I think I may be leaving one phase of fatherhood behind even while I enter into another. My youngest child is just about to turn eight, which means that we are not only past the baby and toddler stages, but even nearing the end of the little kid phase. Meanwhile my oldest child has turned fourteen and is just months away from high school. All this change has caused me to think about fatherhood and the new challenges coming my way. I have found myself thinking back to the many models of fatherhood I have seen and admired through the years. What made these fathers admirable? What set them apart? What was it that they said to their children? From these models I have drawn seven things a good father says.
I love you. Few things are more important to a child than knowing where he stands with his parents. As I think back to my childhood, I remember several friends who lived with uncertainty in their relationship with their parents, and their fathers especially. They longed to hear words of love and approval. But I saw other kids who had total confidence in that love and approval. Often the difference was little more than three simple words repeated regularly: “I love you.” Men can be so petty, so prideful, and hold back those words. Yet there is no good reason for it. The more awkward it feels, the more urgent it is. From the dads I admire I’ve learn that a father needs to say, “I love you,” and he needs to say it often.
Let me kiss it better. Even as a young child I remember observing two different kinds of fathers in my church. When children fell and scraped their knees, there were two ways I saw dads react. Some fathers would pick up their children, set them back on their feet, and tell them to get over it. “You’re fine. Walk it off!” They wanted their soft children to toughen up. There were other fathers who would pick up their children, hold them in their arms, make a show of extending comfort, and say, “Let me kiss it better.” These were fathers who wanted their hard children to soften up. Sure, there are times to tell your child to walk it off, but there are far more times to extend love and concern through those childhood bumps and bruises and through the bigger sins and mistakes that come with age. From the dads I admire I’ve learned the value of saying, “Let me kiss it better” (though, obviously, as the children get older the wording changes!).
Come with me. There is so much in life that can be better caught than taught. Often the best way to train up a child is to let that child into your life. One father I admire taught me the distinction between being face-to-face with my children and being shoulder-to-shoulder. I saw this shoulder-to-shoulder parenting in my own father who often brought me with him on his errands or, even better, to his work. This allowed me to see the value of putting in a hard day’s work, and the value of building relationships with clients, suppliers, and so many others. It allowed me to see that work was an extension of the rest of life, and not a part of life that exists all on its own. The fathers I have admired are the fathers who say to their children, “Come with me,” and who welcome them into their day-to-day lives.
Please forgive me. Every father sins against every one of his children. He probably does it every day. Sadly, sin is every bit as inevitable as death and taxes. Fathers need to be in the habit of identifying their sin to their children and asking forgiveness. But as I think back, I saw this and heard of this in so few fathers. There are only a few I knew to consistently identify their sin and seek forgiveness for it. As I consider my fourteen years of parenting, I see far too little of it as well. The practice seems so much more difficult than the theory. The good dad is the one who humbly, carefully says to his children, “Please forgive me.”
You’re forgiven. Just as every father sins against every one of his children, every child sins against his father. The father who asks forgiveness also needs to be willing to extend forgiveness. Every father punishes his child at times, but too many fathers punish in the worst way—by holding a grudge or by letting the child suffer as dad withholds forgiveness and reconciliation. Our children need to be forgiven and they need to experience the joy of reconciliation. Here I think of a father I know—a father I admire—who taught me that a good dad doesn’t just say, “It’s okay,” but always goes further to say, “You’re forgiven.”
Let’s pray. There is one father I admire whom I have only met in the pages of books he has written. Of all he has written, what has gripped me most is the ways in which he prays with his children. He reserves special time each week for each child and in that time he inquires about their souls and prays with them. That sounds like a wonderful practice. And in the rhythm of daily life with all its ups and downs he is also quick to lead them in seeking God’s strength, God’s help, God’s wisdom. Here he teaches them the best and deepest kind of dependency on the best and greatest Help in the world. I have learned from him that the good dad is quick to say, “Let’s pray.”
You can’t do it. We live at a time when parents are known for being extravagant in their praise for their children and assuring them, “You can do anything.” But the good dad assures his children that in the most important area, they can’t do it. They simply can’t. One of the great challenges every Christian father faces is in showing his child that behavior is a reflection of the heart and that the child cannot simply will himself into heart change. And this is where the gospel becomes so precious, because it begins with that inability, leads straight to the blood and righteousness of Christ, and then to the enabling of the Holy Spirit. The dads I love and admire are the dads who assure their children, “You can’t do it,” and who quickly lead them to the gospel and to the Savior who can.
I am eager to hear what you have learned from good fathers. So, following roughly the same format, tell me what you’ve heard a good father say…
This morning I am beginning a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. We begin with a book that received the Platinum Book Award in 2005: I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris
Joshua Harris was born in 1974, the first child of Gregg and Sono Harris. His parents were pioneers in the Christian homeschooling movement which was only in its infancy while Josh and his siblings were growing up. Gregg’s book The Christian Home School was a foundational text for homeschoolers and a Christian Booksellers Association bestselling title in 1988.
Josh grew up outside Portland, Oregon, and professed faith in Christ as a teenager. By the time he was 17, he was establishing himself as a leader and teacher, speaking at youth events and conferences. Beginning in 1994, he began publishing New Attitude, a magazine targeted at fellow homeschoolers, and one that quickly gained a substantial readership. He was now the second generation of Harris’s to make a mark in homeschool circles. His influence was about to extend far beyond what was then still a small and close-knit community.
In 1997 Multnomah Publishers released I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book Harris had written when he was just twenty-one years old. In this book he tells why he rejected dating in favor of courtship, and he calls on his readers to do the same. He believes courtship represents a better and more biblically-faithful model of beginning and building a romantic relationship.
Dating, as understood and practiced by many believers and unbelievers alike, too often proves an obstacle rather than an aide to living for God’s glory. Harris suggests that dating comes with at least seven serious pitfalls. Dating…
…leads to intimacy, but not necessarily to commitment.
… tends to pass over the “friendship” stage of a relationship.
… often mistakes physical intimacy for love.
… often isolates a couple from other important relationships.
… distracts young adults from their primary responsibility for these years, which is preparing for the future.
… can cause discontentment with God’s gift of singleness.
… creates an artificial environment for evaluating another person’s character.
The cultural expectation for teenagers and young adults is that they will experience a succession of short-term romances before finally finding true love and settling down with one person. This system, though, is built to fail. When people finally do marry, they often do so with a long history of heartbreaks, baggage, and sexual failure.
Writing from the perspective of personal experience, Harris says that in place of this kind of “dumb love,” Christians ought to emphasize “smart love.” Where dumb love is primarily concerned with self, smart love begins with a love for God and matures into love and concern for others. Smart love manifests itself in courtship, which is simply dating with purpose. He does not describe dating as a model that is necessarily sinful, but as a lesser option than courtship. Courtship is superior because it is meant to protect against heartache and regret.
Sales & Lasting Impact
By 2001 I Kissed Dating Goodbye had sold 714,000 copies and received ECPA’s Gold Book Award (given to books exceeding 500,000 copies sold). Four years later it had reached the million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted the word “courtship” into mainstream Evangelicalism and sparked a wide-ranging controversy over dating and romance. Christians were forced to examine what they believed about romantic relationships. For many Christians, this was the first time they had considered the issue. Harris was not interesting in re-introducing ancient models of courtship and romance as much as he wished to call couples to consider dating with purpose. In many cases his book succeeded in doing this. It was read and discussed in youth groups around the world and caused countless teens to consider an alternative to casual dating.
The discussion his book generated was integral in shaping his generation of young Christians. As that generation has grown up and matured, some now commend and some now condemn the book. Where many followed the book’s counsel and avoided the relational difficulties and baggage that so often come hand-in-hand with casual dating, others insist it led to confusion and anxiety when it came to forming relationships and finding a marriage partner. Some saw courtship become a divisive issue within local churches, with Christians rallying to one side or the other.
Since 1997, a multitude of books have critiqued or affirmed Harris’ approach, while others have nuanced it, often teaching similar principles but without the use of the controversial word “courtship.” Courtship has continued to be a hot-button issue, especially in very conservative Christian circles. It was Harris who established courtship as a legitimate alternative to dating, and it is feasible that the modern courtship movement would not exist had it not been for I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Since the Award
Harris’ ideas on dating and courtship were more fully developed in Boy Meets Girl, a book he wrote after marrying his wife, Shannon. In 2009 he wrote an article titled “What I’ve Learned Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and here he said he stands by the basic message of the book: that short-term romantic attachments can be a big distraction from serving God—especially for teenagers. However, he also explained how his book had proven divisive in some contexts:
I’ve also seen that a legalistic application of these ideas can be unhelpful, too. One of my main concerns in my church or any other church is that there be no disunity among Christians over issues of dating and courtship. We need to learn to hold our own convictions on this matter with charity. Most importantly we need to make sure that our convictions are shaped by scripture—not culture, church culture or my books.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye propelled Harris to the public eye and gave him a wide platform. However, even as he was given every opportunity to become a “professional Christian,” he became convinced of the primacy of the local church in Christian life and, in 1997, moved across the country to Gaithersburg, Maryland. There he became a member of Covenant Life Church and received on-the-job pastoral training under the mentorship of C.J. Mahaney. New Attitude magazine was put aside in 1997 in favor of New Attitude conferences which began in 1999 and continued in various forms until 2012. In 2004 Harris succeeded Mahaney as pastor of Covenant Life Church, a position he holds to this day. He is married with three children and has written several more books: Boy Meets Girl (2000); Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is (first published as Not Even a Hint) (2003); Stop Dating the Church (2004); Dug Down Deep (2010); and Humble Orthodoxy (2013).
The PyroManiacsdevote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The following excerpt is from Words of Wisdom, pages 64-65, Pilgrim Publications.
“The Lord of love bestows it; His tenderness rocks the cradle for us every night; His kindness draws the curtain of darkness about us, and bids the sun cover his blazing lamp.”
How thankful should we be for sleep! Sleep is the best physician that I know of. Sleep hath healed more pains of wearied heads, and hearts, and bones than the most eminent physicians upon earth. It is the best medicine; the choicest thing of all the names which are written in all the lists of pharmacy.
No magic draught of the physician can match with sleep. What a mercy it is that it belongs alike to all! God does not make sleep the boon of the rich man; he does not give it merely to the noble, or the rich, so that they can monopolize it as a peculiar luxury for themselves; but he bestows it upon the poorest and most obscure.
Yea, if there be a difference, the sleep of the labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much. He who toils hardest sleeps all the sounder for his work.
While luxurious effeminacy cannot rest, tossing itself from side to side upon a bed of eiderdown, the hard-working labourer, with his strong and powerful limbs, worn out and tired, throws himself upon his hard couch and sleeps: and waking, thanks God that he has been refreshed.
Ye know not how much ye owe to God, that he gives you rest at night. If ye had sleepless nights, ye would then value the blessing. If for weeks ye lay tossing on your weary beds, ye then would thank God for this favour.
As sleep is the merciful appointment of God, it is a gift most precious, one that cannot be valued until it is taken away; yea, even then we cannot appreciate it as we ought.
This has been a question buzzing around social media for several weeks, stemming from early reports, some even pre-release, of the grossly unbiblical content of the story. The filmmakers have even touted this unbiblical content as a selling point for the film. So if this is no mystery, why are Christians still lining up to see this film. And why are other Christians so angry about the film and so determined not to support it financially. This blog post isn't going to be about the Noah film in particular, but about the dangerous mindset of acceptance and the message that sends to exploitative filmmakers.
The whole point of the objection, from my perspective at least, is the idea of letting filmmakers milk the wallets of the faithful by putting together any form of godless drivel they want, but as long as they put a biblical character in the story, doe-eyed Christians with more money than discernment will line up to hand it to them. The point is not whether or not one movie will corrupt our faith as believers, it is the message we send to these types of exploitative filmmakers. Basically it tells them that Christians are rubes and they can get rich passing off whatever they want to them as long as they use at least the thinnest thread to tie it to the Bible.
I grew up during the time of the blacksploitation films. They were horrible caricatures of African Americans, and basically cast them as either slaves, dullards, pimps or thugs. The filmmakers made a mockery of an entire race, but you know who lined up at the theaters to give their money away to these exploitative filmmakers? Blacks. Why? Because it was their only chance to see someone even remotely representative of their race on film. It wasn't until well after the civil rights movement, decades later, that blacks actually began to start getting serious dramatic roles in film and television. But in the meantime, these huckster filmmakers made a mint exploiting the fact that they had a brand new market that would line up to line their pockets. The filmmakers had to make blacks look ridiculous in these films, or else they would have lost their mainstream, largely racist, white audience. But by making these exploitation films, they got the best of both worlds and raked in profits from both whites and blacks.
These godsploitation type films are exactly the same thing. These filmmakers don't want to alienate their secular audiences, but the commercial success of truly God-based films like Passion of the Christ, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, etc, have put these greed-hounds on the scent of a whole new pile of money sitting in Christian wallets. So how do they tap into that cash without alienating their normal film-goer base? Easy, make a film that is as ridiculous and outlandish as any secular film, but put a Bible character in the story and watch these undiscerning Christians line up to empty their wallets to these filmmakers.
If Christians are not willing to stand together, to unite to send a message that “hey, you aren't getting our support making these ridiculous godsploitation films”, then they are going to keep on doing it, and keep on getting rich, and generations of unbelievers are going to be forming their opinions of what God has to say to them from these types of films. They certainly aren't getting it from Christians, because the overwhelming majority are too busy making themselves comfortable inside the church walls to be out in the neighborhoods, the parks, the workplaces and the schools telling others about Christ.
I'll climb down off my soapbox now, but as a Christian author, I care as much as anyone about things like this. If I write things that DO glorify God, and I want to win the general public over with glimpses into the truth through both non-fiction and our fiction work, then why in the world would I want to help the enemy establish his stronghold in the marketplace. If I, and other Christian authors, and Christian readers, aren't willing to take a stand on moral ground, we ought to at least be willing to stand on self-preservation as Christian authors, readers and film-goers.
Praying, and especially praying in public, represents a challenge to most Christians. It represents a challenge to the one praying—a challenge to pray humbly and clearly before others. Too often it represents an even greater challenge to the ones who hear that prayer—a challenge to follow a too-long and too-rambling prayer interspersed with filler words like “I just…” and “Father God.” D. A. Carson provides some timely counsel in his book A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. His solution is simple: Work at your prayers. Here is what he says:
If you are in any form of spiritual leadership, work at your public prayers. It does not matter whether the form of spiritual leadership you exercise is the teaching of a Sunday school class, pastoral ministry, small-group evangelism, or anything else: if at any point you pray in public as a leader, then work at your public prayers.
Some people think this advice distinctly corrupt. It smells too much of public relations, of concern for public image. After all, whether we are praying in private or in public, we are praying to God: Surely he is the one we should be thinking about, no one else.
This objection misses the point. Certainly if we must choose between trying to please God in prayer, and trying to please our fellow creatures, we must unhesitatingly opt for the former. But that is not the issue. It is not a question of pleasing our human hearers, but of instructing them and edifying them.
The ultimate sanction for this approach is none less than Jesus himself. At the tomb of Lazarus, after the stone has been removed, Jesus looks to heaven and prays, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41-42). Here, then, is a prayer of Jesus himself that is shaped in part by his awareness of what his human hearers need to hear.
The point is that although public prayer is addressed to God, it is addressed to God while others are overhearing it. Of course, if the one who is praying is more concerned to impress these human hearers than to pray to God, then rank hypocrisy takes over. That is why Jesus so roundly condemns much of the public praying of his day and insists on the primacy of private prayer (Matt. 6:5-8). But that does not mean that there is no place at all for public prayer. Rather, it means that public prayer ought to be the overflow of one’s private praying. And then, judging by the example of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, there is ample reason to reflect on just what my prayer, rightly directed to God, is saying to the people who hear me.
In brief, public praying is a pedagogical [teaching] opportunity. It provides the one who is praying with an opportunity to instruct or encourage or edify all who hear the prayer. In liturgical churches, many of the prayers are well-crafted, but to some ears they lack spontaneity. In nonliturgical churches, many of the prayers are so predictable that they are scarcely any more spontaneous than written prayers, and most of them are not nearly as well-crafted. The answer to both situations is to provide more prayers that are carefully and freshly prepared. That does not necessarily mean writing them out verbatim (though that can be a good thing to do). At the least, it means thinking through in advance and in some detail just where the prayer is going, preparing, perhaps, some notes, and memorizing them.
Public praying is a responsibility as well as a privilege. In the last century, the great English preacher Charles Spurgeon did not mind sharing his pulpit: others sometimes preached in his home church even when he was present. But when he came to the “pastoral prayer,” if he was present, he reserved that part of the service for himself. This decision did not arise out of any priestly conviction that his prayers were more efficacious than those of others. Rather, it arose from his love for his people, his high view of prayer, his conviction that public praying should not only intercede with God but also instruct and edify and encourage the saints.
Many facets of Christian discipleship, not least prayer, are rather more effectively passed on by modeling than by formal teaching. Good praying is more easily caught than taught. If it is right to say that we should choose models from whom we can learn, then the obverse truth is that we ourselves become responsible to become models for others. So whether you are leading a service or family prayers, whether you are praying in a small-group Bible study or at a convention, work at your public prayers.
No one enriches hell more than false teachers. No one finds greater joy in drawing people away from truth and leading them into error. False teachers have been present in every era of human history, they have always been a plague and have always been in the business of providing counterfeit truth. While their circumstances may change, their methods remain consistent.
Here are seven marks of false teachers.
False teachers are man pleasers. What they teach is meant to please the ear more than profit the heart. They tickle the ears of their followers with flattery and all the while they treat holy things with wit and carelessness rather than reverence and awe. This contrasts sharply with a true teacher of the Word who knows that he is answerable to God and who is therefore far more eager to please God than men. As Paul would say, “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4).
False teachers save their harshest criticism for God’s most faithful servants. False teachers criticize those who teach the truth, and save their sharpest criticism for those who hold most steadfastly to what is true. We see this in many places in the Bible, such as when Korah and his friends rose up against Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:3) and when Paul’s ministry was threatened and undermined by those critics who said that while his words were strong, he himself was weak and unimportant (2 Cor. 10:10). We see it most notably in the vicious attacks of the religious authorities against Jesus. False teachers continue to rebuke and belittle God’s faithful servants today. Yet, as Augustine declared, “He that willingly takes from my good name, unwillingly adds to my reward.”
False teachers teach their own wisdom and vision. This was certainly true in the days of Jeremiah when God would say, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14). And today, too, false teachers teach the foolishness of mere men instead of teaching the deeper, richer wisdom of God. Paul knew, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3).
False teachers miss what is of central importance and focus instead on the small details. Jesus diagnosed this very tendency in the false teachers of his day, warning them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). False teachers place great emphasis on their adherence to the smaller commands even as they ignore the greater ones. Paul warned Timothy of the one who “is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:4-5).
False teachers obscure their false doctrine behind eloquent speech and what appears to be impressive logic. Just as a prostitute paints and perfumes herself to appear more attractive and more alluring, the false teacher hides his blasphemies and dangerous doctrine behind powerful arguments and eloquent use of language. He offers to his listeners the spiritual equivalent of a poisonous pill coated in gold; though it may appear beautiful and valuable, it is still deadly.
False teachers are more concerned with winning others to their opinions than in helping and bettering them. This was another of Jesus’ diagnoses as he considered the religious rulers of his day. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15). False teachers are ultimately not in the business of bettering lives and saving souls, but of convincing minds and winning followers.
False teachers exploit their followers. Peter would warn of this danger, saying: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. … And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (1 Peter 2:1-3). The false teachers exploit those who follow them because they are greedy and desire the riches of this world. This being true, will always teach principles that indulge the flesh. False teachers are concerned with your goods, not your good; they want to serve themselves more than save the lost; they are content for Satan to have your soul as long as they can have your stuff.
Inspired by Shai Linne and Appendix II of Thomas Brook’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.
From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland — usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will “accidentally” swallow these words and pictures whole. This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings. The following except was written by Frank back in June 2010. Frank reminded us of some unpleasant truths regarding how we view others versus how we view ourselves.
As usual, the comments are closed.
We want our heroes to be just like us, and our perceived enemies to be completely unlike us, with nothing in common as if we are not all of Adam’s race, and as if the sin which cannot be forgiven is only possible in someone else’s bailiwick. That’s the elephant in the room, btw: the way we toss people out of our circle of church with complete regard for their faults and no regard for their merit in Christ.
Let’s face it: we say we believe this —
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. [Rom 5]
I mean: that’s straight up-the-middle Book of Romans. It’s the Reformed Home Court. This is the promise those who have faith and have repented, and if you’re really ready to go for the gusto, those who have been baptized for the sake of faith and repentance, ought to all share. Paul says in this we ought to rejoice — so all the smart remarks about the Apostle John and John the Baptist being a real gas at parties and whatnot ought to take its snark to Paul and see what he has to say about that. See: for all the assurance we can derive from Rom 5, and all the exhortations of Paul to be unified under Christ and to let Christ be the basis for unity and fellowship, we also have James telling us this explicitly:
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [James 5]
One simple sentence, but I think we lose the force of it often. Here’s what I think we should read when we see this: Some people – like you — will from time to time wander away into sin. Wandering people who have turned away from the truth can be turned back. When these people turn back, they turn from death to life. Other people are the instruments of turning the wanderers back to Christ. James has the audacity to call both the wanderers and those who turn them back “My brothers”. Isn’t that crazy? Doesn’t that point us exactly to the same place Paul points us to – which is a refuge in Christ when we are confronting people who we believe are turned away from Christ and toward sin? James says that our approach to them, and our reproaches to them, ought to be as brothers and not as toward lawless men or people who are not in our own family.
A few weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we have visited such figures as Arius, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, and Ellen G. White. As we move steadily closer to contemporary times we must pause to take a brief look at the life and ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the foremost proponent and popularizer of theological liberalism.
Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in Buffalo, New York, on May 24, 1878. As a young boy he claimed to have been born again, but even as a teenager rebelled against the “born again” movement known as fundamentalism. He developed an early interest in theology and chose to pursue ministerial training at Colgate Divinity School where he was influenced by William Newton Clarke, an early advocate of the social gospel. Upon graduating from Colgate he continued to Union Theological Seminary. In 1904 he accepted his first pastorate at First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and four years later also accepted a faculty position at Union where he was to teach until 1946. Fosdick quickly proved himself a skilled communicator and compelling speaker and it would not be long before he would be known as America’s foremost minister.
In 1919 Fosdick was asked to become associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, though he was allowed to retain his baptistic convictions. He quickly gained a reputation as a leading Christian voice, and hundreds and then thousands descended on First Presbyterian to hear his sermons. It was here, on May 21, 1922, that he preached the sermon that came to define him: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” In this sermon he proclaimed that there was a great battle in the church between the fundamentalists and the modernists or liberals, and that he was going to stand firmly on the side of the liberals. Because of his desire to modernize the Christian faith, he soundly rejected belief in a series of traditional Christian doctrines including Christ’s virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the literal return of Jesus Christ. He decried the fundamentalists as being intolerant for demanding adherence to doctrines that science, reason, and a modern world could no longer sustain. John D. Rockefeller enjoyed this sermon so much that he had 130,000 copies printed and mailed to every Protestant pastor in the nation.
“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” set off what would soon be called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. We need to be clear that we cannot import into this battle a twenty-first century understanding of fundamentalism. When Fosdick battled the fundamentalists of his day, he battled nothing less than traditional or conservative Christianity. Fundamentalists were those who insisted upon the key tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity—what they defined as the fundamental doctrines of the faith.
Fosdick was by no means the only liberal theologian of his day, but he was the one to gain the widest acclaim and the broadest platform. While many others were pressing theological liberalism in the seminaries and the halls of academia, Fosdick was on the radio waves and in the bookstores, taking his message to the common people. His voice extended through his radio program, The National Vespers Hour, which was broadcast in the Northern and Eastern United States, and through many bestselling books which eventually sold in the millions. On two separate occasions he was on the cover of TIME magazine.
By the mid 1920’s Fosdick had established himself as the leading voice of twentieth-century liberalism. His stand for liberalism put him at odds with many of the conservative voices in Presbyterianism, and this led him to leave First Presbyterian Church in 1925 and to go instead to Park Avenue Baptist Church.
In the early 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen emerged as one of the foremost opponents of liberalism. His 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism was a strong, biblical response that drew comparisons between the Bible and liberal theology and showed that the two were in clear opposition. He rightly asked, “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” Others joined the battle as well. Fosdick remained firm in the face of such attacks, declaring “They call me a heretic. Well, ‘I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.”
In 1929, Princeton, once a bastion of Reformed thinking and teaching, was reorganized under modernist influences. Almost immediately four Princeton professors who held to the Reformed faith (Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til) withdrew from Princeton and established Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in order to continue upholding the faith Princeton once defended. If the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was begun with Fosdick’s sermon in 1922, if was effectively cut off among conservative churches in 1929 with the departure of those professors.
Rockefeller money soon built a grand new building on the Hudson, and in 1930 Fosdick was installed as pastor at Riverside Church. He would pastor this congregation for sixteen years, and, after his retirement, attend it for a further twenty-eight. This church became his laboratory for liberalism and it was here that he practiced his liberal values to the full. (To be fair, and to give credit where credit is due, he was a strong advocate of racial reconciliation and was perhaps the most notable preacher to invite African-American preachers into his pulpit.)
Fosdick died in New York City on October 5, 1969, two weeks after being hospitalized for a heart attack. He was ninety-one years old.
Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an original thinker as much as a popularizer who took the theory of liberalism from the seminaries and brought it to a common level. He wanted to modernize the faith by making it attractive to, and compatible with, modern times and modern sensibilities. At heart, liberalism questioned the nature of the Bible and denied its inerrancy, infallibility, and authority. Liberalism denied that the Bible is the Word of God and insisted instead that it contains the Word of God. Once Scripture’s authority had been denied, a host of doctrines would necessarily fall in its wake.
Fosdick questioned the essential beliefs necessary to be a Christian and began to challenge long-held, orthodox Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth, and the return of Christ Jesus. Robert Moats Miller, one of Fosdick’s biographers, wrote, “Fosdick could not believe that Jesus was virgin born. He did not ridicule those who did, but he was adamant that such belief was not essential to acceptance of Christian faith. … Fosdick doubted whether Jesus ever thought of himself as the Messiah; perhaps he did, but more probably Jesus’ disciples may have read this into his thinking.” He also denied the wrath of God, suggesting that wrath was simply a metaphor for the natural consequences of doing wrong. With wrath removed, it was inevitable that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ would also be denied. Before long Fosdick’s Christianity looked nothing like historic Christianity.
In a later sermon, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism,” Fosdick spoke of his methodology in modernizing the Christian faith, saying, “We have already largely won the battle we started out to win; we have adjusted the Christian faith to the best intelligence of our day and have won the strongest minds and the best abilities of the churches to our side. Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters. The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism.” Of course, he was too optimistic, and too blinded by his own success. Liberalism posed a major challenge to the faith, but like all other challengers, it would rise and then wane.
Followers and Modern Adherents
If Fosdick was the man who popularized and legitimized liberalism, we can rightly say that subsequent liberals, and especially those who operated at the popular level, followed in his footsteps. Men like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller and John Shelby Spong are among them. Martin Luther King Jr., a theological liberal in his own right, regarded Fosdick as the greatest preacher of the century and in 1958, inscribed a copy of Stride Toward Freedom for Fosdick with these words: “If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head the list.”
But Fosdick’s influence extends farther than that. Though the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy began within Presbyterianism, it soon spread to other Protestant denominations, eventually leading to today’s division between “mainline” and “evangelical” Protestant churches. About half of today’s mainline Protestants consider themselves liberal, and they, too, whether they know it or not, are influenced by Fosdick.
What the Bible Says
Fosdick’s teaching was false in many areas, but the heart of it all was his denial of the inerrancy, infallibility and authority of the Bible. He elevated human reason above the plain words of Scripture; he made reason the final arbiter of truth. All the other doctrines he denied depended upon first undermining the Bible. Christians have long insisted, as the fundamentalists did in his day, that God’s Word, not science or human reason, is the measure of true knowledge. Proverbs 3:5-7 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” Our understanding of ourselves and the world around us is flawed; we must depend upon God to reveal true knowledge.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warned, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Fosdick wanted to make the Christian faith soothing to those itching ears and, in so doing, distorted it beyond all recognition. The reality is that the Christian faith is, and always will be, offensive. If we remove the offense of the gospel, we have removed the power of the gospel.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians are perfectly suited to Fosdick and his liberalism:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)
Though Logos is selling Colossians (by H. Wayne House) and Philemon (by Ehorn) together, only Philemon is currently available. A longtime lover (and teacher, and preacher) of Colossians, I'll likely review that volume for you when it is released. The author of this commentary is Seth Ehorn, who is in the doctoral
program for New Testament language, literature, and theology at the University of Edinburgh, New College. Before this, Ehorn distinguished himself in his Master's studies at Wheaton College Graduate School, and has been creating entries for journals and upcoming publications.
As to this commentary, the thoroughness and currency of documentation once again immediately makes an impression. Six of the three hundred and sixty-eight footnotes speckle the first paragraph alone, referring to lit from the 1920s to the 2000s.
Approaching Philemon, Ehorn notes the letter's the lack of explicit development of usual Pauline themes (resurrection, etc), and the fact that theologies seldom refer extensively to Philemon. Yet,
[d]espite these apparent lacunae, Philemon is not just a fine literary and rhetorical achievement. Nor is it just an interesting cultural artifact. …Presumably, Paul himself imagined that this letter would instigate great change in his hearers and especially in the life of a slave named Onesimus. Further, the multiple addressees in the letter seem to invite a wider readership, perhaps not only for the accountability of Paul’s request in the letter, but also for the edification of all who were addressed. It is in this latter sense that Philemon is to be understood as Christian Scripture.
In keeping with the brevity of the epistle, I'll keep my review briefer than some previous. I appreciated Ehorn's detailed and up-to-date attention to every aspect of the Greek text from every angle. I also appreciated the breadth and thoroughness of his documentation, which itself opens the doors to a lot of great material.
However what often stood out to me was Ehorn's reluctance to commit himself. Now, obviously one would not want a scholar to pretend certainty unwarranted by the evidence. Yet one has to admit that one wondered why Ehorn was chosen to write this particular commentary, given that he did not appear to have many singular insights to bring to light or trumpet.
For instance, we read, the epistle might have been written from Rome. Or maybe it was Ephesus. The evidence is inconclusive — though Ehorn makes an extended case for an (undocumented!) Ephesian imprisonment. Ehorn then argued against too tightly joining Colossians and Philemon, as is commonly done; he thinks Philemon precedes Colossians. By how long? Unknown. Or maybe it should really be connected with Philippians, instead of Colossians? Don't know. Finally, he concludes, “In the light of Paul’s request for lodging, it is easier to think that Paul wrote to Philemon from Ephesus than from Rome, thus probably between A.D. 52 and 55.” Oh, so Ephesus it is…maybe.
So, what is the letter about? Exactly who was Philemon? What was Onesimus’ relationship with him? Why was Onesimus absent from him? How did Onesimus come to encounter Paul? In response, Ehorn quotes C. S. Lewis: “Almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough,” adding:
These words—penned by C. S. Lewis—are acutely true of the letter to Philemon. All these questions are left unanswered by the letter that is both short in length and short on details. Of course, such information would have been unnecessary to include in the letter seeing as the recipients would have had intimate knowledge of such issues already. Thus, as modern interpreters we are operating at a deficit. We are reading only half of the conversation. Nevertheless, such historical distance (not to mention social, political, etc.) should not drive readers to despair. Rather, it should warrant caution against over interpretation and humility regarding conclusions.
I'll attest that Ehorn certainly heeds his own advice. For instance, what is the narrative frame to the epistle, the background? The traditional (fugitivus) hypothesis sees Onesimus as a runaway slave, converted by Paul's ministry, returned by Paul. But, Ehorn counters, this would be a legal offense, and no remorse is expressed by or for Onesimus. Ehorn floats other possibilities, then concludes that it is impossible to be sure. For his part, he is “tentatively inclined to follow the recent trend of interpreters who read the letter to Philemon as concerning a slave who intentionally sought Paul for intercession with his master.” But who knows?
Ehorn then says that the subject of slavery, peripheral to the book itself, has come to overshadow the actual content of the book. So no great help on that issue, here.
Ehorn makes good theological observations. For instance, though Philemon doesn't stress usual Pauline themes, Ehorn notes that God and Christ (not the Spirit) are mentioned numerous times directly, and 2 passages feature the “divine passive” in two passages:
In two instances Paul employed the divine passive to indicate God as agent (vv 15, 22).61 Taken thusly, Paul not only hinted at the providential outworking of God in the details of Onesimus’ separation and return (v 15), but indicated that it was God who could grant him freedom from his imprisoned status (v 22). If God’s hand were involved in the separation of Onesimus from Philemon, then Philemon’s response to his slave would have to be tempered by his own view of the reality of God’s presence and providence in his life. Much like the circumstances of Joseph with his conniving brothers (cf. Gen 45:5, 8; 50:20; cf. also Esth 4:14), Philemon was summoned to look upon his circumstances and see them as the outworking of God. Perhaps with the clarity of hindsight, Philemon saw that the return of a slave who was now “useful” (v 11) and “a beloved brother” (v 16) was an act of God, who works “all things for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
This is a good example of Ehorn's theological sensitivity, and the useful material he produces.
Back to the issue of slavery. Ehorn hasn't much to contribute on the issue:
The relationship of Paul to slavery will be discussed only briefly in this section because of the publication of a recent monograph surveying studies on Paul and slavery and another recent collection of specific studies on Philemon. There is hardly necessity for an in-depth rehearsal of the trends of research on Philemon in view of these works. Suffice it to say, the general impact of the letter vis-à-vis slavery is presently in flux.
So Ehorn footnotes two academic works which are not in general circulation to explain why he won't have much to offer on the subject. I rather think it is a major issue in how we approach this book. Will it really do to say “I won't write very much about this (—in a commentary on the letter to slave-owner Philemon!) because some books few people own have”?
This is not to say that Ehorn has nothing to say on the issue. He notes J. M. G. Barclay's verdict that Paul's silence is “disturbing,” adding this:
One cannot help but agree with Barclay’s empathetic statement that, “one can only weep on behalf of those millions of slaves whose lives might have been immeasurably better had Paul been just a little less ‘poetic’ ” (125). This, however, is not so much a problem with Paul per se, as it is with the history of interpretation.
Then, without comment, Ehorn notes that Moo “concluded that Paul did not realize the full implications of the theology he explicated.” What? That sounds disturbingly like Paul K. Jewett's (and others') view on the issue of Paul and women pastors — that Paul just hadn't worked out his own theology yet, so the apostle (!) wrote in error in some passages. Does Moo think that? Does Ehorn agree with Moo?
While Ehorn writes and documents further, he does not really come to a conclusion, other than the conclusion that we do not know enough to come to a conclusion.
In fact later, commenting on vv. 15-16, Ehorn says Paul's “request was opaque.”
This [opaqueness] is demonstrated by the variegated readings of v 16 among commentators. For example, one commentator boldly opined that “Paul is telling Philemon that he surely must manumit Onesimus now that he and Onesimus are brothers in Christ” (Witherington, 80; cf. Bruce, 217; Wolter, 270–72; Fitzmyer, 114–15). Conversely, other scholars find no legal implications regarding the issue of slavery (Lohse, 206; O’Brien, 305–06). Still others find the statement ambiguous, permitting either reading (Stuhlmacher, 43–45; Dunn, 335–36). Or, perhaps as Barclay argues, Paul may have been purposefully ambiguous because he did not know specifically what to recommend.
Ehorn's conclusion? None, apart from affirming that slave and master are now brothers — which is important, to be sure. But is it really all that is warranted?
This is all introductory. Ehorn's commentary, proper, is very detailed, sensitive to nuances of word-choice and case. For instance, on Paul not using “apostle” in the opening words, Ehorn makes a valuable observation:
It is of no small significance that the title ἀπόστολος is not found in letter opening, nor in the document at all, for its absence was likely part of the rhetorical strategy of the letter. That is, Paul had no intention of appealing to his authority as an apostle (cf. vv 8–9). The use of the self-appellation δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ [“prisoner of Christ Jesus”] sets the tone for the letter.
Ehorn's thoroughness is on display in his handling of verse 6 (ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν), which he notes contains “the most exegetical difficulties of the letter.” Ehorn contributes more than 2000 words (not including footnotes) of exegesis. First, he opens with an array of divergent translations, noting that even the NIV84 and current NIV differ. Here is his own translation: “that the fellowship produced by your faithfulness might become effective in the knowledge of every good thing that is yours for the sake of Messiah.”
Later, Ehorn makes the valuable “applicational and devotional implication” that Onesimus' return teaches that
Onesimus too was to act in a selfless manner when he returned to his master as a “new man” (cf. Eph 4:24). By this it may be seen that conversion was not an escape from the responsibilities of his past. What was wrong still needed to be set right (cf. vv 18–19). Nevertheless, Onesimus’ new status in Christ would shake the foundations of his former relationship with Philemon, perhaps allowing for the forging of a new one as “a beloved brother” (v 16). By his example, Paul demonstrated that one effective way to guide fellow Christians is by gentle shepherding rather than coercive commanding (Calvin, 396).
Again, on the meaning of v. 21, Ehorn says maybe Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus to do gospel ministry with Paul. Or maybe Paul wanted Philemon to manumit him. Ehorn explains the former option, is a bit dismissive of the perspicuity of the latter, and (non-)concludes, “Either way, Paul left the options open, expecting Philemon to discern the right decision for himself…”
Ehorn's own translation is sometimes unusual. For instance, in verse 23, we read “my fellow-prisoner in reference to Messiah Jesus.” This seems an odd rendering of ὁ συναιχμάλωτός μου ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. How “in reference to”? What does that even mean? Isn't “in Christ” a major Pauline theme? Ehorn doesn't really explain the phrase, except insofar as he debates whether the term “fellow-prisoner” is literal or metaphorical (— here he is again noncommittal).
I did very much appreciate Ehorn's comment on the names in vv. 23-24:
“Epaphras, who is my fellow-prisoner in reference to Messiah Jesus, greets you. Likewise, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke my fellow-workers greet you.” Just as Paul opened the letter by including not only Philemon (v 1), but also Apphia, Archippus, and a church that met in Philemon’s house (v 2), so also Paul concluded the letter by including an epistolary entourage of no less than five people (vv 23–24). This confirms that the issue between Philemon and Onesimus is not just a private affair. Not only does the matter appear in a broader sphere of discourse, but the pressure is on, seeing as Paul had effectively “carbon copied” several others into the conversation.
So it's like using the “CC” function in an email, both spreading the mail, and alerting the primary addressee that others are reading it. Excellent observation. When I teach this, I'm sure I'll use that.
The book ends with a single excursus: “Christ, The Messiah In Theology And Translation.” You know how many times you and I have pointed out that “Christ” isn't Jesus' last name? It's a title? Not so fast, says Ehorn in effect; sometimes it does function as a name in the NT, and not a title.
As to OT use, Ehorn notes that
With the exception of Dan 9:25–26, the use of “Messiah” always referred to a present person, not a future one. Thus, the OT itself does not provide the impetus for expectation of an eschatological figure who would be designated “the Messiah.”
This argument is almost too precise to be helpful, overlooking the body of material pointing to an eschatological priest, king, prophet — all of which share the term “anointed.”
Although the consensus of scholarly opinion is that Χριστός had lost its titular significance within Paul’s letters, we have seen strong textual and historical reasons to see Paul’s use of Χριστός as not less than, but certainly more than titular.
In other words, Ehorn wants to translate it (sometimes!) as a proper name, not as a title. So he adds,
While translating the word Χριστός differently in context may present something of a problem to English sensibilities, particularly those who are used to hearing the word “Christ” in certain constructions, this is part and parcel of the task of understanding what ancient texts mean.
Accordingly, Ehorn works at coming up with a rationale for sometimes translating Χριστός as “Christ,” and sometimes translating it as “Messiah,” as the HCSB maddeningly does. So δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ in vv. 1 and 9 is “prisoner of Messiah Jesus,” but ἀπὸ … κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in v. 3 is “from…the Lord Jesus Christ.” Also: εἰς Χριστόν in v. 6 is “for the sake of Messiah,” and vv, 8 and 20 ἐν Χριστῷ are “in Messiah.”
As with all the EEC volumes, Ehorn concludes by providing a list of foreign and technical words (such as anaphoric, conative, dittography, enclitic, hendiadys, inclusio, etc.), and extended bibliographies.
In sum: Ehorn has provided a good survey of the issues in the text, with commentary on those issues worth considering. He offers a number of helpful observations on the text, and is sensitive to its theology. The book is a good education on the current state of Philemon studies. That Ehorn views so much of the evidence as inconclusive earns my respect for Ehorn's humility and candor as a scholar, but prevents me from seeing the commentary as significantly ground-breaking in its own right.