anyone reading the Bible that progress and liberty are not human universals, but are rare jewels in the annals of human history. No nation has ever been a complete representation of the purposes or will of God. The State is not God’s City, though in his providence he is sovereign over its actions. The church is his kingdom and city, and though there are always wolves in the imperfect church, it is nonetheless Christ’s bride that he is working to perfect.  

The apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:9-12 that his prayer for the church is that we would be:  

“[filled] with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understanding given by the Spirit, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” 

The Christian, like his Savior, will consistently find himself an alien in the world, and more so in certain times than in others. It is God’s desire for every believer, in every time and under every state, to understand God’s will so that they can live a life that is pleasing to God. This includes at least committing ourselves to “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10), having great endurance and patience, and being able to joyfully give thanks to the Father who has rescued us. 

Writing this epistle from prison, and having been imprisoned unjustly, the apostle does not allow himself to be distracted with political considerations, though he himself is suffering as a political criminal in a corrupt judicial system. Instead, he tells Christians that both collectively and individually the goal is to be pleasing to God, committed to every good work, able to wait on God with endurance and patience, and having joy with a thankful attitude toward God the Father. 

In order to attain to this state of the heart, the Christian cannot give in to weakening frames of the soul: despair, gloom and despondency. Nor can we give into the heated frames of the soul: wrath, vengeance, anger, pride, envy and lust. The fear of meaningful and important temporal things easily steals away the grounding foundation of all the truths of salvation, our eternal hopes, our certainty in God’s oath and promise, and the thankful joy that comes as the fruit of such faith. 

Many sins are produced by the loss of a godly frame in times of abnormal fear. Frames of the soul that have either fallen into despondency or anger, because of our fear or pride, submit to our mind ready excuses for sins of all kinds—all forms of indulgence and intemperance. We can easily, in the state of anger and pride, believe we are holy, just and approved of by God even in doing the things that God has explicitly said that he despises and has commanded us not to commit.  

We make enemies of those who disagree with us and fall into the worst kind of partisanship. We are not faithful to the actual view of our neighbor, and so caricature it in our yard signs, media posts, and conversations. This is bearing false testimony against your neighbor. We refuse to forgive those who we think have committed a wrong—perhaps not realizing that we must forgive another for what we deem a wrong vote as much as we must forgive another for a different wrong action against us. We commit idolatry by elevating the interests of the State over the interests of the family of God, the body and bride of Christ. In further ideological idolatry, we hold fast to our perceptions of who the heroes and the enemies are in our public life, allowing our partisanship to lead to the worst kind of factionalism and tribalism. This leads us not only to abuse our neighbor, but to allow ourselves to hold a hatred for an entire class of people, both real and imagined. This causes us to refuse the virtue of hospitality by allowing ourselves to immediately dislike people that we believe failed to hold a complete orthodoxy in our factional religion.  

Wayward human souls also tend to look to strong leadership in moments of fear and pride. Not waiting on God and trusting him to bring about justice by his own means, we are willing to lie in wait to attack our neighbors in order to support whoever we believe will be the successful leader for our time. By doing so, we cannot help but elevate some of the worst characters, some of the most ruthless men and women, and to make every leadership decision a cataclysmic decision in a “winner takes all” scenario. Such leader and state worship has a horrific and murderous history, especially in the last 100 years—totaling more than 100 million people. And it continues. 

It is common for people to think that this is a tribal problem, and therefore a problem with the other tribe to which we do not belong. But it is not. All of these problems are human problems, and manifest themselves wherever human fear and pride are resident. And they are repented of and somewhat ameliorated, at least for a time, where human beings in humility and faith repent of such idolatries, sins and fears, and choose instead to trust the living God and to follow his Christ.  

It is fashionable at the moment to fear that America is on the brink of being overtaken by “fascism,” and that every person must exert themselves extremely in order to keep such fanaticism from taking hold. The predictable and strange irony of this is that this is precisely how fascism takes hold. Totalitarianism does not emerge from tiny minorities, but by blaming small minorities for the problems of the whole through the voice of a strong man who can rally the majority to his side, usually in a democracy. American Progressives believe that the danger comes from the American Right, recognizing that some fascist regimes were nationalistic in nature, as opposed to communist regimes that were globalist in nature. It is true that when nationalism is defined as a kind of “blood and soil,” and is choosing its membership by race or some other arbitrary standard, that the totalitarian tendency can find its scapegoat and bring on its side a sufficient majority for dictatorship and great injustice. Yet people on the American Right have also observed that every totalitarian regime was also socialist by its very nature. Spain, Italy, Germany, and even the large strain of American fascism during the Progressive era (seen most profoundly in Woodrow Wilson), were all progressivist and socialist by ideology and practice.  

The Christian who understands the nature of the human condition understands that the tendencies towards totalitarianism and injustice reside in the embrace of fear and pride and the rejection of faith and virtue as defined by God. In this state, there is no safety against great horrific outcomes by being on anything like the “Right” or the “Left.” Both visions can become great, and both visions can become specters and wraiths, giving into the worst of their condition, and losing everything good God put in their created nature.  

Advice to Christians about what to do in times like this: 

Some Christians believe that in order to make Christ known to our neighbors, we must capitulate to their political tastes and perceptions. Yet although the apostle Paul said that he becomes “all things to all men, so that by all possible means he may save some,” he did not apply this to sinful tendencies, or views that were contrary to the gospel. You will not find in the ministry of Jesus him capitulating moral standards, especially within worship, virtue and morality, when speaking to people of the world—whatever their political persuasion. His views cannot be characterized as partisan, though sometimes he agreed with one party or another on a particular issue. Instead, his views were consistently seen as otherworldly. People of every faction, from within every partisan group, at some point looked at Jesus with complete bewilderment because he belonged to and spoke of the kingdom that was not of this world—or at least not of this world’s worldliness. 

For the Christian to be faithful to his Christ, and also a faithful witness to his neighbor, it is true that he should not be unlike his neighbor for its own sake, alienating them over the trivial. But nor does it mean that the Christian should lie down the convictions of conscience that she believes is informed by her belief in the gospel. For the thinking and concerned Christian, they will not find a home in either political party in the United States—at least not consistently. 

If we wish to truly be followers of Christ, as well as how he handled the political concerns of his day, we are wrong to see in Christ the consummate progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative. He was none of these things consistently. To Jesus, it depended on how any particular progressive, liberal, libertarian or conservative view agreed or disagreed with the otherworldly ethic of the City of God and the will of his Father. On any particular issue, he may agree with one party on an issue, and a different party on another issue—but he would never agree with them all on all issues. And more than anything, he would not be drawn into their idolatry of power. One of the great ironies of the cosmos is that the One with the greatest right and power to coerce all creatures to give fealty and loyalty to himself, came in absolute humility, argued on the basis of truth rather than power, and left choice to the conscience of all men—knowing that the consequences of their choices were dire. He neither stole their rights, nor their destinies, though he died to make the greatest destiny possible for every man and woman. 

Dear brothers and sisters, there are many men and women who seek to stir you up in fear, pride and anger in order that they might have power, notoriety and wealth. To give into fear is always to allow ourselves to be easily manipulated and controlled. The desire for power is exceedingly corrupting. We must reject the calls to fear and hatred of our neighbor, while speaking the truth to each other graciously, according to conscience, and according to the word and will of God. What our nation needs from us most is not our allegiance to the political parties, but an allegiance to temperance and public virtue flowing from the humility and honesty of Christ.  

The essence of faith, in all places and at all times is twofold. It is first to repent of that which is wrong, and to put our faith in the good as it is embodied in Christ. And second, faith is to not give way to fear, but to be willing to trust God and to wait for him. Throughout Scripture, “waiting” for God does not mean passivity and indolence. It means that we will not take into our hands that which is left to God alone—like wrath and revenge, the manipulation of events that cannot be done with virtue, and the like. To wait for God is to do everything we can possibly do for the good that is shown to us in God’s revealed will and then not to try to do more. It is to leave to God what is God’s, and to wait for him to work out whatever he has chosen in his providence to bring to pass. It is to believe that the final reward, our ultimate redemption in glorification, will provide sufficient joy, hope, and endurance to follow Christ who seemed forsaken in the events of this world—especially political ones—and yet who was vindicated and glorified to eternal joy. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, do not lose hope. Do not give in to fear. Do not allow anger to be an excuse for intemperance. Rejoice in the Lord, and put no hope in princes, governors or presidents. Yet pray for governors, presidents, and other governmental entities on all occasions. Act conscientiously in your public work according to your best understanding of what will work toward human flourishing and is in the will of God. And then put your trust in God, and wait for him. Do good, live in his joy with thankfulness, and know that if we live under the derision of the earthly city, we will be pleasing in the eyes of the One who is working redemption for his heavenly City. We have been redeemed and will be redeemed, so let us now, like Jesus our Christ, spend ourselves in every work of redemption our hand finds. Do not grow weary brothers and sisters, night must always give way. 

Grace and peace,  

Pastor Nic Gibson 

Pastoral letter on gathering as the church in the COVID-19 pandemic

To the High Point Church family, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, 

For 2000 years, pastors have written to the congregations they serve with spiritual advice, commands and encouragement in times of need. This was not only true of the apostles, but also church fathers and bishops, like St. Athanasius. Martin Luther wrote to European Christians in the 16th century an essay entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” It is still worth reading.  

The current pandemic may not be as deadly as some of the ancient plagues, but it is deadly for some, and this may not be the last pandemic that we face in our lifetime. Many Christians recognize the big picture in relationship to faith in Christ when facing disease. In life or death, we belong to Christ. Jesus has called us to live in faith, not fear. But we are also told that faith is not the same as foolishness. Faith and wisdom are never opposed to each other, and yet both are opposed to cowardice. Christians generally understand that we are to live in the divine triumvirate of faith, hope and love, that we should serve our neighbors, believe that God is ultimately in control of all things (even suffering), and that we should act with wisdom in our daily choices. Much can be said about these basic and fundamental Christian truths. 

However, the church can easily become divided in a situation like this—over questions of conscience and wisdom. For example, is it religious persecution for the government to say we cannot have our normal gatherings? Does worshiping with a virtual source count as worship? If the church opens, should everyone have the conviction that they should attend? Should we be deferential and obedient to the government in their regulations? 

In this letter, I will focus on three important parts of the Bible’s teaching and outline our plan for gathering again so that we can move forward in the coming weeks not only in wisdom and faith, but in unity.

First, the Bible teaches in many places that every Christian is called to be an active, covenantal and familial participant in a concrete local church whenever possible. Christians should seek to form a local church when one is not present, and this can only be neglected in extreme circumstances—for example, if you are the only Christian in 100 square miles in rural North Korea. However, does it follow that we must meet every week on Sunday in a particularly marked church building, as is our ancient custom? Scripture seems to teach that the earliest Christians probably met on “the first day” of the week, which is presumably our Sunday. 

Three scriptures seem to state this. Acts 20:7 says that people gathered together for a meeting that lasted until the next day, and that this meeting was “on the first day of the week.” But though the reference tells us when the meeting happened, it doesn’t tell us that this was a normative time for the church to meet. In 1 Corinthians 16:2, people are told to set aside a financial gift “on the first day of every week.” This is so that no time will be used to collect money when Paul arrives to carry the church’s gift to Jerusalem. It does not include any normative command about when worship should take place, or why. In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…” Here, presumably the first day of the week is simply referred to as the Lord’s day—as though the concept was already established, and everyone would know what he meant. However, in the case of Acts 20:7, since Jews counted days from evening to evening, that meeting would have been on Saturday night over to Sunday morning. In fact, it’s likely that most Christian churches met on Saturday night after the Sabbath had concluded—the Sabbath spanning from Friday evening to sundown on Saturday evening. 

We are also told precious little in Scripture about exactly what should happen in our worship services, or exactly when we should meet. Early in the book of Acts, people are meeting in the temple to hear the apostles teaching, and are meeting “day by day” in people’s homes. As the New Testament moves forward, no prescription is given for a day of worship, a time of worship, the frequency of meetings, how many people make up a meeting, and so forth. Instead, these things are left up to the prudential wisdom of Christians, while we are given general commandments about what should be included in our worship, what should be our goals, what faith and godliness looks like and that we should do these things “often.”

This leads to the most specific verse that focuses on the times and frequencies of our meeting, Hebrews 10:25. It says, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The most literal contention here is the command to “not give up meeting together.” In the context of the pandemic, this command has led some Christians to believe churches should simply continue their previous meeting schedule in obedience to this command. Other believers have claimed that this quotation does not apply to extenuating circumstances in which our health could be at risk. However, Hebrews makes clear that these Christians are worshiping in the context of intense persecution, which includes the “plundering of their possessions.” In addition to having their private property taken, the apostle also includes an entire chapter on the suffering of God’s martyrs in Hebrews chapter 11. This is no doubt included because of the severity of the suffering he expected the Hebrews to face, which clearly could include profound personal suffering, even martyrdom. So, we should not too easily dismiss our earnest Christian brother or sister who believes that this verse says that we should not stop meeting together in our normal way even in the worst possible circumstances, including during a pandemic. 

Conversely, extreme circumstances are also the context for the Biblical command to obey those in civil authority. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul tells us to obey the government in absolute language, as instituted by God.  

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Romans 13:1 – 2 

This was the case even though Nero was emperor, and their current government was murdering Christians. 1 Peter 2:12 – 15 tells us to obey every authority instituted in our society, whether on the federal or local level. The purpose of this is not only that authority is in itself a good, bringing order out of chaos, but that we are to “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Presumably, this means the ignorant talk that because we are citizens of heaven, we are no longer under the practical jurisdictions of men. This is not the case. In 1 Timothy 2:1 – 2 we are commanded to pray for all those in authority. This is meant to help them see that they can leave us alone to live in peace and quiet. The result should be that godliness would thrive among us, and that people would see its beauty and turn to God who wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So, not only are we instructed to obey authority because it is ordained by God, but because it is also integral to the reputation of God’s truth in our city. Obeying authority is critical to living honorably and deserving a good name, and consequently, adorning God’s name in the minds of our societal neighbors.  

This does not mean that there are no exceptions to the rule. Peter and John disobey the Jewish rulers when they are commanded not to speak about Jesus and his salvation.  

But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts 4:19 – 20  

The Hebrew midwives are blessed by God for disobeying Pharaoh’s orders to kill Jewish boys as they were born because they “feared God.” They knew that to obey the king they would directly disobey God, the greater and true king. Therefore, our duty to obey right authorities is foundational, but does admit our disobedience when such a command requires us to disobey a direct command of God. We could also note the disobedience of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were also all commended by God. 

So, the question we must answer with good conscience is: Are we disobeying the general commands of worship and fellowship given to Christians and the local church by worshiping only according to what our government allows during a pandemic?  

This requires us to take stock of the minimum actions that amount to worship and fellowship as outlined in the Scriptures. First, there is no direct command as to the day we must meet, nor the time. We are told to “not stop meeting together.” This must mean that meetings should be frequent. The purpose of these meetings in Hebrews 10:25 is to “encourage one another” toward perseverance until the return of Jesus. This meeting has no minimum number so long as it is plural. Two or three might suffice. The church is commanded to read Scripture publicly, submit to the shepherding of elders, hear the word preached, worship in song and prayer, fulfill the “one another” commands, baptize new believers, celebrate the Lord’s supper, exert church discipline, and spread the gospel as the work of making disciples of all nations.  

Can we do this using almost entirely virtual tools while confined in households? I believe the answer is yes, at least for some period of time. At some point, virtual meetings are not sufficient for the human soul, and people who do not gather are scattered. This is why house church movements are so difficult to cultivate. Gathering in a large church makes it much easier to gather people. Yet, large churches are not necessary for us to be the body of Christ. Not having them in operation makes it harder and less convenient. But we are not precluded from worshiping, praying, or doing any of the works and worship we are commanded to do under these restrictions.  

What we must face is that this takes discipline and maturity. We have to organize ourselves. We have to check in on people. We have to exhort and encourage one another. We must do for free and out of love what is fitting for those God has made brothers and sisters, those he has made “one body.” We must be a people who can be the body of Christ without a building and without a budget. For this is what we may be one day not only in a pandemic, and what many of the Body of Christ are now in various places around the world.  

We should be cognizant of our rights in a free society governed by laws, that should apply to everyone the same, rather than by men, who will do as they please. However, the Biblical examples argue for justice on the basis of truth while in a posture of obedience to the government, except for in the most extreme circumstances. So, Christians can speak against government policies and use rights of speech, petition and assembly to change policies and advocate for their rights, as well as the rights of others. Some have done this. 

This leads to two concluding areas of action once we begin gathering again, and eventually, reopen our building doors. 

First, all Christians must respect the earnest conscience of others acting in faith who are trying to obey Christ. Most human decisions are not right and wrong in themselves. They are prudential decisions: decisions made on the principles of wisdom, utilizing our best perceptions of what is happening. We make prudential decisions by weighing the voices of many virtues and varied commands of God. Our varied perceptions and conceptualizations are imperfect and may lead people of the same convictions and faith to very different decisions concerning how we should act. In such circumstances, love must press for unity in the Body of Christ by respecting and accommodating the consciences of others. There are limits to this principle, but only express and explicit commands of God fence in the earnest conscience. In Romans 14, an example of where this principle is expounded, one of the differences of opinion about which we are not to judge each other is how we esteem the significance of certain days. In the context of the passage, these are probably festival days of the Old Testament. But this is a disagreement about the times and places of worship, and the apostle says we should not judge each other over these things. We should not allow the disunity to fester among us that comes from despising those who are conservative or judging those who have a more liberal conscience. For this to work, both groups must seek the truth in Christ, search the scriptures, and stay in fellowship with each other. 

Practically, as we roll out the reopening of church services, we will not all agree on how this should be done. Some believe we were wrong to ever close services. Others have asked to be present at services already. Some have informed us we should not open for some time. Others have said they will not come for some time, but affirm the church reopening if that is what the elders decide. I have been encouraged by the humility and the earnestness to honor Jesus that I have encountered among people who are acting in opposite ways. I believe this can please the Lord if we can also love and accept one another, even while debating with one another in humility and honest discourse. Jesus demands that we find unity even in the midst of giving others freedom of conscience in many matters. 

Concerning the reopening of the church, our plan needs to be fluid. The county has made clear that it reserved the right to move back and forth in levels of openness and quarantine, depending on infection rates and other indicators. So, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to at least live stream one service of worship each Sunday. This will remain the case until we communicate the next phase of reopening. Since we have started live streaming, some have attended worship much more regularly. Pray for God to use this time to draw many people deeper into the covenantal community of the church. 

The second step, which we have not yet reached, is to meet in groups of ten or fewer to worship together along with the streamed worship services. Moving to small group meetings for worship allows us to meet together to encourage one another in persevering faith and good works. This is an adequate means of fellowship and personal contact that treats people as fully human in their spiritual and social needs. We will communicate with you once we are either legally or conscientiously able to meet in this way.  

Though the public order says we should use virtual means in every way possible, we cannot neglect personally meeting with a small group of people any longer than is absolutely necessary. Gathering in small groups that are connected to virtual worship allows us to meet the basic necessities of Christian worship in the present moment, while minimizing risks of infection to ourselves and our neighbors. These small groups should be no more than ten people and should be the same people every week. This way, if someone is infected, we will know fairly easily who has been in contact with that person and who will need to quarantine themselves. Also, make sure the ten you choose is not exclusive of those that will get left out. Structure those you invite to include friends, as well as those that need a friend, because Jesus told us to invite all the people that couldn’t do anything for us (Luke 14:12 – 14).

Hopefully, fairly soon, things will move more back to normal, and we will be able to reopen Sunday services as normal. Right now, though churches can meet at 25% occupancy, there are many onerous requirements for those meetings, and so we will not gather in our church building until further notice. For High Point Church, even 25% capacity makes controlling the spread of disease difficult, especially in our space. 25% capacity in our sanctuary alone is more than 200 people. These actions are in line with the advice of numerous health care workers that we have consulted in the last week.  

Finally, do not tell yourself this will all be over soon. We have no idea what the next months, or the next year, will bring. If you plan for an end to the difficulties, your resolve will break when hardships extend. Choose to trust God in each moment, and plan for the future only long enough to do your duty and have hope that God will use you for some eternal good that circumstances can neither steal nor spoil. Find your happiness in God and in people (who last forever), in present graces (like sunshine), and in pursuing godliness. Life’s greatest joys do not come by changes in trials, and most wholesome routes of meaning are expanded in hardship, not contracted. You do not have fewer eternal opportunities in these days; you have more—regardless of what happens to our bank accounts or our health. Even when our bodies are wasting away, we can be renewed inwardly day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). Let us give to everyone what duty owes them: first to God, and then to our governing authorities, to the fellowship of believers, in generosity to the poor and to our not yet believing neighbors.   

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love (Ephesians 6:24).

Having a Political Voice as a Church

For more on this topic, listen to the Engage & Equip podcast episodes #174: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease? and #175: How Should Christians Engage in Politics?

Should a church have a political voice? Should a pastor?

Should I go to a church if the church’s or the pastor’s political voice doesn’t seem to be what is approved of by the party or philosophy I most approve of?

How should I think about politics and the church as a Christian?

Christian faith has always been called “political.”

The Bible is a “political” book, and Jesus was considered a “political” figure. After all, he was always talking about his “kingdom.” In fact, all of Scripture makes “political” claims: The book of Genesis claims that our God is the God of creation and, therefore, is the sovereign governor over the entire natural realm. He also claims ownership of all image bearers, or human beings. He declares how they should be treated by other human beings, by families, by religious orders and by governments, declaring that they have what we call “rights.” He also declares how human beings should be treated economically, with at least minimal standards regarding economic justice. Many of the Old Testament prophets specifically criticized the government for its corruption and economic favoritism. These men spoke “politically” for God. His judgment concerned, in part, the acts of their government.

Jesus was executed as a political dissident and as a traitor against the Roman government. James and John were flogged for not obeying the government’s policy to manage the spread of Christianity. The apostle James was killed in political instability caused by people politically rioting against the rise of Christianity. The apostle Paul was whipped, beaten and imprisoned numerous times by government officials; he was a political prisoner virtually all of the time he was imprisoned. The early Christians were persecuted by their governments, and the apostle John was exiled by the Roman government. Some of the earliest Christian public writings were written to emperors, arguing against the injustice of how Christians were being treated by the empire.

Many biblical commentators, of both liberal and conservative persuasions, have noted the interplay of religious faith and politics in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Whatever Christianity is, and whatever its politics, we find that its practice is always running afoul of politics. Said another way, Christian faith and doctrine is always at least being mistaken for politics.

Everything is political now.

Second, it may be noted that more and more in American life is being taken into this sphere of what is considered political. The definition of totalitarian fascism, as determined by dictator Benito Mussolini, was “everything inside the state, nothing outside the state, and nothing against the state.” One might define totalitarian politics as, “everything inside politics, nothing outside politics, and nothing against the importance of politics.” Over the last eight years I have heard both Democrats and Republicans say that we were moving towards dictatorship, depending on whether President Obama or President Trump was in power. (In fact, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR were our most dictatorial presidents. And two are on Mount Rushmore. FDR openly admired and was admired by Mussolini.)

However, I think it is more obvious that over the last 15 years we have been moving towards a dictatorship of politics—that it is politics itself that is swelling up and claiming to control all of human life. Everything is political. Everything is inside politics. Everything reveals your politics. Everything requires a political framing, every false step a political reprisal. Everyone has to be trying to control everyone and everything else. More and more people judge each other and approve of themselves based on their political creed rather than the basis of their own moral acts of virtue.

Whether those in power are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives, this is a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs.  It may be argued now that this writing itself is a “conservative” view, that I am seeking to smuggle in a “small government Republicanism.” But I am much more concerned about the size of politics than I am about the size of government.

For example, we could have an enormous government that was only in charge of national defense. In such a case, the government would be large in size, but narrow in scope. Virtually all of human life would be outside of government, in what has been called “civil society.” Civil society is the realm of commerce, free associations, families, churches, and anything that stands between the government and the individual. It is the realm of institutions that we make for ourselves and use to form ourselves. It is also the part of life least constrained and controlled by people other than those involved—it is the realm of liberty.

This liberty can only exist where even democratic majorities cannot tread. Otherwise the 49% shall be controlled by the will of the 51%, and they will live under the tyranny of democracy. There is such thing as a democratic totalitarianism. Two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch. 51% gets to pee in the oatmeal of the 49% minority. This is why the West created a common law radically limiting the scope of government with a reel of “rights,” built up from the Magna Carta to the time of the Revolution, even to the removal of the last vestiges of Jim Crow. This idea that a civil reel of rights should create a large space free from the tyranny even of democratic government, in which people could freely associate and build the lives they chose, was called “liberalism.” Liberalism was the idea that we should not coerce anyone’s life without grave need, and that we should leave people free to pursue happiness according to their own rights and conscience. And the early Americans believed this could only be done if religion had a large place in that civil society.

From the time of the New Deal forward through the Great Society, and the increase in regulations and entitlement/relief programs, the scope of this “liberalism” has been shrinking. More of life has been taken from the realm of liberty and placed in the safeguard of technical administrators put in place by democratically elected representatives. As the government was responsible for more and more, the stakes for controlling that government went up and up. The fight for every post and seat became more and more vicious. Money poured in, and everyone had to become an advocate. No one could afford not to be on a team. And once everyone is on one team or another, everything is the game. Everything is politics, and all that matters is who’s winning.

Damned either way

When all of human discourse and life is swallowed up into “politics” (claims that an insinuate grab for power on behalf of a certain policy were by a certain group), no claim can be made that isn’t a kind power grab. So no claim is truly a moral claim. No claim can be a spiritual claim. There are no metaphysical claims. There aren’t even any scientific claims. There are only political claims pretending to be moral, theological, spiritual, anthropological, metaphysical or scientific. Well, unless our team is making the claim, and then it’s obvious that all we care about is the truth. It is the other guys who are never sincere, but only grabbing power. I can hardly think of a more depraved and demoralized public square than one in which politics becomes totalitarian, because it has become total and partisan.

As American public life has become more politically totalitarian, all speech is consider political speech. More positions are considered political positions. More ideas are considered political ideas. And in this transition, many Christian claims that are moral and theological are now assumed to be mainly political.

Here are some examples:

  1. Abortion is the taking of innocent human life. All human institutions should be structured against the taking of innocent human life, and it is always immoral for a person, no matter what their institutional role, to take such life.
  2. Racism and sexism are violations of human dignity and should be opposed in every context they are found.
  3. Poverty is produced by both rapaciousness and dysfunction. Therefore, every society must have mechanisms to help the poor while distinguishing its cause. Therefore, every society must balance protecting the poor against the wealthy seeking to monetize their work for themselves, and dysfunction among the poor that produces indigence and dependence. Historically, more emphasis must be given against the rapaciousness of the rich, since it’s more likely that they can capture the institutions of society, including government. Therefore, societies must have a strong anticorruption bias and support for the legal rights of the poor, while not supporting indigence independence.
  4.  Covenantal and comprehensive heterosexual marriage is the fundamental building block of healthy families and human society. This does not mean a society won’t make any deviation from this norm. However, for society to be healthy, the vast majority of families must submit themselves to this norm for their own good and for the good of succeeding generations.
  5. Human beings should be accorded the right of conscience, religious belief and moral practice, and be free from unnecessary coercion, with a heavy bias towards freedom and liberty. Freedom of conscience, the will, and religious sentiment are supreme to the existence of authentic human consciousness and being. Governments have no right to suppress the religious and moral conscience of men, especially within the realm of natural theology.
  6. People have the right to benefit from the work of their own hands.
  7. Societies have the responsibility to alleviate poverty of misfortune. Societies have the opposite responsibility to not alleviate poverty of indolence.
  8. Governments have the responsibility to punish those who do wrong.
  9. Court should either favor the rich nor the poor, but should produce impartial justice.

In such a context, you’re stuck either way. If you say nothing, in trying “not to be political” you’ve succeeded in not preaching the whole counsel of God. But pastors, and by implication, churches, are responsible to communicate the full will of God.  The Apostle Paul said it this way in Acts 20:26-27, “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” Christianity has views about things that affect public life, and they must be declared in a full throated way in every generation, and even to the government and its officials. Not to do so is to displease the Lord. It’s not an option.

But if everything is political, this will be considered political speech. Many feel like the church “shouldn’t get involved in politics.” So their response is that this is a foul against how a church or pastor should speak. When people hear what they think is “political,” they grow offended and complain, or leave.

Fighting for Devotional Time: Practical Tips

Listen to discussion on the Fighting for Devotional Time series on the Engage & Equip podcast, episode #173.

Now that we’ve covered the three biggest introduction topics—developing the discipline of devotion, focusing your mind, and approaching the Scriptures with open honesty—you may wonder, “Yes, but there have to be some basic helpful techniques you can give us.” There are. Here are a few:

  1. Get a very readable translation of the Bible. I’m not against the King James Version, but it is written in 1611 English. Most people just don’t understand that version of English. The English Language has many incredible translations, Including the NIV, ESV, NET, HCSB, NASB, NLT, and so on. 
  2. Don’t read the Bible straight through. For most people, it is best to start with one of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. If you wish to start at the beginning, Genesis is a fairly interesting book, and so is at least the first 20 chapters of Exodus. If you get into the law starting in Genesis chapter 20 and then get bored and distracted, then flip forward to the New Testament and read something else. Some of the fairly understandable books of the New Testament are Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 1 John, Galatians, and so on. Also, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and Kings in the Old Testament are narrative books with lots of action. Young men especially tend to enjoy these books. If you’re looking for comfort and emotion, many people like the poetry of the Psalms; you don’t have to read those in order, they are all individual songs. If you have any trouble, ask somebody. Almost anyone who has been reading the Bible for a while can help you out with where to read.
  3. Read the Bible in “sections.” Many modern Bibles will have little subheadings in the text. These tend to mark out biblical sections pretty well. Generally speaking, you want to read a complete story, or a complete argument. It’s the best way to make sure you aren’t taking something out of context. Some of these can be fairly long, while others can be very short. However, biblical authors try to make sections of the text complete in themselves. Try to read a complete “section.” You’ll have a better chance of interpreting it well, and taking away the right truths. 
  4. Don’t get upset if you don’t understand 100%. You will almost never understand 100% of any text of the Bible. If you understand 5%, but you really do understand that part, then you have gotten something from God’s word and you should cherish it. Next time you’ll understand 15%, and so on. If you think you have completely misunderstood a section, again, ask for help. But just remember, we read the Bible for incremental change, not perfect understanding. I have read many passages in my life where I didn’t understand many good and important things in the passage, but I did understand one real thing from the passage. To the extent which I believed and applied that one thing, God used it in my life. 
  5. Almost every detail matters. So, don’t just read for something that sounds spiritual. Virtually every detail is important as part of the story or part of the argument. The more little things you assume don’t matter, the less likely you will understand what’s really going on. It’s often the detail you overlooked that will open up the meaning of the passage. Go back and reread.
  6. Before you read, pray and ask God to open up some truth to you. God will respond, and it will open your heart. It’s important to know and believe that God is active in your devotions, not just you.
  7. I find it helpful to write down the main thing I’m taking away from what I read. Especially the first couple of years I had personal devotions, I practiced this for about 25% of my devotional time. In those days I set aside about an hour. I read the Bible for about 25 minutes. I wrote in my journal for about 10 minutes. I meditated about what I read for about five minutes before I wrote and after I wrote, rereading what I had written. And then I prayed for whatever time I had left.
  8. Have someone with whom you regularly share what you are learning. Preferably somebody further along in the faith, and in studying the Bible. 
  9. Check out a Bible study class, or a book. I don’t encourage people to do this right away. Don’t read about reading the Bible before you read the Bible. Read the Bible for a little while first. Then go and learn from someone, or read something. You’ll learn a lot more if you have some prior experience. 

Obey whatever you learn. God has no incentive to teach you what you are unwilling to do. Knowledge of God is in some sense an end in itself if it grows our devotion or helps us in our understanding. But, studying Scripture should lead us to things in our life that we will have to change or adjust or think of in completely different ways. If you want God to show you more, act on what he has shown you already. This way you will show God that you are truly interested in him; additionally, it’s amazing how much you will learn about God in the act of obeying itself. Reading the Bible is not the only time we learn about God and ourselves. Ultimately, we are called to live lives of active love.

Fighting for Devotional Time: Open Honesty

Listen to discussion on the Fighting for Devotional Time series on the Engage & Equip podcast, episode #173.

So far, I have written about two ways to fight for devotional time: developing a discipline of devotion and focusing your mind. These practices both require that we intentionally stop, or at least put aside for the moment, many urgent tasks and diversions in order to make them happen.

The first positive practice of actually doing devotions is to read God’s word with open honesty. You must treat the Scriptures like someone you’re just getting to know. It would be wrong to try to make this new acquaintance just like yourself. You must get to know them for who they are before you know how they might relate to you.

Similarly, we have to come to the Scriptures humbly. They are God’s word, not ours. And we should not expect to know what God wishes to tell us before we read them. One of the great themes of the Scriptures is that we make God in our image, and we don’t listen to what he says. As we begin to read the Bible, we must be as vigilant against this human failing as possible.

Although this may seem like a simple point, it is perhaps the most transformative along with being the most important. The most likely way to get nothing from reading the Bible is to read it self-righteously. For example, it is usually best to assume that you are most like the worst human character in the story. Otherwise, we imagine ourselves as agreeing with God, looking over his shoulder at the idiotic, piddly humans who are much worse than the two of us (us and God).

This is not the intention of the writers. For example, well after the apostles had become heroes of the early church, they caused themselves to be portrayed as foolish followers of Jesus who didn’t understand his teachings and never seemed to have faith or understanding in the moment. Portraying themselves honestly in this way was intentional, as we then identify with them as dense, foolish, faithless and weak. It may feel uncomfortable, but by identifying with the person who is failing in the story, we put ourselves in the position to learn the lesson either they did learn, or that they should have learned. It makes us a true pupil—a real “disciple,” which means a “learner.”

Although this is not a very technical idea, it is the most important attitude when coming to read the Bible. If you have this attitude correct, over time, you will read the Bible for great benefit. If you get this one thing wrong, no matter what technical concepts you understand about interpretation, in the end, you will learn nothing.

So read with humility. For the God of Scripture loves to give grace to the humble. He loves to teach the inquisitive and make the simple wise. The right attitude will make all the difference. Learn to read the Scriptures with both humility and faith.

Fighting for Devotional Time: Focusing Your Mind

Listen to discussion on the Fighting for Devotional Time series on the Engage & Equip podcast, episode #173.

Yesterday, I posted about the first hardest part about fighting for devotional time: the discipline of simply doing a devotional rather than not doing it. 

The second hardest part of doing devotions is concentration and thought. Most people do not have a mind trained for thinking and concentration. Our minds function similarly to our bodies in that when we are out of shape, it’s harder to perform anything strenuous. Additionally and unhelpfully, our lives and homes tend to be filled with all kinds of convenient distractions. 

Therefore, to have a profitable devotional time, the next step after simply having one is to achieve something like concentration—focus. This can be aided with controlling your environment and the use of mild stimulants, like coffee or tea. Stay away from things like cocaine.

In order for many people to achieve concentration and focus, they need to repeatedly go to a quiet environment in which they have removed obvious distractions. Often, this has to be done fairly early in the day before distractions multiply. Early is often the best time to concentrate because you have the most mental energy you will have all day. Putting this together with a concentration aiding beverage can help you focus. Journaling can also aid with focus. Although journaling has some liabilities, it has two benefits. First, manual writing tends to keep you focused on creating the content you are writing. Second, writing things down allows you to go back and look at what you have written days, weeks, months or even years later. I recently went through a ten year prayer journal I used from 2010 through 2019. It not only was encouraging to see what God had done in those ten years, but it allowed me to carry forward things God had been shaping over that decade into the next. It gave continuity to my pursuit of God, the change he was praying into my life, and a sense that he has been working in me.  

Aside from these aids, there is no substitute for the work of concentration. Some people can concentrate nearly effortlessly for an hour to 90 minutes. This is often the case if you have a job that requires long periods of concentration that keeps your mind in this kind of shape. For some of us, concentrating for ten minutes may feel like active work. The most important thing is to start with where you are and to do what you can do. Push yourself without injuring yourself. Just like if you started running after months of sedentary living, you shouldn’t try to run two miles your first time. You’ll probably both fail and hurt yourself.

Similarly, if you have not been spending time concentrating, push yourself about 30% longer than comes natural. For some people that will be ten minutes. For others it will be 25. Just make sure you stretch yourself. Over time, you’ll be able to build yourself up to concentrating longer just as you would increase weights in the weight room if you were getting in shape.

Again, doing devotions brings natural benefits along with the spiritual benefits. By pursuing a sharp mind for God you will end up with a sharper, more disciplined mind for everything. Your devotions won’t just develop you spiritually; they will sharpen you mentally. You will literally become smarter over time—a clearer thinker. I have discipled many people who have said that their faith made them much smarter than they were before. That is not because faith in itself makes us more intelligent—some ways that people believe can decrease their curiosity and make them functionally less intelligent over time. 

But there is an educational and intellectual development to knowing God. As we exercise our mental abilities in pursuing him, he matures and shapes our minds for his service. And as you see the good results of this pursuit, you may find within yourself the growing conviction to minimize and remove the things in your life which distract you and dilute your concentration. 

If we listen to Jesus’ call to love God with all our minds, and if we grow in our powers of concentration as we pursue deeper devotion to him, then he grows and sharpens our minds as we give our minds to him.