All posts by philipmt

Phil Thompson is a husband and father who serves as a lay teacher at The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, SC and works in the travel industry. He holds a MA in Theological Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and an MDiv from Columbia International University.

The Danger of Lionizing Lions

We become those whom we lionize—those larger-than-life superheroes and saints and stars we admire. And to some extent this is a true and good and beautiful phenomenon (1Cor 11:1). Insofar as leaders mimic Christ, Christians ought to follow in their steps. At least one word of caution needs to be offered, however, in this regard: Watch yourself carefully if the people you lionize behave like lions.

Lions are predators. They hold the title of “king of the forest” not for what they build but for what they destroy. They invoke awe and inspire fear because they enter the fray and don’t stop fighting. In evangelical circles of influence, it’s easy to spot the lions—those who made their name on the field of battle, owning atheists, purging liberals, punching back at culture, and purifying denominations. These men and women sometimes are a huge blessing to the church, addressing issues that have laid dormant for far too long. But, when lionized, the flaws of these lions rapidly become ignored and exacerbated in the lives of their followers, and the enemies of the lions become overlaid upon dissimilar conflicts of later eras. Several examples may help provide some context.

Looking back to the early church, Cyril of Alexandria provides a portrait of a man who was a lion against the onset of Nestorianism and other false teachings that were prevalent in his era. He is venerated for his defense of the orthodox faith in the East and West. But his lion-like behavior is far from admirable—including some bald egocentric and self-aggrandizing moves—and established precedents for how Christians in later times would bend the long arm of the state to root out heresy or would insert themselves into political conflicts. Eventually, Cyril’s own anti-Nestorian rhetoric reached a fever pitch and resulted in the lynching of Hypatia, an influential woman in Alexandria who opposed Cyril. Although Cyril’s theology was beautiful, his behavior was ugly. And those who lionized Cyril eventually descended into brutality and murder. To hold up Cyril as a “pillar of the faith” is incredibly one-sided and dangerous.

Perhaps a more recent example would help. I grew up in the independent fundamental Baptist arena, and we grew up lionizing men like Bob Jones, Sr. and John R. Rice for their stand against Billy Graham’s dalliance with liberalism beginning in his 1957 Manhattan Crusade. We saw their stand as heroic, pushing against the majority, against the news media, against star-struck evangelicals, to hold forth the truth of Scripture. But as with Cyril, there was an ugly underbelly to the whole matter that often went unstated. Beneath the criticism of Jones and Rice existed (as demonstrated in biographies, letters, and newspapers of that time) a number of developing rifts:

  • Ego: Graham had ascended far beyond the (frequently self-lauded) evangelistic careers of Rice and Jones, shifting the limelight away from these two men and their institutions.
  • False allegations: Second and third-hand information was being scouted and sent back to Jones and Rice regarding Graham speaking in “smoke-filled” rooms with alcohol present, allegations designed to scandalize Graham as a libertine. Shoddy narratives and hasty assertions made their way from personal letters to the pulpits of the South.
  • Racism: Just 5 years before the 1957 Crusade, Billy Graham dropped the segregation ropes at his Crusade in Jackson, Mississippi. In the days when fundamentalists of the South (and still a good number in the North) viewed integration as liberal policy/theology, this act began a wedge between the overtly racist approaches of Jones and Rice and the opening eyes of Graham. Graham’s posture solidified when MLK was invited to open the 1957 Crusade in prayer. Eventually, when Graham made his way back to the South, Jones commented to the Greenville News that Graham would not be welcome in his city due to Graham’s integrated Crusades.

In short, the fundamentalists of 1957 had some gripes with the churches who promoted Graham, but the rifts were far deeper and uglier than was often portrayed. The lions were lions. And when overlooked, the flaws only magnified and deepened. Jones’s school, Bob Jones University, went on to fight for segregationist anti-miscegenation rules including a Supreme Court showdown in 1983 and eventual rejection of the rule in 2000. Currently, the fiefdoms of Rice and Jones (to borrow the terminology of Nathan Finn) are deep-seated enemies, splitting each others churches over Bible translations and dress codes and music.

Looking a little closer to where I pastor, the heroes of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence are frequently lauded in SBC life. For some time, these living legends even had stained glass windows in their honor on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But in recent years, much of the brutality and ugliness of the methods that were implemented in the resurgence have come to light. Sin was being covered—even the sexual abuse and pedophelia by its key leaders. Lies and false allegations were justified. Racism was commonplace. Misogyny was rampant. Yes, they upheld important doctrines. Yes, they displaced bad theology. Yes, they reversed distressing trends within the SBC. But these lions became lionized by the generations of SBC pastors who followed in their footsteps.

In fact, if you look at the sources of division within the SBC today, you’ll find men whose heroes are either the men who made their names with bloody knuckles in the fight for a pure convention or those whose heroes are the church planters and missionaries who (may or may not) have made a name for themselves with sweaty brows in the effort to advance the gospel. This paradigm is somewhat simplistic, but I think there’s good evidence that backs the reality that many of the young church planters within the SBC are less entrenched in the internecine warfare over anti-antiracism and more compelled by the SBC’s work to plant churches and send missionaries.

And if you examine much of the conflict within SBC life, it’s easy to discern elements of ego, false allegations, racism, misogyny, and the like that unfortunately still run amok. Those who drive malicious narratives using anonymous networks of blogs and Twitter accounts, lie about sources of funding, break the law, use atheists to attack Christians, and fear efforts to address abuse or racism on terms different than their own exhibit much of the dangerous fruit of the lions they love.

I’m sure we could go on to name many other lions (Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, etc., etc.) whose followers admired their behavior in combat. And for all the seeming nobility of these lions, both they and their cubs have brought havoc to the Church of God. So let us be careful about those whom we lionize. There is but one Lion (/Lamb!) whom we may safely lionize. May we cautiously thank God for the achievements of the lions but rather look to lionize the patient and perseverant apostles and prophets and their faithful work to build the Church on Christ’s one foundation.

Predictions on the Future of Christianity

To hear many Christian leaders talk, 2020 changed everything. But for many of us, 2020 only revealed what we already knew about Christian ministry in the first half of the twenty-first century. Given what we see now and some trends that have been developing for quite some time now, I’d like to offer my theories on what I anticipate in the next 30 years.

1. In the US, huge and tiny churches struggle; mid-sized churches thrive.

The churches that I see that have been hit hardest by COVID are on the top and bottom tiers. Vast megachurches with huge staffs have been reeling with the need to maintain salaries and address the safety concerns for massive gatherings in the 1,000+ range of attendees. On the other hand, the dwindling churches that have been barely keeping the lights on for a decade have found their aging congregations significantly (in terms of percentage) impacted by COVID, even if numerically the impact has been minimal.

I anticipate that this paring of the large and small will continue in the years to come. In US culture, the church is seen as a parasite on the community, taking valuable land, maintaining special tax breaks, and giving back little in return. And there are plenty of egregious examples of this kind of parasitic behavior in every state in the Union. Further, the church is seen as immoral because it is seen as holding harmful views on matters of sexuality and gender. For both of these reasons, the US church will lose its tax-exempt status and other exemptions. This is an inevitability.

When this happens, the hardest-hit churches will be the large and small. The large churches will be saddled with crippling, multi-million-dollar tax bills on their sprawling campuses. Their pastoral salaries which have been able to include huge untaxed housing allowances for expensive homes will be no more. On the other hand, the tiny churches with a dozen attendees will similarly find themselves unable to pay their modest property taxes or to offset their grossly underpaid pastor with a small housing allowance or parsonage.

Mid-sized churches that have adopted lean business strategies and have a strong missional footing will be able to adapt and thrive over the next 30 years. We’ve seen this dynamic play-out time-and-again through the COVID season, and you’ll continue to see it as the power to tax is laid upon the church.

2. Christian publishing will become unrecognizable.

The current landscape of Christian publishing is a fascinating one:

  • Two of the largest Christian publishers (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) are owned by the non-Christian HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Most of the other major Christian publishers exist as for-profit entities. Crossway is one of the exceptions to this norm.
  • The largest sellers of books (for example, Amazon) have, of late, demonstrated a freewheeling tendency to remove books with a historic Christian (and even up to the last 10–20 years, a broadly secular) view of topics such as gender.
  • Authors and publishers tend to lock-up Christian works under copyrights, that frequently restrict online use or translation of works until well after the death of the author.
  • Christians in the majority world are hungry for quality Christian publications but find translations unhelpful, expensive, and hard-to-get. At the same time, pastors and scholars in these areas often lack the resources or access to publishing necessary to produce and distribute in-language resources of similar caliber to what is found through the major Christian publishers in the US and Europe.

In light of those realities, here are the shifts I anticipate:

  • Major book sellers will become increasingly unwilling to carry works from a historic Christian perspective. Christian publishers will be forced to use lower-volume and more-expensive means to sell books.
  • This market pressure will force the publishers that are owned by non-Christians to either self-censor their works or scale-down/cease publication. For-profit publishers may similarly find themselves unable to make a profit and scaling back their volume.
  • Christian publishers that exist without the need for profit and a mission-oriented purpose will thrive.
  • In this environment, we will see a shift toward more flexible licenses such as Creative Commons Licensing that will be more generous toward Christians in the majority world, unlocking distribution and translation of these resources for those who need them most.
  • Properly done, these resources will allow small publishers in the majority world to flourish, selling their (or others’) translations of free, high-quality resources in their local markets. This proliferation of resources will also open doors for local pastors and scholars to not only access quality content but to produce and distribute their own content.

In short, I expect the breadth of Christian publishing in the US and Europe to shrink but to become more helpful to our brothers and sisters in the majority world. I expect that by 2050, we will begin seeing Christian works translated from Chinese and Spanish into English.

3. Outside the US, pastoral education will scale to meet the demand.

The current German model of seminary that is standard in Europe and the US is already incapable of scaling to meet the demands of the rapidly growing church in the majority world. Further, it frequently fails the needs of pastors in the US and Europe by providing only theological formation and leaving ministerial formation and spiritual formation untouched. And, lastly, seminaries and other Christian schools are likely to bear the early weight of losing non-profit and tax-exempt statuses.

The result will be a shift toward more innovative and leaner models for training pastors:

  • Pastor-training will become more church-based than before, with seminaries becoming less physical locations and more local networks of trainers.
  • New curriculum and training models will focus less on minutia of doctrine and ancient languages and more on basic doctrine, practical ministry, and spiritual disciplines.
  • Training delivered via web, video conferencing, and messaging services will both increase but also, necessarily, hybridize into local cohorts, as future pastors seek more than mere “online degrees.”
  • Academic-theologians and pastor-theologians will become an even rarer breed, needing special means to preserve their value and existence in the church, as the shift moves toward pastors as practitioners, disciple-makers, planters, and missionaries. To flesh this out a little more:
    • Specialized training such as the MDiv will continue to exist, but not as a wide-gate method for those trying to discover their calling for ministry.
    • Specialized training will be expensive and will be best suited to those who have received church-based training and have perhaps served in the church for some time before pursuing a degree.
    • Specialized training will shift more from forming theological “specialists” and more toward theological “generalists” who can serve a wider range of training capacities in less formal training venues.

4. Bi-vocational missions, church planting, and pastoring will become more normal.

Since the onset of COVID, many businesses have realized that they do not need all their employees to be physically present in expensive offices in order to accomplish their mission. Employees work just as well, if not better, when allowed to work from home or wherever is most convenient to them. Commute times are reduced. Families are better-connected. Facility costs are reduced/eliminated. There are losses and challenges, but many businesses are realizing that the gains are far greater than the losses.

As a result, we will see an increasingly mobile workforce over the next 30 years. People will be able to chose not only the part of town they wish to live-in, but the state or country in which they wish to reside. Here are some largely positive trends I expect for the church:

  • Christians moving to areas of poverty and crime, not in an effort to gentrify, but in order to serve underserved communities and see churches built or established that truly serve those communities.
  • Christians moving to post-Christian US cities or unreached parts of the world with a desire to share Christ and see churches planted.
  • Churches finding creative ways to build community and provide resources for remote workers, including the development of co-work spaces in largely unused (and eventually taxed) facilities.
  • Churches that were already having to underpay their pastors (even with the present benefits of housing allowance and tax exempt facilities) will need to rely on bi-vocational pastors who have strong resumes for remote work. The pastor of the future is unlikely to have multiple Bible college and seminary degrees, but is more likely to have a solid resume in a “secular” field alongside a form of less-formal church-based training certificate (see above).
  • Christians from the majority world gaining the ability to gain a higher wage and move to post-Christian locales, bringing a more vibrant and healthier Christianity with them.

Negative trends are likely to exist as well, such as those who move away from healthy churches and toward “destination” locales. We may see greater challenges with marriages and abuse patterns with families working and living together in near-constant close proximity. We may find “flight” patterns of poorly discipled, mobile white-collar workers away from less-desirable cities and areas (once necessary for their jobs), paralleling the “white flight” from urban communities in the 1950s and -60s.

Churches will need to actively pursue the best outcomes in these scenarios, and as the committed Christians over the next 30 years are likely to be more strongly grounded in their beliefs (as convenient Christianity becomes non-existent), I suspect that the ideal aspects of remote work will become a massive mission-sending powerhouse for the church in the coming generation.

5. Churches in post-Christian locales will need to choose their political battles carefully.

Throughout the COVID season, churches have had to decide what governmental regulations to accept or to fight. Some have fought only when treated with a greater degree of severity than similar “secular” meetings. Others have fought for what appears to be a desire for a greater degree of flexibility than their “secular” counterparts.

Although there will continue to be Christians who approach these matters differently, the healthiest churches will be those who use both backbone and brain. They will need backbone to stand up to the forthcoming political pressures of the day. They will need brains to know whether to save their capital and comply on lesser matters.

I anticipate that churches in post-Christian countries will develop along the following paradigm for the remainder of the 21st century:

  1. Fighting Culture: Their posture will be constantly battling for and lamenting the loss of Christian culture. Those fights will tend to turn inward, resulting in the fragmentation of denominational cooperation and a greater tendency toward church splits. These churches will experience a period of sharp growth as a populist Christian spasm against the anti-Christian culture occurs, but a decline will be noticeable within 20–30 years of their spike. If this group is loud and goes unaddressed, it will likely assist in polarizing Christians and retard the ability of “group 2” to address “group 3” (below). Historical parallel: Separatist Fundamentalism in the 1950s.
  2. Engaging Culture: Their posture will be that of exiles and missionaries who are passionate to share Christ within their culture—fighting only the necessary battles. They will be frequently mistaken as “fighters” by “group 3” and mistaken as “syncretists” by “group 1.” Their numbers may shrink somewhat or for a time, but these churches will be characterized by creativity, passion, gently deep theology, and health. They will likely endure a time of slow growth but are most likely to be positioned well for growth in the event of a major movement of the Spirit within the culture. Historical parallel: New Evangelicalism in the 1950s.
  3. Syncretizing Culture: Their posture will be that of acclimatizing to the post-Christian culture. They will likely retain more of the formalist aspects of Christian tradition (Christian liturgical elements are some of the easiest to maintain, in this respect) while rejecting historic Christian practices and doctrines. For many, syncretist churches will be the gateway of second-generation “group 1” toward total deconstruction of their faith. Historical parallel: Evangelical liberalism in the 1950s.

Summary and Hope

In conclusion, I anticipate that the churches which my daughters will see in their parenting years (perhaps here in the US) will be:

  • Predominantly characterized by small-to-midsized churches that are lean and vibrant.
  • Providing resources to and receiving great benefit from Christians in the majority world.
  • Pastored by those who have never attended a physical “seminary” and who likely work another job to sustain their salary.
  • Positioning members to relocate to locations where missionary and church planting work are ongoing.
  • Picking battles with care and engaging the culture winsomely and with wisdom.

I have great confidence that Christ will build his Church in the 21st century, and I look forward to seeing what that Church will look like when I pass the torch to the next generation.

Five Observations on One-on-one Discipleship

One-on-one discipleship is both an art and a science. And I’ve succeeded as much as failed at it over the past decade. But here are some observations on those successes and failures that might prove helpful to those who want to do it better than me.

1. Make discipleship a journey, not a destination.

In most of the formal discipleship training I received in the church and saw modeled in books, discipleship was a thing you did with new believers. It was a box you checked with a series of lessons. But really, if we look at Jesus’s own example of making disciples, discipleship is meant to be a lifelong process. And some of those on the road of discipleship haven’t fully believed in Jesus just yet.

So, instead of looking for new Christians, we need to look for anyone at any stage of the Christian journey and walk together toward Christ.

2. Put a horizon on the discipleship relationship.

You know what stands out to me about how Jesus made disciples, how Paul made disciples, how the early church made disciples as best we know? They all move on. Jesus walks with his guys for 3 years and then leaves them on a mountaintop. Paul spends no more than 3 years at any church and always finds his closest ministry companions rotating in-and-out of his company. The early church seems to thrive, not on drawing-in those who are furthest down the road of discipleship, but in sending them out.

This is why I tend to put a horizon on regular meetings with brothers for discipleship. With each person, it’s a bit different. But I’ll often meet weekly with a brother for 6 months and then once or twice per month for the next 6 months. During the first half, we’re getting to know each other, working toward holiness and spiritual health, and during the second half, we’re working on turning those patterns outward. In our final months together, I try to encourage these men to find another man in whom to invest. After our year together, I’ll try to connect and stay in touch, but my hope is that these men are gaining depth of relationship and even greater value as they invest in others.

3. Expect sin, not holiness.

We live in a sin-soaked world and churches full of imperfect saints. Yet, somehow in our one-on-one discipleship, we anticipate that the worst sin we’re going to encounter is a brother who doesn’t pray enough or read his Bible regularly. Although these are important spiritual disciplines, we need to use these opportunities together to confess sin and to pursue holiness together. Someone has to open that door.

A brother who is begging for discipleship is likely begging for accountability around sin patterns. Don’t dance around the issue. Go ahead and ask about the common sinful habits of porn use, substance addictions, materialism, etc.

4. Have a plan for addressing porn use.

[Heads up on some “adult-oriented” content in this section.] Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly standard approach to helping brothers who find themselves addicted to porn. This is probably the most common issue that I encounter during one-on-one discipleship conversations. If the statistics are to be trusted, about 1 out of every 2 men struggles with it and 1 out of every 3 women do too. Given this frequency, you need to have a specific plan. Here’s the approach that I’ve taken:

  • Fan the Affections Godward: Porn use is not an action that excites passions or brings excitement—it is rather a behavior that deadens the affections toward God and toward others. So, we spend at least a month restoring his passion for God. I usually ask him to read at least one Psalm a day and write a prayer based on one of those Psalms. I ask him to send me a picture of his prayer each day. When we meet, we’re not really talking about porn or self-pleasure. We’re talking about:
    • His affections: How is his daily communion with God changing his desire for God?
    • Other areas of sin: Porn addiction tends to draw attention away from other areas where a brother has deviated from holiness. We talk about these and pursue some wins in these areas.
    • Areas of victory: Porn addiction tends to draw attention toward a constant sense of defeat. We spend time, therefore, looking for areas of growth and change.
  • Shut off the Faucet: Input of lustful content is the next thing I address. Now that a brother is seeing progress in his walk with God and growing in his affection for God, we can start shifting his affections away from porn. During this phase (perhaps a month or up to even three months), we’re checking-in weekly with the intent to get porn (or porn-like content) totally eliminated from their life. During this time, I’m not necessarily addressing the related matter of self-pleasure—I want him to simply reduce and eventually eliminate all new lustful images entering his head. On a mere physiological level, this begins to habituate him to avoid porn and breaks the linkage between porn-intake and pleasure.
  • Take back the Driver’s Seat: By the Spirit’s power and with the intake of porn now eliminated, we can begin pursuing holiness in the matter of how one responds to lustful thoughts. This matter is more intensely personal and internal, but at this point the brother or sister is in a far better position to maintain self-control and avoid being driven by passion and pseudo-pleasure.
  • Share the Victory: Those struggling with porn and lust need more examples of brothers who have gained victory in this area. As men and women gain victory in this area, they should be encouraged to begin sharing about their recovery in one-on-one environments with others. And through helping others recover from this habitual sin, they help maintain their own walk of purity for the long haul.

5. Give and Take.

For some of us, we can tend to be givers, to be disciplers, to constantly find ourselves pouring into relationships. And these can bring a measure of vitality, but they can also lead us to avoid growing in important areas or to ignore our own need for discipleship. We all need to find relationships where we are giving and relationships where we are receiving discipleship. There are few “balanced” discipleship relationships in this regard.

Find someone with whom you can be honest and open. Find someone who has time to engage with you for a season. Ask them if they would be willing to meet up in general or perhaps study a topic or book of the Bible with you. Communicate a frequency and time that is sustainable and enjoyable for you. And be discipled.

Toxic Masculinity, Cage-free Eggs, White Guilt, and the Epistle to the Romans

Here’s a counterintuitive suggestion that I want to discuss: When the non-Christian culture makes people feel guilty, the last thing I want to do is to tell them to avoid those feelings. 

Some Highlights 

Let’s start about a year and a half ago when Gillette came out with their viral ad, which challenged notions of what it means for “boys to be boys.” Socio-cultural norms of male aggression and objectification of women were targeted, and for some reason, it left a swath of (particularly conservative) men feeling targeted and guilty for the mere fact of their biological sex. Much of the political right swung back by glorifying the innate wonders of masculinity and forming ad hominem attacks against the producer and the company. I couldn’t help but feeling like both sides were missing each other in a moment that was part of a substantial shift in how our culture is beginning to think about morality.

In some senses, we feel similar pressures in the merchandising and advertising that we see every time we go to a store: guilt-free beauty products, cage-free eggs, conflict-free diamonds, ethical smartphones, humanely sourced foods, and the list goes on indefinitely. To some consumers, certain of these categories represent serious ethical issues; to other consumers, these categories are something of a joke, a humorous attempt at “virtue signaling” by those who can afford to spend more in order to claim a moral high ground, whose apparent altruism is really a self-serving means of making penance.

And then, of course, you have this idea of “white guilt,” where guilt-feelings about centuries of oppression toward ethnic minorities are on the one hand internalized, pushing white people toward certain activist behaviors, sometimes with the result of a “white savior” complex. Or, on the other hand, guilt-feelings are suppressed or minimized, pushing white people toward a place of so-called “white fragility,” leading to a posture where they struggle to talk honestly about issues facing the black community in the US without equivocating, appealing to anecdotal evidence, or lashing out in ad hominem attacks. 

An Observation

Now we could quibble about the finer points of each of these three examples. We could deep-dive on the “worldviews” in back of each (the reality is that a broad range of “worldviews” connect with either side of these divides). We could argue about the way some of these issues have been weaponized by the (political) right or left. We could list example-after-example of how either side is, at points, grossly inconsistent in their value judgments. We could parse definitions or try to label groups as “Marxist” or “Klansmen.” But let’s suspend those arguments for a moment and make a 30,000-foot observation about these three highlights as a microcosm of our cultural moment.

My main observation is simply this: our culture is largely divided on the basis of those who are working to multiply/amplify feelings of guilt and those who are working to negate/silence feelings of guilt. Frequently, those who amplify guilt on one issue are working to silence guilt on another. 

As a Christian, I should have a theological system for understanding guilt and guilt-feelings, as the concept of guilt is an overtly theological matter for the Christian. In order to connect Christian theology to these modern issues of guilt-feelings, I want to first draw out some theological principles from Romans 1–3 and then use the exegetical insights from that passage to help us better understand the issues of our cultural moment. 

Romans 1–3

The arc of Romans 1–3 lays much of the foundational theology for the entire book of Romans. At risk of over-simplifying, it states the problems to which the remainder of the book provides the answers. Let’s look at each of these problems:

Problem #1: The Suppression of God’s External Truth

In the first chapter of Romans (particularly vv. 18–32), Paul explains how the Gentiles who reject the truth of general revelation—that creation itself points to God—go on to reject the Creator in exchange for a lie. That lie about the external world results in God’s giving people over to the lie that they’ve created for themselves. If they worship the material, God gives them over to it. If they worship the sexual, God gives them over to it. Because they’ve tamped-down what is obvious from creation, their inhibitions toward their sinful idols are negated, resulting in lifestyles of license and abandon in particular categories of behavior. 

Problem #2: The Condemnation of God’s Internal Truth

Turning now to Romans 2:1–16, we see the internal conflict of what Schaeffer called “the man without the Bible.” People without even the written Law of God find themselves passing judgment on other people (2:1–3). Although there are aspects where non-Christians suppress truth, this can only happen in a single area for so long. It is, as my friend Dave put it to me the other day, like an inflated ball in a pool. You can press it below the surface for a time, but eventually it will come back to the surface with a vengeance.

This self-condemning law works in such a way that God does not need to point non-Christians to passages of Scripture in order to condemn people. He merely will one day point people to their own pointed fingers and hold them guilty for failing to uphold their own moral standards (2:14–16). Every twinge of guilt, every muted opponent, every hurled insult, every feeling of moral superiority will be replayed for them in the day of judgment.

We, then, see something of the shift from Romans 1 to Romans 2. It’s the shift from what is outside the self (the revelation of God in creation) to what is inside the self (the revelation of God’s moral law on the human heart). It’s the shift from the suppression of truth to the persistence of truth. But in other ways, Romans 1 and 2 form a sort of continuity. People are guilty before God because they’ve suppressed both the truth of creation and because they’ve ignored their own self-condemnation. On both counts, people stand rightly condemned by God.

Problem #3: The Privilege of God’s Written Truth 

Starting in Romans 2:17, Paul turns his attention to the people of Israel, or in the words of Schaeffer, “the man with the Bible.” Any sort of ethnic privilege that the Jewish people had because they possessed the written Law of God (3:1) became a standard of even greater judgment against them (2:17–24). The person with the written Word of God is all the more condemned because he not only sees the witness of creation and feels the witness of his conscience but also reads the witness of the Bible. Thus the Law of God in written form shuts the mouths of those who have it (3:19) with the end result that the moral baseline of all humanity—both those with the Bible and those without it—is unrighteous (3:9–20). Of course this universal human baseline also lays the foundation for a universal solution to that unrighteousness—a righteousness that does not come from the Law but comes from faith (3:21–31).

In summary, Romans 1–3 demonstrates (among other things) that we should expect non-Christians (whether religious or irreligious) to face just condemnation from God because they (a) suppress external truth, (b) express internal truth, and (c) avoid written truth when they encounter it.

Our Cultural Moment and Romans 1–3

So what does this have to do with our present cultural moment? Let’s connect a few dots. First, for the past several decades, we’ve lived in a culture that has, in the main, worked to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They turned a blind eye to (or, perhaps even expressed approval of) the sexual abuse of power by Bill Clinton. They consumed apparel and food and technology that came on the backs of child labor and the destruction of the environment. They voted for politicians who harmed people of color (e.g., mandatory minimums and the “war on drugs”) or, at minimum, avoided any demonstration of concern for people of color. So, in some sense, as a child born in 1985, most of my growing-up years were Romans 1, Exhibit A.

Growing up in the pervasive climate of secularism, we saw the “Coexist” bumper stickers. We heard the common refrain, “that’s just your truth.” We were called “intolerant” for insisting on objective moral standards—absolute truth. Throughout that era, many evangelicals began to flesh-out a system of apologetics that was geared to address the objections coming from so-called “postmodern” thought. In many ways, Francis Schaeffer planted the first seeds for this new apologetic in his popular trilogy. But while evangelicals were busy challenging postmodernism as a monolithic entity, culture was shifting beneath us and absolutizing in a more systematic way.

The current cultural moment has shifted dramatically from the “postmodern” boogey man that I grew up hearing described in church. The suppression of truth that was attempted on a grand scale has, to a certain extent, reversed course and turned into an enormous explosion of truth and guilt that is too much for anyone to bear, let alone escape unscathed. The secular gods could not become pacified and have become angry. The greater we tried to excuse sin, the greater accusation arose from within. The guilt that ripples out from the “left” in the West is Romans 2, Exhibit A.

But what about Romans 3? Within American culture, we have a well-defined group of cultural Christians, those with a religious background and with claims of a “born again experience.” This group has the Bible. Many have been taught the Bible. But for decades, those within this culture have placed themselves at the helm of a variety of anti-Christian behaviors. Elements of this group championed slavery, defended slavery, lynched black men and women, instituted Jim Crow, defended Jim Crow, and now sit on the sidelines telling people of color to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And that’s just the start of it.

Rightly the text says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the [Americans] because of you” (Rom. 2:24; Isa. 52:5). The people with the Bible have a privilege, but with great privilege…you know the rest.

Four Clarifications

Before I conclude by making some applications based on this connection between Romans 1–3 and our cultural moment, I need to answer a few “but what abouts” that I’ve encountered from time-to-time.

  1. “Isn’t there a difference between objective moral guilt and guilt-feelings?” Yes. Absolutely. Schaeffer is the one who used this distinction, and I find it quite helpful. Sometimes our guilt-feelings represent our objective moral guilt exactly, other times they may underrepresent that guilt, and at other times they may overrepresent that guilt. The key observation is that guilt-feelings are in some sense tied to the reality of objective moral guilt, reminding us of the God who is there and is not silent.
  2. “How do guilt-feelings relate to shame and the shame-honor culture of the East?” I think there are extensive intersections between the rise of guilt-feelings in the West (with a more psychological edge) and the experience of shame in the East (with a more communal edge). It seems to me unsurprising that muting is the new form of shunning and doxing and canceling is the new form of honor killings. We can learn much about how to respond to the current culture based on the response to the shame-honor culture that we find in the Bible.
  3. “But isn’t it wrong to make people feel guilty for things they didn’t do?” We don’t have time here to extensively answer this question, but I can at least point in a few directions. First, sins of fathers are frequently repeated (albeit in different forms) by their children. This is why the Bible can at times talk about visiting judgment on the third and fourth generation and also talk about how children will not be judged for the sins of their fathers. Second, Romans 5 indicates that objective moral guilt is rightly passed down to us for something we did not directly do. If we reject that notion of imputed guilt, we must also reject the possibility of imputed righteousness. In short, all people are born under some form of objective moral guilt and may rightly or wrongly be led to have guilt-feelings in connection to the guilt of past generations. In either case, guilt-feelings over the sins of past generations only serve as a reminder of the objective moral guilt we all rightly obtain from Adam.
  4. “Aren’t Christians free from any guilt because they are in Christ?” I would make two clarifications here. First, there are many religious people who claim the name of Christ but who do not belong to Christ. They must feel the full weight of the Law and the associated guilt if they are to have any hope of belonging to Christ in truth. Second, those who belong to Christ still feel the sting of the law when they sin (Rom. 7:7–25).  The law of God wages war against the law of sin, resulting in a craving for rescue from this battle (vv. 24–25). So although our objective moral guilt has been erased by Jesus (giving us an alien, objective moral righteousness) and no ultimate condemnation belongs to us (Rom. 8:1), we still experience guilt feelings. The Christian is not called to pretend away the sting of guilt but to walk in the Spirit and allow the Spirit to minister the hope of adoption to their heart (Rom. 8:1–17).

Three Responses

So how should the Christian respond in a culture of guilt? With the previous clarifications in place, I want to offer three categories of response.

First and foremost, the Christian ought to take the posture of a missionary rather than a culture warrior. Our goal is to point men and women to the grace that is offered to us in Jesus Christ and not to simply fight another worldview battle. There are times when worldviews need to be confronted. But there are times when allowing people to carry forward the implications of their own worldviews (i.e., presuppositional apologetics) helps us demonstrate their need of the gospel more clearly. So, instead of trying to tell people that they are not guilty and should feel good about themselves (thereby buying into the postmodern, self-esteem, moralistic therapeutic deism), we should tell people that their guilt is far worse than they envisage. Instead of trying to excuse people from their feelings of guilt, we should continue to expand their guilt through appeals to general and special revelation. Only when sin comes alive through the Law can people “die” and be “raised” with Christ. Resolve to walk with people down the path of shame to the place of honor.

Second, we should anticipate the spasmodic reaction to guilt from cultural Christianity. The evils of cultural Christianity against our black and brown neighbors results in a culture of the blind leading the blind (Rom. 2:19). We should anticipate that those who are Christian in name only will, just as the man without the Bible, attempt to suppress the truth and excuse himself from the feelings of guilt that arise from his unpropitiated objective moral guilt before a holy God. But for those who have the Law and know they have fallen short (Rom. 3:23) there remains an opportunity to experience redemption (v. 24–26). Only by seeing their guilt as truly as those of the pagan irreligious people can religious people truly find hope (vv. 27–31).

Third, those who are truly Christians sometimes rightly feel the sting of guilt and sometimes wrongly feel it too (1 Tim. 4:2). Church history is filled with examples of true believers who magnified their feelings of guilt (e.g., Augustine’s sensitivity on sexual lust) or who suppressed their feelings of guilt (e.g., Christian slave masters in the US). On the one hand, Augustine’s hyper-sensitive conscience had ripple effects for future generations, and on the other hand, so did the under-sensitive consciences of Christian slave masters. We ought always to place our guilt-feelings under the subjection of the Spirit and the Word. But we ought not dismiss these feelings merely because non-Christians experience similar moral motions. In fact, the responses of the pagans to sin, righteousness, and coming judgment ought to cause us to tread cautiously when dismissing feelings of guilt that have arisen in our non-Christian culture (see, for example, Matt. 12:41–42; Luke 10:25–37; 1 Cor. 5:1).