All Teaching Series Now Free to Stream

from Nathan W. Bingham at Ligonier Ministries

Mar 17, 2020

As a result of the global health crisis, churches are canceling Bible studies, small groups, and Sunday school classes. Pastors and elders around the world are thinking about new ways to bring God’s Word to their congregations. Fathers and mothers want to care for their children’s souls. This truly is an unprecedented time. To serve growing Christians around the world, Ligonier Ministries is here to help you maintain your daily growth and the discipleship within your family and community.

Please go here for more information and resources

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How Might this Coronavirus Help Churches Be On Their Guard?

[Given the current situation, I will be posting various things related to the church responding to the coronavirus.  Not everything I post I will necessarily agree with.  During this time especially, let us please give other Christians grace and charity in the decisions that they make.  And ultimately, let’s look to our only true source of peace, which is our Lord.  This blog post was Written by Stephen McAlpine on March 13, 2020.  More of his content here.]

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.  People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28

Thought experiment:

Leaving aside the most obvious factor about whether your church cancels its service or not in the wake of the coronavirus, what else might change about your church both during and after the virus peak?

What things that were previously thought necessary to run your church will now be determined not to be necessary?

And what preaching and sermon series might be viewed as non-essential or even totally inappropriate?

Whether you are panicking right now, prepping for doomsday because you’re reading and watching everything about it, or if you’re just being realistic and taking sensible precautions, this is a good test run for church.

In the West we’ve built a church infrastructure, that requires certain favourable conditions, including – though not limited to  – economic ones, in order to survive. And the para-church organisations gathered around churches picking up those crumbs have also hitched a ride on this model.

And what we’ve seen this past week shows that it’s precarious.  And we don’t even think about it.  We’re not on our guard.

Which is strange because as we read the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the key command is “Be on your guard“.  Watch!  Jesus commands us to love – often.  But he commands us to be on our guard -often too.

Churches in the West, like so much of the secular culture, don’t appear to be on their guard. We are not kitted out for extreme conditions. We are not, in the words of Taleem Naseb, “antifragile“.  If the coronavirus were a metaphor for the danger posed to a fragile church, then the church in the West is a heavy-smoking, diabetic 75 year old who keeps hanging out at crowded shopping malls.

Now I know there are all sorts of crazies with maps and charts; theological preppers, always assuming they live in the last of the last days and who are stocking up on beans, spam and shotguns. I don’t mean those guys.  Those guys love the “Be on your guard” command. The “love” command? Not so much.

But we couldn’t be accused, if the evidence were the manner in which we run church, of being on our guard for an apocalyptic event in any way, shape or form.

Often it feels like we’ve simply supped at the Kool Aid of the post-Christian myth of progress.  Our budgets, our ideas of how we make this network grow, or how we make our denomination stronger by getting a bigger slice of the pie, all looks like a business model that has no sense of a sharp economic downturn, never mind something truly apocalyptic.

When Jesus talks to his disciples about the imminent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in just a few decades from then (C.f Mark 13 and Matthew 24), he deliberately conflates that apocalyptic trouble with the ongoing apocalyptic trouble that will mark the times before his return.

That’s why Jesus said stuff like this in Mark 13:

“But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Is this meant to scare us? Perhaps. Is it meant to comfort us?  For sure. Is it meant to sober us up.  Absolutely.  And a sobered up church in the West would not be a bad thing at the moment, would it?

So moments like these challenge us to ask: What about our church might need to change, during, and in the wake of this coronavirus?

Never mind should five thousand people meet together this weekend. What about this time next year when the economic conditions shrink your projected budget?

Would big church that costs hundreds of thousands/millions to run each week be able to survive the economic downturn that is coming in the wake of this?  Paid Staff layoffs and shelving of grand plans will be inevitable.

And never mind big church, would smaller churches that mimic the model of those big churches, but which have far less margin, fare any better?

Would interstate and international conferences that pump up the “next generation leaders” or whoever is being pitched to, not simply shut down? Wouldn’t we find that those things were probably of little or no importance?

And would a sermon series “Six Steps To Financial Freedom“, or indeed a book called “Your Best Life Now” really seem anything other than obscene and irrelevant if the virus did take hold and collapse the economy in the long term?

The test of whether what your church is preaching is the actual gospel or an imitation not worthy of the word, is whether or not the vision it pitches to you could survive not only an apocalyptic virus, but the actual apocalypse itself.

Is the level of Christian community your model of church has engendered so thick that if you had to shut your auditorium, the people of God would find robust and healthy ways around this minor inconvenience to continue meeting together in order to praise the living God?

Would the satellites orbiting the gravity-pulling big planet of your gathering simply spin off into space if the short term health factors short term, and the long term economic factors, crush the model you are building?

When the Chinese church was being harassed by the Communists back in the early days of the Cultural Revolution they resolved to delete all that is not necessary. 

They discovered the secret to a leaner and meaner way of being God’s people together.  They discovered that many of the things they were doing were actually not necessary!  But they only discovered that when they were put under pressure to do so. And that took time and it was painful.

Perhaps both the reality of what this virus will do, and the fears of what it may do, is giving us the chance to take stock of what is not necessary, and rather than just delete it abruptly, give us the chance to land the plane gently, and shape a church system, and engender a Christian attitude that looks and sounds like “Be on your guard.”

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What Should Churches Do About Coronavirus?

IX Marks Ministries has a lot of good content.  In the link below Mark Dever talks about  what pastors and churches should do in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Quick Take: What Should Churches Do About Coronavirus?

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The church and the plague

[Given the current situation, I will be posting various things related to the church responding to the coronavirus.  Not everything I post I will necessarily agree with.  During this time especially, let us please give other Christians grace and charity in the decisions that they make.  And ultimately, let’s look to our only true source of peace, which is our Lord.  This blog post was Written by Jeremy Walker.  There is a lot to process here, but worth the effort.  You can find more of his content here.]

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

And How the Church Can Respond, by Carl Trueman

February 25, 2020

Historians are the great relativizers of the present. When someone declares that the times in which we live are unprecedented, the task of the historian is to offer a sanctimonious response, by pointing out that, in actual fact, this or that event, action, idea, or pattern of behavior was previously evident in 13th-century Florence or Periclean Athens, or during the time of the Tang Dynasty in China. And such relativizing is often true and always a helpful corrective to the temptation to idolize or catastrophize our present age.

Yet for all of the continuities and precedents that likely exist in the past for the way we live in the present, it’s arguable that the times in which we live today do exhibit a number of pathologies whose coincidence is unprecedented. This doesn’t necessarily mean the church’s response needs to be as novel as the times, as I will argue below; but it does mean that we need to reflect on the implications of our times, lest we panic overmuch or rest too much on our laurels.

Plastic, Psychological Self

The most compelling illusion—in the Freudian sense—of our day is that we can all be whatever we want to be. And our institutions are increasingly volatile and ephemeral such that it would be a brave person indeed who bet money on what they might look like five, let alone 50, years from now.

Taken separately, these phenomena would be significant enough. That they coincide and are interconnected means that both our societies and also our own sense of identity are in a state of flux, generating a kind of vertigo that leaves us disoriented and often adrift.

The symptoms of this malaise are all around us. It is surely odd that there is apparently more anxiety today than, say, 50 or 100 years ago. We enjoy considerable material comforts today, not least of which is the most technologically advanced health care to which any generation has ever had access. Unlike my father, my earliest memories do not involve running to the bomb shelter to avoid being killed by a Luftwaffe raid. Life is—outwardly at least—much better.

Yet more college students today use counseling services than ever before. The news sites frequently carry tragic stories of teenage suicides. And everywhere the anger and outrage that characterizes online life and the public square points to an era ill at ease with itself. And my hunch is that at the core of this present age of angst is the coincidence of the psychological self and the liquefaction of traditional institutions.

The psychological self—the notion that we are who we feel we are and that the purpose of life is inward, psychological contentment or satisfaction—renders identity a highly plastic, malleable thing, detached from any authority greater than personal conviction.

Contemporary Politics of Sexual Identity

Transgenderism as an ideology is only the most recent and most extreme form of this to grip the political imagination. That we are now to teach our children that not even their bodies are any authoritative guide to who they are is a dramatic and disturbing development, placing immense responsibility on them—god-like responsibility, one might say—without offering any guide as to how they might respond. Yet for all the novelty of transgenderism, it is but a symptom of the psychological self that has deep and longstanding roots in the Western intellectual tradition.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) is a key source, with his provocative notion that human learning—the “arts and sciences” of his First Discourse—is actually that which corrupts us and hinders us being truly ourselves. Uncultured instincts and feelings are really who we are; civilization merely hinders, twists, and perverts these, making us conform to its demands and rendering us inauthentic.

Rousseau had a somewhat cheerful view of human beings in their natural, uncultured state. Not so his near contemporary, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), who agreed with Rousseau that culture prevents us from being ourselves, but regarded the natural human being as a seething mass of dark and destructive desires. This Sadean appropriation of and reaction to Rousseau found influential expression in the plausible idiom of science in the hands of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Then, to abbreviate the story somewhat, the marriage between aspects of Marxist theory and Freudian anthropology in the work of men such as Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and (even more so) Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957). The self was psychologized, psychology was then sexualized, and finally sex was politicized. The stage was set for the contemporary politics of sexual identity.

Of course, few people read Reich and Marcuse, let alone Rousseau and de Sade. But the idea that happiness is personal psychological satisfaction—“self-fulfillment”—is the staple of sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even commercials. And this narrative, this illusion, has powerful implications. When the goal of human existence is personal psychological satisfaction, then all moral codes are merely instrumental, and therefore continually revisable, to this subjective, psychological end.

That society seems to have decided that a—perhaps the—major way to achieve this is sex means that any attempt to enforce a code of sexual behavior is an assault on the individual, a means whereby individuals are forced to be inauthentic and, indeed, unhappy. And anyone who therefore tries to enforce sexual codes is oppressive or a “hater,” to use the cheap and lazy means of delegitimizing any critic of the moral mess that is late modernity.

Institutions and Their Discontents

Yet if the psychological self has rendered selfhood an elusive, subjective concept, the liquidity of institutions has exacerbated the situation. For all of the fallacious economics and bogus political prophecies of their Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made a number of perceptive and prescient observations. They saw how the rise of capital, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, was remaking social relations. They noted that technology, in making sheer physical strength less significant, would slowly erode the distinction between the sexes. And they saw that globalized markets would challenge the notion of the sovereign, nation state. More than 170 years later, these points are even more true now than they were then.

If we look at just three institutions—the family, the church, and the nation—it’s clear that each has been transformed.

1. Family

The family has been redefined. Many mothers work outside the home, single parenthood is the scourge of inner-city communities, and no-fault divorce (a sign of the primary importance assigned to personal satisfaction over social responsibility) carries no social stigma. And these were realities long before gay marriage.

2. Church

The church carries almost no social authority. Scandals have made her moral pronouncements look like sanctimonious hypocrisy. And freedom of religion, while a great social virtue, has over time meant that congregations and denominations are effectively competing in a free market for congregants, something that presses churches toward pandering to consumer tastes and/or focusing on marginal differences to leverage their market share.

3. Nation

As to the nation, global markets, declining birthrates in the West, immigration patterns, and the way information technology has made everyone feel they have a stake in everything that happens worldwide, have all weakened the nation state.

This and other factors—for example, postcolonialism, and the rise of non-national identities such as nativist, regional, feminist, LGBTQ—pose serious challenges to those national narratives that have given nation states so much of their legitimacy in the popular mind.

The polarization of the United States and the U.K. caused by the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, respectively, indicate that national identity is perhaps losing its ability to provide a unifying framework for political disagreement.

Institutional Flux and the Self

Beyond these three, countless other institutions are in decline or a state of flux—locally owned shops, pubs, and banks, for example, were a staple in the town where I grew up. Big-box stores, supermarket chains, out-of-town malls, and now the internet have transformed, and frequently driven to extinction, such things that were once both markers of the continuities in society and also focal points for social interaction and community.

Even the bank in my hometown had a solidity to it—made from sandstone, with its magnificent doors framed by imposing Doric pillars. Its message? “I was here before you were born, and I’ll be here after you have gone. You can trust me.” Today, banks (if they have any building at all) tend, in my experience, to be made out of what appears to be cardboard. Their message? “We arrived last week, and we might be gone the day after tomorrow. Trust us at your peril.”

And this state of institutional liquidity or flux cannot be separated from the disorienting experience of the psychological self. Institutions shape us as individuals. I am who I am, and I know who I am, because of the family—the stable family—in which I grew up, the school in which I was educated, the college where I studied and, yes, the pubs where I enjoyed time with friends around the open fire.

When the external markers by which I understand my world disappear or are constantly changing, then I myself am also constantly changing. Restlessness and dissatisfaction are the routine distempers of such an age.

Church’s Response

None of this should be read as lament or nostalgia. Every age has its maladies, and I for one have no wish to have lived my life in an era when children worked as chimney sweeps or, like my father, grew up in the shadow of the Luftwaffe. We do not choose our time, and we must not waste energy lamenting our time. We need first and foremost to understand our time and then to respond to it with informed wisdom.

So how should the church respond? I would suggest three ways, though this list is in no way exhaustive.

1. The church should not capitulate to the world of the psychological self.

The danger, as noted above, is that the religious free market makes us all salespeople, trying to match our product to the demands of the market. And the currency of the contemporary market is the therapeutic. How churches can counter this and yet survive looks, humanly speaking, virtually impossible.

But theologically the church is ultimately a work of the sovereign God; and what human beings need more is not the therapy that they may desire, but careful exposition and application of the Christian faith. The doctrine of creation, anchoring human nature and setting the scene for an understanding of our rebellion against God and need of redemption, needs to be stressed. This is foundational for understanding who we are. And we must press home Christ’s sufficiency in meeting that real need.

Of course, psychology, feelings, and the like are part of what makes us human. We do have inner lives. Yet the therapeutic model, which makes those needs basic and gives God significance only in the ways in which he can meet them, is not Christianity.

Christianity starts and ends with God; and human needs are to be understood in terms of his priority. Refection on Augustine’s Confessions might help here: the first great psychological autobiography, yet pitched as an extended prayer to God. Augustine only travels inward, to the rag and bone of his heart, in order to move outward to praising God not only as Creator and Redeemer, but also for simply being God.

2. The church should acknowledge historical analogues for key aspects of our time.

It is worth noting that, for all of the unprecedented coincidence of our distinct notion of selfhood and the liquefaction of our institutions, there is a historical analogue for key aspects of our time. The church today is moving to the margins of society. Society increasingly regards her beliefs as buffoonish and her ethical norms as immoral. And the requirements of loyal citizenship are beginning to be antithetical to the requirements of Christian witness. Perhaps this is most obvious in the realm of sexual mores, where affirmation of certain behaviors or—perhaps more correctly and more seriously, identities—is seen as a moral imperative and a necessary prerequisite to being a member of civic society.

Such was the case in the second century. Christianity was utterly marginal. Its members were under suspicion of indulging themselves in immoral shenanigans such as incest and cannibalism. And the same laws that banned fire brigades banned churches from meeting, because such gatherings were seen as seditious and subversive of the common good. There is our historical precedent. Catholic traditionalists might lament for the loss of the 13th century, but those who want to respond to our situation rather than merely indulge in the masochistic pleasures of lament will reflect on the second century and how the church then behaved.

3. The church should form strong communities where Christians care and support one another.

Doctrine and teaching are vital, but Christ’s words—“By this will all men know you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other”—are too. Loving communities are powerful and attractive. The LGBTQ+ movement has triumphed in part because of its tight-knit, well-organized, and mutually supportive community.

If those who believe a lie can do so, should those who believe the truth not do as well, if not better?

We Have Been Here Before

Our times are indeed unprecedented in the sense outlined above. But they are not entirely unprecedented, and certainly not in the areas that really matter: the content of the gospel and the nature of the church.

So let me close by reverting to classic historian mode, by relativizing the present. We have been here before—despised, considered immoral, standing on the margins. And we can learn lessons that will fortify us as we move into an uncertain future.

This article was published at The Gospel Coalition

Editors’ note:  Carl Trueman expands on this topic in his forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway).

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Reformation Pratum 2019 Q & A

It is a little late, but here is our write up from the Q & A session, including questions we did not get to that evening.  Thank you Scott Holmgren for putting this together.

2019 Ref Conf Q&A

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The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

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